(John Schoenherr’s cover for the 1967 edition)
Jack Williamson’s Bright New Universe (1967) is one part juvenile (young man trekking into space against the wishes of his family), one part 1960s social commentary on race, and one part 30s/40s pulp (look at that beehive alien! Look at that sexy Asian girl alien!). The hybridity is jarring and unsuccessful but shows Williamson’s valiant attempt to modify his earlier writing styles to the increasingly prevalent social science fiction of the 60s.
Brief Plot Summary (limited spoilers)
In the middle of a gathering with his family and the family of his wealthy fiancée Kayren, Adam Cave (early 20s) calls off his wedding and declares that he will follow his father’s footsteps and go work on Project Lifeline on the Moon. Project Lifeline is a listening station for potential communication with alien species. Kayren’s family and Adam’s adopted father (supposedly, his own father died in a space wreck working on the project) are against contact with aliens. They feel that mankind’s own position will be diminished. Their position boils down to anti all forms of progress.
Adam ignores their plees to stay and marry Kayren and threats to reduce his sizable inheritance and heads off for the Moon. When he arrives at the project he meets an attractive Asian named Polly Ming who seeks to shut down the project. Unfortunately for Adam, she’s successful. Against the orders of the station commander, Adam sets off across the surface (a common juvenile sci-fi trope) to find the real cause of his father’s crash. He discovers that his father and his co-pilot did indeed make contact with an alien species (a fact that was covered up). There are multiple glaring plot holes in this section. How would the tape reel from the orbital station be found by a guy in a rover yet escape the eyes of specialists sent out to investigate the crash?
Regardless, Adam Cave is unable to report the presence of the tape and is instead abducted by an organization called Man First. They are anti-contact with aliens and hold KKK positions on race. The organization is should be called, White-Man First. They have even breed genifacts, genetically constructed back servants with limited mental capabilities. Adam Cave refuses to join – Polly Ming arrives (is she a member of Man First?). And there’s news that Cave’s father might still be alive!
I found the finished project only marginally successful. The questions raised about the potential nature of contact are more thoroughly examined than in Williamson’s earlier work on the same theme, The Trial of Terra (1962). But, the conclusion is pure pulp optimism. The opponents of contact are made out to be completely wrong despite a slew of intelligent and convincing arguments in their favor. But in order to dispense with any philosophically and pragmatically edifying discussion of the pros and cons of contact with a vast federation of utopian aliens, the opponents are adhere to the same tenants of the Klu Klux Klan when it comes to humans and aliens. The more intellectually minded opponents of contact are portrayed as doddering old fools against all change.
Science fiction would have to wait for a truly thought provoking alien contact narrative with such seminal figures as Stanislaw Lem (Solaris, His Master’s Voice, Eden), who portrays alien contact as all together more complicated than simply saying hello and either killing each other or becoming allies and exchanging vast quantities of advantageous technology. Is contact even possible? Can we even tell that the alien is “alive”? How can we understand an alien trying to communicate? Or James Tiptree, whose short story ‘And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side’ (1972) adeptly inverts the colonization narrative. Instead of Earth society joining the galactic commonwealth of exchange as a unique member, mankind will find aliens so irresistible sexually and culturally that we’ll voluntarily allow ourselves to be colonized while casting off all of our previous culture.
In Bright New Universe, Williamson’s conflation of racists with those opposed to contact with other species isn’t altogether improbable, mankind’s position as the superior life form would indeed be challenged. But in reducing the terms of the discussion to good and evil (pro-contact = good people who care about others and anti-contact = racist KKK members), Williamson’s attempt to delve into the ramifications of contact cannot escape from the pulp confines. Likewise, the incredibly obvious benefits that mankind will receive by contact with the vastly superior, utopian, peaceable, limited government, galactic commonwealth reduces those opposed to contact to as complete idiots oblivious to the world. Williamson’s attempt to integrate heartfelt pro-racial equality commentary thus painting the anti-contact followers as racist white man first types makes a meaningful dialogue about contact impossible.
Williamson’s work comes off as a valiant attempt to meld pulp with new 60s forms. In that sense the novel is worth reading. However, the result isn’t thought provoking in the least. The unequal nature of the two positions makes the dialogue by nature, unequal. One camp is clearly wrong. No one will be convinced of their viewpoint if they are virulently racist. Also, the because nature of contact will yield immediately tangible benefits those against it are described as complete fools. NO potentially damaging effects are possible in Williamson’s vision!
At moments Williamson hints at the idea of a post-contact world losing its unique identity, the ramifications of fears of being colonized, unchecked new diseases ravaging populations. Those topics are the intellectually stimulating moments (and manifold others) that later authors, such as Tiptree and to a lesser extent Lem, will explore with more success and call into question all the previous pulp tropes of contact.
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4 thoughts on “Book Review: Bright New Universe, Jack Williamson (1967)”
Williamson was a social chameleon—or, well, at least he tried to be. He kept changing with the times up until he stopped writing, which was in the mid-2000s I believe, incorporating new styles and types of SF. But he had a hard time leaving his pulp heritage behind. That was the framework he knew best, and he couldn’t move that far away from it.
I agree completely — the works of his I’ve read so far all fit that assessment. That said, the work is not without merit — one gets the feeling that Williamson is heartfelt and involved in the narrative and the argument he is making. Unfortunately, the work isn’t thought provoking because he’s still in the pulp mode of good vs bad and thus, it’s obvious which side we’re supposed to agree with. But Lem and Tiptree, they are the ones which really complicate our conception of contact with aliens…
Williamson wrote some works that I really enjoyed, but until I read your plot summary I had absolutely no recollection of this one. I was going to post saying it was one I’d missed, and then I realised that I hadn’t, it’st just one that I’d pretty comprehensively forgotten.
Now that I do recall it I don’t think it was one of his successes. As you say, too much mixing of genres.
Have you read James Gunn’s The Listeners? That remains one of my favourite first contact novels.
I haven’t read it yet. James Gunn commented on my last review of one of his works! (about the quality of the cover art…. hehe).