The 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.