Originally published in 1948-49, The Humanoids is one of those books that it would be great to read if you didn’t know much science, but sixty years after publication feels dated and fanciful. In the distant future, mankind has mastered interstellar travel and colonized distant worlds. There has even been time for those worlds to fall into decay and then rebuild themselves, a hundred centuries in the future. At an observatory and military research post called Starmont on an unnamed world, a mysterious young girl appears, asking to speak with Dr Clay Forester, the project’s head. After some exposition revealing a tense situation between near interstellar neighbors, it is revealed that the real cause of the tension is the imminent arrival of… the Humanoids.
The Humanoids wish only to serve. Built a century before by a scientist called Mansfield, they have gradually spread through inhabited space, conquering human worlds with soft power. Upon completing a treaty with the world on which Starmont rests, their invasion force arrives. They quickly subsume all resistance in the majority of the population with “euphroide,” a powerful narcotic, “for the protection of man” (and woman), which renders people down to memoryless drooling imbeciles. A lucky few individuals are allowed to keep their minds, as the Humanoids judge them to be sufficiently happy without the drug. The Humanoids then disassemble and raze much of the world to the ground, and replace it with the gently-lighted, soft-cornered, unthreatening world of subjugated humanity.
Forester elects to attempt to fight, aligning himself with a small rag-tag band of misfits with various psychic powers. But he quickly finds that it is difficult to know who the real enemy is. As he suffers continual reversals in his battle to either destroy or, at least, damage, the command and control center of the Humanoids on planet Wing IV, Forester must in the end determine who his fight should really be against.
The language of the book is somewhat baffling. “Humanoid” would really be better written as “android” to be familiar to modern readers: they are centrally-controlled robots, operated from a distant world. As for the science, it falls down with “rhodomagnetics”, which is, late in the book, presented as one of a trio of natural forces, along with “electromagnetism” (the correct one), and “psychophysics” (the other nonsensical one). It is only by harnessing all three that Dr Forester has any hope of defeating the Humanoids and their human allies. Of course, it is all a nonsense, but a nonsense at the beginning of the atomic age, when so many new frontiers seemed possible, and when the frontiers of what we knew were regularly being thrust back further and further. Some of the hard science numbers are off as well – the Andromeda galaxy is 2.2 million light years away from the Milky Way, rather than one million light years, as stated in the book. Obviously, our numbers have gotten better, since the 1940s.
In many ways, this book draws some terrifying parallels with the real world. Although it would be too easy and too glib to compare the Humanoids to Nazis, there are certainly echoes of the advances of the Wehrmacht during the Second World War (although there the similarity ends). What is more terrifying, particularly to the imagination, is the sudden deprivation of freewill brought by the Humanoids, solely on the basis of their determination of one’s “unhappiness.” Any naturally unhappy, melancholic person (such as myself) finds this unthinkable. But while the horror is not overt, it is archetypal, and seems to find its echo in many of the science fiction tales that were to follow in the 20th century, particularly the paranoia of the worlds of Philip K. Dick, films like Logan’s Run and Soylent Green, and even television efforts like V, in the 1980s (which according to one account I’ve read began life as a television adaptation of Williamson’s book). It is almost surprising to find by the end of the book that no one is going to be eaten. Yet.
The ambiguity of the ending is troubling: has Forester lost, or have the Humanoids won? (and I phrase the question that way deliberately). I still can’t quite answer. It makes me interested, with some trepidation, to read the sequel book just to see what Williamson decided to make of this little world, as soon as I find my copy of the sequel.
Frustrating for the science (instantaneous teleportation across light years, power beamed the same distances, but without any reference to time, psychic mumbo-jumbo), but gets a positive mark for multiple instances of slide rule use (I love slide rules). Three and a half stars.
Originally reviewed 4 July 2015.
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