Kate Wilhelm is possibly best known for Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang which won both the Hugo and the Locus Awards in 1977. She was a prolific author of both science fiction and murder mysteries about whom there is only a little information that I can find.
Both The Little Red Reviewer and Ollie of Infinite Speculation wrote awesome posts about Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, putting Wilhem on my radar, so when I found The Killing Thing (alt. title The Killer Thing) in one of the boxes of old SFF given to me by one of our library patrons I was excited.
And despite some heavy-handed anti-war moralising, I enjoyed this a lot. It’s a quick read (not much more than a novella at 143 pages long), and Wilhelm’s writing is economical for the most part, but evocative. The story takes place on an unnamed and barren planet where Captain Ellender Tracy, known as Trace, and a dangerous robot, conclude their game of cat and mouse. Flashbacks fill in how they ended up on the planet, and how the robot came to be. Fever-dream sequences show us Trace’s internal development.
The robot was created by Doctor Vianti, a Ramsean intellectual sentenced to run the Mocklem Mines when the World Group “liberated” his planet. Based on the original mining robots in his charge, his creation is ten feet tall, weighs eight tons and its description in the book matches the cover art on my Panther edition perfectly. Dr Vianti has given the robot treads as well as wheels, to improve its manoeuvrability, and extra-sensitive waldoes for dexterity. Most importantly, he has given it the ability to learn independently and the directive of self-preservation.
When Dr Vianti talks about destroying the robot to prevent it falling into (enemy) World Group’s hands the robot kills him. It allows itself to be taken to Venus, World Group’s army research and training grounds, where it is given further new abilities. Again, it kills the men tinkering with it when they talk of it being destroyed and it escapes. When the ship it steals runs out of fuel it lands on Tensor, where a group of rebels appropriate it … and what d’you know? The same thing happens again! It moves onto Tau Ceti III after getting more fuel, and presumably follows the same course of action because that’s when Trace and a group of volunteers get involved in hunting it down. They eventually shoot it down over the unknown planet, but fail to destroy it. Trace and his comrade Duncan follow it down, Duncan dies, and Trace is left to deal with the robot alone before it can fix its ship and continue on its rampage.
The parallels drawn between the robot and Trace, both the killing things of the title, are clearly made and don’t need underlining here. The way in which World Group has spread out across the galaxy, taking planets and subduing native peoples, is a further analogy. What I found more engaging were the flashbacks to conversations between Trace and a Mellic woman called Lar, with whom he had a relationship before he was called on to hunt down the robot. These are no less heavy-handed, just more interesting in their presentation. Lar questions Trace on his people’s need to completely take over a planet instead of trading with it, and on World Group’s obsessive “continual growth”. Trace argues that all organisms must grow to survive and Lar comes back with “like a disease” (I got Matrix vibes reading that bit).
There are some striking images employed to highlight World Group’s expansionist nationalism, two in particular: the child-like stature of the people of Ramses and their “petit and graceful” women “with long flowing hair and tiny hands and feet” – women who, like Lar, either sell themselves to and/or are raped by World Group soldiers (something that is never graphically depicted, but is apparent nonetheless); and the Mocklem Mines, “a whole mountain … being eaten away, layer by layer, section by section”.
And then there are the Outsiders. At first, they seem to be a myth, wishful thinking on the part of the oppressed. Towards the end of the novel, however, they are a solid presence. The Outsiders are technologically superior to humanity and they come when Mellic calls for aid against World Group. The air of disbelief continues even once the first waves of their ships have shown up. Trace doesn’t “believe it” when they don’t appear to want anything in return for helping Mellic, because “no one risked anything at all without the thought of some gain to make the risk worth taking”. But then World Group has never attempted to understand alien thought. Why start now?
Let’s wrap this up. Great writing – with the exception of a couple of the last fever-dreams which were just too much trippy word association for me personally – interesting character development in Trace, but not the subtlest anti-war message (presumably commenting on the Vietnam war). I really enjoyed it, but your mileage will vary depending on your tolerance. While not a reread candidate, it has made me look forward to finding more of Wilhelm’s work.
Poor Venus. The planet is depicted as a swampy, miserable place where rain is a constant and the smell of rotting vegetation dominates. This Venus so at odds with Derek Künsken’s beautiful but deadly version in The House of Styx that I felt strangely defensive. How very dare!