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
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
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
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.