Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang: A Novel (1974) by Kate Wilhelm


Great story, terrible cover.
No me gusta. (M.C. Escher)

This 1977 Hugo winner about cloning is a powerful dystopic vision that addresses common social themes, such as the constriction of society, the strength of the individual, and the power of imagination. But there is nothing common about it. And it’s not even about birds.

It’s no surprise that this novel is cherished by many SF fans. Wilhelm does it right: the story is engaging, the characters are relatable, and the science is provocative. I have no complaints. None.

The novel is broken into three parts, each about a different generational character:

  • David is the progeny of a wealthy, educated family who erect a well-stocked hospital in time for the coming apocalypse. As humanity is wiped out and sexual reproduction fails, David and his uncle decide to clone the family, but the clones seem… different. This section of the book oscillates between romantic and creepy tones.
  • Molly is a clone with astounding artistic gifts. A life-changing cartography trip down the river results in her loss of interest in her clone sisters, which upsets the clone community. Some of the more nightmarish aspects of the community are revealed in this section.
  • Mark, the product of a sexual relationship, is the only of his kind among a society of clones. He is gifted, intelligent, and willful, which means he is a powerful threat to the clone community. But they also need him for the same traits they fear. We get to explore the strained, tenuous relationship between the individual and the community.

In addition to social issues, Where Late the Sweet Bids Sang evokes popular past and present SF concepts. The societal influence brings to mind Le Guin’s The Dispossessedthe Hugo winner from two years prior. For TV lovers, the clones and their numbered monikers behave much like the cylons from Battlestar Galactica, while the references to “tree voices” resemble the disembodied “whispers” of Lost. Genre-hoppers might appreciate the creepy foreboding that edges on the brink of horror, and the unique romances that bloom within the twisted society. Wilhelm also posits an interesting theory regarding the effect of individuality on our potential for telepathy.

This story is close to perfect. If I had any criticisms, I would wish for more of each story, but I can see how that would negatively affect the overall tone and story. I also have a few questions about the transition of clone children from the nursery to care of the older clone siblings, and there are undefined chronological gaps between stories, which make it difficult to determine the duration of intervals between stories. (I kept wondering if and when the original family members had all died out). Regardless, this is all nit-picking, and the story proves its value as a must-read SF classic.

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

thewindupgirlI guess 2010 was a dark year.

I thought it would be interesting to read the tied winners of the 2010 Hugo for Best Novel back-to-back (The City & The City by China Mieville and The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi), just to see what traits could cause such an even division among the Hugo voters. Both novels were dystopian in nature, dark and unromantic, with characters driven by instinct and purpose, rather than by love or honor. The most common characteristic between the two novels is that the worlds within which they occur are the most predominant and richly developed aspects of each novel.  For both Mieville and Bacigalupi, their plots and characters are secondary to the environment in which they interact.

But that isn’t to say that the characters and plots of both stories are mere throwaway devices created only as fodder for action on the gameboard worlds that have been painstakingly designed by both authors. The stories and characters are as solid as their environments– it’s just that, in both stories, the environment is the main character.  The environment is in the driver’s seat for both books.

I can see why both The City & The City and The Windup Girl tied for best novel that year. The quality and originality are stellar and even surpass all five nominees of this year’s Hugo cycle (no surprise there, though). Still, my vote for the 2010 Hugo Best Novel goes to…

The City & The City by China Mieville! See my review here.

Why? They were equally well-written and original. What made The City & The City better?

Mainly because it doesn’t have any graphic rape scenes. And, partly because I like my protagonists to not be greedy, selfish assholes who should do the world a favor and DIE.

I’m simple like that.

My review of The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

I think I’m open-minded enough to recognize and appreciate good writing, even when I don’t care for a particular story. Which is why it is difficult for me to commit to my dislike of The Windup Girl.

What I liked:
1. Amazingly well-constructed world. The Windup Girl takes place in future Thailand, when the cataclysmic repercussions of climate change have resulted in plagues, extinctions, and policies of political and economic isolationism. People live in the “Age of Contraction” or “post-Expansion,” when nations pull away from one another for their own survival during this famine. Except, of course, the greedy corporate machines who seek to gain a stronghold in isolated, independent Thailand through promises of “gene-hacked” wheat and “gene-ripped” soy.

Science seems to respond to the pressures of contraction with strange solutions: giant, gene-manipulated elephants (megadonts) replace machinery; mutated algae slime replaces oil; dangerous methane replaces electricity; DNA is modified with gears and switches to replace humanity with windup people; combustible dirigibles replace airplanes; and light-refracting cheshires replace household cats (Why? And who financed that project?). This isn’t quite steampunk, but what is it? Gene-punk? Spring-punk?

2. Cultural implications Bacigalupi does a good job of avoiding generic Asianisms by introducing characters of varying Asian backgrounds and allowing their interactions to define the complexity of each culture. Also, recurring themes of Buddhism and reincarnation add texture to the story.

My favorite example of this is “phii,” ghosts of the recently deceased who just hang around, being angry at their survivors, because they have nowhere better to go. When you’re dealing with reincarnation in a dystopia, there is no karmic reward after death. Life sucks. Reincarnated life still sucks. Besides, with famine and plagues, more people are dying than being born, so who are you going to reincarnate into? So the ghosts just hang around and harass the living. It’s a clever thought.

3. Gorgeous prose Bacigalupi is a talented writer. In the early chapters, before I got too carried away by the story, there were passages I would reread, just to enjoy the rhythm and language. Such a beautiful style for such an ugly world.

4. Makes me want to eat fruit When plagues claim the majority of fresh produce, gene-hacked fruit becomes a delicacy. Bacigalupi’s writing made my mouth water when the characters enjoyed a banana, a slice of mango, or savored the strange, new gnaw.

All those good things, but…

What I didn’t like:
1. Graphic rape scenes. This is a constant criticism I have of contemporary literature. I find that too many novelists, most often male, rely on rape trauma to develop their female characters. It’s as if nothing else could possibly happen to a woman to motivate, grow, or inspire a change in development. Besides that, the rape scenes are often violently graphic, yet I get a sense that there are people out there who are titillated by such descriptions. Because of this, I often question the author’s true motivations for including such scenes.

I’m no prude, but I think, “He took her in the back and raped her,” is just as powerful as a two-page description of every sexual violation done to the character. But really, let’s get away from the rape.  Rape is horrible in reality, and unimaginative in stories. It’s been done already. Overdone, in fact. Let’s find new ways to develop our female (and male) characters.

Besides, I’ll never look at a wine bottle the same way again.

2. All of the characters are horrible, ego-driven individuals who should die of blister-rust. As they should be. This is an apocalyptic world, in which only the survivors inhabit.  The romantic, good-willed heroes I want to read about likely died of cibiscosis. Bad people with selfish egos adapt and survive in harsh worlds. This is believable.  But it doesn’t make me like it any better.

So, good story. Stellar writing.  Well-developed. But much too harsh for my taste.