Vintage Sci-Fi: “Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang” by Kate Wilhelm

Vintage Sci-Fi Month is back!  As I recall, the rule for calling something “Vintage” is that it was written before you were born, but feel free to adjust that as you like. Follow Vintage Sci-Fi Month on Twitter and get in on the fun, too! There will be some SPOILERS for the book discussed here.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm

I initially loved this book. The opening was awesome. There’s a large family with land in a remote part of Virginia who comes together to try to figure out what to do about all the signs of coming global apocalypse–global warming; depopulation; plague; etc. Because of this, I thought it was going to be this epic story of a family struggling to meet the coming collapse of civilization in some kind of pastoral setting.

But then, a sharp turn was taken, and the book jumps ahead a few times as we see the real story is about what happens to the clones that same family had set up to try to solve problems of depopulation in a post-apocalyptic setting. And I have to say… I was a bit disappointed. The initial characters were really just foils for the personality of the later clones, and I felt almost betrayed by the shift in premise.  But then, Wilhelm sucked me back in again with her characters and the ideas present in the book.

We have a lot of big ideas in this novel, as it concerns cloning, humanity in a post-apocalyptic future, and how a new human society with different foundations could emerge. But these ideas are in some ways overshadowed by the pastoral setting Wilhelm opts for. Like Clifford Simak, Wilhelm seems to integrate a call within the structure of the novel. That call is one which urges humans into the wild, to learn about nature, and to, perhaps, learn about humanity itself. Thus, as readers, we are treated to a number of scenes set in the forests around Virginia as the clones learn to navigate the woods while a “natural” child, Mark, teaches them what he’s learned about tracking. But these scenes made me as a reader feel like I was back in the Boy Scouts, being forced to learn the difference between a flathead and phillips screwdriver. It may be exciting for some, but I was bored out of my mind. And that’s how I felt at times while reading/listening to this book.

Going along with all of this is a kind of structure of the society, as the clones become almost psychically attached to one another. There’s no significant explanation of this, nor of how it apparently reverts to “normal” humanity in one of the main characters at one point in the novel. But the dynamics of the clone society are interesting, even as they very clearly reflect some of the society of 1970s America in which they were written. For example, the nature of sexual intimacy started by an act of putting a decorated–often floral–bracelet on one’s desired mate. It’s about as obvious a flower child metaphor as can be found. I suspect one’s mileage will vary quite a bit on this novel, depending on their tastes and even mood at the time they read it. 

I still am not entirely sure how I feel about Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang. It’s by turns haunting, exhilarating, and sometimes dull. It clearly has me thinking long after the fact, though, and that’s what excites me the most about science fiction. 


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2 thoughts on “Vintage Sci-Fi: “Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang” by Kate Wilhelm

  1. […] Where Late the Sweet Birds Sing by Kate Wilhelm- A surprising, quiet novel that will keep you thinking long after you finish it. Certainly one of the more surprising Hugo winners.  […]

  2. socrates17 says:

    Liked it. Didn’t love it. Actually, with Kate, I find myself enjoying her legal mysteries and Private Eye books more than her straight SF.

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