Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm

where-late-the-sweet-birds-sangWhere Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm (1976)
Review by Victoria Snelling

This was an interesting read from a style perspective. It was published in 1974 and feels even more dated than that. Partly it’s because the book looks at cloning technology and its physical and psychological effects and much of the thinking has moved on a lot since. That aside, I think the main thing creating the archaic feel was the use of omniscient point of view.

I can’t remember the last time I read something where the narrative was so far removed from an individual character’s POV. The advantage to this is that it keeps a story that unfolds over several generations to a manageable length. The book is relatively short at approx. 75,000 words. It also keeps the focus on the intellectual ideas behind the book – what happens when people only reproduce by cloning – and allows the author to present several sides of the debates.

The downside is that characterisation suffers. The reader never really gets in the head of the characters. On the one hand, the clones are presented to the reader as not quite human and distant POV gets in the way of identifying with them. There are two cloned characters, Molly and Mark, that we do get a bit closer to in the second half of the book and they are presented as being more human. I wonder if this was deliberate in order to emphasise that the clones are not like us. Which might have worked if the fully human characters in the first part of the book were more fully drawn. In the end I think that Molly and Mark are the most developed because they get the most POV time.

In this book I really noticed that the dialogue was used to explore the intellectual concepts of the book rather than as a characterisation tool.

It’s been a long time since I read a sci-fi novel in which the story was so clearly subordinate to the idea. I enjoyed it, but this one’s for the purists.

This review originally appeared on Boudica Marginalia.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm

where-late-the-sweet-birds-sangWhere Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm (1976)
Review by Kate Macdonald

Three months ago I had never heard of Kate Wilhelm. Science Fiction and other Suspect Ruminations ran a week of Wilhelm guest reviews recently, which alerted me to her existence. I found Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang in Aberdeen’s fine second-hand bookshop Books and Beans, a week after that, and carried it home in triumph. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang won the Hugo Award in 1977 for the best science fiction novel, as well as the Jupiter and the Locus in the same year. The Jupiter Award for best novel, according to Wikipedia, was only awarded four times, and two of the other three winning books were Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama and Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. These three have also won the Locus Award, along with, for instance, Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven and Vonda McIntyre’s Dreamsnake. So, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang should be a good indication of the quality of Wilhelm’s 1970s sf.

I read Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang with increasing attention over a day. Though it was highly absorbing, beautifully written and had a good, thought-nagging central premise, it bothered me. Afterwards, in chats with other folks online, it appears the novel was stitched together from a set of novellas, which helped me understand its curious structure, constructed of sections with overlapping character involvement. It’s set in a post-disaster scenario sometime in the future, on the east coast of America (yawn … why do American writers think this is the optimum location for futuristic survival narratives? There are other areas in the world …) in a remote valley somewhere near Washington DC (convenient for a later metaphor on the destruction of the Capitol equalling the Destruction of the Nation).

A tight-knit and frankly rather creepy family, called Sumner after its patriarch, decide that they will pool all their cash and technical training to build a secret underground laboratory and learn to clone human beings. Any day now, the very obvious changes in weather, disease resistance and crop failure will kill off most of the Earth’s population, and they want to ensure some kind of survival.

In the Sumner family all its professionals and technically trained people are male, whereas the women are only allowed to be mothers and cooks. This is disturbing: this speculative novel was written after many other sf novelists had managed to imagine a future society in which social systems had evolved along with science and technology, yet it will not let go of the social norms of the era in which Wilhelm grew up, the 1940s. What was she thinking? Wasn’t she aware of feminism, or civil rights developments in her own society? She creates a conveniently normate group of characters to enhance the lesson her central plot gives – that artificially repressing difference suppresses humanity’s strengths – but it also suggests that she wasn’t interested in drawing a whole society, only an idea.

The big, big futuristic, wildly speculative aspect of this idea that does show Wilhelm thinking totally out of the 1970s box in terms of social evolution is in how she uses sexuality. The clones are encouraged to be sexually active in all possible permissive ways from as early an age as they want, and they evolve a mat-playtime component to their socialising. This is essentially a long group sex session for group bonding and mutual satisfaction and comfort, enhanced by their in-group telepathy. I assume that the germ of this idea came from Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). Some other 1970s preoccupations – for instance ecology – also made it into her story of the possible future.

Wilhelm was clearly thinking only about the social effects of cloning on society, since the successive four sections of the novel deal with what happens when cloning has been achieved; what happens to an isolated society when a child is born naturally and grows up outside a clone group; and how cloning reduces imagination and lateral thinking to such an extent that the highly trained clones can’t think for themselves, and are ultimately an evolutionary dead-end. This vision is brilliant, a splendidly-told and enacted extrapolation of a single idea, that works so well as a central thread of narrative. This is why this novel won its awards.

Wilhelm writes with most power when she’s describing how Mark, the throwback human in the community of clones, behaves and acts in opposition to his environment. This is a very effective way of imagining being human as ‘other’, and works so well to add tension to the brave but hopeless expeditions of the clones to try to find new supplies. They can’t learn to find their way in the woods, they don’t understand how to rebuild a mill, they can’t improvise or imagine, they don’t believe what they haven’t been told, they die of exposure and radiation, but not stupidity. The clones are not stupid, they’re just incapable of learning and adapting. Ultimately, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is about what being human means.

This review originally appeared on katemacdonald.net.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm

where-late-the-sweet-birds-sangWhere 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.

Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm

where-late-the-sweet-birds-sangWhere 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.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm

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.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm

Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm (1976)
Review by Larry Nolen

In my reviews of Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren and J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World, I noted how in the 1960s and 1970s the New Wave of SF writers had begun focusing more on social, cultural, and environmental matters than had previous generations of SF writers. In her 1974 novel, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, American writer Kate Wilhelm tackles some of the same environmental issues that Ballard did in his 1962 work, except Wilhelm’s focuses more on the deleterious effects of human manipulations than Ballard’s depiction of humans as being hopelessly adrift in the face of environmental change. Wilhelm also explores the issue of human cloning, decades before Dolly the cloned sheep led to global knee-jerk reactions to the ethical nature of animal cloning. It is an interesting combination of two related issues, the effects of human nuclear testing on the environment and the consequences of creating a society of clones, a combination that works to some extent but perhaps lacks the power that such a contentious commingling should have achieved.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang take place over several generations in an isolated part of the Shenandoah Valley along the Virginia-West Virginia border. A far-seeing wealthy individual, Grandfather Sumner, has spent years developing advanced biological technology in an isolated part of the United States as a way of preserving the human race from what he sees as a looming catastrophe caused by nuclear radiation destroying the protective atmospheric layers. The world at the time of the story’s opening has seen mass famines and extinction events seem set to occur as the radiation levels affect the ability of animals, including humans, to reproduce. Here is how Grandfather Sumner describes it to his grandson, David, who possesses much of the technological know-how that would be essential for ensuring the success of his grandfather’s plans to preserve the human race:

“I know the signs, David. The pollution’s catching up to us faster than anyone knows. There’s more radiation in the atmosphere than there’s been since Hiroshima – French tests, China’s tests. Leaks. God knows where all of it’s coming from. We reached zero population growth a couple of years ago, but, David, we were trying, and other nations are getting there too, and they aren’t trying. There’s famine in one-fourth of the world right now. Not ten years from now, not six months from now. The famines are here and they’ve been here for three, four years already, and they’re getting worse. There’re more diseases than there’s ever been since the good Lord sent the plagues to visit the Egyptians. And they’re plagues that we don’t know anything about.

“There’s more drought and more flooding that there’s ever been. England’s changing into a desert, the bogs and moors are drying up. Entire species of fish are gone, just damn gone, and in only a year or two. The anchovies are gone. The codfish industry is gone. The cod they are catching are diseased, unfit to use. There’s no fishing off the west coast of the Americas.

“Every damn protein crop on earth has some sort of blight that gets worse and worse. Corn blight. Wheat rust. Soybean blight. We’re restricting our exports of food now, and next year we’ll stop them altogether. We’re having shortages no one ever dreamed of. Tin, copper, aluminum, paper. Chlorine, by God! And what do you think will happen in the world when we suddenly can’t even purify our drinking water?” (pp. 13-14)

Grandfather Sumner’s dire predictions do come true. A super-plague, combined with the increased pace of the famines, droughts, and other environmental disasters, wipes out virtually all of the human race, except in isolated pockets such as the compound that the Sumners occupy. However, even those remnants suffer one last cruelty – all are now infertile, doomed to die unless they are able to reproduce themselves via clones. Yet there is no evidence than anyone outside of Grandfather Sumner planned ahead for this eventuality, so the human race, in the second generation of this tale, apparently is limited to a small stretch of the Appalachian region, where clones of most of the surviving family members are now being produced in vats.

Yet there are some unforeseen problems associated with this. Wilhelm does a good job in exploring the social climate that might develop if there were groups of vat-produced carbon copies of prior human selves. Would there be a true sense of self-identity? Or would the clones tend to view themselves as being parts of a whole rather than sharing in the evolutionary urges of traditional, sexually-produced humans? These are provocative questions, particularly during a time in which debates on the environment, particularly the nature vs. nurture argument of how to raise children, raged in the United States and in certain parts of Western Europe.

Wilhelm’s approach to these issues is to use an accidental, sexually-reproduced human boy, Mark, to illustrate the problems she saw inherent in a static society where all are viewed as parts of a larger whole. Doubtless to readers in the 1970s, the clone society, where sexual reproduction was discouraged, could be seen as a metaphor for the stifling control mechanisms in place in Communist regimes during that time. Today, however, such a connection might not be as readily apparent to younger readers who did not grow up in fear of the nefarious power of the Evil Empire. It is an interesting, if albeit quaint, discussion on matters of originality versus conformity, of freedom versus security.

Yet despite the intriguing setting, Wilhelm’s story lacks some of the power that it should have, considering the nature of the story. In reflecting back on my reactions to this story, I found myself feeling as though she rushed through large periods of time in order to create a narrative that could stretch three generations and yet be barely 250 pages in length. There are times where I was uncertain if she wanted to focus more on the environmental problems created by humans or on the consequences of having a clone society. This division of focus dampened my appreciation for the novel, in part because Wilhelm failed to integrate these vital components of her story as well as she could have done if she had taken just a bit more space to delve further into the connections between environment and human societal creation.

This is not to say that Wilhelm’s work is poor. It is a flawed work, yes, yet its flaws serve to underscore just how ambitious her story truly was, especially for the mid-1970s. It is not the most gracile of narratives, as outside of Mark, who is told more through the eyes of the clones rather than his own voice, the characterizations are mostly sketchy, due in part to narrative constraints. But behind the flaws lies a thought-provoking story, one that still has some power thirty-six years after its initial publication. While its power might be weakened from the flaws I mention above, it still contains a narrative force that is stronger than much of the SF produced then and afterward. Is it a true “Mistresswork”? That is a debatable question. Considering that it still feels relevant today, I would argue that yes, yes it is worthy of consideration of being a “Mistresswork,” but with the caveat that some of the narrative elements will feel quite dated today, particularly the metaphorical references to Communism. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang deserves to be read by younger generations of SF readers, if only to see first-hand some of the concerns that Westerners in general had a generation or two ago in regards to the environment, how to raise children, and the worries about the insidious nature of Communism as Westerners tended to view that centralized system of government. It has its problems, but the rewards outweigh those deficiencies.

This review originally appeared on The SF and Fantasy Masterworks Reading Project.