Book Review: Juniper Time, Kate Wilhelm (1979)

(Bob Aulicino’s cover for the hideous 1979 edition)

3.5/5 (Good)

Nominated for the 1980 Nebula Award

“Everything that is, Robert had said, must be.  Every cycle must be completed, must lead to the next cycle.  He had talked about times when the desert had been drier than it now was, times when it had been lush and wet, and there had been no questions in his mind that this too must be” (170-171).

At the heart of Kate Wilhelm’s Nebula-nominated novel Juniper Time (1979) is the notion of historical cyclicality at both the macro- (earth cycles) and the micro- (human historical time) levels.  Wilhelm’s near-future mysteriously drought-stricken world is at an important juncture of two such cycles.  The macrocycle concerns devastating world-wide desertification, which is most likely caused by a natural cycle but the precise nature of which is unknown.  The microcycle concerns a shift in human populations in the drought stricken countries: mass migrations towards coasts as the springs and rivers of the hinterlands turn to mud.  In this world the farmer, in the past linked tightly to his fields, abandons his traditional position in American society and moves to a cluttered and violent state controlled “Newtowns.”

Although Wilhelm’s characterization of the effects on the drought on individuals and communities no where matches the power of J. G. Ballard’s masterpiece The Drought (1964), the intense change (and malaise generated by the inevitability of it all) caused by the effect is often evocative.  But where the novel suffers concerns the figures and their actions arrayed against this parched backdrop:  Wilhelm loses some of her characteristic psychological intensity juggling the unwieldy jumble of plot threads: pseudo-utopian Native Americans seek a return to the wild, the white woman saves the Native American language by creating a dictionary and braves the horrors of a “Newtown”, a mysterious object is found in space near a space station that might indicate alien communication, mystery and cover-up concerning the purpose of the space station, etc.  Most frustrating are the uncharacteristic linguistic information dumps near the end of the work that threaten to kill-off the ruminative power of the thematic content.

Wilhelm’s prose can be articulate and beautiful: “I could feel myself not all the way asleep, and I could see myself dreaming a real dream.  And I thought how my mind was like a long stretched-out snake.  It was in such a hurry to dream that the wrong part went ahead and started before the rest of it was even there” (5).  But these gorgeous and meaning-rich moments decrease over the course of the novel.  Also, the work contains careful and planned movements of plot/character/metaphor: the lives of the two main characters who were childhood friends both change with a death, their eventual meeting later in life pits two vastly different mindsets against each other—cycles within cycles within cycles.

In my attempt to read all of Wilhelm’s pre-1980 SF novels (and short story collections), Juniper Time has proven my least favorite of her post-pulp works so far:  Margaret and I (1971) possessed a sheer hallucinatory horror, the collection The Downstairs Room (1968) contained a handful of brilliant and terrifying social SF stories, and of course, little needs to be said about her Hugo-winning masterpiece Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang (1976).

Juniper Time is still worthwhile for fans of 70s social SF and Wilhelm’s other novels.

Brief Analysis/Plot Summary (*some spoilers*)

“For years Jean did not believe in the moon as a real place where people could go.  When she became aware that her father believed in it, she had to accept the reality of the moon as a thing, but never as a place.  Perhaps there were people already there, she thought, but no one could go there” (1).

Jean’s father, Daniel, is an astronaut who heads periodically to the moon.  But her family is not the perfect American astronaut’s family, her mother incessantly drinks when husband is away.  And Jean struggles to come to grips with her father’s profession.  Daniel heads a project to develop a space station that supposedly will help in some vague way with the slowly encroaching drought….  But it is a dangerous mission both due to the demonstrators at home and the dangers of building in space.  And when Daniel dies while out near the station in a small one-man capsule, Jean exits childhood.  This moment is seared into her memory, although its implications will not be felt until later in her life.

Jean becomes a linguist who works for a eccentric genius: as his grad assistant she becomes part “of the complex machinery that finally was proving his theories that any language, even the most difficult coded languages, could be understood and decoded by a computer if only it was programmed correctly” (42).  At the moment of breakthrough, facilitated by her brilliance, Jean abandons the project as the government sees its potential for weapons and other plots.  Drifting from place to place, Jean soon moves to a “Newtown,” one of many camps for the dispossessed who were forced to move by the drought.  The “Newtowns” provide food, education, etc paid by the government but are warrens of crime.

After Jean is raped, she recovers from the psychological trauma she experienced she joins up with Richard and a Native American tribe in the Pacific Northwest.  A few of the Native people seeks a return to the wild despite the desertification and employ Jean’s linguistic expertise in preserving their language and teaching their children English.  It is here that she finds a semblance of peace.

The second plot thread concerns Cluny, Jean’s childhood friend, whose father was also working on the space station with Daniel.  Cluny follows in his father’s footsteps and desires above all else the continuation of work on the space station.  I found his story less memorable until the point where he seeks the aid of Jean.  Cluny and his colleagues have discovered a mysterious object in space (perhaps that’s why Jean’s father was out in his one-man capsule?) with a language of some sort across its surface.  Cluny employs Jean’s assistance in decoding it.

The cycles are established: Jean’s return to the wilderness with a people who once migrated across the expanse of the west.  The natural cycle of desertification that threatens to change all that was.  Cluny is desperate to abate the flow of time, desperate for some real message on the “mysterious object” that will bring all the nations of the world together to finish the space station and fight the what he sees as the end of things.  Cluny’s desperation has devastating results and he will use less than savory means to bring force Jean to contribute her knowledge.

But is it even possible to modify these patterns and paradigms of change?

For more book reviews consult the INDEX

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(Gerry Daly’s cover for the hideous 1980 edition)

(Uncredited cover for the hideous 1981 edition)

47 thoughts on “Book Review: Juniper Time, Kate Wilhelm (1979)

  1. I’ve not read this one but will definitely keep a look out for it. I take it you don’t approve of any of the featured covers then? I’d take Bob Aulicino’s version over the others any day of the week though… another case of “I like it but I’m not quite sure why?”

  2. Man, that 1979 cover is awful, isn’t it? By comparison, the other two are merely unremarkable. I see another commenter prefers it, however; different strokes, I guess.

  3. The only thing I’ve read by her is “Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang”,the novelette version.I know there is a novel of it,but don’t really want to read it if if it’s no better or worst than the short version.

    I’m thinking of other books I’ve read that were originally novellas,such as “The Lovers”,”Behold The Man” and Zelazny’s “This Immortal” and “The Dream Master”.I haven’t read any of this in their original,shorter forms,and wonder if I’ve missed something.

    I shall slowly ponder reading “Juniper Time”.

    • What I’ve read of Kate Wilhelm’s…

      I’ve read some of her early pulp short stories — the collection The Mile-Long Spaceship. Very average —> bad.

      But then, her 60s collection The Downstairs Room (1968) is wonderful. Especially “Baby, You Were Great” (1967), “Countdown” (1968), and the Nebula winning “The Planners” (1968). Highly recommended.

      Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1976) — I’ve only read the novel version but it’s essentially three novellas, so, almost more of a collection than novel although I’m pretty sure they were modified a bit. Wonderful.

      Margaret and I (1971), Nebula nominated, worth reading. Vaguely SF but psychologically powerful and hallucinatory. Recommended (with a few reservations — read the review! — hehe).

      (I’m reading The Dream Master — the novel version — at the moment, it’s enjoyable).

  4. I read the short version of “Where The Sweet Birds Sang” in an anthology.

    “The Dream Master” is enjoyable,but I still wonder if I’ve missed something by not reading the novella.

    • Will have a review of “The Dream Master” up soon. It’s problematic but intriguing. And, the talking dogs, trying to figure out why exactly one of the dogs is named Sigmund (Freud obviously) — I mean, he knows what’s going to happen, so I guess, the dog, in its limited vocabulary/intelligence (a stab at Freud?) still is intelligent enough to know the risks?

    • I agree. Unfortunately, those moments are few and far between. That said, her prose is generally better than most other SF authors. I recommend her work, perhaps don’t start with this one but if you enjoy Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang or or her short stories than it’s worth finding a copy.

  5. It’s funny,but Philip K.Dick had a talking dog,a mutant,in his “Dr Bloodmoney”,which was published the same year as “The Dream Master”.The image of a dog,born without the proper voice meant for speech,was a little disturbing and memorable.

  6. I suppose you’d pick “Lord of Light”,but I found that one unconvincing with little background to make the idea of a culture from Earth take-on the Hindu religion to be able to make it concrete.So far as I know,that leaves “This Immortal”.

    His collaboration with Philip K.Dick on “Deus Irae”,wasn’t very successful I thought,and seemed to be a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth.This should have been one of the best of his 1960s novels,but was late in coming,and adding to it the sprinkling of his ’70s notions,made it all the more difficult for Zelazny to cope in bringing it to life.

    • No, actually I prefer This Immortal to Lord of Light. I also enjoyed what I read of Isle of Death but my copy fell apart before I could finish it (need to glue it together).

      That is one of the few PK novels I haven’t read. Will eventually…

  7. Haven’t read “Isle of the Dead”.Yes want to read “Einstein Intersection again”,but haven’t read “Nova” yet.

  8. Yes I bet…….Dhalgren is the “Everest” of sf books and is a great slab stone that I have read,but don’t think I would have missed.Yes do read DV,it’s great.

  9. I own a copy of Where Late, but genuinely can’t recall if I read it years ago or not. I guess I’ll find out when I give it a go. I’ve definitely read her Welcome, Chaos. That one I really liked and it has some imagery which has remained with me for years.

    This sounds more one for completists, plus I’m not sure I could let any of those covers into my home.

    Dhalgren has 836 pages according to Amazon. 836! No wonder essexric compared it to Everest.

  10. The hardcover art seems to be telling us that the Adrien Brody crop is ready for harvesting.

    It’s funny how some books have inspired multiple covers of quality, while some have never gotten a decent cover, no matter how many editions.

  11. Opinion has varied greatly on “Dhalgren”.I don’t know,but I think it might depend on how much of a Delaney fan you are.

    Ted White was the original co-writer on “Deus Irae”,but funked out.I still think it would have been a far greater novel if it had been completed in the time period it was conceived.

  12. As you know,PKD also collaborated on a novel in the 1960s,the “Ganymede Takeover” with Ray Nelson.That wasn’t really successful neither,and as I said before,it was another case of two many cooks spoil the broth!

    I don’t suppose anybody can really capture Dick’s marvellous and unique style.

    • Hmm, I have always wondered what the best co-written SF novels/short stories are… I mean, I’ve multiple read Kornbluth and Pohl’s co-written works and they’re great. I know Ellison put out a collection called Partners in Wonder that I’m intensely curious about.

    • Yeah, it’s his Nebula award winning short story about neutered Spacers (because of the effect of radiation in space) who arrive on Earth and see the sites and are fetishized by the Earthbound as strange outsiders…. I thought was intriguing, especially for when it was written — and reminded me of James Tiptree, Jr.’s work.

  13. Yes I remember that in the story about those astronauts,but that’s all.I think I’ve read nearly all of Tiptree’s[Alice Sheldon]stuff in “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever”,but wasn’t keen on most of the stories,being over written I thought,in a dry,almost journalistic style.Sorry.

  14. Does that collection have nearly all the stories in the collection I mentioned?I don’t know then,maybe it’s just me.

  15. Pingback: Juniper Time, Kate Wilhelm | SF Mistressworks

  16. My cover is the Gerry Daly one. I think this is the one that talked about rich people liking that poor people were pretty much driven to NewTowns out of desperation, and that they WANTED to keep things as disparate as possible. Wilhelm was talking about social ills in a way no one else I was reading had been. A used bookstore near my work had a trove of hers in the 2000s and I read a lot of them.

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