Today I offer the first of the ‘Kincaid in Short’ columns I have been writing for Vector. This one appeared in Vector 266 (Spring 2011) and concerns one of my favourite novellas by one of the best writers. I love Kate Wilhelm’s work, but this story has always been very special for me.
A while ago I was asked to contribute to a list of favourite novellas (if you really want to know, you can find my initial 10 choices here and 10 further choices here). I picked and discarded any number of great novellas, eventually choosing pieces because they were inescapably important in the history of sf, because I had read them several times or recently re-read them, because they were works whose quality was beyond question. But there was only one piece that I knew was going to be on the list from the very moment I received the invitation, because it was the story which convinced me that the novella is the ideal length for a science fiction story, long enough to establish character and tone of voice, not so long that readers are going to get lost in a welter of over the top invention. It was a story I hadn’t revisited in some 30 years, but its place in my personal pantheon of science fiction was guaranteed. This was ‘The Infinity Box’ by Kate Wilhelm.
Of course, having put the story on the list without hesitation, I had to take Wilhelm’s collection off my shelves and remind myself why this story has such an impact upon me. Now, I did hesitate. Tastes and interests change: you can never read the same story twice, not because the story has changed but because you have. If a story seems exactly the same every time you revisit it, it is not a sign of the richness of the story but of its poverty. And yet, there is something sad and painful if a treasured work is suddenly revealed to be insubstantial when you turn to it again. After more than 30 years there was no way that I was going to read the same story I had first encountered in 1977, but would my memories be completely trashed?
To be honest, it didn’t start too promisingly. The first two or three pages are crowded with the sort of capsule character descriptions that come straight out of the pulps:
He looked like a dope, thick build, the biggest pair of hands you’d ever see outside a football field, shoulders that didn’t need padding to look padded. Probably he was one of the best electronics men in the world. (1)
And alongside the broad-brush characterization is some equally broad-brush scene setting. Edward Laslow, Eddie, our narrator, is a partner in a two-man electronics business with Lenny, ‘one of the best electronics men in the world’. Their latest invention is a suit that acts as a body cast while keeping the muscles stimulated and allowing growth in the eight-year-old boy who is currently the unwilling guinea pig for the suit. But Mike, the boy, is unhappy so Eddie is summoned to the hospital by Janet, Mike’s physical therapist who is also Eddie’s wife: ‘Janet, suntanned, with red, sun-streaked hair, freckles, and lean to the point of thinness, was my idea of a beautiful woman’ (2). At the hospital, Eddie is briskly and efficiently able to calm the fears of both Mike and his parents, so the experiment continues.
And so, after the first three or four pages, it seems that this is the story we have got: a story that will be built around some medical device created by Eddie and Lenny and told in this no-nonsense, not-overly-subtle style not much advanced on the genre’s standard pulp model. But then the story takes an abrupt turn, in setting, subject and tone.
We follow Eddie and Janet home, a place which screams money:
Five one-acre lots, with woods all around, and a hill behind us, and a brook. If any of us prayed at all, it was only that the county engineers wouldn’t discover the existence of Sweet Brier Lane and come in with their bulldozers and road-building equipment and turn us into a real development. (4)
This has all the pulp efficiency of the earlier passages, but the voice has become less brusque. There is still a tendency to list objects in threes (the woods, hill and brook lining up with Lenny’s build, hands and shoulders, or Janet’s hair, freckles and thinness), but this is immediately followed by a moment of hesitation (‘If any of us prayed’, which also tells us we are dealing with modern, rational people) which offsets the hard certainties the tone of voice had hitherto led us to expect. But more than that, we learn that this is not the typically solipsistic view of pulp sf’s archetypal competent man, ‘us’ immediately places Eddie in a community, and, moreover, a community that isn’t entirely comfortable with the onset of the future. In other words, where the opening can be taken as typically science fictional, we now start moving into something more concerned with the contemporary. Indeed, for a while this story now reads as mainstream fiction.
Eddie and Janet have a good marriage – ‘No strain either way, nothing but ease lay between us. We had a good thing, and we knew it’ (5) – a nice house, good neighbours ‘talented and intelligent people’ (5), and two kids, Rusty and Laura. It is an idyll that we know must be disturbed, and the disturbance seems to emanate from a new neighbour, a tiny, solitary woman who moves in to the next door house owned by an academic currently away teaching at Cambridge. The first harbinger of disturbance comes when Laura screams in the night, and the child is found standing rigid in the middle of her room. Then, a day later, Eddie himself has a curious moment while working into the early hours of the morning when he feels himself falling forever. But these are just eddies in a smooth domestic surface, until the new neighbour, Christine, comes to visit for the first time at the weekend.
But I knew her. It was like seeing your first lover again after years, the same shock low in the belly, the same tightening up of the muscles, the fear that what’s left of the affair will show, and there is always something left over. Hate, love, lust. Something. Virtually instantaneous with the shock of recognition came the denial. I had never seen her before in my life.’ (11)
The same tripartite list: ‘Hate, love, lust’ but this is now undeniably a different voice, much more uncertain of the world. In his business, mechanistic and material as it is, Eddie is as competent as an sf hero; but what concerns us here, we are being told, is his emotional and domestic life, the side of the sf hero that we never usually see, and in this he is far less crisp and able, far more like you and I. The difference is shown also in the description of Christine; where, previously, Lenny and Janet had been introduced with terse phrases, this description is considerably longer and pays more attention to approximations and subtleties:
She was possibly five feet tall, and couldn’t have weighed more than ninety pounds. It was impossible to tell what kind of figure she had, but what was visible seemed perfectly normal, just scaled down, except her eyes, and they looked extraordinarily large in so tiny a face. Her eyes were very dark, black or so close to it as to make no difference, and her hair, as Janet had said, was beautiful, or could have been with just a little attention. It was glossy, lustrous black, thick and to her shoulders. But she shouldn’t have worn it tied back with a ribbon as she had it then. Her face was too round, her eyebrows too straight. It gave her a childlike appearance. (11-12)
And notice how sensuous it is: this is a very sensuous story. When we are told, ‘Janet and I always wondered about everyone’s sex life’ (13) we are also being told where this story is going.
Christine, we discover, is the widow of Nobel Prize winning psychologist Karl Rudeman, and herself an acclaimed photographer: ‘She had an uncanny way of looking at things, as if she were at some point you couldn’t imagine, getting an angle that no one had ever seen before’ (14). The closest we get to an appreciation of this is when Eddie helps her set up her tripod for time-lapse photographs of a maple tree, which she intends to arrange ‘[s]ort of superimposed, so that you’ll see the tree through time’ (15). In this we are being told something about her character, but also something about the story to come. Re-reading the story it becomes obvious not only how much of the story is foreshadowed, but how complexly character, setting and story are intertwined: what is used to establish the individual actors also establishes the events that they will be playing out.
And what are those events? Let me put aside this close reading for a moment and hurry forward. Christine continues to fascinate and disturb Eddie: ‘We have a good life, good sex, good kids … I’m too young for the male climacteric. She isn’t even pretty.’ (16), but his relationship with Janet sours somewhat, they start to have meaningless quarrels. Then he has another of those episodes of seeming to fall, only this time he suddenly and briefly sees through someone else’s eyes in Christine’s study. Moments after he snaps out of it, Christine screams, and Eddie and Janet rush over to find her collapsed on the floor. As he looks around the room, Eddie realizes he had been looking through Christine’s eyes. When she comes to, she reports ‘there was something else in the room with me. I know it. It’s happened before, the same kind of feeling’ (20). She explains that she had been a student and subject of Rudeman, her past history of schizophrenia making her invaluable for his theories about madness and perception. After they married he continued using her in research that he had not published and never explained to her. Since Rudeman’s death, his son-in-law Victor had been pressing for the research papers and also making unwelcome advances to her. We’re now being set up for a tale of madness, but the madness when it comes isn’t really Christine’s, and it doesn’t take a form we might expect.
Eddie finds himself increasingly fascinated by Christine: ‘Her buttocks were rounded, and moved ever so slightly when she walked, almost like a boy, but not quite; there was a telltale sway. And suddenly I wondered how she would be. Eager, actively seeking the contact, the thrust? Passive?’ (24). And now, as he finds himself again behind her eyes, he learns that he can start to control her movements.
I knew I could enter her, could use her, could examine whatever was in her mind without her being able to do anything about it. I knew in that same flash that she didn’t realize what was happening, that she felt haunted, or crazy, but that she had no idea that another personality was inside her. (29)
The wording here – enter her, use her – deliberately evokes rape, because what we are just beginning to discover is that this entire story is about rape, told from the point of view of the rapist. It is a story not of physical sexual assault but of mental assault, but it amounts to the same thing. Eddie becomes addicted to his ability to enter and control Christine, an addiction that, as in drug addiction, has a physically and mentally debilitating effect upon the addict, because what he does renders him vulnerable also: ‘I suddenly wondered what she saw when she looked at me, through me to all the things that I had always believed were invisible’ (30). The more attracted he is to her, the less he wants to see her, to be seen by her.
At the same time, he also finds himself wondering more and more about Rudeman. Had Rudeman discovered the same ability to possess Christine? If so, why, as a psychologist, had he done nothing to cure her? And what was the mystery of Rudeman’s death?
Now, the psychological tension escalates as Eddie disintegrates. The first signs of Eddie losing touch with reality start to crop up: ‘The next few days blurred together. I knew that things got done, simply because they didn’t need doing later’ (33). When Christine and Lenny meet, they are attracted to each other, and one time while he is making love to Janet Eddie enters Christine expecting that she and Lenny will also be making love, when he finds they are not he hurts Janet, the first time he has done so. Eddie gets his revenge by making Christine masturbate repeatedly until she collapses, all the time ‘calling her names, despising her for letting me do it to her, for being so manipulable, for letting me do this to myself’ (36), mastery and disgust become the same thing. We learn from Lenny that Christine believes she is going crazy, and all the while Eddie’s own relationships start to shatter as he snaps at Janet and Lenny. Paranoia creeps into the mix, as Eddie begins to imagine that Janet and Lenny, in their friendship with Christine, are conspiring against him. Then, while away on a business trip to Chicago, Eddie comes to believe that Lenny has also learned how to possess Christine, and paranoia turns into possessiveness: ‘He couldn’t have her. She was mine now. And I would never give her up’ (43). While in Chicago, Eddie drinks more, eats less, and people comment on how bad he looks, but at the same time he makes a contact that could guarantee the future success of his business.
Then something new is added to the mix. One time, when inside Christine’s head, he sees the same room at several different times, like the superimpositions of Christine’s time-lapse photography. This extraordinary vision is what earned her diagnosis of schizophrenia, and what brought her to Rudeman’s attention. It is also what opens her up to possession, and she now believes that Rudeman is continuing to possess her from beyond the grave. And she believes she caused Rudeman’s death.
Eddie starts to recognize that there is an identity between him and Rudeman, exercising the same invasive control over the same woman. And when we learn that Rudeman’s obsession eventually turned to fear, we realize that Eddie, also, is coming to fear Christine. The stage is set for a showdown in which identities become confused as Eddie and Christine, both sick, both losing grip of who they are, shift in and out of control, of awareness.
The infinity box of the title is, of course, the human mind. This story was first published in 1971, at a time when science fiction writers were beginning to explore issues of sexuality and of identity, and in this marvelous work (even better now, I think, than when I first read it) Wilhelm subtly elides the two. The result is a story that seems to shift direction several times, but most of these shifts are due to the way we try to reconcile our view of the protagonist with what is actually happening in the story. He’s a nice guy, he’s happy and successful, he’s got a wife he loves and who loves him: we are not used to seeing such characters as the villain. Particularly not when this is the character who narrates the story, the character through whose eyes we watch events unfold. Since we have been led to identify with Eddie, we don’t like to believe that we might behave that way. So the story allows us to construct excuses: it’s not his fault, she’s responsible, she’s mad, he’s ill. And the story shifts under us each time we try to tell it in a way that exonerates him, each time the reader tries not to feel so bad about identifying with him.
This is mostly a mainstream story; as it shifts from the pulpy feel of the first few pages the subtlety of the writing, the tone of voice, the emphasis on character are all typical of good mainstream work. Even the science fictional twist, the ability to see inside another person’s mind, can be read as a metaphor for the psycho-sexual drama being played out here. Except that the psycho-sexual drama wouldn’t exist without this device. In the end it does something that a mainstream story could not do; what marks it out as such a brilliant example of science fiction is the assured way it uses its effects to build a terrifying climax that would not be possible without the science fiction and yet which resonates so clearly and so chillingly with the world we see around us every day.
I had forgotten how powerful an effect this story had upon me when I first read it. Over time these things fade, so in the end I was left only with the memory that it had had such an effect. Revisiting the story, it hits home as devastatingly as it must have done in the 1970s. At least now I know why something in the back of my mind insisted that this had to be included in my list of the best ever novellas.
Quotations taken from ‘The Infinity Box’ in Kate Wilhelm, The Infinity Box, New York, Pocket Books, 1977