Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang – Kate Wilhelm

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Not too long ago, I was invited to review a novel as part of Joachim Boaz’s Kate Wilhelm guest post series. I knew Wilhelm was the wife of famed editor-critic Damon Knight, I’ve seen other SF bloggers write glowing praise for her novels, and I’ve enjoyed a few of her short fiction in the not too distant past. But I’m actually more familiar with her work as a mystery writer—her début novel More Bitter Than Death was a mystery, as were most of the novels she’s written since the 1980s. Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is her most famous entry, winning a clutch of awards and earning nominations for several others upon release, so I decided it would be a good place to start.

Harper & Row - 1976 - the great M. C. Escher.

Harper & Row – 1976 – the great M. C. Escher.

As ecological catastrophe looms, David Sumner’s family takes humanity’s last gamble: in an attempt to preserve the human race in the face of global sterility, the Sumner clan holes up in a hospital-laboratory complex to clone a new generation. This proves to be something of a success with unintended consequences: only the first four clone generations are fertile. And worse, the clones seem to have different ideas than their human creators in how this new human race should grow: genetic diversity is not seen as a benefit but a hindrance. The same goes for diversity in individuals–the clones exist as a collective, where free thought and creativity are unheard of. The narrative jumps forward to follow a clone named Molly on a voyage to explore the ruins of Washington D.C. On that trip, the clones make a discovery that will change the very fabric of their being—sowing seeds that come to fruition with the third point-of-view character, Molly’s son Mark, as he changes the clones’ society forever.

The novel examines the relationship between society, community and individual, and those themes form the backbone of the novel. The clones establish a society that follows their comprehension and belief for how this new humanity should be structured—alterations due to the ESP-like ability where batches of clones share emotions and feelings, an empathic link to other clones from the same genetic source. This causes them to form a collective society as individualism is beyond their comprehension; since everything they do and feel is shared within the group, isolation becomes akin to torture, and individuality is a frightening heresy. They are not selfish or petty, acting in the community’s best interest, but can enact great cruelties of compassion—they take great pains to keep the humans and fellow clones alive, but retain many of their fertile members as little more than breeding stock for artificial insemination, hoping to create an army of young clones to reclaim the cities of New England.

David realizes what he and his family have created is not humanity’s salvation but its replacement, though his attempts to alter the clones’ course fail; instead, it’s the great trauma that Molly faces that triggers a new awakening within the clone society. The clones become worried as she develops latent traits of individuality, thought long-lost and dormant by the clone leadership. And her son, Mark—the product of sexual/biological reproduction—lives on the fringe of their society. Learning from Molly and old books, he has traits that the community needs: the ability to survive and explore out in the wilderness, as the other clones grow terrified under the solemn trees. Mark is creative and self-sufficient, but he cannot exist on his own—without a community, without heirs, leaving the clone society will make him an evolutionary dead-end.  He even tries to connect with the clones and breeders, looking for someone who can understand and befriend him, to no avail. His alien individuality and childish pranks make him into a danger to the collective’s way of life, and creates a tenuous link between the two groups: each finds the other incomprehensible, but both have something the other needs.

Pocket Books - 1977 - Ed Soyka.

Pocket Books – 1977 – Ed Soyka.

At one level, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang might be read as an allegory for libertarianism, railing against communism or “keeping-up-with-the-jonses” conformity, an overtly simplistic black-and-white comparison where the individual is good and the community is bad. If that was the author’s intent, I didn’t see it as that stark of a good-bad contrast. The clones and their society have serious flaws, and with each new generation it gets worse—with each successive generation, the clones lose more of their creativity and individuality. They are blind to their flaws, unable to see what they are missing for their lack of it, and many of them are presented in a humane way despite their limitations. And while Mark could escape the collective at any time, without a community of his own nothing will change, and nothing he’s learned would carry on to a new generation. The book investigates some prescient issues—what is the relationship of the individual to the community? How do the individual and collective interact, when both have something the other needs yet cannot comprehend? Can one person change the workings of an entire society?

I’m well acquainted other pastoral post-apocalyptic novels—The Long Tomorrow, Greybeard, City and other Simak stories—but I think Wilhelm pens it better than anyone else. Her prose that sways gently like grass under a warm summer breeze, with a compelling elegance and a rich texture. She has an incredible ability to create fully realized and sympathetic characters, making them into living, breathing people who spring off the page. And this prose is underlined by raw power—emotion that pulls at your heartstrings. I’ve seen other reviews that criticize the novel as faulty science, finding many of the “clone society” ideas to be implausible. Let’s leave aside the fact that David’s family were not trained scientists and didn’t have time to perfect their cloning methodology, which seems a plausible enough reason to me. I think those criticisms overlook what the novel is saying—Wilhelm wrote a potent allegory with much pathos, a parable that investigates key elements of human society. This is a classic of Soft SF—a book about people and culture—not a textbook for how to clone a living organism.

Arrow Books - 1977 - artist uncredited.

Arrow Books – 1977 – artist uncredited.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is a gripping novel that clings to your soul, a skillful and thought-provoking read written in beautiful prose. Her pastoral eco-apocalypse and clone society are rich in detail that gives great insight into the roles of the individual and the collective. While others may criticize the book’s science, I found the story near to perfection and give it a high recommendation. Wilhelm writes with impressive emotion and power in her work; Where Late is not only one of the most heartfelt SF books I’ve ever read, it also digs into some truths of the human condition with ringing authenticity. If you’re looking for a quality post-apocalyptic novel, or if you want a brilliant examination of family and the individual, or if you dislike SF because you think it is only about cold and detached science, read this book. Despite winning the Hugo and Locus, I don’t think this book gets the recognition it deserves, and every SF reader should consider reading it.

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