Wednesday, 12 June 2013

The Dead Spot by Jack Williamson

Jack Williamson was born in 1908 and died in 2006, aged 98
First published in Marvel Science Stories, November 1938.

In his introduction, Ashley says that science fiction in this period began to change from the educationally inclined ‘scientifiction’ of Gernsback towards a more adventurous character. I’m guessing that this story is the sort of story he’s talking about.

It concerns a mysterious ‘dead spot’ that appears without warning in an area of about 10,000 square miles in the mid west of America. Everyone inside – and anyone who enters it subsequently – quickly dies and is reduced to grey powder by the mysterious ‘sigma radiation’ that emanates from the very ground.

The government is baffled and calls on the young scientist Ryland Ames to help them get to the bottom of the mystery. What follows is a mix of elements from pulp heroes like Doc Savage, scientific romances of the Burroughsian sort and just enough science to keep it on the the right side of respectability for the sci fi audience.

Immediately striking is the introduction of Ames, ‘a tanned, rugged six-footer, with stiff, tangled red hair and level blue eyes.’ As well as a strapping physical specimen, he’s also a prodigious genius: ‘then only 25 and already twice famous for daring deep sea explorations in his benthosphere of his own design and startling success in smashing the atom with his own super-cyclotron.’ When he wants to recruit a colleague who’s dying of heart disease, he casually invents an artificial heart to get him back on his feet.

Years pass and Ames gets nowhere, but suddenly turns up evidence that somehow there’s someone selling minerals from within the dead spot in the markets – something is alive in there and at work work exploiting the land. There’s only one thing to do: Ames creates a super protective suit and plane and heads in himself to find out what’s going on.

It takes a little while for him to get there, but the story really takes off at this point. Within the spot Ames discovers a mysterious winged woman, Arthedne, with whom he promptly falls in love, as you do in these situations.

From her he learns that another evil scientist was experimenting with accelerating evolution in radioactive fields to breed the perfect race. He created two races – Arthedne’s evolved angelic race who lived in the wondrous city of Futuron and the evil Tech-Men who live in Stygian Technopolis. The Tech-Men have hunted Arthedne’s people to the point of extinction, such that she is the soul survivor of her race, and now plan to expand the dead spot to cover the Earth and take over the world!

The plot proceeds with a rather delirious making-it-up-he-goes-along exuberance. It has a classic pulp feel as the mechanics of the plot hit the right notes and rhythms of an exciting story without ever entirely making sense. Plot elements come more or less out of nowhere without foregrounding, and scientific ideas – in particular the theory of evolution – are gleefully abused.

The Tech-Men are great villains and all the scenes with them are really thrilling.
Awareness came back to Ames in a lofty metal hall, lit with the harsh red flicker of neon. Two mechanical giants held him upright, pinioned his arms. Before him stood a great desk, covered with buttons and dials and strange apparatus. Behind it sat another metal-armoured body, larger than the rest, its occupant concealed behind a grim visage of steel and glass. The ruler, it must be – the Tech Czar!

Immense and terrible as a god of steel, the Tech-Czar turned upon Ames. Great cold lenses peered down. A brazen voice boomed through the red-lit hall: ‘Man of the old race, why are you here?’
They’re an early example of a long line of gear-heads of the sort that lead to Daleks and Cybermen. SF has long been suspicious of those who embrace technology with too much enthusiasm, despite the reputation for austic-spectrum Mr Spock-alikes.

In addition, this is the second story in this collection that centres on a rather syrupy love story. In the end Ames and Arthedne the winged woman sacrifice themselves to save the world, and for moderately contrived and complex reasons this is the only way they can ever be together. Ultimately it’s better to experience love and die to than to choose the cold inhuman immortality of the Tech-Men.

The embrace of the ‘transhuman’ seems to be a more modern phenomenon, maybe connected with the rise of the Outsider as the central myth of self among the geeky community. As in Edmund Hamilton’s The Island of Unreason, SF writers of this era seemed to see themselves as passionate romantics rather than the cool intellects trapped in a meat machine of the transhumanist.

Themes: love’s young dream, technology versus humanity, super-heroes, thrilling adventure, radiation.


  1. Fascinating stuff about the difference between how SF authors saw themselves then and how they saw themselves now.

    I would definitely associate alienated Outsiders with cyberpunk and iconoclastic patriarchs with Heinlein but I would also suggest that the mainstream of the genre has now moved on from the cool intellects of transhumanism. The personality exuded by most contemporary SF is one of extravagant bafflement.

  2. Hi Jonathan, great to see you here!

    This is a theme I'll return to again, and a key one in why I think SF is dead: we've become the things are fore-fathers warned us about (and mothers, although they're conspicuously absent from these volumes). I think the rise of the Outsider is also important in the current popularity of H P Lovecraft, geek chic and literary genre claim jumpers.

    I think the post-post-human vioce is possibly the shouty gap year SF writer. I'm inclined to see cyberpunk as starting in the New Wave and ending with transhumanists, and as such the final arc of a distinctly SF voice. (Similarly, punk rock was the final flourish of the hippies, the end of the distinctive voice of rock.) It's a reaction against and deconstruction of the golden age, but once it's been thoroughly deconstructed there's nothing left to say, just new ways (and places) to cover the same ground: new ideas are supplanted by exoticism.

    I dunno,though. It takes some historical perspective - or a keener critical eye than mine - to sort these things out. We're possibly in danger of overly emphasising short-term factors, missing the forest while we catalogue the bark on individual trees. The transhumanist impulse is still going strong in the urban fantasy arena which continues to eat SF's lunch (although I'm beginning to wonder if there's a meaningful distinction between SF and fantasy beyond style tribalism - a question for another day).

    Anyway, there'll be a big old summing up of all this later in the year when I hope to articulate it all in a bit more detail and coherence. Before that I've got vol 3 of this to get to and also a Kingsley Amis-edited anthology called (handily!) 'The Golden Age of Science Fiction' which has a fantastic and thought-provoking introduction (another brilliant NZ 2nd hand bookshop find).

    This project is also intended to generate some fiction, on which topic more soon, hopefully...


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