‘The Prince Of Space’ by Jack Williamson
In his introduction, Hartwell returns to his hobby horse about the misuse of the term space opera, “even by scholars who should know better”, to apply non-judgementally to pulp SF. This is pretty rich since he is writing in the context of an anthology which does exactly that but it is even more so given that he is referring to a quote from Jack Williamson, a writer active at the time, agreeing with those misguided scholars (who ever they might be). Hartwell patronisingly explains this away on the grounds that Williamson is a cheerful hack: “So, of course, he has a benign interpretation, even of words coined to insult.” He really needs to let this go.
Hartwell was right about one thing though; ‘The Prince Of Space’ is hackwork and it fails on most every level. Sentences are mainly just banal but occasionally they tip over into the nonsensical. After an extended bout of the male gaze we are told that the protagonist “engraved the girl in the notebook of his memory.” You’d think a writer of all people would know how to use a notebook. He also redundantly describes the Martian canals as being “irrigated from some sort of irrigation system” and memorably misspells Chile as chili.
Quantitative descriptions abound, attempting to imbue the story with bogus verisimilitude, and convey space opera sweep, we get the inevitable description of the vastness of space: “Before them hung the abysmal blackness of space, with the canopy of cold stars blazing as tiny scintillant points of light, at an infinite distance away.” Now, space is big – really, really big – but those cold stars aren’t an infinite distance away. I’m pretty sure that their scintillation is a property of the Earth’s atmosphere as well.
Things are equally awkward at the macro level; the story is episodic, the episodes are baggy, the bags are boring. It is just so, so slow and this is not helped by characterisation that is either basic or repellent.
The titular prince is allegedly a fearsome space pirate. Yet, in an out of place metafictional aside right at the onset, Williamson directly informs the reader that this is not the case and he is, in fact, the hero. Our narrator, Bill Windsor, is dismissed as being “not, properly speaking, a character in this narrative; he is only an observer.” Does Williamson know what a character is? Windsor is certainly an observer though; a newspaper reporter with amazing access, he passively floats around after the action, reducing the story to tedious sight-seeing.
Even if Williamson didn’t directly inform us that the prince wasn’t the baddie, it is abundantly clear who the man behind the mask is. I struggle with the idea he is particularly heroic though. When Windsor first meets him, an employee is quick to point out that “the Prince is a determined misogynist.” He’s not kidding. The Prince soon confirms that “I have had enough of love, enough of women, with their soft, alluring bodies, and the sweet lying voices, and the heartless scheming.” Obviously he falls in love with she of the notebook engraving face. Then he blows up Mars. The end.
In terms of operacity-operaticity-operaticality, the story never gets beyond Mars. This is the equivalent of Aubrey and Maturin never leaving the channel. As such ‘The Prince Of Space’ looks back to Verne and Wells (explicitly in the case of the latter) more than it anticipates the rise of space opera.
The introductions to this book were written at a time after online criticism had become prevalent but before good solutions for referencing it had been agreed on. The editors decide to quote full URL. The introduction to this story starts with a quote from John Clute’s review of Williamson’s collected fiction. The URL is wrong. The quote is:
The personal miracle of Jack Williamson’s career is that he wrote himself out of the belatedness that governed the genre when he began; and that for several decades after 1940 his creative mind paced the train. He rode a long ways up the line, which is a very high score for a man. Until he got to here.
Hartwell glosses this as: “What Clute is driving at is that Williamson, who was born in Bisbee, Arizona Territory, in 1908, lived in Mexico and Texas, moved with the family to New Mexico by covered wagon the year he was seven, and grew up on an isolated ranch, living in his imagination.”
I’m pretty sure that is not, in fact, what Clute was driving at.