Author: Kate Wilhelm
Title: Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang
Let’s start with the accolades: Kate Wilhelm’s short novel won both Hugo and Locus Awards upon publication in 1977. Praised as one of the best books on clones (!), it remains surprisingly relevant despite the murky and outdated science. An ambitious take on individuality, creativity and the need for security disguised as cli-fi (before cli-fi was a thing ;)), Wilhelm’s novel is in essence a meditation on what it is to be human.
But ad rem. The world in Wilhelm’s novel is at the brink of collapse: the pollution reaches levels that slowly kill off all living organisms, making them infertile, diseases run rampant, economic and security crises loom large. Sounds familiar? Amidst this suffering and gloom the Sumner family prepares for the end of the world. They have been smart, thrifty, and populous, and now it looks like they might just make it: in their own vast lands shielded by old forests and rivers from the worst of urbanisation they build hospitals and mills, laboratories and manufactories – and have the brains and the means to ensure their survival.
The key to their continued existence is cloning. Their women are infertile; but they realize that the cloning process they had designed brings back fertility in the fourth generation, thus allowing for renewed genetic recombination. In other words, the clones are supposed to carry the Sumner genes through the bad times and then return to making babies again. But the clones have different ideas. As smart and ruthless as their originals, they like the way they are; they don’t want to be treated as a means to an end any more than the regularly conceived humans. More; they actually think they are better than the regular humans – possibly an end result to the human evolutionary processes, because in addition to the intellect they possess uncanny abilities somewhat similar to a hive mind, a collective consciousness: they feel they’re a part of a greater whole and they look at the old lonely individuals with pity and revulsion.
The conflict seems to end before it begins: the older generation, the clones’ creators and the source of their genetic material, ultimately dies out, embittered and alone. The clones are increasingly left to their own devices as the world outside of their little enclave ends indeed, in nuclear explosions, chaos, approaching nuclear winter and death. We know nothing about it, at first: just little hints here and there, that the outside world might not be friendly anymore. We glimpse the reality when the Sumners defend their compound from armed bands of desperate drifters, killing the attackers in a man-made flood. We glimpse it when one of the main characters, Celia, comes back with an incurable sickness; when the survivors fall into despair or madness, when the winters seem to lengthen every year. But if not for those tiny hints, one would think the Sumners lived in utopia: the forested hills, lazy rivers and fertile fields are described by Wilhelm with a noticeably poetic, nostalgic flair. The subsequent generations of Sumners live peacefully and safely in the beautiful wilderness – only when their more sophisticated cloning equipment slowly starts to break out do they venture out of their enclave.
Wilhelm’s book sounds science-heavy; it is not. The sciency stuff is used only for worldbuilding and the setup for character development. She focuses on the characters instead, showcasing her vision of the differences between clones and regular humans with subtlety, assuredness and skill. While I think the extrapolation of the twin bond she applied to the clones’ relationship ventures a bit too far to be probable, and the equation of the existence of individual, separate self with creativity is a tad too easy, in the end I thoroughly enjoyed Wilhelm’s novel. It makes you think, and even if you don’t agree with the author, ultimately you come out richer from the discussion the book provokes.
Lastly, a word on the characters. Wilhelm’s book is called a classic for a reason. Only after reading it I was able to appreciate the influences this book had wrought in the genre field. One particularly sprang to mind: Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time is based on a similar and quite ingenious premise of having the same set of personalities emerge in each generation, each able to make their own choices in different circumstances, and yet each retaining the same core of traits and values. In Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang it was used in an absolutely fantastic way, subtly, intriguingly, and sparsely enough not to be too obvious. Seeing the long procession of Davids and Celias and Walters with their different names but the same cores was at once sad and hopeful, comforting and challenging, especially when it was later contrasted with the emergence of a new unknown quality: the unique personality of Mark.
All in all, I really enjoyed this short, poetic and relentlessly ruthless book. There is something Darwinian about it, in its survival of the fittest, however tragic and unwanted and triumphant. Recommended.