Book Review: The Trial of Terra, Jack Williamson (1962)

(Ed Emshwiller’s cover for the 1962 edition of The Trial of Terra (1962), Jack Williamson)

3/5 (Average)

Jack Williamson’s The Trial of Terra (1962) illustrates the problematic and frustrating aspects of fix-up novels. This novel is composed of pre-published (and re-edited) short stories/novelletes from as early as 1951.  Here’s the breakdown:

Man Down (1952) — novelette

The Man From Outside (1951) — short story

The Happiest Creature (1953) — short story

A Planet for Plundering (1962) — novelette

Unlike some of the more skillfully done fix-up novels where each part is seamlessly stitched into a cohesive whole,  large portions of Williamson’s work feel like they have no direct relation on each other besides in the most general thematic sense.  Only the last portion, written in 1962 right before the publication of the entire work, tries to link the portions together.

Brief Plot Summary

A corrupt Quarantine Service official, Wain Scarlet, arrives at a hidden base on Earth’s moon.  Officials have been observing the inhabitants and reinforcing the quarantine of Earth until it can be judged whether the inhabitants are indeed humans, civilized, worth exploiting commercially, and worth accepting into the the civilization of worlds.  Wain Scarlet is under the impression before he arrives that he’s civilized and that the Earthlings are little more than savages whom he hopes to exploit.

The problem is that Scarlet lacks the ultimate sign of civilization — advanced psionic training.  So, he comes into the situation with a chip on his shoulders.  Williamson has the unfortunate tendency to explain ANY and ALL future technology as psionic based.  The word appears on every page!  Often to this degree: the woman wore a psionic dress, based on psionics, which Wain Scarlet couldn’t fully appreciate because he didn’t have the full psionic treatment.  I exaggerate.  Slightly.

A series of stories are presented to him as evidence.  Two show the good side of Earth’s humanity.  In ‘Man Down’ (1952) a prince from a matriarchal society lands in the Great Plains and is befriended by some women.  He decides to stay — i.e. he prefers a non-matriarchal society.  In short, he’s emancipated!  ‘The Man from Outside’ (1951) follows an archaeologist who postulates that Earth, despite its backwardness, is actually the place of origin for all species.  He goes on an undercover expedition to Earth where a religious Inspector overseeing his activities tries to prevent him from uncovering Atlantis. The story showing the negative aspects of humanity, ‘The Happiest Creature’ (1953), is harrowing.  A zookeeper finds an earthling for his collection — the problem is that the man is an escaped murderer from New Mexico.

Scarlet must decide from this evidence whether to admit Earth to the civilized worlds, continue the quarantine, or blow up Earth’s sun for an ambiguous “blinker project.”

Final Thoughts

The final product is a somewhat ramshackle novel with a few interesting portions which raise intriguing questions.  However, the painful redundancy of words (psionic, neutrionic, etc) and disconnected portions weaken the effort.

I found many parts of The Trial of Terra refreshing.  a) The galactic watchers are just as corrupt as what they’re watching.  b) One must have established guidelines (à la Star Trek’s Prime Directive) for contact with alien species. c) The galactic watchers also have religious quandaries when it comes to scientific discoveries. d) And finally, advanced technology will not bring a happy utopia spread out across the sky.

For fans 50s and 60s science fiction Jack Williamson’s The Trial of Terra, tinged with some discussion of social issues, will be a fun yet problematic read.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Trial of Terra, Jack Williamson (1962)

  1. Well, there is a theory that writers should try to “use it twice”. Make a short story, and then re-use it in some longer form. Interesting to see a novel that fails pulling it off. On that basis, reading this is useful for educational purposes 🙂

    • I’ve read quite a few fix-up novels and they tend to be hit or miss structurally — the frustrating thing is The Trial of Terra has an interesting set up, intriguing ideas, but lacks any real cohesion — the “evidence” in the forms of the short stories he uses doesn’t really strike me as the sort of “evidence” needed to make the decision whether to incinerate Earth. He had the stories and he was probably asked by his editor to squash them into a novel and it shows…

  2. I’ll probably buy this if I see it at a used bookstore for cheap; the individual stories sound pretty good, and I generally like Williamson. Or maybe I should see if I can find the three 1950s stories in anthologies at the library.

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