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Kate Wilhelm: An appreciation

Kate Wilhelm: An appreciation
Kate Wilhelm (Richard Wilhelm)

Way back in 1970, as a 14-year-old aspiring writer, I was drafted by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro to be an usher for the Nebula Awards ceremony at the Hotel Claremont in Berkeley. At the evening presentation, I shuffled awkwardly around among the various writers I admired (Norman Spinrad, Harlan Ellison, Fritz Leiber, Vernor Vinge) until, after a Henny Youngman-like toastmaster monologue delivered by Robert Bloch, the short story category was announced. It featured nominees such as Gene Wolfe's "The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories," R.A. Lafferty's "Entire and Perfect Chrysolite," and Kate Wilhelm's "A Cold Dark Night With Snow" – stories that I had been admiring from afar over the past year of furious reading in original series anthologies such as "Orbit," edited by Damon Knight. Most of these shortlisted writers were associated with the New Wave, a loosely-defined group of young writers (and ready-to-learn older ones, such as Ballard, Lafferty and Aldiss) who were happily experimenting with the form, style and content of traditional science fiction. In fact, they were so good at these experiments that it was often impossible to tell where one genre ended and another began — or whether genre had any influence on the stories at all.

Then the envelope was opened, and the winner announced — for No Award, a blatant snub to the entire shortlist. After a pause, several dozen SFWA members stood and began to clap. The applause, continuing for several minutes, came as quite a shock to me. For the first time, I realized that many writers and readers didn't like this strange new fruit appearing in the branches of their familiar old trees — stories that were literary, poetic and journeying far from the tales of interstellar battles and first-contact that had made the "Golden Age" so, well, golden. These people didn't want anything to change; what they wanted — and often said they wanted — was escape from the disturbing street-fought conflicts of their country into outer space tales of adventure and romance. (What they wanted, of course, was "Star Wars," which came along several years later.)

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I also remember thinking that, after the dust of decades had settled, none of these applauding writers would ever be remembered as fondly as Kate Wilhelm, the best of the nominees they had snubbed that night. And 48 years later, I stand by that conviction.

THE STORIES

Unlike those who applauded, I grew up happily after the demise of the pulps. During those years of early reading, the old rough dinosaurs had made way for the only SF that I knew while growing up – those stories and serial novels that appeared in the more literary, digest-sized monthlies such as Galaxy, Analog and Fantasy & Science Fiction. Along with the booming paperback market, there also came several innovative original series-anthologies: Harry Harrison's "Nova," Robert Silverberg's "New Dimensions," Michael Moorcock's "New Worlds," Harlan Ellison's monumental "Dangerous Visions" project and, last but not least, Damon Knight's biannual "Orbit" series, which featured striking lava-lampish cover designs by Richard Powers and a new generation of writers more interested in poetry, philosophy and human psychology than in warp-engines and orbital velocities. Amid this clamorous new crowd quietly came Kate Wilhelm, who steadily began producing some of the best short stories of her generation, and who never stopped producing them until she died March 8 at 89.

I can still remember the slow, soft impact of those early stories when I first read them in my damp basement bedroom in Daly City. In "The Planners" (1968 Nebula Award winner), a behavioral scientist absorbs the same intelligence-boosting substance being fed to his test-chimpanzees, suffering daydreams of authority and power. In "The Infinity Box," a man finds his way telepathically into the mind of a young schizophrenic woman, eventually seducing her (and himself) in the process. A mother of three, in "The Basement Room," can't keep up with her hectic schedule packing lunches and attending school board meetings and begins fantasizing about a new life under the floorboards. The great Wilhelm stories kept coming, year after year, in and out of the "Orbit" anthologies, and they were always haunting, hypnotic, incommensurable and strange.

Although this last sounds a bit like "The Yellow Wallpaper," Wilhelm ventured into more complicated speculations than those of Charlotte Perkins Gilman — posing deep questions about the efficacy of science, the fugue-states of dreaming, the vast bland conformity of social life, and the ways that a desire for power infiltrates every human relationship — especially between men and women. Wilhelm won her share of awards over the decades — in 1977, a Hugo for "Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang" and a handful of best short story/novelette Nebulas. But she never achieved the popular or critical success of her major female contemporaries — Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ and James Tiptree Jr. (a.k.a. Alice Sheldon) — let alone that of the men who dominated the genre. This was because Wilhelm's fiction couldn't be easily categorized or summarized; she explored people rather than ideas; and her style was — like the style of many good writers — so lucid, seamless and convincing that it seemed invisible.

Two books by Kate Wilhelm
Two books by Kate Wilhelm (Richard Wilhelm)

Born in Toledo in 1928, Wilhelm might have gone on to live a desperately ordinary life: raised in Kentucky, she married young and had two children while her marriage fell apart. She was not born to SF — in fact, her first published novel, written in the midnight hours while her family slept, was "More Bitter Than Death" (1962), a mystery (a genre she returned to late in life with two popular long-running series of crime novels). She once claimed that her decision to write SF was entirely serendipitous: "I was a housewife with two young children, and I'd been reading an anthology, and I put it down and said to myself, 'I can do that.' And I wrote 'The Mile-Long Spaceship,' and sold it." She went on to write stories for a number of magazines, including the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, which continued to publish her best stories right up until a few months before her death. Selected for various "best of the year" anthologies, she was eventually introduced to the life of a full-time writer — as well as to her second husband and first-best editor, Damon Knight.

A WRITER FOR THE ’60s

As time proved, Wilhelm was not a writer for the '50s; she needed the convulsive '60s to help crack open the old generic constraints and give her room to breathe. If her best work had been published outside SF, she would have deserved comparison with the likes of Shirley Jackson, Patricia Highsmith and Joyce Carol Oates. But inside SF, her stories and novels often upset the expectations of the sorts of readers who attended conventions and dressed up like space pirates. Wilhelm's SF concepts were so near-future that they often seemed to be waiting outside the front door; and her unobtrusive prose explored mundane people and neighborhoods that seemed to reside even closer, as in her 1971 novel "Margaret and I," which narrates a woman's mental breakdown from the viewpoint of a repressed alternate personality, or "The Clewiston Test" (1976) in which a woman is confined to bed by her husband and subjected to a bizarre pharmacological experiment. Wilhelm often used slightly-futuristic SF ideas to set up her stories, but what always drove her stories was the here-and-now.

Wilhelm never quite "fit" into any of the genres she chose to briefly occupy — SF, crime, mystery, domestic realism­. But despite her relative obscurity in the world of "serious" literature, she was an intensely present woman in the lives of other writers; and she seemed happiest when other writers were around. With her husband, she helped organize some of the first Milford Workshops, an annual meeting of young and established writers that notably included the likes of Thomas M. Disch, Avram Davidson, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Theodore Sturgeon, Judith Merril and even a young Gustav Hasford (author of "The Short-Timers," a.k.a. Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket.") And when the Milford Workshops eventually developed into the Clarion workshops for young writers of fantasy and SF, Wilhelm and Knight were among the first (and most valued) instructors, teaching there every year from 1969 through the late 1990s. Over many decades, she taught and inspired more soon-to-be-major writers than could be recorded in a drawer-full of class registers, including Robert Crais, George Alec Effinger, Octavia Butler, Kim Stanley Robinson, Cory Doctorow, Jeff VanderMeer, Ted Chiang, Lucius Shepard Nicola Griffith — the list could easily fill any one tribute and spill over into another. Good writers were constantly emerging from Wilhelm's immediate vicinity. It was just the way she rolled.

A BRIEF ENCOUNTER

In the late '70s and early '80s, I lived in a block of apartments on Vendome Street in Los Angeles that resembled either a slightly more-disheveled version of the apartments in Mulholland Drive, or a slightly less-seedy version of any Bukowski novel ever written. Theodore Sturgeon had discovered the place, where he kept a tiny basement flat with a small, hobbit-sized front door — and he had helped the novelist (and eventual television producer) J. Michael Reaves to acquire an apartment next door; then Michael found me an apartment next door to him, and so on and so forth. Soon the complex was inhabited by numerous former Clarionites, including Hasford and Richard Kadrey — and wherever there were former Clarion students, Kate Wilhelm eventually appeared. One year, when she came through Los Angeles, several neighbors arranged an outdoor workshop with her in Griffith Park, and I begged to be taken along just to meet her. On the day of the workshop, I overslept — or chickened out — and for the rest of that day I felt lonely and despondent over the fact that I hadn't taken advantage of this opportunity to meet one of my favorite writers. Then, while I was struggling alone at the typewriter with yet another of my terrible stories, the grinding doorbell rang. It was Wilhelm, stopping by on her race to the airport simply to say hi. She was a handsome, white-haired woman without any of the usual hyper-protective oddnesses of a writer; we chatted briefly and shook hands; then she went off to her life and I was left alone to mine. It never felt like receiving a visitation from an important writer so much as simply encountering a generous fellow writer on my own doorstep. It felt like being part of a community that I hadn't even known was out there.

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I barely knew Wilhelm personally, but I will always miss that brief smiling presence on my doorstep. And once you get a chance to read her remarkable stories, you will miss her too.

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Bradfield's books include "The History of Luminous Motion," "Greetings From Earth: New and Collected Stories" and "Dazzle Resplendent: Adventures of a Misanthropic Dog."

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