Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Review: Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm
Published: Harper & Row, 1976
Awards Won: Hugo, Locus Science Fiction
Nominated: Nebula, John W. Campbell Memorial
Sub-genres:Post-Apocalyptic,Human Development,Hard SF
The Book:
The end of the world comes in chaos, diseases, famine, and mass sterility.  A large, rich, highly educated family cloisters themselves in order to wait out the catastrophe, using cloning techniques to keep the crops and livestock they need to feed themselves.  As no new live human babies are born, it becomes clear that there will be no weathering this disaster.  In desperation, they turn to human cloning in order to preserve the human race.  But what have they unwittingly unleashed?  Can a society of clones really be considered human at all?

My Thoughts:
I was interested by the premise of this novel.  I wondered how a society formed primarily of clones would differ from one filled with genetically distinct individuals.  I think that Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang also raises some interesting questions about the value of creativity and individuality as opposed to cooperation and dependability.  Unfortunately, I found myself more interested in the ideas of this novel than in its execution. 
The book consists of three parts, with one section focusing on each progressive generation.  While the three parts are thematically linked, they are only loosely linked in the narrative.  I would have liked for the protagonists of each section to continue to play more of a role in the developing story.   Overall, the characters often felt more like avatars of ideas than humans.
The style of writing was very dry and detached.  It seemed, at times, almost like a scientific logbook or a travelogue.  This style led to a general feeling of being distanced from events and characters.  Most of the action of the story seemed to occur off-page.  The reader mostly got to hear people reporting about what had happened between scenes, or discussing the implications of the off-page events.  While hearing the discussions was interesting, I would have preferred to also be shown more of these dramatic events. This sense of detachment became less of a problem later in the book, and I found the second and third parts to be a little more engaging emotionally.
Scientifically, I had a lot of problems suspending my disbelief in order to enjoy this story.  First of all, the apocalypse is only vaguely described.  I had a hard time accepting that an apocalypse so devastating as to render sterile all crops, livestock and human beings would then leave the natural environment mostly undamaged.  Concerning the cloning technology, I wondered why this one family was the only group to turn to cloning, and why they were trying to repopulate the Earth with only a few closely related people.  My credulity was also strained by the unexplained development of the clones’ telepathic group mind. It bothered me that this group mind and other properties were attributed solely to the clones being ‘born’ as clones.  In general, it seemed like every time I paused to think about the science, I found something else that didn’t quite add up.
I’m aware that this is an older book, and I’m not sure how much was really known about the idea of cloning in the 70s.  It is possible the science of this book is a product of the time in which it was published.  All the same, it pulled me out of the narrative far too often for me to immerse myself in the world of the story.
My Rating: 2.5/5
I was honestly intrigued by the premise, and I feel like Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang presented a lot of interesting questions about individuality and social harmony.  Sadly, the dry and detached writing style and questionable science kept this book from being a satisfying read for me.


  1. I don't know how I missed this review from you. This is one of my favorite sf novels - a pity you don't share the same appreciation for it.

    I guess I'm drawn to its apocalyptic setting, the psychology and the inevitable conclusion. We face the fatality of life, despite our best efforts to survive beyond it. To me it's more allegorical than science fiction, written in a time of gas shortages and talk of a coming ice age where fervent supporters of zero-population growth abounded. Agreed, in this context, then, perhaps dated.

    Apart from the obvious themes about the importance of individuality and creativity, there are the themes about encouraging the development of instinctual behavior, adaption, exploration (of new horizons) and a sense of comfort and cohesion with the natural world, providing an unhysterical reminder that to be human is to be unique and that to be different is sacred. (I might be seeing way to many allegories in it, though) :)

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! It's good to see a different opinion, though I'm sad that I was not able to appreciate one of your favorites. I did enjoy a lot of the themes explored in the book, and I can see the appeal of the atmosphere and apocalyptic setting.