The Last Battle: Stanley G. Weinbaum’s Odyssey

Stanley Grauman Weinbaum was born on 4th April 1902, in Louisville Kentucky. In spite of his family’s strong show business connections – he was a relative of both Sid Grauman, the creator of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, and the actor George Jessel – Weinbaum’s only real ambition was to become a writer. At the age of 15, he penned The Last Battle, a piece for his school magazine that predicted the end of the First World War in 2001.

In 1920, Weinbaum enrolled at the University of Wisconsin to study chemical engineering, but eventually decided to change his major to English Literature, after which he began publishing some of his poetry in The Wisconsin Literary Journal and befriended Horace Gregory, who would become a distinguished poet himself, and who remembered Weinbaum in his autobiography, as having ‘a number of ruling passions’ which included ‘playing his guitar as though it were a lute, alliteration in writing verse and chanting it, mathematics, Turkish coffee, the invention of scientific gadgets, and cigarettes. In his speech, he had great purity of diction, and a love of entertaining everyone around him – this last with an artless air that seldom failed to please.’

Weinbaum never received his degree as he was caught pretending to be another student and sitting their exam for a bet. Consequently, he took a number of unfulfilling jobs but continued to write in his spare time. The Lady Dances was his first novel, and in 1933, was purchased by the King Features Syndicate, who then serialised it in a number of national newspapers, under the pseudonym Marge Stanley. However, Weinbaum’s attempts at publishing some of his other romantic stories fell flat, prompting him to return to his first literary love, science fiction.

This new focus led Weinbaum to join Milwaukee Fictioneers, a group of local authors who included, Robert Bloch, later to find fame with his 1959 novel Psycho. Formed in 1931, they met to discuss ideas and encouraged by their support, Weinbaum wrote A Martian Odyssey, the tale that would cement his reputation as one of the masters of his chosen genre. In January 1934, Weinbaum sent the piece to the editor of the popular science fiction magazine Wonder Stories; he was so impressed that he wrote back  asking if Weinbaum would consider sending more.

A Martian Odyssey was eventually published in Wonder Stories in July 1934. Set in the early twenty-first century, the crew of a mission to the red planet rescue a strangely sentient avian looking creature called Tweel, from the clutches of a tentacled monstrosity. Tweel and the ship’s chemist, Dick Jarvis, develop a unique bond, and in the sequel Valley of Dreams, it is revealed that Tweel is a Thoth, a species who once visited earth, and were known to the ancient Egyptians.

With works such as The Lotus Eaters and Flight On Titan regularly appearing in publications like Wonder Stories and Astounding Stories, the success he had always dreamt of seemed to be within Weinbaum’s grasp. He even gained an admirer in H. P. Lovecraft, who praised Weinbaum for managing to ‘escape the revolting banality,’ of contemporary science fiction.

Yet he feared being pigeonholed, and in early 1935 Weinbaum wrote two stories, The Adaptive Ultimate, which would be the basis for the 1957 B-Movie She Devil, and Proteus Island, using the pen-name John Jessel. At the same time, he started two novels, The New Adam and Three Who Danced; the former about a man living in a world where, surrounded by beings who appear human, he alone possesses human intelligence. The latter was a fantasy about three women who dance with the Prince of Wales and whose lives are dramatically affected as a result.

Above: Trailer for She Devil (1957)

Following a tonsillectomy in 1935, Weinbaum shrugged off the complications he suffered afterwards, not realising that he was in fact seriously ill with throat cancer. On 14th December 1935, Stanley G. Weinbaum died at his home in Kentucky. His untimely death lent an added poignancy to his striking depictions of alien civilizations, with advanced technologies capable of curing diseases fatal on earth.

Many of Weinbaum’s early and unfinished works would be published posthumously. The December 1938 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories featured Tidal Moon, allegedly written by his sister Helen and accompanied by the claim that she had finished the story originally started by her brother. Weinbaum’s widow Margaret refuted this, nevertheless, Helen went on to publish an additional six pieces for Thrilling Wonder Stories over the next three years.

In 1973, the International Astronomical Union honoured Weinbaum by naming a crater on the Mare Australe quadrangle of Mars after him. The stratospheric heights he might have reached can only be imagined, but short-lived though his star was, as Issac Asimov maintained, along with E. E Smith and Robert Heinlein, Weinbaum was one of science fiction’s ‘novas.’ Wherever in the universe they hailed from, there was a common humanity shared by Weinbaum’s characters, a reflection of his own compassionate spirit, for as Robert Bloch recalled, ‘In and era of rising racial, religious and nationalistic discord soon to culminate in a global war, Weinbaum somehow found the courage and creativity to present – without plea or preachment – the case for brotherhood. And not just the brotherhood of man, but the kinship common to all living things.’

Selected Sources: 

Outside The Human Aquarium: Masters of Science Fiction – Brian M. Stableford (1995)

The Road to Science Fiction: From Wells to Heinlein – James E. Gunn (2002)

Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction, 1926-1965 -Eric Leif Davin (2005)