The 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.