I've sought out and read so much complex speculative fiction, especially in the last few years, that I had taken some of the roots of the genre for granted. This is why I am trying to make up the deficit by hunting down Ballantine's "Best of" series and also reading The Great SF Stories series. It's easy to appreciate the quality of what is currently being produced, but it strikes me as being important to go back and read the pioneers, the groundbreaking authors who blazed the trail that today's writers are following. Such as Jack Williamson.
What strikes me the hardest about the stories in this collection is that in many ways, a modern audience would see them as terrifically flat. There is little character development and very little work on heavy thematic issues. The stories excel, however, in their plots, in their development of a story that is constantly moving forward into sometimes unexpected areas. This seems nearly tautological in its obviousness: pulp stories of the 20s, 30s, and 40s were not read by eager teenaged boys for their examination of the human condition—they were read because they were exciting and fast-moving. It's only with the supposed wisdom of advanced years that readers might come to expect something more, and eventually speculative fiction has been able to produce it. This is not to say that Williamson's writing is not good; in fact, some of the stories are engrossing and difficult to put down. But they seem to fit more closely into the stereotype of what pulp stories were all like, which I'm coming to learn is not for various reasons such a bad thing at all. Finding and reading the "good old stuff," as one book's title describes it, is enabling me to more closely study the stereotype itself and reaction to it.
The anthology opens with a juvenile "The Metal Man" that carries with it the air of Weird Tales, of forces beyond not only human control but human understanding…the transcendentally eerie. A great many of the classic tropes associated with speculative fiction are used—an awkward framing device of the narrator reading to his audience a letter from the protagonist of the story, an explorer finding a hitherto unknown lost tract of land, and the awful results of blundering madly into the unknown. In the case of "The Metal Man," those results are pretty apparent after the first couple of pages: the inert metal sculpture in the title is in fact the protagonist of the story. The introduction to the anthology makes it clear that this story is the first that Williamson ever published, and it shows a lot of potential even as it follows the pattern established before it. But it also stands as the most stereotypical of the lot: fun but shallow.
The story that follows immediately after, "Dead Star Station," is more creative: a sparsely populated space station with a brand new commander finds itself called for emergency action as a passenger ship is captured by pirates. The build-up to the action which motivates the story takes up a little too much story space: the story must introduce the setting, and then introduce, Gideon Clew, the likable old veteran who lives at the station technically against the rules of the space agency, and then finally introduce the young girl for whom he acts as an adoptive grandfather. Like "The Metal Man," this story would be far better served if it were begun in media res and assumed that the reader is smart enough to put together the pieces. But such writing requires a more experienced writer and perhaps a more mature genre. Tension is established with the arrival of the new base commander, still green and, we are constantly told, so new that he doesn't realize that out in the wilds regulations are more often guidelines than rules. Immediately he takes a dislike to old Clew for his rule-breaking ways, a dislike that is so pervasive that it becomes pretty clear what the result will be. After the big crisis happens, it's also pretty clear what each step of the resolution is going to be, but the story rolls right along, pulling its reader right along with it.
And so the early part of the collection goes, oscillating between stories that stick to the tropes fairly closely and stories that show some creativity but seem predictable now, perhaps because of those that followed in the steps that the original stories established. A much more successful story, and one with a reputation in speculative fiction circles, is "With Folded Hands." In it, a small town is invaded by robots whose only desire is to serve and protect humans, removing difficult and potentially dangerous tasks from people. The problem is one of degree: while it may be nice for a robot to prepare meals every now and again, it becomes cumbersome if the robots prepare every meal, even removing the responsibility from people who enjoy cooking. In addition to losing the right to cook for themselves, potential chefs are told that cooking is too dangerous a task since it involves heat and utensils that can damage unwary or incautious users. Williamson takes this scenario into every facet of life until humans are left with nothing to do but play with rubberized toys. Even reading is not allowed since unwary minds may be troubled by especially emotional writing. What then is the recourse of the served, when the servants take over? Fortunately, Williamson gets away from the pat answer, doing something pretty original, especially for the time period the story rises out of, setting a mark that writers that followed strove to meet for themselves.
"Breakdown" and "The Equalizer" both envision different Earths with a similar problem—an economically-based totalitarian regime has taken control of the world/ In each story the regime looks and acts like the representations of early 20th century political machines are reputed to have worked, almost purely on the basis of who knows whom and which way favors have been passed along the network of peers. Both stories also represent the downfall of those hierarchies, one for a more utopian structure and the other for we're not sure what. The downfall of each also is caused by different elements—one political and the other technological.
There are also a couple of other stories that seem to exist in the same setting, "The Peddler's Nose" and "The Happiest Creature." These stories find Earth to be the origin of a political system the rules the galaxy, but Earth itself is as you would have found it in the 50s. It turns out that the founders of the galactic culture were the Atlanteans, who moved out into space and colonized, such that the culture is human in form but far advanced compared with contemporary Earth. In fact, that galactic culture is warned to stay away from Earth as it is backward culturally and technologically, such that interaction would contaminate contemporary humans and retard their natural development. And all of this more than a decade before Star Trek and its Prime Directive!
The feeling I was left with as I finished the last story in the collection was that The Best of Jack Williamson acts as a solid signpost for what the early days of science fiction were like. From it, a curious reader can mark important moments in movements in the evolution of the genre. And yet there is still much in the volume that offers itself up to casual fans of science fiction, those looking for an entertaining and page-turning read.