Tuesday, 31 July 2018

The Best of Jack Williamson

Jack Williamson The Best of Jack Williamson (1978)
Earlier in the year I read a collaboration between this guy and Frederik Pohl which impressed upon me the notion that I should probably make an effort to read something by Jack Williamson, his having been somewhat off my radar up until that point; except it appears that I have imagined the whole thing and can find no trace of whatever the collaboration may have been or my having read anything of that description. It would be nice if this were like something from a story written by Jack Williamson, but sadly it isn't.

Jack Williamson was going at it way back when we were still calling it scientifiction. His early tales tell of Gernsbackian science-heroes having the sort of adventures which kept Edgar Rice Burroughs in business, with one foot firmly planted in the nineteenth century, a world in which men were men, women were glad of it - even the liberated sciencey ones, and the canals of Mars seemed plausible. Occasionally he'd throw in a fistful of nosebleed physics just to keep it interesting, but mostly it was about as good as you'd expect.

Nonstop to Mars sees Earth imperiled by a sort of space tornado which sucks Earth's atmosphere off to the red planet, and the protagonist of the story saves the day by flying his light aircraft along the tunnel formed by the distended eye of its storm.

We return to Mars in The Crucible of Power, wherein our rosy-cheeked, two-fisted hero bests the alien weirdies by much the same terms as white people bested Africans back when we weren't quite sure whether or not they were human.
My father gathered his five or six allies at the crest of a low yellow dune, and waited for the charge. As the yelling lancers came down the opposite slope, he walked boldly out alone to meet them, with the grave statement that he was their new ruler, sent from the Sun.

Breakdown examines the rise and fall of civilisations as the process by which revolutionary tendencies ossify and become the status quo, which would be nice had Williamson chosen to build his future society on something besides labour unions with too much power, because even the term makes me uncomfortable, it being one of those phrases which has taken on the same sort of resonance as I'm not racist but...

This being said, it seems Williamson was nothing if not adaptable, and there's a massive improvement in his writing after the second world war, and so With Folded Hands reads like the work of a different author and is as such not only readable, but even enjoyable. This generally elevated standard is more or less maintained for the rest of the collection; although after another couple of hundred pages it becomes apparent that simply being better than Nonstop to Mars probably isn't enough in and of itself. The Equalizer seems to go on forever, and I had no idea what it was actually about, and thus gave up about twenty pages before the end. The remainder are of more reasonable length and more engaging content, but still tend towards the sort of creaking twist ending in which it all turns out to have been a dream, or they're actually androids, or any other variation on the kind of thing which got well and truly hammered into the ground by Tharg's Future Shocks and others.

Jack Williamson wasn't without talent or ideas, and he wrote well for the most part, but otherwise I dread to think what the turkeys must have been like if this was genuinely his best.

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