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Wilhelm, Kate

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1928-2018) US author, married to Damon Knight from 1963 until his death in 2002; beyond her writing, she was long influential, initially along with her husband, in the Milford Science Fiction Writers' Conference, which he founded in 1958, and its offshoot, the Clarion Science Fiction Writers' Workshop, in which she was directly involved from the beginning. She edited one of the Anthologies of stories from the latter, Clarion SF (anth 1977); the nonfiction Storyteller: Writing Lessons and More from 27 Years of the Clarion Writers' Workshop (2005) provides a strongly argued justification for the hothouse intensity of the experience, and the prescriptive simplicities she enforced upon beginning authors of short fiction.

From the first, however, Wilhelm was best known for her own writing, and by the 1980s was a ranking figure in the sf field, though her initial work would eventually be seen as atypical; by the 1990s she was concentrating on crime fiction, sometimes with fantasy elements deftly incorporated. She began to publish work of genre interest with "The Pint-Sized Genie" in Fantastic for October 1956, and continued for some time to produce relatively straightforward Genre SF stories of the sort to be found in her first book, The Mile-Long Spaceship (coll 1963; vt Andover and the Android 1966). It was not until the late 1960s that she began to release the atmospheric, character- and landscape-driven mature stories which comprised her finest work, and which made her career an object lesson in the costs and benefits of the market: for it has seemed clear from as early as 1970 that Wilhelm was most happy at the then commercially unpopular novella length, and least happy as a novelist. Her strategy for many years, therefore, was to publish her most powerful work – longer stories and novellas – in book form as "speculative fictions" – while at the same time producing intermittently capable and variously ambitious full-length novels, which were easier to market in a more "normal" frame.

Wilhelm's shorter fictions have been assembled in The Downstairs Room and Other Speculative Fiction (coll 1968), which includes the Nebula-winning "The Planners" (in Orbit 3, anth 1968, ed Damon Knight); Abyss: Two Novellas (coll 1971); The Infinity Box: A Collection of Speculative Fiction (coll 1975), the title story of which – also republished as The Infinity Box (in Orbit 9, anth 1971, ed Damon Knight; 1989 chap dos) – is a darkly complex depiction of a Near-Future America as refracted through the slow destruction of the conscience of a man gifted with a Psi Power; Somerset Dreams and Other Fictions (coll 1978); Listen, Listen (coll 1981); Children of the Wind: Five Novellas (coll 1989), which includes the Nebula-winning The Girl Who Fell into the Sky (October 1986 Asimov's; 1991 chap); State of Grace (coll 1991 chap) and And the Angels Sing (coll 1992), which includes "Forever Yours, Anna" (July 1987 Omni), also a Nebula-winner. After a gap, though she had published at least twenty stories since 1992, she assembled later work as The Bird Cage (coll 2012 ebook) and Music Makers (coll 2012); part of her long run of tales contributed to Damon Knight's Original Anthology series Orbit was assembled as Kate Wilhelm in Orbit, Volume One (coll 2015 ebook). Time and again, in the strongest of these tales, a narrative will begin within the mundane but shaky domesticity of a sometimes glaringly dysfunctional family, and shift suddenly into an sf or fantasy perspective from which, chillingly, the fragility of our social worlds can be discerned. At this point, at the point of maximum realization, her best stories often close in a Slingshot Ending.

With novels it tended to be otherwise, though again her early work was modestly traditional. After More Bitter than Death (1963), a mystery, her first sf tale was The Clone (1965) with Theodore L Thomas, one of the rare sf books to use Clones in the strict biological sense, through the description of a formidable, voracious and ever-growing blob (see also Grey Goo), and a competent demonstration of her workmanlike capacity to cope with genre content. The Killer Thing (1967; rev vt The Killing Thing 1967), set almost uniquely for Wilhelm on another planet, also shows some facility in telling conventional sf tales. Her first tentative attempts at deepening her range by attempting to investigate character within novel-length plots, The Nevermore Affair (1966) and Let the Fire Fall (1969; cut rev 1972), fail in the first through overexplication, and in the second through an uneasiness of diction, so that the Near-Future Religious revival at its heart is depicted with a diffuse sarcastic loquacity; Satire in her work seems to succeed best when indirect. This sense of drift – this sense that her novels continue past the point at which her interest in maximum realization had begun to flag – was avoided in some instances, though not in Margaret and I (1971) or City of Cain (1974).

But Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (part one in Orbit 15, anth 1974, ed Damon Knight; exp 1976) – which won Hugo and Jupiter Awards for Best Novel – successfully translates her interest in Clones (this time in the sf sense of "people-copies") to a Ruined Earth venue in the Appalachians where an isolated community of clones has been formed to weather the interregnum until civilization can spread again, but develops in its own, perilously narrow fashion; significantly, the book is made up of three novella-length sequences, each individually superb. The Clewiston Test (1976) balances the effects on the eponymous developer of a dubious Drugs project against the effects of an unhappy marriage; for the world of experimental Biology – in which Wilhelm had always been interested – cannot be divorced from the lives it affects, a truism rarely brought to bear with such sharpness. Fault Lines (1977), not sf, uses a displaced and edgy diction to present a woman's broken remembrances, the fault lines of the title representing her own life, her future, her unhappy marriages, the earthquake that traps her, and a powerful sense that civilization itself is cracking at the seams. These novels stand out.

More normally, even Wilhelm's later and more accomplished novels of the fantastic – like A Sense of Shadow (1981), Welcome, Chaos (September 1981 Redbook as "The Winter Beach"; exp 1983) and Huysman's Pets (1986) – tend to dissipate powerful beginnings in generic toings and froings. Her Leidl and Meiklejohn sequence of sf/horror/fantasy detective tales – beginning with The Hamlet Trap (1987) and ending with A Flush of Shadows: Five Short Novels Featuring Constance Leidl and Charlie Meiklejohn (coll 1995) [for further details see Checklist below] – seem in their compulsive genre-switching almost to Parody this proclivity; but Crazy Time (1988), a late singleton, more successfully embraces the insecurity of the novel form as Wilhelm conceived it, and the ricochets of the plot aptly mirror the discourse it embodies upon the nature of institutionalized definitions of sanity and insanity. Most successfully of all, Death Qualified: A Mystery of Chaos (1991) – which initiates the mostly non-fantastic Barbara Holloway sequence ending with By Stone, by Blade, by Fire (2012 ebook) – combines detection and sf in a long, sustained, morally complex tale whose traditional story-telling hook – solving a murder in order to free the innocent protagonist of suspicion – leads smoothly into an sf denouement involving chaos theory, new Perceptions and a hint of Superman. It is the longest of her novels, yet the one which most resembles her successful short fiction.

Kate Wilhelm was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2003; in 2009 she won a Solstice Award (see Nebula) for her impact on speculative fiction. In 2016 this award was formally renamed the Kate Wilhelm Solstice Award in her honour. [JC]

see also: Asimov's Science Fiction; Ecology; Immortality; Intelligence; Medicine; Monsters; Pollution; Robert Hale Limited; Scientists; Women SF Writers.

Katie Gertrude Meredith Wilhelm Knight

born Toledo, Ohio: 8 June 1928

died Eugene, Oregon: 8 March 2018



Leidl and Meiklejohn

Barbara Holloway

individual titles

collections and stories


works as editor


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