Kate Wilhelm, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1976)

Author: Kate Wilhelm

Title: Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang

Format: paperback

Pages: 251

Series: –

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 Praised as one of the best books on clones (!), it remains surprisingly relevant despite the murky and outdated science.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.

Score: 8/10

36 thoughts on “Kate Wilhelm, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1976)

  1. Hive mind eh? All I can think of is Hellstrom’s Hive by Herbert, brrrrrrr.

    I have to admit I’ve not heard of Wilhem before, or if I have, it didn’t penetrate my brain. This sounds interesting so I might have to see what else she wrote.

    Liked by 1 person

          1. So I went searching. My library had several “newer” Wilhelm books but none of her older stuff. So I went over to amazon, figure an older title like this should only be a couple of bucks. Imagine my dismay when I found out the ebook was $12!!!!!!! I huffily went over to kobo to get a better deal, only to find it was the same there. Upon reading the smaller print, apparently the price was being set by the publisher.

            That is flipping outrageous. So I guess I won’t be reading this any time soon….

            Liked by 2 people

            1. Oh wow, that sucks!! It’s all the more surprising for the fact that I borrowed it from a library with no problems whatsoever – they have several copies here. How does this work, I wonder, since it’s an American author, the book is a recipient of famous awards, and considered a classic in the genre? I guess they already got rid of all the copies they had to make more space for Twilight…

              Liked by 1 person

              1. You joke, but libraries are becoming more “community” centers with the aim of engaging the community than being an actual library. So best selling and popular is what is in.

                I’ll have to decide if an old beat up copy is worth it or not.

                Liked by 1 person

                1. What happens to those old books, though, I wonder? I know you can buy these on Amazon on the cheap, but how does this even work? Shouldn’t libraries be the places to hold the knowledge, the rarer the better? I know it turns into a discussion about the role of libraries in our world, but b/c of copyrights and publishing power, it’s not so easy to get hands on many books these days, if you want to do it in a legally accepted way. I need a book that’s available only in very few e-bookstores, Amazon included, but getting this one book would cost me ~US$40, no matter which provider I choose.

                  Liked by 1 person

                  1. Most old books get sold at library sales. I know our library removes books that are damaged or haven’t been checked out in “X Time” (no idea what that is though). Ebooks are even worse because the libraries can’t actually buy them but buy licenses for so many checkouts then have to buy that license all over again. I thought our library joining the statewide ebook program was great, until I found out all the dirt about the deal and how it is screwing the libraries over 😦

                    This discussion is the exact reason so many hoist the Jolly Roger when it comes to ebooks.

                    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really enjoyed this book, especially the mixed atmosphere of eeriness and nostalgia or longing in it. I loved the beautiful pastoral descriptions, too. I’ve been working on an update of my original review from 2016. Your review has got me to finish it and I’ll be posting it soon. Thanks Ola, and excellent review, by the way! Oh yeah, don’t you miss “short novels” sometimes? I do. Perhaps I need to read more books from the 1960s and 1970s. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Short novels, yes!!!
      People back then seemed to say more with fewer words 😉 Zelazny was a master of this. I miss these little concise gems, A LOT! I guess I’ll be revisiting some novels from that time, they’re so refreshing and make you appreciate the skill. I guess now everybody wants to be Tolkien – I wish more people wanted to be Zelazny or Le Guin 😉

      Thanks, Wakizashi! I’m glad I could be of help 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Haven’t heard of Kate Wilhelm before. In fact, I can’t remember the last book I read that was more than ten years old. I really should change that… ALTHOUGH that would surely perpetuate the stereotype that we should care about the past for any reason which is quite frankly ridiculous. Anyways~ glad you liked it! Even though it’s possibly not sciency enough;)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh yeah, why would we ever want to learn from the past 😛
      Ah, I don’t mind this not being sciency – Wilhelm was very clear from the beginning that this was just a setup for character study 😀

      Thanks, Will! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Great review, Ola! I’ve had this one on my to-read forever, and I think it’s time to dust it off and read it — especially since it’s so short, from the time when not everyone needed a trilogy to tell a story.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Nataliya! 😀

      Heh, exactly right! I do miss the times when books were short, skillfully written and powerful 😉 I will be looking forward to reading your thoughts on it!


  5. I tend to be a little wary of these older titles, even when they are labeled as “classics”, because I know that my tastes have changed since my first forays into SF back when this book was new, but your review proved to be so compelling in the description of the theme and characters that I’m going to add it to my TBR right away. Thanks for sharing!!! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think you might enjoy this one, Maddalena – it’s very modern in the way it approaches various themes – and ruthless, too. I’m glad you enjoyed my review enough to push this book to your mighty TBR 😀
      Thanks for reading, Maddalena! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Marianna, thanks for stopping by! 🙂
      This book is definitely worth a read, especially if you’re interested in classic SF and/or cli-fi and/or the exploration of the ramifications of cloning for humanity 🙂 I’ll be looking forward to reading your take on this!


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