The Trial of Terra: Fun and amusing

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Trial of Terra by Jack Williamson science fiction book reviewsThe Trial of Terra by Jack Williamson

Jack Williamson’s The Trial of Terra made its initial appearance in 1962, as one of those cute little Ace paperbacks (D-555, for all you collectors out there). The book is what’s known as a “fix-up novel,” meaning that parts of the book had appeared as short stories years earlier, and then skillfully cobbled together by the author later on to form a seamless whole. Despite this, the book is a stand-alone novel in the Williamson canon, with no relation to any of the other books in the author’s substantial oeuvre.

The Trial of Terra tells a very interesting story, and one that might strike my fellow Trekkers as a bit familiar. It seems that there has been a galactic Quarantine Service in effect for many millennia, its job being to ensure that no planet makes first contact with the galactic civilization until that world is deemed ready, and its most important directive (Prime Directive?) being one of noninterference with any immature world.

As The Trial of Terra opens, a corrupt new official from the Quarantine Service, Wain Scarlet, arrives at their hidden base on Earth’s moon to decide whether Earth — which has just sent a rocket to the moon and is thus in a position to make that first contact — should be (a) admitted into the civilization of worlds, (b) exploited for commercial purposes or (c) destroyed utterly, and its sun turned into one of a series of space beacons. During the lunar trial, various cases involving Earth’s past are brought forth for Scarlet’s consideration, and so the author’s framing device of a trial (this framing device was itself a short story originally, I believe, called “A Planet for Plundering,” from the April ’62 issue of Galaxy) melds into those short stories mentioned above.

Two of the exhibits demonstrate the worthiness of humankind for galactic citizenship, while one shows us in the worst of possible lights indeed. In the first, which originally appeared under the title “Man Down” in the March ’52 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction, an alien prince crashlands in the Great Plains region and has some interesting experiences after being taken in by some kindhearted locals. In the second, originally called “The Man From Outside,” from the March ’51 Astounding, an alien explorer, undercover, sifts through some ruins in the Sahara and discovers some surprising facts about mankind’s prehistory. And in the third, originally titled “The Happiest Creature,” from Frederik Pohl‘s anthology book Star Science Fiction Stories #2 (1953), an alien zookeeper finds an interesting specimen for his collection: an escaped murderer from New Mexico. With the transcripts of these three case histories before him, Scarlet must decide on Earth’s future….

The Trial of Terra, at 159 pages, is a compact book with little flab. While its provenance as four separate stories is fairly manifest, it coheres nicely as a whole, and Williamson’s level of imagination runs fairly high throughout. The book is full of interesting speculations on mankind’s past, the “true” story of Earth’s first interstellar craft (I had a bit of trouble buying into this one!), and the nature of UFOs. It also amusingly explains away the mysteries of Charles Fort, and why the U.S. space program has encountered so much resistance over the years. While hardly in the classic league of such earlier Williamson novels as The Legion of Space, Darker Than You Think and The Humanoids, it is a fun and amusing read nevertheless.

As far as I can tell, The Trial of Terra has never been reprinted, so this old Ace edition may be your only print option currently (though it is available on audio). My advice would be to pick up this volume sooner rather than later, if you are so inclined. These Ace books from back when did not employ acid-free paper, to put it mildly, and the pages of my edition, now 47 years old, were literally crumbling in my fingers as I hungrily flipped them. And it would be a shame to let a fun book like this fall through your fingers!


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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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