Saturday, June 8, 2013

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang - Kate Wilhelm

I picked Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang as my third read for the Women of Genre Fiction reading challenge. It's another one that I've head lying around fro quite a while. I originally intended to review it late last year but got caught up in moving. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is one of Wilhelm's most well know works. It won the Locus and Hugo awards and was nominated for a bunch of others, including the Nebula which eventually went to Man Plus by Frederik Pohl. Later on, Wilhelm moved to other genres but in the 1960s and 1970s she produced quite a few science fiction novels. Wilhelm and her second husband Damon Knight, another iconic figure in science fiction, are the founders of the Clarion Workshop, which has become something of an institute in the past decades. The list of participants who went on to become successful authors is impressive.

Human abuse of the Earth's ecosystem is finally catching up on mankind. Pollution, radiation and environmental degradation are becoming such huge problems that if affects fertility of just about every plant and animal important to the human food chain.Humanity itself doesn't escape this tragedy either. Governments pretend it is business as usual, despite the mounting international conflicts over food and other resources. A few people see the end coming however, and set up an isolated community, equipped to survive the end of the world somewhere in a fertile valley in the Eastern USA. Even they are sorely tested when a pandemic breaks out but for the moment the group survives. With sexual reproduction all but impossible, they are doomed to die out however. To ensure humanity's survival, they resort to cloning themselves in order to create a new generation.

Clones never have it easy in science fiction. They are inevitably depicted as less than human, expendable replacements or somehow morally inferior creatures. At some level is would seem, the belief that we can actually make a perfect copy of a human being is somehow to frightening to consider. There has to be something wrong with a creature that did not grow out of an egg and a sperm cell. As if being a clone takes away some special part of our identity. Since human cloning is in its infancy and the subject of intense debate on the ethics of such research I guess we won't know for a while yet if there is any truth to it. Wilhelm joins the science fiction authors who depict clones as psychologically fundamentally different though. Her clones develop in frighting ways and threaten that pillar of American society: individualism.

I mentioned a perfect copy earlier in the text but achieving such a level of perfection is not easy. There are lots of studies on cloned animals that show abnormalities later in life. In Wilhelm's story this plays an important part. One of the first challenges the survivors face is the reduced fertility rates in clones. I'm not entirely sure if this part of the story is based on real research. Some of the biology (and psychology) in the novel seems a bit dodgy to me. A problem that has to solved if a return to the natural order of things, i.e. sexual reproduction, is to be achieved. It is another sign of the clones abnormality that later on in the book they try to remove a reliance on sexual reproduction entirely. Add to that the air of incest that is all over the clone society and there is no way the reader would not be disturbed by their way of life.

In effect, Wilhelm depicts cloning as the way to survive a serious population bottleneck in human history but in the end it limits human expansion and prevents them from recolonizing the mostly empty world. The clones, all grown in groups of up to ten individuals, develop a sense of togetherness that borders on the telepathic. Separating them, even for short periods of time, is a psychological trauma to them, that in some cases becomes irreversible. The colony is a safe place, where constant contact an reassurance of brothers or sisters is present to make life bearable. Without this, the successive generations of clones become increasingly unable to function. The doctors of the clone society, who in effect run the show, realize this threat, notice the increasing tendency to think only of the task at hand and not beyond what they are thought, and yet never consider raising single clones. The thought of being alone is just too much to bear.

The book is divided in three sections. The first dealing with the end of the world itself, and the establishment of the survivor's colony. The second deals with one of the later generation of clones, where the valley the colony is located in becomes to small to sustain them and critical scientific supplies and chemicals run low. The third describes a clash between the clone's way of life and the reemerging individualism of one of the main characters. Each section has their own set of main characters, although they overlap to an extend in the second and third part. It is an interesting approach to storytelling, enabling Wilhelm to depict developments in society that take decades to come about.

I've been giving a lot of thought about whether or not this book is worth the praise that is heaped upon it. On the one hand it is a very well written novel. Wilhelm captures the struggles of the characters very well and manages to draw the reader into the, in our mind, strange way of thinking of the clones. The whole novel creates an atmosphere of crisis, one step short of desperation. One false move could lead to the extinction of the human race and whatever else may be said of the clones, they do have a sense of self preservation. Being one step away from disaster casts a large shadow over the book. It penetrates every scene, Wilhelm makes very sure the reader doesn't for a moment forget the stakes.

On the other hand the tendency to see any form of communal society as inferior, ultimately a dead end in development of humanity annoys me. There are whole libraries of novels where the self reliant individual triumphs and thus shows his or her fellow men the way to a brighter future. This worshiping of individuality, and the inevitable decent into moral deficiency and stagnation of any other approach to forming a society, is grating. I will grant you, there are worse novels in this respect but the way Wilhelm handles it are far from subtle. In the end, the clones' efforts are means to an end, a return to normality, a way back to the way things were before. As if the end of the world doesn't clearly highlight the risks of a society where the individual's needs and desires are accepted as the only possible way in which humanity can advance. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is not a happy novel but perhaps the most depressing element in the story is seeing humanity fall back into the basic pattern that caused disaster in the first place.

Does that make it a bad book? I guess not. The libertarian streak that is prevalent in a lot science fiction is not really in line with my own convictions but this book certainly has a way of making one think. It is a compelling story in a way. Personally I think the way she depicts the clone society is too stark a contrast to the world we are living in to be entirely believable. I couldn't shake the feeling that the author was trying to make her point about the evils of suppression the individual a bit too bluntly. If you can deal with that however, the book is a good read. I can see why it was so popular at the time. Maybe the fall of communism in the late 1980s and early 1990s  has made the book slightly less relevant to today's reader but there are certainly novels of that period that have aged less gracefully. In the end, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is not entirely my kind of book but I am glad I read it anyway.

Book Details
Title: Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang
Author: Kate Wilhelm
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 242
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-07914-4
First published: 1976

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