The Humanoids by Jack Williamson
Spectrum Literary Agency, 2011
Originally published by Simon and Schuster, 1949
Originally serialized in Astounding, March-May 1948
Price I paid: $5.99 (eBook)
Clay Forester is a scientist working in a weapons laboratory on a distant planet, when a vast army of robotic “humanoids” land and, as they have done on countless other worlds, take control of every aspect of human society. The official line is to “guard men from harm”, but in fact the humanoids deny any meaningful freedom to their human victims. Forester tries to fight back, with the help of a vagabond band of “psychophysical” adepts with amazing transphysical powers. Forester’s long fight against the strictures and despotic “protections” offered by the humanoids makes a fascinating tale, which Damon Knight called “without a doubt, one of the most important science-fantasy books of its decade.”
Author’s self-revealing Afterword, “Me And My Humanoids”, also included.
I know I said in the last review that I’d grab my library’s copy of The Humanoids for this week, as a followup, but when I went to grab it, it was checked out by somebody else! Was that somebody who read my review of “With Folded Hands”? I doubt it, but who knows? We can all dream. Anyway, I bought an eBook.
What we’ve got here is the expanded novel version of Jack Williamson’s novella about robotic servants, Humanoids, who exist only to serve humans and protect them from harm, but it turns out they do it too well and deny people that most important of intangible concepts, freedom. Freedom to do what? Work and smoke and open windows and brutalize the less fortunate and shave. It’s all there and I guess we ought not to stand for it!
I came into The Humanoids under the impression that it would be an expanded version of the novella. I guess you could say that I was technically correct (the best kind of correct), in that yes, it does expand upon the novella. It’s a full-on sequel!
What I was expecting was to meet old Underhill again, and maybe Mr. Sledge, or whatever. I guess what I thought I’d be most likely to see was the novella again, but sandwiched in with some backstory and maybe some more frontstory to go with it. But nope!
In fact, once I realized that none of that was the case, I then expected to see no reference to any of it at all. I assumed that this would in fact be a completely new story, devoid of any reference to the predecessor. But that was there wrong too! It’s in the same universe and the Humanoids have exactly the same creation story, by the same guy and everything. And “With Folded Hands” gets a couple of references. In fact, we learn that it happened ninety years in the past.
And unlike the novella, we get some more context about when and where this novel takes place. I assumed the novella took place a couple centuries in the future, at most. In absolute seriousness I figured it probably took place somewhere around the far future year of 2008 or whatever.
But Jack Williamson fills in that knowledge gap for us with the dignified tones of an old church bell, and we find out that it is a “hundred centuries” in the future, and that humanity has spread out across a thousand planets.
And later we learn that most of those planets have been taken over by the dreaded Humanoids.
Our hero for this adventure is this guy:
Unlike the good doctor from MST3K, our protag is named Clayton Forester, with only one R in the surname. But still, that’s a wild coincidence, right? Or is it a coincidence? The MST3K wiki tells us that the character from the show was named after a character from George Pal’s 1953 adaptation of The War of the Worlds, so it’s maybe not a direct reference, but that movie came almost five years after this book did, so maybe it’s a second-hand reference? Maybe not, but it’s fun to think about!
The novel’s Dr. Forester is a scientist working in the field of rhodomagnetics, which we might remember from the novella as being the thing that made the Humanoids possible. It also has a lot of other cool implications, because rhodomagnetics works at faster than light speeds and can cause nuclear fission to happen in normally non-fissionable materials and all sorts of other magitech stuff. Dr. Forester is working on a missile system for use against his planet’s hated foe, the Triplanet Powers. These missiles will, in the blink of an eye, fly to the homeworlds of the enemy and crack open their very planets.
The first third or so of the book is mostly about how Dr. Forester has ulcers because of his job and is a pretty good story about the necessity for nuclear disarmament. It becomes clear after a while that the Triplanet Powers have developed their own rhodomagnetic abilities and can threaten his own world just as effectively. There’s no winning this race.
Dr. Forester is also that stock kind of scientist character who wishes he could just do pure theoretical science, and at the same time is that other kind of stock scientist character whose wife hates him because he cares more about SCIENCE than he does about her. Missed anniversaries, no kids, that whole thing.
Here I am thinking that this Dr. Forester is gonna be the guy to create the Humanoids in this story, when all of a sudden some people with psychic powers show up and inform him that there is a threat even greater than the Triplanet Powers on the way, a threat that will arrive in the form of utmost benevolence! The dreaded Humanoids! They’ve conquered all but like three human worlds at this point!
The main psychic guy is named Mark White. He’s accumulated a crack team of psychic people: a clairvoyant, a teleporter, a telekinetic. Together they will destroy the Humanoid threat, but they need Dr. Forester’s help to do it!
He, of course, declines. And then the Humanoids show up and do their thing, taking over the place and preventing anybody from doing anything even remotely fun. They have a new tool up their mechanical sleeves now, at least. Instead of straight-up lobotomizing people, they have a drug called euphoride that, uh, lobotomizes people. But it’s reversible?
All this time there’s some strangeness about a fellow that works for Forester, named Ironsmith. Williamson does a pretty good bit here. See, Ironsmith’s been in the book the whole time. And then we learn that there’s a Humanoid disguised as a human who has been infiltrating the government this whole time, a guy named Steel. And at that point I’m like “omg all the infiltrating Humanoids have metal names and that’s corny as hell,” and then Forester thinks basically the same thing, but it turns out we’re both wrong. Ironsmith is fully human, but as things go on we all keep wondering just what the hell is up with him. He gets strange privileges from the Humanoids that no one else does. He’s allowed to ride a bike, and to smoke, and do basically exist as he chooses. It’s weird! What’s up with that?
A lot of the rest of the book is discovering what, exactly, is up with that.
Forester finally sees the Humanoids for what they are and goes back to Mark White and his psychic pals. He has a hard time accepting that psychic powers are a real thing, because he’s a scientist, dammit, but he’s willing to try. He gradually comes to accept that there’s something there, because they can demonstrate their powers to him, but he still struggles because he doesn’t have a rational scientific explanation.
One of the psychics is a little girl who can teleport. Her name is Jane Carter and I bring this up only because I think my NaNoWriMo this year will just be a genderflipped version of the Barsoom stories called A Prince of Mars. Has it been done before? Probably. Will I spend a lot of time talking about a red dude walking around with his wingwang out? Definitely.
There’s a lot of chasing and discovering and exploring and stuff throughout this part of the book, and it’s all pretty good. This whole book is pretty good. I liked it and I was continually drawn in. It’s readable and pretty much every revelation made me want to learn more about this situation. Williamson is a champ, that’s for sure.
Mark White and his psychic pals’ plan is to rewrite the Prime Directive, “To Serve and Obey and Guard Men from Harm,” to add some lines about consent, basically. Jane Carter will teleport Dr. Forester to Wing IV, the home of the Humanoids, where he will switch out some circuits on the galaxy-wide Humanoid hivebrain, and then everything will be cool forever.
It doesn’t work and Forester gets caught. He also bangs up his knee badly and we get to hear about that for the rest of the book. While he’s imprisoned for a while he finally comes to realize how psychic powers work, that for some reason they’re based on platinum? Like, the whole scientific thing about this book is triads in the periodic table. Ferromagnetism is focused on Iron, Cobalt, and Nickel. That much is true in real life. Rhodomagnetism is about Rhodium, Palladium, and Silver, and then I guess it turns out that psychic powers are based on Platinum, Gold, and Mercury, although those latter two metals don’t get mentioned quite as much.
The book starts to get kind of spiritual and philosophical at this point? The psychic powers thing turns out to be grounded in quantum physics but there’s this whole thing about how it’s also the Ultimate Creative Force and also is Live Laugh Love and all that. Once Forester realizes all that, he unlocks his own psychic powers. At one point he uses them to explode a butterfly because it, like Ironsmith, is “so lazy and so useless and so brilliant,” which, uh, is a weird thing to think about a butterfly, my dude.
This is one of many things that made me start to think that the Humanoids were right all along.
The Humanoids are using a massive Platinum construction that will activate and conjoin all the humans in their psychic powers at once. Forester figures this means that it’s a way for the Humanoids to control all humans, to turn us into robots too.
And then we learn what the deal with Ironsmith was this whole time, and it’s that he’s working for the Humanoids, which we all kinda figured was happening, but it has a lot to do with psychic powers also. He’s a part of a cabal, the leader of which turns out to be the guy that invented Humanoids in the first place! He was in the novella! We saw him get lobotomized! Well, it turns out that they fixed him, and now he’s on their side.
There’s a lot of talk and convincing and stuff at this point in the story, and a lot of it was pretty interesting to me. The members of the cabal talk about several of the points I made in my review of the novella, namely pointing out that by keeping humans safe and allowing them to live their lives healthily and without toil, they have opened them up to exploring their own true potentials. That’s why the psychic powers have been able to develop, for one thing, but also other nice things about the Life of the Mind.
There’s also a lot of talk about how psychic powers are completely creative and can’t actually be used to directly hurt anybody. Forester’s hate, first for the Triplanet Powers and then later for the Humanoids, has been what’s holding him back. All he needs to do is give in to love and feel the true wonder and beauty of the universe, and everything will be okay.
This is a pretty interesting face turn for the Humanoids, right? I thought that was interesting. And it keeps going.
Forester is knocked out by the giant platinum psychic thing, and when he wakes up, he learns that all of humanity has in fact been conjoined and made good and whole by it. He’s been asleep for about fifty years while it repairs his mind and body. When he wakes up, he learns that humanity has made some incredible strides while he’s been asleep. Psychic powers, which ignore such things as distance and time, have opened up the entire universe to human exploration and expansion. In fact, this very minute, Jane Carter is leading an expedition into the Andromeda Galaxy to seek out a new home for humanity. And everything ends on that pretty cool note.
Or does it?
Okay, at this point I thought that maybe the point of this novel was that it turns out that humans and Humanoids can actually work together to become something even greater, to ensure the existence of the human species until time stops, or maybe even stop time from stopping, and exist in harmony and stuff. It seemed like a pretty happy ending.
But this edition has an essay at the end of it by Williamson, entitled “Me and My Humanoids,” in which he basically says “Yeah, I guess a lot of people thought the ending was like that, but I meant it to be bleak and horrible.”
And I’m like, “Why? How?”
And he’s like “Humanity lost to the Humanoids. They took over and did it so well that humanity is convinced that it was in fact a good thing.”
He goes on to say something about how he doesn’t mind a little ambiguity and that people are free to interpret his book the way they want. But my problem is that this wasn’t an ambiguous ending to me. It was practically suffused in that rosy lens that Star Trek would get whenever Uhura was on the screen singing about stuff. I did not at any point stop and wonder if I was supposed to interpret this rather straightforward ending in any other way.
Maybe that’s on me, but maybe it’s on Jack a little bit, too?
He also goes on to say that perhaps a lot of this story was inspired by his own overprotected childhood, and, sure, okay, that’s your deal. I can’t call that into question. I’m glad you got to work it out a little bit?
All in all, I think this was a fine, fine novel. It deserves its place amongst the classics. And just because it turns out that Williamson intended for it to be taken in a specific way doesn’t mean that I have to take it that way. Once it hit the shelves it was out of his hands. And he acknowledges that, too, so I don’t have to feel like I’m arguing with him or whatever. I’ve found it to be an unsatisfying experience to argue with dead people.
Part of what makes me choose to think of this as a hopeful novel, a redemptive one even, is the fact that Clayton Forester spends so much of this book in the complete wrong. He ignores his wife and her deep unhappiness. Finally near the end she leaves him for Ironsmith and he hates her for it, but then he comes to realize that it was entirely his own fault and even comes to love her again, albeit in a different way. He learns to love Ironsmith, whom he spends the book hating. And he even learns to accept and love the Humanoids.
It felt like humanity got a bit of a redemption arc, too. Once we learn the whole shebang about how psychic powers are also Huey Lewis’s best song, and that once humans are able to embrace love and cast aside hate, they’re actually allowed their freedom from the Humanoids again. Jane Carter, and presumably others, are able to go out and be explorers, far from the range of the Humanoid hive brain. Sure, the lengths that the Humanoids went to to protect us at first are pretty ridiculous, but, well, you know:
One thought on “The Humanoids”
Deeply weird. I can’t respond to the book with all its complications since I haven’t read it, but the idea that Forester gets knocked out and wakes up to find everything fine strikes me as cause for a lawsuit regarding competence as an author.
And then that terminal essay! Maybe books should explain themselves and authors should just shut up after writing The End.
I’m of two minds about this. One one hand I get angry at critics who assume that the author didn’t realize what he was doing and then explain to us what he “really meant”. On the other hand, when I read Daniel Keyes saying that he wrote Flowers for Algernon to show how the mentally challenged are misunderstood (or something close to that, it was years ago), I wanted to shout, “No, Daniel, it was an allegory for all humanity, born without knowledge, growing into competence, then sinking back into senility.” But he wrote it, so what right do I have Io disagree?
I still believe my interpretation is right. I think I’ll just go sit and pet the cat for a while and think about Keyes and Williamson.
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