A Review of “Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang” by Kate Wilhelm

(Warning: The review below contains what some may consider to be spoilers. But on the whole, I do not think that reading this review will spoil the enjoyment of the book for you.)
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Science fiction stories usually concern the impact of the progress of science on human beings. When the science part dominates, it is called “Hard SF”: when the human part dominates, it is “Soft SF”. However, this is not a rigid categorisation as most Hard SF stories (for example, Asimov’s Foundation series) contain some sociology, and most Soft SF cannot exist without some science. The most fascinating Soft SF stories deal with a society unalterably modified by science, and how human beings come to term with it.

Did I just say “human beings”? Well, as far as Kate Wilhelm’s Hugo and Locus award-winning novel, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is concerned, you can add the word “almost” – since most of the characters in this story are clones.

***

The novel is a dystopia: one that many science fiction writers seem to love – the whole world having gone to hell on a handcart. Wars, pollution and pestilence of Biblical proportions are slowly wiping out life on earth. To compound the problem, human beings and animals are becoming increasingly sterile. It seems that the world is doomed to extinction.

The filthy rich Sumner family, up in their farm on the Shenandoah Valley, have read the signs early and have found a solution. They will preserve an island of stability and sanity in a world gone volatile and mad in their mountain citadel – and led by the gifted Dr. Walt, Harry Vlasic and David Sumner, they develop the ultimate answer to sterility – cloning.

So far, so good. Only, they discover too late that clones are not humans in the true sense of the word. Much more single-minded and efficient than their originals, and sharing an extra-sensory empathy with one another, they soon take over… and the world seems ready for a new species. A society where individuality is unknown and any deviation from the group is frowned upon; where sex is a group activity and the production of children, other than the cloned ones, is by harvesting a handful of fertile women as “breeders”. It is the end of humankind as we know it.

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Or is it?

On a field trip to gather information and building materials (a perilous one that a few hardy individuals periodically make – it is literally a matter of life and death for any clone to be separated from the group for too long), Molly, the artist, is touched and permanently changed by nature. She can’t go back to the group existence any more: she has rediscovered humanity. Her art becomes steadily less utilitarian and more idiosyncratic, and she begins questioning group values. Of course, this striving for individuality is major deviant behaviour among the clones, so they isolate her in the old house, with its hoard of books. Unknown to them, she is carrying something else – the son of the doctor Ben in her womb.

Molly and her son Mark enjoy an idyllic existence in the old house for five years until they are ultimately discovered. Mark is taken away to live in the communal nursery with other children, and Molly is assigned the role of a breeder, a baby – producing machine.

But once touched by nature, man cannot become a machine again. As the clone community declines because of lack of innovation, abhorrence of nature and the steadily dwindling resources from a dead world, Mark, the earth-child, provides the spark to ensure that humanity is born again.

***

The novel is structured in three parts: the first part (and in my opinion, the weakest) showing the development of the society of the clones and their takeover, the second part detailing Molly’s “conversion” and the third, the renaissance of humanity through Mark. Even though it attempts to be nothing other than science fiction, the mythical overtones are hard to miss. David Sumner is the original savior prophet/ hero, who creates the chosen race and is ultimately sacrificed by them: Molly, the Mother of God/ Mother Goddess: and Mark, the persecuted God Child/ Hero/ Messiah of the new world.

Kate Wilhelm wrote this novel in the seventies, when the cold war was going strong. For Western Europeans and Americans, the Soviet Union was the Devil Incarnate and the ultimate dystopia, a place where human beings have lost all claims to individuality and function only as cogs in the machine, as epitomised by the communist bloc (we now understand that this was far removed from the truth). In those days, a communist takeover of the world was a real threat in the mind of the average American; the end of civilisation as we know it. Part of the success of this novel is that that particular paranoia is explored in detail, without being judgmental.

“The Freedom of the Individual” is at the heart of the American secular religion, sometimes (in the opinion of citizens of other countries) carried to ridiculous extremes (one cannot imagine a philosophy like Ayn Rand’s meriting serious consideration anywhere else in the world). Collectivism of any kind is to be abhorred. So imagine the situation if the human race becomes collective, not through force, not through choice, but as an inherent feature of their biological make-up? That is what the author does, and her prediction on the fate of such a society is clear and unambiguous: death by atrophy of the spirit.

The passage reproduced below encapsulates the author’s philosophy in a nutshell.

…He looked over the class, and continued. “Our goal is to remove the need for sexual reproduction. Then we will be able to plan our future. If we need road builders, we can clone fifty or a hundred for this purpose, train them from infancy, and send them out to fulfill their destiny. We can clone boat builders, sailors, send them out to the sea to locate the course of the fish our first explorers discovered in the Potomac. A hundred farmers, to relieve those who would prefer to be working over the test tubes than hoeing rows of carrots.”

Another ripple of laughter passed over the students. Barry smiled also; without exception they all worked their hours in the fields.

“For the first time since mankind walked the face of the earth,” he said, “there will be no misfits.”

“And no geniuses,” a voice said lazily, and he looked to the rear of the class to see Mark, still slouched down in his chair, his blue eyes bright, grinning slightly. Deliberately he winked at Barry, then closed both eyes again, and apparently returned to sleep.

The community where everybody is forced to work in the fields and children belong to the group and not to their parents seems like a parody of Chairman Mao’s China.

It is interesting to note that Mark saves the society because he is more in tune with nature than the clones who needs the presence of each other for sustenance and cannot survive alone. While stressing individuality, Ms. Wilhelm also seems to advocating the recognition of our umbilical tie to Mother Earth (Gaia, Bhumi, call her whatever you will). Presumably it was the separation which brought about the unnamed catastrophe at the beginning of the story – a scenario which eerily parallels the situation we find ourselves in today…

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