By Karl Terry: PNT Managing Editor
While Portales people knew him as “Jack,” the Eastern New Mexico University professor and all-around nice guy, Jack Williamson cast a large shadow in the science fiction community.
Terms and even ideas adopted by science or Hollywood often had their roots in science fiction. Williamson coined or made popular a few of those terms himself, among them “terraforming” (transforming another planet for human use) and “prime directive” (often used on Star Trek for Starfleet’s order not to interfere with primitive cultures).
In an interview with Science Fiction Weekly when he was 94, Williamson said he’d learned the hard way that claiming firsts was tricky. He said in that interview he used to say he coined the term “genetic engineering” after using it in the 1951 novel “Dragon’s Island” but later found some scientist beat him by a few years.
In that interview he talked about first describing in vitro insemination in “The Girl From Mars” in 1929. Other of his works described organ banks long before the first heart transplant. In his “Seetee” stories, his was likely the first fiction about antimatter, according to the interview.
According to Rick Hauptmann of Portales, who was among Williamson’s closest friends and best fans, the eventual Grand Master of science fiction was in at the beginning of the genre. Hauptmann says the pulp magazine “Amazing Stories” started only two years before Williamson’s first story, “Metal Man,” appeared in its pages.
“He (Williamson) was one of the most popular writers in the early pulp era,” Hauptmann said. “One of the most important things about him was he was able to change his styles though.”
Hauptmann says that Williamson’s earliest influences were H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, who he read as a young man — but it was Hugo Gernsback’s “Amazing Stories” that sent Williamson’s imagination off the ranch and into the stars.
“In the magazine were stories about traveling in outer space and going from planet to planet,” Hauptmann said, “and I think that’s what turned Jack on.”
Another early influence of Williamson’s, according to Hauptmann was Abraham Merritt — whose early 20th-century explorations into fantasy and horror weren’t always well received, according to Wikipedia.com.
Hauptmann said that around 1940 Williamson started writing about current scientific topics. He said he had a thirst for knowledge of what was going on in science and kept up by reading magazines, newspapers and building contacts with the scientific community. Hauptmann said Williamson was even invited to NASA when the first fly-bys of Mars were made.
“He knew the terminology and understood the science,” Hauptmann said.
Science fiction author Connie Willis, another close friend of Williamson’s, said summing up his importance to the science fiction world was difficult because of his greatness.
“It’s like impossible to measure what he meant to the science fiction community,” Willis said. “He was one of the founders and forefathers of science fiction.”She said besides his direct contributions in the way of works, he was a major influence on many of the biggest names in science fiction. She said both Carl Sagan and Issac Asimov have noted Williamson as a large influence in their lives and writing.
Willis said she met Williamson at her first science fiction convention.
“He was so kind to me, even though I was unpublished and nobody,” she said.
Willis says she has attended Williamson’s lectureships 10 times and sometimes served as moderator. She is expected to speak about Williamson’s science fiction career during a memorial service for him at 2 p.m. Thursday at the Campus Union Ballroom at ENMU. Hauptmann says that among what are regarded as Williamson’s most important works are the “Legion of Space” sequence of novels and “Legion of Time” novel published in the 1930s — one of the first works of fiction to talk about time travel and people coming back in time to change things in their favor.
Also included in his list of important works was the short story “With Folded Hands” about robots created to protect man that sheltered man so much it took joy and adventure out of life. He reworked the story and came up with the “Humanoids” series.
Hauptmann, who collects science fiction writing of Williamson and others, wrote what is regarded as the most extensive and complete bibliography of Williamson’s work, completing it in 1998 after nearly five years. He says at the top of his list is Williamson’s “Darker Than You Think,”a scientific werewolf novel.
Hauptmann moved to the area in 1987 and started working at Southwest Canners. He said he soon discovered Williamson lived and worked here and conspired to meet him.
Hauptmann sent him a letter suggesting they get together for dinner, and Williamson replied by asking him over for drinks before that dinner. From that meeting grew a close relationship that included a monthly dinner club, Rotary meetings and travels to science fiction conventions.
Hauptmann says Williamson was a genuinely nice person with never a bad thing to say about anyone.