Saturday, May 8, 2021

Welcome Chaos by Kate Wilhelm

I've been meaning to read some Kate Wilhelm for some time; I've heard good things on podcasts and such and Gene Wolfe, one of my favorite writers, was a fan. I've had this mass market paperback of one of her early scifi novels on the shelf for some time, along with a few of her later mystery novels. I'm glad I encountered the book that way rather than having it specifically recommended because all the promotional material spoils what the central scifi concept is, which is left as a mystery for the first quarter or so of the book. To be fair, any discussion of the book will likely have to tip that off, though I will put a spoiler warning for anyone who wants to go in blind.

The book opens as a shadowy (former) government agent manipulates a college history professor and recent bestselling pop science author, Lyle Taney, into quitting her job to take an assignment writing a book about eagles and doing her research in a house in the Pacific Northwest on the coast. He is attempting to get her to discover the identity of a reclusive neighbor who has a valuable secret. 

Spoiler in this paragraph:

Lyle gets drawn into the lives of the neighbors, who turn out to have discovered a way to perpetual health and long life, the secret the former agent is after. At this point the book becomes a cold war thriller of sorts as Soviet scientist have made a similar discovery and the heretofore independent group is faced with a choice of distributing the inoculation in the West as well so as to avert nuclear war under the assumption that one of the superpowers will likely strike before the other has time to inoculate their population against nuclear radiation. 

End spoiler:

I'm not sure I entirely buy Lyle's initial motivation, but once the story is set in motion it's a very interesting and propulsive near future/present day (for the early eighties) scifi cold war thriller. It's very concerned with the ethics of the idea of mutually assured destruction. The central scifi conceit answers that in a way that is not especially comforting, but not without hope. 

I suspect this is not a bad entry point to Wilhelm's work, as I want to read more at this point.


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