Juniper Time: A 1970s “problem story” novel with an iconic feminist protagonist

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Juniper Time by Kate Wilhelm science fiction book reviewsJuniper Time by Kate Wilhelm

Juniper Time, by Kate Wilhelm, was published in 1979, her first novel after her Hugo-Award winning book Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang. Once again, Wilhelm was interested in ecological collapse. This time, the disaster is a growing drought and the desertification of large parts of world, specifically the US, throwing the country into economic depression and political chaos. Against this backdrop, two people who share a common past struggle to change the present, with surprising results.

Jean Brighton’s father was a famous astronaut and the “face” of the first international space station, Alpha. Sadly, when Jean was still a child, cost-overruns and accidents — or perhaps sabotage — brought the project to a halt before it was completed. Arthur Cluny’s father was also part of Alpha. The two knew each other as children but drifted apart once Alpha was shut down.

Arthur, who goes by Cluny, has just gotten his PhD in astrophysics when he is approached by two college friends who want to reopen work on Alpha. They believe the government will invest if it believes the space station can somehow bring back the rain. Cluny agrees, and soon realizes that his role in the project is mainly that of figurehead. His friends have very clear ideas about what needs to be done and he was not included in those plans.

Jean Brighton is a beleaguered graduate student in linguistics, whose intelligence and skill is being exploited by Professor Arkins. Jean is in a subservient relationship with a selfish psychology professor, and worried if she does not finish her PhD and find a job she will end up living in one of the government-run mass-housing compounds called Newtowns. When Arkins has a break-through thanks to her work, the army descends on the college and takes him away. Jean’s worst fears are realized and she does end up in a Newtown, where she is savagely gang-raped and tortured. Jean survives the attack, but is emotionally as well as physically wounded. She takes refuge in her grandfather’s old house in Bend, Oregon, a town that is slowly melting back into the desert.

Eventually, Arthur’s story and Jean’s connect, when an artifact containing a message in an unknown set of symbols is discovered in orbit around Earth. Cluny’s friends order him to find Jean, expecting her to lead them to Arkins. Instead, they decide that Jean can be the one to inspect the message. Cluny finds a very changed woman, who has spent a year with the Wasco tribe, specifically with a group who has chosen to return to traditional ways to survive this catastrophic weather cycle. Jean has worked with them to create a Wasco-English dictionary, and her time with them has given her insights and increased her confidence. Cluny, who expected a fearful, powerless woman he could dominate, doesn’t know what to make of the new Jean.

It seems like the artifact with a message that might be from extraterrestrials would hold the spotlight in this story, but strangely, it doesn’t. The message is a wonderful paradox, though, as Jean points out. If it were left by another race for us to find, it must be translatable. If it’s translatable, though, doesn’t that prove it’s a hoax? The message, and Jean’s work with it, is interesting, but a relatively small part of the story.

The plot is a classic “problem story,” but Juniper Time is more interested in the idea of societies adjust, or fail to adjust, to environmental change. In a time when the US is in crisis, the book is clear that children and women bear the brunt of the consequences — starvation, dislocation, violence — while a certain group (entirely male in Juniper Time) continue to amass wealth and live in luxury. The book presents Jean’s journey and Cluny’s against a backdrop of fascism and militarism, and the threat of a shooting war with Russia is feared… and welcomed by many factions. This book makes it clear that there is no single one answer, that “science” or “the aliens” will not necessarily ride in and save us.

The book is about Jean and how she changes. Much of the book is spent with her as she learns how to approach life differently. Some of this reads as dated now, and the Wasco, especially Serena the healer, veer dangerously close to Magical Native territory. Jean learns a lot from Robert, the tribe’s leader, and others like Serena and Doris, but her real healing and turning point come from her interaction with the land, even in a dry and dire landscape. Much of this book is a love letter to the Oregon high desert and high prairie.

Jean is a trailblazer of a seventies feminist heroine and her journey is iconic. Her submissive behavior with Arkins and Walter, the boyfriend, is stereotypical — and accurate. The gang-rape in the Newtown happens for no reason, except, Jean is told, that all the Newtowns are full of rapists and women aren’t safe. No one does anything about this, although presumably there is some sort of law enforcement in the Newtowns. This is another way we are reminded that women and children bear the brunt of economic collapse, but it also gives Jean something horrific to overcome, and makes her a person who comes home to Oregon with nothing to lose. Later in the book, Jean muses that she had always been afraid of men, yet her journey changes her and at the end, in rooms full of fearful men, she is only one who is not afraid.

While I admired Jean the linguist when I first read the book, I winced a little bit this time out; Jean is an intuitive scientist, guided by flashes of insight and dreams, not by analytical ability. This is very much in the spirit of the times. She is a scientist, though, and I smiled, enjoying the nostalgia, as we get to see Jean’s 1979 state-of-the-art computer. She is better than Cluny; the astrophysicist never functions as a scientist in the book. I had more trouble with Cluny in general. Whether I agreed or not, I found Jean’s motivations plausible. I never did Cluny’s. Cluny’s dark side, especially his relationship with his wife Lina, is problematic, and even though Cluny does experience some consequences for his actions, they never felt like real consequences, mainly because he doesn’t acknowledge the things he did. He rationalizes that everything he did at the space station, he did for his wife Lina, or at least the imaginary Lina he created in his mind. I never believed this. Cluny, like his black-mailing militarist father-in-law and his “friends,” is insulated from devastation by his connections and by wealth, a point Jean makes to him late in the book.

The ending is rushed and the adversarial character is flat, but overall this book is deeply thoughtful. Wilhelm’s nature writing, especially her descriptions of Bend, the Three Sisters Mountains and the high prairie, is exquisite. Juniper Time is at its best when Jean is engaging with nature and contemplating her role in the world.

Published in 1979. JUNIPER TIME is a panaramic and hauntingly beautiful novel of the survival of humankind and nature. Drought has devastated the western U.S. and the people migrate eastward to settle in squalid concentration camps called “Newtowns”. One woman, Jean Brighton, flees in the opposite direction. A linguist who can decode secret messages and make sense of alien languages, Jean has found governmental pressure on her university work untenable, and she heads for the only place she knows she will be safe – her grandfather’s now deserted house in the Pacific Northwest. Yet her survival does not come from her own devices alone, so she receives the help of Indians who have stayed to reclaim the land that was once theirs. Through them and the mysteries of their world, Jean masters the art of survival, not only in the desolate Northwest but also in the white man’s world she must return to someday. Rich in feeling and insight, JUNIPER TIME ranks among Kate Wilhelm’s most compelling novels.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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2 comments

  1. I’ve had this on my TBR list since David Pringle chose it for his 100 Best SF Novels list (rather than Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang). Since I was too young to understand the growing feminist movement in the 1970s, and how it manifested in SF, I want to read this along with Joanna Russ’ Female Man, Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, and Suzy McKee Charnas’ Walk to the End of the World. They may well feel dated now, but as a snapshot of the times would be really interesting.

    • I, on the other hand, am certainly old enough to understand that very thing. :)

      I could never get through THE FEMALE MAN, which I’m sure demonstrates some terrible moral failing on my part, and while I loved WOMAN ON THE EDGE OF TIME when I first read it, I don’t think it has aged well.

      Some Russ I read and did like were the Alyx adventures, THE TWO OF THEM (although that may be terribly dated now, too) and her short story called “When it Changed,” set on the planet of Whileaway. I agree though, that they are must-reads just for context.

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