Jack Williamson,
Wonder's Child: My
Life in Science Fiction

(BenBella, 2005)

In his introduction to Jeffrey Ford's short story collection The Empire of Ice Cream, author Jonathan Carroll states, "One of the most terrible losses man endures in his lifetime is not even noticed by most people, much less mourned." Carroll is discussing the loss of the sense of wonder that, sadly, takes place as we transition from childhood to adulthood.

This same theme permeates Jack Williamson's Hugo Award-winning autobiography Wonder's Child: My Life in Science Fiction. Williamson is one of those rare human beings who manage to grow to adulthood without sloughing off their sense of wonder. And this gift is what has kept Williamson an active, vibrant member of the science fiction writing community for nearly eight decades.

Wonder's Child was originally released in 1984 and has now been supplemented with material covering an additional 20 years of Jack Williamson's remarkable career.

Williamson's first published "scientifiction" story, "The Metal Man," earned him $25 when it appeared in Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories Quarterly magazine in December 1929, half what he'd been paid for an editorial letter featured in the previous issue. Yet the 21-year-old Williamson was determined to become part of the growing community of writers who were helping to define the genre of science fiction through their boundless enthusiasm for the promise that science held for shaping a brave new world.

Williamson, who has lived almost all of his life in small-town New Mexico, has always existed on the periphery of the publishing industry. This allows him a certain detachment as he recounts the history of science fiction over the course of the 20th century. But it also leaves significant holes for those readers who might be looking for a more comprehensive accounting of the contributions of other SF pioneers such as "Doc" Smith, Heinlein or Asimov, with whom Williamson had limited, if any, contact.

What we do get is a thoughtful, deeply personal portrait of a writer struggling to invent and then re-invent himself, and in the process helping to mold a constantly shape-shifting genre of fiction. Williamson kept meticulous notes on what he was writing, to whom he was sending it for publication, as well as his sales and rejections. These details are interwoven with the events of his day-to-day existence, from farm chores to trips abroad, to therapy sessions in which he attempted to deal with depression. Although seldom particularly confident of his own skills, Williamson never doubted that writing science fiction was what he was meant to do. And these two conflicting aspects of his personality seem to have allowed him to evolve along with the genre rather than having younger writers supplant him.

Each chapter in Wonder's Child begins with brief snapshots of the scientific breakthroughs and other world events that impacted Williamson's work as a writer during the years on which the chapter focuses. For an author born at about the time the automobile was invented, who served in World War II, who witnessed the start of the "space-age," these snapshots are a poignant reminder to the reader of just how much the world has changed while Williamson was engaged in entertaining us with his fiction.

Williamson was also among the first people to bring science fiction into the world of academia, teaching it at Eastern New Mexico University starting in 1964. As he points out, "with very few taboos [science fiction can deal] with nearly every social and moral and technical problem that the human race must meet, from nearly any point of view." And so this personal history is a most interesting tour through the 20th and early 21st centuries.

The new material, covering the years from 1984 through 2004, feels a bit less vibrant, more fact-driven and less personally revealing, than the original text. And the inclusion of some 25 pages of Williamson's WWII diary -- as an appendix -- to a great extent retreads content from the earlier portion of the book. But it's wonderful to have a volume that is a more complete document than Wonder's Child had become as Williamson continued to contribute to the SF field in the years since the book's initial publication.

For anyone interested in the history of science fiction Wonder's Child: My Life in Science Fiction is a remarkable book, just as Jack Williamson is a remarkable man. Well worth the read.

by Gregg Thurlbeck
16 September 2006

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