Review of Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm
Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang
by Kate Wilhelm
Apparently a classic, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang was a parabolic story for me. In the beginning, I was intrigued. As the story went on, Kate Wilhelm started to lose me. I was less and less interested in the flaccid lives of these clones. Yet towards the end, my interest was piqued once more, and I started to understand what Wilhelm was trying to do with this book. While I wouldn’t go so far as to declare this a must-read for all, I understand why it has become regarded as a classic, particularly when discussing clone stories.
Set twenty minutes into the future, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang follows the descendants of a small group of people living in the Appalachians. However, instead of reproducing sexually, this group cloned themselves. A couple of generations later, the clones are trying to solve the copy-of-a-copy problem that tends to crop up in these situations; they are loath to continue using sexual reproduction to offset the degradation of their genes. But there is something more serious happening: as teams of clones begin to venture out of their home valley in search of supplies and information about this post-apocalyptic world, there are worrisome signs that these clones might be less resilient than original humans were. One teenage boy, the illicit sexual offspring of a clone who got a taste of independent thought, offers the key to their survival—if they are willing to take it.
Initially, I wasn’t buying into the hype. The setup felt very trite and obvious: so the clones don’t consider themselves the same species as their human progenitors. Big deal. Seen it before, doesn’t end well. But I kept going, and I’m glad I did. Wilhelm won me over eventually with her careful depiction of an insular and conservative society that ends up too fragile and stagnant for its own good. While this is a predictable result of their nature, the way she gets us there makes for a meditative and fulfilling read.
With the shift in narrative focus to Mark later in the book, we finally get to see a foil to the clones’ sameness. However, his youthful naivety means that he is a very flawed (if sympathetic) hero. I want to cheer for him, yet I also recognized as I was reading why he alone could not sway the clones onto a different path.
Ultimately, while Wilhelm’s story is grounded in the events of the time in which she was writing, the theme feels timeless. This book reminded me a lot of Parable of the Sower, which is not at all about clones but is about the downfall of society. In both books, the fall is happening in the background. Whereas Butler was concerned with chronicling how humans connect and form community during such a fall, Wilhelm instead wanted to look at what we might do to survive. Butler’s book concentrates on the human cost of living after the collapse of civilization; Wilhelm’s is about the cost of living without our humanity.
I wish I could say that neither book felt relevant now—but they both do. As I noted in my review of Parable of the Sower at the start of this year, Butler feels prescient in the worst possible way. While Wilhelm is not quite the same, she does capture, I think, the dangers of expecting technology to get us out of difficult social situations. This parable is meant more the techbros who follow people like Elon Musk, who wax poetic about longtermism and the idea that we can all upload ourselves to a utopian cloud hosted in a Dyson sphere. We won’t clone our way out of the fall of civilization—but I can easily imagine some blockchain-fuelled scam artist trying to convince people on Twitter that’s the solution.
Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang did not wow me, didn’t floor me, but that is often the way of the classics for me. I can recognize its value and its power, and I am very glad that I read it.