Jack Williamson

Father of American science fiction
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The Independent Online

John Stewart Williamson, writer: born Bisbee, Arizona Territory 29 April 1908; married 1947 Blanche Slaton Harp (died 1985; one stepdaughter); died Portales, New Mexico 10 November 2006.

It seems that there was never a time when Jack Williamson, who has died at 98 after an active career extending from 1928 until late last year, was not the father of American science fiction. "If your father read science fiction," the editor and novelist Frederik Pohl once wrote, "he very likely counted Jack Williamson high among his favorite writers." What now seems remarkable about this statement is that it was made in 1953.

In fact Star Science Fiction Stories #2, the anthology of original stories Pohl was introducing, was anything but a memorial volume; the early 1950s series to which it belonged was widely seen as a vehicle for the new-blood writers who had begun to transform the science-fiction genre after the Second World War, and Williamson gained entry there "as a sort of combination of revered old master and bright new star".

He had already re-invented his craft and his career more than once, and, almost magically, over the next 50 or more years, he continued to fill the double role Pohl had assigned him: simply by surviving and remaining dauntingly active (he published at least 10 stories and two novels in the 21st century), he seemed somehow to guarantee the inner youth and freshness of American genre science fiction itself.

Jack Williamson had been there at the beginning (the very term science fiction was not invented until 1931), and his death marks at the very least a symbolic terminus for the intimacy of the old genre. Over the decades, most of the professionals in the field had met Williamson personally; there are few professionals now alive who had not read him as a child.

John Stewart Williamson was born in Arizona while it was still a Territory, and grew up on various ranches and farms; his family eventually migrated by covered wagon to New Mexico, where he lived the rest of his life. His home at Portales remains a working ranch.

In New Mexico, however, his father became principal of the local school, and young Jack - like so many boys attracted to science fiction in subsequent decades - turned into a lonely, unsocialised, bookish child. By the age of 20 - later generations of science fiction writers also tended to start young - he was a published author, his first story, "The Metal Men", appearing in Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories in 1928. His first book, The Girl From Mars, a novella written with Miles J. Breuer, appeared the next year from a Gernsback firm. It was a very strange story; but the nascent genre of science fiction - in which Williamson soon became a major figure - was itself strange.

The densely packed 24 pages of this tale mix together cataclysmic super science - the humanoid civilisation of Mars blows itself up with atomic bombs, and ray guns and resistant spheres of force and super intellects proliferate back on Earth - and what might be called a catastrophic psychology: the behaviour of the human family at the centre of the tale is dysfunctional at a positively Jacobean level (almost everyone is violently dead by page 24). The underlying message, almost certainly unintended by the young Williamson, is that the future will be a region of deep stress: that it will be no easy task for an American to live on the cusp of inheriting the whole world and having to make something of it.

More than most of his contemporaries, Williamson had an instinct for this, never comprehensively articulated but patent. The protagonists of his 1930s stories seem to sleepwalk into the triumphs and disasters they are heir to. The wind of the future is in their faces, and it seems to blind them.

Williamson himself underwent psychoanalysis in the decade before the Second World War, and clearly had demons to subdue. His early prolificness was indeed almost manic. Almost everything contained in the first six large volumes of his complete short stories was published before writers like Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein entered the field in 1939 and began to transform it; and, in their dozens, these stories exhibit an inner agitation that he never wholly escaped, and which he conspicuously exhibits even in a very late tale like The Man from Somewhere (2005), whose title amusingly echoes his first book.

The story, in which Williamson is clearly paying homage to his early work, sweepingly jams together time travel and black holes, and a numbing depiction of family and cultural dysfunction, into a vision of the irreversible self- destruction of the human race. Under the calm clear narrative voice Williamson invented as part of his assimilation of science fiction's new maturity after 1945 or so, this deep agitation persists - a sense that surface clarity must always wrestle with despair. Clarity as a fix for despair: this is not perhaps a bad description of the effect of the best American science fiction.

But there was more to Williamson than dread. In the 1930s, he began a series of exuberant and expansive space operas, the Legion of Space tales; in these stories his heroes - most notably the Falstaff-like Giles Habibula, according to contemporary polls the most popular continuing character to appear in 1930s science fiction - were in command of the action, and the future, and the universe.

The science may have been minimal, but a little later, in the early 1940s Seetee sequence, he treated issues of genuine speculative science, incorporating into ample action sequences a sophisticated take on the possibility and implications of anti-matter, and other issues alive in the physics of the time. Almost simultaneously, he published in Unknown magazine the grim first version of Darker Than You Think (1948), a quasi-scientific but very dark treatment of werewolves as genetic throwbacks, an explanatory principle which has fuelled seemingly innumerable horror novels ever since.

This novel would be his most famous, along with The Humanoids (1948), a tale in which he again uses word android in its modern sense (he invented the modern usage in 1936; later, in a 1942 story, he coined the term and the concept of terraforming; he was also the first to use the term genetic engineering in fiction); under its calm surface, The Humanoids expresses, once again, an agitated sense of tribulations to come; its examination of artificial beings, and of issues of Artificial Intelligence, is prescient. A late sequel, The Humanoid Touch (1980), carries the speculation further.

These novels proclaim their smooth mastery of their form; by the late 1940s, Williamson seemed to have tamed his own personal demons, and to have translated his personal and cultural anxieties into art.

It was not to last. Though he had married his childhood sweetheart, Blanche Slaton Harp, in 1947, by 1950 or so he began to suffer a severe writer's block, from which he did not escape fully for at least two decades. Novels and stories did appear, some in collaboration with the writer and academic James E. Gunn, whose example may have helped persuade him to return to higher education.

He had attended classes at the University of New Mexico in 1932-33 without graduating, but now took an MA at Eastern New Mexico University (ENMU) in 1957, where he taught from 1960 until his retirement in 1977, remaining Professor Emeritus until his death; in 1964 he took a PhD in English literature with the University of Colorado. His thesis was published as H.G. Wells: critic of progress (1973), and he won the 1973 Pilgrim Award for his academic work.

His influence as a teacher was already extensive, and the growth of science fiction as an academic career choice is in part due to him. The annual Jack Williamson Lectureship Series, sponsored by ENMU, began in 1977, and continues. The Jack Williamson Science Fiction Library at ENMU, endowed in 1982, contains nearly 30,000 books and journals.

By the late 1960s, his writer's block had gone into remission. With Frederik Pohl, he wrote the successful Starchild trilogy (1964-69), which inventively combines space opera and xenobiological speculation; and he soon began to publish what many readers think of his best work, releasing 19 novels between The Moon Children (1972) and his final tale, The Stonehenge Gate (2005). Notable titles included Manseed (1982), an updated examination of genetic engineering, and Terraforming Earth (2001), the shorter magazine form of which, "The Ultimate Earth" (2000), won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards.

His later years were peppered with awards, including the Nebula Grand Master Award in 1975, the World Fantasy Life Achievement Award in 1994, induction into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 1996, and Grandmaster of the World Horror Convention in 2004.

Williamson's last years were successful but not untroubled. As he recounts in the 2005 revision to his autobiography Wonder's Child (1984), he lost his wife in 1985 in a motor-car accident while he was at the wheel. But he remained otherwise exceedingly active on all fronts. He carried his era with him to the end.

John Clute