Guest Post: Welcome, Chaos, Kate Wilhelm (1983)

The fourth in my Kate Wilhelm’s SF Guest Post Series (original announcement and post list) comes via Megan (twitter)—who blogs on both vintage classics and lesser known work to the recent BSFA-nominated SF novels at From Couch to Moon.  This is her second contribution to one of my guest post series and is definitely worth the read.  Her first guest post review was for my Michael Bishop series: check it out!  Thanks Megan!

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WLCMCHSMKZ1983

(Jane Mackenzie’s cover for the 1983 edition)

Two parts mainstream Cold War espionage thriller to one part bio-social science fiction, Welcome, Chaos is a departure from Wilhelm’s reflective, elegiac vision of seven years prior: the captivating, multiple award-winning Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1976). In many ways common with one another, both novels contain themes of pre- to post-apocalypse, survival via artificial biological advancements, ethics of scientific intervention, and, well, birds.

When Lyle Taney leaves her history professorship to study nesting eagles on the coast of Oregon, she finds herself torn between befriending her warm, intelligent neighbor Mr. Werther, and spying on him for arrogant CIA agent Lasater. She doesn’t trust the domineering CIA agent, and she’s both intrigued and attracted to Werther, and his house servant Carmen. Are these men really responsible for the deaths of two scientists?

BKTG19903
Uncredited cover for the 1985 edition

Between both novels, Wilhelm seems to be saying that it will require an apocalypse to put power into the hands of scientists, but she’s uncertain if this is a good thing. Where Sweet Birds serves as an ethical quandary, emanating a suspicion of scientists with bountiful resources, power, and entitlement, Welcome, Chaos conveys an optimism about similar circumstances, where scientists stand poised to serve humanity at the edge of nuclear annihilation. Both narratives are motivated by ethical questions, but, unlike Sweet Birds, Welcome, Chaos fails to provoke any serious and prolonged contemplation.

The difference lies in the treatment of the protagonists. In Sweet Birds, the protagonists are symbolic of every person; the reader sees humanity at the core of the tale. That micro-story about a small, intimate post-apocalyptic community feels grander, all-encompassing. The tension affects us. This could be us. Alternately, the protagonist in Chaos is one woman, one damn lucky woman, who stumbles into an unlikely situation, is likeable enough to be welcomed and supported in said situation, is loved by multiple men, and who ultimately aids in the survival of humanity.

But the overarching theme is essentially about big decisions about life, love, survival, and, primarily, the female self. Taney, initially a doormat by modern standards, develops to become a more modern woman. The text, feminist from the get-go with Lasaster’s relentless blasts of condescension, (“Maternal devotion, security, money, revenge, that was what [women] understood” [20]), makes it obvious that Taney will choose to defy Lasater and abandon her meek life.

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Serge Ruau or Catherine Iwanon’s cover for the French 1985 edition

But that’s part of what keeps this novel from being just a generic grocery store thriller. Over thirty years before Ancillary Justice, Kate Wilhelm plays with language degenderification by gender swapping character names, like Lyle, Carmen, Hilary. Even [Lass]ater is an appellative joke, as the vain, needy detective demonstrates his inability to drive. She takes gender relations further, introducing Taney to a household of scientists with open romantic relationships, but without sexualizing anyone. When Taney’s physical appearance is complimented, she is full-cheeked, bright-eyed, with soft hair. Her multiple men love her for who she is. In dangerous situations, Wilhelm’s slight hints at rape tension are oddly and abruptly abandoned—perhaps as a statement on this tired plotting cliché.

But overall, major parts of the narrative are hard to swallow. Lasater locates Werther’s Pennsylvania hideout by simply driving around the entire Delaware Valley region. He plays cat-and-mouse with Taney all over the East coast and finds her in a highway traffic jam during a blizzard. I can’t even find my grandma in the local, rural mall on a weekday morning.

Tim White's cover for the 1987 edition
Tim White’s cover for the 1987 edition

Also, common in thriller fiction is the large cast of (assumed to be) white men as law enforcement and elected officials. Some scenes act as ‘who’s who’, only to become ‘who the hell is who’? Really more of flaw with this particular subgenre, than a criticism of Wilhelm, but difficult to follow, nonetheless. Also, those ethical questions that are primarily posed to drive tension fail to do so, and the only real tension revolves around the true identities and motivations of Werther and Carmen—interesting, yes, but are resolved by the middle of the novel. The rest of the novel serves as playground for Taney’s risk-taking, but her evolution as a strong, independent woman is complete by then. We believe in her, so there’s no real reason to worry.

Just looking at Wilhelm’s bibliography, it’s apparent that her body of work has changed over time, with her psychological sci-fi giving way to mystery fiction. Welcome, Chaos serves as a clear transition of Wilhelm’s interests in this regard, where the serious treatment of scientific advancement takes a backseat to detective chases and scientific scheming. Given Wilhelm’s vocal frustration at the publishing industry, this may be a financial decision for this award-winning and celebrated author. But this is no Sweet Birds.

So maybe Welcome, Chaos does read like a novel from a grocery store shelf, but it’s top shelf grocery store fiction because Wilhelm knows what she’s doing in this format, she does it well, and she doesn’t cater to formula or cliché. Generic flavor, but with natural ingredients, it’s not satisfying in the sense that it will thrill or provoke, but it does compel page-turning. Wilhelm’s Taney is a unique female voice, it’s fun to watch her grow, and the arc unfolds in an unusual way. Categorize this one as a mainstream follow up that straddles subgenres, while being alternately dubious and unputdownable.

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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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18 thoughts on “Guest Post: Welcome, Chaos, Kate Wilhelm (1983)”

  1. Thanks for such a great review!

    At the risk of putting out some *SPOILERS*, I have to say that I found a really disturbing ethical dimension to this work – the relatively calm acceptance by Saul’s group of the deaths of hundreds of millions of people, which would follow the release of their technology to create a new society of Homo superious. They ultimately present the President of the US with a really bizarre choice: he can accept all-out nuclear war, or put out a potentially saving technology that kills half the people who use it.

    This seems to be a theme that hovers just below the surface in many of her apocalyptic novels – that it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if many people on an overpopulated earth just went away.

    1. Wilhelm does seem to stick close to that particular theme. I noticed it with your review of the The Year of the Cloud, too. Wilhelm tries to play up the whole “nuclear annihilation vs high risk survival tactic” as a difficult ethical quandary in Welcome, Chaos, yet it doesn’t seem like a very difficult decision for her characters. The narrative just doesn’t convey the gravity that I think Wilhelm intended. There is no suspense about what the group decides to do; the ethical debate feels perfunctory. Sweet Birds does a much better job of feeling ruminative.

  2. A great piece of reviewing. (Review golem. Comment golem.) A shame it’s no Sweet Birds, but unputdownable is pretty strong praise, and unputdownable books can more than worth the price of admission. Sounds fascinating, despite its flaws; I’ll have to see if I can find a copy. And I’m glad to see birds were actually featured in the book after the terrible false advertising of Sweet Birds…

    1. Hahaha! (Inside joke golem. The worst golem of them all…)

      It is unputdownable, but I feel weird saying that. When I read the first few pages– actually when I first saw the cover (that top one there)– I thought, “Oh my god, what have I agreed to?” just certain it was going to be awful.

      But Wilhelm executes those thriller hooks (and I use thriller lightly here, which I think is a good thing) effectively, but without manipulation. It builds curiosity more than suspense, which works well for me. I could have finished it in one or two straight days if my schedule had allowed.

      And yes, the eagles take the stage here. Their metaphoricalness (another treatment of gender that she bluntly states a couple of times) is heavier here than in Sweet Birds. In that sense, Welcome, Chaos is for the birds. (Bad joke golem. Now THAT is the worst golem of them all.)

      1. I thought, “Oh my god, what have I agreed to?” just certain it was going to be awful.
        Never judge a book by its cover? All of those eagle covers remind me of awful GO ‘MURICA collectibles sold by the Bradford Exchange or something. Eagle eclipses. Eagles hate TV. They don’t make a whole lot of sense.

        In that sense, Welcome, Chaos is for the birds.
        Groan golem.

  3. I really need to read this. And Birds. That one has been sitting on my phone for a loooong time, and this sounds really interesting.
    .
    The golems have gone viral.
    .
    Interest golem. Boredom golem. Eye roll golem.

  4. Nice review, particularly on the feminist elements of the book which reading it as a teenager largely passed me by.

    My favourite moment remains when she sees an elderly couple working at a gas station. They’ve acquired immortality, but she can see that 500 years from now they’ll still be doing much the same sort of work, that not dying doesn’t mean systemic change.

    Nice thought too in the comments regarding the welcoming of apocalypse and mass death. Unfortunately there’s long been a trend in utopian thinking that in order to realise the utopia first we have to kill off all the people who wouldn’t fit into the utopia. HG Wells for example looked forward to a scientific utopia, but was fairly sanguine that getting there might require a bit of mass involuntary euthanasia (for other people, naturally, nobody ever seems to volunteer themselves to clear the way for the glorious future).

    To be honest, I think the only reason the idea is less popular than it used to be is that it got tried out in Germany and Russia, and the results were not utopic (particularly for those on the receiving end). Even today though I occasionally see calls for a managed reduction in population to address environmental issues, and it always raises the question, managed how exactly? Who manages, and who is managed?

    A plague sidesteps those issues, allowing a writer to indulge in the fantasy of a remade world, without the messy necessity of first getting rid of the people already on it. It’s I think a very dangerous fantasy.

    1. It’s pretty clear to me that everything we enjoy today in terms of social and technological progress is a result of population increase. More people = more hearts and brains and creativity = greater synergy. So the idea of a population decrease + a small scientific elite running things and carrying on for humanity = an obviously false hope. In times of decline (“dark ages” if you like), things get preserved, yes. But advanced, or widely enjoyed? Not so much.

    2. Ah, the SF tradition of the (H.G.) Wellsian future. I just saw “Things to Come” the other night, and it’s utopian vision of scientific-elite-versus-the-masses seemed pretty horrid to me. (The Soviets never produced anything to equal the propagandistic hubris of that film.) I think Joachim critiqued the basic idea in one of his reviews of a Fred & Geoffrey Hoyle novel. Certainly C.S. Lewis did in “That Hideous Strength.”

    3. Thanks, Max! I also liked that little grocery store scene, although I read it as Wilhelm (Taney, rather) romanticizing a simple, static future.

      It’s funny you mention the issues with population control in SF. I’m working on my reviews for Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar and The Whole Man and I noticed, what felt to me, a paranoia of state-mandated birth control, sort of the front-end answer to the sudden population apocalypse that you are talking about. I recognize it for what it is– a rational response to the mid-century eugenics nightmares, but I am commenting on how strange it is that that’s no longer part of the pro-choice/family planning debates (with the exception of knee-jerk extreme conservatives who are really just reaching for anything to make an argument). So a typical woman of my generation might see Brunner’s depictions as threatening to reproductive rights, even though he’s really stating the same concerns that you mention.

  5. Have you read Silverberg’s The World Inside Tom? There’s a review here. It makes precisely the argument you’re making here, and leaving aside some dodgy sexual politics is a fun and interesting book.

    1. Not since 1973-74. At some point in the near future, I’m going to start re-reading all my past favorites, including Silverberg’s “Hawksbill Station,” “Nightwings,” and “The World Inside.” I predict he’s one of the few mid-to-late-20th century SF authors who will still be read at the end of the 21st / beginning of the 22nd. His writing was rarely of-its-time in a way that dates. The concerns he dealt with seem like perpetual ones.

  6. There was a novella printed first of this material – called “The Winter Beach” and published in Redbook (!) September 1981. It was nominated for the Nebula and is far superior to the book. It has less hugger-mugger and is really a superior novella. Since she incorporated it into (or cut it from) this novel it has only been published separately in Listen, Listen – one of her collections. I think it would be interesting to read it and compare the two.

    And as far as Silverberg, Tom. You are speaking to a true believer here. The years from 1967 – 1976 are Silverberg’s golden era. I reread them every ten years or so.

    1. Yes, I think his works from that period are mostly masterpieces, in that they both provide both the sense of wonder that genre fans need, and transcend the genre with their deep humanity.

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