The late 1940s was a period of remarkable creativity for future sci-fi Grand Master Jack Williamson. July ’47 saw the release of his much-acclaimed short story “With Folded Hands” in the pages of Astounding Science-Fiction, followed by the tale’s two-part serialized sequel, And Searching Mind, in that influential magazine’s March and April 1948 issues. Darker Than You Think, Williamson’s great sci-fi/fantasy/horror hybrid, was released later in 1948, and 1949 saw the publication of And Searching Mind in hardcover form, and retitled The Humanoids. “With Folded Hands” had been a perfect(ly downbeat) short story that introduced us to the Humanoids, sleek black robots invented by a technician named Sledge on planet Wing IV. The robots’ built-in Prime Directive (hmmm … why does that phrase seem so familiar?) is “To Serve and Obey, And Guard Men From Harm.” Unfortunately, this leaves mankind with very little to do, as the mechanicals prevent humans from participating in anything that might be potentially dangerous; in other words, just about everything! Sledge’s efforts to wipe out the master brain on Wing IV that is controlling the billions of self-replicating mechanicals are, sadly, fruitless, which sets us up for the action in The Humanoids.
Flash forward 90 years. (Actually, this novel takes place a good 6,000 years from our present day, the reader infers.) On an unnamed planet, a physicist named Forester, head of a secret government project that is constructing a prototype “rhodomagnetic” bomb, comes to realize that the newly arrived Humanoids on his world are a bane, not a boon, to mankind. This realization is strengthened when the robots give his wife the brain-wiping drug known as euphoride to keep her happy, and when his beloved pet project is dismantled by the Humanoids as being too dangerous for men to engage in. Forester joins a band of “paraphysical” misfits — gifted with the powers of clairvoyance, telekinesis, telepathy and teleportation — to fight the Humanoids and alter their Prime Directive by going to the distant world of Wing IV itself.
Readers expecting a traditional humans vs. ray-zapping evil robots story (such as Williamson’s 1939 novel After World’s End) may be surprised to learn that this engrossing tale is anything but. The robots here are not at all presented as evil; if anything, they are guilty of killing mankind’s spirit with too much kindness, and their benevolence is ultimately a mixed blessing at best. In the book’s ambivalently downbeat ending, a case is made for the Humanoids’ positive aspects (by Sledge himself, here, for some reason, renamed Warren Mansfield) that is almost a convincing one. Depending on the reader’s outlook, I suppose a society in which the individual is free to do nothing but laze, paint, think and play (no sports, though; too dangerous, say the Humanoids!) could be regarded as a paradise or a hell.
The Humanoids, besides offering those convincing (?) sociological arguments, also gives us some impressive pseudoscience to explain the very nature of reality, extrasensory abilities and the binding forces that hold nature together. “Rhodomagnetism” is a made-up word that Williamson uses often to describe a source of energy based on a different triad of elements than electromagnetism, and before things are done, Forester comes up with a group of equations involving “platinomagnetism” that allows its possessor to gain various “paramechanical” abilities. This use of arcane scientific equations to cause changes in the power of the mind was very reminiscent, for this reader, of Henry Kuttner‘s classic short novel from 1946, The Fairy Chessmen; as in that earlier tale, The Humanoids grows increasingly “way out” as it progresses. It is a finely written, suspenseful, action-packed yarn that is at the same time chock-full of interesting scientific speculations. It has been called Williamson’s “greatest science fiction novel,” and while I cannot claim to have read more than 1/10 of the author’s nearly 80-year output (!), the greatness of the novel is hard to deny. I would never dream of revealing whether or not Forester & Co. are successful in their efforts against the Humanoids, but can report that the author did come out with a very belated sequel, The Humanoid Touch, in 1980. Say no more, right?
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.