The Nebula Awards, given out annually for the best science fiction of the previous year (or so), were announced earlier this month. The conference and ceremonies, if you can call them that, took place online on June 4 through June 6, 2021. An online conference. Fun fun. I wonder if it occurred to a bunch of sciencey science fiction writers that their risk of catching coronavirus at this late date is pretty minimal. I imagine that most by now are Star-Bellied Sneetches and have nothing to worry about. But worry has no end for the worried person and so there is always something new to cause her fear and anxiety. Maybe the worstest and most deadliest disease in human history will break through our walls of immunity and do us all in after all.
I went to a pulp fiction convention earlier this month, on June 13. It might have been the first of its kind to take place this year in the United States. It was indoors. I didn't detect any sparkling clouds of coronavirus in the convention hall, so I think we're all safe. Phew! That was a close one! For a long time now, I have been looking for a book called The Faces of Science Fiction (1984), with photographs by Patti Perret. I finally found it at the convention, and what a find it is. My new copy is an old library edition, bound in plain forest green but essentially pristine in its interior. I read The Faces of Science Fiction and studied those faces over the course of a couple of nights in the week after I came upon it. I might call it an essential book for the American science fiction fan.
One of the book's featured authors is Kate Wilhelm (1928-2018). Born ninety-three years ago this month (on June 8, 1928), Kate Wilhelm was one of the great figures in American science fiction after mid-century. She was also married to one of the great figures, Damon Knight (1922-2002). In Patti Perret's portrait photograph, they are together on a couch. She leans towards him, smiling. I have a feeling that Kate Wilhelm smiled a lot. She seems to be drawn to him, as if by force of gravity. He has a somewhat intense look in his dark eyes and the beard of an Old Testament prophet or ancient Greek philosopher. The pronounced bald dome of his forehead bespeaks, too, a man of thought and erudition. Above their heads is a painting of planets, a spacescape you might call it. There are two larger planets on her side of the painting and a smaller one on his. Who, then, has the greater gravity? To their right is a potted plant, growing from earth and perhaps representing Earth. Above the plant is an abstract representation of the Crucifixion. I would like to think that one or both of the subjects of this photograph were believers in something positive and hopeful rather than negative and despairing, as so many people are in today's world. I think Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm knew who and what they were and came from generations in which those things were (and are) plain. It's worth noting that their double portrait was published in 1984, a year that was forecast to be a nightmare.
Kate Wilhelm was born in Toledo, Ohio. I found the book graced by her picture most of the way across the top of the state, in Westlake, just outside of Cleveland, ninety-three years and five days after her birth. Like I said, she married a science fiction writer. The subject of my posting from eleven days ago, J.A. Lawrence did, too. Those two happy events happened within a year or so of each other, in 1963-1964. Both marriages lasted until the end of the men's lives.
Kate Wilhelm and Judy Lawrence collaborated in their creative lives. In the mid 1960s, Kate made a sketch of a proposed award trophy. Judy worked from that sketch to create the design, one that is still used today. The trophy is for the Nebula Award, given out every year by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). Originally the Science Fiction Writers of America, the organization was founded in 1965 by Damon Knight. It would seem pretty obvious to me that his wife had a pretty big hand in that, too. The trophy is the same or more or less the same as when it was first awarded in 1966, a peak year in American pop culture by the way. Unfortunately I have not been able to find an especially good image of it in this pile of mostly dreck we call the Internet. Anyway, the upper part of the trophy is a transparent block in which are embedded a spiral galaxy and several subordinate planets. The planets are like those circling above the heads of Kate Wilhelm and Damon Knight in Patti Perret's portrait of them.
You hear talk of supposed attempts to silence or erase women, especially women in culture and history. I find this ridiculous. For one, women will never be silenced or erased. To believe that they will be is to lack confidence in the strength and power and natural status of women. Weak women--weak people--may be silenced, I guess, but the words weak and woman don't really go together very well. Women have their power. It may not be a man's power, but it is power nonetheless. Anyway, women will go on speaking and go on being strong because those things and many others are in their nature and built into the nature of the universe.
The Nebula Award trophy was created and designed by two women. The word nebula itself is feminine. The reaching and enfolding arms of the galaxy might also be seen as feminine, as are the full, rounded planets embedded within the trophy, like those lighting the painted skies above Kate Wilhelm's head in her photographic portrait. The earth is feminine, too. (In her song "Banana," Brazilian songstress Joyce Moreno sings of "terra generosa." She has an equally good song called "Feminina.") In her artist's statement, Kate writes about her gardening and her ruminating over a story while she gardens. In working the earth (working may be too hard and rough a word in this case), she solves a problem of creativity. We work and we create, in the fertile soil of the earth, in the fertile soil of the mind and imagination.
Kate Wilhelm never won the Nebula Award for best novel, though she was nominated four times. She did however win twice for her shorter works, in 1969 for "The Planners" (short story) and in 1987 for "The Girl Who Fell into the Sky" (novelette). Nine out of the last thirteen winners for best novel have been women, though, including the last four. The most frequent winner was Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018), with four awards out of six nominations. Those are curious numbers for a sex that is supposedly being silenced and erased. And contrast the trophy itself with the one presented at the World Fantasy Convention. Previously the World Fantasy Award trophy represented a man, H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), and was designed by a man, Gahan Wilson (1930-2019). That trophy has been canceled. Now it is a tree. (In Italian at least, the words for oak, forest or woodland, and I think some other words related to trees are feminine rather than masculine. And though the flower--il fiore--may be masculine, the fruit into which it develops--la frutta--is feminine.) The tree in the trophy embraces the circle of the sun: the feminine Earth reaches towards and wraps her arms around the masculine Sun--masculine, though it be full, warm, and round. Kate and Judy's galaxy has arms, too. They, too, are reaching, enwrapping, enfolding. Galaxy, constellation, and star are likewise feminine words in Italian, a most wonderful and beautiful language. The new World Fantasy Award trophy, by the way, was also designed by a man, the American sculptor Vincent Villafranca, whose surname is feminine and a compound of two feminine words, for a place upon the earth and a people upon the earth.
Another annual event happened this month, of course, a greater event built into the workings of the universe. It was the summer solstice, one of the happiest days of the year in which the sun essentially refuses to set. We are now on the downhill slide towards its opposite, which happens, of course, in December. (So we have a religious celebration--Christmas--coinciding roughly with the winter solstice and a pseudo-religious event--the sighting of the first flying saucers--coinciding roughly with its opposite. It just so happens that Flying Saucer Day is also St. John's Day. There is some significance in that, I think.) The day and the author have come together in recent years, for among the annual Nebula Awards is the Kate Wilhelm Solstice Award "for distinguished contributions to the science fiction and fantasy community." (Community--a mostly atrocious word.) The winners this year were two men and a woman. One of the men, science fiction author and editor Ben Bova (1932-2020), died late last year. His death was related to coronavirus, proof that the disease is in fact a serious matter and one that should be taken seriously, including in geopolitical ways. (Let us have the facts and let the facts lead to their logical--and necessary--conclusions.) I think the first book I ever read by Mr. Bova was his adaptation of THX 1138 (1971), but I have also read some of his scientific writing. I marvel at the things so many of these men and women of the interwar and wartime generations accomplished. In the past three years we have lost four of them, Kate Wilhelm, Ursula K. Le Guin, Gahan Wilson, and Ben Bova--all very nearly contemporaries--and so many more like them. In my family we have lost our own father.
Let us remember them.
Text copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley