Jack Williamson: The “Seetee” Novels

The "Seetee" novels, by Will Stewart (Jack Williamson)

[T]he same men who split the terrene atom had also written the theory of contraterrene matter—of atoms inside out, with negative nuclei and orbital positrons. Duplicating every element and property of the matter all men know, that other stuff is entirely stable, the theory shows—until it touches something terrene.
But contact between these two types of matter ignites pure fury. Unlike charges are attracted. Unlike particles collide and cancel out. Einstein calculated the energy released—some twenty-five billion kilowatt hours—for every kilogram of matter consumed.
Undismayed by that untouchable stuff, the spatial engineers have named it familiarly seetee, and they are reaching daringly to grasp it now.

Jack Williamson, Seetee Shock (1950)

Jack Williamson, one of several writers to rejoice under the informal title of “Dean of Science Fiction”, was born in 1908 in what was then Arizona Territory, and amazingly published works in the fantasy and science fiction genres over a span of nine decades, from the 1920s to the 2000s.

On my shelves I have a smattering of Williamson in paperback. The Legion of Space series is a rollicking bit of space opera, in the 1930s style of E.E. “Doc” Smith, but enhanced by its whining Falstaffian antihero, Giles Habibula. The Legion of Time (1938) took much the same approach to time travel, and gave us the concept of the “Jonbar point”—a critical point in history at which a very slight tweak to a single event will resonate and magnify to produce an entirely different future. And Darker Than You Think (1948) was an innovative take on the werewolf story, in which a journalist discovers a secret history of conflict between Homo sapiens and Homo lycanthropus.

But my hardcover first editions of Seetee Ship and Seetee Shock are not the first copies of these novels that I’ve owned. I first encountered them in the Lancer paperback editions of 1968, and had my eleven-year-old mind blown by Seetee Ship. The impression from that novel is so vivid that I can recall the exact circumstances of the purchase—my mother bought me a bundle of four science fiction paperbacks from a “reduced to clear” bin in what at that time was pretty much the only bookshop in Dundee, a rather pokey little outlet of John Menzies on Whitehall Street. The “Seetee” novels were bundled with a rather nice anthology, An ABC of Science Fiction (1966), and a deeply forgettable item entitled The Throwbacks (1965), by Roger Sarac ( which, as it turns out, was a well-advised but rather transparent pseudonym for the wildlife photographer and conservationist, Roger Caras).

With that bit of personal history out of the way, we now have two puzzles to address: why are the books illustrated at the head of the post authored by “Will Stewart”, and what the heck is “seetee”?

“Will Stewart” was a pseudonym adopted by Williamson, derived from his full name, John Stewart Williamson. The two novels were based on short stories and a serial originally published in the magazine Astounding Science-Fiction, and it was common practice at that time for prolific authors to assume pseudonyms for some of their stories, which gave editors more flexibility in putting together their magazines without having to run two stories under the same byline in a single issue. Seetee, as the quote at the head of this post hints, is a phonetic rendering of “C.T.”, for Contra-Terrene, an old adjective for what we now call antimatter—matter composed of anti-particles which will annihilate with regular (“terrene”) matter, releasing a very large amount of energy.

Williamson (in his guise as Will Stewart) started writing about antimatter in 1942, and was one of the first science-fiction authors to do so. First came three novellas: “Collision Orbit” (July 1942), “Minus Sign” (November 1942) and “Opposites—React!” (January & February 1943). Astounding later published a three-part serial novel, Seetee Shock, in February, March and April 1949. You can read all of these on-line—my links take you to the relevant issues of Astounding held on the Internet Archive. Seetee Shock was picked up in largely unaltered form by Simon and Schuster, and published in 1950. Williamson then mashed up the plots of his three earlier novellas into a coherent novel, which was published by Gnome Press as Seetee Ship in 1951. The novels should therefore be read in reverse order of publication—Seetee Shock is very much a sequel to Seetee Ship.

The stories are set in the late twenty-second century, but much coloured by the politics of the 1940s. Planetary colonies have been founded—the Japanese and Chinese are on Venus, Germans on Mars, and Russians inhabit the larger moons of Jupiter; the latter two referred to as the “German Reich” and the “Jovian Soviet”. The resource-rich asteroid belt, thinly populated by hardy asteroid miners (the asterites), is under the effective control of a mega-corporation called Interplanet, whose exploitation of the asteroid miners is backed up by the military forces of the High Space Mandate. The parallels with the East India Company and the Royal Navy in British colonial America are fairly obvious. Indeed, Williamson was one of the originators of the now well-worn science-fictional trope of asteroid miners as tough-minded, resourceful and oppressed, and therefore ripe for rebellion.

But Williamson introduces two interesting plot elements, which set these stories apart from the works that have followed. The first is the idea of paragravity—a force that is a hybrid of magnetism and gravity. His asteroid colonies sit on top of buried paragravity generators, which give them Earth-like gravity and let them retain an atmosphere. The main asterite city on Pallas sits on a shallowly buried paragravity generator, and Williamson has fun describing how quickly the local gravity vector changes, so that anyone walking away from Pallasport across the flat surrounding terrain finds themselves apparently climbing a progressively steeper slope into thinner and thinner air. He coined the word “terraforming” for this method of giving asteroids Earthlike gravity and air pressure, and the word is now a technical term for proposed methods of converting lifeless planets into Earthlike environments.

But his main narrative innovation is the way he treats antimatter—his version of the asteroid belt is full of antimatter asteroids, which the asterites call “hell in chunks”, as well as orbiting clouds of antimatter dust, the “seetee drift”. I don’t know of any other science-fiction writer who has placed his characters within arm’s length of stonking great lumps of antimatter, and set them the task of controlling and exploiting it. However, in his original stories, Williamson severely underestimated the amount of energy that would be liberated when even the microscopic dust of his seetee drift came into contact with regular matter. In reality, a speck of antimatter weighing about as much as a pollen grain would release the energy of a stick of dynamite, if it annihilated totally with matter. But Williamson seems to have initially imagined something no more energetic than a conventional chemical reaction. In an early short story, for instance, he has a character use a long length of wire to test whether a chunk of metal is matter or antimatter, just by giving it a cautious poke and seeing if there’s a blue flash. But by the time that scene found its way into Seetee Ship, the character uses a seetee detector that fires a single alpha particle at the target and then detects the gamma rays produced by annihilation.

In reality, Williamson’s asteroid belt would be a lethal zone of massive explosions and intense radiation—but it’s a marvellous setting for his tales of adventure and engineering derring-do. His asterite heroes seek to control seetee, with the eventual aim of harnessing it as an effectively unlimited source of power. Their plan is to eventually build seetee machines that can process and control a flow of seetee particles, directing them into an annihilation chamber from which power can be extracted. But first they have to find a way to build seetee machines …

That quest, for a way of building a crude seetee machine that can construct a more complex seetee machine, is one plot strand of Seetee Ship. The “spatial engineers” desperately need a seetee bedplate—some method of safely and securely anchoring a piece of seetee within a workspace made of conventional matter. The other plot strand is the investigation of a damaged alien spaceship, which seems to have simply materialized out of a sudden explosion in the asteroid belt. The two strands come together as the spaceship is explored, with paragravity stirred into the mix for a satisfying conclusion. Oh, and there’s time travel. The novel also introduces what feels like one of the earliest sympathetic and positive depictions of autism, in the form of the socially awkward spaceship pilot, Rob McGee, who has an intuitive understanding of orbital mechanics—the name Rob is in fact a cruel nickname, short for “robot”.

“But please don’t think I’m any sort of robot.” His low voice was suddenly bitter. “I know I’m different. Not smarter—I can see I’m not as smart as lots of ordinary people, in most ways. Just different. And that gets pretty lonely.” He coughed and looked away. “Go ahead and call me Rob, but please forget what it means.”

One of the big changes I see, when comparing Seetee Ship to the short stories on which it is based, is how much Williamson’s writing style changed during the 1940s—Seetee Ship loses a lot of the more purple prose from the short stories, and is a more enjoyable read as a result.

Seetee Shock starts up a few years after the events of Seetee Ship, and centres on a new character, the spatial engineer Nicol Jenkins. As a result of events described in the previous novel, the asterites are closing in on their goal of harnessing seetee and using it to generate power too cheap to meter. However, the control of seetee brings with it the threat of seetee weapons, too. The analogy with the nascent nuclear arms race at the time Williamson was writing is pretty evident.

After a bit of scene-setting in the first three chapters, Jenkins and about half the cast of characters from the previous novel are exposed to a lethal dose of radiation from the explosion of a seetee bomb. There are forces at work who do not want the asterites to succeed in distributing free power across the solar system. Leaving the other casualties in hospital, Jenkins sets out to complete the project in the short period of time he has left before radiation sickness (the “seetee shock” of the title) incapacitates him.

Jenkins had no time for radiation sickness. Not even time to die. For the traitor Lazarene and the unknown power behind him must be already preparing to spread the deadly venom of seetee war through the Mandate and the planets, and he thought the unfinished Brand transmitter on poisoned Freedonia held the only hope of stopping them.

It turns out to be less exciting than you might think, however. There are betrayals, revelations and narrow escapes, but Williamson also spends a lot of time revealing the detailed history of his imagined future, and having his characters meditate on the desirability (or otherwise) of what he calls the “Fifth Freedom”, free access to electrical power. (His American readers in 1950 would immediately have picked up on the reference to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech of 1941.) And, disappointingly for me at least, Rob McGee’s talents suddenly expand to include telepathy. (Science fiction was at the start of its notorious “psi-boom” at the time, under the influence of editor John W. Campbell.) And another remarkable new attribute for McGee provides the novel’s deus ex machina ending.

I enjoyed re-reading these. Seetee Ship is a marvellous pile of innovative ideas, and rattles along fast enough that the reader doesn’t have time to wonder at the improbable lapses in curiosity among the major characters, at critical moments during the plot development. As a child, I found Seetee Shock impossibly bleak and too full of exposition, but I enjoy it now both as a glimpse of what preoccupied 1950s science-fiction writers, and for the moral ambiguity of some of its central characters.

Both novels are, it almost goes without saying, available as e-books from Gollancz’s SF Gateway publishing arm.

2 thoughts on “Jack Williamson: The “Seetee” Novels”

  1. This takes me back to when I first started reading Science Fiction in my teens – way back in the late 1960’s/early 1970’s. I certainly read some Jack Williamson and possibly some of these works. However, I have to admit that I can’t really remember them.

    Thanks for the links to the Astounding magazines. I read a fair few of them in those days. Normally bought from second-hand bookshops.

  2. The Internet Archive is certainly a great, if patchy, source for these classic old magazines. They just weren’t around when I was a kid—I recall being amazed to discover racks of them in the famous Dark They Were And Golden Eyed bookshop in London, when I was eighteen.

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