NM's Science Fiction Pioneer Dies at 98

Legendary science fiction writer Jack Williamson died Friday in Portales, his epic career of visionary fiction terminated by mundane pneumonia. Williamson, a New Mexico resident since 1915, was author of The Humanoids and inventor of the term "genetic engineering." Like H.G. Wells, he was often the prophetic (and critical) source of ideas drastically ahead of his time.

In 2003, the Alibi covered the annual Williamson Lectureship at ENMU with a survey of his career. Excerpts follow:

"I grew up dazzled by marvels that are old hat now. Born to a world without plumbing, without electricity, without cars or telephones, in a cosmos where our galaxy was the whole universe, I was plunging into an age of change."
--Jack Williamson, "Survival, A Brief Reflection on a Life in SF"

If perspective is everything, Jack Williamson has it in spades. The [then] 94-year-old writer is probably the least known--yet most influential--of New Mexico's literati, a lifelong resident of Portales who has spent his prolific and lengthy existence shaping the tropes and paradigms that have become modern science fiction. Twenty-first century pop culture still draws heavily, if subconsciously, on his canon, and many of his concepts have been with us so long they have become endlessly referenced archetypes. Williamson coined the terms "terraforming" and "genetic engineering" in his fiction long before they became real scientific terms, and imagined a hive-conscious machine race decades in advance of Star Trek's Borg Collective. That's prescience for ya.

From his output of more than 40 novels and countless short stories, The Humanoids (1948) is perhaps Williamson's most significant work. In it, he conjures a paranoid vision of a distant future wherein an intergalactically networked race of technological beings spreads through the universe like a virus, assimilating and subverting the occupants of each human outpost they encounter, driven by an ostensibly benign Prime Directive: "To Serve and Obey, and Guard Men from Harm." Unfortunately, the Humanoids have learned that the best way to do this is to incapacitate human culture, dismantle its imperfect societies, and permit nothing that could possibly cause disharmony. Those who reject this enforced happiness are subjected to injections of a psychotropic drug called "euphoride." (Paxil, anyone?)

The Humanoids was Williamson's alienated response to the homogeneity of post-World War II society, but its central dilemma remains marvelously timely. The novel's misanthropic, unlikable hero eventually finds himself at odds with the rest of his race, grimly asserting his individuality against the warm glow of conformity. But is he right or wrong? Like Neo in The Matrix, he has "taken the red pill" and chooses to rebel, fighting against the encroachment of the machines--at least until the novel's ambiguous conclusion.

For Williamson, science fiction is "a response to the progress of science and the resulting avalanche of technological innovation and social change. It ought to go on as long as science and change propel it."