Listening, listening to Kate

wilhelmlistenListen, Listen is a 1981 collection of short fiction from Kate Wilhelm, the pieces ranging anywhere from (long) short story to novelette or novella in length. The four tales included in this volume share a general similarity of theme, all depicting encounters with the bizarre, with strange beings, aliens, forces, powers, or whatever the case may be, right here in our own seemingly normal present-day world, hiding among us without our knowledge. Much of what Wilhelm writes here has a disconcerting dreamlike quality; the stories are written in a slightly disorienting fashion, as if to underscore the bewilderment experienced by ordinary people coming face to face with the unknown, and the difficulty of assimilating such an experience into one’s established model of reality.

“The Winter Beach” is the best-written and most enjoyable story of the group. The strangeness encountered here is a small group of changed individuals — superbeings, in a way — hiding a scientific discovery from the rest of the world for decades due to fears that it will be controlled and exploited by the rich and powerful. The setting is the coast of the Pacific northwest, and Wilhelm describes it so beautifully, the forests and the beaches and the ocean, that you can almost feel you are there; Wilhelm’s sense of natural scenery is one of her greatest strengths as a writer, in my opinion.

In “Julian,” the title character uncovers evidence of aliens among us, tracking down the being who ruined his life through a chance childhood encounter. But rather than revealing this secret to the world, he instead uses it to deceive people and bolster his new spiritual/religious movement.

“With Thimbles, with Forks, and Hope” is another story about strange beings living secretly among us — whether they’re aliens or mutants or something else is never made clear. What is clear is that they have interests and priorities very different from ours, and when a husband and wife investigative team comes across one of them, they find themselves in a desperate fight for their lives. I kept wondering what the title meant, but I never figured it out.

“Moongate” was easily the most confusing story of the lot, just completely bizarre and unsettling. It involves a mysterious piece of land long known to be…. haunted, unearthly, different…. a place where people and animals have sporadically disappeared over the years, a peculiar but beautiful desert valley. Events conspire to bring together three people determined to find the truth about who or what is behind this enigmatic locale.

Also included in this book is a speech Wilhelm delivered at the 38th World Science Fiction Convention in 1980, titled “The Uncertain Edge of Reality.” It gives an interesting look into some of the author’s views on science and science fiction, and some of her motivations and goals for her writing. I find some of the contents of this speech somewhat disturbing, as it comes very close, in places, to a post-modernist view of science. She greatly exaggerates the differences of opinion between scientists and insinuates that scientists are not much better than the shamans and witch doctors of previous ages. She claims science dismisses anything that doesn’t fit into the accepted theories, and is too narrow to accept things that have no evidence for them, such as ESP (about which she makes favorable comments). So consider me very much unimpressed with Wilhelm’s views on science and reality. On the other hand, if you interpret some of her comments as remarks on social reality, she has some very laudable things to say, such as this statement that seems so appropriate at this election time:

I maintain that we deserve better. We have the wisdom of hindsight, and the magic of foresight. We know, if we will only admit it, that we are capable of truly magnificent things on the face of the earth. We are capable of creating a just world, but not within the framework of the reality we have accepted.

So this speech was a mixed bag for me, but that’s only a minor part of the book. The four tales of mysterious encounters are the important part, and they prove that Wilhelm is a strong writer well worth “listening” to.

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3 responses to “Listening, listening to Kate

  1. This is one author I would like to read more of. She really seems to have a knack for excellent environmental descriptions, doesn’t she? That was one of her strenghts in the clone book she wrote, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang. She and her husband put out a bunch of great anthologies from the Milford (later Clarion) workshops that they ran that I really love.

    I have never read that speech by her, but I have always thought there was something duplicitous about her. She writes a ton of mystery novels too, where she makes great use of deductive reasoning. But her SF is often draped in mysticism and ceremony, particularly around the scientific elements. I guess she did that a lot more than I suspected.

  2. I’m really starting to wonder, now, if her clumsiness with the technical aspects of cloning in Sweet Birds was actually due to scientific misunderstanding, or if she thinks scientists really don’t know what they’re talking about so she feels free to ignore science and write what she wants.

    It’s a bit of a strange situation since, by all other measures, she’s such a fine writer.

  3. She was married to Damon Knight, and all the biographies that I have read of him say that they bounced ideas off of each other, and they helped each other a lot. Those two started and ran Milford and Clarion, so you just know that even if she had serious misunderstandings about science, that they would have been caught and explained to her. I just think that she used it to de-emphasize the scientific stuff, so as to heighten the drama by emphasizing the spiritual and emotional stuff. Consider her clone novel. The thing would have been completely different if the clones were not identical copies of one another, both genetically and to the eye. Part of the mystery around them was their hive mind outlook on life, and that was partly a product of viewing brood mates as separate parts of one whole. She also wrote other clone novels and while I have not read them, reviews say that she got the cloning stuff pretty good.

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