The Clewiston Test by Kate Wilhelm (1976) is a modern, science fictional Yellow Wallpaper. As taut, tense, and claustrophobic as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 feminist short story, The Clewiston Test is physically painful to read, even as it forces you to marvel at the talent that wrought its infectuously uncomfortable atmosphere.
The parellels between The Yellow Wallpaper and The Clewiston Test are uncanny. Not because it is an odd source of inspiration, but because the repetition of the same feminist tale in two (we like to think) drastically different time periods highlights that women have been dealing with the same old bullshit for hundreds of years. Uncanny? How about depressing?
Both stories contain an injured or ill female first-person narrator, confined in the name of recovery. Both women are married to scientists: Gilman’s a doctor, Wilhelm’s the narrator’s partner in pharmaceutical research. Both women suffer because of the confinement of the sick bed, and both of their husbands make the situation worse with a patronizing, “Daddy knows best” attitude. As the two women teeter on the brink of (in)sanity their spouses use their disability in order to disempower them through condescation, infantilization, discredition, and still more horrifically in Wilhelm’s story, rape.
(Psst. You can read The Yellow Wallpaper for free via Project Gutenberg.)
But where Gilman took 6,000 words to examine this dynamic, Wilhlem takes…far more, and this allows her story a depth and complexity for which The Yellow Wallpaper does not have the space.
The Clewiston Test begins with Anne and Clark still in love, though an offhand comment forshadowing the coming rape is the start of readerly unease; this isn’t going to be a happy scientist-on-scientist romance. Anne must remain in bed recovering from severe injuries (car crash) while her colleagues continue to work on the miracle pain killer she discovered. When the project gets government approval ahead of schedule, the team are pressured to forge on without Anne—leaving Clark with the credit for her work, and creating an ideal oppurtunity for Wilhelm to depict workplace sexism. When Clark decides to withhold this information from Anne, their relationship begins to disintegrate. Meanwhile in the lab, moral qualms about the new painkiller’s safety are pushed aside in favor of speed and profit. And they all fall down.
The Clewiston Test is a page turner, and though I was never tempted to put it down—I read the last half in a fury late one night, unwilling to sleep until I knew what had happened in the end—I had a stomach ache for over half of the book. Anne’s confinement and helplessness became my own. This is a deeply uncomfortable book, but it is also an important book because at its core The Clewiston Test is about consent: giving it, taking it, and the fucked up power dynamics involved when informed consent is ignored in favor of force.
There is a rape. A horrible, on-screen rape. (What some people refer to as “marital rape,” though I see no value in qualifying the term, as if to imply that “marital rape” is not really rape.) I am getting tired of seeing rape in fiction, but I have to hand it to Wilhelm: she depicts rape in a way that feels realistic in its horror and emotional consequences while at the same time not making the rape THE defining characteristic of the female victim. The rape defines Anne’s relationship to Clark, but never defines Anne, a smart woman with agency. Though we are with Anne for the rape, she disassociates, and we aren’t given any of the lurid, pornographic details that so often make fictional rape scenes feel like they were written with pleasure, not horror, in mind. I repeat: the rape scene is horrible.
But not horribly handled, and Anne immediately calls it by name, pointing out the shudder-inducing “Daddy knows best” attitude that makes Clark think forcing himself on Anne is good for their relationship. He doesn’t understand what the problem is. They’re married aren’t they? He knew her doctor had given her permission to have sex again. What about his needs? (Hey, welcome back stomach ache I had while reading!) What a fuckwad. As she weeps in bed afterwards, she has to explain to him why raping her was fucked up: “It had to be your way. You always know what will be best for me don’t you, and I have to do it that way. If my legs ache, or I get a cramp in my thigh, or whatever, it has to be your way. For my sake, of course.”
Clark, unwilling to face the reality of what he has done, chooses instead to question his wife’s sanity. Because questioning his privelege and his misuse of that power are not an option. As Anne later tells a friend, “…he would rather believe…that I am going crazy, that I’ll become a psychopathic killer, than face the truth. That isn’t love. That’s the wail of a child who’d rather see the end of the world than give up his grubby teddy bear.”
Kate Wilhelm: calling out male privilege since 1976. (At least.)
This would be an important statement of itself, but—look at her go!—Wilhelm addresses the issue of consent and force in almost a dozen other situations throughout the novel without ever making the story feel like a mallet.
Anne’s painkiller research team worry about the possibility that they are being used as test subjects for gen modified food another department is working on without their permission or knowledge. The thought really pisses them off (69). Animal test subjects—who obviously have not given consent, though it is a credit to Wilhelm’s light hand that she never points it out directly—in their experiments experience horrific side effects from the painkillers, leading to several even more horrific deaths. Meanwhile, at home, Anne coddles a pet kitten (81), and she and Clark are very upset when it gets hurt. Though Anne insisted (and was promised) that the human test subjects in the next stage of painkiller testing would be fully informed and fully consenting (because for some reason they need to test pregnant women? I didn’t catch why), the boss man decides that uninformed pregnant women in a local prison will be used instead.
Women as pets, women as test subjects. Animals as pets, animals as test subjects. Women in cages, animals in cages. The anger unconsenting adults feel at being unwitting test subjects. Who is allowed to consent and when and why? Who is forced to participate against their will and when and why?
Do you see how many layers Wilhelm has going here? DO YOU SEE THEM? This book spent at least 100 pages making me nauseous, and I still want to re-read as soon as I can to see just how she managed to put together such a layered, complex taptestry.
Why isn’t Kate Wilhlem on evey single “Best SF” list ever? It is fucking criminal that this book isn’t praised more vehemently, more often. If I hadn’t picked up this massive yellow omnibus at LonCon3 (thanks Gollancz), I may never have read it because Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is the obvious first choice with Wilhelm’s books.
There is so much more to say. I haven’t even mentioned Deena, the office’s “militant (straw) feminist” or the questions of ethics in scientific research or the way shifts between point of view characters give us a wide-frame view of every issue. I didn’t mention my slight dissatisfaction with the ending (which felt too optimistic, too light, to follow the dark contents of the previous pages, though it was a win for feminism) or my annoyance at having to hear about Anne’s dreams. I’ve run out of time. But I will tell you this, The Clewiston Test gets a rating of nine out of ten raging monkeys from me.
Where I got it: The yellow omnibus edition was a LonCon3 freebie