Young People Read Old SFF

Baby, You Were Great

Kate Wilhelm

Young People Read Old SFF has reached the 1960s. That means the fraction of stories by women is about to increase sharply [1], to reflect the increasing number of women in science fiction. And what better woman to herald that rising tide than the award winning Kate Wilhelm?

First published in the 1950s, Kate Wilhelm is a science fiction, fantasy, and mystery writer. With her husband, Damon Knight, she established both the Clarion and the Milford Writer’s Workshop. Her award nominations and wins include the Nebula, the Hugo, the Apollo, and the Locus. In 2016, the Solstice Award, given to individuals who have had a significant impact on the science fiction or fantasy landscape, was renamed in her honour.

Kate Wilhelm is still active; her website can be found here.

I chose “Baby, You Were Great” for a number of reasons. It was nominated for a Nebula, it was first published in the historically significant Orbit series [2], and its themes seemed to me to still be relevant. And we all know how great a track record I have when it comes to judging the universality of themes....

“Baby, You Were Great” can be found in Kate Wilhelm in Orbit, Volume One.

1: Do not fear men will vanish entirely! A spot has been reserved for the ineluctably masculine James Tiptree, Jr.

2: Orbit’s success at garnering nominations so angried up the blood of SF’s grognards that they mass voted “No Award” to put Orbit in its place.

I've noticed reading through the previous month's that I'm usually the one who gives the most generous reviews. Not this time. This story was gross. I metaphorically threw the pages down several times and had to go back because I agreed to do this review series. I even actually dropped my phone once.

This was all the worst stories I've heard about sexism in the mid-twentieth century rolled into one. I wish I'd never read this story. They never really got into any interesting applications of the emotion broadcasting tech, or problems it could present, besides the truly creepy voyeurism of John. Maybe the author was trying to make a statement, I was just disgusted. This was more of a horror story, with Anne, and probably Stuart and the new girl all trapped.

Hated it. Wouldn't recommend it to anyone

—Jamie

I couldn’t help being reminded of Black Mirror—that excellent dystopian series from the UK. In each episode, one aspect of modern society is developed to an extreme while everything else remains relatively normal. This story does a similar thing: most people cannot properly feel emotion, maybe because they all plug in to feel the emotions of a few.

The price per month seems laughably low (a dollar a month) compared to today’s prices. Otherwise, the rest of the social setup seems believable. The media executive is (sadly) the same as our world’s money-grubbing Hollywood men.

At the time the story came out, it was likely shocking and extreme. But now when Big Brother is passé, and virtual reality is becoming more affordable, a device to allow you to feel a program of emotions could be readily accepted today.

The auditions section of the story reads a lot like ‘what people expect rape is like’ vs. ‘what rape can actually be like’. Not everyone feels the same. Some people disassociate. Some people go along with it because it’s better than resisting and getting injured. Some get really angry. And a miniscule amount of people react in a “normal” way – 1 in every 619 in this story, anyway.

The story’s central point (to me) holds up. Who is worse: the person who acts in terrible ways, or the second person who stands by and enables?

The whole story gives me an icky feeling, which I suppose is probably the point. The media objectifies women, and everyone eats it up – or at least, no one objects loudly enough to dampen the popularity of what’s on TV. This seems chillingly relevant to current events.

The ending doesn’t really conclude anything. The title suggests Anne dies soon. Just another starlet turned star turned to dust.

A note on inflation: One dollar in 1966 (when this story was published) would buy about as much as seven dollars today. -jdn-

—Mel

This story is appalling.

I was already angry with it by the third paragraph. Not only does it feature a description of numerous, planned sexual assaults, but it does so from the perspective of a man watching and critiquing the victims for not reacting how he wants them to. If I wasn’t reviewing this story, I would have stopped then and there.

We then proceed from there to learn about another complete violation of boundaries and planned rape of the only named woman in the story. And again, from the man’s perspective, but he’s able to guess how she feels because she’s have every bit of privacy stripped away from her, well beyond what she consented to.

This story doesn’t seem to think that it’s even particularly bad, since it ends with our protagonist deciding to experience Anne’s rape.

There’s also the element of “not like other girls” that is used to suggest that all the other women are emotionless husks. That they don’t get to do anything, and can’t feel anything unless they’re plugged into machines. This is ridiculous and demeaning, and I don’t even know what to say anymore.

This entire story is driven by abuse from start to finish. I suppose it could have been trying for a critique of reality tv (did reality tv exist when this story was published?), but that would require the story to actually confront the abuses going on. Any discomfort the protagonist feels is momentary and does not actually critique or challenge what is going on in a meaningful way. This story is very much centred around how he feels about the situation, rather than how it impacts the victims of the abuse. He perpetuates the abuse for his own gain, and there is nothing in the narrative to suggest that this was the wrong choice.

This is now my most-hated story of this series of reviews.

—Mikayla