The Space Opera Renaissance: Jack Williamson

Untitled 3.jpg Jack Williamson has always been one of my heroes and I’ve always wanted to read some of his work but never (until now) had the chance to do so.

Jack Williamson was born in 1908 in the territory of Arizona and at the age of seven moved to New Mexico with his family via covered wagon. He sold his first science fiction story at the age of 20 and then spent the next eight decades writing science fiction books and short stories. He wrote until he died at the age of 98 in 2006. When Jack Williamson started writing stories the power of the atomic bomb had only been theorized. Einstein’s relativity was thought to be crazy stuff and computers did not exist, nor did vending machines, space travel, solar power or lasers, and life on Mars was a known fact – because of the canals that could be seen by telescope.


Jack Williamson is credited with being the first person to use the word ‘terraform’ and the first person to write about a space station that gets artificial gravity by spinning about it’s axis. He was also the second person to receive the SFWA Grand Master award (the first, of course was Robert Heinlein). When Isaac Asimov, as a teenager published his first story Jack Williamson (one of Asimov’s inspirations) wrote him a postcard of congratulations. He collaborated with Frederick Pohl and was close friends with Edmond Hamilton and Leigh Brackett. He won a Hugo award in 2001 and a John W. Campbell Memorial Award in 2002, making him the oldest person ever to win either award.


His story in The Space Opera Renaissance is a huge step up from the one by Edmond Hamilton, despite being written in the same era. In “The Prince of Space” Williamson imagines a world where snacks and newspapers can be purchased from ‘robot vendors’ (ie vending machines) and the rays of the sun can be harnessed with a metal known as vitalium which converts the suns energy into electricity (the descriptions of vitalium and what it’s used for in this story are eerily similar to the uses to which silicon is put today). It also featured the great City of Space, a large cylindrical space station that rotates around it’s axis to provide a gravity-like illusion to the people living on the inside surface.


The story itself is very well-written if obviously a product of a much older time. There is only one female character. She takes a larger role than women did in many books and stories of that time but her main purpose still is as a love interest of the Prince of Space. The story has a good pacing and even feels more like a novel in the amount of things that happen instead of a short story.


The writing is solid and feels like several order of magnitude more mature than the “The Star Stealers” was. It also takes into account a surprising amount of actual physics (as they were understood at the time), which is unusual for this time period.


I have two complaints and I’ve seen these two things in every story I’ve read from this time period. Developing new weapons and ships and stations does not happen in an afternoon in the lab. It takes time and money and tests and failures and fixes ad nauseum. I understand that these things don’t make particularly interesting stories but having three new weapons developed in the space of a couple weeks strains credulity a little. The other complaint I have is that the story, much like the Star Stealers, assumes that, because the Martians are hideous they are also evil. It even states, at one point when a single Martian may have escaped them in the desert in Mexico that the entire Earth is doomed because of that single Martian. Then when they find it they just shoot it. Couldn’t other people on Earth have done the same thing?


One thing that is interesting is that the media reporter is not vilified, but rather trusted and expected to be an honorable man in helping expose the aliens infiltration and trying to stop them. The Prince of Space even invites him to his city and trusts him to not release any information until he is told to. This feels like a fresh approach because everybody hates the media these days, it’s become expected that reporters are evil.


I enjoyed the “Prince of Space” and it made me feel more hopeful for the rest of the stories in the book.


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