Monday, January 12, 2015

1977: Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang


                Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm is about as significant of a tonal shift as I have yet experienced from the Hugo Award winning novel to another.  The Forever War was a Vietnam War allegory as told through a space opera, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is social commentary on individualism and environmental damage told through a struggle within a community of clones. The novels feel so different though each is effective in its own way. It just goes to show what variety exists within science fiction. But is Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang any good? Yes, but not quite as much as many that came before it.
                It is not immediate apparent but the title is an excellent reflection of the book. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is from the fourth line of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73. Here is the sonnet in its entirety:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou seest the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.
Like the sonnet, the book tells of the end of things: the pasSang of the day, the dying of a fire, the end of autumn. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang begins as the world is ending. Pollution is cauSang endemic disease and starvation around the world and one family, the Summers, decide to retreat to their family lands and hunker down to survive the coming fall of civilization. He and the other members of his family realize that the pollution and disease has made many of them infertile so they use their resources to construct a cloning lab after one of them, David, realizes that fertility will eventually return after a few rounds of cloning. The only problem is the clones, which are created in groups of 4 to 10, decided that cloning is better and continue cloning groups of clones rather than reproduce individually. A new society eventually forms made up of groups of clones. The clones also develop a form of telepathy and cannot be apart for long.
                The novel is divided into roughly three parts: the original family that created the clones and the eventual takeover, an expedition of clones to the ruins of Washington, D.C. to find advance technology, and the life of Mark, a boy that was convinced and born naturally. These sections are not equal in length as Mark’s story is by far the longest and most interesting. Mark is an outcast and has a difficult time living in the clone society though they come to depend on him more and more throughout the novel since he does not need the community of his fellow clones.
                The main themes in Where the Sweet Birds Sang are individuality, love of nature (and an implied distain for high technology), and adaptation. There is an interesting back and forth between adaptation and individuality. The Summers family creates clones to adapt to the changes as society collapses but eventually the clones find that lacking individual hurts their chances at survival. Many works of science fiction show that one adaptation is necessary so it was interesting to read one where the adaptation failed to adapt. I do find the anti-technology bent in the story a bit disconcerting, however. Technology and its by product pollution caused the fall and the clones reliance on technology (cloning machines) cause its downfall. In the end, shunning technology is the salvation of mankind, so to speak. Living simply and closer to nature is shown in a rather idyllic way. The author, and many other works that take this view, seem to discount that in a pre-technologically advanced times, life tended to be nasty, brutal, and short (to borrow a phrase from Thomas Hobbes). Disease ravaged communities, hunger was a close companion, and the average life expediency was 40 years. There are drawbacks to living closer to nature that these works often do not acknowledge. It is a minor point in the novel and only really comes up near the end but it is still irritates me.
                There were a handful of aspects I found strange about this novel. The end of the world is described rather vaguely. There is disease and famine but not much of description of how society breaks down. The characters in the first section retreat to their family lands in a remote part of Virginia and that’s that. Apparently, they don’t have to deal with marauding gangs of survivors like every other post-apocalyptical tale I know of it. I’m not sure how I feel about that. On the one hand, it is nice not to deal with usual and tired trope but on the other I find it hard to believe that no one ever came by. The other is sexual promiscuity. It seems to be a fairly common element in a lot of science fiction that people are much more sexually promiscuous in the future. Part of me things this is projecting by the authors but that is just blind speculation. I am hardly a prude but the orgy that Mark comes across in the novel with a group of male clones and a group of female clones was a tad strange. It could be argued that since the groups of clones are almost one individual rather than separate brothers or sisters this is not as strange as it seems but to me it was disquieting to read about a group of brothers with a group of sisters.
                In its own strange way, that brings me to an interesting park I liked about the relations between the clones. The groups of brothers and sisters interacted somewhere between individuals and a collective mind. It was kind of like the relationship between a person and their daemon in His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman. Each is somewhat an individual but they cannot live without their other part. It made the clones more interesting because they were not always of like mind with their fellow clones but enough that it was very difficult to deviate from the pack.
                I enjoyed Where the Late the Sweet Birds Sang. It was by far one of the better stories with clones (superhero comics are replete with terrible clone stories) but it did not grab me as some of the other winners from the 1970s. It just did not have the same level of depth. I would still recommend it but it is not a must read like The Forever War, The Left Hand of Darkness or Dune.
                Speaking of Dune, this is the first year where there was another book nominated for Best Novel that I have actually read. Children of Dune is the third of six Dune books written by Frank Herbert (the later ones written by Kevin Anderson are an abomination and should not be consider canonical). It has been many years since I read Children of Dune yet I remember liking but not nearly as much as Dune or its direct sequel, Dune Messiah. Only the first two are must reads. Children of Dune and The God Emperor of Dune have their moments and I disliked The Heretics of Dune so much that I have not even bothered to read Charterhouse: Dune
                Next we go back into space as I will review Gateway by Frederik Pohl. Happy reading until then!

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