Wilhelm’s Sweet Birds: sweet, yet partly silly

I just finished Kate Wilhelm’s 1976 classic Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, and it’s one of those love/hate situations. In some ways this is a really great book; but in other ways, it makes me want to grab the author by the shoulders and shake her while asking “what were you thinking!?” Well all right, I may be exaggerating a bit. Let’s just say I have some criticisms, but they didn’t stop me from enjoying the book, which despite some flaws was really very gripping and emotionally engaging.

What we have here is basically a post-apocalypse novel; within a very short time frame all the accumulated problems of human pollution and ecological rape reach a tipping point (while the politicians ignore it), and the world as we know it goes bye-bye. Through a combination of devastating new diseases and sterility, most of humanity is gone. This part is quickly sketched out as background with few details, which is no problem because the focus of the story is not how the disaster happens, but what comes after.

In an isolated valley in Virginia a small group of people (a few hundred) manage to survive because they foresee what’s coming and make plans. At the heart of this group is a small number of doctors and biologists who recognize the crucial problems that will have to be faced: the sterility of most of the survivors, as well as most of the livestock. These core planners, and most of the other people, are members of several large interconnected families, who use their wealth to build a research hospital and a laboratory complex before the disaster strikes, and to store up as many supplies as possible. They realize they’ll have to clone the livestock in order to have a steady food source. Only later are they forced to accept the grim realization that cloning is also the only option left for continuing humanity. So they give in to reality and start a cloning program, with just enough sexual reproduction from the few fertiles mixed in to barely stay ahead of the degenerative effects of sequential cloning.

Now, this is where things get silly: the clones take over, seeing themselves as something fundamentally different from, and better than, their “parents.” I’ve often wondered where people get their strange notions about clones being inhuman monsters, or exact duplicates down to the last detail, or the other bizarre stereotypes. Perhaps these attitudes came from the pulp SF of earlier ages, I’m not sure. But Wilhelm seems to buy in to them to some degree, and they infect the story from start to finish, detracting from what otherwise could have been a near-perfect novel if the science had been better grounded. Ironically, one of the characters manages to voice my criticism perfectly:

“Don’t be an ass,” David said sharply. “You’re not a separate species.”

But, the clones persist in seeing themselves as a new species, and this is largely due to the special qualities Wilhelm bestows upon them. The clone-groups (six or more people cloned from the same source) behave almost as a single individual. They are exactly alike physically, very nearly so mentally, can’t stand to be away from each other (to the point of freaking out), and have an ESP-like ability to sense each other’s moods, feelings, injuries, even their locations to some extent. And there are other strange effects. They are deathly afraid of the woods, for some strange reason. They have “dead areas” and a lack of creativity. And when they have a learning defect, they ALL share the same defect exactly. There’s no “nurture” to balance “nature” here — there’s no differentiation arising from slight environmental or experiential divergence, as would be the case in reality. They’re carbon copies. In what has to be THE silliest point in the book, one clone-group of six boys ALL have appendicitis AT THE SAME TIME!!! So yeah, there’s not much biological nuance here, and Wilhelm’s understanding of the issues surrounding cloning seems hopelessly muddled.

On the other hand, the takeover by the clones is also where the book gets good, because it sets up a deep and ongoing social conflict of individuality versus group conformity, and that’s one of my favorite social themes, surfacing in some of my favorite SF novels. The leaders of the clone society make their priorities very clear:

We all know and agree it is our duty to safeguard the well-being of the unit, not the various individuals within it. If there is a conflict between those two choices, we must abandon the individual. That is a given.

Indeed, the clone leadership has no compunctions about either banishing or euthanizing anyone who upsets their community by daring to be unique.

The conflict plays itself out through several generations, with different individualist “heroes” in different parts of the book. The first is David, quoted above, one of the biologists who founds the project, and who is unable to stop his “offspring” from taking power. Later on there is Molly, a clone who, after being away from her clone-group on an expedition, feels the urge to individuality emerge within her. Another such clone is Ben, who, along with Molly, happens to be fertile, and they have a son named Mark. Mark ends up being the strongest character in defense of individuality. In answer to the clones’ “there is no one, there is only the whole” philosophy, he defiantly declares:

“They’re all lies! I’m one. I’m an individual! I am one!

And he does this at the risk of his own life, knowing the powers-that-be barely tolerate his presence and may decide to end his life at any time. Now that’s a character I can admire and sympathize with. Indeed, that’s one of the things Wilhelm really succeeded at: on a personal level, the characters are believable and convincing, and exhibit realistic emotion. They are easy to care about, to worry about, to root for, and to admire.

Another thing Wilhelm does well is portraying the solemn emptiness of the post-apocalyptic world as the characters travel through it, reaching out to see what’s out there. As Mark travels the eastern waterways by canoe all alone, the sense of isolation is profound. There’s just something very convincing about the natural settings in which the plot unfolds: the rivers, the trees, the caves, the rain. I don’t know how she did it, but they all seemed so vivid, as if I could almost reach out and touch them.

By the end, there’s a resolution to the whole conflict, but I won’t spoil it for you. The bottom line: this novel was pretty weak on a scientific level, but was very very strong on other levels: social, personal, emotional, and on the level of writing style, which flowed smoothly and pleasantly. An enjoyable experience overall, and I will certainly consider reading more from Wilhelm.


5 responses to “Wilhelm’s Sweet Birds: sweet, yet partly silly

  1. Good review, L-K. I had forgotten about the appendicitis thing. I have a lot of the same criticisms of this book, but I got past all of them and I really love it on the whole.

  2. Nice review. I have added this one to my list of post-apocalyptic novels to read.

  3. How fitting — comments from two people I KNOW are big post-apocalypse fans. 🙂

    Omph, I can see why you love this book, even if I’m not quite as devoted. It’s good to find at least something from your top ten list that we largely agree on.

    Shannon, if you stack that unread book pile any higher it might fall over and hurt you! But, I think there’s a good chance you’ll like this one, so maybe it’s worth the risk. 😉

  4. It is nice to find something we agree on. I am still waiting for you to post on Worm’s that you are reading Liege-Killer. Im going to read that one then too.

  5. Pingback: Worth Reading: Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang « Books Worth Reading

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