Jack Williamson’s Wonder’s Child

Reading Jack Williamson’s autobiography, Wonder’s Child, is in many ways like a walk through my own childhood — not that my life has had that much in common with Williamson’s, but that his friends and colleagues were in many cases the authors I was reading when I was young. To many people, Jack Williamson is science fiction. Let’s call him part of the First Generation, those who became Hugo Gernsback’s authors when he ran out of reprint material for Amazing Stories, which he had launched in 1926. (Williamson sold his first story to Gernsback in 1928.) They went on to become the mainstay of the pulps, figures who now are half-legendary: A. Merritt, Edmond Hamilton, Edgar Rice Burroughs, E. E. “Doc” Smith, others lost to memory.

Williamson’s story, of course, is about much more than writing. His family came to the Southwest by covered wagon, and Williamson grew up on a hardscrabble farm not too far from Portales, New Mexico (where he lived until his death in 2006). He attended school sporadically, but read everything he could lay his hands on — in those days and in that environment, not that much. He managed a couple of years of college, and even at one point considered a career as a chemist, but writing won out. Appalled at his lack of sophistication in so many areas, he traveled, even spending time riding the rails during the Depression. He served as a weather forecaster in the South Pacific during World War II, and finally married after the war, a woman with whom he had gone to high school, although he points out himself that it would be overboard to call them “childhood sweethearts.” He’d been attracted to her, but too shy and socially inept to do anything about it.

Of overriding importance throughout his life was writing, and not only writing, but writing science fiction. In Williamson’s time, science was still a source of optimism, technology the only sure way to a better world — it was the stuff that dreams were made of, until the final days of World War II, when the dark side of technology made itself known in no uncertain terms. And, in the days of Amazing, its imitators and successors, science was the key: one great idea developed concisely and logically. That was the basis of a science-fiction story. Human concerns came later. (As an example of how critical the scientific basis was, it’s worth noting that Williamson at one point was credited with coining the term “genetic engineering” (in Dragon’s Island, 1951), although the OED, he says, found it used in a scientific paper a year or two earlier. “Terraforming” (Seetee Ship, 1951) does seem to be his, though.)

Williamson’s commitment to his writing was awe-inspiring, as was his facility in churning out stories. What is most fascinating from this vantage, in a time when even beginning writers concern themselves with the subtleties of character and theme (all too often before they can manage basic grammar), is Williamson’s drive to churn out the words. By his own admission, he was learning as he went, for so long never sure why some stories sold and some didn’t, but the fact that he could turn out a chapter in the morning and another in the afternoon amazes me. It was, of course, a condition of the pulps: literary quality was not a criterion, only what fit the editor’s formula. It’s also characteristic of Williamson that he was an eager learner, and the learning extended in many directions — he went back to school for a Ph.D. in his fifties, and began learning computer science in his eighties. He was always an eager traveler.

This is an amazing book: simple, direct, understated, it also seems an unflinchingly honest look back at the author’s life (although Williamson says that he believes he partakes of that human tendency to do a little gilding here and there). There is a matter-of-factness to the narrative that is completely disarming. One doesn’t even mind Williamson crowing about his victories, because it’s plain how hard he worked for them. (As a matter of fact, the first publication of this autobiography won a Hugo in 1994.) The book is rich in anecdote and detail (It includes a selection from his World War II diary), and as the years roll by it begins to read like a Who’s Who in the field, not only the writers that we all recognize, but editors and illustrators who may not be so well known.

The history of Williamson’s career really is the history of science fiction in America, and Williamson’s telling of it echoes the wonder that I remember from my own early years as an avid fan. That he tells it so artlessly, and yet with obvious passion, should give any reader a clue to the magic.

(BenBella Books, 2005)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

You may e-mail him, but include a reference to Green Man Review so you don’t get deleted with the spam.