What do you plan to do when you’re 97 years old? Me? If I’m fortunate enough to attain to that ripe old age, I suppose I will be eating pureed Gerber peaches and watching Emma Peel reruns on my TV set in the nursing home … IF I’m lucky. For sci-fi Grand Master Jack Williamson, the age of 97 meant another novel, his 50th or so, in a writing career that stretched back 77 years (!), to his first published story, “The Metal Man,” in 1928. Sadly, the novel in question, 2005’s The Stonehenge Gate, would be the author’s last, before his passing in November 2006. Impressively, the novel is as exciting, lucid, readable and awe inspiring as anything in Williamson’s tremendous oeuvre. Few authors had as long and productive a career as Jack Williamson, and I suppose it really is true what they say regarding practice, practice, practice….
The Stonehenge Gate is narrated by Will Stone, an English professor at Eastern New Mexico University, in Portales (not coincidentally, the school and town where the author taught and lived for many years). Stone and three fellow teachers — Derek Ironcraft, a physicist and astronomer; Lupe Vargas, an archaeologist; and Ram Chenji, a linguistics and African history instructor, from Kenya — discover a mysterious, Stonehenge-like trilithon buried under the sands of the Sahara, and, after walking through the ancient archway, are transported to a series of planets many light-years distant. The four become separated, but ultimately explore a planet devastated by war, an empty world populated only by morphing robots, a frozen planet that was the home of the trilithon builders, and a world comprised of two continents: one inhabited by whites, the other an equatorial jungle land peopled by blacks. It is on this last planet that the bulk of Williamson’s novel transpires, as Ram’s arrival begins a series of race riots and the onset of a civil rights movement.
That all-important “sense of wonder,” which was of paramount importance when the author began his writing career before sci-fi’s Golden Age, is evident to a great degree here, and the fact that many marvels go unexplained only adds to that sense of cosmic awe. Those readers who have followed Williamson’s career over the decades may be a bit taken aback by the author’s use of such words as “Internet” and “e-book” in this, his last work; as great an indicator as any of the longevity of the writer’s career. Readers who have likewise absorbed other of the author’s works may be pleasantly reminded of them as The Stonehenge Gate proceeds. The use of native drugs to elicit visions is highly reminiscent of scenes in 1980’s The Humanoid Touch, while the entire notion of excavating in the Sahara to find the remains of alien artifacts will remind many of similar sequences in 1962’s The Trial of Terra. Even Derek Ironcraft’s name is reminiscent of a main character (Frank Ironsmith) in the author’s most famous novel, 1949’s The Humanoids.
But despite this, Williamson’s final book is wholly original, and his four main characters are an extremely appealing bunch. Our narrator is especially convincing. Far from an action hero, this 57-year-old keeps telling us how much he wishes that he were back in his quiet library at home in Portales, and the trials that he is forced to undergo have a very credible impact on him.
Anyway, perhaps I am making too big a deal of the author’s advanced age here, but honestly, how many people nudging toward the century mark could be expected to create a 316-page novel that is as fresh and fascinating as any sci-fi in the stores today? The novel in question here could most surely have served as Book #1 in a new blockbuster sci-fi series, but sadly, that was not to be. The world surely lost a man of limitless imagination with Jack Williamson’s passing. Though his great body of works remains, the man will certainly be missed….