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The Black Sun
Jack Williamson
Tor Books, 352 pages

The Black Sun
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 novels 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 Tribute Site
Interview

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

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The last of the StarSeed ships will soon be leaving Earth, taking its crew through a faster-than-light quantum-wave jump to wherever in the universe a large enough gravitational field exists to pull them out. Originally designed to seed the universe with humans, the StarSeed organization has been run into the ground by the drunken megalomaniac Herman Stecker and his sleazy aide Mr. Hinch. Outside the launch area a group of militant environmentalists called Fairshare will do anything to block the launch. They employ an ex-con in charge of launch security, Jonas Roak, to plant a bomb on the ship.

Not everyone wants to halt the launch, however. Carlos Mondragon, a young Mexican illegal immigrant and computer-whiz with dreams of space travel, manages to stowaway on board. Terraforming expert Day Virili and her two children are also aboard. Stecker and Hinch, creditors breathing down their necks, arrive at the last minute and take over the flight. The bomb is discovered and defused, trapping Roak inside the craft. The ship takes off and reappears near a dead sun, where a single planet is found -- large, extremely cold, and apparently lifeless. Upon landing, the ship's radar apparently sets off a signal beacon. The crew also detects a group of huge structures near the middle of the ice-cap... structures of seemingly alien origin.

After landing, and against the advice of the experts who've begun building a living area under the planet's surface, Stecker insists on funnelling all available resources into building a new launch area for another jump. When bones and other strange artifacts are discovered during the aborted excavations, the mystery around this strange planet begins to deepen. And when an expedition to one of the beacon sites turns deadly, the options facing the crew narrow dramatically.

The Black Sun is certainly a good suspenseful read with plenty of adventure. Williamson has used many of the devices of scientifiction (the English language pulp science fiction of circa 1925-1935) and updated them somewhat. In so doing he has produced a novel which, unlike much of the cynical and pessimistic science fiction of today, has high adventure and a sense of wonder about space and space exploration. As early as 1975, in his introduction to The Early Williamson, the author deplored the growing pessimism in modern science fiction and vowed to continue to present an optimistic view in his work. John Clute points out, in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction that Williamson's 1992 novel Beachhead while contemporary in subject matter, had a plot "redolent of a much earlier era." Thus, Williamson has apparently returned to his literary origins, using 70 years of experience to update the material. While bringing a breath of fresh air to today's science fiction, it also brings back many of the flaws of scientifiction.

Williamson has eliminated the sexism of the blonde-bimbo and her bug-eyed monster ravisher by introducing a strong female character in Dr. Virili; avoided the racism of the strapping young, white college-boy-hero, by introducing the "sensitive-man" and Mexican illegal-alien Carlos Mondragon; steered clear -- thank goodness -- of the gee-whiz college dialogue of the early space opera, and not generally presented the human heroes as invincible. Unfortunately, in The Black Sun we find many scientification throwbacks. The bad characters are all bad, the good angelic. None of the bad characters have any chance at redemption, none of the good any chance to fall. Many technical issues are glossed over for the sake of the story: why are there only four women on board among at least two dozen men if the goal of the mission is to seed humanity? How is it that Mr. Hinch and others, under the mind control of the aliens, are capable of running around naked on a planet near absolute zero without shattering like glass? This flaw is very reminiscent of the 1928 novella Crashing Suns by Williamson's contemporary and friend Edmond Hamilton (1904-1977), where the heroes walk unprotected on the surface of a highly radioactive dead sun, ten times the size of Earth's sun, with no ill effects.

I was also a bit disappointed with the aliens -- basically just another oversized Earth organism transposed to another planet -- and in the interaction between the two species. While some mistakes are made, the aliens are apparently immediately capable of detecting bad humans from good humans. Virelli's son Kip's dream of their past and the description of their lost city introduces a fantasy element and a shift in writing style, in a narrative which up to that point was straightforward science fiction adventure. While this is somewhat jarring, I suspect that this may be in part Williamson's way of paying tribute to his early literary influence, A. Merritt (1884-1943). What was perhaps the most irking was the Hollywood happy-ending of the novel, which either begs a sequel or leaves us wondering what the survivors are going to do with themselves. Although the mystery and major points of tension are resolved, since neither species involved seems to have any specific goals of rebuilding or exploration, what has been the point in their meeting?

Notwithstanding these faults, The Black Sun is certainly entertaining and worth a read -- if for no other reason than to lead modern readers to Williamson's body of classic science fiction works.

Copyright © 1998 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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