Science Fiction Though the Decades

Sunday, November 23, 2014

1967: The Killer Thing (Wilhelm, Kate)

Inhuman, maniacal robot; inhuman, maniacal soldiers (4/5)

Kate Wilhelm is among a handful of female science fiction writers who need no introduction. She’s authored scores of short stories, about thirty-six genre novels, and eleven collections. She’s probably more prolific than many common and respectable male authors, yet she receives very little of the limelight that’s due to her (outside of SFMistress’s occasional posting on her work). Of her novels, I read her most popular work Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1976) and the much lesser popular Let the Fire Fall (1969), their respective popularity very much reflecting their quality. Het two-story collection in Abyss (1971) had some tantalizing perspective, a draw which had me put out my feelers for more of her work. Thus, I purchased three more Wilhelm books: the generically titled The Killer Thing (1967), one of her late novels Welcome, Chaos (1983) and a slightly more substantial collection: Children of the Wind (1989).

Prior to reading The Killer Thing, I couldn’t help but guffaw at the title of the novel. A fellow heavy-reading colleague of mine initially tore the title to pieces, but we ultimately found that in that title, there probably lurks a few layers of meaning; however, when interviewing a candidate who also had a flare for books, I didn’t mention the title I was reading—too ashamed of the her opinion of my reading preference. And yes, it felt awkward to be reading such a bad title in public.

Book’s own synopsis:
“In a last-ditch effort to liberate his beloved planet Ramses, a scientist us the twenty-third century develops a super-robot—one with a computer for a brain and a two-mile laser for an eye—that somehow destroys its inventor and programs itself to kill all life.

The universe is strange and unimaginable. Earth has colonized Venus, Mars and other planets in a series of devastating coups that have left civilization scorched and populations decimated. World Group Government keeps watch over an uneasy truce, but everywhere the contaminating greed of Earthmen is hated, their influence despised in a simmering passion that drives alien beings to quite human—superhuman—lengths.

Dr. Vianti, for example. His native planet, rich in platinum ore, was summarily seized by the World Group, the mines taken over, and Vianti left with the task of speeding up production of a robot he had designed to do the work of twenty-five men in the mines. Secretly, he worked on his own project.

When Trace, a Captain of the World Group Army, arrives on the scene, the killer robot has already succeeded in piloting a force-field and laser equipped fleet ship, destroying an entire city and threatening several small planets. Trace and his crew chase the robot to an arid, desert planet, where a sinister and unexpected showdown occurs. Suddenly Trace finds himself the sole survivor, pitted against an inhospitable planet and a computerized death machine on the rampage. Weakened by the elements and the lack of food and water. Trace has just one advantage over the robot—imagination. But is it enough to win his inexorable battle with The Killer Thing?


That’s one damned good synopsis that I have very little to expand on other than specifics about the battle plagued by Trace’s boredom, the robot’s insufferable drive, and blatant overtones of the anti-war sentiment.

So, the premise sounds pretty lame, right: a maniacal robots that shoots laser beams wants to kill all humans and later stalks a soldier on a desert planet. That’s exactly how the novel start off, too. With limited resources on the insignificant desert plant, Lieutenant Ellender Tracy (Trace) cowers away from the heat of the day in his dinghy for most of the time, occasionally shooting off toward the distant horizon when the robot nears. His fuel is limited, his food is limited, his water is limited, and his patience wears thin while waiting for rescue. Regardless of his pains, “he had to get up and get out, he had to find the [robot’s] dinghy, had to fortify the valley” (112).

The robot’s dinghy (I hate this word) entered the atmosphere just before Trace did. It’s unfortunate that the robot has an invisibility cloak on its dinghy, but Trace knows its general location and so establishes a form of fortification among the rocks. His salvation lies in his plan to steal the robot dinghy’s resources so that he can eke out another day: “He would refuel his own dinghy, take the water and oxygen, destroy the other dinghy” (114). But simply dodging the perpetual attacks by the roving killer robot is not enough—Trace also hopes to kill the menace somehow because it’s not only a threat to his life, but to all of humanity.

The robot was once a mining robot: eight-foot tall, weighing eight tons, armed with a stone cutting laser, and gifted with a logic circuit. Though the planet of Ramses is littered with many of similar robots that mine ore from the mountains, Dr. Vianti took special interest in developing this one robot in his underground laboratory. The conniving doctor was proud of his work, but his robot of wonder was one step ahead of him. Coming to terms with its intelligence, ability to learn, and its gift of life, it must follow its two directives: 1) the first is “the immediate satisfaction of the goal achievement” and 2) the second is “self-preservation in order to function and achieve goal satisfaction” (43). Without a primary goal to achieve, the robot sees that self-preservation is its prerogative. When the doctor says aloud that he needs to destroy the robot so that it will not fall in to the wrong hands, the robot feels threatened and thus kills its creator, escaping into open space.

Trace had once met the robot and its creator before it turned killer. Now they are together again on the same podunk planet and the robot feels threatened not only by Trace, but by all of mankind; “all man wanted to destroy it”, therefore “all men were the enemy” (146). Trace takes a philosophical approach to probing the robot’s intentions asking himself if it can be reasoned with, if it even knows what “kill’ is, and who had taught the robot to hate. Unlike the monomaniacal robot bent on destroying all of mankind in order to secure its own life, Trace can’t allow himself to hate: “You can’t afford to hate the enemy because hate involves emotions and a man with emotions driving him it not a man to be trusted in war” (173).

This isn’t exactly the opening salvo of the anti-war sentiment which runs throughout the novel, but it does highlight the opinion that soldiers must be emotionless robots, too, in order to face war. However, though these emotionless drones of war benefit the government which seeks to wage war, the soldiers remain emotionless even among people, especially foreign people. The planet of Ramses, where the robot was created, is one recently dominated by the World Group and the soldiers have had a fun time with the women there. Trace has partaken in this debauchery only because he was learned the truth from the one woman he loved on the planet. She thinks the soldiers are a disease spreading throughout the galaxy, and Trace begins to take the same sentiment.

Trace knows himself and knows that he has emotion, which he also considers his only unique weapon against the otherwise strictly logical killer robot. Offering advice to himself, Trace says, “Whatever you can reason out, so can it … use your humanness on it, your instincts, your intuition, anything that isn’t a part of logical planning” (54). Trace’s wild card against the robot is that it would not understand human thinking: “It couldn’t know about the very human ability to gamble on a long shot” (57-58).

There’s an obvious parallel between the cold inhumanness of the robot and that of soldiers, that war is fought by mindless drones and in order to kill without feeling, the kernel of emotion must be removed; thence, the primary directive of self-preservation is key. In the robot, this is by its own design, but in humans, this primary self-preservation is selfish, anti-social or even psychotic—to feel more for oneself rather than for the collective. Kill or be killed is the robot’s motto, similar to the illogical move of governments to resort to war—it’s either them or us! Much as history repeats itself, this human fascination with inhuman war carries itself through our history and into our fiction and into our science fiction; some novels (and nations, people, and news media) sickeningly glorify war and the soldiers who fight them, but The Killer Thing is a novel for those with similar anti-war sentiments. And by anti-war sentiments, I don’t mean the “well, freedom isn’t free” kind of mentality, rather the “you people are idiots and I want to leave the country (so I did)” kind of mentality.

But there’s one more thread to the novel which spurs further interest: that of “the Outsiders”. Rather than believing that God will come to save them, colonists where the World Group has invaded, the people believe that the Outsiders will answer their prayers. Trace used to find the idea of the Outsiders “superstitious and ignorant” (66) but he later begins to admire the concept, the rumor, the possible existence of the perfect beings:

They had conquered everything that plagued man; they had no disease, no death, no unnameable desires. It was as if they had climbed continuous stairs and were nearing the top while man was only then beginning to suspect that the evolutionary ladder continued upward far beyond the point that Earthmen already had reached it. (111)

This is one further jab at man’s obsession with war. The novel isn’t too militaristic in regards to using rank or maneuvers, but it is a bit heady-handed on the vilification of aggressive military action and the insistence that soldiers ought to be dehumanized in order to do inhumane acts.  Thankfully, Trace’s character is a scorned lover with a fresh insight into his own nature and that of World Group, providing a good vehicle between mindless robot and mindless soldier.

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