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Womack, Jack

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1956-    ) US author whose first five novels are stylish and potent exercises in a post-Cyberpunk urban idiom, and comprise the first instalments in the loose ongoing Terraplane series about the state of America; the sixth volume followed later. The sequence, reminiscent at points of the baroque New York detective fictions of Jerry Oster (1943-    ), begins with Ambient (1987), set in the complexly desolated warzone which New York has become in the early twenty-first century, a tale which evokes comparisons with James Joyce (1882-1941) and Anthony Burgess in its sensuous, choked, eloquent, linguistically foregrounded presentation of the victims of a radioactive Disaster who populate the fringes of the fragmented city, and who so hypnotically manifest the Goyaesque horrors of the scene that volunteer "normals" mutilate themselves and join the ranks of the sinking. In the story itself, however, Womack exhibits a certain lack of plotting imagination, and neither tycoon Thatcher Dryden nor the megacorporation, Dryco, which he runs nearly singlehanded, are particularly convincing when set against the mise en scène. Out of that venue, the protagonists of Terraplane (1988) hurtle pastwards into an Alternate-History version of late-1930s New York, an apartheid-ridden Dystopia – the oppressed lives of Black Americans are described with haunting intimacy – whose vileness may, or may not, be seen as worse than the radiation-corrupted, corporation-dominated nightmarishness of our own new era.

Somewhat less scourgingly, Heathern (1990) returns to New York and to Thatcher Dryden in the Near Future, closer to the present than previous volumes; on this occasion Dryden must try (he fails) to make sense of a Messiah figure whose fate in this venue is dourly predictable and whose humaneness seems, in this context, otherworldly. Elvissey (1993) – which tied for the 1994 Philip K Dick Award with Richard Grant's Through the Heart (1993) – incorporates the Elvis Presley myth into the ongoing sequence; and Random Acts of Senseless Violence (1993) brings the sequence close to the present, conflating the ravaged life of a streetwise girl with the increasing Entropy of a social system that has lost both energy and heart, as the earlier volumes of the sequence have already demonstrated, for they are constructed throughout in reverse chronological order, so that the reader knows that there is worse to come. This reversal of chronology has therefore little of the feel of the usual prequel – which almost always provides a prologue in a minor key to already-narrated major events – and generates a sense that the future is a dying fall. Womack was clearly conscious that the structure of these volumes directly contradicted the expectations of most of his readers; the final volume, Going, Going, Gone (2000), twisting the screw even tighter, is set in an Alternate History continuation of the version of America romantically addressed in Terraplane; but here the Satire is far more savage, with Womack's targets now tending to evoke his readers' actual memories.

Womack's only singleton, Let's Put the Future Behind Us (1996), is a Satirical thriller set in contemporary Russia as unzoned capitalism begins to bite; the complex storyline again involves Elvis Presley, as well as the construction of a theme park where tourists will be able to have a Gulag Archipelago Experience. Womack was clearly not a figure well-designed to write twentieth-century sf; it is to be hoped that he will now publish more sf, in a century that fits him better.

Flying Saucers are Real!: The UFO Library of Jack Womack (2016) is an hilariously annotated catalogue of his UFO library, comprising 242 items and focusing on the 1950s. [JC]

see also: Music; SF Music;.

Jack Wylie Womack Jr

born Lexington, Kentucky: 8 January 1956




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