Guest Post: Year of the Cloud, Kate Wilhelm and Theodore L. Thomas (1970)

The third in my Kate Wilhelm’s SF Guest Post Series (original announcement and post list) comes via Mike White (twitter)—a research biologist at Washington University in St. Louis, MO—who blogs on mostly early SF (pre-1920) and a variety of science topics with a whole cast of other writers at The Finch and the Pea (a “public house for science”).  This is his first contribution to one of my guest post series and it is greatly appreciated (and won’t be his last).

He selected, on purpose (in very Joachim Boaz fashion I might add), what might be Kate Wilhelm’s least known SF novel.  Early in her career she wrote two novels with Theodore L. Thomas: the Nebula-nominated The Clone (1965) and Year of the Cloud (1970).

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RFTHCLDXVQ1971

(Francois Colos’ cover for the 1970 edition)

Post-apocalyptic stories do many things, one of which is to question our mastery of nature. We’re used to relying on technology to bend the world to our will — science stands between us and the brute forces of nature. Extinction is for lesser species. But post-apocalyptic stories remind us of all the ways that nature could wipe us out: the Earth could collide with a comet or pass through a toxic cloud of space gas, the sun could fade or go nova, or some pandemic plague could arise that kills us directly, wipes out our food supply, or turns us into the walking dead.

As horrifying as these events would be in real life, there is a strain of post-apocalyptic fiction that doesn’t see these disasters as all bad. Killing off most of humanity offers, in fiction anyway, a chance to wipe the slate clean and start over. With the post-holocaust world much less crowded, noisy, and disagreeable, we can begin civilization over again and learn from our past mistakes.

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James Spanfeller’s cover for the 1970 edition

This theme is old as Noah’s Ark, and in its modern incarnation it’s called the cosy catastrophe, a term coined by Brian Aldiss to describe—somewhat unfairly—the less-than-horrifying 50’s disaster novels of John Wyndham. In your classic cosy catastrophe, a cast of privileged protagonists ride out the apocalypse in relative comfort, facing only mild peril, while the riff-raff suffer. Though it’s an exercise in wishful thinking — pain, suffering and loss is something that largely happens to other people — this popular type of story does, like much science fiction, give voice to deep human desires, in this case a longing for a fresh start, free of civilization’s defects and constraints. Ted Thomas’ and Kate Wilhelm‘s Year of the Cloud (1970) follows this classic formula, but with rather pedestrian results.

It’s hard to imagine a much cozier catastrophe than the one this book: while a huge fraction of the world’s population dies off, the trio of main characters escape disaster on a yacht in the Bahamas, drinking beer and diving amongst the coral reefs. It all starts when astonomers detect a space cloud floating right in the Earth’s path. The planet passes through it without any apparent effects other than some brilliant sunsets. Scientists figure out that the cloud consisted of some odd organic polymer, which now permeates the atmosphere and oceans, but it seems to be harmless.

Karel Thole's cover for the 1979 Italian edition
Karel Thole’s cover for the 1979 Italian edition

Of course, it’s not harmless. This first hints of a problem are detected by Sam Brooks, an oceanographer who just happens to be conducting research down in the Bahamas. Sam’s instruments tell him that the water is beginning to thicken. Within weeks it becomes clear that the mysterious polymer is gradually turning all the water on the planet into a gel. As the planet’s water turns to goo, basic functions like irrigating crops or purifying drinking water become impossible. Order begins to break down, and the usual post-apocalyptic consequences follow: governments deny there’s a problem, riots erupt, martial law is imposed, and, eventually, vigilante justice rules the countryside as small communities take matters into their own hands.

So how do the main characters manage to ride out the crisis on a yacht in the Bahamas? As the situation gets worse, Sam accepts an invitation to continue his studies on a yacht owned by the independently wealthy Hugh Winthrop, who is spending his time doing underwater photography with his mistress, Gail Cooper. Hugh’s boat is stocked with enough supplies to last a long time, including a large cache of Heineken, which turns out to be critical when it’s clear that it’s not safe to drink the water. As they watch and study the effects of the thickening water on the local marine life, Hugh and Sam make a quarrelsome scientific team of sorts — Sam insists on scientific rigor and refuses to draw conclusions not thoroughly supported by the evidence, while Hugh is more intuitive, ready to go with ideas that seem right even if he can’t prove them.

The yachting trio are a key source of information for the fourth main character, Carl Loudermilch, a famous New York Times science reporter who is the first to get the scoop on the thickening water. Loudermilch travels from the Bahamas to D.C. to New York, and finally to the West coast, hooking up with his contacts and becoming one of the few people who gets a comprehensive view of the crisis. Through Carl’s eyes, we see how the United States is falling apart. His privileged status as a famous journalists makes the catastrophe reasonably cosy for him — he’s always got access to food, water, and transportation through areas under martial law. Though he observes a lot of suffering, in classic cosy catastrophe form, he has no personal connection to anyone losing the battle for survival.

The cosy catastrophe formula isn’t necessarily a bad one, but this book doesn’t really stand out. There is little plot, not much suspense, and few scenes that aren’t highly derivative of early works in the genre.  Year of the Cloud is uncharacteristic of Wilhelm‘s solo work. It lacks the emotional resonance of books like Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang (1976) or Juniper Time (1979), and the haunted, agonizing portrayals of characters’ mental lives that you find in works like her Vietnam allegory The Killer Thing (1967), or her story of destructive obsession, “The Infinity Box” (1971).  Sam, Hugh, Gail and Carl are fairly standard pulp characters of the sort who populated the pages of magazines like Astounding in the 1940’s; it’s surprising to encounter them in this novel of 1970.

The books ends in a way that’s a bit too tidy and scientifically preposterous. Sam and Hugh, in their ongoing research on marine life, discover a way to break down the polymer, and that’s it — crisis solved. Even more strangely, the final sentences clumsily tack on the idea, developed nowhere else in the book, that the Cloud had a purpose:

It was apparent that the human race would not be the same. But whether it would retrograde or renovate was not clear; much would depend on the choices men made… One thing seemed certain. The Cloud had not happened by chance. It had been put there. So when men looked up, the question in their minds was not whether but who. Was the Cloud a weapon? Or a Gift?

As Jo Walton wrote, “Cosy catastrophes are very formulaic… You could quite easily write a program for generating one.”  There are some great ones in this genre, notably the 50’s post-WWII British disaster stories of John Wyndham and John Christopher, but Year of the Cloud merely follows the formula.

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List of Guest Posts

The Infinity Box (1975) via Heloise over at Heloise Merlin’s Weblog

The Killer Thing (1967) via 2theD over at Potpourri of SF Literature

Margaret and I (1971) via Max Cairnduff over at Pechorin’s Journal

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1976) via Admiral Ironbombs over at Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased

Welcome, Chaos (1983) via Megan over at From Couch to Moon

Year of the Cloud (1970) via Mike White over at The Finch and the Pea 

List of my previously posted reviews

Collection: The Mile-Long Spaceship (1963)

Collection: The Downstairs Room and Other Speculative Fiction (1968)

Novel: Margaret and I (1971)

Novel: Juniper Time (1979)

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For more book reviews consult the LIST

For more articles + my Michael Bishop Guest Post series consult the LIST

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For more book reviews consult the LIST

For more articles + my Michael Bishop Guest Post series consult the LIST

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10 thoughts on “Guest Post: Year of the Cloud, Kate Wilhelm and Theodore L. Thomas (1970)”

  1. Wow, glad to see everyone is bringing their A-game to the guest post series! And a post-apocalyptic novel, of course 🙂 Very good and thoughtful review, even if the book didn’t break the formula… I may pick it up since it’s apocalyptic, though Mike you’ve recommended so many better ones…

    1. Well, as an apocalyptic junkie, you may like it. I’m feeling a bit jaded about unoriginal apocalyptic works right now, after going back and reading the origins of the genre – it’s amazing how many standard plot formulas were established before WWI.

      But anyone who likes the two great 50’s Johns – Wyndham and Christopher – might enjoy this one, even though it’s inferior to their books.

      1. I’m feeling a bit jaded about unoriginal apocalyptic works right now
        This is why I read the genre sparingly, even though I love it — you see too much repetition after a while.

        after going back and reading the origins of the genre
        I’ve really enjoyed your posts looking at the genre’s early works, and it makes me want to crack open some of the older SF I’ve picked up. There’s a lot of good, overlooked stuff in there.

  2. There is a lot of repetition — and, as a hopeless apocalypse junkie, I probably haven’t been sparing enough in my reading, which has made me jaded, and yet strangely I’m unable to avoid even mediocre works in the genre.

    Thanks for reading! I should steal a page out of Joachim’s playbook and host a guest post series on early apocalyptic SF. There’s so much good stuff to read.

    1. Great review, Mike! I find it interesting that you selected one of her earlier novels and I selected a much later novel, yet the narrative arc sounds very familiar…

      1. There are some clear commonalities – particularly the role of the wilderness as a refuge. There are extensive descriptions of yachting and diving around the coral reefs, which remind me of the wilderness scenes in Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang and Juniper Time, and the Pacific coast in Welcome Chaos.

  3. It definitely doesn’t sound her best. I think cosy catastrophe is a bit rough on Wyndham sometimes. Day of the Triffids is pretty horrific in places, and while Kraken Wakes is fairly cosy it’s still quite disturbing.

    Christopher I’ve only read Death of Grass (which I wrote up at mine). The odd thing with that is the protagonist keeps saying how ugly it’ll get and how people will descend into savagery, by reason of which he goes for the pre-emptive strike approach leading me eventually to realise that whether Christopher intended it or not the protagonist is exactly the sort of person he’s warning others against.

    This, eh. That apocalpyse sounds like it would end all life on Earth fairly decisively. That last para really does seem odd too, why couldn’t it be a weird natural phenomenon? You kind of have to lay the groundwork as you suggest.

    Who was Ted Thomas? Do we know why she wrote two books with him?

    1. The isfdb.org entry for him suggests that he was a rather prolific short story author in the magazines whose only novels were the ones co-written with Kate Wilhelm….

      http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/ea.cgi?Theodore_L._Thomas

      It also seems that The Clone (1965) was originally serialized under his name alone in 1959 despite being written WITH Wilhelm. At that point she didn’t have any novels either — only pulpy short stories in collections.

      Perhaps people thought her novel career might be helped if she wrote with a guy… Who knows, it’s a question I wish I could ask Wilhelm.

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