The Mile-Long Spaceship, Kate Wilhelm (1963)
Review by Joachim Boaz
Kate Wilhelm, famous for her Hugo-winning masterwork Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1976), started her writing career with more modest works. The Mile-Long Spaceship collects some of her earliest short stories from the late 50s and a few written for the collection in the early 60s — Clone, her first novel, co-written with Theodore L Thomas would come out in 1965. However, her best sf was published in the late 60s to the mid-70s. Before then her work tended to be straight-forward with an occasional interesting idea or poignant scene but generally unremarkable….
Three stories are worth reading in this collection: an early work of feminist science fiction – ‘No Light in the Window’ (1963), a moody rumination on the claustrophobia of space travel – ‘The Man Without a Planet’ (1962), and an intriguing but underwhelming first contact story – ‘The Mile-Long Spaceship’ (1957).
Recommended for fans of Wilhelm who are curious about her earliest forays into the genre or those (like myself) who are obsessed with 50s + 60s sf. Less fanatical sf fans will be disappointed.
‘The Mile-Long Spaceship’ (1957): Telepathic alien explorers make mental contact (of the non-verbal kind) with an Earthman. Unfortunately, contact causes him to crash his car and end up in a hospital. In their moments of contact the telepaths “transport” him to a conjured mile-long spaceship. The aliens attempt to find out how to visit Earth by suggesting he watch various “films” on the “spaceship” in order for him to identify stars which might suggest Earth’s location. But the Earthman doesn’t have much interest in astronomy, and assumes his delusions are a result of his crash…. A slightly atmospheric tale — but lacking wonder.
‘Fear is a Cold Black’ (1963): Wilhelm’s take on sf/horror is a slightly claustrophobic tale but plods over old ground. An interstellar space cruiser is stricken with a mysterious illness after investigating an abandoned spaceship wreck. The passengers are transformed by their fear: “Giroden making plans for his funereal pyre, Perez creating an enemy to be destroyed, even poor Custens, the least imaginative man on the ship, theorizing that the thing traveled with the food, depriving himself of the sustenance hoping to forestall further spread” (p21). Soon, the true nature of the disease is discovered and the captain has to make a controversial decision to save the crew.
‘Jenny with Wings’ (1963): A downright silly fantasy installment better suited for the Romance sf subgenre — a girl born with wings is raised by her grandfather and scares off all the boys who fall for her when she reveals her wings. They either think she’s an angel and start praying or want to sell her to the circus for some quick cash. She gets word of a nice doctor who cares for others with strange abnormalities (for example, people who sleep underwater). Her doctor’s office visit is filled with sexual tension as the doctor inquires about her life and examines her. She admits she is not well versed in the ways of sex — the doctors reveals (well, in an early 60s manner) that there are other positions. When she flies off to meet her “love” she discovers his true intentions…. Thankfully, there’s someone who really understands her. And they fly off together. A single word comes to mind, “lame.”
‘A is for Automation’ (1959): A sinister tale that ultimately fails to deliver. An automated factory — whose brain center is named Sarah — creates robotic toys. A government inspection arrives to see whether the facility is safe, if it is there’s the possibility of a lucrative Defense Department contract. Old Man Mike, kept on the payroll for goodwill purposes alone due to the automated nature of the factory, detects some strange occurrences but no one believes him — one better not “teach” Sarah too much or “she” might try to reproduce…
‘Gift from the Stars’ (1958): An unscrupulous urban developed wants to get his grubby hands on an entire city block… Unfortunately for him an electronics store with ridiculously low prices is the only business that won’t leave. Mr Talbot is convinced the store is a front for a racket of some sort — he breaks his watch on purpose in order to get the opportunity to scout out the place — he discovers, a (wait for it), “gift from the stars”. A simple, predictable, alien presence on Earth type short story with similar theme to ‘The Mile-Long Spaceship’ — mankind is too stupid, self-centered, and ignorant for first contact.
‘No Light in the Window’ (1963): Easily the best story in the collection…. A thought-provoking work of early feminist social science fiction dealing with relevant themes — in this case, the ramifications of careers on marriage. Connie, a biochemist, and Hank, an astrophysicist are recently married. However, looming over their shoulder is the possibility that both of them will not be selected for one of the few positions on a colonizing spaceship. Hank is calm and convinced that he’ll be going along with his wife. However, Connie is convinced that she will not be going and struggles to digest the potential ramifications for her marriage. Surprisingly, she is selected for the mission and Hank is not….
‘One for the Road’ (1959): A commentary on cold war paranoia, which strangely retains the “scientists are idealists that wouldn’t dream of hurting others” narrative instead of complicating said narrative. The scientist remains guiltless while the public is simply a paranoid mob needing guidance. Massive riots spread across the world due to a badly edited radio broadcast that claimed that the radioactivity due to atomic testing overseen by scientists would cause most people to die from cancer (the proper context removed entirely from the broadcast). Of course, science comes to the rescue before the rioting gets out of hand. A story weakened by its naive message… Of course, when the true ramifications of nuclear testing became known to the American public such stories would be strangely out of place…
‘Andover and the Android’ (1963): Roger thinks women are “simpering females” and would never dream of getting married. However, if he doesn’t get married he won’t get promoted to the vice-presidency of a company. So, he marries a robot. And falls in love with her…. A satirical take on 50s/60s views of women — humorous but far too slapstick for my taste.
‘The Man Without a Planet’ (1962): The second best story in the collection — a moody, psychologically taught story about the strains of a lengthy space voyage to colonize Mars. And, as the crew feels the effects of close quarters, seat thirteen with its strange occupant casts an aura of unease. This dark and contained rumination hints at the heights reached by Wilhelm’s later masterpieces.
‘The Apostolic Travelers’ (1963): A satirical tale about immortality… The Longevity Board on Earth randomly grants a few individuals every year immortality — all the others on Earth can live a prescribed 250 years. Two Brothers (of the monkish variety) of rather dubious standing are selected to appear before the Board in order to become immortal. The true downside of immortality is revealed but the monks agree anyway so that they can convert others for the faith… So they’re supplied with a FTL spaceship in order to prevent the overpopulation of worlds (if everyone could be immortal…).
‘The Last Days of the Captain’ (1962): The idea behind ‘The Last Days of the Captain’ is far superior than the forced/unexciting/dry delivery — Captain Winters is attempting to move all the colonist on a planet to the evacuation extraction point due to a suspected alien invasion. He holds the planet-bound colonists in low esteem — as do all spacers. However, he becomes personally responsible for moving to the extraction point a colonist named Marilyn, who is unsure whether her son and husband will get to the extraction point in time. Eventually, he overcomes some of his prejudice against the simple folk of the farms.
This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.