Guest Post: Margaret and I, Kate Wilhelm (1971)

 The fifth in my Kate Wilhelm’s SF Guest Post Series (original announcement and post list) comes via Max Cairnduff (twitter)—who reviews literature and occasionally SF over at Pechorin’s Journal.  In the past he has contributed to my Michael Bishop series. He is responsible for introducing me to one of my favorite works of all time, Anna Kavan’s phenomenal hallucination of a novel Ice (1967)—so check out his site.

Although he does not seem to have enjoyed Margaret and I (1971) as much as I did, his review does touch on the novel’s extreme psychological power and ingenious set-up.

Thank you so much for contributing!



(Uncredited cover for the 1978 edition)

Nominated for the 1972 Nebula Award for Best Novel

The only Kate Wilhelm I’d read before Joachim invited me to take part in this Guest Post series was her novel Welcome, Chaos. I’ve not even read Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (though I always thought I had, which ironically is probably what stopped me reading it).

Beyond those two titles I knew very little about her work. Joachim though knows his vintage SF, so when he invited me to take part in his Wilhelmathon I was keen.

Margaret and I was first published in 1971, and it’s a book of its time. It’s essentially a novel of one woman’s self-realisation and sexual awakening, with the SFnal elements there mostly to serve as externalisations of her inner development.

Margaret herself is a beautiful (it’s relevant) woman in her mid-20s living in a near-future USA. As the book opens she’s taken a few days out to spend time housesitting for one of her husband’s relatives. Her marriage is, from her perspective, stagnant; from her husband’s, happy. She’s considering leaving him. He doesn’t know that.

It’s the “I” though that gives the book interest, because Margaret isn’t the narrator. Instead, the narrator is Margaret’s unconscious mind.

Screen Shot 2015-05-03 at 9.35.10 AM

John Renfer’s cover for the 1971 edition

“Margaret was too tired to think, too tired to care that the house was wrapped in dust covers from end to end. I had her pull the sheets from the furniture and toss them in a corner; if she had no curiosity about the house, I did. I got her started on unpacking the groceries and through her eyes I examined the kitchen; As she put things away I wondered about the house, about Josie, why she had left it like this; I wondered about [her husband], what he was doing, and what Margaret would do next I didn’t care a lot I am interested, but don’t really care.”

Margaret and her unconscious mind don’t really get on that well, in fact if anything “I” rather looks down on Margaret. “I” can influence Margaret, but struggles to meaningfully communicate with her. Margaret, quite literally, isn’t in touch with herself.

Margaret intended to use her housesitting time to think through her marriage and whether she should make a final break from her husband. She’s mistaken locally though for Josie, the woman who actually owns the house, and decides to let the mistake ride. What Margaret didn’t know is that Josie’s partner was a cutting edge physicist and while he’s dead he left notebooks behind in the house and it’s known Josie helped him with her work. Margaret finds herself under increasing pressure as two local researchers turn up demanding that she gives them access to the notes, and to “Josie’s” memories.

Marion Askjaer Veld's cover for the 1982 Dutch edition

Marion Askjaer Veld’s cover for the 1982 Dutch edition

The first third or so of Margaret and I is a lot of fun. “I” notices more than Margaret, picks up on details she misses, but can’t reliably override Margaret so finds itself carried along in Margaret’s wake, irritated as Margaret initially fails to realise that the researchers aren’t to be trusted. “I” soon has its own problems though, as what Josie’s partner was working on was in fact a new form of consciousness, and “I” starts to have visions in the house which suggest that in some sense the dead physicist is still very much present.

Margaret’s husband meanwhile is lead adviser to an independent presidential candidate – a vicious populist stirring up riots and trouble in the hope of getting bought off with his own little slice of power. As Margaret is divided, America is divided. Individual and country are both are at war with themselves, unable to join together their own constituent parts…

It’s a great setup, but Wilhelm’s real interest is in using all of it as a means to explore Margaret’s self-actualisation. Given time to herself Margaret starts to realise that she’s capable of an existence outside her marriage. As she learns more of Josie and Josie’s relationship she sees that there can be more to love than her husband’s rather precise and passionless embraces that satisfy him but that leave her wanting something she can’t even name, yet.

As “I” explores visions of what may well be heaven and hell, Margaret launches on a voyage of sexual discovery both in reality and in what appear to be increasingly realistic dreams. As the new reality “I” is discovering begins to intrude however, precisely what is real, what’s dream, and what’s supra-real becomes very hard to distinguish (including, intentionally, for the reader).

Unfortunately, the more the book focused on its real interests the less it interested me. The physicist’s discovery is all about expanded consciousness in a very 60’s/70’s way. It’s not clear what the researchers seeking to acquire it plan to do with it, and Margaret isn’t really in any kind of danger from them. Instead they, like her husband, are present in the narrative primarily as examples of imbalanced gender relationships.

At one point one of the men does use hypnosis and sexual humiliation to seek to control Margaret, but then at another her own husband has sex with her while she’s asleep from a sleeping pill. The point I think isn’t then that the men are a threat to Margaret in some thriller-esque sense, but rather that men generally assume control of Margaret’s body and sexuality until she’s able to integrate herself and assume control of her own psychic and sexual identity.

Similarly, the researchers want Margaret because they mistake her for Josie and think she can give them insight into the physicist’s research. Later in the book her husband visits with his presidential candidate because they think she’ll be useful to them if she appears on stage when they tour the Midwest trying to drum up votes. The various men all want Margaret, but only for what she represents or can do for them, not for who she is.

“I” then discovers a reality beyond the one we all see around us, and Margaret discovers a reality beyond men’s ideas of her nature and role. The problem is, and at risk of getting into some quite thorny contemporary debates on these issues, Margaret is incredibly privileged. She’s young, white, beautiful, and rich enough to spend weeks living in a remote house without any demands on her time other than her own desire for self-discovery. There’s nothing of course wrong with being any of those things, but it does mean that for me it all got a bit Eat, Pray Love as I read about a woman who already had a pretty good life establishing for herself an even better one.

Ultimately, I think Margaret and I has dated fairly badly. The sexual politics of course remains relevant, but the expression of it here reflects the particular concerns of when it was written; the concept of integrating conscious and unconscious mind is interesting but I’m not sure many today would follow this particular theory of how the mind works; and the entire consciousness-raising theme is all a bit Carlos Castaneda.

On top of that, because the book’s real focus is on the internal the external plot elements don’t really go anywhere. The book stands and falls then on how much you’re interested in Margaret’s personal journey, and in the end I wasn’t terribly.

On a final note, I read the SF Gateway kindle reissue of this book. It’s riddled with typos. Some of you may have noticed that the quote above had some missing full stops, that’s not my error. In places it’s clear that the edition is a bad OCR scan (Qty in place of City for example) and at times there are random characters or distractingly obvious errors. It’s great that SF Gateway is giving fans easy access to these books again, but a little proofreading would go a long way.

Joachim also reviewed Margaret and I. His review is here.


List of Guest Posts

The Infinity Box (1975) via Heloise over at Heloise Merlin’s Weblog

The Killer Thing (1967) via 2theD over at Potpourri of SF Literature

Margaret and I (1971) via Max Cairnduff over at Pechorin’s Journal

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1976) via Admiral Ironbombs over at Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased

Welcome, Chaos (1983) via Megan over at From Couch to Moon

Year of the Cloud (1970) via Mike White over at The Finch and the Pea 

List of my previously posted reviews

Collection: The Mile-Long Spaceship (1963)

Collection: The Downstairs Room and Other Speculative Fiction (1968)

Novel: Margaret and I (1971)

Novel: Juniper Time (1979)


For more book reviews consult the LIST

For more articles + my Michael Bishop Guest Post series consult the LIST

21 thoughts on “Guest Post: Margaret and I, Kate Wilhelm (1971)

  1. Oh wow. This sounds like the sort of book I would love reading, or at least the first third, as you point out. I love all the more personal stories of Silverberg and Dick that deal with the self and consciousness. Wilhelm I have found difficult to either get into or finish – started Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang but only got halfway through it. And that was years ago. A Time of Changes by Silverberg I adore, and Downward to the Earth I have attempted four times and still haven’t made it past the 5th page!

    • I recommend this novel although it is not as good as some of her novellas and short stories — it really is a head trip. But, keep in mind, as Max points out, the SF elements are hinted at and are in no way a major part of the novel.

  2. Wow, great review, Max. Despite your hangups with the novel, which sound completely reasonable, the idea of the id as narrator sounds like a fascinating read. I remember reading Joachim’s review last year and it piqued my interest then, too.

  3. I have read a lot of Wilhelm’s work, but not this one. Thanks for such a thorough review; saves me the mistake of trying to read this one!

    Great idea, this series. Thanks for doing it!


        • Thanks.

          But, then I recommend avoiding most of what she wrote as I find a lot of her work covers similar themes — sexual realization, realization of identity, the ennui of the middle class housewife, psychological fragmentation… “The Infinity Box” — one of her most famous short stories is a great example… In her mind the everyday and everyday experiences are ripe for speculative rumination.

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  5. Apologies all for the slow comment, I’ve been offline over a bank holiday weekend.

    Warstub, if you love A Time of Changes then you might well like this one (is that the one where four guys go into the desert seeking a shrine that promises immortality for three and death for one of those who come to it?).

    The self and consciousness stuff is the heart of the novel here, in large part it’s about Margaret literally getting to know herself.

    fromcouch, it was the consciousness stuff that made me really love the first half. Early on I really liked the book, it’s the shift in focus later on which made me more disenchanted. I don’t at all regret reading it though, it’s interesting at minimum, so if it still seems potentially intriguing I’d give it a go. If you do, let us know how you get on!

    Sally, glad I shortened your potential to be read pile.

    • No, that Silverberg novel you describe is The Book of Skulls – I also loved that one which wasn’t SF at all, but a road trip novel (billed as SF because of the premise). A Time of Changes is about a planet where the use of personal pronouns is forbidden, and the protagonist goes on a personal and psychological journey to discover himself. I found it a very quotable book.

      Thanks Max.

      • Not SF? When I use the abbreviation,it can mean either science or speculative fiction.You mean it isn’t either? It’s about immortality,which is a standard theme in science fiction,but even if it can’t be called that,it would certainly come under speculative or slipstream fiction.It was excellent anyway.

        “A Time of Changes” may be called science fiction,but thought it was a lesser book compared to the other one.It was well composed with perfect prose and good ideas,but it seemed long and lanquid.It’s effect was tiresome.I suppose it wasn’t so bad,but he can do much better stuff.

      • @Richard.
        Sure, you can class it as Speculative Fiction, because “it’s about immortality” but the actual themes, I’d go as far to say the actual subjects, are the relationships between the boys, the expectations of what their friendships mean – why they are on the road-trip is less about the destination than it is about the motivations. Immortality is just a back-drop, a framing device – nothing else. Even when the book ends we know nothing more about that framing device – was it all just pure coincidence?

        *Note: I’m kind of speculating myself because I read the book about 15 years ago and don’t have the best recall, but the novel did strike a strong impression upon for the stated reasons.

        • I’d be very wary about reductive “it’s about the themes” type arguments. All fiction, as they its written by humans, deal with human themes in some fashion. If you reduce a story to its most bare thematic core then it would be like everything else… I think it’s an argumentative fallacy — there would be no such thing as genre as everything would have to do with “actual themes” (revenge, love, etc etc etc) if that was a valid argument.

        • Yes,I agree with what your saying.I suppose it could also be called a coming of age or rites of passage novel.I mentioned slipstream fiction,but it could also come under transfiction,both of which would come under speculative fiction.As a non-category,it’s authors take account of mainstream concerns,such as you mention

          I’m reminded of other novels published within general literature,that have science/speculative fiction themes imposed upon them,such as of course Anna Kavan’s “Ice”.We know it’s a novel of high literary quality,but it would be of exciting interest to see how a book published within sf bounderies,like TBOS,compares to it.There is an overlapping of quality and concerns between the two separated realms.

          Science or speculative fiction dosen’t have to be loaded with standard tropes to be good or the best,but it does I think have to contain an ingenious concept or theme that is handled skillfully and is either intellectually or imaginatively exciting or interesting.That is the core of really good sf.

          Bob Silverberg other novel,”Dying Inside” is a good case in point for that matter.It could also be considered alongside TBOS as another novel that straddles the borders,with it’s central theme of human angst.It has been a matter of opinion whether his other novels and shorter pieces,that contain stronger sf tropes,are better or worst.

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  7. Thanks Joachim for the link.I was over at that blog
    earlier.Unfortunately,although an intelligent review,it did nothing to illuminate my dull feelings about it.As I said though,it wasn’t bad,and would rate being a three star book,but Bob Silverberg is quite capable of easyly reaching a four if not five star level.

    I really liked his other books of the late/early sixties,such as “Nightwings”,”Downwards to the Earth” and “Dying Inside”,all of which were given special attention in Brian Aldiss’s sf history,”Trillion Year Spree”,including ATOC,and two that weren’t,”The Masks of Time” and the excellent “The Book of Skulls”,which are I suppose he considers lesser novels.I must havefound some irratating elements inside it,but I think it was the fashion of it’s telling I didn’t like.He’s ususally such a very good craftsman.

    I think I will give it another go one day,especially if you say you’re going to do a review of it.I have a review on Amazon by the way.

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