Thursday, December 23, 2010

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm

Tom Doherty Associates, copyright 1976

Trade Paperback, 254 pages
ISBN-13: 9780312866150

very highly recommended

Before becoming one of today's most intriguing and innovative mystery writers, Kate Wilhelm was a leading writer of science fiction, acclaimed for classics like The Infinity Box and The Clewiston Test.
Now one of her most famous novels returns to print, the spellbinding story of an isolated post-holocaust community determined to preserve itself, through a perilous experiment in cloning. Sweeping, dramatic, rich with humanity, and rigorous in its science, Where Later the Sweet Birds Sang is widely regarded as a high point of both humanistic and "hard" SF, and won SF's Hugo Award and Locus Award on its first publication. It is as compelling today as it was then.

My Thoughts:
Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm, winner of the 1977 Hugo, is a post-apocalyptic novel that deals with the implications of a culture of clones where creativity and individuality are in peril. In many ways I felt the story was more allegorical than hard science fiction. The mid-seventies, when Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang was written, was a time of gas shortages and talk of a coming ice age. Vehement proponents of zero-population growth abounded. Having lived through those times, the first part of the novel felt very much a product of the times but I felt it also held up well today.

The novel itself is divided into three parts, each section dealing with a different generation living in the isolated compound the Sumner family created before the apocalypse. Although the apocalypse was over quickly, the results left everyone sterile so cloning was the only way for mankind to survive, with the goal being that the clones would be able to have children in the future. The clones had other thoughts. With the dependence on reproducing through cloning, other human traits and characteristics are lost - including the very abilities and talents that allowed the clones to be created.

I don't want to say too much more and risk spoiling the story, but let me note that Wilhelm's story is certainly worth reading today. There are also other important themes beyond the importance of individuality and creativity, including encouraging development of instinctual behavior, adaptation, exploration of new horizons, and a sense of comfort with the natural world.

While Wilhelm is a very accomplished writer, there are problems with the believability of the science. However, I felt any problems were easily overlooked because the science wasn't the point of the novel. Suspend disbelief and read Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm for the ideas.
Very Highly Recommended


What David always hated most about the Sumner family dinners was the way everyone talked about him as if he were not there. opening

"It's going to be a research hospital," Walt said. "Genetic diseases, hereditary defects, that sort of thing. Two hundred beds." pg. 17

"You think you're being asked to give up a lifetime career for a pipe dream." here was no trace of a smile when he added, "But, David, we believe that lifetime won't be more than two to four years at the very most." pg. 18

The government had to admit the seriousness of the coming catastrophe, had to take strict measures to avert it, or at least alleviate it, but instead, the government chose to paint glowing pictures of the coming upturn that would be apparent by fall. During the next six months those with sense and money would buy everything they could to see them through, because after that period of grace there would be nothing to buy. pg. 25-26

In October the first wave of flu swept the country, worse than the outbreak of 1917-1918. In November a new illness appeared, and here and there it was whispered that it was the plague, but the government Bureau of Information said it was the flu. pg. 27

In December the members of the family began to arrive, leaving the towns and villages and cities scattered throughout the valley to take up residence in the hospital and staff the buildings. Rationing, black markets, inflation, and looting had turned the cities into battle grounds. pg. 27

There was no child left under eight years of age when the spring rains came, and the original 319 people who had come to the upper valley had dwindled to 201. In the cities the toll had been much higher. pg. 27

Walt began testing the men for fertility, and reported to David and Vlasic that no man in the valley was fertile.
"So," Vlasic said softly, "we now see the significance of David's work." pg. 30

"We're finished, aren't we, David? You, I, all of us?"
He thought, Walt be damned, promises be damned, secrecy be damned. And he told her about the clones developing under the mountain, in the laboratory deep in the cave. pg. 39

If a new structure is to rise, it must start at the ground, not on top of what has been built during the centuries past. pg. 237

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