It’s time for another review for Vintage Sci-fi Month! This time, I’m delving into the world of cloning with Kate Wilhelm’s Hugo Award-winning 1974 classic Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang. Special thanks to Dave Lawrie for furnishing me with a copy of the book – follow him on Twitter @ConstructGlue.
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As the world teeters on the brink of destruction, the Sumner family are taking steps to ensure the human race survives. By combining their skills and giving over parts of their estate to experiments in cloning, David and his family hope to rebuild a new world on the ashes of the old. But what will this new version of humanity look like, and can it thrive where the last failed?
Wasting no time, Wilhelm sets up the state of the world rapidly. Crops are failing and sterility is increasing, leading to riots around the world and the gradual collapse of society. As apocalyptic scenarios go, it’s scarier than many of the more violent or explosive ones because it feels so much more plausible. The inexorable slide towards a cliff edge is a theme that contemporary writers of speculative fiction have made excellent use of recently, and the step by step collapse that Wilhelm lays out here is grimly logical and depressingly believable.
These rapid transitions are something of a recurring theme in Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, not just between the different parts (which feel like a series of novellas), but also within the parts themselves. Sometimes these transitions occur between chapters, but often they will be between paragraphs. Occasionally this is a little jarring, as it feels a little like trying to catch up to events as you read, but it does mean that the plot is fairly lean and progresses rapidly. One surprise is the amount of main characters present, with the focus quickly shifting off David after the colony is established. This allows us to see multiple perspectives on the ongoing progress of the society of clones.
One slight downside of the multiple viewpoints is that some of the storylines present aren’t wrapped up in the most satisfying way, but inarguably it’s the implications of cloning human beings that Wilhelm is mainly concerned with: how would it affect their development (both socially and psychologically), what would their society look like, how would they do things differently to their progenitors, etc. There’s a great deal to explore here, with Wilhelm speculating entertainingly and insightfully on how a society of clones might function. Much is made of their physical closeness, indeed their need to be close to one another, with groups of siblings from the same stock sharing personalities and becoming panicked if separated from others of their number.
The society that emerges is neither dystopian nor utopian; it’s possible that those raised within it would think of it as a utopia, whereas anyone else would most likely disagree, but aside from odd instances of menacing or unsettling behaviour from some of the clones in charge, there’s nothing inherently evil about the world here. Coldly, clinically logical, certainly, but this is just another example of the enjoyable hypothesising on Wilhelm’s part. The nature of many of the characters does make it difficult to form much of an attachment to anything more than a handful of them, but this is clearly intentional; not only does it emphasise their ubiquity, it also makes those few aberrant characters stand out even more.
Questions on the need for diversity are also brought to the fore, with some particularly affecting moments occurring around the clones’ inability to process art, as if some essential part of their humanity is ostensibly missing. Wilhelm doesn’t particularly stray into the religious implications of creating life from scratch; whether this missing piece is a soul, she isn’t drawn on. But it’s an idea that recurs throughout, that the clones work well together but are unable to function separately. When taken out of the only environment they have ever known, too – the village – and thrust into the woods, it’s not long before the fear of the unknown and the unpredictability of the natural world causes them serious problems.
How accurate the estimations here are is, of course, impossible for us to say, and those looking for a clear-cut opinion on the moral implications of human cloning should look elsewhere. For anyone who enjoys well realised thought experiments though, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is certainly worth your time.
Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is published by Gollancz as part of their SF Masterworks series. You can order your own copy through this affiliate link.