When Jack Williamson published his first SF story, "The Metal Man," Calvin Coolidge was president, movies were just beginning to talk, and very few people in the U.S. had heard of Adolf Hitler. And to still be not only alive but writing and publishing at the age of 97 — well, the mind reels. It doesn't matter that The Stonehenge Gate may be far from the best novel of the year, or of Williamson's venerable career. What matters is that it's 2005 and we have a new Jack Williamson novel. Are you on your knees yet?
The Stonehenge Gate is, as you might expect from a writer who has lived long enough to see it all and know what works, an entirely traditional and charmingly old fashioned tale of exploration and high adventure. Lots of things in this story we've seen before. But in Williamson's hands it feels a lot like putting on a really comfy old pair of shoes. And, as you might expect from a writer who has nothing to prove, his prose is as precise and effortless as one of Rembrandt's brushstrokes. Like Asimov and others of the old school, Williamson gets the job done with shorter, declarative sentences that allow for the most brisk pace. There may not be much here to challenge readers, but there's ample entertainment. There may be points where the plot has an odd logic hiccup, or relies on a contrivance to get things going. But as an entertainment, I'd give anything to see more of this kind of back-to-the-basics storytelling going on today. I'd give a lot more to keep Jack Williamson around another 97 years writing it.
The premise is, once more time, that mysterious portals leading to other worlds are found by a plucky group of heroes. Said heroes are a quartet of professors and poker buddies at Eastern New Mexico University. The narrator is Will Stone, whose speciality is English lit. When evidence is produced of what appears to be an enormous structure, like a ring of standing stones, beneath the dunes in a remote area of the Sahara desert, Ram (of Kenyan descent) believes it might reinforce some of the strange stories told to him in childhood by his grandmother. These stories, of a journey through hellish terrain to arrive on this world, were always dismissed by Ram's parents as superstition. But we know better, of course, as we wouldn't have a novel in the offing otherwise.
Williamson's laconic approach to establishing his story might not set well with modern readers used to detail and depth. When our heroes go from discussing a difficult trek to a supposedly inaccessible point in the most hostile desert region on Earth, to actually getting there on the following page, readers might be forgiven for wondering if this grand master might yet be getting too old for this. But when, four pages after that — our heroes having uncovered what do appear to be megalithic stone slabs in a very Stonehengy configuration — one of the team is suddenly snatched by giant metallic bug things and swept through the gates to worlds unknown, we're off to the races. Never mind that we have to overlook some logic flaws on the way. (How is it possible, if Ram's emerald necklace is the key required to activate the gates, that various wild animals and the occasional hapless Neanderthal have been able to fall into it by accident?) Once the story is going, adventure is the order of the day.
It turns out that the stone structures form a series of gates, linking several worlds colonized by very human aliens who come to be dubbed the Omegans. One of the team theorizes that the Omegans are in fact our progenitors, who arrived on Earth, snatched up some unsuspecting early hominids and genetically tweaked them to become homo sapiens. The team ventures through a handful of mesmerizing, deserted civilizations, before becoming split yet again. On most of these worlds, statues depicting two probable deities, the black king Anak and the white queen Sheko, are found frequently — tantalizing yet frustrating clues to the Omegans' identity.
Will and Ram ultimately find themselves on the world of Delta, where civilization is very much thriving at a sorta-18th century level. Here, racism and slavery are powerfully entrenched, and the arrival of Ram — whose forehead bears a birthmark that turns out to be more than it appears — is viewed by the oppressed blacks of the continent of Hotlan as the arrival of their messiah. (Much to Ram's chagrin, naturally.) An all-out slave revolt, made deadlier through the primitive application of a form of biological warfare, is the result.
Williamson is concentrating solely on entertainment here; in other words, he doesn't exactly use the slave-rebellion part of the story (a good chunk of it, to be honest) to launch any kind of thematic exegesis on racism. But it does give the narrative enough of an unusual, unpredictable spin that the novel avoids simply following the formulaic dots, and overcomes its rocky opening into the bargain. There are a few storytelling choices I'd like to have seen done away with. Will adopts a mulatto orphan boy on Delta who has a mawkish habit of professing his love for anyone the least bit friendly to him; also, there are constant references to Ram's grandmother, whose nickname, Little Mama, is frankly groan-inducing.
But overall, Williamson's characters are warmly realized, and the adventure engaging enough, the The Stonehenge Gate makes for delightful rainy-day reading. The lack of full resolution at the ending is no mere sequel setup; even given his magnificent genes, Williamson would be quite the optimist to be inaugurating a series at nearly his own centennial. Rather, with the hint of new discoveries yet to be made by our heroes, Williamson celebrates the fact that there are never any real endings in science. The march of discovery will never cease. There will always be more to learn right around the corner; about our universe, and about ourselves. And in this spirit of celebration, perhaps the best thing about The Stonehenge Gate is that it has an ending that leaves all the gates open. It's hard enough in this life to have that kind of optimism even when you're young. To see it on such bright display from someone at 97 is simply inspirational.