There are a number of reasons why Jack Williamson is awesome. Many of them I’ve even talked about on this blog. He moved to New Mexico as a young boy with his family in a covered wagon. If that isn’t enough he started writing and publishing science fiction when he was 17 and continued to write for the next eighty years. In that time he imagined many of the modern conveniences that we take for granted coined the word terraforming and was also the first to write about a space station that simulated gravity by spinning.
Amongst his surprising resume of literary merits are decades of speculation about the future. Jack Williamson spent his life wondering what the future would be like and he adapted and changed with it so that he could continue to fit into the future that he quickly found himself in.
At the same time his books and stories have never lost a certain sense-of-wonder quality that permeates every word. Jack Williamson always feels like Jack Williamson — that’s mostly not a bad thing.
Jack Williamson started out writing for the pulps, because that was what you did. Unless you were Alfred Bester or Robert Heinlein chances are you couldn’t get science fiction published in the slicks. The pulps were called that because the paper in the magazine was the rough pulpy paper found in cheap newsprint. They also tended to cater to a different audience — one of mainly teenage boys — the same demographic that comic books would later replace. In fact comic books are a pretty fair comparison. Comic books used to be cheap and full of cheap thrills with over the top villains, idealized heroes and hordes of helpless citizens. Pulp stories like the more famous ones by Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft tended to be adventure stories, yarns about violence and thunder and muscular heroes. That didn’t mean that they weren’t well written. In fact many times they needed to very carefully crafted in order to not reveal the silliness of it all.
Jack Williamson entered directly into that tradition and thrived for many years.
The Stonehenge Gate feels like a hark back to that time of early twentieth century pulp fiction with an adventure that drags the characters into a much larger galaxy.
The characters are an interesting bunch. The narrator hardly speaks — choosing to let other do the talking — and rarely acts in any way other than to follow those around him. Instead of using a main character who is interesting Williamson chooses to surround him with interesting people.
Imagine my dismay when, in the middle of book he is briefly separated from his friends.
There are a number of extreme coincidences. There are four college professors in New Mexico. One of them discovers a stonehenge-like structure beneath the sand in the Sahara. Another of them just happens to be an archeologist and another has a strange hereditary birthmark on his forehead and a grandmother who told him stories about stealing the key to Hell and ‘the road to heaven leads through the gateway to hell.’
Without giving anything else away suffice it to say that they discover a Stargate-like passage to other worlds and a millions-year-old history of other races on other planets scattered across the galaxy. There is a great deal of discussion of slavery and ethics and history and evolution and Williamson does a creditable job of making his altered evolution of man seem possible, if a little bit fifteenth century in it’s cradle of life scenario for the earth.
Jack Williamson has always been a good writer, his stories have mystery and depth that feel wonderful. He’s matured a great deal as a writer and a storyteller, which is to be expected after eighty years in the business.
The book itself is a mixture of that good old early days wonder, social commentary and slogging, plodding plot development as the main character seems to spend most of his time locked in a cell as the world and events and people around him make things happen.
To be fair he is a literature professor, and he is nearly sixty so leading slave revolts and hopping across the galaxy is probably not in his usual job description. It just seems like maybe somebody else would have made a more interesting character from which to tell the story.
Most of the good feelings I had for this book were nostalgic remembrances of old science fiction I read as a boy. This feels so much like one of those old stories of exploring and seeing things so preposterous that it doesn’t matter any more how real it is. The amazing thing is that it has this feeling while keeping most of the future tech and wonder firmly grounded in the possible and maybe even the probable. Perhaps it’s the magic of godlike aliens and stonehenge gates leading to other worlds that made it so fantastical.
I would recommend this book to anybody who longs for a trip back to the days the Weird Tales or Amazing Stories. It will make you happy and feel modern at the same time.