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yore is us

"The twentieth century was a train," sings Jack Hardy, one of the great singer-songwriters of the last century, who rode it.

The line is from a song called "The 20th Century," which appears in The Passing (1996), his last album but one. He is not yet 60. Like Jack Williamson, who is not yet 100, he is still alive. They have both scored lives of accomplishment during the century they just left. They both scored high. The song evokes a train, of course, the very train John Barrymore took from Chicago to New York in Twentieth Century (1934), dir Howard Hawks. It also evokes the wind-blurred abyss of the past, it evokes the 20th century itself, which was like a train, or a Ship of Fools filled to the gunwales with the humans of the West. The 20th Century was a progress; a great noisy locomotive of history we all thought we were in the van of, we readers and writers of science fiction, like Jack Williamson.

And now that we have passed into a different dark, how fortunate it is to have Dr Williamson still here, so that, by trying to gain some measure of the man, we may obtain at the same time some measure of the extent of the passage from then to now. The first three volumes of The Collected Stories of Jack Williamson — Vol 1: The Metal Man and Others (coll 1999), Vol 2: Wolves of Darkness (coll 1999), and the just-released Vol 3: Wizard's Isle (coll 2000) — give us an almost visual sense of how far back it is to the early years of his career. The last century was a train longer than we can really imagine. Jack Williamson — whose first story was published in 1928, before the term "science fiction" was introduced, and whose latest novel, Terraforming Earth, will appear in 2001, at the start of a century which is turning out to be not a train at all but a cryptonomicon — has had to work a very long time to get to Now.

So we are here, with him. We look at the Collected Stories. The first thing we note is that Haffner Press has published them, very handsomely, in a style which closely resembles the archaic, squarish, book-built-of-brick House Style of Fantasy Press, a small fan-oriented firm founded in 1946 by Lloyd Arthur Eshbach and others to publish the works of already established writers, including E E Smith, A E Van Vogt, Stanley Weinbaum — and Jack Williamson. But here's the neat thing, which tells us so much about this twentieth century genre of science fiction. Even as long ago as 1946, the Fantasy House style did not evoke the future that science fiction ostensibly was in the business of conquering, but golden memories of the great days of the genre, back before World War Two. Indeed, it was to publish such texts that the firm had been founded. A mere two decades after it was invented as an American pulp form, science fiction had already become memorial.

This is not to deprecate Williamson's Darker Than You Think (1940 Unknown,) which was published nine years later by Fantasy House, and which has been, and was from the get-go, one of the Williamson titles that make one realize that he became a modern writer at least 60 years ago. The point is not that the Fantasy Press books were necessarily retrospective in themselves. The point is that, in the bosoms of its fans and editors, and authors too, a central tenor of the science fiction imagination has always been retrospective. Even in 1946, science fiction could be understood to be treating the "future" as something to be nostalgic about. Already in 1946, a significant understanding of science fiction was that it told us what the future was to have been.

No wonder, perhaps. By 1946 it had become pretty clear that the train of the century was not going to make local stops. The twentieth century was never going to give us a breather, never going to let us sit on the verandah and muse. As genre fans in that year, we tended to want to think that the cutting edge of technology might permanently be represented by images of vacuum tubes, reassuringly big, awfully easy to understand, chock-full of vacuum not-stuff protected from atmosphere stuff-stuff by High Quality Unbreakable Glass Stuff-Stuff; but alas.The Twentieth Century Limited did not stop at vacuum tubes. The awful, embarrassing truth is that the 20th century was a lot faster than science fiction.

From 1940, with only the occasional pause to snooze, Jack Williamson has kept up with the increasing momentum of the decades; it may be, therefore, all the more interesting to glance into the vacuum-tube abyss he climbed from, back the 1920s and 1930s, when he began. Let us take only one story, out of the dozens he wrote before World War Two, and spend enough time on it, perhaps, to get some sense of the genuine deep strangeness of ago. Several could be focused on, but I have a real liking for one of the odder examples of his craft.

"The Plutonian Terror" (1933 Weird Tales) is one of 16 tales, some of them pretty long, assembled in Wizard's Isle, a volume which includes all of Williamson's short fiction from about two years of the early 1930s. It is an Edisonade, a paradigm kind of science fiction in which a brave young inventor creates a tool or a weapon (or both) that enables him to save the girl and his nation (America) and the world from some menace, whether it be foreigners or evil scientists or aliens; and gets the girl; and gets rich. In this story, the hero's name is Ellis.

Ellis and his crew of one (the crew is, in fact, none other but the scientist's daughter whom Ellis loves but can't admit it; she has disguised herself with a bandage so he won't suspect she's a tit-bearing impostor) are "the first explorers of space." They are returning to Earth after a year on the Moon, during which period the bandage didn't slip once. Suddenly they notice radio silence. Then they notice a cubic-mile silver object accelerating from the planet of their birth. Ellis decides to land the Cosmobile on the patio of the home of the scientist whose daughter he loves, and does so, silently. There is no one home, or anywhere. In panoramas sharply reminiscent of scenes from M P Shiel's The Purple Cloud (a new edition of which had appeared in 1930), the Mighty-Thewed young inventor and his Bandage-disguised inamorata traverse the entire globe, but there is nobody left.

They remember the silver cube. They follow it to Pluto (Ellis had earlier scribbled its trajectory on a notepad), and find a deep hole. At the bottom of the hole in Pluto they find the cube and a crevice, and within the crevice they find a labyrinth, and at the heart of the labyrinth they find a giant brain with a very tiny face and ravening fangs. It is the last surving Plutovian, and it has lured the whole population of Earth to Pluto in order (it seems, from the nature of its interest in the Bandage lady) to eat everyone. Ellis kills it with his gun. They enter the cube, which contains the whole human race, all dead. Bandage-puss whips off her disguise, revealing herself as his girl, and slips "forward into his arms, laughing almost hysterically." Adam and Eve return to an empty Earth, "to lift the curtain on another act of the infinite and varied drama of Man."

Hugely silly, of course: but "The Plutonian Terror" does somehow get beneath the skin. There is something here in early Willliamson as entrancing and entrapping as a dream (for the characters are like puppets in a dream; the prose, simultaneously steamy and wooden, evokes a dream which cannot quite describe the threat that we will awaken from before we recognize the Visage; and the plotting is tumultuous and somehow inevitable, which is also dreamlike). But it's not simply entrancement we feel.

This story — and its stablemates, bound into volumes that might have traveled through time — acts so powerfully on a twenty-first century reader because it combines two threads in the story of science fiction: the fabled urgency of the Edisonade hero, determined to ride the twentieth century till it squeaks; and the defiant belatedness of a gang of writers and readers who really did not appreciate the steamroller ruthlessness of the train of history.

The urgency of the Edisonade we're all familiar with — it defines the goals and heft and inner feel of early science fiction. The belatedness, whiiiiich embarasses some of us, we may wish to deny. But by 1933 Jack Williamson, like his fellow writers for the American magazines, had in fact created a time-distortion Zone around the genre, had already begun to publish stories that, even then, described worlds their readers could only see by looking back on.

The personal miracle of Jack Williamson's career is that he wrote himself out of the belatedness that governed the genre when he began; and that for several decades after 1940 his creative mind paced the train. He rode a long ways up the line, which is a very high score for a man. Until he got to here. Where he finds readers half his age — readers a quarter his age — who long to reinhabit the very worlds he climbed out of, the vacuum tubes of Eden, a place to park our bindlestiffs around the campfire, and not miss the train at all.

Works covered in this review:
Jack Williamson, The Collected Stories Volume One: The Metal Man and Others. Royal Oak, Mich.: Haffner Press, 1999. $32.00. 541pp. ISBN 1 893887 02 2

Jack Williamson, The Collected Stories Volume Two: Wolves of Darkness. Royal Oak, Mich.: Haffner Press, 1999. $32.00. 529pp. ISBN 1 893887 04 9

Jack Williamson, The Collected Stories Volume Three: Wizard's Isle. Royal Oak, Mich.: Haffner Press, 2000. $35.00. 540pp. ISBN 1 893887 08 1

 


John Clute is the pre-eminent critic of science-fiction and fantasy, co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and the The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, and writer of more flinty, terrain-gobbling reviews than the normal mind can encompass.

His newest collection of reviews and essays, Scores: Reviews 1993 - 2003, which includes some written for The Infinite Matrix, is now available. It can be ordered from Amazon, and from Old Earth Books.

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