Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm (1976)
Review by Paul Weimer
“What is right for the community is right even unto death for the individual. There is no individual, there is only the community.”
In the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, in isolated Appalachia, a powerful extended family is determined to survive. Crop failure. Climate change. Ecological and environmental collapse. Pandemic, social upheaval and worse. All of this threatens the end of humanity, and indeed of most animal species in the bargain.This community builds itself a safehold to survive the turbulence and save a remnant of humanity in the bargain.
When it turns out the pandemics have left everyone in the extended family infertile, the only solution that presents itself to save humanity is to clone the members of the extended family (and their local livestock as well). The clones can carry humanity ahead a generation or three, and then the ordinary course of marriage and mating can resume the community’s usual social structures. However, once born, the clones have their own
ideas on what humanity should be, and how it should go forward. Ideas very different than their parents…
The novel, like the region of Gaul, is divided into three parts. In the first portion, we are witness to the apocalypse in progress, as David, a scientist, and his family in the Shenandoah Valley, hit upon the idea of using cloning to get around the infertility that threatens the end of this stub end of humanity. It is he, and his former teacher, who both perfect the cloning process and discover that the clones, coming to maturity, have their own ideas of what the future of humanity in their community should be.
In the middle portion of the book, we focus on a clone-descendant of one of David’s cousins, Molly. Molly is a member of a five-clone group of sisters, as everyone in the community now exists as members of four to ten brothers or sister clone groups. The concept of individuality has dissipated considerably, as the clones act and think together. However, a problem has arisen. The technology in the community is failing, especially the technology which allows the cloning new members of the community. Only one solution is logical: an expedition to the outside world to find needed supplies. A mixed group of single members from various clone groups is deemed necessary to have the skills needed to accomplish the mission. However, while on the quest, the clones, separated from their clone-sisters and brothers, develop a completely new problem: individuality.
The final part of the book focuses on Mark. The illicit child of Molly and one of the other members of the expedition to Washington, he is the only individual in the community of clones and is utterly alien to them. However, the clones show a distinct lack of imagination and ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Fortunately, the single individual Mark has no such problems, and so an uneasy relationship is developed, but one that cannot last forever.
The novel’s major thematic tension, as I alluded to in the quote, is the good of the one versus the good of the many. Are they always in opposition? What good is the individual and individuality to a community? This theme is tied up with ideas of isolation and estrangement as characters in all three time periods come to terms with the boundaries of their community, and cross them.
The novel introduces a number of ideas even as it deeply explores the themes revolving around individuality versus collective good. The clones have difficulty being apart from each other and, furthermore, have a limited sort of ESP with each other. Tales of twins being able to know what each other is thinking is explored here and formalized as an ability of the clone groups. Years before Alan Weismans The World Without Us, this novel beautifully and hauntingly describes the reclamation of the Earth from Man by the surviving bits of nature. While animals do not do well, the plant kingdom makes out very well in this apocalypse.
There have been plenty of apocalypses in science fiction, before and after When Late The Sweet Birds Sang. Wilhelm’s community of clones is one of the most unusual, and one of the most serious and thoughtful meditations on what it means to be human, and the best ways to be human.
This review originally appeared on The Skiffy and Fanty Show.