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The Silicon Dagger
Jack Williamson
Tor Books, 303 pages

The Silicon Dagger
Jack Williamson
Jack Williamson has been writing and commenting on science fiction for 70 years. Born and raised on isolated ranches in the American Southwest, he still lives on the family ranch near Portales, New Mexico. In 1926, shown a copy of one of the earliest issues of Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories, Williamson conned his sister into paying for a subscription. He was soon fascinated by a reprint of A. Merritt's classic The Moon Pool and later collaborated with him on some stories. Williamson himself was published with a short story, the heavily Merritt-influenced "The Metal Man," in the December 1928 issue of Amazing Stories. His influence on science fiction and fantasy is staggering. He wrote a seminal novel of shape-shifting, Darker Than You Think, coined the terms "genetic engineering" in the Dragon's Island and "terraforming" in his novels about anti-matter, Seetee Ship/Seetee Shock. Many critics consider his best novel to be the "robots saving humanity from themselves, against their will" novel, The Humanoids. Williamson was named a Grand Master at the 1976 Nebula awards and given the Lifetime Achievement Award from the World Fantasy Convention in 1994.

ISFDB Bibliography
Jack Williamson Science Fiction Library at Eastern New Mexico University
SF Site Review: The Black Sun
Jack Williamson Tribute Site
Interview

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

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Partly high-tech thriller, partly diatribe about the ills of America today, The Silicon Dagger is the latest book by a science fiction author who, if he is published in the year 2000, will have had a writing career spanning 9 decades! While The Silicon Dagger is a passably good and thought provoking novel it certainly isn't one of Williamson's best. It suffers from implausible situations, surprise revelations, and an inconclusive ending.

When his half-brother Alden's tell-all book on domestic terrorism leaves Alden dead from a letter bomb, Clayton Barstow decides to track down the killer(s). He heads to McAdam county, Kentucky, source of the bomb and a fully-owned subsidiary of the McAdam family. Beth and her father Colin are professors at McAdam College, Stuart is an increasingly crazed militia leader, and Rob Roy is an electronics and encryption wizard.

Faster than you can say Churchill Downs, Barstow has blown his cover, and has been framed for Stuart's ex-girlfriend's murder, the firebombing of an abortion clinic and the murder of its doctor. Meanwhile Stuart has declared the county an independent state named Haven, drawing the ire and military forces of the US government. Rob Roy has activated an impenetrable force field around much of the county which blocks access to people, motorized vehicles and blows up explosives. Meanwhile others within Haven are jostling for power.

The story starts off well enough, building intrigue and putting the main character, Barstow, right in the thick of things. The story almost seems to stray into mystery novel territory for a while, but in the end there are far too many loose ends, implausible situations and sudden revelations for it to qualify as such. Similarly, while many events typical of spy/conspiracy novels occur, there is no sustained suspense and no great sense of rapidly approaching doom. When Barstow, the killer-on-the-run, hides out in his half-brother's empty home, which he knows is probably being watched by the police, he freely uses the shower and electrical appliances, yet is able to stay there several days undetected, only having to run when he finally answers the phone. Easily and commonly installed monitors on electricity and water counters should have brought the cops running on day one.

While The Silicon Dagger has some interesting, though perhaps not entirely new, things to say about people's eroding privacy and liberty in the technological age and the increasing risk of technological terrorism, at times it seems more like the author ranting about what he perceives as the failure of today's United States. Williamson portrays extremes of current American culture, the charismatic evangelical preacher of America as Sodom and Gomorrah, the paranoid Federal government-hating militia leader, the racist police officials, and the technocrat with the tools of power in his electronic creations, using them to comment on all that is, in his opinion, wrong with the world today.

Williamson introduces an unbreakable code-encrypted cell-phone system which would allow anyone from government agents to terrorists completely secure communication, but this technology is never used by the secessionists. However, while the existence of a secret ace-in-the-hole is mentioned early on, the force field seems unrelated to the type of specialized communication technology being developed by Rob Roy McAdam, and its operation or development are left largely unexplained. When the feds turn off power to the county why does it not drop, at least for a fraction of a second? There is apparently a small electrical plant inside the field which has been brought back into operation, but it is described as likely to fail at any moment. A force field capable of heating explosives to the point of detonation over a dome many miles in diameter should require a significant and stable energy source, yet normal power usage seems to continue within the dome and the diameter of the dome is even extended at one point.

Finally, as with his last novel The Black Sun, the end of the novel is inconclusive. Several of the main characters have died, the idealistic council that ruled the break-away republic for a time have been ousted and leadership is pretty much up to whoever will seize it, the people are getting restless and tired of rationing, and there are still some hot heads in the militia. Assuming the force field to be stable, the Havenites and the feds are at a stalemate. Unless a sequel is planned, the end leaves so many questions unanswered as to be particularly grating.

Overall, I would suggest anyone wishing to read Williamson to first read his classics The Humanoids, Darker Than You Think, and the Legion of Space series. While The Silicon Dagger is a fairly entertaining novel it simply does not live up to the best of Williamson's work.

Copyright © 1999 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association.


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