Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang

by Kate Wilhelm

Cover image

Publisher: Pocket
Copyright: 1976
Printing: January 1977
ISBN: 0-671-43532-9
Format: Mass market
Pages: 207

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The final war has come, nations are destroying each other and the world with nuclear and biological weapons, and one rich extended family has set up a refuge in a defensible valley. Their goal is survival, but the results of the war have left everyone sterile. In an attempt to find some way of keeping their family alive, the survivors resort to cloning, hoping that the clones will be able to have children. The clones, however, have ideas of their own.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is, as you can tell from the above summary, a post-apocalyptic novel. In fact, the apocalypse is hurried past early on and simply taken as assumed, leaving several gaping holes behind in the plot. But more on that later, as neither the end of the world as we know it nor the recovery from that are really the point of this book. Rather, this book is about the culture that the clones develop, independent of the people from which they were cloned, and the implications for such elements of humanity as individuality and creativity.

Biologically, I fear that the basis of the story makes very little sense to me. I can certainly see how cultural changes could result from having multiple clones of a person living and growing together, but the spontaneous development of a low-level form of telepathy is rather a stretch. Also rather dubious is the sudden, spontaneous arrival at a sort of group consciousness despite the fact that the cloned children are being raised by adults with no such concept at all, and while rebellion of children isn't far-fetched, the way in which it happens struck me as very odd indeed. I had a lot of problems with suspension of disbelief as the background for the story was set up.

If one can put all of that aside, think of the clone society as aliens, and ignore the first part of the book (which is just setup, and is written in a very matter-of-fact and forgettable style), the last two parts of the book are occasionally sweet, occasionally interesting character stories. I don't buy the idea that creativity is as closely linked to individuality as is postulated here, but I did like the viewpoint characters for the second and last portions of the book and somewhat enjoyed reading about their adventures. The ending was adequate in terms of emotional payoff. (Although what happened to the main character of the middle portion of the book? Did she just disappear?)

However, the characters don't, for me, salvage the severe lack of coherent world background. Each time I poked at the setting, it fell apart further. Even assuming that whatever happened to the world resulted in universal sterility (something that's a bit hard to explain), why is this group of people the only ones in the world to have managed to develop cloning technology when clearly it was well within their grasp? It only took them a year or so to get started, and since they took no special precautions against the fallout of the war, surely other groups survived as unscathed? Why was all contact with the outside world cut off so completely and conveniently? Why were the worst that they faced in terms of intruders so easily driven off when they had food and technology? I like my apocalypses to have a lot more logic to them than this. Combined with the problems with the cloning and clone culture, I didn't buy any of the science here, which makes it hard to enjoy as science fiction.

Despite a few characters I enjoyed reading about, this book doesn't do that well as literature either. The first third required a lot of slogging for me to get through; it was clearly just setting background, the bits of characterization were scattered and insufficient to draw me in, and the writing was very flat and expository. Later portions of the book are better, as the story becomes more emotional, but even in the best chapters there is the occasional tumble back to flat, expository prose.

I think there could be a good book here. Both Molly and Mark are sympathetic, interesting characters as individuals lost in a communal culture. As published, though, I can't recommend it. The science needs a lot of help, the first third of the book needs to be rewritten or seriously trimmed, and some of the plot holes need attention. I'm surprised that this won the 1977 Hugo; was there really nothing better that year?

Rating: 5 out of 10

Reviewed: 2004-10-04

Last spun 2013-07-01 from thread modified 2013-01-04