Everything Is Nice

Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

‘The Prince Of Space’ by Jack Williamson

with 5 comments

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.

Quality: *
OOO: **

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.

Written by Martin

27 April 2012 at 16:18

5 Responses

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  1. Chili was formerly an alternative (and more popular) spelling for the name of the South American country. The cross-over when Chile became more popular was around 1900 (see this chart) so Chili was already a bit of an archaism when Williamson was writing, but not a mistake. It’s arguable that Hartwell should have modernized the spelling.

    Gareth Rees

    27 April 2012 at 16:43

  2. It does seem like a Space Pirate who falls in love and blows up a planet ought to be primordial elements of space opera, doesn’t it? Although thinking of the space opera stories that I remember reading (admitting many of them blur together) planets seem more often to be blown up as the result of some concerted governmental action, like as part of making the universe that’s colliding with ours back off some.

    Joseph Nebus

    28 April 2012 at 06:08

  3. Gareth: I did wonder if it was a valid alternate spelling but only did a cursory check and, from your chart, it looks as if it was completely out of favour by the time he was writing. I’m not sure if Hartwell should have modernised the spelling but Williamson himself probably should have at some point over the next six decades of his career.

    Joseph: When you put it that way, it does sound rather operatic. For me though, the story seems to anticipate the superhero fiction of the end of the decade rather than full-blown space opera. The Prince of Space is a bit of a billionaire playboy in a mask, complete with trusted, scientifically minded confident and tame reporter. It takes place more at the individual level than the organsiational level. And, although the story gestures towards additional adventures, destroying Mars is pretty terminal and closes down the universe it is set in that I feel is the opposite of space opera.


    30 April 2012 at 09:25

  4. Perhaps the least satisfying choice here is Iain M. Banks’ “A Gift from the Culture.” Not because it’s a bad story — far from it — but, I would argue, because it’s barely space opera at all. It’s a pretty intractable problem, however, because Banks simply doesn’t write short fiction — “A Gift from the Culture” being the sole exception to this rule. But this is an author who, for me, single-handedly rescued SF from the crumbling brink of irrelevance, and who I consider would have been far better served by the inclusion of an excerpt from a novel such as Consider Phlebas, which — again, for me — personifies everything that is good and clean and pure about space opera.

    silver price

    16 May 2012 at 20:58

  5. In many ways seeking to produce the definitive space opera anthology represents the same problem as a similar venture for epic fantasy: the stories are just too damn big. Space opera and epic fanatsy is usually written not just at the novel length but the series length which makes it hard to cram into a short story anthology. Iain Banks is obviously one of the most important figures in the rebirth of space opera but he just hasn’t written much short fiction – although more than just one. Pretty much his whole output is collected in The State Of The Art but, of that, only two stories are set in the Culture and neither have a particularly high operaticality quotient. So you are definitely right but the editors’ hands were tied and I think this is probably preferable to excluding him entirely (as was the case with Ken MacLeod).


    17 May 2012 at 08:43

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