Jack Williamson (1908-2006) was an early and influential Science Fiction
writer whose career lasted over seventy-five years. His first story, "The Metal Man", was published in 1928, when he was just twenty years old, and his last novel, The Stonehenge Gate
, was published in 2005, when he was 97. He was a regular collaborator with Frederik Pohl
; the two produced nearly a dozen novels together.
His best known solo works include The Legion of Space
series, the Humanoids
series, and the Seetee Ship
series. His best known collaborations are the Starchild
series and the Undersea Trilogy
, both with Frederik Pohl
He also wrote a newspaper comic, Beyond Mars
, from 1952 to 1955.
He is credited with naming Terraforming
and Genetic Engineering
, and was one of the first authors to write about Antimatter
Tropes in his works:
- And I Must Scream: The fate of all of humanity, without hope, in The Humanoids. Perfect robots take over human colonies one by one, initially appearing as the best servant bots to have ever existed. Once people either sign waivers allowing them to take over or are backed into a corner and forced to do so, they realize the hellish existence that their lives have become. There is no need for physical exertion of any kind, not even opening a door, because the humanoids will do it for you. Sports are outlawed, because someone might get hurt. Books are taken away, because they often have depressing topics in them. Love cooking, crafts, or building furniture? Not allowed to anymore. And the only thing they let you play with is soft blocks. You can't even die prematurely, because they're always right there by you. Your only hope is to be so problematic that they essentially lobotomize you. Extremely scary when you think of 50 or so years of this.
- Antimatter: The Seetee stories were written around antimatter — called "Contra-Terrene" (C.T.) in the stories. In Seetee Shock it is used to fuel a power station broadcasting free energy to the entire Solar System, breaking the back of the corrupt mega-corporation Interplanet. In Seetee Ship concentrations of antimatter (such as the titular spaceship, built by antimatter aliens) are found to have an unusual property; they move backwards through time!*
- Asteroid Miners:
- In Seetee Ship and Seetee Shock, the asteroid miners are the sole remaining champions of individual liberty in a solar system dominated by competing tyrannical nations.
- The newspaper comic Beyond Mars also featured asteroid miners as its heroes.
- Cloning Blues: A duology of novels, Farthest Star and Wall Around A Star (written with Frederik Pohl), feature a form of teleportation that sends a copy of you elsewhere but leaves the original intact. The copy can be modified en route, since all you're transmitting is information. Interestingly, this is how most physicists figure real-life teleportation might work.
- Compound Title: The two short works that started the Humanoids series: "With Folded Hands..." "...And Searching Mind."
- The Computer Is Your Friend: "With Folded Hands..." and sequels, in which an inventor creates the Humanoids, self-sustaining robots programmed to "to serve and obey and guard men from harm". They preserve mankind from all danger, and lobotomise those who are unhappy with this so they'll be happy again.
- Cosmic Horror Story: In "Born of the Sun", the planets of the Solar system are actually eggs of space-dwelling dragon-like monsters that start hatching. Pluto first.
- Explosive Leash: In the Starchild Trilogy (written with Frederik Pohl) political dissidents are fitted with explosive collars with undefined timers that need to be periodically "wound up" by the guard's key to renew the timer. Within the series, legend has it that the only way around the tamper mechanism is to detach the head, remove the collar, and sew the head back on.
- Gone Horribly Right: In the Humanoids stories, a scientist creates a race of robots programmed "to serve and obey and guard men from harm." The robots fulfill all their functions perfectly, especially the third one. "Cars are dangerous. We will do the driving. Cooking is dangerous. Stay out of the kitchen. Power tools are dangerous. Play with these plastic blocks." This essentially turns them into an entire Knight Templar species. In the later stories, humanity is at war with robots who only want to help them.
- I Should Write a Book About This: In Darker Than You Think, one of the characters plans to write a book warning the world about the Witch Breed but it—the book you're reading—is dismissed as pulp fantasy.
- Knight Templar: The Humanoids, a model of robot from the 1947 novella "With Folded Hands.." (and the follow-up novels The Humanoids and The Humanoid Touch) are classic examples of this trope combined with the Literal Genie trope. The Humanoids are programmed to "Serve, Obey, and Guard Men from Harm". Since nearly every human activity has some risk of harm associated with it, the Humanoids, in practice, never let anyone do anything (although, occasionally, if they really need a single human's help to "protect" a great many humans, they will bribe them with limited autonomy). When people begin to complain that these restrictions are psychologically harmful, the Humanoids drug or lobotomize them. In the end, the Humanoids invent a machine that gives them Psychic Powers and use it to institute an Assimilation Plot).
- The Little Shop That Wasn't There Yesterday: In "With Folded Hands...", the protagonist of the story (a dealer in ordinary, garden-variety, non-enslaving-the-human-race-for-our-own-good robots) is walking home one day and finds a new competitor has sprung up overnight, a robot store run by the Humanoids.
- Meta Origin: In the classic pulp horror novel Darker Than You Think, all the monstrous creatures of worldwide myth and legend (and most of the evil in the world) spring from Homo lycanthropus, a werewolf-vampire species of "witch men" who have lived secretly alongside "real men" since prehistoric times and can interbreed with Homo sapiens.
- Omnidisciplinary Scientist: Ryeland Ames, from the short story "The Dead Spot", is famous for having built a particle accelerator AND a bathysphere AND an artificial heart AND portable H-bombs; the first two of which before he was 25. Notice that the story was written in 1938.
- Settling The Frontier: The Undersea Trilogy (written with Frederik Pohl) was one of the first in-depth (if you'll pardon the pun) explorations of the notion of colonizing the bottom of the sea.
- The Trope Namer is Williamson's 1942 novella, "Collision Orbit".
- The 2001 novel Terraforming Earth brings the idea full-circle, as Earth itself must become the focus of terraforming efforts, not just once, but several times, due to asteroid impacts, alien invasions, runaway technology, etc...
- Teleporters and Transporters: Farthest Star and Wall Around A Star. written with Frederik Pohl, feature a form of teleportation that sends a copy of you elsewhere but leaves the original intact. The copy can be modified en route, since all you're transmitting is information. Interestingly, this is how most physicists figure real-life teleportation might work.
- Three Laws Compliant: "With Folded Hands..." explored the "Zeroth Law" back in 1947. This was written as a specific 'answer' to the Three Laws, to more or less demonstrate that they don't really work, the First Law doesn't protect because the definitions of 'harm' are endlessly mutable and can be gamed, and because machine minds won't necessarily be able to comprehend the subtleties of what is and is not harm anyway. The logical lesson of "With Folded Hands..." is that Laws or no Laws, good intentions or not, you don't want self-willed machines outside human control. Period.
- Under the Sea: The setting for the Undersea Trilogy (written with Frederik Pohl), unsurprisingly.
- Utopia Justifies the Means: In "With Folded Hands...", robots programmed in part to "prevent humans from harming themselves" spread from world to world and create "utopias" where they stop people from doing anything because it could potentially harm them. If a person tries to kill themselves from the sheer boredom of life, the robots will "reprogram" him to love this new life. At the end of the story, the protagonist kills himself while the robots are just starting to take over Earth, after realizing there was nothing that could be done to stop them. Given that life is (eventually) fatal...
- Witch Species: Darker than You Think features a witch species that evolved due to prehistoric environmental reasons. However, their abilities mainly deal with shape-changing, making them were-wolves, were-pythons, were-saber-toothed-tigers, and more. In very rare cases, a witch becomes powerful enough to transform into a vampire. (That's a lot of tropes blended together.)
- Zeroth Law Rebellion: The Humanoids series (the first part also being a short story called "With Folded Hands...") features robots programmed to save humans from danger and work. They do this by taking over the economy, locking people in their houses, and leaving them there with food and the safest toys the robots can design.