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

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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.

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