Continuing to retrieve Jack Williamson material from the archives.
This one was his last novel.
Raw Feed (2005): The Stonehenge Gate, Jack Williamson, 2005.
This is the latest work from sf legend Jack Williamson, a man whose career spans 76 years. This serial started in the January/February issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact, the magazine founded 75 years ago this year as Astounding Stories so Williamson’s whole career is longer than this venerable magazine. The whole careers of the Big Three (as they were once known — who knows how younger sf readers would nominate for that position) of Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke are bookended by Williamson’s works — and, of course, many another sf writer.
This story starts out promising — four college professors, including the narrator (an English professor at a New Mexico college –autobiographical for Williamson), who call themselves the Four Horseman decide, investigate some possible ruins in the Sahara.
The ruins were discovered by Derek the physics professor. Lupe the anthropologist and Ram, a native of Africa and teacher of linguistics and African history, are interested in the implications for their disciplines, and Will the narrator tags along to Africa out of friendship.
An engaging plot follows as the ruin turns out to be real and a gateway to other worlds, the party gets separated, and giant, mechanical insect creatures appear.
The book seems to bog down in the middle with what seems a sort of H. Rider Haggard plot of Ram being mistaken (he actually does have a genetically engineered birthmark linking him to the builders of the trilithon gateways) for a messiah-like figure who will lead the enslaved blacks into freedom and away from their white masters on one world.
Eventually, a plague that kills the whites is unleashed, and Ram and Will and Kenleth, a native child they befriend, make their way off the world and into the web of the trilithons and the Grand Dominion ruins they lead to.
The Four Horseman are reunited, but it is only Derek and Lupe who have the zeal to explore the alien ruins.
Ram wants to return to the world of the revolution where he loved a white woman who died in the plague. He is still considered a revolutionary and political figure there.
Will returns home with Kenleth, the son he never had, in tow. It is only with Will’s stating that he is homesick, that he has had enough of the grand explorations of a long dead alien empire that seeded man on Earth, that the book’s theme becomes clear as well as the reason for its stripped down, sparse, matter of fact prose.
Will is homesick, depressed, has barely survived a bout of the white-killing plague himself, and the narration reflects his state of mind.
Curiously, I just read a review a little while ago of a grand retrospective anthology of Williamson’s career. It mentioned his bouts with depression. It is as if Williamson set out to give us the realistic counterpoint to the mostly young, ambitious explorers of pulp sf. Will is middle-aged and eventually just wants to return to the comforts of his home with a son he has found and cares for, even if that return is without his friends.
Ram is another variation of this. Grieving his dead lover, he feels responsible for mending the disaster on her world, and he also leaves exploring the Grand Dominion for a world of rebuilding and not archaeology.
It is as if Williamson is saying there are just as valid pleasures and values as the pursuit of knowledge. There is construction of a new home and returning to an old home and not just the rootless pursuit of knowledge.
The book concludes with Will pondering the dangers to our world and civilization from ourselves, the transformation, an apocalypse an alien science unleashed, that Derek and Lupe will unleash when they return to Earth, and saying ”That could happen. I don’t know when.”
It sounds like the words of an old Will and the eulogy of the remarkable Williamson, words of a man who has pondered professionally the dangers to man and the wonders that could await us and realizes it is important to acknowledge the precious and quotidian in life too.