The Killing Thing, Kate Wilhelm

killing_thingThe Killing Thing, Kate Wilhelm (1967)
Review by Ian Sales

Kate Wilhelm, who died last month at the age of 89, was probably best-known for her 1976 Hugo Award-winning novel, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, although she won a number of awards, during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, and wrote a large number of novels, novellas and short stories. And not just science fiction. She was also prolific as a writer of crime, or mystery, novels. The Killing Thing was Wilhelm’s third novel, and while it’s a thin novel, it doesn’t deserve the cover art Panther put on the paperback in 1969.

Trace has crashlanded on a deserted alien world, after being chased halfway across the galaxy by an implacable killing robot. It follows him down to the surface and hunts Trace. He must stay one step ahead, despite not knowing the robot’s full abilities, until help arrives.

It’s a tense, if overlong and somewhat over-stretched, narrative, and Wilhelm pads it out with lots of description of the alien desert in which Trace has found himself. A second narrative details the origin of the killer robot, which is not, as the opening suggests, alien but a mining robot repurposed for war by a rogue scientist on  subjugated world. Because humanity – and Trace is human and a member of its military – has conquered the galaxy and considers all the races it has found inferior to its own. And he has a personal connection to the robot’s origin too. It was on a tour of a mining facility that he discovered it.

So on the one hand, The Killing Thing has a man hunted by an implacable foe; on the other, it is humanity’s own hubris which has put Trace in this situation. The novel owes a little too much, however, to its central pulp fiction premise. This means that humanity’s attitude to other races doesn’t read so much as commentary as the natural order of things. Which is entirely the wrong message – and not, I suspect, what Wilhelm intended. True, early science fiction was rife with such sensibilities – and even now there are those who will happily write novels in which the superiority of humanity over all others is baked into the world-building. But then, science fiction is equally happy to normalise slavery, genocide, mega-violence and all manner of prejudice. And has been since its beginnings.

The Killing Thing is not an especially good novel. Wilhelm went on to write a number of better ones. It is, perhaps, the most overtly science-fictional of her novels, given it features spaceships, alien worlds and alien races, when her late books were more about psychology, scientific experiments and, of course, cloning. Wilhelm is hardly read these days, which is a shame as she was much better than a number of writers of her generation who still appear regularly on “best of” and “top ten” lists.

While The Killing Thing is probably one for fans only, others of her works – like Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang, The Clewiston Test, Margaret and I; and much of her fiction – are worth tracking down and reading.

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Memoirs of a Spacewoman, Naomi Mitchison

memoirsofaspacewomanMemoirs of a Spacewoman, Naomi Mitchison (1962)
Review by Bart

Each and every contemporary review of Memoirs Of A Spacewoman I have found is overall positive, if not glowing. That’s understandable, as an obscure 60ies title by an author that is not generally known in the SF community takes a special kind of reader: the lover of “vintage scifi”. One does not coincidentally read this kind of book.

I’m not a total, unconditional vintage SF fan. I read older SF for two reasons: to broaden my view on the history of the genre, and as a part of my search for SF that has endured the ages, and still does the job in 2018 as well. I’m a lenient reader as far as the first reason goes, but hard to please in the latter. Schizoid inner conflict being the result, it makes certain reviews harder to do.

This book can be considered partly as feminist writing, yet it was not marketed as such back in the days: publishers used to stress the sexual content, as Memoirs of a Spacewoman “explores with compassion and wit the infinite possibilities of erotic relationships between a human space-traveller and the bizarre incumbents of the planets she visits” according to my 1976 edition.

Mitchison does a few things I have not come across often, if at all, and as such this book has a radical quality to it.

For starters, she imagines a far future in which humanity has evolved to be uncompromising ethical beings: vegetarians that are even unable to use violence in times of need.

We can’t any longer put our full hearts into violent restraint of another human being.

Peaceful utopias are nothing new, but I haven’t read anything that envisions a future that is so radically peaceful and strictly ethical as this. Mitchison adds to this communication between humans and animals that resembles human-human communication, most animals turning out to be full conscious actors. Such conversations are partly achieved via telepathy, or so it seems – Mitchison is not fully clear on this.

However, I myself would not classify this society as fully utopian. Concepts of the 60ies are thought trough, and free, uncommitted love – coupled with the time relativistic effects of space travel – ends up having an effect on familial structure and love and friendship, ultimately leaving people to be less connected.

‘I wasn’t leaving you, Mary, the way you were.’ I didn’t know what to say. One doesn’t expect an adult colleague to behave in this kind of way.

I wonder what Mitchison felt about all that herself. Not so much the parts about love & relationships, as that’s clear: she and her lifelong husband agreed on an open relationship indeed.

What’s more puzzling are Mitchison’s true feelings about the parental aspects of this novel, as in it mothers leave their children with their peer group after a year. Mitchison gave birth to 7 children, and raised five of them to adulthood.

I did not know about this before I read the book however, and rereading the parts in which an alien ‘child’ of the protagonist dies, gain an eerie vibe because of it – Mitchison wrote Memoirs Of A Spacewoman at 63, about 20 years after her daughter died shortly after birth, and 30 years after she lost a 10-year-old son.

There is emotion, and numbness, and yet at the same time, “I myself was completely unchanged. I had almost hoped I would not be. That was the measure of my grief.”

The opening lines of the book explicitly talk about thoughts of her living children and the two alien ones she lost, and the rest of the opening chapter is dotted with conflicting meditations about parenthood – there is both the perspective of motherhood – a loving, biological urge – as that of sympathy with youngsters wanting to break free from authority.

Some other reviewers tend to highlight the “complex moral problems” this book presents, as Mitchison herself has her protagonist proclaim in the first chapter. I have to rain on that parade, I’m afraid.

The main ethical conundrum of this book is the question whether an alien race, resembling butterflies, is justified in killing some of their caterpillars, as according to these butterflies, some of the caterpillars engage in behavior that the butterflies feel is harming their chances of transforming into healthy butterflies. This causality is not proven however. Mitchison doesn’t leave it to the imagination of the reader, and spells things out clearly:

‘Isn’t it more like what has been done in human history in the name of religion? When people were tortured and burnt alive in order to save their souls in another life, which most of them, perhaps, did not believe in. But the torturers did. (…) So far, I have always found these actions inexplicable, and singularly revolting, but now I think I begin to understand them.’

I do not see the “moral complexity” here. A fair amount of the book’s 160 pages are devoted to the butterfly world, but in the end it’s all pretty straightforward: sometimes people do things because they think they are doing the right thing. Big deal.

The other main philosophical issue is not really of a moral nature, but similarly aims at depth, and again fails. It is more interesting, admittedly. It is about the fact that the human tendency for dichotomies and either/or thinking is a result of our bi-symmetric bodily form, but I’m not sure whether this theory would hold up to careful scrutiny. Mitchison sets up humans against aliens that resemble starfish: their radial body would stimulate other forms of thinking. In the end, it’s all just armchair theory of mind, as the starfish are clearly outclassed by humans, radial thinking notwithstanding. Thinking things through, in reality the starfish might be just as dichotomy-prone as bipedals, as a dichotomy like dead/alive would matter to them too. As such, these metaphorical parts of the book are sloppy.

Not that this matters: Memoirs Of A Spacewoman is set up more as a parable, not a rigorous hard SF story, and Mitchison’s main point – that our thinking originates in our body, stressing the corporeal nature of humans – can’t be refuted, regardless of the fictional simile she uses.

What I did feel worked 100% was the outrageous sexual satire. Some reviewers claim this book is not about sex at all, and stress the book is ultimately about Empathic Communication with the Other. This empathy is indeed important in Memoirs, but sex is a theme too. It’s approached liberal and open-minded, and the highlight of the book for me was a scene wherein the spacewoman gets possessed by something resembling the wild need to be fertilized by an alien phallic outgrowth. Again Mitchison stresses the bodily, instinctual needs of humans. The fact that the phallic outgrowth also doubles as a dead child makes these parts only more baffling, if you would like to release your inner Freud.

The fact that part of this book is satire seems hardly noticed by reviewers. Maybe my reading was influenced a review of Sirius by Olaf Stapledon. That review highlighted the comic significance of a scene I didn’t perceive as comedy at all, so that may have sharpened my senses a bit. This next quote more or less puts all the deep thoughts about empathic communication in a different light.

We used to take our rations and eat them where the creatures could observe us. This roused their sympathy, though they wanted to see the results of the digestive process. I believe Françoise obliged, but they found the result aesthetically disappointing, and tried to express to her their pity and even some thoughts on how a better results could be achieved. This was a first important point of higher communication between our groups.

For those who missed it: they are talking about the aesthetics of shit, as the alien creatures’ main occupation is shitting in patterns. The book is worth the price of acquisition for this passage alone, and with it Mitchison brilliantly subverts her own set up.

I should mention this is not really a regular story with a beginning, an arc, and an end – it could have been easily marketed as a collection of short stories and novellas, sharing a protagonist. This vignette form for worked and did not work. It made the reading light and open, without the burden of a full construct. On the other hand, I hardly felt an emotional connection with any of the characters, not even with Mary, the protagonist – but I would be surprised if that was Mitchison’s main intention.

While this book has many strengths – there’s a ton of big and small imaginative ideas – I have to say I was not fully convinced by its total value as a work of literary art. Novels use language as their medium, and Mitchison’s prose is not remarkable. It’s not that it’s bad, but it simply doesn’t compel. She is not a smith of sentences. So while the content is remarkable, the verbal form not so much.

Then again: not every story needs to be a poem, so is there any redeeming value to reading this, or would a thorough summary suffice? I guess there is: Mitchison manages to utterly surprise a few times, and that by itself is no mean feat.

Still, I didn’t love this as some others do. I’m not inclined to check out Mitchison’s other books – she wrote over 70, in diverse genres – nor to read this ever again.

If you are interested in brave, quirky vintage SF, this book is 100% recommended. Readers interested in an escapist story with a nice plot – wether driven by character or action – should look elsewhere.

This review originally appeared on Weighing a pig doesn’t fatten it.

The Birth Machine, Elizabeth Baines

the-birth-machine-bainesThe Birth Machine, Elizabeth Baines (1983)
Review by Joachim Boaz

“Ladies and Gentleman: The age of the machine” (p 11).

Zelda, described by others as a “good girl” who made a good marriage, enters a hospital for what appears to be a routine pregnancy. Her doctor husband Roland, preoccupied with his upcoming membership exam, ignores and dismisses her worries as those attending her imply they want to induce labour with a new machine: “This machine will revolutionise care on these wards” (p 12). She soon discovers that Roland might have a hand in offering her to his superiors as a potential test subject. At the very least he is complicit. But first she must struggle with her own past that rears up as the drugs are pumped in.

Roland is more concerned with her attractiveness than her experiences before and during her C-section birth:

“‘Oh,’ says Roland. ‘Marvellous.’ Marvellous. Especially for Roland. ‘We’re getting it nice and low, below the pubic hair-line.’ Oh, good. This surgeon must consider she wears very brief bikinis. This patient is a very sexy patient. Or so he flatters Roland” (p 77).

And there are past (well-hidden) struggles between the couple, that must be confronted if Zelda is to assert herself.

Beautiful and powerful moments populate the pages. Zelda’s memories of her family feel like memories. They focus on sensory cues and searing images – things you would remember! Her mother prepares a rabbit:

“She pushed it into the mincer, it choked, she churned hugely at the handle, and slapped back the little arms that flailed; purple bits flew off and stuck like leeches. The air was filled with the high metallic stink of blood” (p 17).

In another passage Zelda and her sister attempt to fix a broken doll – a physical state of the doll forms a recurrent image throughout the novel: “The green-brown liquid dripped through the holes in the skewered head” (p 37).

The hospital embodies the impersonal: “The sheets and pillows are grey, these days no longer boiled, but steeped in disinfectant distilled in some industrial laboratory, a process which leaves them antiseptic but grey” (p 10). Baines’s touches, the plastic sheet doors, the condescending child-talk offered by the nurses make these scenes distinctly unnerving.

Chapter 4 features Baines’s most adept weaving of parallel stories. Three strands interlock: Zelda’s dehumanizing experience in hospital, her personal memories that lead up to the traumatic moment, and the experience of birth abstracted out as university lecture. Baines, predictably, links Zelda’s husband’s medical experiments on hormones in rats with the experience of Zelda, also a test subject unaware of the exact nature of her predicament:

“Everyone waits. Zelda waits. Waits for bread and jam. Waits for her husband. Up at the centre for Medical Research a rat technician takes up a pin and drives it through the pale pink palm of the first rat for dissection” (p 22).

I must confess, I was at a loss about many of fairytale elements of the story due to my lack of knowledge about them. Someone else out there should give it a go! However, they provide some of linking themes and images. For example, a large black bird – “like a mechanical bird” with its breast lit up “with iridescent colours, the fluorescent light of underworld” (p 59) – embodies the forces of oppression that beset her. The cover artist, Hannah Firmin, narrowed in on the visceral essence of the story!

In a discussion with Megan, over at From Couch to Moon, she mentioned that SF about birth has the tendency of “alienifying” the woman’s body. For example, Judith Merril’s ‘That Only a Mother’ (1948) and the countless horror films about women giving birth to monsters (ie, 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby)… Baines in The Birth Machine positions her narrative and polemical aims counter to this tendency. Rather than presenting the birth as unnatural, Zelda struggles against attempts to “alienify” her body by the medical establishment, the patriarchal forces in her life, and the growing technological transformation of the birth processes. In addition, she moves past the tendency to blame herself for the flaws and faults of others. And via her resistance to these forces she comes to grips with her personal trauma.

Note: Although described in the SF encyclopedia as “dark semi-surrealist sf,” The Birth Machine takes place in the 1970s. Perhaps an alternate recent past? The machine itself is never described in much detail nor do I know about experimental 1970s machines to facilitate birth, if they existed at all… But the feel surrounding the device is otherworldly, alternate, sinister.

Publication note: I read the original 1983 edition published by The Women’s Press. Apparently Baines was displeased with the ordering of chapters in the first edition and in 1996 released a self-published restored version. I have not compared the two. However, with this in mind I too found the chapter ordering in the beginning of The Birth Machine slightly odd. It did not detract from my overall perspective on the novel.

This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.