fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Humanoid Touch by Jack Williamson science fiction book reviewsThe Humanoid Touch by Jack Williamson

In Jack Williamson’s classic short story “With Folded Hands” (1947), the inventor of the Humanoids — sleek black robots whose credo is “To Serve And Obey, And Guard Men From Harm,” even if that means stifling mankind’s freedoms — makes an unsuccessful attempt to destroy the computer plexus on planet Wing IV that is keeping the many millions of units functioning. In the author’s classic sequel, the novel The Humanoids (1949), another unsuccessful stab is made, 90 years later, by a “rhodomagnetics” engineer and a small group of ESP-wielding misfits, to stop the Humanoids (which now number in the billions) and their campaign of relentless and smothering benevolence. And in Williamson’s much belated follow-up, 1980’s The Humanoid Touch, we flash forward a good 1,000 years or so, to find yet another group making the attempt in what is now a galaxy with trillions of Humanoid units. In fact, the only place where the robots have NOT penetrated seems to be the sister planets of Kai and Malili, orbiting a binary star.

On Kai, young Keth Kyrone dreams of one day joining his father’s Lifecrew, a small group that is vainly trying to warn the planet’s population of the Humanoids’ imminent arrival and build some sort of protective weapon against the scourge. Kai is not the easiest of planets for its human settlers, who migrated there a millennium before to escape the ever-advancing robot servants. With its rapidly alternating summers and winters, migrations are frequent and dwellings must be built largely underground. But still, the planet is an Eden compared to Malili, where “bloodrot” spores will kill any man in a matter of hours, and where the folks of Kai can only live in the sterilized safety of The Zone. But how to explain the natives of Malili, naked “savages” who seem to do just fine there? And what is the secret of the feyolin drug that these indigenous folk extract from the local “braintrees”? It is against this fully realized backdrop that Williamson sets his action-filled plot, and brings his Humanoids to once again “give service.”

Wisely, however, the author does not allow the robots to make an appearance until the book is halfway done, generating real suspense, and their initial appearance is shocking in the extreme. The Humanoids have, in the current novel, perfected their ability to make replicants of any human being, so that the reader is left uncertain just who is real and who might be a mechanized enemy.

And it’s not just the Humanoids who have perfected their arts over the years. Williamson’s writing has improved as well (although some of the landscape descriptions of Kai and Malili are a bit fuzzy, almost Impressionistic, making the reader really use his/her imagination at times), and the looser mores of the ’80s (as compared to the ’40s) enable him to indulge in some mild sex scenes and to use some language unthinkable in the earlier pulps. Thus, the reference to “ferticloset shitbricks” (not a bad name for a rock band, come to think of it!) and, perhaps more shocking, to a woman’s “pubes.” The subject of drugs is raised with the depictions of feyolin, which Keth samples in an early scene; the drug seems more than anything like LSD, with its hallucinatory effects and time/space distortions.

Still, despite the new looseness, this is some very serious science fiction here that asks some tough questions. Left with another ambiguously happy ending, the reader must ponder if happiness is worth the loss of freedom, and whether a drugged, artificial bliss is better or worse than a life of unaided struggle. In a telling argument close to the book’s end, one of the Humanoids mentions that democracies are suicidal, with their “excessive developments of high technology and aggressive individualism that lead inevitably to racial annihilation,” and most in need of their controlling services. Some serious food for thought, to be sure.

The Humanoid Touch, filled with interesting characters, unusual backdrops, some tense and exciting action scenes and unrestrained imagination, is a marvelous sequel; not as original or compact as its predecessors, perhaps, but still well worth any sci-fi fan’s attention. Most readers, I have a feeling, will be left wishing that author Williamson had given us just one more book about those too helpful, self-replicating creations from planet Wing IV….

The Humanoids — (1949-1980) Publisher: “To serve and obey, and guard men from harm” on the far planet Wing IV, a brilliant scientist creates the humanoids — sleek black androids programmed to serve humanity. But are they perfect servants — or perfect masters? Slowly the humanoids spread throughout the galaxy, threatening to stifle all human endeavor. Only a hidden group of rebels can stem the humanoid tide … if it’s not already too late. First published in Astounding Science Fiction during the magazine’s heyday, The Humanoids — science fiction grand master Jack Williamson’s finest novel — has endured for fifty years as a classic on the theme of natural versus artificial life.

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  • Sandy Ferber

    SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....