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Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm

July 8, 2011

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm (1976)
Review by Shannon Turlington

In this post-apocalyptic novel, civilization has been destroyed by some unspecified means involving environmental degradation, pandemics and famine. But one extended family, seeing the end coming, has used their wealth to isolate themselves in a well-protected valley and has constructed the hospital, labs and mill they will need to survive. Short on food, they develop cloning techniques to produce more livestock. When they find that most of them have become infertile, they start cloning themselves as well, with unforeseen consequences.

The story is told in three parts, each following a similar arc, each ending in a main character leaving the family’s compound. In the first section, a brilliant doctor helps develop the cloning process but is ousted by his own younger clones, who are already exhibiting disturbing behaviors; they appear to be losing their individual identities. In the second part, a clone is separated from her sister clones when she goes on an expedition to look for supplies in the ruined cities. As a result, she develops an individual personality and an artistic vision that the other clones interpret as madness when she returns to the compound. She must flee to keep from living a life as a drugged-up “breeder.” In the final section, her son is being raised by the clones but clearly doesn’t belong among them. Only he has the ingenuity and creativity necessary for continued survival as the machines and systems set up by the original survivalists begin to break down, and he leads a group out of the compound to start a new settlement.

What I thought about as I read this book was recent news stories about children so micro-managed by their “helicopter” parents that they have no ability to cope with the real world and break down as soon as they get to college. The young clones in the story reminded me of younger generations so coddled that they cannot make a decision on their own. How can we survive and advance as a species when we lose our individuality and cannot think for ourselves? is the question.

This is exactly the dilemma faced by the clones. They become so used to a life where they never have to think for themselves that they lose all of their creativity and problem-solving abilities. They become dependent on machines they don’t understand, and when those break down, they cannot come up with creative ways to fix them. So they are doomed. Only those who can establish an individual identity through isolation from the main group are able to learn how to survive.

It may seem on the surface that this novel is a somewhat dated horror story about cloning. But look deeper – the story brings up issues that are very relevant today. Wilhelm is raising a warning flag that we should safeguard our individuality and nurture our creativity if we want to survive.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang won the Hugo Award in 1977 and was nominated for the Nebula Award.

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