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Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang

by Kate Wilhelm


This was the 24th winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel.
It was awarded in 1977 at the 35th Worldcon, SunCon, in Miami Beach, Florida.

This review was originally published at The Nameless Zine in December 2020.



In 1977, before Kate Wilhelm won the Hugo Award (and both the Locus and the Jupiter) for her novel, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, a title taken from a Shakespeare sonnet, only two women had won that award and both of them were Ursula K. Le Guin. If Le Guin opened that door, then Wilhelm walked through it and Vonda N. McIntyre, Joan D. Vinge and C. J. Cherryh followed in her footsteps. Suddenly, women won in five out of eight years.

Only the first part of this book had been previously published, in an annual anthology called Orbit, and I wasn't sold on it at all. It's dystopian fiction, a very pessimistic look at our future which will surely and inevitably involve complete societal collapse. Only one very large family sees this coming and their response is to build a hospital and research cloning. This turns out to be particularly prescient thinking, because, a few blinks later, there's a flu epidemic, the fertility rate drops to zero and infant mortality becomes the norm. So, cloning it is.

There were things I liked about Part I but things I didn't like too. It seemed too pat, too foreseen, too pessimistic. Wilhelm didn't neglect her primary characters, but she didn't place them above the situation they were stuck in. Sure, David leaves and comes back and figures out a breakthrough that enables the clones to return, after a few generations of cloning, to regular reproduction with a healthy fertility rate. But we care about the science a lot more than we care about David. And everything seems to be about the direction that this family believes is right. Screw anything else.

But things don't go as planned and that's when the book starts to become interesting. David may well have been right about the strain that repairs and remembers, but the clones don't function the way that humans do. In fact, while they appreciate his contribution to preserving the species, they end up exiling him because he's different.

How different we learn during Part II, which is absolutely wonderful. We've already figured out that multiple clones of the same person either form a sort of hive mind or just have an enhanced empathy towards each other. It turns out to be a bad thing when a group of clones mount an expedition to the destroyed Washington, DC to salvage what they can from the vaults of the city. The longer they spend away from home and thus the others of the same genetic source, the more traumatised they become.

This is glorious stuff, far beyond the basic idea which is fundamental to the rest of the book and, by extension, the survival of the human race. I found the journey through this post-apocalyptic landscape atmospheric and ever fascinating. It played to me somewhat like Heart of Darkness laid over a framework set out in M. P. Shiel's The Purple Cloud. Sure, the clones are questing through a physical space, a massively changed version of one we know, but they're also on another journey into their own minds, which are a little more complex than ours.

Given how this novel moves forward considerably over time, spanning the requisite number of generations, and each of its three parts unfolds at an important point in that span, it's easy to reach spoiler territory, so I'll stop here. Let's just say that the assumptions of the first part are broken in the second but, as we gradually realise... nah, you'll have to read it for yourself and figure out where it's going too. The overriding logic makes sense and I appreciate the way in which Wilhelm orchestrates this journey.

I will mention one of the key discoveries, because it's one of the aspects to resonate with me. The clones tend to be very bright and very able, so they pick up what they need to pick up very quickly. However, it gradually dawns that, while they're incredibly good at replicating what's gone before, the power to adapt and create gradually vanishes. There's a magic point when one character builds a snowman and realises that the clones only see the snow; they can't interpret his creation as an artistic rendering of a man. I was deeply affected by that, both the idea and the way it comes up.

This particular character, who you'll need to discover yourself, is easily my favourite here, not least because he's different. I empathised with him in many ways, though he's not much like me. The earlier characters failed to resonate and I couldn't buy into their situation. The clones are interesting and I'm sure prompted much discussion back in 1977, but in many ways the lot of them are offputting. That's deliberate, of course, but it doesn't help us love the book, only appreciate it. Love comes back in later when things get more human again.

This seems to have been a problem in the seventies, that the ideas proved bigger than the characters tasked with exploring them. The biggest culprit thus far for me was Rendezvous with Rama in which the idea was literally huge and the people forgettable. This novel sits alongside its predecessor as Hugo winner, Joe Haldeman's The Forever War in which both the ideas and the characters are enjoyable, but the ideas much more so.

I don't believe I've read any of the remaining winners from the seventies, so I'm interested to see if this trend continues through them. I have read a few of the eighties winners, though, and I think they play differently. One title in particular is getting closer in terms of release date but still feels a few decades away in style. I'm also interested to see if that changes over a few years or whether it's going to be the paradigm shift that it's starting to seem.


Next month, I'll reach 1978 when the Hugo was won by a Frederik Pohl book called Gateway.




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Last update: 15th May, 2021