You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Sunday, May 20, 2012


I cannot imagine anyone not taking a liking to Jack Williamson. I am talking here of Jack Williamson the man, not necessarily the SF writer. Born in 1908, he wrote both before during and after the Golden Age, but the bulk of the work is from a period that increasingly requires either a historical curiosity on the part of the reader or a fondness for retro motifs and styles. I base my opinion on Jack Williamson as a person on his engaging memoir Wonder's Child, first published in 1984. (Williamson died in 2006)

In many ways, Wonder's Child is a workmanlike memoir -- then I did this, then we went, etc. But its down-to-earthness is a supple counterpoint to a man who began publishing fantastic fiction when he was 20 years old. Like all fans who became writers in his day, Williamson discovered SF as a boy in magazines kept on the newstands of the local drug or candy store. He was hooked from the start, and his memoir's title says clearly why. It was the wonder of it all. The possibilities of space flight and the seemingly miraculous future science held in the offing.

We think of many mid-twentieth-century American writers as "children of the Great Depression," but Williams was in his late twenties when the world economy tumbled. His family was by no means wealthy. His father was unsuccessful in both farming and small business, but they always got by. And Jack was receiving periodic checks in from the pulps to the tune of $100 to $500 dollars. This was very good if sporadic money, and he and his brother and the sf writer Edward Hamilton often used these paydays as the excuse for a road trip. These trips lasted till the money ran out and often involved working or bumming their way back to New Mexico. Jack spent some time in college, again until the money ran out, and when he found himself depressed during the Great Depression he relocated to Topeka, Kansas, to undergo psychoanalysis at the Menninger Clinic. He had great respect for one of the doctors he worked with there, but this episode came to end when he could no longer afford the $5 per hour sessions.

Possibly of historical interest only

After some training, he became a meteorologist for the Navy during WW II. He was in the South Pacific for only a brief period before Hiroshima ended the Pacific War. When he returned to the U.S. he felt alienated from the emerging SF scene. The wonder was gone and a darker mood of political speculation, apocalyptic scenarios, and social satire had taken its place.

...the bomb, I think, was the overriding reason. The long black shadow of the mushroom cloud had fallen over all of us in science fiction. Sooner, I think, than it touched most people, because we understood it earlier. It put a dark stop to the age of wonder as I had known it. Science, before, had been revealing total truth, or seeming to, and unlocking splendid power. Suddenly now the truth had become too terrible to tell, the power too much for us to handle.

Williamson continued to write for the next fifty years, but reading his memoir you see him constantly aware of his marginalization in the SF community despite the accolades that begin to come his way. He finally marries, settles down in New Mexico, and returns to college as an forty-two-year-old undergraduate at Eastern New Mexico State University in Portales. He graduates and remains on the faculty there until his retirement. Perhaps one his greatest legacies is the ongoing annual science fiction conference held there in his honor. A photograph from the 2002 conference pictures hims surrounded by the likes of Connie Willis, George R. R. Martin, and Fred Swannick. He never lost his interest in and appreciation of new developments in the science fiction genre.

The final chapters of the memoir recount world travels with his wife and the inevitable shrinking number of acquaintances. The current edition of Wonder's Child is not helped by an addendum written just before his death and incorporated into the text posthumously. It is repetitive and poorly edited. But this memoir, with it laconic, ambling style, is the most engaging look at the past century of science fiction I have encountered.

I have reviewed two Jack Williamson Books at the website Worlds Without End

Darker Than You Think

The Legion of Space

No comments:

Post a Comment