Tag Archives: Kate Wilhelm

The secret history of science fiction; or, trying to please mainstream readers

What we hope to present in this anthology is an alternative vision of sf from the 1970′s to the present, one in which it becomes evident that the literary potential of sf was not squandered.

Title: The Secret History of Science Fiction
Editors: James Patrick Kelly, John Kessel
Year: 2009
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

secrethistoryI wasn’t sure exactly what to expect from an anthology promising to reveal the “secret history” of science fiction. This volume finds its roots in the never-ending debate on the worthiness of sf as literature, and aims to present a variety of sf that is somehow more critically respectable. And so the editors have put together nineteen stories which are not your typical science fiction, stories which (at least most of them) intentionally try to blur the lines between sf and mainstream literature. Well hey, any well-read science fiction fan knows there is plenty of high-quality sf out there (as well as low-quality too, of course). But as to literary chic, I go with the Goldilocks standard: you shouldn’t have too little or too much, but juuuuuust the right amount. Unfortunately, the majority of these stories fall into the “too much” category, trying so hard to succeed at being “real” literature that they fail at being good sf. There are a few good stories here, but the majority are quite boring, artificial, or pretentious. I can’t say I’d be disappointed if most of them had remained a secret.

One of the things I do like about this anthology is that in between the stories are short passages from all the participating authors in which they discuss their views on different types of fiction, their strengths and weaknesses, and the relations between them. Often these short discussions are more interesting than the actual stories. Ironically, one of these passages, written by T. C. Boyle, gives a good explanation of what I found lacking in many of the included stories:

I’ve thought about the domination of the literary arts by theory over the past twenty-five years — which I detest — and it’s as if you have to be a critic to mediate between the author and the reader and that’s utter crap. Literature can be great in all ways, but it’s just entertainment like rock’n’roll or a film. It is entertainment. If it doesn’t capture you on that level, as entertainment, movement of plot, then it doesn’t work. Nothing will come out of it.

And that pretty much sums up the problem with most of these stories (including Boyle’s, unfortunately). For me, they definitely do not work on the level of entertainment, as movement of plot, as presentation of events or characters or ideas I can bring myself to care about. There seems to be more style than substance here. Also, several stories have only the most tenuous link to science fiction, as if “literary sf” necessarily means “watered-down sf.”

There are a few diamonds among all this coal, however, and they mostly come from the ladies. By far the best of the bunch is “Standing Room Only” by Karen Joy Fowler, which the editors call “a time travel story turned inside out.” It’s a subtle and creative approach to a well-worn subject. Le Guin’s contribution is “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” a nice little allegory about how the happiness of the many is often built on the sacrifices of the few. “Ladies and Gentlemen, This Is Your Crisis,” by Kate Wilhelm, is an eerily accurate prediction of the phenomenon of “reality tv” (written in 1976), and also recalls Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in the way people are addicted to their wall-size tv screens. “Schwarzschild Radius” by Connie Willis is also a very decent story, although I’m not sure I’d label it sf at all. The one other story I liked is by Carter Scholz, “The Nine Billion Names of God” — and if that title rings a bell, there’s a good reason for that. This is a very clever piece poking fun at literary theory and the ridiculous and abstruse lengths it can go to in search of interpretation and “deep meaning.”

That leaves fourteen more stories for which I can’t drum up enough interest to even mention by name. See the post tags for the rest of the authors included. Two of those are Kelly and Kessel themselves, and I must say I always find it rather narcissistic on the part of editors who include their own stories in the anthologies they put together.

I have to include one final quote from the author views, since I like this so much. This is from Gene Wolfe (and no, I didn’t like his story either):

What we normally consider the mainstream — so called realistic fiction — is a small literary genre, fairly recent in origin, which is likely to be relatively short lived. It’s a matter of whether you’re content to focus on everyday events or whether you want to try to encompass the entire universe. If you go back to the literature written in ancient Greece or Rome, or during the Middle Ages and much of the Renaissance, you’ll see writers trying to write not just about everything that exists but about everything that could exist.

More dream makers (addendum to a previous review)

dreammakerspb1A while back I did a review of Charles Platt’s Dream Makers: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers at Work, a collection of interviews he conducted with numerous famous authors. The particular item I was reviewing was a 1987 hardcover edition that was, I stated at the time, a merger of two previous paperback volumes by the same title. It turns out that description was not quite accurate, because I just picked up the first of those paperbacks — Dream Makers: the Uncommon People Who Write Science Fiction, published in 1980 — and found out that not all of the profiles made it into the later hardcover. It seems the hardcover edition took only about half of the profiles from each of the paperbacks, so anyone looking to get the maximum benefit would be well advised to seek out the original two volumes, rather than the later hardcover.

The 15 profiles that appear both here and in the hardcover are: Isaac Asimov, Thomas Disch, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Frederik Pohl, Alfred Bester, Algis Budrys, Philip Jose Farmer, A.E. van Vogt, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradybury, Frank Herbert, Michael Moorcock, J.G. Ballard, and Brian Aldiss.

The 14 profiles appearing only in this first paperback edition are: Robert Sheckley, Hank Stine, Norman Spinrad, Samuel R. Delany, Barry Malzberg, Edward Bryant, C.M. Kornbluth (the interview was actually with his wife, since he died in 1958), Damon Knight, Kate Wilhelm, E.C. Tubb, Ian Watson, John Brunner, Gregory Benford, and Robert Silverberg.

I’m not going to delve into this and do any specific quoting; I’ll just say that everything in my previous review applies here as well. There’s a lot of good material here giving a glimpse into the lives and writing of some of the field’s top authors — lots of intriguing little tidbits of information here. I especially enjoyed the interviews with Norman Spinrad, Samuel Delany, and Robert Silverberg. On the other hand, there are some real downers in this bunch. Particularly depressing is Malzberg, who says he gets nothing from seeing his work in print and that he hates his career.

It’s also interesting to read what sf authors have to say about other sf authors. In some cases, the various authors included in this book have criticisms to level at each other, as well as at others. Two of these authors, for instance, state their belief that Heinlein is totally unreadable. And E.C. Tubb offers a strongly negative opinion of ANY new wave or “literary” writer, such as Delany (he calls Dhalgren a “monument of unreadability”). Some of these authors also share their criticism of the genre as a whole, or its fans.

I don’t know about you, but I find this kind of stuff fascinating, and I quickly zipped through the profiles here that were new to me. I can’t wait to find the second paperback volume to finish off Platt’s wonderful interview project.

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.

Wilhelm’s Sweet Birds: sweet, yet partly silly

I just finished Kate Wilhelm’s 1976 classic Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, and it’s one of those love/hate situations. In some ways this is a really great book; but in other ways, it makes me want to grab the author by the shoulders and shake her while asking “what were you thinking!?” Well all right, I may be exaggerating a bit. Let’s just say I have some criticisms, but they didn’t stop me from enjoying the book, which despite some flaws was really very gripping and emotionally engaging.

What we have here is basically a post-apocalypse novel; within a very short time frame all the accumulated problems of human pollution and ecological rape reach a tipping point (while the politicians ignore it), and the world as we know it goes bye-bye. Through a combination of devastating new diseases and sterility, most of humanity is gone. This part is quickly sketched out as background with few details, which is no problem because the focus of the story is not how the disaster happens, but what comes after.

In an isolated valley in Virginia a small group of people (a few hundred) manage to survive because they foresee what’s coming and make plans. At the heart of this group is a small number of doctors and biologists who recognize the crucial problems that will have to be faced: the sterility of most of the survivors, as well as most of the livestock. These core planners, and most of the other people, are members of several large interconnected families, who use their wealth to build a research hospital and a laboratory complex before the disaster strikes, and to store up as many supplies as possible. They realize they’ll have to clone the livestock in order to have a steady food source. Only later are they forced to accept the grim realization that cloning is also the only option left for continuing humanity. So they give in to reality and start a cloning program, with just enough sexual reproduction from the few fertiles mixed in to barely stay ahead of the degenerative effects of sequential cloning.

Now, this is where things get silly: the clones take over, seeing themselves as something fundamentally different from, and better than, their “parents.” I’ve often wondered where people get their strange notions about clones being inhuman monsters, or exact duplicates down to the last detail, or the other bizarre stereotypes. Perhaps these attitudes came from the pulp SF of earlier ages, I’m not sure. But Wilhelm seems to buy in to them to some degree, and they infect the story from start to finish, detracting from what otherwise could have been a near-perfect novel if the science had been better grounded. Ironically, one of the characters manages to voice my criticism perfectly:

“Don’t be an ass,” David said sharply. “You’re not a separate species.”

But, the clones persist in seeing themselves as a new species, and this is largely due to the special qualities Wilhelm bestows upon them. The clone-groups (six or more people cloned from the same source) behave almost as a single individual. They are exactly alike physically, very nearly so mentally, can’t stand to be away from each other (to the point of freaking out), and have an ESP-like ability to sense each other’s moods, feelings, injuries, even their locations to some extent. And there are other strange effects. They are deathly afraid of the woods, for some strange reason. They have “dead areas” and a lack of creativity. And when they have a learning defect, they ALL share the same defect exactly. There’s no “nurture” to balance “nature” here — there’s no differentiation arising from slight environmental or experiential divergence, as would be the case in reality. They’re carbon copies. In what has to be THE silliest point in the book, one clone-group of six boys ALL have appendicitis AT THE SAME TIME!!! So yeah, there’s not much biological nuance here, and Wilhelm’s understanding of the issues surrounding cloning seems hopelessly muddled.

On the other hand, the takeover by the clones is also where the book gets good, because it sets up a deep and ongoing social conflict of individuality versus group conformity, and that’s one of my favorite social themes, surfacing in some of my favorite SF novels. The leaders of the clone society make their priorities very clear:

We all know and agree it is our duty to safeguard the well-being of the unit, not the various individuals within it. If there is a conflict between those two choices, we must abandon the individual. That is a given.

Indeed, the clone leadership has no compunctions about either banishing or euthanizing anyone who upsets their community by daring to be unique.

The conflict plays itself out through several generations, with different individualist “heroes” in different parts of the book. The first is David, quoted above, one of the biologists who founds the project, and who is unable to stop his “offspring” from taking power. Later on there is Molly, a clone who, after being away from her clone-group on an expedition, feels the urge to individuality emerge within her. Another such clone is Ben, who, along with Molly, happens to be fertile, and they have a son named Mark. Mark ends up being the strongest character in defense of individuality. In answer to the clones’ “there is no one, there is only the whole” philosophy, he defiantly declares:

“They’re all lies! I’m one. I’m an individual! I am one!

And he does this at the risk of his own life, knowing the powers-that-be barely tolerate his presence and may decide to end his life at any time. Now that’s a character I can admire and sympathize with. Indeed, that’s one of the things Wilhelm really succeeded at: on a personal level, the characters are believable and convincing, and exhibit realistic emotion. They are easy to care about, to worry about, to root for, and to admire.

Another thing Wilhelm does well is portraying the solemn emptiness of the post-apocalyptic world as the characters travel through it, reaching out to see what’s out there. As Mark travels the eastern waterways by canoe all alone, the sense of isolation is profound. There’s just something very convincing about the natural settings in which the plot unfolds: the rivers, the trees, the caves, the rain. I don’t know how she did it, but they all seemed so vivid, as if I could almost reach out and touch them.

By the end, there’s a resolution to the whole conflict, but I won’t spoil it for you. The bottom line: this novel was pretty weak on a scientific level, but was very very strong on other levels: social, personal, emotional, and on the level of writing style, which flowed smoothly and pleasantly. An enjoyable experience overall, and I will certainly consider reading more from Wilhelm.