ROBERT MOORE WILLIAMS – The Darkness Before Tomorrow. Ace Double F-141, paperback original; 1st printing, 1962. [Paired with this novel, tÍte-bÍche, is The Ladder in the Sky, by Keith Woodcott (aka John Brunner).]

   Dan Stumpf and David Vineyard were briefly exchanging comments about ďhackĒ writers earlier this month. It all depends on oneís definition, of course, and while you can say that a hack writer is one without talent and/or one who merely cranks out the wordage for the money, everyone has a different concept of whatís talent and whatís not and/or how many cranks are needed to make a hack.

ROBERT MOORE WILLIAMS Darkness Before Tomorrow.

   When it comes to Science Fiction hacks, though, for some reason Robert Moore Williams comes to mind. Not that Iíve read anything by him in nearly 50 years, but Iím sure I have, and it must have stuck with me, since (rightly or wrongly, but with no malice intended) Iíve tended to use his fiction as more or less my yardstick of hackwork.

   Titles such as Conquest of the Space Sea (1955) and Zanthar of the Many Worlds (1967) might suffice as examples, but in all honestly, since I havenít read them, I can hardly dwell on them.

   I will point out that Robert Moore Williamsí SF career started considerably earlier than did, say, John Brunnerís, whose novel on the other side of this Ace Double I reviewed here not so long ago. Brunner first novel was published in 1951, I believe, but it wasnít until the late 1950s that anyone began to take notice of him.

   In comparison, Williamsí first story appeared in Astounding SF in 1937, and he had a long list of other pulp stories to his credit before he turned to paperback fiction in the 1950s. But no matter; even in 1962 his pulp roots show. The Darkness Before Tomorrow has, I am sorry to say, very little in it for which I might recommend it to you.

   The opening couple of chapters are adequate, however, and indeed maybe even more than adequate. The story begins in the year 1980 or so, with the action going on immediately, allowing the characters to be introduced on the fly.

   Someone, as it happens, has discovered a new kind of weapon that kills without making a wound of any kind. Scientist George Gillian stumbles across a body killed in such a way and hence into a crossfire between the villains and the pair who are resisting them, a brother and sister (Eck and Sis) whose side Gillian quickly joins.

   If I were to tell you that the head villain is a ruthless gangster named Ape Abrussi, and his headquarters are in whatís called Mad Mountain, you will know at once what kind of story this is. It is also the story of aliens walking among us (with small horns on the foreheads and goat-like eyes), with only good intentions (it is assumed), and no, Ape is not one of them. It turns out that he came across his new weapon only by accident, and now that he has, his intentions are to rule the world.

   In a novel like this, of course, good luck with that.

   And so, the big question is: Is this the work of a hack? “Hackery” is such a pejorative term I’d hate to say yes, but I have a feeling that by many people’s standards, the answer is is probably in the affirmative. Williams is good in describing places and things, conjuring up loads of atmosphere for the former and having an excellent eye for detail on the latter.

   But what he’s not so good at are essential things, such as working with people and complex relationships between them — nor is the dialogue they speak anything but stiff. Williams is not so good at science, either, but he’s good at waving his hands and making believe that he does.

   But you could say pretty much the same sort of things about 90% of the writers who wrote for the pulps. What most of them could do, though, those who were successful at it — and I’d place Robert Moore Williams among them — was to write stories that made readers keep on reading them. It worked for me!