Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm

Rating: 5 out of 5.

“Three Celias came into view, swinging easily with the weight of the baskets, a stair-step succession of Celias. He shouldn’t do that, he reminded himself harshly. They weren’t Celias, none of them had that name. They were Mary and Ann and something else. He couldn’t remember for a moment the third one’s name, and he knew it didn’t matter. They were each and every one Celia.”

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm is an odd mix of heartwarming and bittersweet themes that boasts having won the 1977 Hugo, Locus, and Jupiter awards. Her prose is lovely, evoking the deep connection between humanity and the natural world and subtly juxtaposing it with the destruction of civilization as we know it. Wilhelm crafts a narrative surrounding the end of the world which is timeless and alien, dealing with concepts such as personhood and individuality. While I felt that certain portions of the narrative missed an opportunity for additional nuance and exploration, Wilhelm nevertheless brings us a thoughtful novel that will retain relevance for years to come.

Wilhelm’s prose was my favorite part of this novel, the characters being a close second. Her wordcraft brings her love of nature to the forefront. Reading this book, I could feel the love and emotion she poured into her descriptions of forests, rivers, and the world as a whole. David, Molly, and Mark all share that love – to Wilhelm, it seems that a love and connection to nature is an integral part of humanity. This is reflected in the push and pull between original humans and the clones which are now replacing them as the clones lose that connection and understanding of the natural world.

“He threw twigs into the smooth water, which moved without a ripple, all of a piece on that calm, cold night, and he knew that he didn’t care. 

Wearily, he got up and started to walk again, very cold suddenly. The winters were getting colder, starting earlier, lasting longer, with more snows than he could remember from childhood. As soon as a man stopped adding his megatons of filth to the atmosphere each day, he thought, the atmosphere had reverted to what it must have been long ago, moister weather summer and winter, more stars that he had ever seen before, and more, it seemed, each night than the night before: the sky a clear, endless blue by day, velvet blue-black at night with blazing stars that modern man had never seen.”

This is a novel in three acts: the lead up to the apocalypse, a collective clone group-based society immediately post-apocalypse, and the rise of the individual further down the line. In the first third of the novel we follow David and his family, who see the signs of the world crumbling around them. Fertility rates are dropping. Crops are not producing adequate yields. The climate is changing and sea levels are rising. Nations are arming for nuclear war. In response to this, they plan to create a small commune centered around scientific advancement and discovery which can adapt and respond to whatever threats rear their heads, be they disease or otherwise. Ultimately, it’s fertility that does humanity in: disease, perhaps borne of nuclear fallout, sweeps across the world and causes nearly all mammals to become infertile. David and his family thus turn their efforts towards cloning as a method of preserving humanity and their small amount of livestock.

David’s love interest, Celia, dies early on in the novel. Celia is David’s cousin, which felt rather… gratuitous. It was used to explain why they had never been together earlier in life, but I feel that it could have been handled a bit more delicately without resorting to incest. In most cases I’d consider her death to be a case of clear-cut fridging, but Wilhelm did not kill Celia for a cheap method of motivating David. Instead, Celia’s death is used to highlight the changes in society as the first generations of clones are born. Her illness and her experiences traveling to the farm from abroad are used to provide and outside perspective on what’s happening in the world, which is enormously helpful given the insular nature of our setting.

“Before he joined the other two boys who left first, W-2 said, “They wanted me to tell you, David. One of the girls you call Celia has conceived. One of the boys you call David has impregnated her. They wanted you to know.” Then he turned and followed the others. They quickly vanished among the trees. David slept where they had left him.”

To David, Celia, and the other “elder” humans, the clones are strange, disconcerting, and incredibly Other. Each group, labeled by the scientists as belonging to a certain strain (e.g., M-1, M-2, D-1), finds a small communal family within one another. No longer are they alone as the elders are – they are units of people with a deep understanding and love. 

“Remember when one of your women killed one of us a long time ago, David? Hilda murdered the child of her likeness. We all shared that death, and we realized that each of you is alone. We’re not like you, David. I think you know it, but now you must accept it.” He stood up. “And we won’t go back to what you are.”

In the second arc of the novel, the clone society is in full swing. No more of the elder humans remain, and all other humans in the world are now dead. Initially, the clone society is portrayed positively, with a completely new and different structure which I found incredibly engaging. For a moment, I thought this might be a somewhat heartwarming vision of the apocalypse and in how society might rebuild following. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Although I found the characters compelling, which caused my initial gut reaction to the book to be a solid five stars, further reflection on the plot and themes brought me down to a four. The way the clone society handles “breeders” – fertile women – seems, much like the cousin sex earlier, to be gratuitous. Further, I felt it was incredibly out of character for the society overall.

Breeders are exiled to a separate compound and treated as dead by their clone unit. They are treated as livestock, conditioned to accept their new life with drugs, and generally live an extremely distressing life. There is a short yet disturbing scene wherein Molly, the main character, is artificially inseminated. This makes some sense within the social framework, which prioritizes the unit over all else, but given how close and loving the units are it surprised me that certain units weren’t simply assigned to care for all children and newborns until they and the clones of the newborns were old enough to care for themselves. It felt needlessly dystopian, and very much a way for the author to force the reader to accept the third arc: the rise of the individual. 

The third and final arc of Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang follows Molly’s son, who Molly hid until he was too old to be cloned into a unit. Mark has a deep and intense connection to nature, understanding the forest and trees in a way that none of the clones are able to relate to, reinforcing the connection between nature, humanity, and individualism. To the clones, it just looks like sticks and stones. They are set apart from the natural order of the world. To Mark, nature is a story that speaks to him. Mark is contrasted with the clone groups as an individual free thinker, portrayed as smarter and better in nearly every way – he is the ubermensch of the novel. Ultimately, it’s revealed that with each clone generation, the clones are losing intelligence and are becoming less and less capable of creative thought. Mark takes matters into his own hands by rescuing some of the women from the breeder’s compound to go off on their own. I enjoyed Mark as a character and found him to be an interesting narrative voice, but I couldn’t help but feel a little cheated in that there wasn’t a middle ground between clone units and individualism. 

“There was a snow sculpture standing in the center of the courtyard between the new dorms. It was a male figure, eight feet tall, nude, its legs fused together into a base that was also a pedestal. In one hand the figure carried a club, or perhaps a torch, and the other swung at its side. The feeling of motion, of life, had been captured. It was a man on his way somewhere else, striding along, not to be stopped.

. . .

Barry approached it slowly; there were others looking at it also, mostly children. A few adults were there, and others came until there was a crowd about the statue. A small girl stared, then turned and began to roll a snowball. She threw it at the figure. Barry caught her arm before she could throw again. 

“Don’t do that,” he said. 

She looked at him blankly, looking at the figure even more blankly, and started to inch away. He released her, and she darted back through the people. Her sisters ran to her. They touched each other as if to reassure themselves that all was well. 

“What is it?” one of them asked, unable to see over the heads of the people between her and the statue.

“Just snow,” the little girl answered. “It’s just snow.”

All in all, I felt that this was very much a “big idea” novel that suffered slightly by trying to create an idea over trying to create a cohesive society. However, despite these flaws, I have to give Wilhelm credit: this was an incredibly interesting and engaging novel that portrays clones and a society structure built around them that is unique and thought-provoking. This is a book that carries its ideas on top of gorgeous, nature-centric prose. If that’s at the expense of a few plot details or doesn’t allow as much nuance as I would have hoped, that’s something I can easily live with. This isn’t a long novel, and Wilhelm does a lot with each page and each idea she presents to the reader. An impressive work with ideas I haven’t seen elsewhere, well-deserving of the accolades which have been heaped upon it. 

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang can be found on Amazon and Goodreads.

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Published by Christine Sandquist

Christine Sandquist is an NYC-based sensitivity/developmental editor and author assistant to writers such as Hugo Award Winner Mary Robinette Kowal, World Fantasy Award Winner Tobias S. Buckell, and SOVAS Award Finalist Cadwell Turnbull. They specialize in analyzing and providing feedback on works that include diverse, queer casts, representations of sexual trauma, and broader gender-based violence. They are part of the team behind Reddit r/fantasy, the internet’s largest discussion forum for the greater speculative fiction genre.

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