Fiction Reviews

Where the Late Sweet Birds Sang

(1976 / 2011) Kate Wilhelm, Gollancz, £7.99, pbk, ix + 243pp, ISBN 978-0-575-07914-4


Where the Late Sweet Birds Sang won the Hugo Award for 'Best Novel' in 1977 and has recently (2011) been re-printed as part of Gollancz SF Masterworks series.

It is the near future and the world is facing environmental degradation resulting in famines; climate change, crop pathogens, mineral shortages all combine to threaten humanity. Added into the mix is the decline in human fertility and, consequently, fecundity. This leads to nations becoming more protectionist and a drop in world trade. It is a perfect storm and a few can see that catastrophe for technological civilization is just around the corner. In the US, the wealthy Sumner family fund their own research programmes on their estate at the head of an isolated valley in Virginia, somewhere near the Shenandoah River. One of the main programmes is to tackle the reproductive problem, which they do through developing cloning. (Remember, this book was written in the 1970s, decades before artificial mammalian cloning became possible.)

As the years pass, the rest of the world goes into decline and there is even a nuclear exchange all o which exacerbate humanity's infertility and now near zero fecundity. But the Sumner retreat survives with a new generation of children, all cloned from the retreat's founders. Cloning was the future and, at least as far as this group was concerned, a salvation albeit that this was a concern to the community's original founders who considered cloning a temporary stop-gap measure until the Earth healed (cleansed of radioactivity and toxins) enabling normal reproduction.

More years pass and there is another generation of clones. It becomes apparent that these clones have certain abilities, such as individual clones being able to know where their clone siblings are, and also they have a high degree of empathy. On the negative side, they cannot seem to thrive without the company of their fellows. It also appears that in some respects they lack creativity and certainly they lack individuality.

There is an exception, one clone discovers that she is able, should she want, to live apart and that she has a certain sense of individuality. But the others feel her a threat and the is ostracised, isolated in a house at the edge of the community.

The community also wishes to expand and explore what remains of the now deserted world to scavenge for technology. Yet it soon becomes apparent that they find this difficult as this necessitates a small group leaving the community to sally forth into the unknown…

This novel came out in 1976, though part one – the title section of the three-part novel – first appeared in the anthology Orbit no. 15 in 1974. As said, this novel won a Hugo Award, it also won the 1976 Locus Award for 'Best Novel', the Jupiter Award and it was a finalist coming third for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. It was also short-listed for the Nebula. All this means that if you are something of an SF book buff you will want to check this novel out.

Yet despite the afore, I have to say I was very perplexed as to why this novel received so much attention. From a science perspective – even taking a 1970s biology viewpoint – the cloning dimension leaves a lot to be desired. It is simplistic, naïve and even facile. True, from an SFnal perspective, the idea of clones having something of an almost telepathic bond (even if it is almost subliminal) has a certain currency.  Then there are the apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic strands. The former is handled quite well and we can see, albeit in a truncated form as in the very beginning of Mad Max II: The Road Warrior film (1981) or even Soylent Green (1973) – as an aside Harry Harrison, author of the original novel, Make Room! Make Room!, liked the film's introduction over its main body.  However the Where the Late Sweet Birds Sang's post-apocalyptic thread does not work nearly so well: one minute the world is sliding towards disaster and the next it has happened, with just one incursion of raiders into the valley providing the only hint of what happens once the radio waves start to quieten. With the plot then on firmly focussed on the community, it is not until they begin to venture forth into a now desolate world, that we get to see, or understand, what has befallen the planet. In short, this novel is very much about the community and cloning.

Now, here there could have been, say, some exploration of nature versus nurture, or the molecular and genetic advantages of diversity. And though there is some of the latter, the whole business is wrapped up in an exploration of the tensions between uniform conformity in the face of adversity, and individuality. This is fine enough in itself but using cloning as the vehicle of such an exploration is a little heavy handed.

In truth, I did not seem to properly comprehend this novel and – other than key parts of the SF community voted it awards – I found little of merit: indeed, I wondered what all the fuss was about.  As a reviewer, I could not leave matters there and so I did something I hardly ever do as a reviewer and that is sought out a number of other reviews prior to writing this one.

Apparently, this novel is a sort of Cold War polemic rallying against communism. This, if you did not realise it, explains the novel's SF awards all of which have a firm US constituency.

Please, do not take my word for it. Check out the reviews from other key SF sites. For example, here is one:-

Wilhelm rarely, if ever, delves into the humanity of being a clone. Instead representative of a Borg-on-Earth mindset, the clones are contrived to occupy the simplicity of bad guy territory. Like Russia in Hollywood in the 80s, they are painted in the malevolent red of “socialism”. Molly and her son likewise monochrome in reacting to the restrictions on their rights to individual expression, Wilhelm offers no nuance or middle ground between the two sides, when, in reality, the gulf is fully populated by subtler perspectives.
As a result, the story becomes unrelated to the reality it is supposedly commenting upon. Overly-simplistic, the arrangement all too easily preys on American paranoia at having freedom taken away, and by doing so, does or says nothing new.


At this point perhaps I should explain for those that do not know, I am European and a Brit. Over here politics is not quite as black-and-white as it is in the US. In Western Europe, socialism is quite distinct from communism as practiced by the former USSR and, until 1990 and the fall of the Iron Curtain, though in the US – I understand from my interactions with US authors and SF fans – some consider Western European socialism as being uncomfortably close. Indeed some in the US consider something like Britain's National Health Service – that provides universal healthcare almost free, being paid for by taxation – as something of a communist plot. (Apparently the US electorate has not looked at the core statistics of health spend per capita in the US compared to that in Britain and the respective nations' citizens average longevity: Britain spends almost half as much per person on healthcare yet the average British subject lives as long as the average US citizen!)  What I am saying is that from a non-US perspective Where the Late Sweet Birds Sang's message is more than a little trite.

Now, this does not mean that I consider this novel to be of little value. Even though it contributes almost nothing to what I consider to be the main body of the SF genre, or the exploration of the science fact and fiction interface, let alone the SF tropes of cloning and post-apocalyptics (quiet Earths), the novel is revealing of a political perception shared by quite a number (else the novel would not have sold well or won awards) in the US. Its value, as are quite a few SF (and other arts) works, is that it is a window into (US) society of its time. As such, this novel will be of greatest interest to more serious, and avid, SF book readers as well as English lit college students and their teachers.  For much of the rest of us – especially outside of the US – I suspect that this novel will be more of a curiosity.

This SF Masterworks edition comes with a three-page introduction by Lisa Tuttle. Fortunately, she spends less than half of this bigging up the novel, though she does note that it "reflect[s] contemporary anxieties of the mid-1970s". I also agree with Lisa that Wilhelm knows how to write and craft good prose.

Finally, for my non-US money, this novel is testifies to the partisan nature that the Hugos, Locus and Nebulas sometimes betray. After all, taking that year's Hugo as an example, Where the Late Sweet Birds Sang on the shortlist was up against offerings by Joe Haldeman, Frank Herbert, Frederik Pohl and Robert Silverberg: all are US giants in the field.

However, you must make up your own mind. After all, we are not all clones*.

Jonathan Cowie


*And in case you misunderstand, some of us are one of a twin, triplet etc: it is a statement of biological fact with the implication that some of us truly are clones, but not at all as Wilhelm would have it.


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