Williamson, Jack

Tagged: Author

Working name of US writer John Stewart Williamson (1908-2006) from the beginning of his career in 1928, though his Seetee stories were originally signed Will Stewart. Williamson was born in Arizona and raised (after stints in Mexico and Texas) on an isolated New Mexico homestead, and spent his last decades as well in New Mexico; he described his early upbringing and his first encounter with sf in the 1920s in his introduction and notes to The Early Williamson (coll 1975), which assembles some of the rough but vigorous stories he published 1928-1933; and amplified this material in Wonder's Child: My Life in Science Fiction (1984), which won a 1985 Hugo. These reminiscences reconfirm the explosively liberating effect early Pulp-magazine sf had on its first young audiences, especially those who like Williamson grew up in small towns or farms across an America hurtling out of its rural past.

After discovering Amazing Stories, and specifically being influenced by its 1927 reprint serialization of A Merritt's The Moon Pool (stories 22 June 1918, 15 February-22 March 1919 All-Story Weekly as "The Moon Pool" and "The Conquest of the Moon Pool"; fixup 1919), Williamson immediately decided to try to write stories for that magazine. His first published fiction, "The Metal Man" in December 1928 for Amazing, was deeply influenced by Merritt's lush visual style, but like most of his early work conveyed an exhilarating if sometimes unhinged sense of liberation. Williamson was from the first an adaptable writer, responsive to the changing nature of his markets, and his collaborations over the years seemed to be genuine attempts to learn more about his craft as well as to produce saleable fiction. His first great teacher after Merritt was Miles J Breuer, whom he came across through his early association with fan organizations like the International Science Correspondence Club and the American Interplanetary Society, and to whom he deliberately apprenticed himself. Breuer, he reported in The Early Williamson, "taught me to curb my tendencies toward wild melodrama and purple adjectives"; what Williamson gave Breuer in return was an inspiring fount of energy, and both of their book collaborations – The Girl from Mars (1929 chap) in Hugo Gernsback's Science Fiction Series and The Birth of a New Republic (Winter 1931 Amazing Stories Quarterly; 1981 chap) – were written primarily by the younger man, following Breuer's ideas.

Williamson's development was swift. From the very first he was equally comfortable with both story and novel forms; indeed, by 1940 he had published as many as twelve novels in the magazines (the total varying according to estimates of the length thought necessary for a tale to be so designated), including The Alien Intelligence (July-August 1929 Wonder Stories, with two shorter stories as coll 1980 chap [but large pages]); The Green Girl (March-April 1930 Amazing; 1950); The Birth of a New Republic (Winter 1930 Amazing Stories Quarterly; 1981) with Miles J Breuer; "The Stone from the Green Star" (October-November 1931 Amazing); Golden Blood (April-September 1933 Weird Tales; rev 1964); "Xandulu" (March-May 1934 Wonder Stories), "Islands of the Sun" (September-October 1935 Astounding); "The Blue Spot" (January-February 1937 Astounding) and The Fortress of Utopia (November 1939 Startling; 1998); and in his later career he concentrated even more heavily on longer forms. Some of these tales – perhaps most noticeably The Green Girl and Golden Blood – display a crude narrative brio, adaptability to various markets, vivid characters, and inklings of higher ambitions. His output over the first decade of his career fills the first five of the eight volumes of The Collected Stories of Jack Williamson, which includes the novel-length tales; the sequence begins with The Collected Stories of Jack Williamson, Volume 1: The Metal Man and Others (coll 1999) and ends with The Collected Stories of Jack Williamson, Volume 8: At the Human Limit (coll 2011), all expertly edited by Stephen Haffner.

The best of his pre-World War Two work was probably the Legion of Space series, which initially comprised The Legion of Space (April-September 1934 Astounding; rev 1947) and The Cometeers (coll 1950); for a breakdown of Legion of Space titles, including The Queen of the Legion (1983), a very late and significantly less energetic addendum, see Checklist. The series depicts the far-flung, Universe-shaking, Space-Opera adventures of four buccaneering soldiers. Giles Habibula, the most original of the lot – whose character interestingly harks back to Rabelais and to William Shakespeare's Falstaff – became a frequently used model for later sf life-loving grotesques, including Poul Anderson's Nicholas van Rijn. More or less unaided, they save the human worlds from threats both internal and external in conjunction with the woman whose hereditary role it is to guard from evil a doomsday Weapon called AKKA. The influence of E E "Doc" Smith's Lensman saga can be felt throughout; and Williamson's relative incapacity to impart a sense of brute scale was perhaps balanced by a very much greater gift for characterization. Of equal interest, perhaps, was the Legion of Time (a sequence not connected to the Legion of Space) assembled as The Legion of Time (coll 1952; vt Two Complete Novels: After World's End; The Legion of Time 1963), containing The Legion of Time (May-July 1938 Astounding; cut 1961) and After World's End (February 1939 Marvel Science Stories; 1961). In one of the earliest and most ingenious Time Operas, involving complex Time Paradoxes and other turns, conflicting Alternate Worlds battle through time in an extensive and complicated Changewar, each trying to ensure its own existence and deny its opponent's; the fulcrum around which the conflict wages, the moment where one or another world is made possible, focuses on John Barr, who as a small boy either picks up a magnet, whose influence upon him makes the world known as Jonbar possible, or picks up a pebble, fades into obscurity, and the world known as Gyronchi is made possible. A fulcrum of this nature has come commonly to be known as a Jonbar Point, and eventually inspired one of the most penetrating studies yet written about a pulp-sf novel, Brian W Aldiss's "Judgement at Jonbar" (Spring 1964 SF Horizons).

By the 1940s, however, John W Campbell Jr's Golden Age of SF had begun, and Williamson was suddenly an old-timer. All the same, though he did not much participate in its inception, he did adapt to the new world with commendable speed, and by the end of the decade had published what will probably remain his most significant work, becoming recognized during this period as one of the central authors of Genre SF. A transitional series – the Seetee Antimatter tales – came first: Seetee Ship (July and November 1942, January-February 1943 Astounding; fixup 1951) and Seetee Shock (February-April 1949 Astounding; 1950), both published as by Will Stewart; they were assembled as Seetee Ship/Seetee Shock (omni 1971; vt Seetee 1979), and designed to be read in the original magazine order. In the sequence, the world is confronted with the engineering challenge of coping with the Antimatter that is found to make up part of the Asteroid belt, and harnessing it as a safe Power Source; more smoothly told than its predecessors, the series still unchallengingly presents its asteroid miners and their crises in the old fashion, with a great deal of action but little insight. Its success led to Williamson's creation of a Comic strip, Beyond Mars, which ran for three years in the New York Daily News.

Far more significant was Darker Than You Think (December 1940 Unknown; exp 1948), a remarkable speculative novel about lycanthropy and other forms of Shapeshifting which early presented the thesis that Werewolves are genetic throwbacks to a species cognate with Homo sapiens (> Supernatural Creatures). Also in the 1940s Williamson published his most famous and respected sequence, the Humanoids series: "With Folded Hands . . ." (July 1947 Astounding), The Humanoids (March-May 1948 Astounding as ". . . And Searching Mind"; rev 1949) – both assembled as The Humanoids (coll of linked stories 1980) – and The Humanoid Touch (1980) [for further details see Checklist]. Once again early in the genre's timetable of speculative insights, the series confronted the near impossibility of assessing the pluses and minuses of a humanoid (i.e., AI-driven) hegemony over the world, however benevolent. In The Humanoids itself it is suggested that humanity's new masters, driven by their Prime Directive, are contriving to force people to transcend their condition; in The Humanoid Touch this ambiguity is lost for, at the end of the Galaxy, long hence, the euphoria induced by humanity's keepers is impossible to perceive while being presented as mandatory.

In the early 1950s – at a point when younger writers in the field were thinking of him as an old master from the beginnings of genre time – Williamson began to suffer from a writer's block which he did not fully escape for more than two decades, though he continued to produce novels of interest like Dragon's Island (1951; vt The Not-Men 1968; exp as coll Dragon's Island and Other Stories 2002), whose presentation of Genetic Engineering once again conceals a prescient numeracy under a bluff, slightly archaic narrative style. Much of his new work from this point was collaborative, and the continued modernizing of his techniques and concerns can be seen as an ongoing demonstration of his remarkable willingness to learn from the world and from others. Star Bridge (1955) with James E Gunn was no more than competent Space Opera, but Williamson's ongoing partnership with Frederik Pohl was of more interest, though always problematic: the effects of their collaboration did not seem entirely comfortable. Their first sequence, the Jim Eden series of juveniles – Undersea Quest (1954), Undersea Fleet (1956) and Undersea City (1958), all three assembled as The Undersea Trilogy (omni 1992) – was routine. The second, the Starchild tales – The Reefs of Space (1964), Starchild (1965) and Rogue Star (1969), assembled as The Starchild Trilogy (omni 1977) – also fails to combine space opera and Metaphysics convincingly as it traces the problematic epic of humanity's Evolution into a mature planet-spanning species (> Living Worlds). The Cuckoo series – Farthest Star (fixup 1975) and Wall Around a Star (1983), the latter two assembled as The Saga of Cuckoo (omni 1983) – does not quite succeed in bringing to life its cosmogonic premises or its Linguistic concerns. On the other hand, Land's End (1988) is an enjoyable singleton, featuring a planet-threatening Disaster: a Comet destroys the ozone layer and humanity seeks refuge Under the Sea. The Singers of Time (1991) about a non-violent Invasion of Earth, is also strong.

In the 1950s Williamson embarked on a second career at Eastern New Mexico University, where he took a BA in English and an MA with an unpublished 1957 thesis, "A Study of the Sense of Prophecy in Modern Science Fiction"; he then took a PhD with the University of Colorado in 1964 on H G Wells's early sf, and expanded his thesis into H.G. Wells: Critic of Progress (August 1967-August 1969 Riverside Quarterly; 1973), a book which, despite some methodological clumsiness, valuably examines Wells's complex engagement with the idea of progress and of the World State. He taught the modern novel and literary criticism until his retirement in 1977, being at the same time deeply involved in promoting sf as an academic subject (> SF in the Classroom). In 1973 Williamson received a Pilgrim Award for his academic work relating to sf.

In the meanwhile he began slowly to enter the Indian summer of his writing career, though novels like The Moon Children (1972) and The Power of Blackness (fixup 1976) are surprisingly insecure and the series continuations (see above) lack the force of their models. It seemed that his old age would demonstrate his slow – even though technically productive – decline. But The Best of Jack Williamson (coll 1978) again demonstrated his early strengths, and although Brother to Demons, Brother to Gods (coll of linked stories 1979) was weak, in the 1980s Williamson began to produce work of an astonishing youthfulness. Manseed (1982) uses a space-opera format to investigate, with renewed freshness, the imaginative potential of Genetic Engineering. The Lifeburst sequence – Lifeburst (1984), an exercise in interstellar Realpolitik, grim and engrossing in its depiction of the parcelling out of Earth, sophisticated in its presentation of sexual material; and Mazeway (1990), which has a Young Adult tone through its vivid presentation of the eponymous galactic test that the young protagonists must pass to render humanity eligible for higher things – were various and astonishingly vigorous. Firechild (1986) generates a rhetoric of Transcendence – very much in the fashion of the 1980s – out of developments in Biology. Into the Eighth Decade (coll 1990) serves as a brief resumé of Williamson's post-World War Two career. Beachhead (1992) describes an expedition to a Mars according to contemporary knowledge, although the plot itself is redolent of a much earlier era. Despite its title, Demon Moon (1994) is also – highly coloured – sf, though the tone is Equipoisal between sf and fantasy. The Black Sun (1997), on the other hand, mixes Hard SF and Space Opera: a human Starship is caught by a Black Hole, and discovers artefacts hinting at a Forerunner civilization; and Terraforming Earth (2001), which won a John W Campbell Memorial Award, reworks the concept of Terraforming from the Seetee sequence (Williamson is credited with coining the word in 1949). He continued as well to publish short fiction of merit, "The Ultimate Earth" (December 2000 Analog) winning Hugo and Nebula awards for best novella; and (though he continued to publish through 2007) supplied a touching coda to his long career with The Man from Somewhere (October/November 2003 Asimov's; 2005 chap), a tale whose title deliberately echoes that of The Girl from Mars, his first separate work, seventy-six years earlier.

In 1976 he was given the second SFWA Grand Master Award (his sole predecessor was Robert A Heinlein); in 1994 he received the World Fantasy Award for lifetime achievement. He was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame on its inauguration in 1996. He was an sf writer of substance for over seventy years, as commemorated in Seventy-Five: The Diamond Anniversary of a Science Fiction Pioneer – Jack Williamson (coll 2004) and in The Worlds of Jack Williamson: A Centennial Tribute (1908-2008) (coll 2008) In his work and in his life he encompassed the field. For many, his death served as a symbolic marker of the end of the twentieth century genre, which began when he began. [JC]

see also: Air Wonder Stories; Aliens; Androids; Astounding Science-Fiction; Automation; Children in SF; Colonization of Other Worlds; Continuous Creation; Crime and Punishment; Fantastic Voyages; Faster Than Light; Future War; Galactic Empires; Gamebook; Great and Small; Heroes; History in SF; History of SF; Life on Other Worlds; Longevity (in Writers and Publications); Machines; Matter Transmission; Messiahs; Monsters; Moon; Mutants; Mythology; Organlegging; Origin of Man; Outer Planets; Parallel Worlds; Politics; Robots; SF Magazines; Science Fiction Writers of America; She; Skylark Award; Spaceships; Stars; Sun; Superman; Time Travel; Transportation; Writers of the Future Contest.

John Stewart Williamson

born Bisbee, Arizona Territory: 29 April 1908

died Portales, New Mexico: 10 November 2006

works

series

Legion of Space

  • The Legion of Space (Reading, Pennsylvania: Fantasy Press, 1947) [early version April-September 1934 Astounding: Legion of Space: hb/A J Donnell]
  • The Cometeers (Reading, Pennsylvania: Fantasy Press, 1950) [coll: including the title novel: early version appeared May-August 1936 Astounding: plus "One Against the Legion": first appeared April-June 1939 Astounding: Legion of Space: hb/Edd Cartier]
    • The Cometeers (New York: Pyramid Books, 1967) [cut version of the above: containing title novel only: Legion of Space: pb/Jack Gaughan]
    • One Against the Legionsfgateway.com (New York: Pyramid Books, 1967) [cut version of the above as coll: adding a new novella, "Nowhere Near": Legion of Space: pb/Jack Gaughan]
    • Three from the Legion (Garden City, New York: Nelson Doubleday, 1979) [omni of the above two: plus "Nowhere Near": Legion of Space: hb/Jack Woolhiser]
  • The Queen of the Legion (New York: Pocket Books/Timescape, 1983) [Legion of Space: pb/Kevin Eugene Johnson]

Legion of Time

Humanoids

  • The Humanoids (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1949) [first version appeared March-May 1948 Astounding as ". . . And Searching Mind": Humanoids: hb/Leo Manso]
    • The Humanoids (New York: Avon Books, 1980) [exp of the above as coll of linked stories: adding "With Folded Hands . . ." (July 1947 Astounding): Humanoids: pb/Michael Presley]
  • The Humanoid Touch (Huntington Woods, Michigan: Phantasia Press, 1980) [Humanoids: hb/Ed Valigursky]

Seetee

  • Seetee Shocksfgateway.com (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950) as by Will Stewart [first appeared February-April 1949 Astounding: Seetee: hb/Edward R Collins]
  • Seetee Shipsfgateway.com (New York: Gnome Press, 1951) as by Will Stewart [Seetee: hb/Edd Cartier]

Jim Eden

Starchild

  • The Reefs of Space (New York: Ballantine Books, 1964) with Frederik Pohl [Starchild: pb/]
  • Starchildsfgateway.com (New York: Ballantine Books, 1965) with Frederik Pohl [Starchild: pb/]
  • Rogue Starsfgateway.com (New York: Ballantine Books, 1969) with Frederik Pohl [Starchild: pb/]
    • The Starchild Trilogy (New York: Science Fiction Book Club, 1977) with Frederik Pohl [omni of the above three: Starchild: hb/Garvy Viskupic]

Cuckoo

  • Farthest Starsfgateway.com (New York: Ballantine Books, 1975) with Frederik Pohl [fixup/coll of linked stories: first appeared as "Doomship", March-April 1973 If, and "The Org's Egg", April-June 1974 Galaxy: Cuckoo: hb/Philip Perlman]
  • Wall Around a Star (New York: Ballantine Books, 1983) with Frederik Pohl [Cuckoo: hb/David B Mattingly]
    • The Saga of Cuckoo (Garden City, New York: Nelson Doubleday, 1983) with Frederik Pohl [omni of the above two: Cuckoo: hb/Kevin Johnson]

Lifeburst

  • Lifeburstsfgateway.com (New York: Ballantine Books/Del Rey, 1984) [Lifeburst: hb/Don Dixon]
  • Mazewaysfgateway.com (New York: Ballantine Books/Del Rey, 1990) [Lifeburst: hb/Don Dixon]

The Collected Stories

individual titles

collections and stories

works as editor

nonfiction (selected)

about the author

links

Previous versions of this entry

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