The great Kate Wilhelm was born June 8, 1928, and died a year ago March 6, just a few months short of her 90th birthday. She was my leading candidate for most unfairly passed over would-be SFWA Grand Master -- I wonder if her turn to writing primarily mysteries over the past few decades of her life contributed to that oversight. I thought one of those mysteries, the first Barbara Holloway novel, Death Qualified, was also an exceptional SF novel. I also greatly liked the also often fantastical Constance and Charlie stories. And her novels and short fiction published within the field were also excellent. My favorite novel was probably Juniper Time; and my favorite short fiction included "Baby, You Were Great", "The Fusion Bomb", "Somerset Dreams", and "Forever Yours, Anna".
She was one of those writers nurtured somewhat, early in their careers, by Cele Goldsmith, and I had hoped to get a chance to ask her about Goldsmith, but I never did, one of my regrets. (I also waited too long to ask Harlan Ellison about Goldsmith, but fortunately I did get a chance to send Ursula K. Le Guin a letter to which she gave a lovely response.)
Here's what I've written about her short fiction, either in my "Retro-reviews" of old magazines, or of her late work, in my Locus column. As such, these notes don't really mention her very best work, but they do show that, early and late, she was always good.
Retro-review of Amazing, February 1960
The great Kate Wilhelm's first story appeared in one of the Paul Fairman issues of Fantastic in 1956, and her first important story ("The Mile-Long Spaceship") in John Campbell's Astounding in 1957, though really Robert Lowndes, at Future and Science Fiction Stories, was her most important early editor. But she did have a few stories in Goldsmith's issues. "It's a Good Trick If ..." is an amusing short piece about a family in which strange hallucinations keep happening -- even to the dog -- and it becomes eventually clear that their young son is the cause. Minor work, sure, but well enough done.
Retro-review of [The Original] Science Fiction Stories, May 1960
Kate Wilhelm's "The Living Urn" is another crime story. A disreputable art collector wishes to steal a rare "living urn". But it turns out, in a nice twist, that he can thus be useful to the authorities, who want that object safely delivered to Earth. Minor but nicely done.
Locus, February 2002
Kate Wilhelm supplies the cover story for the February F&SF, "The Man on the Persian Carpet". The two main characters are Carolyn Harley and Drake Symes, who had "fallen in and out of love since kindergarten". But Carolyn's parents oppose the relationship, and Carolyn finds herself unexpectedly marrying a man she barely knows, after a rather creepy sexual encounter. Drake drifts into occult publishing, and Carolyn also brushes with the occult, learning palmistry. Years later, after a child and a divorce, Carolyn meets Drake again, and they fall back in love -- but Carolyn realizes that her palm, and Drake's, and that of her teenaged son all tell of a cataclysmic event a few years in the future. It is that event around which the story turns -- and Wilhelm drives things to a well thought out conclusion, with real sacrifice and loss amidst possible happiness, the sacrifice more poignant because of its nature (which I will not reveal). This is the best Kate Wilhelm story I've read in a few years -- perhaps it is marred slightly by a somewhat implausible villainous plot driving the crisis, still, it's a very fine story.
Locus, April 2008
The February issue also offers an all too rare Kate Wilhelm sighting, with “The Fountains of Neptune”, a quiet story of a woman dying of cancer who visits Rome one more time and, perhaps, encounters a god.
Locus, February 2011
The January-February F&SF has a fine new Kate Wilhelm piece, “The Bird Cage”. Dr. Grace Wooten is researching methods of human near-hibernation for a rather unpleasant rich man who wants to find a way to live until his diseases can be cured. But her first human trial leads to some completely unexpected side effects, as the sleeping man somehow seems to interact with people involved in significant events in his life, including his brother and a girl who had been present when he nearly drowned as a child. Those two, after scary “fugue states” in which they remember those events, come into contact, and eventually confront Dr. Wooten, who is faced with scary evidence of the dangers of her research.