The Stonehenge Gate
by Jack Williamson
InstaRating: 1 out of 5 … maybe less
During those moments when I delude myself that I’m a writer, I pursue an odd oscillation in my reading. I like to read great works of fiction, to have something towards which to aspire. But I like to leaven that mix with bad writers, people so hackneyed or incompetent that I can realistically say, “Well, if even Writer X can get published, I have a real shot … at least my stuff is better than that.” After reading Oryx and Crake, I was in a bind, because I hadn’t read anything truly bad for a while and I felt the usual intimidation rising up again.
Luckily, then I picked up Jack Williamson’s The Stonehenge Gate and now all is right with the world: This is a truly bad book.
More details, including spoilers, follow the break.
This book so desperately wants to be Stargate, it isn’t even funny. The basic idea is, a group of academics (who meet weekly for a poker game and who pretentiously call themselves The Four Horsemen) discover the outlines of a Stonehenge-like collection of menhirs, except these are buried in the Sahara. Really. The Four Horseman are Derek physics prof (who finds the menhirs in a deep-radar image); Lupe the archeologist (how convenient); Will, the narrator and an English prof; and Ram, the mysterious foreigner “discovered” by Lupe on an earlier dig who, after working his way to a linguistics degree, has returned to the same small college where the others teach. Oh, I should probably mention that Ram has a curious birthmark on his head called “the crown of worlds”, has a checkered past and a truly patchquilt heritage, and had a great grand-mother (“Little Mama”) who was found wandering out of the desert and who, even on her death bed, claimed to have fled to Heaven through Hell after being imprisoned by metal demons. Did I mention the birthmark? Cause it’s going to be important. So just to be sure, I’ll mention it again.
Sorry. That last is one of the technical faults of the novel (as opposed to, say, its ridiculous setting or flailing plotlines). Williamson is about as subtle as a tommy gun. He doesn’t just telegraph upcoming developments; he hand-delivers the whole parcel. There was not one surprise in this book, not one twist not indicated five or ten or fifty pages beforehand. There was no craft.
Back to the plot, such as it is. The Four Horseman (gah, can’t write that and keep a straight face) outfit their own little expedition to find the menhirs. They find them, giant outcroppings of stone that somehow no one else has even seen. These look like Stonehenge except that supported on two of the stones is a third (forming a “trilithon”). It’s immediately apparently to the characters (who thus lag the readers by only fifty or sixty pages) that these trilithons look like gates. But why would anyone build a gate in the desert? If only there were some way to access them…
Of course, happily, Ram’s great grandmother gave him a pendant, an artifact from “Little Mam’s hell”, and of course, it happens to be an all-access skeleton-key type device that transports the three of them through to another world. Oops, I forgot to mention, Lupe was abducted by a metallic looking grasshopper thing. After a little while (maybe a hundred pages) in which nothing happens, Derek is abducted too. In the between, they’ve followed a magic moving pavement through the ruins of a great war, which they immediately conclude must record the fall of the people who built the gate system, er, the trilithons.
Will and Ram end up on a bizarre side journey into a world divided starkly between the quasi-civilized whites (with Victorian-era technology) and the “savage” blacks living in the globe-straddling equatorial jungle, with a rich oral tradition but no writing or government. That’s right, during this interlude, the book stops desperately trying to be Stargate and instead starts desperately trying to be Heart of Darkness. Somewhere in there, Ram accidentally starts a slave revolt that spreads into true revolution… at least, up until the moment that the invading whites are all slaughtered to the last soul by a rapid, gruesome virus that leaves the blacks untouched but causes the whites to melt into pools of their own blood. Yek.
Then Ram and Will go off exploring again, having picked up Kenlen, the requisite cute kid that everyone’s supposed to feel sorry for. After a little bit of wandering, they find a “dead world” so far outside the Galaxy that during its “day” all you can see is the globular cluster it’s departing (leaving its sun behind) and at night, the utter blackness of The Intergalactic Void. Here, for no discernible reason, they catch up to Derek and Lupe who — although separately abducted — have somehow convinced the caretaker robots that they are indeed worthy of obedience. They also make remarkable but incomplete progress in unlocking the secrets of the Ancients — darn it, there I go, slipping into Stargate terminology. The secrets of the Omegans, is what I meant to say.
After a while, Will gets just as bored as the reader and decides to head home, to Earth, because happily now they’ve assumed mastery over the trilithon network and can go anywhere. After a truly pointless episode in which he suffers a relapse from the brush-with-death virus, he heads out with Kenlen and Ram. Being homesick, but not you know, really homesick, they decide to visit the world of Heart of Darkness, wherein Ram discovers that, while all the whites in the south have died, the whites in the north have seen the error of their ways and have opened negotiations to recognize the sovereignty and humanity of the blacks — rather than, as human history would seem to predict, rearming and trying to slaughter every last man, women, and child. It’s good to know that literally millenia of oppression and hatred can be turned over in a matter of months. Nonetheless it’s hard work and Ram feels vaguely responsible (having sparked that war and all) and so stays behind to help set it right, despite having evidenced no skills in that particular area.
At the end, Will and his newly-adopted Kenlen wind up in the same sleepy college town where it all started. Williamson makes a half-hearted attempt to explain how one man can disappear with three other people, reappear without them a year late (but with a new, young man in tow), and somehow just slip back into normal life. The book ends with what the author clearly thinks should be an intriguing opening for the return of Derek, Lupe, and/or Ram, but this reader, at least, doesn’t care to be reacquainted with them.
You might wonder why I slogged all the way through 310 pages of this tripe if I disliked it so strongly. I am a little ashamed to admit, it was for the savage joy of writing this review. It’s been a long time since I’ve read something so unredeemingly awful. Williamson really has nothing to offer here.
At this point, I’d like to give my impersonations of some of the characters, based on notes I jotted as I read:
- Marco Polo! Marco Polo! For the love of Jesus, didn’t you hear me? Marco Polo!
- Little Mama’s Hell. Little Mama’s Hell. Little Mama’s Hell. I wonder if this world is Little Mama’s Hell. No? How about this one? Was this one Little Mama’s Hell?
- I’m thirsty. I’m thirsty. I’m thirsty. I’m hungry. I’m thirsty.
- Big Questions! Maybe we’ll find Big Answers!
- I have vertigo. It’s terrible and incapacitating and humiliating and — oh, wait. I’m over it and will never mention it again.
- Poker metaphor! Poker metaphor! Poker metaphor! Did you see how cleverly we made the connection between our situation and the game of chance called poker? Poker metaphor!
During the Heart of Darkness, the book also suffers from Gotham City Taxonomy Syndrome: All names the same. We hear of a legend of the mythical forbears of the world, black Anak who was murdered by his white lover, jealous white Sheko. Thereafter, it’s Sheko Tower this and Anak Temple that and Sheko Mountain and Anak Jungle. It’s like no one else on the planet had ever both (a) done something memorializable and (b) had a name. One or the other, not both. It proved astonishingly wearying.
Now, the blurb on the back says that Jack Williamson (“the dean of science fiction writers”) has been publishing for 78 years. Nonetheless, this book came out a decade after Stargate started on TV and it borrows heavily, or at least, mows the same lawn: The “gate” system itself. The mysterious empire of gate-builders, now vanished. The extremely curious fact that much of “extraterrestrial” life seems to have its origin on Earth. And of course, the clincher: the people who built the gate turn out to have been human after all, or at least, to have engineer the modern human. Hell, the ancient race vanished after a war with a mysterious and implacable enemy! I don’t think Williamson stole, exactly, but he did lift ideas that, shall we say, were in the zeitgeist already.
Although there is no denying the power and impact of Williamson’s most famous story (“With Folded Hands”), in The Stonehenge Gate, his roots in the pulps show through, to the detriment of his craft. This book captures all that was forgettable about science fiction in the 1930s and 1940s.
To wrap this review, I’ll point of to the ultimate absurdity: Despite being titled The Stonehenge Gate, Stonehenge itself plays no role in the book. The only connection is, some of the characters think the Sahara menhirs look sort of like Stonehenge. Indeed, on at least two occasions, the characters are quick to point out that actual, real Stonehenge is “too crude” to be part of the trilithon system and must be the expression of some “race memory”.