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.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm

where-late-the-sweet-birds-sangWhere Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm (1976)
Review by Victoria Snelling

This was an interesting read from a style perspective. It was published in 1974 and feels even more dated than that. Partly it’s because the book looks at cloning technology and its physical and psychological effects and much of the thinking has moved on a lot since. That aside, I think the main thing creating the archaic feel was the use of omniscient point of view.

I can’t remember the last time I read something where the narrative was so far removed from an individual character’s POV. The advantage to this is that it keeps a story that unfolds over several generations to a manageable length. The book is relatively short at approx. 75,000 words. It also keeps the focus on the intellectual ideas behind the book – what happens when people only reproduce by cloning – and allows the author to present several sides of the debates.

The downside is that characterisation suffers. The reader never really gets in the head of the characters. On the one hand, the clones are presented to the reader as not quite human and distant POV gets in the way of identifying with them. There are two cloned characters, Molly and Mark, that we do get a bit closer to in the second half of the book and they are presented as being more human. I wonder if this was deliberate in order to emphasise that the clones are not like us. Which might have worked if the fully human characters in the first part of the book were more fully drawn. In the end I think that Molly and Mark are the most developed because they get the most POV time.

In this book I really noticed that the dialogue was used to explore the intellectual concepts of the book rather than as a characterisation tool.

It’s been a long time since I read a sci-fi novel in which the story was so clearly subordinate to the idea. I enjoyed it, but this one’s for the purists.

This review originally appeared on Boudica Marginalia.

Welcome, Chaos, Kate Wilhelm

welcome_chaosWelcome, Chaos, Kate Wilhelm (1983)
Review by Megan AM

Two parts mainstream Cold War espionage thriller to one part bio-social science fiction, Welcome, Chaos is a departure from Wilhelm’s reflective, elegiac vision of seven years prior: the captivating, multiple award-winning Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1976). In many ways common with one another, both novels contain themes of pre- to post-apocalypse, survival via artificial biological advancements, ethics of scientific intervention, and, well, birds.

When Lyle Taney leaves her history professorship to study nesting eagles on the coast of Oregon, she finds herself torn between befriending her warm, intelligent neighbor Mr. Werther, and spying on him for arrogant CIA agent Lasater. She doesn’t trust the domineering CIA agent, and she’s both intrigued and attracted to Werther, and his house servant Carmen. Are these men really responsible for the deaths of two scientists?

Between both novels, Wilhelm seems to be saying that it will require an apocalypse to put power into the hands of scientists, but she’s uncertain if this is a good thing. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang serves as an ethical quandary, emanating a suspicion of scientists with bountiful resources, power, and entitlement, Welcome, Chaos conveys an optimism about similar circumstances, where scientists stand poised to serve humanity at the edge of nuclear annihilation. Both narratives are motivated by ethical questions, but, unlike Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Welcome, Chaos fails to provoke any serious and prolonged contemplation.

The difference lies in the treatment of the protagonists. In Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, the protagonists are symbolic of every person; the reader sees humanity at the core of the tale. That micro-story about a small, intimate post-apocalyptic community feels grander, all-encompassing. The tension affects us. This could be us. Alternately, the protagonist in Welcome, Chaos is one woman, one damn lucky woman, who stumbles into an unlikely situation, is likeable enough to be welcomed and supported in said situation, is loved by multiple men, and who ultimately aids in the survival of humanity.

But the overarching theme is essentially about big decisions about life, love, survival, and, primarily, the female self. Taney, initially a doormat by modern standards, develops to become a more modern woman. The text, feminist from the get-go with Lasaster’s relentless blasts of condescension, (“Maternal devotion, security, money, revenge, that was what [women] understood” p20), makes it obvious that Taney will choose to defy Lasater and abandon her meek life.

But that’s part of what keeps this novel from being just a generic grocery store thriller. Over thirty years before Ancillary Justice, Kate Wilhelm plays with language degenderification by gender swapping character names, like Lyle, Carmen, Hilary. Even [Lass]ater is an appellative joke, as the vain, needy detective demonstrates his inability to drive. She takes gender relations further, introducing Taney to a household of scientists with open romantic relationships, but without sexualizing anyone. When Taney’s physical appearance is complimented, she is full-cheeked, bright-eyed, with soft hair. Her multiple men love her for who she is. In dangerous situations, Wilhelm’s slight hints at rape tension are oddly and abruptly abandoned—perhaps as a statement on this tired plotting cliché.

But overall, major parts of the narrative are hard to swallow. Lasater locates Werther’s Pennsylvania hideout by simply driving around the entire Delaware Valley region. He plays cat-and-mouse with Taney all over the East coast and finds her in a highway traffic jam during a blizzard. I can’t even find my grandma in the local, rural mall on a weekday morning.

Also, common in thriller fiction is the large cast of (assumed to be) white men as law enforcement and elected officials. Some scenes act as ‘who’s who’, only to become ‘who the hell is who’? Really more of flaw with this particular subgenre, than a criticism of Wilhelm, but difficult to follow, nonetheless. Also, those ethical questions that are primarily posed to drive tension fail to do so, and the only real tension revolves around the true identities and motivations of Werther and Carmen – interesting, yes, but are resolved by the middle of the novel. The rest of the novel serves as playground for Taney’s risk-taking, but her evolution as a strong, independent woman is complete by then. We believe in her, so there’s no real reason to worry.

Just looking at Wilhelm’s bibliography, it’s apparent that her body of work has changed over time, with her psychological sci-fi giving way to mystery fiction. Welcome, Chaos serves as a clear transition of Wilhelm’s interests in this regard, where the serious treatment of scientific advancement takes a backseat to detective chases and scientific scheming. Given Wilhelm’s vocal frustration at the publishing industry, this may be a financial decision for this award-winning and celebrated author. But this is no Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang.

So maybe Welcome, Chaos does read like a novel from a grocery store shelf, but it’s top shelf grocery store fiction because Wilhelm knows what she’s doing in this format, she does it well, and she doesn’t cater to formula or cliché. Generic flavor, but with natural ingredients, it’s not satisfying in the sense that it will thrill or provoke, but it does compel page-turning. Wilhelm’s Taney is a unique female voice, it’s fun to watch her grow, and the arc unfolds in an unusual way. Categorize this one as a mainstream follow up that straddles subgenres, while being alternately dubious and unputdownable.

This review originally appeared as a guest post on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm

where-late-the-sweet-birds-sangWhere Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm (1976)
Review by Kate Macdonald

Three months ago I had never heard of Kate Wilhelm. Science Fiction and other Suspect Ruminations ran a week of Wilhelm guest reviews recently, which alerted me to her existence. I found Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang in Aberdeen’s fine second-hand bookshop Books and Beans, a week after that, and carried it home in triumph. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang won the Hugo Award in 1977 for the best science fiction novel, as well as the Jupiter and the Locus in the same year. The Jupiter Award for best novel, according to Wikipedia, was only awarded four times, and two of the other three winning books were Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama and Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. These three have also won the Locus Award, along with, for instance, Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven and Vonda McIntyre’s Dreamsnake. So, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang should be a good indication of the quality of Wilhelm’s 1970s sf.

I read Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang with increasing attention over a day. Though it was highly absorbing, beautifully written and had a good, thought-nagging central premise, it bothered me. Afterwards, in chats with other folks online, it appears the novel was stitched together from a set of novellas, which helped me understand its curious structure, constructed of sections with overlapping character involvement. It’s set in a post-disaster scenario sometime in the future, on the east coast of America (yawn … why do American writers think this is the optimum location for futuristic survival narratives? There are other areas in the world …) in a remote valley somewhere near Washington DC (convenient for a later metaphor on the destruction of the Capitol equalling the Destruction of the Nation).

A tight-knit and frankly rather creepy family, called Sumner after its patriarch, decide that they will pool all their cash and technical training to build a secret underground laboratory and learn to clone human beings. Any day now, the very obvious changes in weather, disease resistance and crop failure will kill off most of the Earth’s population, and they want to ensure some kind of survival.

In the Sumner family all its professionals and technically trained people are male, whereas the women are only allowed to be mothers and cooks. This is disturbing: this speculative novel was written after many other sf novelists had managed to imagine a future society in which social systems had evolved along with science and technology, yet it will not let go of the social norms of the era in which Wilhelm grew up, the 1940s. What was she thinking? Wasn’t she aware of feminism, or civil rights developments in her own society? She creates a conveniently normate group of characters to enhance the lesson her central plot gives – that artificially repressing difference suppresses humanity’s strengths – but it also suggests that she wasn’t interested in drawing a whole society, only an idea.

The big, big futuristic, wildly speculative aspect of this idea that does show Wilhelm thinking totally out of the 1970s box in terms of social evolution is in how she uses sexuality. The clones are encouraged to be sexually active in all possible permissive ways from as early an age as they want, and they evolve a mat-playtime component to their socialising. This is essentially a long group sex session for group bonding and mutual satisfaction and comfort, enhanced by their in-group telepathy. I assume that the germ of this idea came from Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). Some other 1970s preoccupations – for instance ecology – also made it into her story of the possible future.

Wilhelm was clearly thinking only about the social effects of cloning on society, since the successive four sections of the novel deal with what happens when cloning has been achieved; what happens to an isolated society when a child is born naturally and grows up outside a clone group; and how cloning reduces imagination and lateral thinking to such an extent that the highly trained clones can’t think for themselves, and are ultimately an evolutionary dead-end. This vision is brilliant, a splendidly-told and enacted extrapolation of a single idea, that works so well as a central thread of narrative. This is why this novel won its awards.

Wilhelm writes with most power when she’s describing how Mark, the throwback human in the community of clones, behaves and acts in opposition to his environment. This is a very effective way of imagining being human as ‘other’, and works so well to add tension to the brave but hopeless expeditions of the clones to try to find new supplies. They can’t learn to find their way in the woods, they don’t understand how to rebuild a mill, they can’t improvise or imagine, they don’t believe what they haven’t been told, they die of exposure and radiation, but not stupidity. The clones are not stupid, they’re just incapable of learning and adapting. Ultimately, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is about what being human means.

This review originally appeared on

The Clewiston Test, Kate Wilhelm

clewistonThe Clewiston Test, Kate Wilhelm (1976)
Review by Nicolette Stewart

The Clewiston Test is a modern, science fictional The Yellow Wallpaper. As taut, tense and claustrophobic as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 feminist short story, The Clewiston Test is physically painful to read, even as it forces you to marvel at the talent that wrought its infectuously uncomfortable atmosphere.

The parellels between The Yellow Wallpaper and The Clewiston Test are uncanny. Not because it is an odd source of inspiration, but because the repetition of the same feminist tale in two (we like to think) drastically different time periods highlights that women have been dealing with the same old bullshit for hundreds of years. Uncanny? How about depressing?

Both stories contain an injured or ill female first-person narrator, confined in the name of recovery. Both women are married to scientists: Gilman’s a doctor, Wilhelm’s the narrator’s partner in pharmaceutical research. Both women suffer because of the confinement of the sick bed, and both of their husbands make the situation worse with a patronizing, “Daddy knows best” attitude. As the two women teeter on the brink of (in)sanity their spouses use their disability in order to disempower them through condescation, infantilization, discredition, and still more horrifically in Wilhelm’s story, rape.

But where Gilman took 6,000 words to examine this dynamic, Wilhlem takes… far more, and this allows her story a depth and complexity for which The Yellow Wallpaper does not have the space.

The Clewiston Test begins with Anne and Clark still in love, though an offhand comment forshadowing the coming rape is the start of readerly unease; this isn’t going to be a happy scientist-on-scientist romance. Anne must remain in bed recovering from severe injuries (car crash) while her colleagues continue to work on the miracle pain killer she discovered. When the project gets government approval ahead of schedule, the team are pressured to forge on without Anne – leaving Clark with the credit for her work, and creating an ideal oppurtunity for Wilhelm to depict workplace sexism. When Clark decides to withhold this information from Anne, their relationship begins to disintegrate. Meanwhile in the lab, moral qualms about the new painkiller’s safety are pushed aside in favor of speed and profit. And they all fall down.

The Clewiston Test is a page turner, and though I was never tempted to put it down – I read the last half in a fury late one night, unwilling to sleep until I knew what had happened in the end—I had a stomach ache for over half of the book. Anne’s confinement and helplessness became my own. This is a deeply uncomfortable book, but it is also an important book because at its core The Clewiston Test is about consent: giving it, taking it, and the fucked up power dynamics involved when informed consent is ignored in favor of force.

There is a rape. A horrible, on-screen rape. (What some people refer to as “marital rape”, though I see no value in qualifying the term, as if to imply that “marital rape” is not really rape.) I am getting tired of seeing rape in fiction, but I have to hand it to Wilhelm: she depicts rape in a way that feels realistic in its horror and emotional consequences while at the same time not making the rape the defining characteristic of the female victim. The rape defines Anne’s relationship to Clark, but never defines Anne, a smart woman with agency. Though we are with Anne for the rape, she disassociates, and we aren’t given any of the lurid, pornographic details that so often make fictional rape scenes feel like they were written with pleasure, not horror, in mind. I repeat: the rape scene is horrible.

But not horribly handled, and Anne immediately calls it by name, pointing out the shudder-inducing “Daddy knows best” attitude that makes Clark think forcing himself on Anne is good for their relationship. He doesn’t understand what the problem is. They’re married aren’t they? He knew her doctor had given her permission to have sex again. What about his needs? What a fuckwad. As she weeps in bed afterwards, she has to explain to him why raping her was fucked up: “It had to be your way. You always know what will be best for me don’t you, and I have to do it that way. If my legs ache, or I get a cramp in my thigh, or whatever, it has to be your way. For my sake, of course.”

Clark, unwilling to face the reality of what he has done, chooses instead to question his wife’s sanity. Because questioning his privelege and his misuse of that power are not an option. As Anne later tells a friend, “… he would rather believe…that I am going crazy, that I’ll become a psychopathic killer, than face the truth. That isn’t love. That’s the wail of a child who’d rather see the end of the world than give up his grubby teddy bear.”

Kate Wilhelm: calling out male privilege since 1976. (At least.)

This would be an important statement of itself, but Wilhelm addresses the issue of consent and force in almost a dozen other situations throughout the novel without ever making the story feel like a mallet.

Anne’s painkiller research team worry about the possibility that they are being used as test subjects for gen modified food another department is working on without their permission or knowledge. The thought really pisses them off (p 69). Animal test subjects – who obviously have not given consent, though it is a credit to Wilhelm’s light hand that she never points it out directly – in their experiments experience horrific side effects from the painkillers, leading to several even more horrific deaths. Meanwhile, at home, Anne coddles a pet kitten (p 81), and she and Clark are very upset when it gets hurt. Though Anne insisted (and was promised) that the human test subjects in the next stage of painkiller testing would be fully informed and fully consenting (because for some reason they need to test pregnant women? I didn’t catch why), the boss man decides that uninformed pregnant women in a local prison will be used instead.

Women as pets, women as test subjects. Animals as pets, animals as test subjects. Women in cages, animals in cages. The anger unconsenting adults feel at being unwitting test subjects. Who is allowed to consent and when and why? Who is forced to participate against their will and when and why?

Do you see how many layers Wilhelm has going here? This book spent at least 100 pages making me nauseous, and I still want to re-read as soon as I can to see just how she managed to put together such a layered, complex tapestry.

Why isn’t Kate Wilhlem on evey single “Best SF” list ever? It is fucking criminal that this book isn’t praised more vehemently, more often. If I hadn’t picked up this massive yellow omnibus at LonCon3 (thanks Gollancz), I may never have read it because Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is the obvious first choice with Wilhelm’s books.

There is so much more to say. I haven’t even mentioned Deena, the office’s “militant (straw) feminist” or the questions of ethics in scientific research or the way shifts between point of view characters give us a wide-frame view of every issue. I didn’t mention my slight dissatisfaction with the ending (which felt too optimistic, too light, to follow the dark contents of the previous pages, though it was a win for feminism) or my annoyance at having to hear about Anne’s dreams. I’ve run out of time. But I will tell you this, The Clewiston Test gets a rating of nine out of ten from me.

This review originally appeared on Bookpunks.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm

where-late-the-sweet-birds-sangWhere Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm (1976)
Review by admiral ironbombs

I knew Wilhelm was the wife of famed editor-critic Damon Knight, I’ve seen other SF bloggers write glowing praise for her novels, and I’ve enjoyed a few of her short fiction in the not too distant past. But I’m actually more familiar with her work as a mystery writer – her début novel More Bitter Than Death was a mystery, as were most of the novels she’s written since the 1980s. Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is her most famous entry, winning a clutch of awards and earning nominations for several others upon release, so I decided it would be a good place to start.

As ecological catastrophe looms, David Sumner’s family takes humanity’s last gamble: in an attempt to preserve the human race in the face of global sterility, the Sumner clan holes up in a hospital-laboratory complex to clone a new generation. This proves to be something of a success with unintended consequences: only the first four clone generations are fertile. And worse, the clones seem to have different ideas than their human creators in how this new human race should grow: genetic diversity is not seen as a benefit but a hindrance. The same goes for diversity in individuals – the clones exist as a collective, where free thought and creativity are unheard of. The narrative jumps forward to follow a clone named Molly on a voyage to explore the ruins of Washington DC. On that trip, the clones make a discovery that will change the very fabric of their being – sowing seeds that come to fruition with the third point-of-view character, Molly’s son Mark, as he changes the clones’ society forever.

The novel examines the relationship between society, community and individual, and those themes form the backbone of the novel. The clones establish a society that follows their comprehension and belief for how this new humanity should be structured—alterations due to the ESP-like ability where batches of clones share emotions and feelings, an empathic link to other clones from the same genetic source. This causes them to form a collective society as individualism is beyond their comprehension; since everything they do and feel is shared within the group, isolation becomes akin to torture, and individuality is a frightening heresy. They are not selfish or petty, acting in the community’s best interest, but can enact great cruelties of compassion – they take great pains to keep the humans and fellow clones alive, but retain many of their fertile members as little more than breeding stock for artificial insemination, hoping to create an army of young clones to reclaim the cities of New England.

David realizes what he and his family have created is not humanity’s salvation but its replacement, though his attempts to alter the clones’ course fail; instead, it’s the great trauma that Molly faces that triggers a new awakening within the clone society. The clones become worried as she develops latent traits of individuality, thought long-lost and dormant by the clone leadership. And her son, Mark – the product of sexual/biological reproduction – lives on the fringe of their society. Learning from Molly and old books, he has traits that the community needs: the ability to survive and explore out in the wilderness, as the other clones grow terrified under the solemn trees. Mark is creative and self-sufficient, but he cannot exist on his own – without a community, without heirs, leaving the clone society will make him an evolutionary dead-end. He even tries to connect with the clones and breeders, looking for someone who can understand and befriend him, to no avail. His alien individuality and childish pranks make him into a danger to the collective’s way of life, and creates a tenuous link between the two groups: each finds the other incomprehensible, but both have something the other needs.

At one level, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang might be read as an allegory for libertarianism, railing against communism or “keeping-up-with-the-Joneses” conformity, an overtly simplistic black-and-white comparison where the individual is good and the community is bad. If that was the author’s intent, I didn’t see it as that stark of a good-bad contrast. The clones and their society have serious flaws, and with each new generation it gets worse – with each successive generation, the clones lose more of their creativity and individuality. They are blind to their flaws, unable to see what they are missing for their lack of it, and many of them are presented in a humane way despite their limitations. And while Mark could escape the collective at any time, without a community of his own nothing will change, and nothing he’s learned would carry on to a new generation. The book investigates some prescient issues – what is the relationship of the individual to the community? How do the individual and collective interact, when both have something the other needs yet cannot comprehend? Can one person change the workings of an entire society?

I’m well acquainted other pastoral post-apocalyptic novels – The Long Tomorrow, Greybeard, City and other Simak stories – but I think Wilhelm pens it better than anyone else. Her prose sways gently like grass under a warm summer breeze, with a compelling elegance and a rich texture. She has an incredible ability to create fully realized and sympathetic characters, making them into living, breathing people who spring off the page. And this prose is underlined by raw power – emotion that pulls at your heartstrings. I’ve seen other reviews that criticize the novel as faulty science, finding many of the “clone society” ideas to be implausible. Let’s leave aside the fact that David’s family were not trained scientists and didn’t have time to perfect their cloning methodology, which seems a plausible enough reason to me. I think those criticisms overlook what the novel is saying – Wilhelm wrote a potent allegory with much pathos, a parable that investigates key elements of human society. This is a classic of Soft SF – a book about people and culture – not a textbook for how to clone a living organism.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is a gripping novel that clings to your soul, a skillful and thought-provoking read written in beautiful prose. Her pastoral eco-apocalypse and clone society are rich in detail that gives great insight into the roles of the individual and the collective. While others may criticize the book’s science, I found the story near to perfection and give it a high recommendation. Wilhelm writes with impressive emotion and power in her work; Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is not only one of the most heartfelt SF books I’ve ever read, it also digs into some truths of the human condition with ringing authenticity. If you’re looking for a quality post-apocalyptic novel, or if you want a brilliant examination of family and the individual, or if you dislike SF because you think it is only about cold and detached science, read this book. Despite winning the Hugo and Locus, I don’t think this book gets the recognition it deserves, and every SF reader should consider reading it.

This review originally appeared on Battered, Tattered, Yellowed & Creased.

The Downstairs Room, Kate Wilhelm

downstairsThe Downstairs Room and Other Speculative Fiction, Kate Wilhelm (1968)
Review by Joachim Boaz

By the late 1960s Kate Wilhelm’s SF moved from generally uninspiring pulp (à la the collection The Mile-Long Spaceship) to psychologically taut and emotive mood pieces exploring the almost existential malaise of daily existence and the disturbing effects of “programmed” lives (especially the housewife). The fourteen short-stories in The Downstairs Room and Other Speculative Fiction comprise a snapshot of Wilhelm’s best New Wave work. It should be noted that not all are SF.

Although some are less engaging than others, her harrowing portrayal of starlets subjected to endless psychological torments at the whims of their viewers in ‘Baby, You Were Great’ (1967) (Nebula nominated) and the evocative tapestry of daydreams, scenes of monkey experimentation, tests on a mentally disabled child and convicts, arrayed against the backdrop of a slowly decaying relationship in ‘The Planners’ (1968) (Nebula winner) will appeal to all fans of New Wave SF. Also, if you enjoyed her Hugo-winning/Nebula-nominated novel Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1976) I recommend tracking down some of her late 1960s short stories.

‘Unbirthday Party’ (1968): A very “New Wave” psychologically tense whirlwind of a story… Wellman has the sensation of being on the wrong floor – “although visually there was very little that was not familiar” – and arrives at a room filled with people celebrating. Initially the gathering seems normal, “there was excitement in the room, much laughter, music, and a heady atmosphere created by champagne, good food and convivial people” . However, Wellman soon discovers that people do no know each other and everyone thinks it is someone else’s party. A disoriented Wellman tries to leave, but no one else seems to want to… A cyclical allegory, characters caught up in a mechanism they do not try to understand and do not want to understand.

‘Baby, You Were Great’ (1967) is easily the best story of the collection. John Lewisohn develops programming for ‘A Day in the Life of Ann Beaumont’ – a starlet whose life is literally “programmed”, her emotions recorded, her relationships artifices (all “accidental” meetings are planned, sometimes without her knowledge). The audiences straps in and feels what she feels, lives vicariously through her… “A person fitted with electrodes in his brain could transmit his emotions, which in turn could be broadcast and picked up by the helmets to be felt by the audience. No words or thought went out, only basic emotions […]. That tied with a camera showing what the person saw, with a voice dubbed in, and you were the person having the experience”. But the audience can turn off the anguish… The starlet cannot, her life is no longer hers, and neither is her suffering. In the pantheon of disturbing future programming with Kit Reed’s ‘At Central’ (1967) and DG Compton’s The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (1974).

‘When the Moon Was Red’ (1960): Neither SF nor speculative fiction, ‘When the Moon Was Red’ tells the tale of a brilliant young boy with ride-ranging interests and the desire to be independent from his father. His father is an overbearing sort who desires to do everything with his son instead of let him struggle on his own. A powerful climax results but I found the telling unconvincing.

‘Sirloin and White Wine’ (1968): An elderly couple live in a house filled with memories. There children have left, they discuss absently their children’s activities from a detached distance, they are weak and dying. A last meal is prepared – sirloin and white wine and sleeping pills. An unnerving sadness fills the pages, they have achieved what was expected, a spouse, children, a house… Effective in its simplicity.

‘Perchance to Dream’ (1968): A speculative tale about Barney who dreams about fragments about the future: “There’s going to be a bank holdup, that new black-and-white marble bank over by your mother’s…”. His wife does not believe him. He recounts all his predictions, train derailments in France, scores for games but without the names of the teams, headlines of fatalities for unknown disasters. As with so many of Wilhelm’s stories, actions puncture the tedium of the daily grind, in Barney’s case, his work at a department store, the contents of his lunch, the exact time he arrived home…. As with Silverberg’s Dying Inside (1972) the skills are not put to use. But this dreamed about bank robbery in his own city, could things change?

‘How Many Miles to Babylon?’ (1968): Although it is neither SF nor speculative I found ‘How Many Miles to Babylon?’ stark and well-told. A woman and her child wandering on the road. Through a series of flashbacks we learn about her past and the reason for her departure.

‘The Downstairs Room’ (1968): Vera is a traditional housewife who spends her day preparing her children for school and her husband for work, and the rest of the time cleaning the house, and coordinating with other mothers for her childrens’ school functions. In her house there is a downstairs room that they had planned on turning into a television-recreation room but never gotten around to doing so. She has fond memories of going into the room with Hank before she was married. And it once again becomes a sanctuary… A mysterious sanctuary… And she transforms psychologically, and soon lashes out.

‘Countdown’ (1968): Life proceeds normally near a military base where disembodied voice announces for all to hear the time remaining until a missile launch (the missile launch contains The Bomb). A baby is spooned full of pablum, the men play cards and raise their bets to a dime a point, plans are made to go boating on the lake, idle talk abounds… Stan and his wife simultaneously go through the movements of life as if there was no countdown to the moment when their world will irrevocably change. But there is an urgency to their movements, a knowledge that their “normal” actions could be the last they ever make. But how should one confront imminent destruction? Multi-faceted and brooding…

‘The Plausible Improbable’ (1968): My least favorite story in the collection follows a man named Jeffrey Wentworth Moore who knew when he was going to die. The reason is bizarre – he has discovered that he lives a life based upon the law of averages. However, he accomplishes the averages by wild swings, he gets all his diseases at a young ages and has remarkable health afterwards. He has wild swings of luck… And then bad luck. Exactly what is statistically most likely to happen happens. He is the embodiment of averages and his death is no different. But, it is through his death that Wilhelm’s point is made. It is an avoidable death, but he does not resist. The average life is his destiny, he could not avoid it even if he wanted to.

‘The Feel of Desperation’ (1964): As with Vera in ‘The Downstairs Room’, Marge is a typical housewife performing all the tasks housewives did. And then suddenly it all crashes around her when she is taken as a hostage at a bank. Despite the trauma of the experience and the pain the kidnapper exerts on her, the events of the kidnapping force her to confront the repetitive programmed nature of her life. And although she wants to escape his clutches, the her previous life suddenly seems unappealing.

‘A Time to Keep’ (1962): Harrison, a long-term faculty in an English department, is ignored by his students and most of the world around him. But when new faculty arrives, Miss Frazer, and she takes interest in him. Unfortunately, whenever he walks through a door he catches glimpses of a series of “frightening hallucinations”. Soon we learn of all his repressed memories and his wife, and children. And when he bursts past Miss Frazer to open one last door…

‘The Most Beautiful Woman in the World’ (1968): A young girl, subjected to endless taunts about her lack of external beauty retreats into a world where her external appearance is all that matters. Where she has wealth without doing anything, power without trying, and the imprint on her pillow next to her of a man who calls her ‘The Most Beautiful Woman in the World’. But even in the invented world the bruises on her arms are for all to see…

‘The Planners’ (1968) deservedly won the 1969 Nebula award for best short story. A surreal multi-strand allegory… The plot: a man, Dr Darin, performs experiments on monkeys (who cannot see their captors) to increase their intelligence. Likewise, he subjects a mentally handicapped boy and convicts to similar experiments. The monkeys show strange signs related to the treatment, including a monkey version of a the Biblical story of Adam… Interspersed with the experiments are sequences where Darin’s conscience questions his actions and flashbacks to the breakdown of his relationship and including how he cheated on his spouse. Are their two layers of experimentation? Just as man experiments on the monkeys unseen, modifying their social order, meddling with their minds, is their some other force at play? Hallucinatory. Surreal.

‘Windsong’ (1968): In the era of The Bomb, Dan Thorton is an advanced programmer working on a new-fangled war machine called The Phalanx. Simultaneously interspersed with his development of the super-weapon, that moves through the jungle killing the enemy via box-like subunits which deploy an assortment of grenades and napalm launchers, are a series of memories of Paula, “the windsong, quick, nimble, restless, long hair salt-dulled most of the time, too thin, sharp elbows, knees, cheekbones, collarbones”. As with so many of Wilhelm’s visions, the main character is confronted with his current actions (he develops instruments of destruction), his current relationships (collapsing), and past repressed visions (of a better time albeit, filled with sorrow that changed his life). All the strands weave together in a remarkable fashion creating complexity of meaning and beautiful scenes galore.

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

Juniper Time, Kate Wilhelm

junipertimeJuniper 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.

Margaret and I, Kate Wilhelm

margretandiMargaret and I, Kate Wilhelm (1971)
Review by Joachim Boaz

The grayness swirled and became solid, a plain that was featureless at first, then with grotesque shapes emerging from it, obviously things growing, but things that shouldn’t have been. They looked like monstrous scabs, like leprous fingers curled obscenely in an attitude of prayer, like parts of bodies covered with a fungus or mold, misshapen and horrible. (p 73).

Margaret and I is a profoundly unsettling and hallucinatory exploration of a woman’s sexual and emotional self-realization. Or, to use the Jungian terms deployed by Wilhelm in her preliminary quotation, the novel charts the process of individuation where the conscious and unconscious “learn to know, respect and accommodate each other”.

The SF elements – a future political crisis where a third political party threatens to destabilize the country and a newly discovered knowledge that gives insight into the actions of time – are sprinkled throughout. They are not meant to be “descriptions of a future world” but rather carefully constructed metaphors of Margaret’s struggles. This struggled is apparent in the title for the “I” of the title is Margaret’s subconscious. Just as the external political environment is fragmenting, Margaret’s conscious and subconscious are not in unison.

Kate Wilhelm, famous for the masterpiece Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1976), produced a substantial catalogue of lesser known SF novels and large numbers of short stories that I have only recently started to investigate. Without doubt, her favorite form is the novella – and it is little surprise that her most successful novel is a fix-up work comprised of three novellas. An adept at the shorter form, Wilhelm weaves her trademark dark/claustrophobic ruminations characterized by substantial psychological tension.

Unfortunately, in Margaret and I the psychological tension conjured in the first third looses impetus by the end. However the characterization of Margaret and her subconscious who flits in and out is the most satisfying aspect of the work. Margaret’s slow realization, at the instigation of her subconscious, of her position as an extension of her husband and his desires is convincing and poignant. And, the narrator as the subconscious is more than a gimmick, but a fascinating window into a character.

Recommended for fans of psychological and feminist SF. Although, be aware that the SF elements are secondary to the novel’s aims – they are eluded to as external metaphors for Margaret’s internal struggles. Be aware, there are extensive autoerotic sequences and hallucinatory sexual visions that are not suitable for younger readers. Mature audiences will realize that they are necessary elements of the narrative and characterizations.

Margaret Oliver flees from her husband Barnett to the house of her sister-in-law Josie Oliver. In a strange sequence of decisions, Margaret decides that she rather take on the identity of Josie Oliver, who is absent, and hide her own. She is desperate, urged on by her subconscious who is narrating, to figure out where her life went wrong and what exactly about her husband is so repulsive to her. Also “she is still grappling from the problem of her sexuality and the senseless promise she had made herself” (p 21).

Josie Oliver, the owner of the house, is a well-known costume designer. Her husband, Paul Tyson, a physicist who was murdered…. And whose secret discoveries are locked away in journals in a safe. Various forces conspire to access the safe and uncover its secrets. Including Dr. Bok and his assistant Morris Stein who studies “Perception Distortions in Various Psychological States” (p 63).

Swirling at the edges is the figure of Barnett, Margaret’s husband. Barnett treats her as a object, he believes “buying her pretties” will satiate all her desires (which he never bothers to ask about). Barnett is involved with the sinister politician Arnold Greenley. Greenley wants Margaret to join Barnett on his campaign because she is pretty and speaks like Midwesterners do. His motives at first glance seem obscure, he does not have a distinct political platform but rather lusts after power: “all he can hope for, as he well knows, is to create a schism in the two major parties and wield a power bloc that will make demands and have enough votes on hand to reward whoever promises to meet those demands…” (p 61).

The house itself – where all these characters’ paths intersect at various points in the narrative – seems to spurn hallucinations. It, with the turbulent ocean nearby, is almost a nexus – a point of intersection…. Greenley and Barnett seek to force Margaret to follow a certain path against the will of her subconscious. The subconscious desires to get at Paul’s journals to learn how to persuade Margaret to chart her own way.

Wilhelm adeptly weaves metaphors and images of fragmentation and individuation: the quests for hidden knowledge (the journals/the subconscious/sexual awareness), masquerading as another (costume designer/Margaret as Josie/Margaret as wife rather than individual), and interior searching (Margaret and her subconscious merging/choices vs societal expectation).

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

Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm

where-late-the-sweet-birds-sangWhere Late The Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm (1976)
Review by Paul Weimer

“What is right for the community is right even unto death for the individual. There is no individual, there is only the community.”

In the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, in isolated Appalachia, a powerful extended family is determined to survive. Crop failure. Climate change. Ecological and environmental collapse. Pandemic, social upheaval and worse. All of this threatens the end of humanity, and indeed of most animal species in the bargain.This community builds itself a safehold to survive the turbulence and save a remnant of humanity in the bargain.

When it turns out the pandemics have left everyone in the extended family infertile, the only solution that presents itself to save humanity is to clone the members of the extended family (and their local livestock as well). The clones can carry humanity ahead a generation or three, and then the ordinary course of marriage and mating can resume the community’s usual social structures. However, once born, the clones have their own

ideas on what humanity should be, and how it should go forward. Ideas very different than their parents…

The novel, like the region of Gaul, is divided into three parts. In the first portion, we are witness to the apocalypse in progress, as David, a scientist, and his family in the Shenandoah Valley, hit upon the idea of using cloning to get around the infertility that threatens the end of this stub end of humanity. It is he, and his former teacher, who both perfect the cloning process and discover that the clones, coming to maturity, have their own ideas of what the future of humanity in their community should be.

In the middle portion of the book, we focus on a clone-descendant of one of David’s cousins, Molly. Molly is a member of a five-clone group of sisters, as everyone in the community now exists as members of four to ten brothers or sister clone groups. The concept of individuality has dissipated considerably, as the clones act and think together. However, a problem has arisen. The technology in the community is failing, especially the technology which allows the cloning new members of the community. Only one solution is logical: an expedition to the outside world to find needed supplies. A mixed group of single members from various clone groups is deemed necessary to have the skills needed to accomplish the mission. However, while on the quest, the clones, separated from their clone-sisters and brothers, develop a completely new problem: individuality.

The final part of the book focuses on Mark. The illicit child of Molly and one of the other members of the expedition to Washington, he is the only individual in the community of clones and is utterly alien to them. However, the clones show a distinct lack of imagination and ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Fortunately, the single individual Mark has no such problems, and so an uneasy relationship is developed, but one that cannot last forever.

The novel’s major thematic tension, as I alluded to in the quote, is the good of the one versus the good of the many. Are they always in opposition? What good is the individual and individuality to a community? This theme is tied up with ideas of isolation and estrangement as characters in all three time periods come to terms with the boundaries of their community, and cross them.

The novel introduces a number of ideas even as it deeply explores the themes revolving around individuality versus collective good. The clones have difficulty being apart from each other and, furthermore, have a limited sort of ESP with each other. Tales of twins being able to know what each other is thinking is explored here and formalized as an ability of the clone groups. Years before Alan Weismans The World Without Us, this novel beautifully and hauntingly describes the reclamation of the Earth from Man by the surviving bits of nature. While animals do not do well, the plant kingdom makes out very well in this apocalypse.

There have been plenty of apocalypses in science fiction, before and after When Late The Sweet Birds Sang. Wilhelm’s community of clones is one of the most unusual, and one of the most serious and thoughtful meditations on what it means to be human, and the best ways to be human.

This review originally appeared on The Skiffy and Fanty Show.