Welcome Chaos, Kate Wilhelm (Houghton Mifflin, 1983){Audio Version: Blackstone Audio, 2007; Narrator: Johanna Ward}

Grade: Δ — Solid read, but only buy it if you like the genre.

 In brief:

A classic in the genre that shows Wilhelm’s skills and abilities, this story suffers slightly from its age.  First published in 1983, the storyline hinges on events that never came to pass and paints the world in colors that seem as dated as calls for unilateral disarmament.  Regardless, I found myself drawn into the story by Wilhelm’s skills with words and uncanny ability to make us care about her characters. 

Setting: 1980’s USA with some scenes in Europe

In Depth:

I read this book when it first came out, and then listened to the Audio version recently out of curiosity as to how the piece had dated.  I will admit, that while the writing and principal character aged well, the premise of the tale now seems extremely dated.  Indeed, it would have gotten a Gamma or Beta rating had it not been so predominated by a plot line based around nuclear threat from the Soviet Union.  As it stands, however, it is primarily interesting as a cultural and literary artifact of a bygone era, and as an illustration of good writing.

The tale centers around an attractive middle aged historian who is drawn into a secret conspiracy that threatens the balance of power between the US and the Soviet Union. As her role in the conspiracy deepens, so too does the threat of total nuclear extermination. 

While the central role played by Soviet Union and the nuclear threat scenario clearly date this story, it is not the disappearance of these situations that undermined this tales’ ability to age well.  Instead, it is the somewhat naive way in which the balance of power and the Reaganite politics of the era are portrayed. Listening to the story after the fact, the political views portrayed in the story overwhelm the tale and come across as quaint.  After all, it turns out the balance was not a precarious as portrayed, neither the US nor the Soviets were as stupid in their choices as illustrated and that it can be reasonably argued that the policies of military build-up worked.  Of course, hindsight is always 20/20.

On the pro side, however, are some very keen insights of the X-Gens. Then just coming to age, now in their 30s and 40’s.  She speaks of that generation’s, my generation’s, acceptance a coming nuclear Armageddon.  How we had a tacit understanding that the only skills worth having will be those that help one eek out a living in the radio-active wastelands that would be our inheritance.  Though overstated in the book, she was spot on the mark, and a part of me wonders how much of the present economic crisis can be traced to the unspoken nihilistic philosophy that lurked in the back of many of our minds.

Regardless of its varying degrees of  failing and/or succeeding in fortune telling, Wilhelm’s skills in crafting a tale remain good enough that I remained engaged in the story throughout, even though this was a second read.  For those interested in the development of Science Fiction and/or those willing to suspend disbelief far enough to consider this an alternate reality, I would highly recommend this book.

Notes about the Audio Edition:

Johanna Ward does a marvelous job of narration and high production values are found throughout. The only weak point of Ward’s reading is in her use of accents for two of the characters, particularly in her attempt for a British Accent.  She suffers from the all too common use of too much air and plumb in a posh English intonation.  The result is not as bad as Dick Van Dyke‘s attempts in Mary Poppins, but remains cringe worthy all the same. To be fair, most American’s who think they can do a good British accent can’t, and indeed the reverse is also true.  Fortunately, the British character is a minor one and it can be ignored. Other than that, she performs flawlessly, with her subtle style drawing the listener deeply into the tale.

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About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
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