A retro review from June 21, 2013.
Review: The Best of Jack Williamson, ed. Jack Williamson, 1978.
With most science fiction authors, a 50-year retrospective, from 1928-1978, would be the capstone of a career. But this is Jack Williamson, the iron man of science fiction, and he had another 28 years of writing and life left in him. This collection shows off his versatility and, oddly, his social prescience and early genre use of certain ideas others were to pick up.
It seems to have been almost required in the Del Rey “Best Of” series to start things off with the featured author’s first story, and this collection is no exception. Here that’s “The Metal Man” which is nothing special, an A. Merritt style story of extraterrestrial wonders found in obscure corners of the Earth, here Mexico. Williamson admits to, in this version, having written out the more florid prose of the story’s first appearance.
“Dead Star Station” has a space pirates, an orphan, and a cranky and unappreciated inventor, and something like a neutron star, the titular Dead Star. It’s kind of a science fiction analog of a sea story with Dead Star Station serving as sort of a lighthouse for ships navigating the Orion Passage, a danger zone of meteors and gas attracted by the star’s colossal gravitation.
“Nonstop to Mars” originally saw publication in Argosy, and it has the flavor of an aviation adventure story crossed with science fiction. A stunt flyer of old prop planes, rapidly becoming obsolete by the new rocket ships, literally rides the wind of an interstellar wind to Mars. That interplanetary tornado is caused by the Stellar Shell, an alien artifact that has landed on Mars and is pulling Earth’s atmosphere to the red planet to make it suitable for alien life. It’s an interesting reversal of Wells’ (a writer of much interest to Williamson) Martian invasion. There’s also a ludicrous romance between the flyer and a female astronomer. It’s also the first story in the collection that shows off Williamson’s seeming prescience. The Gayle Foundation, dedicated to studying and defeating the Stellar Shell’s theft of Earth’s air, tests rockets at Alamagordo, New Mexico. This is a 1939 story, and that area was, of course, in a few years destined to become very important in testing nuclear weapons and aerospace innovations. Now Williamson could have just been a booster for his native state, but I suspect he was influenced by Goddard’s rocket experiments in New Mexico which started in 1930.
“Crucible of Power” was a delightful mix of a Burroughsian romp on Mars (with, I think, a dash of Lawrence of Arabia), a future history, and the story, told by his son, of the great villain and savior of the 21st Century. The Black Century before had a definite shortage of energy. Williamson mentions fossil fuel depletion, power from tidal projects and hydroelectric dams reaching its max, no spare farm land for ethanol production, and atomic and solar power still a dream. Obviously, an incorrect prediction but few other science fiction writers were thinking about energy shortages in the 1930s. There’s also business intrigues, guerilla warfare, underground revolutionary movements, superscience and massive disasters.
Just as intriguing, in its own terms and as a sociological piece, is 1941’s “Breakdown“. Influenced by the cyclical theories of historian Arnold Toynbee, it details the collapse of civilization over one night. It’s not Babylon or Rome this time. It’s the spacefaring civilization of humanity run by “hero” Boss Kellon, officially only the executive secretary of the Union of Spacemen, Managers & Engineers which runs things, its willed enforced by the Goons. Most of the members aren’t even real engineers (except Kellon’s son) but possess fake credentials. It is, as Kellon’s historian friend notes, a civilization three generations too late to save. Anti-intellectualism, in the form of the messianic Prophet is the trigger for the collapse. There is a bit of Joe Stalin in the character of Kellon and, I think, maybe a bit of commentary on Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his labor support.
And there is, I think, a bit allusion to FDR in the tyrannical Squaredealers that run things in “The Equalizer“. Its politically suspect narrator and a fellow dissident are tasked to help their commander figure out what has happened to Earth’s urban civilization and lunar fortress in the twenty years they were out in space on a mission. It can also be seen as Williamson’s 1947 projection of an imperial America with nuclear weapons. But, mostly, it is Williamson’s ultimately very optimistic – and not, therefore, plausible – look at the individual benefitting from technology. It was a necessary exercise for Williamson, a re-establishment of psychological equilibrium, after starting his most famous story, the bleak classic “With Folded Hands”.
“With Folded Hands” can be seen as an intellectual horror story about runaway technology charged with the seeming good of serving and protecting men from harm, smothering humanity with its care. Alternately, it can be seen, as Williamson himself notes, as a metaphor for the struggle between the individual and society or the child against the overprotective parent. It is still a classic all these years later with Williamson finally accepting that there was no escape of its inexorable logic and completing the story after he wrote “The Equalizer”.
“The Peddler’s Nose” and “The Happiest Creature” are part of a series of stories Williamson did in the fifties and featuring aliens encountering humans on the Earth they have quarantined and covertly study. They are fun stories but nothing special.
“The Cold Green Eye” is a rare fantasy from Williamson, the story of boy raised by Jainists who is forced to return to his aunt in Kansas and the demons that seem to haunt her – and threaten the boy – and are symbolized by the aunt’s mismatched eyes of blue and brown. Stylistically effective if predictable.
“Operation Gravity” is an early use of the idea of a neutron star. The plot involves the captain of a spaceship chafing under the sometimes suicidal orders of an absentminded, closemouthed scientist studying that star.
If “Guinevere for Everybody” was written today, it would have a sexbot at its center and not a clone (it is an early use of clones in science fiction). It’s certainly dated in some aspects, but in other ways it seems very modern in its look at automation’s effect on capitalism and tie-in marketing. Guinevere, cloned from the winner of a corporate-sponsored beauty contest, convinces a troubleshooting engineer to buy her because she may be able to tell him why the computer running a megacorporation has seemingly undertaken a fiscally suicidal marketing plan. The whys of the plan and the fate of our hero and his love still pack an unexpected sting.
“Jamboree” is a stylistically inventive, blackly funny look at some murderous technology: Old Pop, a robot, and Mother, a factory. They’re charged with the care of a pack of youngsters in a post-apocalypse world. The kiddies only get so many jamborees with the Anthrax, Skull, and Nuke Patrols …
“The Highest Dive” is just a nicely done example of a classic science fiction plot: the exploration of an anomalous world. Here it’s a huge planet with strangely low gravity.
This book is worth looking at solely for its introduction and afterword. In the former, Frederik Pohl, the current iron man of science fiction, recounts his long-time friendship with Williamson and talks of the man’s character. In the afterword, Williamson talks about each story and his science fiction career – even if he was only two-thirds of the way through it.