Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Wilhelm, Kate, 1976

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I hope that all who read what I have to say here understand that I am going through my own book case and reviewing the books that I have found are worthy of reading more than once, and thus worthy of keeping at all. I don't enjoy reviewing books that I don't like or won't re-read, because I don't think that they are worth the effort. I'm saying this now so that you understand why most of the scores I give are above 4 out of 5 stars. And I mention it now also because if my scale had room for a sixth star, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, by Kate Wilhelm, would undoubtedly qualify for that honor.

Simply put, this book is an absolute masterpiece of modern science fiction. Wilhelm starts off with an ecological disaster, born probably of pollution and abuse of the planet. Within one generation virtually every creature on the planet, with the exception of burrowing insects and some fish, lose the ability to procreate and then die off. This, of course, includes all human beings, save the residents of one small Virginia town in the Shenandoah Valley. These people, who are all family members of different degrees of consanguinity had foreseen the effects of the looming disaster, and built a research hospital so as to master the science of cloning. Before humanity completely died off they had taken to replacing their numbers as well as their livestock by extra-utero cloning in a laboratory built in a cave underneath the hospital. This book is the story of the clones attempts to survive and repopulate the world.

As a description of what is basically an alien (or at least a post-human) society, I don't think that this book has ever been topped. Within the first generation of clones a social and moral revolution takes place that sparks some pretty intense conflict. The clones are basically hive creatures who individual are basically independently sentient subparts. They move through the world like flocks and even display a form of psychic connection that is similar not only to that displayed by bobbing and weaving birds, but also allows them to receive empathetic tremors over great distances, similar to the feelings that urban legend tells us that twins feel when separated. Different batches of clones are also physically identical to their litter mates, and really do act as one person, especially within their own group of siblings. For example, they engage in what we would name group sex, but is really only one set of siblings that make up one group-individual having sex with the same. Homosexuality was definately not a taboo, and even within one sibling group it was practiced, but it read to me more like masturbation than any kind of partner encounter.

The novel is broken up into three separate novellas. The first novella is essentially described above. It tells the story of our death and the birth and coming of age of a society that replenishes its numbers exclusively by cloning. The second novella tells the story of the unique environmental and psychological problems the clones face, and how those stressors begin to whittle away at the utopia they think that they have created. The novella focuses on the loss of group identity by one clone named Molly. Molly was a member of a group of explorers who visited Washington DC in an attempt to map out the land and secure a source of supplies for the Valley's use. As she and her traveling partners ventured further and further from the Valley and their other siblings they lost their abilities to think clearly, then became physically ill. The clones learned that prolonged separation from siblings drives them insane, and in some cases causes death. Molly came back to the valley so changed by the experience that her bonds with her siblings were permanently severed. Her story is very compelling. Molly was trained as an artist from early youth for this particular mission, and was able to focus her attention so that she could draw an exact copy of something she had seen only once. She was there to document the mission. When she returned she began drawing pictures of solitary women as an artistic expression of her own loneliness. Her siblings just looked at the pictures and felt discomfort, but could not figure out why.

Molly's experiences after the failed mission to DC also served to bring to light the dystopian aspects of the clone's society. After Molly was excommunicated from the group the leaders allowed her to live in a farmhouse away from everyone else. She was visited regularly by another clone, a male, who eventually got her pregnant (some couples, very few, could conceive). Molly gave birth secretly to Mark, and the two were discovered when Mark was three. Molly was immediately put into a separate camp for mothers which was basically a concentration camp set up for the harvesting of new genetic material. The mothers were heavily conditioned to keep them from walking off the camp's footprint, and were forced to produce child after child. Unfortunately the mothers' situation only gets worse and worse. In the first novella it is revealed that after five generations or so the clone crops start to fail from weaknesses generated by multiple recopying of DNA. Thus the need for the new blood the breeders could provide. That problem was eventually defeated by refinement of the artificial amniotic fluid used in the birthing tanks, but another one soon popped up in its place. That was that successive generations of clones were losing intelligence. For example a fourth generation clone would be able to do any task related to boat building, as long as someone with that knowledge had shown them how, but that same clone would be unable to do something as simple as replacing a worn out plank on the boat, because that required some abstract conceptualization that they were just not capable of. A society of dunces cannot survive long, so the clones in control came up with a way of cloning themselves over and over again, this time in utero, using the breeding mothers, in a vain attempt to defeat this problem. But the society it created was of a very few intelligent masters overseeing crop after crop of fools that could be trained to do the sewing, sowing, exploring, etc, but not to lead or take over. The clone utopia eventually became a race of slave workers and overlords.

This book does fail on a few levels, but Wilhelm has the sense (or possibly the editor) to keep those failures in the background. For example, the social upheaval that a world goes through after it has realized it will be the last generation was never really described, but for a few pages of political machinations, shortages and epidemics brought on by the failure of our modern institutions and technology. One gets the feeling that what happened may have been something akin to what happened in Children of Men, based on what humanity left in its wake as it passed out of this world, but Wilhelm certainly did not waste much time telling us about it. Her description of how the environmental disaster did what it did was very vague too, and there was but one sentence about how the environment survived at all with so many species wiped out. I found this odd considering that this is essentially a clone story wrapped up in an environmental disaster novel. But I personally found it very easy to overlook these two flaws as the topic of the book really was the social and psychological ramifications of the clone's existence. Wilhelm also has a very naive view of what cloning is and how it works, for example, the very fact that the clones were identical in appearance, as opposed to merely genetically identical, and the use of birthing tanks before the development of in-utero implant-type cloning. But, this book was written in the 1970's when popular understanding of cloning was still nascent. Still, Wilhelm used the motifs of ecological disaster and cloning in many of her other novels, and one would think that she would have had the principles of the science down by the time this book came along.

This book is still in print, and can be easily got. If you pay any attention to my recommendations, this one is up there with Moore's Bring the Jubilee, Gunn's The Listeners, and Amis' The Alteration. There are of course other books out there that deal with cloning, for example, PKD's Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep (where they were called Replicants) and Haldeman's The Forever War (where they were just in the end and only served as humanity's concession to the species it previously was at war with). But with the exception of Houston, Houston, Do You Read, by James Tiptree, Jr., this book is, as far as I have ever been able to tell, on its own as presenting a society only made up of clones. I cannot recommend this book to you strongly enough.

Copyright 2007, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4.5 star(s)


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