To say Hugo Gernsback was a visionary is an understatement. His recognition of potential in young writers provided years of literary brilliance enjoyed by generations of fandom. In the December 1928 issue of Amazing Stories Magazine, the short story The Metal Man by 20 year old Jack Williamson was his first publication, launching the memorable career of an award winning literary legend whose career spanned over 75 years. In 1969, Joseph Ross selected Williamson’s story for The Best of Amazing anthology (the edition this review is based on). Here we are, 85 years after Gernsback gave that kid a break to look at what started it all.
The Metal Man begins as a narration by Russell, the best friend of the title character:
“The Metal Man stands in a dark, dusty corner of the Tyburn College Museum. Just who is responsible for the figure being moved there, or why it was done, I do not know. To the casual eye it looks to be merely an ordinary life-size statue. The visitor who gives it a closer view…”
Russell goes on to explain how his geologist friend Professor Thomas Kelvin turned up at his seaside cottage – in a chest – delivered by a Yankee skipper and his crew aboard a small sailing schooner. Packaged in the chest with his metal friend is a sheaf of manuscript. Through this manuscript which Russell sits down to read, the narration shifts to Professor Kelvin and we discover the fantastically frightening account of how a brilliant man turns to metal.
While prospecting for radium during his vacation along the Pacific coast of Mexico, Professor Kelvin learns the waters of El Rio de la Sangre (aka. River of Blood) is highly radioactive. After purchasing a light weight plane, he flies over the mountain peaks and discovers a pool of green fire in middle of a large crater. Low on fuel, the small craft is overtaken by a “bluish luminosity” and begins to grow heavy. The ensuing crash landing is not as harsh as the alien environment of the glowing pool. It is here where the reader experiences the horror of a mortal man slowly transforming into metal.
The Metal Man is an absorbing story with enough retro science to keep the cult fan interested while the historian readers take note. But what held my attention word-for-word was Williamson’s vivid description of the changing world around Professor Kelvin and the emotional transformation the character faced. The illustration by Frank R. Paul accompanying this piece, typical to the “between the covers” pulp art of the period, was sketched in black and white. Thanks to the author, a color image was not needed. As talented as Paul was, it would have been difficult if not unfair to visually match Williamson’s words of kaleidoscopic colors constantly changing the scenery and the expressive evolution of warm living tissue changing to cold metal.
If you don’t believe me, read The Metal Man yourself, posted by our friends at Hairy Green Eyeball. Or like the narrator Russell declares in the story’s closing paragraph, “Thus the manuscript ends. If the reader doubts the truth of the letter, he may see the Metal Man in the Tyburn Museum.” Read this story and you WILL see the metal man.
Williamson was a master at asking the “what if” question, and it is amazing (yeah, I used that word) that his talent shined at such a young age. The Metal Man is a powerful first installment to a lifetime of pleasure for science fiction fans. Jack Williamson didn’t just leave a mark on the genre, he left a legacy to the fandom.