Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
The Hugo winner for Best Novel of 1976, Kate Wilhelm's Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, is actually three separate novellas. Part one was published two years earlier in Orbit 15, an original anthology edited by Damon Knight. All three sections are in third-person, but each is told from the perspective of a different character, all members of succeeding generations of an extended family. The title is taken from Shakespeare's Sonnet 73, the theme of which is the twilight of the day, the approach of winter, and/or the end of a man's life. Wilhelm takes it a step further, examining the possibility of the end of all life on Earth.
Some books are strong on plot but short on literary style. This one is the opposite. The story is not that original, and fairly predictable, but Wilhelm's lyrical prose lifts it to a higher level. The beginning is much like a mainstream, contemporary story, with David Sumner reminiscing about past summer visits to his grandparents' farm in rural Virginia. On his latest visit, a holiday break from college, he is taken into the confidence of his grandfather (a doctor) and an uncle (a biologist), about their concerns for the future. Apparently the government has been supressing reports of widespread disease vectors, which not only affect humans, but almost all other animal life, as well as agricultural crops. Many in the Sumner family are well-off and highly educated. They have pooled their resources with the intent to build a large hospital and research facility in their valley, also warehousing seeds, foodstuffs, and livestock not yet affected by the plagues. The project is nearing completion when the first stages of social collapse set in. Not only have millions of people died, most of the survivors are rendered sterile. The Sumner's solution...cloning.
The weakness of the book is inadequate explanation of the science, both the origin and spread of the pathogens, along with very few details on the cloning procedures. There is also minimal information on how much time has passed between different segments of the book, with clones taking on more responsibility at a younger age than you might expect in today's world, and it is possible they matured at a faster rate. David and other members of the "elder" generation are eventually superceded by doctors and scientists in the first few clone generations. Each of the "brother" and "sister" groups of clones appear to have a psychic link with each other, and seem to only be concerned with themselves and not the elders. Not only that, most seem unable to function as individuals apart from their group. David is eventually perceived to be a threat, exiled from the community at the end of part one.
Part two, "Shenandoah," follows Molly, a member of the first expedition to venture outside the valley. She and a few individuals from other clone groups travel down the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers to D.C., looking for information and possible sources of equipment they need. Most suffer trauma from being isolated from their clone group, at least one so severe he is unable to reintegrate with his group when they return. It's the opposite for Molly; she now prefers to be alone, with the community eventually treating her much as they did David previously. Part three, "At the Still Point," concerns Mark, son of Molly and Ben, another member of that first exploratory mission. Molly had been segregated from the community, allowed to live in the previously abandoned Sumner farmhouse, and she kept her pregnancy and Mark's birth secret, at least up until he is discovered when he is four or five years old.
It's okay if the science is weak, the human drama is strong. The main theme is individual freedom and initiative versus the conformity to a group. The rest of the clones cannot understand Molly's independent spirit, nor her and Mark's creativity. The rest are limited in what they can learn and do depending on whom they were cloned from, and what's worse is they don't recognize that as a weakness. Without more unique individuals like Molly and Mark, and to a lesser extent, Ben, the clone community's future is questionable. At book's end, what is also not known is whether another community Mark has established with a few other fertile individuals will succeed. Their chances are much higher, but it would have been nice for his part to be longer, to see if he was successful in putting humanity back on the right track before he died.
As with several older titles I've reviewed recently, this was a re-read for me. I remembered more about Mark's segment than the rest, maybe because he is the strongest character. I did like it, both then and now, but it would not have received my #1 vote for Hugo that year. Beautifully written, but the premise and the answers she presents are simplistic and incomplete.
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