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The Dean of Gloucester, Virginia

by Barry N. Malzberg


"Murray Leinster" was the pen-name William F. Jenkins (1896—1975) used for his science fiction; his was one of the longest and most honorable careers the genre offered. The breadth of that career is astonishing; his first science fiction story, The Runaway Skyscraper was published in Argosy magazine in 1919, seven years before the science fiction genre inaugurated in the 4/26 issue of Amazing Stories had been established. And the short novel The Pirates of Zan, included in this volume, was the last serial to appear in Astounding Science Fiction (November and December 1959) before in January 1960, on its 30th anniversary, it changed its name to Analog.

This is a career and the career is only a part of Jenkins' contribution; he was also an inventor who obtained many patents. One of them, for the so-called "back-screen projector" used in movie theaters to this date, is that device which enables you or the annoying person in the row ahead of you at the Bijou to stand and leave the auditorium in mid-movie without casting a shadow on the screen. Jenkins who lived in Gloucester, Virginia, for most of his adult life, had four children, wrote much other than science fiction (appearing frequently in Collier's, The Saturday Evening Post, other mass circulation magazine of the 1940's and 1950's) but it is clearly the science fiction by which he will be remembered.

Certainly it will not be for his public persona. Jenkins, an extremely shy and publicly withdrawn man, apparently appeared before a science fiction function only once in his life, that a meeting of the Eastern Science Fiction Association sometime in the 1950's, where he was interviewed by ESFA's President, Sam Moskowitz. Jenkins would not face the audience, turned his back, was interviewed upstage by a microphone-bearing Moskowitz who would pass the instrument to Jenkins so that his replies could be audible. Jenkins—according to Donald A. Wollheim—found the experience so agonizing that he never again made a public appearance related to science fiction. None of his writer-contemporaries appears to have met him, he dealt with the editors by mail, and he was never to be seen, even as a spectator, at science fiction conventions.

But he wrote and wrote to great effect and is one of the very few writers to have contributed more than one short story to the canon regarded as famous and which reach far out of the genre of science fiction. (Arthur C. Clarke, author of The Star and The Nine Billion Names of God, is another; Ray Bradbury, author of The Million Year Picnic and The Sound of Thunder would also qualify.) First Contact, the first and still best story of humanity's first intersection in deep space with an intelligent, spacefaring alien race, was publishing in Astounding in 1945, reprinted hundreds of times and is regarded as not only an extraordinarily effective work of fiction and speculation but as a blueprint, a virtual manual, for how such contact might be accomplished safely and in a way which protects the parties who are alien to one another. The other story—which appears in this volume—is A Logic Named Joe, published in Astounding in early 1946, which brilliantly and with astonishing accuracy not only predicts but maps the contemporary Internet, Google searches, dial-up remedies and all. Like Arthur C. Clarke's communications satellite (virtually blueprinted by the young Clarke in 1945) this was here before the subject was here and not only the accuracy but overlap are remarkable. It is also, as you will note, a bitterly funny story.

There is a third work, Sidewise in Time, not nearly as skillfully written, which may be equally influential: published in the 1930's it is one of the earliest treatment of the alternate/parallel-universe theme in science fiction, the branching "real" worlds which would have existed had other choices been made and which adjoin our own. There is a science fiction award, the "Sidewise" for best annual treatment of the alternate-world concept, named in its honor.

Jenkins was always around; he was a major science fiction writer in the pre—John Campbell magazines of the 1930's, then was one of the very few writers to effortlessly manage the transition (with Campbell's installation as editor of Astounding in late 1937) to what we now call "modern science fiction." He was a constant presence in Astounding in the 1940's and 1950's, won his Hugo finally at the age of 60 with the 1956 Astounding novella Exploration Team (the Hugos were only instituted in 1953; science fiction had to catch up to Jenkins), wrote Astounding's last serial, as I've noted, and continued publishing through most of the 1960's, most of this latter fiction being the Med Service stories (published in another volume of this reclamation of his work by Baen Books) and certainly had by the mid-sixties earned the not at all ironic sobriquet "The Dean of Science Fiction," which phrase in fact appeared in his obituary in the New York Times.

A remarkable figure, then, one of the central figures (as so noted in the Clute-Nicholls Encyclopedia of Science Fiction) of "magazine science fiction"—and it was magazine science fiction which drove the category, at least until the early seventies. Until then, virtually all important and influential science fiction appeared first in the magazines, only to reach book form later, and Jenkins was one of the ten or a dozen signal figures of the 1940's Campbell Astounding who were integral to the genre, which had reached its real maturity under Campbell. There is a consensus that Jenkins' novels were not at the level of his short fiction; certainly he published none which had a fraction of the reach and force enacted by First Contact or A Logic Named Joe, and most of the novels have been out of print for many years. The best of the shorter work is, however, unimpeachable and the span of the career, almost fifty years at or near the very top of the genre, is close to unparalleled. It should be added, and not parenthetically, that Jenkins also wrote mysteries and was the editor of an important early science fiction anthology.

A writer of significant range, Jenkins published two stories in Horace Gold's sardonic early-fifties Galaxy, If You Was a Moklin and The Other Now, which managed to embrace Gold's grim world-view in no less sprightly fashion than First Contact had embodied Campbell's more positive mien, and there is little doubt that a Jenkins born fifty or seventy years later could have functioned very well on the cutting edge of contemporary science fiction. Surely A Logic Named Joe was as savagely innovative in 1946 as anything published in our celebrated cyberpunk eighties.

A remarkable, irreplaceable figure. Take him out of the history and as with Campbell that history might collapse. Fortunately we do not have to so speculate; he is here and we are lucky to have him. This collection is both celebratory and as absolutely contemporary as this great writer.

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