Science Fiction Though the Decades

Thursday, March 29, 2012

1971: Abyss (Wilhelm, Kate)

In the abyss of dichotomy lies a reality (3/5)

Having read Wilhelm's flagship post-apocalyptic novel about cloning, Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang (1976), her three-part story was captivating but a special something was missing--her writing didn't set her apart from other writers. Her much lesser known work, Let the Fire Fall (1969) combined religious fanaticism with an alien contact novel, but once again her writing style was no where to be seen and unfortunately her plot line wasn't very lively. Besides her work in science fiction, Wilhelm also used to write a good deal of mystery. In Abyss, both lines of her fiction writing are merged into two separate novellas where the mundane circumstances transmogrify into the creepy realm of testing your own reality while at the lip of the metaphorical abyss.


The Plastic Abyss (1971) - 3/5 - Perry Davenport is the president of a plastics company who is eager to secure government funds for the research into a nearly all- absorbing material, rending it impossibly dark and suitable as a platform for image projection or energy generation. The director of research, Gary Hazlett, is against any government collaboration in the invention because he fears the government monopolization and militarization of their discovery. Meanwhile, Gary's wife Dorothy is experiencing conflicting memories of time and place. Her continuing dichotomous memory spurs her into confused fits of what reality: is there more than one reality or is everything she projects a non-reality compared to her corporeality? When the research group and the couple come together to pan out what experiences can be corroborated, the slow collective realization is as unsettling as it is illusionary. 71 pages

Dorothy's fractal experiences are difficult to follow at first, where her version of reality differs from the corroborated experiences recounted by her husband or neighbor. In each circumstance Dorothy has a presence, but which presence is her own is not known from that of her proposed doppelgänger. Her flighty behavior is seen as a female neurosis in the eyes of the predominantly male cast--she's skittish, uncertain, overly emotional, and needy. The stereotypical female-in-need is compounded by the stereotypical male-problem-fixer, where I would typically feign interest in such a superficially characterized cast, this character symbiosis is as interesting as the juxtaposition of knowledge-based scientists and surreal-experiences of Dorothy. Something works very well here, but the displacement of Dorothy and her perceived reality is hard to pin down into words... the story might have been handled by Brian Aldiss or John Brunner.


Stranger in the House (1968) - 4/5 - Robert and Mandy have made the move from the city to the country, where they have bought a huge house for a very affordable price. A series of odd events involving physical sickness, fainting spells, and spasms of agony have Robert unperturbed. Mandy and her 29-year old daughter share unsettling experiences of being mentally invaded and inherently distrust the house. Below the basement of the seemingly haunted house lies an alien being, the Groth. On a mission to monitor the scientific developments of humankind since 1896, the male Groth has become withdrawn, distressed, and depressed after the untimely death of his mate. Unacclimated to earth's atmosphere, the Groth finds it difficult to return to its ship located in upstate New York. All his needs taken care in his subterranean lair, the Groth doesn't need to venture out often but he also needs to complete another one of his missions on earth--to make contact. However, his telepathic powers and state of distress prove to be too powerful for productive reception in the human mind. 64 pages

The male-female struggle for whose idea of reality is more well-founded is just as prevalent as it is in the previous novella. Robert is a bullheaded realist with both feet planted to the earth while his wife Mandy suggests supernatural sources for the odd events in the house; between the two lie an abyss of the realization of the event in their lives. I guess you can take the metaphor as far as you like: the abyss between human and alien existence, the abyss between the continuation of life vs. the pull of self-death, the abyss between avoiding the truth and confronting the truth. The focus on the plight of the alien is the highlight of the story. The Groth is steeped in lonely misery as he can't conveniently move about, can't retrieve his spacecraft, can't effectively communicate, and can't complete his mission.


I criticized Wilhelm for not having her own voice in her writing, but in this two novella collection, Wilhelm does do one thing quite well: offering unique insight into the human experience. It's not with every author that tidbits of pertinent insight gets slipped into the story. Wilhelm has a knack for this, she includes some facets of insight which I thought only I have experienced.
Her mother ... her father ... All of them pretending so hard, all of them so phony, always playing roles, being so nice and polite, and all the time just waiting for her to be out of the way so they could let down the masks, be themselves. She tried to imagine that her mother was like apart from her ... and she couldn't. Another person, a stranger to her. (13)
We never see what we think we do. It's a matter of training. We see lines, and we join them. We see partial figures, and we complete them. We see randomness and we make it orderly. Our minds refuse chaos, so we train our eyes and our brain to create order. (64)
Her perception and human insights unique to this collection now has me more interested in her stories. I may steer away from her novels and venture towards her short story collection. There's still hope for her yet!

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