Jack Williamson, 98; pioneer of science fiction was one of field's longest-active writers

Times Staff Writer

His first science-fiction short story was published in 1928, a year after Charles Lindbergh made his historic solo flight from New York to Paris.

But well into the first decade of the next millennium -- and nearly 80 years after "The Metal Man" appeared in an issue of the pulp magazine Amazing Stories when he was 20 -- award-winning author Jack Williamson was still turning out science fiction.

A pioneer of the genre and one of the longest-active writers in the field, Williamson died of natural causes Friday at his home in Portales, N.M., said his family. He was 98.

"Jack Williamson was one of the great science-fiction writers," writer Ray Bradbury told The Times on Monday. "He did a series of novels which affected me as a young writer with dreams. I met him at 19, and he became my best friend and teacher."

Bradbury said he showed Williamson some "awful stories" he had written, "and he was very kind and didn't mention how terrible they were. He shaped my life; he was very quiet and unassuming and respected my dream and let me be awful for a long time until I got to be good."

Arthur C. Clarke, author of "2001: A Space Odyssey," once observed: "I have no hesitation in placing Jack Williamson on a plane with two other American giants, Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein."

Williamson, who believed that "science is the door to the future and science fiction is the golden key," wrote more than 50 novels, including "The Humanoids," "Darker Than You Think" and "Legion of Time."

Nearly a dozen of his science-fiction novels were written in collaboration with Frederik Pohl, including "Undersea Quest," "Starchild" and "Farthest Star."

The 1949 novel "The Humanoids," one of Williamson's best-known works, was a cautionary tale about the dangers inherent in the development of new technology: robots that were designed to be helpful to mankind became so protective of humans that they essentially became jailers.

" 'The Humanoids' marked a turning point in science fiction and in Jack's career," said James Frenkel, Williamson's longtime editor. "Before that, science fiction had been a cheerleader for science and technology and really had not, for the most part, focused on the potential dangers of science and technology."

Samuel Moskowitz, author of the 1961 book "Seekers of Tomorrow: Masters of Modern Science Fiction," wrote that Williamson was "an author who pioneered superior characterization in a field almost barren of it, realism in the presentation of human motivation previously unknown, scientific rationalization of supernatural concepts for story purposes, and exploitation of the untapped story potentials of antimatter."

As a faculty member at Eastern New Mexico University in Portales in the 1960s, Williamson launched one of the nation's first college courses on science fiction and fantasy writing, helping legitimize science fiction as a field worthy of academic attention.

In 1976, Williamson received a Grand Master Award for lifetime achievement from the Science Fiction Writers of America. He also received a World Fantasy Award for life achievement from the World Fantasy Convention in 1994. Four years later, Williamson received the Bram Stoker Award for superior achievement from the Horror Writers Assn.

But his writing career was far from over. His 2001 novella "The Ultimate Earth" won both Hugo and Nebula awards. Williamson's last novel, "The Stonehenge Gate," in which a gateway between Earth and other worlds is discovered beneath the Saharan desert, was published by Tor Books in 2005.

Known as unpretentious and accessible, Williamson credited hard work and constant inquiry with helping him remain current as an award-winning science-fiction writer.

"I have a vast curiosity about our universe, our origins and its probable future," the then 95-year-old Williamson, who subscribed to numerous science journals, magazines and newspapers, told the Albuquerque Journal in 2004.

His early years seemed like an unlikely launching pad for a science-fiction pioneer.

The eldest of four children, he was born in April 29, 1908, in Bisbee, Ariz., when the state was still a territory. And when his family moved to eastern New Mexico in 1915, they did it in a covered wagon.

But his family's arduous farming life served only to feed young Williamson's fertile imagination.

"We lived on isolated farms and ranches, far from anybody, and when I was young I knew very few other kids; so I lived to a great extent in my imagination," Williamson, whose parents were former teachers, told Publishers Weekly in 1986. "Life would have been absolutely empty without imagination."

Reading an early copy of Amazing Stories magazine, launched in 1926, was a turning point for the teenage Williamson.

"Here were spacecraft taking off from other worlds, travel in time and all sorts of wonderful inventions!" Williamson recalled.

He spent a year writing short science-fiction stories, composing them in his head as he worked on the family farm, then typing them on an antique Remington typewriter borrowed from an uncle.

A few of his completed short stories were roundly rejected before Amazing Stories published "The Metal Man," which dealt with radioactive emanations from a form of intelligent crystalline life that turned all objects into metal.

Williamson received $25 for the story, which was illustrated on the cover of the magazine's December 1928 issue. Thirteen of his first 21 stories, published between 1928 and 1932, were illustrated on various pulp magazines' covers.

Williamson, who was home-schooled until he was 12, attended West Texas State Teachers College and later the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque but left before graduating.

Shy and introverted, Williamson later described himself as "a solitary misfit -- as science-fiction fans in those days often were."

During World War II, Williamson served as an Army Air Forces weatherman and rose to the rank of staff sergeant. He served the final three months of the war in the Pacific.

In 1947, Williamson's first book, a reprint of his early serial "The Legion of Space," was published by Fantasy Press. Its modest success -- it earned him $750 -- helped persuade him to return to full-time writing.

That included creating and writing the comic strip "Beyond Mars," which ran in the New York Sunday News for several years in the 1950s.

Williamson, who finally received his bachelor's and master's degrees from Eastern New Mexico University in the late 1950s, began teaching there in 1960. In 1964, he received his doctorate from the University of Colorado with a dissertation on H.G. Wells.

He retired from Eastern New Mexico University in 1977 but later returned to teach courses in science fiction or creative writing on campus every spring until about 2002.

Williamson's 1984 autobiography, "Wonder's Child: My Life in Science Fiction," won a Hugo Award for best nonfiction book.

"I've never written bestsellers or made a great deal of money at it, but when I look back, I've been able to spend most of my life doing something I enjoyed," Williamson said in an interview in a 1999 issue of Interzone. "It's an exciting time to be alive. I wish I could live another century."

Williamson, whose wife, Blanche, died in 1985, is survived by his brother Jim and stepdaughter Adele Lovorn.

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dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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