Kate Wilhelm Essay - Critical Essays

Wilhelm, Kate

Wilhelm, Kate 1928–

An American novelist and short story writer, Ms Wilhelm is best known for her science fiction. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 37-40.)

The two novellas that make up Kate Wilhelm's Abyss are flawed, the first ("The Plastic Abyss") because it attempts more than most successes and the second ("Stranger in the House") because of Wilhelm's entirely original set of virtues and defects.

As George Orwell has pointed out, most human "worlds" are not represented in art at all, for to be a member of such a world demands that one not be an artist. Orwell's example is Kipling, who managed somehow to become a full member of colonial Anglo-Indian society and yet keep enough of an antithetical self alive to report well on that same society. Not only to describe but to embody in oneself a world-view that leaves no room for art takes quite a lot of doing.

Kate Wilhelm is an escapee from the feminine mystique…. Until recently we have had of the female experience only versions sentimentalized and distorted in the service of self-glorification and the status quo. Good women artists have generally had atypical experiences; as a friend of mine put it, they've brought themselves up as men, since "man"—in the general view—was the equivalent of "human". Like Kipling, Kate Wilhelm manages to be both an artist and the voice of an experience that is defined by its not having a voice. To find a voice one must move out of this culture and yet stay in it; Wilhelm almost does this. "The Plastic Abyss" is the eerie fusion of women's-magazine "reality" and real reality, as if sentimental pictures had suddenly begun to move and speak. There is a tall, glamorous, hard, patronizing husband in "The Plastic Abyss" who is breathtakingly close to the Ideal Husband of bad fiction; there is the Sweet, Ideal, Passive Wife of romance who almost makes it into artistic definition; and there is the magnificently irresponsible playing-around with reality only possible to those who don't have the conventional stake in it and are therefore wise enough not to believe in it. Still, there are vestiges of un-ironic cardboard. The heroine of "Plastic Abyss" says she "should go back to work, back to writing articles, to traveling, prying, learning" although it is perfectly clear from her character that she has never done any of those things; the heroine of "Stranger" has a "fashion" job that is never made real to her or anybody else…. Wilhelm gets her second heroine's husband out of the way by giving him a bad heart medically; the husband of "Plastic Abyss" has a bad heart humanly. I was struck in both novellas by what seemed to me the unearned adulation given to both women, but I wonder if this simply reflects our not being used to feminine protagonists who are involved in real activity. Most male protagonists in sf are glorified (or unrealized) in exactly the same way. It seems to be an occupational hazard. "Plastic Abyss" is much farther along the road to realized Wilhelm than "Stranger," which dates from 1967. Both stories use rhythms of narrative quite unlike those of slick fiction; the earlier tale proceeds jerkily through some awful bloopers … to a very moving ending; Wilhelm—luckily for her—has art but no conventional craft. Some of the writing is fine …, some of it oddly unnecessary…. (pp. 19-21)

Joanna Russ, in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (© 1971 by Mercury Press, Inc.; reprinted from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction by permission of the publisher and Curtis Brown, Ltd.), November, 1971.

Kate Wilhelm doesn't need stars and spaceships to create her eerie tales of time. She reaches instead for the mundane present—a man in retirement, a grumpy writer who spouts clichés, the neighbor lady who has mysterious mental lapses—and moves to psychic space. The Infinity Box … contains nine sci-fi stories, six of them nominees for the Nebula Award. Wilhelm, who writes each tale from a man's point of view, shows little affection for women. Most of them come out docile and dumb, like the mechanical Stepford wives. But if you ignore her gratuitous introduction, which pompously explains how she came to write each story, and proceed directly to "The Village" and "The Infinity Box," you'll have an entertaining hour. (p. 101)

Carol Tavris, in Psychology Today (copyright © 1975 Ziff-Davis Publishing Company; reprinted by permission of Psychology Today Magazine), October, 1975.

The clones' dream [in "Where the Late Birds Sang"] is to build a new society, free of any taint of individuality, competition, or selfishness. But the clones have a fatal flaw—growing up surrounded by 8 or 10 identical twins, they never experience the terrors, or the benefits, of being alone. As a result, they have no art, no imagination, no creativity. Wilhelm traces the rise and fall of the clone "utopia" through the eyes of several well-drawn characters. At times, her prose strains for "poetic effects," but her cautionary message comes through loud and clear: Giving up our humanity to save our skins is a bad bargain no matter how you look at it. (p. 21)

Gerald Jonas, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 18, 1976.

Some of the most interesting novels of the past few years—J. G. Ballard's "Love and Napalm: Export U.S.A.," Thomas Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow," and Joseph McElroy's "Lookout Cartridge"—have used the artifacts and the metaphors of science to question the smug, humanistic props with which we surround ourselves. These books attack the notion of "integral" human beings, and explore the disintegration of our psyches, our values, and our landscapes. Now Kate Wilhelm takes us into the particular hell of scientific research.

"The Clewiston Test" is a scary book. Outwardly, at least, it tells of the internecine warfare at a pharmaceutical company. Anne Clewiston has isolated a serum in the blood that can temporarily stifle all pain….

Unfortunately, certain chimpanzees who were fed the serum have been going crazy, mauling their keepers and murdering their own infants. Clark, Anne's husband,… wonders if Anne herself took the serum to relieve the pain in her smashed body [after an automobile accident]. Will she become murderous, like the chimpanzees?

The novel focuses on Anne—not Clark, the chimps or the serum. Her convalescence has brought her deep into her own head. Confined to a wheelchair, she feels as if her life has shrunk to the dimensions of a terrarium. Her perceptions begin to shift. The rain outside her windows changes "the real world … into a surreal, plastic place." She enters into the time frame of plants, where the gradual turning of a leaf seems "natural and even swift." Sounds can penetrate her body. She feels "the snapping of branches" and "the sharp, close explosions of a summer storm." (pp. 36-7)

Written in a style that never calls attention to itself, "The Clewiston Test" is a horror story that avoids the usual trappings of its genre. Kate Wilhelm isn't interested in futuristic nightmares: it doesn't take much isolation, or grief, for any of us to fit under Anne's terrarium. (p. 37)

Jerome Charyn, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 22, 1976.