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Belated Reviews #29: Jack Williamson

Jack Williamson has been writing science fiction for sixty-five years now. The longevity is impressive, because it represents passage through several periods in the history of sf, during which readers' expectations changed drastically, then changed again, and then again. Most authors were unable to make the transitions.

The changes in Williamson's writing weren't that thorough: His writing from the sixties bears clear traces of that from the thirties, and his current writing is as clearly rooted in what he was doing in the sixties. (I was bemused by the similarity of the romantic subplots of the 1990 "Mazeway" and the 1935 "Legion of Space".) Most unfortunately, his books have always been weak in characterization and motivation. Their main weakness, over the entire period of his writing, is the two-dimensionality of the characters, most of whom are defined almost completely by their roles or special abilities, and then given a quirk or two for variety.

Few authors were able to make the leap from the gimmicky sf of the thirties to the more demanding market of the forties, but this was the period of Williamson's greatest impact. (His Grandmaster Nebula award indicates that the impact was considerable.) He never stopped writing adventure sf, but he also started working with more ambitious themes, suchas multispecies cooperation, and evolution for space, which he's been developing since. Along the way, he produced an impressive trail of books that were well received in their day, though I wouldn't recommend most of them to newer readers, except as historical artifacts.

"Darker Than You Think" (****-) is the conspicuous exception. Almost half a century after it was published, this dark fantasy still has a power which makes the run of modern novels about lycanthropes and vampires look anemic. The story begins with word of an archeological expedition which has returned from the Gobi desert with a remarkable discovery -- but the head of the expedition dies, mysteriously, before he can reveal that once, long before the dawn of history, homo sapiens was prey to...call it homo lycanthropus. And that though the predators were somehow overthrown, they left mixed-breed descendents. And that some of those descendents are making a systematic effort to breed back to the full powers of their ancestors.

The story is told from the viewpoint of Will Barbee, a reporter who is on hand when the expedition leader is killed by what a less naive observer than himself would have called witchcraft. As he digs deeper and deeper, however, that identification stops seeming naive. He learns that humanity's darkest legends have a strong basis in reality. This is dark fantasy written, effectively, to appeal to readers of science fiction.

It's also the only Jack Williamson novel I'd recommend purely on the basisof its merits as a good read. Most of his adventure fiction was written for audiences with different expectations than those of today's readers, and his more imaginative books have generally inspired later, better-written workings-out of their themes.

Williamson's Legion series, starting in the mid-thirties with "The Legion of Space" (**+) is one of the best examples of pre-Campbell space opera. Which is to say that by today's standards it's awful: Motivation and characterization are paper-thin, the science is largely a matter of incantation (scientific-sounding words, rather than plausible explanations), and the plots would change hardly at all if the spaceships were replaced by boats or horses. (I'm embarrassed that I didn't realize how much the Legion owed to The Three Musketeers until Gharlane pointed it out.) Juvenile writing for juvenile readers -- but reading it today, you can still see the charm it would hold for those readers. (If memory serves, the sequels were "The Cometeers", "One Against the Legion", and "Queen of the Legion".)

Williamson never stopped writing adventure sf, which is a pity. His "Seetee" books (**-) ("Seetee Ship" and "Seetee Shock") are adventure stories with an antimatter gimmick. His "Undersea" books (**-), ("Undersea City", "Undersea Fleet" and "Undersea Quest"), written with Frederick Pohl, are adventure stories with an underwater gimmick. "StarBridge" (**+), written with James Gunn, is probably his best adventure sf, about an immortal who tries to manipulate human history and an assassin who is sent to bring down a space empire.

"The Humanoids" (***-) is Williamson's other major book of the forties that doesn't nicely fit the niches I've been describing. It's an early working through of the overbenevolent-computer theme. The Humanoids are androids which were programmed to prevent war and protect humans from harm -- whether or not they want to be protected. In fact, unhappiness is a form of harm, and if their protection makes people unhappy, well, that's treatable. A sequel, "The Humanoid Touch" (**), written over thirty years later, doesn't add much to the earlier work.

I've always liked "The Trial of Terra" (***-), an unusual ninteen-fifties look at semi-first contact. The trial in question is a hearing to determine whether -- now that humanity is sending up space ships -- it should be contacted or left in quarantine. Only, as the evidence (previously written stories worked into the body of the novel) is reviewed, it becomes apparent that the beings arguing the case are more interested in their own economic or scientific interests than in the good of humanity. The judge, at least, is impartial, and willing to rule in favor of whichever side can muster the better bribe.

Honorable mention goes to "Rogue Star" (**+) -- third book of Williamson's and Pohl's Starchild trilogy -- for its sentient stars, and to "The Legion of Time" (**) -- written at about the same time as the Legion of Space novels -- for its idea of alternative futures competing for existence.


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Dani Zweig