Jack Williamson Essay - Critical Essays

Williamson, Jack


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.)

A. H. Weiler

Jack Williamson's "The Humanoids" is literally out of this world. His field of operations are planets within 100 light-years of the earth, 100 centuries after Hiroshima. His hero, a beleaguered physicist, preparing for interplanetary war with a planet-destroying projectile, has to cope with Humanoids—super-robots who "serve, obey and guard man from harm" with all sorts of super gadgets including Euphoride, a drug inducing forgetfulness. The scientist's struggle against this superservice and the total mental inactivity it spells is in the superscientific tradition.

Mr. Williamson's adventure is imagination run riot. It is prophecy carried to its utmost as well as a maze of manufactured extensions of present-day scientific knowledge, which is close enough to the occult to mystify. His prose, abounding with such nuggets as rhodomagnetism, telekinesis and teleportation, is intriguing to a point but mostly rough going.

A. H. Weiler, "Out of This World," in The New York Times (copyright © 1949 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 18, 1949, p. 16.∗

New York Herald Tribune Book Review

["The Humanoids"] deals, essentially, with the conflict that began when the wheel and the lever were invented: the battle between men and machines. Mr. Williamson's new version of the fight is waged on a galactic scale, with weapons and terms that may tax the imaginations even of the most ardent s-f readers.

The setting is a planet far removed from earth. An interplanetary war is about to break out and the worlds are desperately arming. Suddenly the Humanoids appear from space, offering to settle the conflict. They are sleek little manshaped robots, controlled by a monster machine on a far-removed world; they have but one purpose, which is to serve and obey man and guard him from harm. The planet accepts them, only to find that the robots are equipped only to carry out their primary directive in the most literal terms….

Mr. Williamson's writing is considerably better than that usually offered by his fellow science-fictioneers. He knows how to keep his narrative moving, but his plot here is unbelievably intricate and suffers for this reason.

"Robot Callers," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), October 9, 1949, p. 18.

H. H. Holmes

["Dragon's Island"] falls into the suspense-melodrama category, and very satisfactorily. The science element involves "genetic engineering," the deliberate manipulation of genes to produce new biological results—even a new race of mankind. The melodrama involves private detectives, amnesia, switches of identity, an ambiguous heroine and other standard devices so nicely calculated and integrated that they seem fresh and exciting. The story happens in no vast intergalactic future, but right here and very nearly right now; and the result is something like a Hitchcock film in quasi-scientific terms—guarantee to jerk you to the edge of your chair with each new plot-twist.

H. H. Holmes, in a review of "Dragon's Island," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review, August 19, 1951, p. 12.

H. H. Holmes

For the novice in science fiction, "seetee" means contra-terrene, referring to matter in which the positive and negative charges are reversed from the familiar earthly pattern. Mr. Stewart, the great exploiter of the theme, published a very bad novel a year or so ago called "Seetee Shock"; he's now redeemed himself by rewriting into a good book ["Seetee Ship"] several of the magazine stories in which he first introduced the notion. Better editing would have helped the rewrite; there's still too much clumsy writing and oversimplified characterization. But the ingenuity of the contra-terrene mechanisms, the rousing melodrama of struggles in the asteroid belt, and the fine complex reversals of time and causation make this one of the best recent examples of the pure unalloyed space-opera.

H. H. Holmes, in a review of "Seetee Ship," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review, September 16, 1951, p. 18.

Brian Aldiss

Everyone would agree, I think, that the events in ["The Legion of Time"] are impossible. About that there can be no serious argument—nor that this does not rule the story out of serious consideration.

Such being the case, let us consider it seriously. In so doing, I want to bear in mind not only the virtues and faults of this particular story, but to examine it as a typical work of science fiction.

First to the storyline. This is of a singular and masterly neatness. It tells of a fight between good and evil, embodied in two cities and two women. It opens well, it unfolds steadily with surprises based on the integral time premise, it reaches a minor climax …, and a major climax...

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Sam Moskowitz

The first intimation that [Jack Williamson] had finally made the grade as a professional writer came without notice … when he received the December, 1928, AMAZING STORIES. The cover, by Frank R. Paul, depicted a scene from Williamson's story The Metal Man. The editor clearly recognized Williamson's literary deity in his blurb: "Not since we published 'The Moon Pool' has such a story as this been published by us."

The Metal Man concerned radioactive emanations from a form of intelligent crystalline life which turn all objects into metal. While the story was a good first effort, the enthusiasm with which it was received ran far beyond its conceptual or literary qualities. However, in...

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Samuel Mines

[The Moon Children is an] excellent novel; it fairly glitters with imaginative devices and captures perfectly the sense of alienness, of other worlds, that makes it peculiarly science fiction. The characters are very strange, yet they become absorbingly real, so much so that you will hate to leave them. The story tells of three strange children born to astronauts after their return from a moon flight where they were exposed to some strange crystals from outer space. The children, two beautiful, one a shaggy monster, grew up with unfolding unhuman capabilities which frighten everyone, especially official governmental types. Rush out and get this one.

Samuel Mines, "Robots,...

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Brian W. Aldiss

Williamson began writing in Gernsback's Amazing and never looked back. He was much influenced by Abe Merritt, and managed to assimilate Merritt's sense of colour and movement without taking over the fairies as well. His output was fairly prolific, as outputs needed to be if one was to live by writing sf in a field where Amazing and Wonder were paying half a cent a word on publication. His greatest early success was with a serial in a 1934 Astounding, The Legion of Space, a Goshwow! epic which thundered along on the cloven heels of Doc Smith. But there are three later novels of Williamson's which have more to offer, and which—unlike some of the so-called "classics" of the...

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Publishers Weekly

Williamson wrote [the 11 stories in "The Early Williamson"] between 1928 and 1933, back when Amazing Stories and Astounding Stories were bringing a new category to the pulps—what Williamson called "scientifiction" in 1928 and Hugo Gernsback refined to "science-fiction" a year later. The lethal powers of radiation are vividly described in "The Metal Man," in which the hero discovers a rich source of radium dust but becomes metallicized in the process. In "The Girl from Mars," the red planet is destroyed by atomic disintegration but not before the inhabitants manage to perpetuate their race on earth by way of ingenious artificial-insemination kits dispatched here in meteors. By today's standards the...

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Algis Budrys

The stories in [The Early Williamson] date from 1928 through 1933. They are not modern science fiction…. No writer today … traces more clearly the evolution of SF from a sort of clumsy hobby, through the slam-bang pulp era, and into something with aspirations toward permanence. These are generally not stories to be taken quite seriously anymore as things in themselves, although there is some surprisingly good reading and solid entertainment here; the past is not a wasteland, even by our current high standards, uh-huh. These are stories which, taken together with the interpolated essays, form a literary narrative; an adventure of creativity; of a man making himself better able to communicate what is...

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Alfred D. Stewart

The conscious use and exploration of well-defined ideas marks the fiction of Jack Williamson. Those guiding ideas—and his indebtedness to H. G. Wells—may be discerned in any discussion of his recent study, H. G. Wells: Critic of Progress. Although Wells may be the better artist, the complexity of Williamson's own fiction can go far beyond Wells's, and the experience he presents in "With Folded Hands," The Humanoids, and Bright New Universe is as large and satisfying in vision as anything Wells ever did.

Williamson goes beyond what he got from Wells, and the logical, organic progression of the core concepts of the Williamson canon (evolution and progress) reveals the...

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Gerald Jonas

["Star Bridge," originally published in 1955,] is not a recognized "classic" of that period. According to the reference works I consulted, it stirred no controversy, won no awards, added nothing to the reputations of its authors. Not only had I never read it before, I had not even heard of it. I mention these facts only to help the reader understand my astonishment at discovering that this obscure collaboration between Williamson and [James E.] Gunn reads more like a collaboration between Heinlein and Asimov. The concept is pure, classic science fiction: A vast empire spans the galaxy, controlled from the planet Eron which alone holds the secret to faster-than-light travel….

[What] distinguishes...

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[The Legion of Space, first published in 1935,] is a classic adventure story of three men who set out on a seemingly impossible quest through unknown space and across a horrible planet to rescue a girl who possesses the secret that can save mankind from a dread alien menace. Giles Habibula, one of the three, is a marvelous comic figure. Even today, the suspense works. If you've never read it, you've missed a fine story. (p. 171)

Lester del Rey, in a review of "The Starchild Trilogy" (copyright © 1978 by The Condé Nast Publications Inc.; reprinted by permission of the author), in Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, Vol. XCVIII, No. 7, July, 1978, pp. 170-71....

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Publishers Weekly

Williamson's humanoids [in "The Humanoid Touch"] are perfect robots programmed "to serve and obey and guard men from harm." This they do all over the galaxy with tyrannical efficiency…. The humanoids were the subject of Williamson's most famous novel, and he returns to them now for this sequel, in which the last free outpost is found and invaded by the machines and one young man faces this implacable foe. Anyone familiar with the original humanoids stories will want to read this, but some will be disappointed that Williamson is able to offer only a partial answer to the humanoid challenge—a utopia the hero escapes to, where the psychic and biological sciences have achieved ultimate perfection.


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Susan L. Nickerson

[In "Manseed"] another old master performs masterfully in his first novel in some years. The Raven Foundation seeks to perpetuate the human race by sending thousands of tiny "seedships" into space. Each ship can produce a half-human, half-robot Defender as needed to guide the mission and protect the unborn colony, and this is the story of one Defender and his tribulations. Williamson conveys the anguishes and conflicts of the Defender eloquently, as his human memories show him what he has lost by becoming a created person. A gripping and suspenseful story.

Susan L. Nickerson, in a review of "Manseed," in Library Journal (reprinted from Library Journal, October 15,...

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Publishers Weekly

["The Queen of the Legion"] is the fourth volume in Jack Williamson's classic Legion of Space trilogy. The three books were originally serialized in Astounding in the 1930s; now, more than 40 years later, Williamson has written a novel whose mood and style is of a piece with its predecessors, even given its innovative female protagonist…. Pure and simple space opera, and old-timey space opera at that, this book is not for everyone, but fans with a nostalgic bent should enjoy it.

A review of "The Queen of the Legion," in Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the December 3, 1982 issue of Publishers Weekly, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company;...

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Tom Easton

Jack Williamson has added one more to his "Legion of Space" trilogy: The Queen of the Legion. He needn't have bothered. His effort is trite and superficial. It satisfies no sense of wonder, suspends no disbelief. His characters seem little better than puppets on a stage. He has done much better.

What's the problem?…

The story begins with a child, Jill Gyrel, who wants to join the Legion when she grows up. But the Legion is in trouble. The folks back home don't believe the Legion ever really saved the universe. They're cutting funds, drying up support, egged on by pacifists.

Jill's daddy disappears on a mission into the mysterious Nebula. His partner...

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[Wall Around A Star, a] sequel to Farthest Star continues the adventures of a few humans and aliens as they fight among themselves while trying to solve the mystery of Cuckoo, an obviously artificial world many millions of miles in diameter moving into our Galax. Suffice it to say that the answer they find is as mind-boggling as Cuckoo itself, but what they do after they find the answer is disappointing, perhaps for the same reason the book is somewhat disappointing. The concepts and the writing are first rate, but the human characters, as in Pohl's earlier Starburst, are generally so unpleasant that it's hard to be interested in them and even harder to cheer for them when they win out. For me, at...

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