Richard A. Lupoff
I barely met Richard Wilson in the early 1960s, when he was a journalist-turned-science-fiction-writer. Not an uncommon career path. Many a talented fictioneer got his start in the newspaper racket, and now that the sun of newsprint and printer’s ink is slowly disappearing beneath the horizon, replaced by news via electronic media, I wonder if many more scriveners will learn their craft covering house fires and automobile wrecks, turf wars and political rallies.
But Richard Wilson was certainly old school, and by the early 1960s I was following that path, from the Coral Gables, Florida, Times to the pages of Amazing Stories and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction to the printing presses of Ace Books and Ballantine Books and a score of other book publishers.
It wasn’t until I read Richard Wilson’s autobiographical sketch that follows The Girls from Planet Five that I realized that Wilson had bought science fiction pulp magazines from Mr. Oshinsky’s second-hand store under the El on Jamaica Avenue in Queens. It must have been a decade later that I ventured into that musty, shadowy establishment on a similar mission.
Wilson had been looking for back issues of Amazing Stories, probably dating to the era of Ray Palmer’s editorship. And now I was looking for a particular issue to fill a gap in my collection of Other Worlds Science Stories, a latter-day periodical edited by that same Raymond A. Palmer. Yes, there we were in the same shop on the same mission—but a decade apart.
Our paths crossed at a science fiction gathering—the details have long since faded from my memory—in the early 1960s. Wilson (1920 - 1979) was fifteen years my senior, and our encounter was fleeting, little more than a handshake and a how-do-you-do-sir. I wish I’d got to know him better, for he was a man whose accomplishments far outshone his unassuming demeanor.
In the early 1940s Richard Wilson was a member of the New York Futurian Society, a remarkable group of science fiction fans almost all of whom were then on the verge of becoming professionals. They included Frederik Pohl, Cyril Kornbluth, James Blish, Judith Merrill, Damon Knight, Robert W. Lowndes, and Larry Shaw. Several of them became editors of low-budget pulp magazines, and soon they were buying stories from and selling to one another at a dizzying clip.
Then the United States was attacked by the Empire of Japan, and within a matter of days the US was at war with Japan, Germany, and Italy. Richard Wilson donned a uniform, picked up a rifle, and prepared to fight for his country. He was sent to the Pacific where he fought in the steaming jungles of New Guinea and when the war ended he returned to the United States to resume work as both a journalist and a fictioneer. He was a prolific short story writer. The four published collections of his short fiction published before his death barely scratch the surface of his works. He wrote for seemingly every periodical in the field—Galaxy, Fantasy and Science Fiction, Astonishing Stories, Cosmic Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Authentic Science Fiction, Infinity, Vanguard, Future, and still others.
His Futurian roots must have come in handy, as the editors to whom he sold fiction included Pohl, Wollheim, Shaw, Knight and Lowndes. His stories were repeatedly nominated for Hugo or Nebula Awards, and one of them, “Mother to the World,” won the Nebula in 1968.
Happily to say, my friend and colleague John Pelan has begun work on a series of new Richard Wilson collections. Reading the stories in the first volume reminds me that despite occasional period references (e.g., to the Cold War) and missed technological predictions, the quality of Wilson’s thinking and his story-telling hold up just fine.
Perhaps because of his newspaperman’s training in terseness he seemed less inclined to work in the longer forms of fiction. He wrote only three novels, two of which, And then the Town Took Off and The Girls from Planet 5, are included in the present volume. The books employ similar devices, odd aliens invading the Earth. The third, 30-Day Wonder, deals with the same theme.
All of his novels contain strong doses of satire. His human characters are often given to irony and his aliens provide an amusing look at the foibles and oddities of human behavior. The Girls from Planet 5, written in the 1950s and set in 1999, has a remarkable bearing on political and social trends in the United States and elsewhere in the world of the Twenty-First Century. His comments on feminism may be regarded as politically incorrect today, but in the Eisenhower Era they were remarkably relevant and pointed.
Wilson’s knowledge of the worlds of newspapering and military service provides frequent fillips of background information for his novels. He was familiar with BOQ’s (bachelor officers’ quarters) and PIO’s (public information officers) as well as with city rooms and rewrite desks. His World War Two aviators seek to recapture the excitement and commitment of their past exploits, zooming around Midwestern skies in their lovingly preserved P-38 Lightnings. And when a B-58 Hustler bomber appears, any aviation buff’s heart is guaranteed to flutter.
His wonderful satire on Texas culture is another of the delights that await any reader of And then the Town Took Off and The Girls from Planet 5. The antics of Texan Sam Buckskin alone are worth the prize of admission.
He had a remarkable ear for regional characters and speech. While both And then the Town Took Off and The Girls from Planet 5 involve alien invasions of Earth, the greatest strength of both books lies in their pitch-perfect capture of 1950s Americana. The people of Superior, Ohio, could join the cast of Vic and Sade, a brilliant broadcast comedy series of the era, without a seam. The Texans of The Girls from Planet 5 are straight out of—well, perhaps not the real Texas of the era, but certainly a smileworthy exaggeration of that milieu.
I think Wilson must have been a romantic at heart, for his heroes, always pleasant-mannered young bachelors, inevitably encounter lovely young women so sweet you just want to pick them up and cuddle the darlin’s. Well, I want to, anyway. And Wilson’s protagonists do, always, get the girl.
His aliens, on the other hand, don’t quite come across as being altogether as alien and credible as those of Stanley G. Weinbaum or Raymond Z. Gallun. Of course one suspects that purple kangaroos and telepathic pink bedsprings weren’t intended to be entirely convincing or to be taken altogether seriously.
A modest man who wrote modest books, Richard Wilson deserves to be remembered and his works deserve to be read.