Summary: It’s another end of the world story in Kate Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Birds sang and the only solution for the human race is to embrace the science of cloning. But will this new technology solve all their problems?
WHERE LATE THE SWEET BIRDS SANG by HUGO WINNER KATE WILHELM
It’s the end of the world in Kate Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Bird’s Sang. Grandfather Wilson is patriarch of the large and rich Sumner family and sees that man’s only hope of avoiding extinction amidst the disease, pollution, wars, climatic trauma, and most importantly, the sterility he faces is to start cloning.
THE STORY OF WHERE LATE THE SWEET BIRDS SANG
He entrusts his estate to his heirs: grandson David Sumner, and his own son Walt Sumner. Both start to work feverishly to perfect the cloning process and succeed in cloning animals and members of their family. But they soon find that the clones are not human in the strictest sense. They clones soon ostracise their creators in favour of a new community of clones, one that abandons the old ideas of the dead human world and think to start a new one where individuality is killed by embracing the homogeneous group instead as a functioning singular unit.
Things take a turn for the worse, though, when the community runs out of supplies and is forced to forage in the old dead world. They send out an expedition to the ruined city of Washington to scavenge for replacement parts for their ageing machinery. It’s during this time that the group, separated from the influence of their community of fellow clones, begin to witness for the first time their own uniqueness and individuality.
Thinking it a disease, they reject this call, deep within them, to singular identity. All of them except Molly, the only female in the group. She slowly begins to accept her uniqueness and passes this knowledge, this idea of the power of the individual, on to her child, Mark, just before she’s finally banished from the community.
The novel then follows Mark as he grows up and proves the inadequacies of a community that, in spite of its dependency on the old world’s technology, has chosen to despise the philosophies of their human ancestors and instead have opted for a new, brittle world of group consciousness where everyone shares every other person’s thoughts and ideas, and nothing is new, nothing is created. In this new world the ability to use one’s skills to think outside the box has been lost, and there is only the mindless conformity with what has been learned in the group. Mark then leaves and establishes a new community, one that can think for itself, survive on its own, and one that will create new technology to face the complexities of a post-apocalyptic world.
THE IDEAS OF WHERE LATE THE SWEEET BIRDS SANG
Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is about aloneness – even the recluse Mark admits to not wanting to be alone during a solitary expedition. It’s about community, about individualism and the special abilities that may, albeit unknown to the community, benefit it in the end. Many books have dealt with the individual Vs the group, the fact that Kate Wilhelm won a Hugo for this effort shows that this ranks up there with the best of them.
The book does have its shortcomings, though: vegetation tends to thrive even though animals and insects – the main agents of pollination – have become extinct. There is a pseudo-spiritual idea of trees talking and having consciousness that is incongruous with the rest of the story, because the idea doesn’t quite lead anywhere. Also most of the characters do not have enough depth, and while this may have been done purposely to show the emotional shallowness of the clones it’s also partly due to the author jumping from one generation to the next at a pace too fast to thoroughly connect with any of them. Still don’t let these few misgivings put you off a story that, if not all the time compelling, is at the very least entirely thought provoking.