Jack Williamson, Dragon's Island and Other Stories (Five Star, 2002)

Genetic engineering offers many promises. Drought-resistant crops and cures for inherited diseases are two of the potential benefits. Critics see a dark side to this bounty through ecological damage, loss of genetic diversity, or discrimination based on genetics. The relative newness of the technology leaves it wide open to interpretation through speculative fiction.

Jack Williamson was one of the first authors to use the phrase "genetic engineering," and he explores its pitfalls and benefits in Dragon's Island and Other Stories. Dragon's Island is a compilation of three Williamson stories, written between 1950 and 1977. Though the science is dated, the issues that he raises are still relevant. Williamson is concerned with mankind's ability to create new forms of life and the impact of this effort on society. Dragon's Island shows some ambivalence towards genetic engineering, but the overall tone is one of hope. Ultimately, Williamson sees the positive results of genetic research overcoming the negative effects.

The stories in Dragon's Island explore what it means to be human when we can remake ourselves from the genes on up. "Stepson to Creation" is the most fanciful of the three stories, with the widest range to its speculation. Ultimately a redemption tale, "Stepson to Creation" tells the story of the last few original human beings and their belief in a coming savior who will deliver them from the more "advanced" human products of genetic engineering. The unmodified human beings ("premen") have been herded into an isolated reservation. Here they mark time until the genetically enhanced "trumen" ship them off to a new, inhospitable world to be forgotten. The escape of two premen leads to the discovery of how the original version of humanity can be saved. Williamson strikes a hopeful tone in this novella, balancing the benefits of trumen society against the needs of the premen. The hoped-for preman savior offers a path to salvation for the premen without sacrificing the society and advancements of the trumen. Both groups have a future in Williamson's world.

"Guinevere for Everybody" cleverly critiques the interlocking of computers, genetic engineering, and capitalism. Despite the dated view of computers (this story was published in 1954), Williamson explores the commodification of human beings combined with the relentless logic of cold computer programming. The results are initially surprising, but prove to be entirely predictable after some thought. The final twist in the story drives this point home very well. "Guinevere for Everybody" deals with a malfunctioning CEO computer and the service engineer who tries to solve the problem. The computer CEO has released a new product line -- genetically engineered people to serve any human need. Only the plant watchman, formerly the CEO, has any idea why this happened.

Foreshadowing today's wrangling over whether life can be intellectual property, Williamson includes a succinct analysis of the legal status of artificial people delivered by the "product" herself. Ultimately, the story is as much mystery as science fiction. The service engineer must determine why the computer decided on a business plan that generates enough popular uproar to endanger the company's future. The final stroke in "Guinevere for Everybody" is a sly take on the meeting of planned obsolescence with manufactured human beings.

The great weakness in Dragon's Island is the title novella. Here, Williamson inexplicably duplicates the plot of his 1940s classic Darker Than You Think. In both books, a secret race struggles to assert its dominant role over normal humans. Many elements are identical: a secret, superior race of humans, a secretive group hunting them down, a hero who undergoes an existential crisis when he discovers he is a member of the superior race, and a love interest who is one of the superior race's leaders. Though Dragon's Island's happy ending for humanity is different from Darker Than You Think, the two books read so similarly that the entire plot of Dragon's Island was readily apparent by the first chapter's end.

Jack Williamson has been writing science fiction and fantasy for more than seventy years. As with his 2001 novel Terraforming Earth, Dragon's Island explores the nature of humanity and our ability to manipulate that nature. These stories demonstrate that the compelling ethical and philosophical issues surrounding genetic engineering were apparent years before Watson and Crick discovered DNA. Passing over the outdated science, one can still read Williamson's stories for the social issues raised. For Dragon's Island, speculative fiction means thinking deeply about the underlying issues, not just the science.

[Eric Eller]