Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm
Sometimes, a book just has to be given a second chance. Case in point for this reader: Kate Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang. When I first started this book around 35 years ago, I could not get past page 20 or so, for some strange reason, and placed it back on my bookshelf unread, where it has remained all this time. Flash forward to last week, when I decided to give the book another chance (what with my supposed adult sophistication and matured patience), and guess what? The novel immediately sucked me right in, and I wound up zipping through the darn thing in record time, reveling in its lovely prose and completely engrossed in its multigenerational narrative. Go figure! Though it was not the author’s first book on the subject of cloning (that would be her debut sci-fi novel from 1965, The Clone), Wilhelm’s 1976 work has been called by the American fanzine Locus “the best novel about cloning written to date,” and I am not about to argue with that assessment.
Wilhelm’s novel is divided into three discrete sections. The first, “Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang” (the title is derived from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 73”), originally appeared in 1974, in author/editor/Wilhelm husband Damon Knight’s semiregular anthology of new science fiction Orbit (it was Orbit #15, to be precise). Here, the reader encounters David Sumner, who lives in the Shenandoah Valley region of Virginia with his very large, extended group of families. In the face of worldwide famine, drought, plagues of new diseases, climate change, crop blight, mineral shortages, imminent warfare and other global catastrophes, Grandfather Sumner soon realizes that the families must hunker down in their valley and build facilities to ensure the group’s survival … including a fully equipped hospital, as well as labs to conduct research on cloning. In this first section, which spans a good number of years, the programs are put into effect and the cloning process proves successful. But troubles crop up when a caste system of sorts arises between the cloned individuals and the so-called “elders,” when David begins to fall in love with the clone of his deceased girlfriend Celia, and especially when David decides that the increasingly detached cloned beings must be eliminated.
In the second section, “Shenandoah,” the cloned community is thriving, and sends out an expedition of six, by boat, to discover if anyone else is alive on Earth, and to explore nearby Washington, D.C. This section focuses on a young clone named Molly, who, during the course of the harrowing expedition, begins to suffer strange symptoms when separated from her five identical sisters for the first time. In this section, it is revealed that the cloned brother and sister units have what can almost be termed a “hive mind;” when separated from her siblings, Molly begins to function and think as an individual for the first time in her 26 years. Upon her return to the community, she is branded an oddball; goes off to live by herself in the ancestral Sumner farmhouse; has a secret child, Mark, with one of her other estranged expedition members; and is later drugged up and forced to become a “breeder,” a human baby-making machine for implanted, cloned embryos.
In the third section, “At the Still Point,” we follow Mark’s progress after his mother has been expelled from the community, and witness his growth from a small child to around 40 years of age. Mark is even more of an independent loner than his mother Molly had been, but possesses woodsman skills that nevertheless make him of great value to the valley. In this section, Mark and others make another journey of exploration to D.C., after which Mark travels alone to the radioactive wreck of Philadelphia and the glaciated environs of New York City. Ultimately, we discover that the clones possess no imaginative faculties whatsoever — they can only learn and copy, but not create — a fact that may spell doom for the community, unless something is rapidly done…
For the life of me, I cannot imagine now what originally turned me off to this book when I tried it on for size back in 1981, unless it was the large number of characters who Wilhelm presents us with in the opening pages, OR the complex scientific chatter regarding heredity (A, A1, A2, A3 and A4 clones with their a, a1, a2, a3 and a4 offspring) that the author regales us with. I had no problem whatsoever with either of these aspects this time around, and indeed found Wilhelm’s work to be quite fascinating. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is beautifully written, with an emphasis on the natural beauty of the Virginia countryside, and David, Molly and Mark are all tremendously sympathetic characters. Wilhelm does not shy away from the subject of sex in her novel, and indeed, the clones are revealed to be quite a promiscuous group (all in the name of the survival of the species, of course), even engaging in incestuous, homosexual, six-way orgies on a regular basis! The expedition sequences are often suspenseful and even thrilling, and the early romance between David and Celia is lovely and ultimately heartbreaking. As I mentioned, it was a compulsively readable affair this time around for me, and yet … there are some problems.
I am hardly the first person to point out how overly compact this novel is (it covers around 70 years of history in under 200 pages). Scottish critic David Pringle, for one, has said that it is a “sensitive, thoughtful work but (given the long time-span of the story) perhaps too compressed,” and I would agree with him. (Pringle has elsewhere dismissed the novel, calling it a “disjointed book written in a remote key.” I’m not as inclined to concur with THAT statement.) This feels to me like a work that could surely have benefited from a lengthier treatment. During the course of the book, years often elapse between one paragraph and another, and just as we’re developing a real connection with, say, David or Molly, the character disappears from the story line, his or her ultimate fate left unknown. Other seemingly important characters die off shockingly but before the reader can really grow attached to them, as well. And for all Wilhelm’s emphasis on nature descriptions (at least 20 different tree varieties are mentioned during the course of the story), her ability to adequately describe the precise layout of the clone community and its environs was, for this reader, wholly lacking; good luck trying to picture the community’s hospital, lab, dormitories and riverside boat dock in relation to one another! Still, these are minor quibbles, I suppose, when stacked against the whole.
Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang was, of course, the winner of the prestigious Hugo Award as Best Novel of 1976, beating out Joe Haldeman’s Mindbridge (which I’d never even heard of), Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune (ugh, sorry, never cared for it), Fredrik Pohl’s Man Plus (still on my bookshelf waiting to be read; Man Plus DID beat out Kate’s novel for the Nebula Award for that year) and Robert Silverberg’s Shadrach in the Furnace (which I loved).
Personally, I would have given the award to the Silverberg novel — it is a more satisfying book overall — but certainly do not begrudge Ms. Wilhelm her award for what is unarguably a memorable sci-fi contribution in the apocalyptic vein. Indeed, I look forward to reading another Wilhelm novel in the near future; it will most likely be her 1979 offering Juniper Time, which was chosen by Pringle for inclusion in his excellent overview volume Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels. And I have a feeling that when I DO sit down to read Juniper Time, it will not take me 35 years to finish it…
Like Sandy, I had trouble breaking into Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang when I tried to read it in the late 1970s. In my case, at that time I wasn’t mature enough to make headway into a book that didn’t seem to have a conventional “hero” in the early pages, and which gave me many, many characters to track. Fortunately, I grew up and grew into it. I read this for the first time two or three months ago. Like Sandy, I see some flaws in the overall length of the book and in its pacing; for me as well as Sandy, its strengths outweigh the weaknesses.
In the late 1970s when Wilhelm wrote this, most American science fiction readers lived in fear of a thermonuclear holocaust, and the vast majority of apocalyptical fiction posited the final countdown as the cause. Wilhelm was more visionary and more accurate, postulating a combination of environmental collapse and disease as the triggering factors of the near-extinction event. The conveniently wealthy and occupationally diverse Sumner family retreat to their home in a remote part of the Shenandoah valley and prepare to survive the devastation. I found this the least plausible part of the book, but it moved fast; by page 42 of a 200-page book we have the final few apocalypse-surviving humans raising — and being surpassed by — the first generation of clones.
Each of the book’s three sections focuses on a different aspect; the opening section deals with preparation and allows us to see the post-human clones through the eyes of someone who is more like us. The middle section follows an expedition of cloned humans as they venture out of their valley, with unforeseen consequences for one of the clones, Molly. The third section follows a child of Molly to adulthood.
Wilhelm explores the nature of individuality, and questions what would happen if clusters of people cloned from the same source material developed an empathic or even telepathic link. While other science fiction writers — I won’t name names *coughRobertSilverbergcough* — imagined their main characters gleefully fornicating with sexy ancestors due to time travel, Wilhelm questioned what sex would be like if it were completely disconnected from the procreative process — and what it would be like if you shared consciousness with your sex partners. In the sexually permissive era of the 70s, Wilhelm is thoughtful and honest about these questions, and about the less-than-shining aspects of human nature.
In the first section, our main character, David, approaches the first generation clone of his true love, Celia, for sex. The clone shows horror at the thought of copulating with one of the old uncloned humans, but we also realize that she is not a person, an equal, in David’s eyes — she’s just a copy of someone he loved. We don’t see David at his best here, but at the same time, we can sympathize. When the clones are in charge, sex often happens in a festival-like setting, but the rare fertile female clone is imprisoned and restricted, treated like livestock. There are no villains, no utopia and no easy answers… but there are thought-provoking questions.
Through the character of Molly, Wilhelm also explores the role of the artistic impulse in humans. As the clone generations continue, the group-mind they share limits innovation and imagination. Wilhelm shows us the clones realizing this, seeing the problem, and not being able to fix it… because they lack imagination.
Overall, this short book, with all its flaws, is meaty and thoughtful, addressing issues that are maybe even more germane now (that’s a pun) than when it first came out.
I finally got around to reading this in May 2022 and I could not put it down.
I recommend the audio edition produced by Blackstone Audio and narrated by Anna Fields.