Visions of Paradise

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Kate Wilhelm

Although Kate Wilhelm began publishing in the 1950s, the first stories of hers I read were in the late 1960s when she became a fixture on Nebula Award ballots. Back then I always bought the annual Nebula Award volume, and that's where I read her winning short story "The Planners". Soon thereafter I started buying Damon Knight's anthology Orbit, where Wilhelm published at least a story in every issue (not surprisingly, since it must have been a lot less stressful selling stories to her husband than to other editors). Kate Wilhelm and Orbit were a perfect match since she wrote the kind of quiet, literary SF which Knight favored in Orbit, stories which came into vogue in the wake of the mid-1960s "New Wave”, but which were hard to find in a field whose practitioners still tended to come from pulp origins and scientific backgrounds (although English majors and literary backgrounds were beginning to appear, witness Thomas M. Disch, Michael Bishop, etc.)

“The Planners” was ostensibly about animal experimentation–injecting a type of DNA into a colony of monkeys to spark their intelligence, then experimenting to see if they were actually progressing. But that was just one aspect since, as the story’s title illustrates, it is primarily a story about the scientists conducting the experiments, specifically the main character who hallucinates continuously throughout the story. It was worthwhile reading and definitely thought-provoking.

"Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang" was a novella originally published in Orbit 15, which was later expanded into a novel of the same name which won a deserved Hugo Award as Best Novel of the Year. Its premise is typical 1970s: in a near-future Earth all the ecological disasters which humans have ignored for so long–and have actually fostered in the name of increased technology and high standard of living–have finally made life virtually uninhabitable on vast portions of Earth, destroying the fertility of all men and women in the process, and virtually shattering the social structure throughout the entire world. A group of farmers and scientists hidden in a secluded valley begin experimenting with cloning in attempts to resuscitate the dying human race. The story is quite condensed for a novella, covering several decades in time, generally skimming over much of the character development to get to the important events. It's obvious reading the novella that there is a novel squeezed between the lines, so this was a rare instance where the novel was an improvement of an already-strong story.

"April Fool’s Day Forever” is basically a companion piece to “Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang” in that it also takes place in an ecologically-ravaged Earth where scientific advances have basically split the surviving humans into two sub-races–like Neanderthals and Cro-Magnon, a comparison one of the story’s two protagonists makes several times. The story seamlessly combines sharp character development, science fictional speculation, and the sensibility of a horror thriller in a lowkey fashion that never make you feel manipulated as a reader, but rather draw you into her web of intrigue inexorably like a hapless fly being slowly devoured.

The main characters are a young married couple, the husband a science writer for a popular nightly news program and the wife a sculptor. In recent years she has given birth to two sons, only to have both of them die abruptly in the hospital. Both husband and wife separately feel the light touch of conspiratorial tentacles, although both intuitively and not strongly enough to serve as solid evidence. She fears that the deaths of her children were not natural events, but caused deliberately by a person or several persons in the hospital. He suspects some government hanky panky behind strange quarantines taking place in Britain supposedly for health reasons but whose pattern does not quite follow the health emergency accurately. And his unease is encouraged by the news anchor who, over a strange dinner in a sex club, drops hints about immortality and conspiracies attached to it.

The plot advances a bit too quickly, generally propelled by theories proposed by the wife which eventually evolve through the thriller stage into an all-is-well ending which seems too unsubstantiated, too sudden, and too optimistic considering the world is actually tottering on its last legs. This novella was almost as terse as “Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang” and would probably be improved by expansion into a novel where the terseness could be replaced by real development. Alas, unlike “Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang,” a novel version never appeared.

However, Wilhelm did not abandon the theme of immortality since it reappeared in what I consider her best book, the collection Listen, Listen, specifically in the wonderful novella “The Winter Beach”, which was subsequently expanded into the novel Welcome, Chaos. This book shows Wilhelm at her most mature, and “The Winter Beach” is a well-crafted, slow-paced story which walks the boundary between character study, thought-provoking idea story, and mystery thriller about as well as any writer has ever done. Its main character is a history professor who gives up her career to research eagles for a book. In the process she forms a friendship with a refined elderly man and his young servant who obviously possess a secret, although she does not know if it involves something as mundane as drug smuggling or as profound as their possession of an immortality serum. The story avoids all the mistakes of “April Fool’s Day Forever” and is much more leisurely than the compact “Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang,” and both it and its novel expansion succeed in being totally satisfying in their similar, but different ways. If you want to see Kate Wilhelm at her very finest, and indeed thoughtful-yet-thrilling science fiction at its finest, I strongly recommend either the collection Listen, Listen or the novel Welcome, Chaos.

It's a bit sad that in recent years Wilhelm has virtually abandoned science fiction and horror in favor of mysteries. The good news is that her mysteries are quite good indeed, containing the same kind of character development and thought-provoking premises that fill her science fiction. I totally enjoyed Death Qualified, her mystery concerned with chaos theory in a very science fictional way, and most of her mysteries are contained in the same series as that novel.

Overall, if you like thoughtful, slow-paced, character-oriented science fiction, you cannot go wrong reading Kate Wilhelm.


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