Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm

Wilhelm, Kate - Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang When the first warm breeze of Doomsday came wafting over the Shenandoah Valley, the Sumners were ready. Using their enormous wealth, the family had forged an isolated post holocaust citadel. Their descendants would have everything they needed to raise food and do the scientific research necessary for survival. But the family was soon plagued by sterility, and the creation of clones offered the only answer. And that final pocket of human civilization lost the very human spirit it was meant to preserve as man and mannequin turned on one another.

Sweeping, dramatic, rich with humanity and rigorous in its science, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is widely regarded as a high point of both humanistic and hard science fiction. It won science fiction's Hugo Award and Locus Award on its first publication and is as compelling today as it was then.

When I dug out my grotty old paperback of this book, I checked the publication date out of curiosity. It is a 1981 edition that I clearly bought second hand. So I'd guess I bought it in the late '80s when I was in my late teens. That feels right with my vague memory of first reading it and means it is now well over 20 years since I read Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang. That long ago read had left me with a good feeling about the book, but I had no idea how it would hold up all these years later. Considering it was already around 10 years old in my hypothetical "late '80s" (it won the Hugo Award in 1977) it can certainly now be classed as an old book and maybe even a classic. It was republished as part of the "SF Masterworks" series in 2006 (with the nice cover shown above and not the horrible one I have) so there are clearly people out there who do consider it a classic.

In terms of the book "holding up", I had two main reactions. A yes and a maybe.

I think the scientific premise stands up very well. In fact the end of the world as it comes to David and his family could be an eerily close future. It is a world of pollution, climate change and declining population where humanity's science can't keep up with what we have done to our planet. The solution the family reaches - to clone themselves - has been a science fiction staple for a while now, but I suspect was much newer in 1976 when the book was first published. It is, in fact, disturbingly much more possible now that it was then, making Wilhelm's vision of what such a drastic step might do to our cloned descendants still very timely all these years later.

As for the maybe, that concerns the writing style. This book is very much a "tell" book, rather than a "show" book. I can't truly say if this is a product of when it was written and published - too many years and other books have gone by, not to mention brain cells, for me to remember. However, I have my doubts that it would be published today in this form for just that reason. It's an older style of story-telling now and with demands for a first paragraph "hook" and lots of "show" from modern writers, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang may well have a style that would not resonate with modern readers.

Did it work for me? Yes, it did. Whether that is because the style still works (well, of course it does if it tells the story well) and stands on its own, or because I read it with the awareness I was rereading an older book, I really can't say. But hey, I enjoyed reading it and surely that what counts? All the same, for all that it is about people, their personalities, individuality (or loss of same) and psychology, it is an idea book more than it is a character book.

Considering that, Wilhelm does an excellent job of making you care for the characters as, twice over in quite different societies, we watch people forced to stand back as their youngers take over their place in the community and wonder if things will be better or worse in the new future.

I liked David a lot. I'm not sure why, as in many ways there isn't all that much too him, but I remember I did last time and I did now as well. He starts out young, disbelieving and a little idealistic, but faced with the coming catastrophe, embraces the only solution they have found to save themselves and make a future. All the same, he and the other "elders" clearly see cloning as a short term solution that needs to be replaced by sexual reproduction as soon as fertility returns. It is the clones themselves, really not the same as their progenitors, who change the plan. And David is forced to stand aside to let what he sees as a dangerous future fall into place without him and those like him.

I don't know if it is a fault in the writing or a deliberate choice of the writer, but on the whole the clones themselves, both in the early generations and later in part 2, have very little personality and none of them really stand out. It seems to me that the only one who truly has character in the book is Barry. All the other main characters, David, Molly, Ben and Mark, have their own personalities and individuality. It is Barry who remains part of his brother-group, who feels right that way, but still can stand back and see the bigger picture.

For all I liked David and Mark, on this reading it was Barry who impressed me most. It is Barry who can see that the community is failing, that with the successive generations the clones are losing creativity and that without inspiration to solve an unexpected problem, failure is the only possible result. The next generation, led by Andrew and his brothers, can still see this, but see no reason to do anything about it. Their solution will inevitably lead to the end of the community, but this does not seem to concern them unduely.

Barry cannot do anything to change things himself and like David however many generations before (I do wish there was some idea of how much time has passed between part 1 and part 2), he must stand aside as the future forges on, however disastrously, just as David was forced to do.

But what saves the community is Mark. Strange, single, individual Mark, who is still creative, inspired and ingenious. And Barry has enough wisdom to stand back and let Mark do what he can’t do himself.

I didn't remember the bit of psychological theory thrown into the mix that suggests there is an optimum age for individual ego to develop, that in the clone groups it is swamped by the brother or sister group and never occurs. But Mark is still with Molly at that age and has no clone brothers, so in him that development does occur, no matter how many generations it is since the original catastrophe. It's an interesting idea. I have no idea if it makes sense in terms of modern psychological theory, but it certainly works for the book.

I ended up taking away two main things from Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang. Okay, on reflection, make that three.

First and most clearly, the book is an ode to individuality. It is that individuality and inspiration that lets David and the others find a solution to ensure survival, one that that they consider must be only temporary. But as the clones form their own small collectives, they wish to maintain that and go to whatever ends to see that happen. As they lose their individuality to conformity, all those things that allowed humanity to reach the heights it did begin to be lost. It is only with the rediscovery of individuality in first Molly (and a little in Ben) and later in Mark, that humanity has a chance to escape a second possibility of extinction.

But it is also about the lengths we will go to in order to maintain our own kind, and for the purpose of this book the clones are a totally different type of "own kind" from humanity such as we are out here in the real world as represented by David and later by Mark. David's generation saw the cloning as a necessity to survival - but they weren't setting out to make a new kind of human (as they in fact did). They were, as they saw it, creating a stop-gap measure that would allow "real people" (for lack of a better term) to re-emerge on the other side.

On the other hand, the clones wanted their kind of people and community to survive. And as they begin to face their extinction in the latter part of the book, they too will go to great lengths to maintain their own kind. The problem is that "their kind" is a dead end - they have lost too much of what it takes to survive and it is only going to get worse. Andrew and the others' solution doesn't seem very practical to me and would probably only hold off the inevitable a bit longer (something that the epilogue seems to endorse). But, unlike David and Walt and their colleagues, the clones lack the ingenuity or ability to risk or “something” that David and the others did have, to try a different way. They choose to maintain their way and in the end they lose.

And a smaller third thing, that struck me as I reached the last few chapters was that perhaps, survival is enough. Barry objects to Mark's plan because he sees all the things that will be lost. They will have to be so focused on survival that the "higher learning" things the Valley community has struggled so hard to maintain and gone out foraging for will get forgotten. Perhaps they will indeed, but surely as Mark sees, our very survival is the most important thing. Once you have that, you can start rebuilding those other things, but if you are so determined to keep the electricity and the technology and such without the proper infrastructure to maintain it, then you'll fall. And in the end, that is what happens to the clones, while the reader is left with the feeling Mark and his group will thrive - slowly perhaps, but surely.

Hmmm, after having written all this, I find that if I go back to the original question of how the book holds up, I have to say very well. Clearly it has made me think and reflect, and that's what good science fiction should do. Many books these days tell a story and little more - and there's nothing wrong with that - but the classics are the ones that stick with us and have something more to them. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang surely fits into the latter category and I hope it is still being read well into the future.

On a simpler note, I've also always felt that it has such a perfect last line. It sums up what much of the whole book and its dominant theme of individuality is all about. And it reads beautifully too.

Because all the children were different.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang
Kate Wilhelm 
Read: 27-7-10 to 28-7-10


orannia said...

Fantastic review Kerry - great insights! I love how you deconstruct and book and make me think about it :)

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Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is a science fiction novel by Kate Wilhelm, published in 1976.