Thursday, March 12, 2020

Old Children's SF Book: Trapped in Space. by Jack Williamson

Old Children's Book: Trapped in Space. by Jack Williamson

a review by Rich Horton

Here's another old children's SF book. by a real legend of SF. Jack Williamson (1908-2006) published stories in 9 decades -- his first in 1928, his last 80 years later. He was popular from the first, and published major work in essentially all those decades, including a Science Fiction Hall of Fame story, "With Folded Hands" (1947), that still holds up even now; and a Nebula and Hugo winner as late as 2000. But in a funny way he was also always just slightly out of the mainstream of SF -- never listed with the likes of Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, and Bradbury as truly one of the greats; often somewhat forgotten. Part of this is merit, I think -- I thought his 2000 story "The Ultimate Earth", definitely not worthy of its awards. But part may reflect gaps in his production (he spent some time doing continuity for a comic strip, and lots of time teaching.)

(cover by Robert Amundsen)
As far as I know Williamson only wrote this one "juvenile". It was published by Doubleday in 1968, and reissued by Scholastic in 1970. I encountered several Scholastic SF books over the years (Silverberg's Revolt on Alpha C, Turner's Stranger from the Depths, Del Rey's The Runaway Robot (actually by Paul Fairman), and Key's The Forgotten Door)), but I had no idea Williamson had written one. I got this book at an antique mall.

So -- it's really not very good. One of the keys to writing a good YA book is to avoid the appearance of "writing down" to your presumed audience. Williamson fails utterly in that area -- the book is over simple, and full of somewhat pandering explanation. But more than that, the plot is kind of weak, too, and the science isn't all that great (though he at least tries.)

Jeff Stone is a young man, just graduating from pilot training at the Space School. His older brother Ben graduated two years before, and went on a mission to a new star system. (Apparently these missions have a 30% fatality rate!) Ben seems to be lost as well, and there is going to be a rescue mission. Rather implausibly, Jeff is chosen. He'll accompany a fellow recent graduate, plus a girl, Lupe Flor, who was raised by hive-mind aliens after her parents crashed on their planet, and Lupe's alien friend.

They head off to the planet Topaz, 1000 light years away. There's a certain amount of (actually tolerable) guff about how the FTL drive works -- artificially reducing mass (which really doesn't make any sense but whatevery). When they get to Topaz, they are immediately attacked ... and they also hear a message from Ben.

The main issue, really, is how to make contact with the aliens of this system, who seem to want to shoot first and ask questions never. And then to figure out what happened to Ben. Not surprisingly, Lupe's alien friend turns out to be vital.

The actual theme here, if laid on a bit heavy, is just fine -- the notion that all aliens, no matter how weird, even aliens who live in empty space, are fellow beings that we should be friends with. And in fact the novel's skeleton, advancing that notion, is just fine. The problem is the creaky rescue plot, and the annoyingly condescending writing style. Definitely a very minor entry in the Williamson oeuvre.


  1. I read this book way back when, as a child in the late 1960s. I was thinking about it the other day but couldn't recall anything except that the main characters were named Jeff and Lupe, they were astronauts, and the opening scene was a baseball game. After some Googling I identified the book, found a borrowable copy at, and also several other web pages, including this one. Intrigued, I borrowed the copy and read it again.

    I wasn't too impressed with it either, but for different reasons. I didn't find the prose style bothersome, nor the "science" behind the FTL drive. If you're gonna have humans interacting with aliens, FTL is a necessary evil, and of course the explanations of how it works will be at least half fantasy. Nor did I find it bizarre that the alien, Buzz, can breath Earth air with no trouble -- that's another necessary evil too. And to Williamson's credit, at least Buzz did not speak English. Gene Roddenberry should have taken note.

    What bothered me were the parts that were nonsensical, contradictory. or highly implausible. For example:

    In FTL mode ("X-space") they can move 1000 light years in ten hours. That's 1-2/3 light years per minute. When they first enter that mode, leaving Earth, it takes them a few minutes to get their navigational equipment working, leaving them flying blind. When they do get the equipment working they are lost because the stars now look completely unfamiliar. No -- in those few minutes they would have moved a considerable distance relative to nearby stars like Proxima Centauri and Sirius, but more distant stars like Rigel, Betelgeuse, Canopus -- familiar navigational stars, all first magnitude or brighter -- wouldn't have appreciably changed their apparent positions.

    "Compasses don't work in X-space." As if they can be used for navigation in normal (interstellar) space?

    Thirty percent of the space missions never return?! Only a fool, a suicide, or a zealot would volunteer for this deal -- all unsuitable personality types to be trusted with large responsibilities.

    Jeff decides to EVA to try to find Ben -- in the middle of something like our asteroid belt, but far more densely packed, with only the roughest of ideas where Ben's spacecraft is. That's like walking around outdoors, looking for a friend, knowing only that he's somewhere in the United States.

    After the "rock hopper" sheds its limbs, it moves toward Jeff. So I guess it can move in ways other than using its limbs. But on the very next page we're told that the hopper could not move with its limbs gone.

    When Jeff is dying, the rock hopper saves him by retrieving the "deep sleep" shot from Jeff's equipment and administers it, putting him into suspended animation -- but it would have had no way of knowing how to use that, or for that matter, what it even was. (When I saw this I recalled that I had also noticed this when I first read the book, at age six.)

    Later, when being revived, Jeff is told he's trying to wake up too early and that he still has two more injections to take, to fully bring him out of deep sleep -- but moments later he's well enough to don his spacesuit and EVA.

    I don't mind necessary evils, wild plot twists, and -- maybe once per novel -- a protagonist getting lucky. But I can't stand sloppiness, or when authors just do whatever it takes to make a story "work."

  2. I read this multiple times when I was young because it was SO GOOD. Still looking for a copy in my 50’s. It had everything - sibling rivalry, broken off needle in the arm… is he dead???? An alien who has Morals. A happy ending. Perfection .