Jack Williamson Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Jack Williamson 1908–

(Born John Stewart Williamson; has also written under pseudonym of Will Stewart) American novelist.

A prolific and widely anthologized author, Williamson has been writing science fiction for over fifty years. While his early efforts were inspired by pulp writers, especially A. Merritt, Williamson eventually improved his style to meet the higher expectations of Astounding Science Fiction editor John W. Campbell, who launched the careers of many prominent science fiction writers. Later, Williamson returned to academia, earning a Ph.D. in 1964 with a study published as H. G. Wells: Critic of Progress (1973).

Williamson's writing is characterized by action and adventure in which a few heroic men face danger of cosmic proportions, which they overcome after a variety of harrowing episodes. Among his themes are the pros and cons of technology, the possibilities of alternate worlds, the interaction between men and machines, and the implications of the evolutionary process upon human and alien life. Williamson influenced several trends in science fiction, the most important being depth of characterization.

The Legion of Space trilogy (1947) brought Williamson widespread recognition. Although it was a typical "space opera" in many ways, it was also an indication that science fiction was expanding from mere hardware-and-monster fantasy. Williamson has said that Darker Than You Think (1948) is his personal favorite among his writings. The book takes a psychoanalytical approach to the darker, hidden instincts of human beings and is significant for its attempt to provide rational, scientific explanations for supernatural events. Williamson's best-known work, The Humanoids (1949), questions whether technology is an aid or a threat to human initiative and creativity. The world he describes in this novel is a dystopia wherein robots, ostensibly for benevolent purposes, take the responsibilities of society from human control. The Seetee stories, Seetee Shock (1950) and Seetee Ship (1951), are noteworthy because they contain the beginnings of Williamson's thoughts about humanity's place in the universe.

For thirty years Williamson devoted his energies to writing science fiction. Later, as a university professor, he was instrumental in establishing science fiction as an academic subject. In the last few years he has produced such novels as The Power of Blackness (1976); the long-awaited sequel to The Humanoids, The Humanoid Touch (1980); Manseed (1982); and The Queen of the Legion (1983), an addition to his Legion of Space series.

Critics have remarked that Williamson is one of the most adaptable writers of the genre; some have suggested that he is among the best of the pioneer writers in modern science fiction. In 1976 the Science Fiction Writers of America awarded him the Grand Master Nebula Award for Lifetime Achievement.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed. and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 8.)