Book Review: Abyss, Kate Wilhelm (1971)

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(Lou Feck’s cover for the 1973 edition)

4/5 (collated rating: Good)

Kate Wilhem’s SF forms one of the foundational pillars propping up my fascination with the genre.  Her writing, sometimes oblique and interior, cuts to the very heart of things, exposing the hidden societal and psychological sinews that suppress and restrict.  Her 60s/70s women characters, from linguists and mathematicians to discontented housewives, subtly subvert our expectations of how genre characters should behave.  And for a few years in the early 70s, she dominated the award lists (four Nebula nominations in 1971, two in 1970, a win in 1968, and of course, her double Hugo and Nebula win in 1976 for her novel Where Late our Sweet Birds Sang).  Totals: 14 Nebula nominations and 3 wins.  4 Hugo nominations and 1 win.

I have found that her psychologically heavy, character-driven SF has fallen out of style. In an effort to re-inspire, I gathered together various bloggers and put together a Guest Post Series in 2015.  Why she has not received a Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award frustrates me beyond measure (list).

Her collection Abyss (1971) contains one original novella (“The Plastic Abyss”) and another which previously appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, February 1968 (“Stranger in the House”).  Although neither reach the heights of what I consider her best short fiction–“Baby, You Were Great” (1967), “The Planners” (1968),  “Windsong” (1968) and “The Encounter” (1970)–I recommend Abyss for fans of character-driven 60s/70s SF.  

For people new to her SF, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1976) and her collection The Downstairs Room and Other Speculative Fiction (1968) remain the places to start.

Brief Plot Summary

“The Plastic Abyss” (1971), novella, 4/5 (Good):  Nominated for the 1972 Nebula.  As the human drama swirls at the forefront, the SF premise generates the unease—in this case an attempt to secure funding for an experimental absorptive material onto which life-like images can be projected.  “The Plastic Abyss” takes projection, duplication, the nature of reality and its relationship to memory, and drenches it with indirect explanations and a patina of paranoia that never fully lifts.

The story centers around Dorothy, the wife of Gary, the director of research on experimental material.  After a series of dissociative  experiences which her husband does not believe, slowly the cast of characters–who move from room to room debating the nature of the substance and its efficaciousness–realize an abnormal and unexplainable phenomenon, the apparent duplicate of Dorothy.

On another level, Wilhelm focuses on the entrenched patterns of social roles, and the predetermined paths that relationships take.  Joanna, Dorothy’s stepdaughter observes “All of them pretending so hard, all of them phony, always playing roles, being so nice and polite, and all the time just waiting for her to out of the way so they could let down the masks, be themselves”(13).  The layers: there’s the mysterious substance and the technology to project onto it, there are roles that the characters play (housewife, businessman, stepdaughter, etc), Dorothy’s dissociation  that causes her to question her own existence, and even the demonstration of the powers of the substance.  What is real, what is a projection, what happens when we do not remember?  Wilhelm weaves the layers together in a way that never provides all the answers.

Recommended.

“Stranger in the House” (1968), novella, 4/5 (Good): Mandy and Robert purchase a house in the countryside and little do they know an unusual alien Groth lives in a room (“vlen”) underneath the house.  The Groth, far from a vengeful spirit, is a mournful being trapped on an alien  planet (Earth), suffering the pangs of loss at the death of its “lifemate” (80), spending its days dreaming of its youth, unable to fulfill its mission, and doomed to drive those it attempts to telepathically contact either dead or insane.

At first glance “Strange in the House” has the Gothic quality that Lou Feck’s cover for the 1973 edition evokes so adeptly.  But, the feel is less horror and more a profound sense of pity not only for the human characters struggling to understand what is happening but also the tormented creature beneath the house. Wilhelm uses the scenario to explore the relationship between the couple.  Robert, recently afflicted with a heart attack is deemed too weak to contact, and thus the Groth chooses to contact Mandy.  However, Robert is convinced that there is a rational explanation for the strange phenomenon and discomforts caused by the telepathic linkage.  An uncanny story about and the inability to understand the “other” and ultimately, the inability for disparate experiences to be conveyed between even the closest people.

Wilhelm’s integration of alien contact into the Gothic haunted house-type tale filled with psychological depth and disturbed suffering, works surprisingly well.  Recommended.

Useful Links

Mike at PotPourri of SF Literature reviewed the collection here.  We have similar, although flip-flopped views on the stories.

And, of course, check out 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)

For more book reviews consult the INDEX

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(Ronald Walotsky’s cover for the February 1968 issue)

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(Philippe Druillet’s cover for French SF magazine Fiction, #177 (1968), ed. Alain Dorémieux)

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3 thoughts on “Book Review: Abyss, Kate Wilhelm (1971)”

    1. You should definitely procure more of her work. She certainly wasn’t a one hit wonder as some make her out to be…. The stories in The Downstairs Room and Other Speculative Fiction will be a joy to read if you enjoy her other stuff.

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