Born 8 June 1928, Toledo, Ohio
Daughter of Jesse T. and Ann McDowell Meredith; married Joseph Wilhelm, 1947; Damon Knight, 1963; children: three
Kate Wilhelm has two children from her first marriage and one from her second. She lives in Eugene, Oregon, with her second husband, a science fiction writer, critic, and editor. She was one of the directors of the Milford Science Fiction Writers Conference from 1963 to 1972. She lectured at the Clarion Fantasy Workshop from 1968 to 1970 and at Tulane University in 1971.
Wilhelm has long been recognized as an outstanding writer of science fiction. Yet this prolific author is proving more and more difficult to classify. She has successfully transplanted her economical prose and her imaginative ideas into a wide range of forms and genres; always she displays in her writing a sharp understanding of human psychology.
Wilhelm won the Nebula award from the Science Fiction Writers of America for the best short story of 1968 with "The Planners," from the collection The Downstairs Room and Other Speculative Fiction. The hero is a scientist who experiments with monkeys, prison convicts, and developmentally challenged children. Rather than admit to his ethical doubts about these practices, he externalizes them in the form of an imaginary laboratory technician.
The Clewiston Test (1976) is also about a scientist who has ethical doubts. Anne has been testing a new painkilling drug on monkeys, who have become violent, shunning the friendly advances of the laboratory technicians, but the pharmaceutical company has ignored her report of these developments and markets the drug anyway. After Anne is seriously injured in a car accident and bedridden, she feels increasingly angry and isolated, and she avoids her husband, who wonders if Anne's rage is justified or unjustified (proof she has used the drug herself to ease the pain after the accident)?
Fault Lines (1977) follows the inner monologue of an elderly woman trapped in an isolated beach house following an earthquake. As she waits to die, she remembers her childhood, marriage, and love affairs and discovers the sources of guilt and blame in her life. She realizes the personal disasters she has tried to forget were simply predictable shifts, like earthquakes. Fault Lines, like many of Wilhelm's works, is about cycles: a preexisting weakness, a "fault line," shifts and reveals a stronger structure underneath.
Wilhelm is best known as a science fiction writer, and the science she fictionalizes is psychology. Sometimes it is physiological psychology (as in "The Planners" and The Clewiston Test), sometimes Jungian (as in Margaret and I, 1971, a novel based on Jung's theory of the unconscious), sometimes humanistic (as in Fault Lines). Her short stories range from the eloquent to the clever but superficial; her novels, however, are of more even quality. Her prose is economical and her psychological portraits engrossing.
Wilhelm second and third Nebula awards were earned for the novella "The Girl Who Fell into the Sky" (1988, from the collection Children of the Wind) and in 1989 for the short story "Forever Yours, Anna." The former contrasts sharply with Wilhelm's earlier short works, which are darker and more pessimistic. As in so much of her fiction, Wilhelm here explores "the inexplicable." Touched by the vast peace of the Midwestern prairie and by mysteries of the past, her characters find fulfillment beyond the colder pattern of the modern world.
This world and all its absurdities and threats is the focus of much of Wilhelm's work. Throughout her career, she has questioned whether or not we can accept the consequences of our scientific and technological advances. She writes with a strong sense of moral responsibility and social conscience. Her work—the majority of which has been categorized as social science fiction—raises questions about medical practices (The Clewiston Test), scientific research ("The Planners"), and environmental concerns (Juniper Time, 1979), and confronts a host of ethical issues.
Wilhelm has repeatedly demonstrated her literary versatility. Since 1980, she has ventured into the field of drama, collaborated in separate works with her husband, Damon Knight, and her son Richard, and written mysteries, too. Against the varied, sometimes fantastic surroundings and situations of her fiction, her social commentary and her exploration of the human psyche remain constant.
In the collection Listen, Listen (1981), a novella entitled "With Thimbles, With Forks, and Hope" introduces two characters whose continuing stories act as something of a transitional vehicle for Wilhelm. The characters are psychologist Constance Leidl and her husband, Charlie Meiklejohn, a retired fire inspector and police detective. The transition takes place over the course of several stories pitting the investigative duo against mysteries with fantastic, science fictional elements. By the time the first Leidl-Meiklejohn novel appears, Constance, Charlie, and Wilhelm have taken up a more traditional place in the mystery genre. The Hamlet Trap (1987) has no elements of fantasy or science fiction, but is instead a thoroughly observed psychological mystery with satisfyingly believable characters.
Wilhelm, however, did not abandon the science fiction genre. Among the other Leidl-Meiklejohn novels is The Dark Door (1988), more of a tightly drawn thriller than a mystery featuring a supernatural foe; and Crazy Time (1988), also nominally science fiction, which achieves the same sort of hybrid status. It begins as generous farce and becomes a gripping comedy thriller that is also a rather profound metaphysical fantasy.
While some science fictional elements do appear in the following series of Leidl-Meiklejohn novels, the stories move solidly into reality-based investigations. Wilhelm also published a number of courtroom drama mysteries during this time. Chaos theory and superhuman powers are integral to the theme and plot of Death Qualified: A Mystery of Chaos (1991), but the novel is as much murder mystery and psychological study as it is science fiction. Following volumes with the same protagonist, criminal lawyer Barbara Holloway, Malice Prepense (1996) and Defense for the Devil (1999), are compelling works with Wilhelm's usual psychologically sophisticated character development and dexterous prose. The Good Children (1998), while it has the theme of haunting and the haunted house in common with several of Wilhelm's earlier works, is not a novel of the supernatural, but rather an exquisitely detailed account of the psychological problems affecting a boy when his older siblings cover up their mother's death. The resulting story is a believable and sensitive but unsentimental psychological portrait; it is also a taut gothic tale. Whatever the genre position, Wilhelm's fiction attains brilliance through her commitment to verity in the depiction of the human estate.
More Bitter Than Death (1962). The Mile-Long Spaceship (1963, British edition as Andover and the Android, 1966). The Clone (with T. Thomas, 1965). The Nevermore Affair (1966). The Killer Thing (1967, British edition as The Killing Thing). Let the Fire Fall (1969). The Year of the Cloud (with T. Thomas, 1970). Abyss: Two Novellas (1971). City of Cain (1974). The Infinity Box (1975). Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1976). Somerset Dreams and Other Fictions (1978). Axolotl (play, 1979). Better Than One (with Damon Knight, 1980). A Sense of Shadow (1981). Oh, Susannah!: A Novel (1982). Welcome, Chaos (1983). The Hindenberg Effect (radio play, 1985). The Hills Are Dancing (with R. Wilhelm, 1986). Huysman's Pets (1986). Smart House (1989). Cambio Bay (1990). Sweet, Sweet Poison (1990). State of Grace (1991). Naming the Flowers (1992). And the Angels Sing (1992). Seven Kinds of Death (1992). Justice for Some (1993). The Best Defense (1994). A Flush of Shadows: Five Short Novels Featuring Constance Leidl and Charlie Meiklejohn (1995).
Ash, B., ed., Anatomy of Wonder: Science Fiction (1976). Barr, M., Lost in Space (1993). Donald, M., Patterns of the Fantastic (1983). Marleen, S., Future Females (1985). Platt, C., Dream Makers (1980). Weedman, J., ed., Women Worldwalkers (1985).
DLB (1981). Science Fiction Writers (1999). St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers (1996).
Anatomy of Wonder (1987). LATBR (19 Dec. 1982, 3 Dec. 1989, 30 June 1991). LJ (Jan. 1999). Newsweek (9 Feb. 1976). NYTBR (10 Mar. 1974, 18 Jan. 1976, 22 Feb. 1976, 9 Mar. 1986, 1 Sept. 1991). PW (24 June 1968, Feb. 1990). TLS (3 Oct.1986). Tribune Books (17 Dec. 1989). WPBW (27 Apr. 1986, 29 Oct. 1989).
UPDATED BY JEROME CHOU