Borders of Infinity, Lois McMaster Bujold (1989)
Review by Adam Whitehead
Miles Vorkosigan, in his guise as Admiral Naismith of the Dendarii Mercenaries, has been captured by the Cetagandans and imprisoned on a remote moon, along with thousands of other POWs. Vorkosigan finds a camp in the grip of chaos, with different groups of prisoners fighting amongst themselves and the strong preying on the weak. He has to somehow unite the prisoners before any breakout can be attempted… which is difficult to do when you have bones that shatter easily and no incentives to use.
Borders of Infinity is another short novella featuring the character of Miles Vorkosigan, this time back with the Dendarii (after a break of several stories and books, in chronological order anyway) before being imprisoned by the Cetagandans. It’s a fairly straightforward and entertaining story, basically involving Miles trying to set up a prison break but being confronted by problems with asserting his authority and making enemies who want to kill him, even if it means they never escape.
The story’s slightness works against it, as does a muddled tone. Funny scenes – Miles being forced to walk around naked and working with a crazy religious nut to try to win over the soldiers – are contrasted against some of the darker and more brutal scenes that Bujold has written to date. Making such a juxtaposition work is possible, but Bujold fails to achieve it here.
There’s also the problem of the story being bigger than its word count. The story could easily have been twice as long, but just as it’s getting started it abruptly ends, and in a rather straightforward manner as well (although the fallout does at least get novel-length coverage, in Brothers in Arms).
Borders of Infinity is readable and passes the time, but is again a fairly short and slight story that feels like it’s a novel that’s been truncated almost to the point of non-existence. A story that’s more important for what it does (setting up Brothers in Arms) than what it is, then.
This review originally appeared on The Wertzone.
Chanur’s Legacy, CJ Cherryh (1992)
Review by Ian Sales
Six years after the end of her Chanur quartet, Cherryh returned to Compact Space to add a fifth book, Chanur’s Legacy, this time focusing on Hilfy Chanur, niece of the preceding books’ protagonist, Pyanfar Chanur. The novel’s title refers to both the ship Hilfy captains and the new Compact resulting from Pyanfar’s actions in the previous books. Pyanfar has been made president of the Compact, the elected ruler of the four oxygen races – hani, kif, mahendo’sat and stsho – and, one can only assume, the three methane races – tc’a, chi and knnn. Hilfy is head of the Chanur clan, but she’s not interested in clan administration and so has been given a new ship with which to trade. Chanur’s Legacy opens at Meetpoint Station, in much the same fashion as the first book of the series, The Pride of Chanur.
Hilfy has spent the years between the end of Chanur’s Homecoming and the start of Chanur’s Legacy learning about the other races of the Compact, including their languages. Because of this, and her connection to Pyanfar Chanur, she is offered a contract by the stsho administrator of Meetpoint Station, No’shto-shti-stlen, to deliver a small package to Urtur, a station just over the border in mahendo’sat space. The fee offered is enormous, enough to pay off the ship. The only stipulation is the package – an antique ceremonial vase called an oji – must be hand-delivered to a specific person, Atli-lyen-tlas, the stsho ambassador at Urtur. Oh, and there’s also a young hani male currently languishing in a jail cell after attacking a kif, and his ship has left without him, so will Hilfy take him off the Meetpoint administration’s hands?
And there you have it: the plot has been kicked off. Hilfy and her crew travel to Urtur, but Atli-lyen-tlas has fled after an attack on the stsho embassy, and is now at Kshshti. Except no, the stsho has now fled to Kefk, in kif space. Meanwhile, there’s a mahendo’sat following Chanur’s Legacy, demanding to know what the oji is and insisting on helping Hilfy navigate what appears to be a complex plot brewing between the mahendo’sat, stsho and kif. And the kif are in there too, as they always are. There’s a kif hakkikt (leader) called Vikktakkht, who also wants to help Hilfy. And that hani male, Hallan Meras, is complicating things aboard Chanur’s Legacy, through a combination of inexperience, clumsiness and, well, being male. Not to mention the stsho passenger into whose care the oji has been entrusted for the journey…
If the previous books were about the kif, and Cherryh used the plot to slowly and carefully reveal their nature, then Chanur’s Legacy is about the stsho. It’s assumed the reader already understands the psychologies of the hani, kif and mahendo’sat. Especially the latter, as it’s an ambitious mahendo’sat Personage who is behind all the events in the book. Hilfy must figure all this out herself – she cannot call on her aunt, Pyanfar – and this despite the fact hardly anyone thinks she is either experienced or clever enough to successfully sort it all out. But, of course, she does.
Those who have read the other Chanur novels should know what to expect in Chanur’s Legacy. The story is told mostly from Hilfy’s point of view, but often breaks to Hallan’s. There’s very little exposition and, interestingly, Cherryh uses the dreamlike state entered by the hani during hyperspace travel to comment on the plot, During these sections, Hilfy has imaginary conversations with Pyanfar, whose gnomic advice helps Hilfy figure out what is really going on. The prose is characteristically brusque, but it also feels a little clearer than in the other books. Cherryh hides the underlying plot for much of the novel’s length, but then drops in sufficient scattered clues to provide a foundation for the final revelations. Chanur’s Legacy is, in many respects, the exemplar of the series to which it belongs. True, the humans are not even mentioned, and the methane-breathers make only one or two brief appearances; but the plot of Chanur’s Legacy shines a light on the politics of one of the oxygen-breather races, which in turn illuminates that of the other races – much as the other four books did. Its protagonist is a clever and independent-minded hani captain, who must navigate these very different cultures and work out what is actually going on.
If Chanur’s Legacy has a fault, it’s that by compressing the plot into a single novel, it seems, perversely, a lighter read than the other books. However, it does have the advantage of more or less standing alone, and can be read without reference to the previous four books (although, obviously, knowledge of them will help). It’s a solid “realistic” space opera set among entirely alien races, and it’s a shame Cherryh never revisited Compact Space as it’s one of the more interesting parts of her universe.
Ammonite, Nicola Griffith (1993)
Review by Kate Macdonald
I think this may have been the first sf novel I read that I instantly recognised as feminist: not stealth, or muted, or sub-conscious. It was Nicola Griffith’s first novel, and if she had never written anything again it would still be stunning: it won the Tiptree Award, the Lambda Literary Award, and the Premio Italia.
Ammonite is an exploration story set on a male-free planet; they’re not even needed for making babies. The impetus behind this novel seems to be, what would a world be like when there weren’t any men? And the answer is, a perfectly normal world, but with only women, which changes all the social dynamics. It’s a very simple premise, but the result is an outstanding novel. The setting and story stay with you, you want to know more, and to have the story continue.
The world is called Jeep – GP – and it was first investigated by the Company, an Alien-like conglomerate Griffith uses as a useful metaphor for authority and interference on a galactic scale. Company colonists were sent down to explore, and a planetary virus killed all the men, and a fifth of the women. Company promptly quarantined the planet, and set up extreme decontamination procedures for anyone who wanted to leave. This includes the complete removal of the subject’s blood lymph and bone marrow: I can’t see that one being compatible with continuing to live. The women that remained maintained the Company settlement for five years, and when the story opens they’re showing unmistakeable signs of becoming settlers rather than a temporary mission because, of course, they can’t leave.
Marghe the xeno-anthropologist is the newcomer through whose eyes we see the story unfold. She takes the one-way trip to the surface to make closer contacts with the natives, because this is the professional opportunity of a lifetime. The natives are human, living in a collection of communities with different social organisations. They originate from Earth, centuries before, which explains their mixed-up lingua franca of different Earth languages. Now, they’re all illiterate and tribal, some are settled and agricultural and some are nomadic and pastoral; most are peaceful, but one tribe is showing very worrying signs of irrational aggression. Times are not so much hard as fragile: a bad harvest or the death of a leader can tip a group into jeopardy, which is why the social trading and allegiance system of trata is essential for communal survival. Marghe is given help by one group, which puts her, and the Company settlement, in a trata relationship. For the first time, the Company settlement has a stake in the planet’s future, they will be consulted, they will be asked for help, they exist. But Marghe is struggling against her innate suspicion of Company, and her loyalties to her own people. Her instincts are to get away from the confines of the Company enclosure and live among the women of Jeep. It helps that she’s a brilliant linguist, so the first hurdle for understanding goes down quickly, and she heads out into this brave new world to see what she can see, and learn as much as she can.
Naturally, she gets into trouble. She strays into a bad electrical storm, she gets lost on the high plateau, she gets captured by the worryingly aggressive nomadic tribe and is forced into servitude to survive the winter, in a tribe that is clearly malnourished and inbred, and is being influenced by a madwoman who thinks she is the reincarnation of the Death Spirit. Griffiths draws on lots of different Earth societies for Jeep’s different social groups, and her depiction of this nomadic tribe with an unpronounceable faux-Gaelic name is pretty chilling. Marghe’s obstinate refusal to just shut up and keep the fire going is infuriating, because it’s perfectly plain to the reader that she has no chance of surviving the hostile environment and the hostile people unless she learns and listens, but Marghe’s own demons are too noisy for her to listen to anything else going on, a lot of the time. Her eventual escape seems like a miracle, and not one that she earned with prudence or caution.
Once she struggles over the winter plain with much suffering and several lost frostbitten fingers, Marge is rescued from delirium by the farmers of Ollfoss, and she recovers her mind and her health in a society that less charitable readers might snoot at as being a feminist hippy commune, and lose interest in the novel at this point, but it worked for me. I really like the depiction of a society where children are shared between parental groups (see Vonda McIntyre’s Dreamsnake), and where different skills find different outlets. The village Marghe comes to live in seems like an ecologist’s dream of comfortable subsistence living, with hot tubs, communal gardens, a gong-banging pavilion to echo the electromagnetic pulse of the planet and a very sensible trading ethic. Making things is very important for these people, but the things that are made are not always tangible. Marghe falls in love with Thenike, a travelling story-teller, arbitrator and wise woman, and finds that her anthropologist’s training has given her these skills too, so she can become part of the native economy herself. Their travels put them in touch with news, and with political developments, which come to a head when the terrifying wild tribe of the north starts to raid southwards, killing as they go. The parallel plot, of what the Company settlers are going to do to avoid being blown up by the military cruiser parked in orbit to keep an eye on them, and how they’re going to fit into this world, comes to a head at about the same time. The plotting is very skilful, since the book ends with plenty of loose ends but also with the most urgent plot problems resolved and sorted. It’s all very satisfying, and leaves you wanting much, much more of this world and its richly imagined life. This is one of Griffith’s major strengths as a novelist: her worlds work at all levels, and embed themselves deeply in the reader’s imagination.
You may be wondering about how this all-female society breeds. How are the children conceived, if there aren’t any men to do what human insemination requires? Well, it’s all in the mind. The virus enables women to tweak their own gametes and the gametes of their lovers, when they go into a sex-related trance state, so that children (girls) can be conceived as an act of love. This seems perfectly plausible, if you’ve got the ability to work on your own biofeedback, as a kind of meditative extension of yoga or t’ai chi. You can do pretty much anything to your own biology, once you know what you’re doing and have the mental whatnot to tweak the cells. Anne McCaffrey used this idea too, in her telepathy short stories, Pegasus in Flight. Forget about the science, embrace the concept.
One of the consequences of there being no men (though there are male animals: the virus is apparently not a male-hater, just a man-eater) is that society runs itself differently from how we know it. This is the utopian aspect of Ammonite, exploring how a society could develop following only female interests. There are no hierarchies: that’s the most obvious factor. Group leaders lead through common sense, and put the tribe first. The mystical element to how these societies operate does affect their social practice: if you can look back along the generations and see how your great-great-grandmother did something, or dealt with a particular problem, then that naturally throws a wild card into the otherwise logical process of gaining experience and learning how to manage a tribal meeting. It would be like having the lives of all your ancestors on tap for a special consultation, taking the place of written records and archive-keeping that most human societies develop.
Without hierarchies, there is a strong focus on fair treatment, equal treatment, and no-one taking advantage of anyone else. Open discussion of disagreements resolves problems, and nobody seems to be angling for personal power, or gain. There are exceptions: the madwoman who wanted to lead the tribe to a bloody killing swathe over the planet was deranged, a result of too much inbreeding. Leifin, the woman who saved Marghe from the winter plains, shows signs of not only developing capitalist tendencies – an obsessive pursuit of trata for its own sake, and trading advantages beyond anything she actually needs – but also hunting for pleasure as well as for the skins of the creatures she kills. This is another of the enticing loose ends that Griffith leaves open: Leifin is hunting goth, a mythical creature whom most people think is an invention, but whom Marghe has seen, and whom Liefin has killed for its pelt. Marghe suspects the goth of being one of the indigenous inhabitants of the planet, a true alien, and also an intelligent one, who made the standing stone circles, and still survives in the forests. This takes the story back to a different level, where we can start questioning colonisation in all its forms, and look more searchingly at the Earth-imported human women who now act as natives. This is a novel of unfolding imaginative invention, it’s rich and packed, and definitely worth rediscovering.
This review originally appeared on katemacdonald.net.
First published in 1962 by Gollancz, then reprinted by The Women’s Press in London in 1985, it’s no argument that this novel has experienced swings of attention at times, yet without a place on any of the major SF lists, and despite Mitchison’s long literary career, its memory as a critical piece of genre is threatened.
In Memoirs of a Spacewoman, we meet Mary, a communication specialist for Terran interstellar missions in the far undetermined future. She writes about some of her more memorable experiences in this capacity, describing the strange planets and beings she has visited, including her struggles to decode the various unique ways other beings communicate, including by touch and telepathy. Her memoirs also reflect upon her relationships with former lovers, a couple of unusual pregnancies, and the way in which parent/child affiliations have changed in the far future, particularly when interstellar space travel is involved.
A kind of anthropologist, Mary inserts herself into these strange alien civilizations to decode the mostly nonverbal communications of lifeforms drastically different from humans. Ambigendered Martians. Psychic radiates. Centipede-like creatures with brain matter smeared on their sides. Oozy tissues that symbiose with Terran hosts in a kind of pregnancy. Giant butterflies in need of some surgical lessons on C-sections. Mitchison presents a wide variety of strange lifeforms, all encapsulated in this little novel, making this the most creative book I’ve read about alien cultures.
Themes of blame and guilt are touched upon in each of Mary’s stories, starting with her bungled operation with the blood-thirsty Epsies, where her objectivity as a scientist is colored by her own surprise at their disturbing behaviors and her guilt over her subsequent judgment of these creatures. She learns from her mission leader, “humiliation, however it was produced, was a necessary stage in exploration” (p 45). Following chapters hint at her guilt over a couple of misguided pregnancies, which produce a haploid Martian daughter, and a couple of unsuccessful alien grafts. She sometimes regrets the estrangement that life among the stars causes between herself and her children and lovers (although this is the norm for her society).
Then, the longest of the tales, Mary introduces us to a planet where happy, innocent caterpillars engage in fecal art displays and group sexual wallowing, until angry butterflies attack with a psychic guilt ambush:
The wretched caterpillars curled up or crept aside, the colours paled, the eye spots dimmed. They seemed to shrivel as from an inward searing. We watched with intent sympathy,… Yet we were also aware of the attackers, the whirl and flurry of wings, the colours beyond anything I have ever perceived on any planet of any sun, the antennae stiff and pointing like weapons of offence, the legs glittering and jointed as strange armour might have been.
… Even if one is not directly under it, such a torrent of blame is unnerving. (p 92)
Clearly a commentary on emotional abuse and the paralyzing guilt it creates, as well as an absurdist reframing of moral attitudes toward idleness and sexuality, but it’s also a cool alien depiction that is both bizarre and ambiguous. The scientists soon figure out this strange and puzzling situation, but find themselves at odds with their objective constraints and moral inclinations to intervene and educate the butterflies, and it’s never clear whether the butterflies’ behavior, disturbing as it is, is appropriate. As one of Mary’s colleagues takes decisive action, serious consequences occur and the mission is terminated early.
Lots of focus on sexuality and weird pregnancies put this book in the danger zone of bad SF cliché, and I’ll be the first to admit I run screaming from weird pregnancy fiction, so I can understand why some people might choose to ignore this book. It doesn’t help that Mitchison’s narrative embraces many of the deterministic gender values of the day, when valuing women means reinforced gender coding (“I always feel that biology and, of course, communication are essentially women’s work, and glory” (p 18)). But ignore that because Mitchison touches all the right sci-fi buttons: she captures the imagination without the neon-colored message flags one might expect from feminist science fiction. This is pure science fiction: weird, wondrous, and way out there.
Speaking of alien communication, sexuality, and gender determinism, I also view this as a suitable companion piece to its timeline peer, the 1961 award-winning Stranger in a Strange Land. Read both and tell me which one feels more relatable, relevant, and genuinely “of the future”, and which one feels like poorly-aged, sixties schlock.
This review originally appeared on From Couch to Moon.
Godsfire, Cynthia Felice (1978)
Review by Ian Sales
It’s not all that often the cover art on a science fiction novel gives a good indication of what’s inside, but Godsfire‘s actually does a halfway decent job of setting out precisely what the reader can expect to find. To wit, a race of cat-people (who are not always naked, but never mind). And humans. But in Godsfire, the word “human” refers to the cat people, and homo sapiens are actually their slaves – in fact, a discussion of the “humanity” of the slaves is one of several motives driving the novel’s plot.
Heao is an academic, or rather, a member of Academe, a sort of philosophical and scientific thinktank which advises the ruling prince of the city, as well researching things simply for knowledge’s sake. She is also a gifted cartographer, so much so her nickname is “Pathfinder”. The highland town where she lives was recently conquered by a lowland “King-conqueror”, and now life is slowly returning to normal. Heao meets the enterprising merchant lowland Baltsar, and through him learns more about his slaves – which are rare in the highlands. She accompanies Baltsar to meet the King-conqueror, drawing a new map of the landscape as they travel from highlands through badlands to the lowlands, and even finds a quicker route. It transpires that Heao, the King-conqueror and the head of their religion, Tarana, have all had dreams which affect the destiny of the race and somewhow involve “godsfire”. And such dreams are taken very seriously…
Godsfire is essentially a sustained piece of world-building, but it’s a bravura piece. Felice handles her cat people with a remarkable degree of invention, and their physiology and society reads as surprisingly convincing. It’s the small details – their diet, their lack of distance vision, the way they use their tails to signal mood or add colour to their speech. It’s only halfway through the book, for example, during a conversation between Heao and her slave Teon that it becomes clear the characters are colour-blind. The physical details of Heao’s world are also cleverly constructed – the book’s blurb calls it the “shadowlands”, which refers to the land beneath the “skybridge”. Heao’s people believe this is used by the gods, one of which carries godsfire, the great heat that provides sufficient light to live beneath in the shadow beneath the skybridge. The land is limited by the Evernight Mountains to the north, the sea to the south, and there are apparently other peope lto east and west which prevent expansion up and down the coast. It’s not exactly hard to figure out the actual set-up, but Felice does an excellent job of remaining within the viewpoint of her creations.
The first half of the novel introduces the main cast and their world. It then leaps forward nineteen years. Heao is mated to Batlsar, and they have a daughter. She also believes the slaves (ie, homo sapiens) are as fully human as her people, which means by law they should not be enslaved. But to free them would destroy the economy, not to mention upset religious dogma. As a result Heao is shunned by the guardians of the temple, which means she is ostracised by the entire town. Eventually, she is forced to recant, after her mentor is poisoned. This leaves her free to lead an expedition through the Evernight Mountains, because she’s the only person who could so so. On the other side of the mountains, out from under the skybridge, she learns the truth about godsfire, and about the slaves.
Science fiction novels which tell their stories from the viewpoint of an alien are not unusual. Such novels in which humans feature as “alien” to the protagonists are perhaps less common. It’s a difficult trick to pull off – not only do the aliens have to seem sufficiently human for a reader to find them sympathetic, but the humans also have to appear sufficiently alien for the plot to work. Felice manages this successfully – and this despite the fact humans are there in the narrative from pretty much the first page. It’s true the world-building is the most impressive element of Godsfire – and that nineteen-year jump in the story does make the story feel a little disjointed – but it’s worth noting that Heao is a well-drawn protagonist. Perhaps she’s a little too special in some respects, but she’s a thoughtful and sympathetic viewpoint, and this without sacrificing her alien nature.
Brothers in Arms, Lois McMaster Bujold (1989)
Review by Adam Whitehead
The Dendarii Mercenary Fleet has pulled off its most audacious operation yet, a mass prison break that has liberated hundreds of enemies of the Cetagandan Empire. The furious Cetagandans have pursued the Dendarii across the known worlds, forcing them to take refuge and resupply at one world even the Cetagandans hesitate to cross: Earth. For Miles Vorkosigan it’s time to resupply his troops and check in with his day job as an officer in the Barrayaran military… but it also brings him into contact with rebels determined to destroy Barrayar and have a most unexpected way of doing it.
Brothers in Arms is the fifth novel by publication order (or eighth, chronologically) in the Vorkosigan Saga, Lois McMaster Bujold’s award-festooned series following the misadventures of the genetically misshapen and crippled Miles Vorkosigan as he tries to rise through the ranks of the Barrayaran military. This latest novel expands on the Vorkosigan universe by taking us to humanity’s homeworld.
The novel is divided into two sections. In the first Miles has to confront the problems posed by his actual job as an officer for Barrayar’s navy and how this conflicts with his cover role as Admiral Naismith, commander of the Dendarii mercenaries. There not being too many prominent genetically-challenged dwarfs around, the rising fame of Vorkosigan in both these roles has led many to conclude they are the same person. With the value of the cover unravelling, Miles faces the unpleasant possibility of having to give up the Dendarii, a role he has come to thoroughly relish. Miles soon comes up with a bonkers plan to allow his cover to continue… which then becomes insanely complicated when it turns out that his randomly-conceived cover plan isn’t too far off from the truth. The wheels-within-wheels plans, deceptions and machinations that Vorkosigan comes up are hilariously over-complicated (to the befuddlement of his friends and crew) and it’s great to see them in action.
As well as the comedy and some very effective action set-pieces, including a memorable concluding battle at a supermassive SF version of the Thames Barrier, there’s also some major steps forward in character development in this book. Miles realises how much the Dendarii have come to mean to him and several moments where he genuinely trips up on what role he is supposed to be inhabiting are quite powerful. Maybe he’s in too deep? There’s also the anguish over Miles’s lack of immediate family, and when this appears to be rectified Miles latches onto it with horrifying lack of forethought, but moved by a powerful emotional need for peers to relate to. It’s fairly straightforward stuff, but Bujold’s ability to tell familiar stories through a fresh perspective serves the narrative well.
Brothers in Arms is a very solid novel, with some good action and laughs framing a more serious story that does a lot to advance Miles’s character and the overall storyline of the series. The novel is available now as part of the Miles Errant omnibus.
This review originally appeared on The Wertzone.
Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm (1976)
Review by admiral ironbombs
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.
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 DC. 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.
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-Joneses” 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 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.
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 the Sweet Birds Sang 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.
This review originally appeared on Battered, Tattered, Yellowed & Creased.