Juniper Time, Kate Wilhelm (1979)
Review by Joachim Boaz
“Everything that is, Robert had said, must be. Every cycle must be completed, must lead to the next cycle. He had talked about times when the desert had been drier than it now was, times when it had been lush and wet, and there had been no questions in his mind that this too must be” (p 170-171)
At the heart of Kate Wilhelm’s Nebula-nominated novel Juniper Time is the notion of historical cyclicality at both the macro- (earth cycles) and the micro- (human historical time) levels. The near future mysteriously drought stricken world where Wilhelm is an important juncture of two such cycles. The macrocycle concerns devastating world-wide desertification, which is most caused by a natural cycle but the precise nature of which is unknown. The microcycle concerns a shift in human populations in the drought stricken countries: mass migrations towards coasts as the springs and rivers of the hinterlands turn to mud. In this world the farmer, in the past linked tightly to his fields, abandons his traditional position in American society and moves to a cluttered and violent state-controlled “Newtowns.”
Although Wilhelm’s characterization of the effects on the drought on individuals and communities no where matches the power of JG Ballard’s masterpiece The Drought (1964), the intense change (and malaise generated by the inevitability of it all) caused by the effect is often evocative. But where the novel suffers concerns the figures and their actions arrayed against this parched backdrop: Wilhelm loses some of her characteristic psychological intensity juggling the unwieldy jumble of plot threads: pseudo-utopian Native Americans seek a return to the wild, the white woman saves the Native American language by creating a dictionary and braves the horrors of a “Newtown”, a mysterious object is found in space near a space station that might indicate alien communication, mystery and cover-up concerning the purpose of the space station, etc. Most frustrating are the uncharacteristic linguistic information dumps near the end of the work that threaten to kill-off the ruminative power of the thematic content.
Wilhelm’s prose can be articulate and beautiful: “I could feel myself not all the way asleep, and I could see myself dreaming a real dream. And I thought how my mind was like a long stretched-out snake. It was in such a hurry to dream that the wrong part went ahead and started before the rest of it was even there” (p 5). But these gorgeous and meaning-rich moments decrease over the course of the novel. Also, the work contains careful and planned movements of plot/character/metaphor: the lives of the two main characters who were childhood friends both change with a death, their eventual meeting later in life pits two vastly different mindsets against each other—cycles within cycles within cycles.
In my attempt to read all of Wilhelm’s pre-1980 SF novels (and short story collections), Juniper Time has proven my least favourite of her post-pulp works so far: Margaret and I (1971) possessed a sheer hallucinatory horror, the collection The Downstairs Room (1968) contained a handful of brilliant and terrifying social SF stories, and of course, little needs to be said about her Hugo-winning masterpiece Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang (1976).
Juniper Time is still worthwhile for fans of 70s social SF and Wilhelm’s other novels.
“For years Jean did not believe in the moon as a real place where people could go. When she became aware that her father believed in it, she had to accept the reality of the moon as a thing, but never as a place. Perhaps there were people already there, she thought, but no one could go there” (p 1)
Jean’s father, Daniel, is an astronaut who heads periodically to the moon. But her family is not the perfect American astronaut’s family, her mother incessantly drinks when husband is away. And Jean struggles to come to grips with her father’s profession. Daniel heads a project to develop a space station that supposedly will help in some vague way with the slowly encroaching drought… But it is a dangerous mission both due to the demonstrators at home and the dangers of building in space. And when Daniel dies while out near the station in a small one-man capsule, Jean exits childhood. This moment is seared into her memory, although its implications will not be felt until later in her life.
Jean becomes a linguist who works for a eccentric genius: as his grad assistant she becomes part “of the complex machinery that finally was proving his theories that any language, even the most difficult coded languages, could be understood and decoded by a computer if only it was programmed correctly” (p 42). At the moment of breakthrough, facilitated by her brilliance, Jean abandons the project as the government sees its potential for weapons and other plots. Drifting from place to place, Jean soon moves to a “Newtown,” one of many camps for the dispossessed who were forced to move by the drought. The “Newtowns” provide food, education, etc paid by the government but are warrens of crime.
After Jean is raped, she recovers from the psychological trauma she experienced she joins up with Richard and a Native American tribe in the Pacific Northwest. A few of the Native people seeks a return to the wild despite the desertification and employ Jean’s linguistic expertise in preserving their language and teaching their children English. It is here that she finds a semblance of peace.
The second plot thread concerns Cluny, Jean’s childhood friend, whose father was also working on the space station with Daniel. Cluny follows in his father’s footsteps and desires above all else the continuation of work on the space station. I found his story less memorable until the point where he seeks the aid of Jean. Cluny and his colleagues have discovered a mysterious object in space (perhaps that’s why Jean’s father was out in his one-man capsule?) with a language of some sort across its surface. Cluny employs Jean’s assistance in decoding it.
The cycles are established: Jean’s return to the wilderness with a people who once migrated across the expanse of the west. The natural cycle of desertification that threatens to change all that was. Cluny is desperate to abate the flow of time, desperate for some real message on the “mysterious object” that will bring all the nations of the world together to finish the space station and fight the what he sees as the end of things. Cluny’s desperation has devastating results and he will use less than savory means to bring force Jean to contribute her knowledge.
But is it even possible to modify these patterns and paradigms of change?
This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.