Review: Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm

**SPOILER ALERT – THIS BOOK IS COMPLEX AND COMPELLING. READ IT BEFORE YOU READ THIS. UNLESS YOU DON’T MIND SPOILERS. WHATEVER FLOATS YOUR BOAT.**

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is a 254-page novel published by Harper & Row in 1976 written by Kate Wilhelm. The narrative is split into three parts, arranged chronologically. In broad strokes, it opens with the preparation of an underground laboratory for genetic cloning, built by a family in order to survive and continue humanity in the wake of its impending destruction. The clones soon take over the daily operations of the underground society and eventually the last “original” chooses to live out the rest of his days away from the community and in the human-barren world. In the next section, the clones have organized into self-sufficient families of genetically identical beings, for example, the Molly sisters whose names all begin with M. The ruling family has chosen to send six clones from different families, selected specifically for one of their skills, on an expedition to locate resources from ruined cities; resources they will need to maintain the livelihood of their society in generations to come. The separation of the traveling clones from their family breaks their ESP-like connections and they are forced into an individualist mindset that scares, challenges and, in some cases, incapacitates them. The last section follows Mark, the only person born from sexual reproduction. He is the child of Molly & Ben, two of the explorers from the previous section, and is selected to train and lead the almost un-instructable clones for expeditions to acquire the alarmingly needed resources. Using knowledge and creativity (a trait missing in the clone mentality), Mark will overturn and destroy the clone society as it exists and lay the foundations for a reproductive-based, individualistic alternative.

Summary? Check. Let’s get down to fangirl business! I absolutely loved this book for its apocalyptic insight, its understanding of reproduction as politically controlled and the essentiality of creativity for societies to thrive and grow. My review is a mostly thematic appreciation, but the style, tone and language were integral in my perception of its success.

Environment Apocalypse

“The pollution’s catching up to us faster than anyone knows. There’s more radiation in the atmosphere than there’s been since Hiroshima – French tests, China’s tests. Leaks. God knows where it’s all coming from. We reached zero population growth a couple years ago, but, David, we were trying, and other nations are getting there too, and they aren’t trying. There’s famine in one-fourth of the world right now. Not ten years from now, not six months from now. The famines are here and they’ve getting worst.  There’s more disease than there’s ever been since the good Lord sent plagues to visit the Egyptians.”

(Wilhelm, 20)

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The late 1960’s and early 1970’s were a crucial time for environmentalism and conservation policies. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was formed, Green Peace was created, the Clean Water Act was put in motion, the first Earth day was celebrated and the first U.N. conference on the human environment was held, born from growing concerns, amongst which figure chemical pollution, deforestation and in some cases global cooling. What astonished me with Wilhelm’s environmental apocalypse was the compelling imagery of devastation. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of city borders marked by trees deformed by heavy radiation. “Those trees had been normal-looking but these…They were less than half full size, misshapen, their branches few and grotesquely twisted. Abruptly Mark pulled up. Radiation, he thought with a chill.” (Wilhelm, 204) Though the rivers of ice are a telling contrast to the environmental mindsets of today and the 1970’s, fears of nuclear destruction, pollution, famine and disease stand the test of time and are surfacing in popular media (most frequently I might argue, in the popular zombie apocalypse mythos.)

Reproduction

Mark’s reaction at the ecologically stunted environment mirrors the same unease regarding the nature of the clones. The former is built from overt deformities while the latter is an implicit abnormality from the homogeneity generated by their reproductive politics. The original humans created the clones because of declining fertility rate. Tests had shown that after the fourth generation, the clones became fertile anew and this would be the solution to sustain humanity. The clones, however, disdained the idea of sexual reproduction and kept “the breeders” (fertile women) locked up in a lower floor of the lab as a contingency plan. Cloning was the foreseeable modus operandi.

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Control of women’s sexual and reproductive rights is not a novelty, nor is it a relic of the past. One of the central debates during second wave feminism revolved around abortion rights. Today, the United-States government is still extremely involved in women’s sexual health issues, one need only think of The Arizona Birth Control Bill of 2012 that laid the groundwork for Arizona employers to fire women who used birth control. In Wilhelm’s book, the termination of this authoritative control over the fertile women’s bodies becomes the solution to a successfully autonomous society. I treasured this revolution. Despite Wilhelm’s (conscious or subconscious) challenge of contextual policy, it was certainly not without its demerits… It relies on a heterosexual societal model; and it was achieved through the drugging and kidnapping of women…

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Creativity

Barry stared at her. She was about seven, he thought. He caught her again, and this time lifted her so she could see. “Tell me what this is,” he said.

She wriggled to get loose. “Snow,” she said. “It’s snow.”

“It’s a man,” he said sharply. (Wilhelm, 190)

In this moment, the clones are looking at a snow statue in the shape of a man. They cannot interpret the spatial structure as a whole. They can only perceive its material. Homogeneity becomes antagonistic to creativity. The clones are increasingly unable to form unique thoughts; the teachers are unable to add theories to their curriculum; knowledge is limited and is received passively by its audiences. Except for Mark. During his journey, he has performed pranks on clone families; stunts that have sought to shake up the status quo.  Molly’s paintings also challenge the clone families. By drawing distinguishing features of the cloned copies, she is subverting the perceived identicalness and subjugating clones to the discomfort of difference. Molly and Ben both share a commonality as “other.” Molly because of her unwillingness to reintegrate society both psychologically and physically (as she begins to live alone in a house away from the centralized quarters) and Ben for his presence as the only being who does not identically resemble anyone else. Without these “others,” society cannot grow and will perish under the inability to creatively think and face new challenges. On a broader view, I associate alterity to marginalized communities (race/ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ability) and although there is no direct acknowledgement of these characters as belonging to these specific groups, Wilhelm promotes difference as the basis of autonomy; a view I am partial to myself.

Finally, in the context of this feminist science-fiction blog, and although I have hit thematic intersections of gender and sexuality, I think it’s important to mention a few additional details as pertaining to these ideas, especially because they concerned me on several instances. I wasn’t thrilled that the first part had virtually no female agency (except for Celia who was cast, in my view, as romantic foil.) I have no qualms with male protagonists; I do with the absence of multidimensional women. In addition, the clone societies held sexual relationships with people of both the same and different gender and while an argument could be made that the same-sex relationships were, in fact, masturbatory (because of the shared mentality and identical bodies), the novel ends with an embrace of heterosexual relations as the promise of a better future. But then again, with my bias, every story would have a happy ending with gay clones…

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2 responses to “Review: Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm

  • cstabile

    Whoa. This is the gold standard of book reviews! The heteronormativity of Wilhelm’s world is overwhelming, but it would be hard to have such a focus on reproduction without it, don’t you think? How about a queer vision of the future in which reproduction doesn’t figure so centrally? In next month’s issue of Ada, there’s an essay on queer resistance to reproductive narratives that I think you’ll like. It launches on 11/5 — remind me and I’ll send you the link. Terrific work!

    • gbolduc88

      Thank you for your kind words. I did get some insight after Wilhelm’s visit. She did mention the clones’ sexuality as a very open model (rather than a strictly homosexual model) which does lessen my argument a little. But I stand by my argument of heteronormativity. As for your question, it would and wouldn’t be – I feel it would be possible to imagine a way by which queer reproduction is possible (other than cloning.) Science-fiction does offer a blank slate after all. I look forward to the issue of Ada!

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