Book Review: Kate Wilhelm’s The Killer Thing (1967)


4/5 (Good)

On the last page of the March 1968 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, readers encountered an anti-Vietnam War petition, signed by science fiction authors, and organized by Kate Wilhelm and Judith Merril [1]. Both organizers incorrectly assumed that 95 percent of the field would sign due to the “global and anti-racist view” they believed guided SF [2]. Yet, on page 44 of the same issue, a pro-war petition organized by Poul Anderson appeared with slightly less signatories. The June 1968 issue of Galaxy placed both lists next to each other for added effect.

Much ink has been spilt on the division lines between New Wave and Old Guard demonstrated by the two opposing advertisements [3] and in analysis of the canonical anti-Vietnam War science fiction novels, such as Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War (1975), partially compiled from stories that appeared as early as 1973, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest (1972), written in 1968. Far less attention has been given to the Vietnam-inspired fiction of Kate Wilhelm, one of the organizers of the petition. Only her short story “The Village” (1973) receives occasional mention–it transposes a My Lai-esque massacre to the US. Little attention has been given to her third novel The Killer Thing (1967), written at a far earlier stage of the conflict [4].

The Killer Thing does not overtly map events in the early Vietnam War onto the story [5]. Rather, it is an allegorical product of the moment that serves as a “critical interrogation of the war’s economic and imperialistic underpinnings” that propelled the Vietnam War and other Cold War conflicts [6]. While we initially identify with the protagonist (who stands in for a good American soldier) and his fight against a killer robot (the communist without individuality), his own reflections force us to grapple with simplistic us vs. them-style world views.

First, Let’s Chart the Lay of the Land

A killer robot stalks Lieutenant Ellender Tracy (Trace) on a desert planet. Trace must keep the robot occupied to prevent it from repairing its space dinghy, shrouded by a cloaking device, and escaping the planet via its orbiting spaceship. The problem? Trace is running out of fuel. And he’s alone for the first time in his life. His fellow officer Lieutenant Ford Duncan died soon in a crash landing their pursuit of the killing machine. The goal? Wait for the World Group’s fleet to arrive. But doubt creeps amongst the desert emptiness and swirling sands. And in Trace’s moments of clarity, he reflects on his past, the worlds he helped destroy, his lovers, the genesis of the robot, and moments his army indoctrination repressed and reinterpreted the cruelty he perpetuated. These moments of reflection take the form of flashbacks and internal dialogues with his dead friend, Duncan.

It is worth pointing out again that Wilhelm does not overtly imprint the contemporary Cold War geopolitical worlds onto the proceedings. That said, native people, like Trace’s lover Lars, stand in for colonized societies desperate for independence–and willing to make alliances with mysterious outsiders who claim to be altruistic. For example, Ho Chi Minh, responding to President Woodrow Wilson’s rhetoric in the famous Fourteen Points Speech concerning self-determination of peoples, had attempted to appeal to the allied powers at the Versailles Conference for an end of colonial rule in Vietnam [7]. Wilson did not listen. Instead, the US financed France’s failed war against Vietnamese nationalist movements.

The World Group, like an “organism” reaching “out in every direction, hungry for new worlds, impregnable, invulnerable now, seizing what it touched, incorporating all that fell before it” (24), stands in for a triumphant America, uninhibited in its capitalistic urges. Fresh off a brutal conquest of “seven major planets with highly developed civilizations” (24), the WG consumes minor plants, stripping their ores, massacring resistance, sprawling ever outward. But whispers are afoot of another superpower at the fringes. Native people, of course, will be caught in the middle.

Wait, Wait, We do Groupthink Too?

During the Cold War, Americans believed that their individuality was under attack and that conformity and groupthink were threats aimed at the destruction of the “very fabric of the United States of America” [8]. Fears over Communist brainwashing, a form of “mental slavery,” entered American consciousness in the immediate post-Korean War era. By the late 50s, Americans turned the fear inward: “if suburbanization and the corporate world sapped Americans of their individuality, were they truly free?” [9]. In Kate Wilhelm’s formulation, the grand narratives of Imperial (read American) exceptionalism require similar indoctrination–little different than their Communist foes. 

In The Killer Thing, the World Group brainwashes its soldiers to perpetuate “psychotic masculinist power fantasies that drive the expansion of empire” [10]. The novel examines Trace’s slow self-realization that he’s a violent machine created by a dehumanizing empire, desperate to legitimate its own crimes. Wilhelm conveys the dominate narratives of expansionist purpose via communal songs the spacers sing: “A ton on my chest, I’m part of the Best / God-damned race to ever his space! / They bow when we come; / They know where we’re from” (28). And speeches given by Trace’s commanders before moments of massacre and brutality: “You don’t think of them as people, they aren’t people. Each planet has a purpose in itself: abundant minerals, drugs, strategic location….” (110). In another instance, the office repeats a similar mantra: “You think of them as animals, humanoid sometimes, but not like us!” (67). Repetition. Massacre. Repetition. Massacre.

In Trace’s moments of isolated reflection, he tries to block out his earliest memories of the military schools on Venus: “He didn’t want to think about the training the boys received” (110). He cannot remember a moment when he was alone (119). His earliest memories, in “a giant nursery that housed seven hundred preschool children of two or four years,” involved the comforting movements and sounds of others (120). His final revelation revolves around a rhetorical question he must grapple with: “Why was each man so carefully guarded from being alone?” (119). Alone with one’s thoughts, self-doubt can fracture indoctrination. 

You soil us and then hate us for being dirty” (95): Sex and Colonization

Wilhelm’s most incisive and disturbing commentary concerns the interaction of sexual violence and conquest. Trace’s colonial mentality, as discussed above, comes from youthful indoctrination and the peer pressure of his fellow soldiers. The songs they sing connect domination with sexual acts:  “On their knees they’re trying to please” (28). Trace’s memories frequently return to his sexual conquests.

In an unnerving sequence, Lars, Trace’s native lover, lays bare the sad reality of it all: “You soil us and then hate us for being dirty” (95). Lars continues: “Don’t turn away from me, Captain Tracy. […] Did you know some of them beat the women afterward? Do you know some of them aren’t satisfied unless there is an audience or a group all mingling together? I know all your World Group perversions, Captain Tracy. It amuses your little uniformed gods to teach us and then make us perform for them….” (95). Lars continues her attack by questioning how many women he has abandoned, pregnant, across the stars. Trace, the superiority of his ways threatened, can only lash out. He tracks down another victim: “I want to hurt you, you slut. You bitch! You alien bitch!” (155). In the present loneliness, chased by the robot, he reflects on his actions for the first time: “He didn’t even know the girl’s name, or how badly he had hurt her. He thought of other girls, other women” (155). For Wilhelm, sexual violence against women is part and parcel with the domination implicit in the act of colonization.

There is a substantial historiography on the intersections of sexual violence, warfare, and colonization. For the sake of this review, I found Andrea Smith’s “Not an Indian Tradition: The Sexual Colonization of Native Peoples” (2003) a useful lens to understand Wilhelm’s central thesis. Smith argues that “sexual violence does not simply just occur during within the process of colonialism, but that colonialism is itself structured by the logic of sexual violence” [11]. Within the colonial imagination, “native bodies are also immanently polluted with sexual sin.” And because they are perceived as “dirty,” “they are considered sexually violable.” And the “rape of bodies that are considered inherently impure or dirty simply does not count.” Karren Warren argues that the attack on Native women serves to strengthen patriarchy within white society. The Trace’s dysfunctional World Group continues abuse because its legions regard it as normal. Traces’ time spent with Lars, and the far more egalitarian and peaceful society she is part of, lead him to identify how his own upbringing was a form of abuse. Confronted with a world where abuse is not the norm, Trace and his fellow soldiers must lash out and destroy what “present[s] other ways of living” [12]. Alone on the desert planet chased by the killer robot, the edifice of indoctrination comes crashing down.

Recommended for fans of Kate Wilhelm and anti-war science fiction. If you’re expecting riveting giant robot fights, this might not be for you.


[1] Almost all scholarship on science fiction and the Vietnam War mention the petition. I’ve placed the articles I’ve consulted in chronological order: Richard Lupoff discussed the list and its implications as early as 1972 in “Science Fiction Hawks and Doves: Whose Future Will you Buy?” in Ramparts, 10. (February 1972), 25-30; H. Bruce Franklin’s “The Vietnam War as American Sf and Fantasy” in Science Fiction Studies 17.3 (1990), 70-80 remains the best article on SF and the Vietnam War; Darko Suvin’s “Of Starship Troopers and Refuseniks: War and Militarism in U.S. Science Fiction” in New Boundaries in Political Science Fiction, ed. Donald M. Hassler and Clyde Wilcox (2008), 115-144. Suvin mentions the list on 122. You can read both parts of the article here; See also the chapter “Alien Invaders: Vietnam and the Counterculture” in Andrew M. Butler’s Solar Flares: Science Fiction in the 1970s (2012), specifically 92-93; Alasdair Spark’s article “The Art of Future War: Starship Troopers, The Forever War, and Vietnam” in Fictional Space: Essays on Contemporary Science Fiction, ed. Tom Shippey (1990), 152-153; David M. Higgins’ “New Wave Science Fiction and the Vietnam War” in The Cambridge History of Science Fiction, ed. Gerry Canavan and Eric Carl Link (2019), specifically 418-420; H. Bruce Franklin’s Vietnam and Other American Fantasies (2000); The most recent article on Vietnam and SF, Rjurik Davidson’s “Imagining New Worlds: Sci-Fi and the Vietnam War” in Dangerous Visions and New Worlds: Radical Science Fiction, 1950-1985, ed. Andrew Nette and Iain McIntyre (2021), 5 summarizes some of the main issues.

[2] Franklin (1990), 71. He cites an interview he conducted with Merril for their assumptions about the field.

[3] Franklin (1990), 72.

[4] I have not found a reference to Wilhelm’s The Killer Thing (1967) in any of the scholarship mentioned above. In a humorous twist, Poul Anderson reviewed Wilhelm’s novel in F&SF. Here’s P. Schulyer Miller’s review.

[5] For another worthwhile anti-Vietnam War novel that’s clearly a product of the frustration with the conflict vs. a close analog of it, check out Kit Reed’s Armed Camps (1969). It’s also completely ignored by contemporary scholarship on science fiction and Vietnam despite Kit Reed stating that it is her “why are we in Vietnam” novel.

[6] Higgins, 422 applies the description to Le Guin’s The Word for World Is Forest (1972).

[7] I’ve found Mark Atwood Lawrence’s The Vietnam War: A Concise International History (2008) an effective primer on the conflict.

[8] See Matthew W. Dunne’s A Cold War State of Mind: Brainwashing and Postwar American Society (2013), 3.

[9] Dunne, 5.

[10] The phrase comes from Higgins, 429. He uses it to reference William Mandella’s evolution in Haldeman’s The Forever War (1975).

[11] Andrea Smith, “Not an Indian Tradition: The Sexual Colonization of Native Peoples” in Hypatia vol. 18, no. 2 (Spring 2003). You can read it here. For the British Empire check out Philippa Levine’s edited volume Gender and Empire (2004). More topical Vietnam accounts include Gina Marie Weaver’s Ideologies of Forgetting: Rape in the Vietnam War (2010).

[12] This entire paragraph uses Smith’s argument from pages 70-78 to substantiate Wilhelm’s critique.

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