The Stonehenge Gate: Jack Williamson’s final novel

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Stonehenge Gate by Jack Williamson science fiction book reviewsThe Stonehenge Gate by Jack Williamson

What do you plan to do when you’re 97 years old? Me? If I’m fortunate enough to attain to that ripe old age, I suppose I will be eating pureed Gerber peaches and watching Emma Peel reruns on my TV set in the nursing home … IF I’m lucky. For sci-fi Grand Master Jack Williamson, the age of 97 meant another novel, his 50th or so, in a writing career that stretched back 77 years (!), to his first published story, “The Metal Man,” in 1928. Sadly, the novel in question, 2005’s The Stonehenge Gate, would be the author’s last, before his passing in November 2006. Impressively, the novel is as exciting, lucid, readable and awe inspiring as anything in Williamson’s tremendous oeuvre. Few authors had as long and productive a career as Jack Williamson, and I suppose it really is true what they say regarding practice, practice, practice….

The Stonehenge Gate is narrated by Will Stone, an English professor at Eastern New Mexico University, in Portales (not coincidentally, the school and town where the author taught and lived for many years). Stone and three fellow teachers — Derek Ironcraft, a physicist and astronomer; Lupe Vargas, an archaeologist; and Ram Chenji, a linguistics and African history instructor, from Kenya — discover a mysterious, Stonehenge-like trilithon buried under the sands of the Sahara, and, after walking through the ancient archway, are transported to a series of planets many light-years distant. The four become separated, but ultimately explore a planet devastated by war, an empty world populated only by morphing robots, a frozen planet that was the home of the trilithon builders, and a world comprised of two continents: one inhabited by whites, the other an equatorial jungle land peopled by blacks. It is on this last planet that the bulk of Williamson’s novel transpires, as Ram’s arrival begins a series of race riots and the onset of a civil rights movement.

That all-important “sense of wonder,” which was of paramount importance when the author began his writing career before sci-fi’s Golden Age, is evident to a great degree here, and the fact that many marvels go unexplained only adds to that sense of cosmic awe. Those readers who have followed Williamson’s career over the decades may be a bit taken aback by the author’s use of such words as “Internet” and “e-book” in this, his last work; as great an indicator as any of the longevity of the writer’s career. Readers who have likewise absorbed other of the author’s works may be pleasantly reminded of them as The Stonehenge Gate proceeds. The use of native drugs to elicit visions is highly reminiscent of scenes in 1980’s The Humanoid Touch, while the entire notion of excavating in the Sahara to find the remains of alien artifacts will remind many of similar sequences in 1962’s The Trial of Terra. Even Derek Ironcraft’s name is reminiscent of a main character (Frank Ironsmith) in the author’s most famous novel, 1949’s The Humanoids.

But despite this, Williamson’s final book is wholly original, and his four main characters are an extremely appealing bunch. Our narrator is especially convincing. Far from an action hero, this 57-year-old keeps telling us how much he wishes that he were back in his quiet library at home in Portales, and the trials that he is forced to undergo have a very credible impact on him.

Anyway, perhaps I am making too big a deal of the author’s advanced age here, but honestly, how many people nudging toward the century mark could be expected to create a 316-page novel that is as fresh and fascinating as any sci-fi in the stores today? The novel in question here could most surely have served as Book #1 in a new blockbuster sci-fi series, but sadly, that was not to be. The world surely lost a man of limitless imagination with Jack Williamson’s passing. Though his great body of works remains, the man will certainly be missed….

Publisher: A dark mystery has been buried beneath the sands of the Sahara desert since the beginning of time. In a basement in New Mexico, four poker buddies find reason to believe that a startling secret is out there. . . These four amateur adventurers are about to uncover the key that could unlock the vast reaches of the universe. A sudden burst of curiosity propels mild-mannered English professor Will and his three friends to the Sahara to excavate a site where radar has evidently detected trilithic stones hidden beneath the sand. There they stumble upon an ancient artifact that will change their lives, and the world, forever… a gateway between planets, linking Earth to distant worlds where they will discover wonders and terrors beyond imagining. Jack Williamson, the dean of science fiction writers, weaves an exciting tale that takes the friends to the far corners of the universe. One leads an oppressed people to freedom. Another uncovers clues that could identify a long-dormant civilization of immortal beings. Now each traveler must play a crucial role in unraveling an ancient mystery, the solution to which may reveal the true origins of the human race. If they can just survive their journeys back to Earth…

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough’s finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a “misspent youth” of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship — although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century — and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror… but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle “ferbs54.” Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club….

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3 comments

  1. Sandy, if you’re watching Emma Peel on whatever media they have when you’re 97, I’d say you would being great!

    Thanks for the review. It’s amazing to think of a 97 year old with the energy to complete a novel (I might expect mental clarity,) but I wonder if his routine and work ethic provided that resource for him.

  2. Sandy Ferber /

    You’re quite welcome, Marion. My Dad just turned 97 in his assisted-living facility in FL, so with any luck, perhaps I WILL be able to reach that advanced age and sit around watching Emma DVDs…or whatever passes for home entertainment at the time! Just don’t expect ME to be turning out sci-fi novels then!

  3. I love peaches, too.

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