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Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang

By Kate Wilhelm 

17 Jun, 2014



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I picked this novel purely because whenever I listened to music on random shuffle, this song kept coming up:

This began as a novella in Orbit 15, an anthology series young readers – people for whom the resignation of Richard M. Nixon is not a living memory – probably are unfamiliar with. Stories from the Orbit anthology won accolades and nominations with stories running from traditional to the avant-garde, something that angried up the blood of science fiction’s Old Guard. In 1971, enraged that six of the seven nominees for the short story Nebula were from various Orbit anthologies, the grognards mass voted for no award’ instead, thus firmly chastising editor Damon Knight and all his writers for daring to make everyone else look bad.

Note how I don’t reference Harrison Bergeron’ at this time. Even I am impressed with my self control at this juncture.

I don’t think Orbit 15 was quite the nomination magnet 6 and 7 were but in novel form Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang won the Hugo and was nominated for a Nebula.

The book begins with the Sumners, a clannish and wealthy family whose money and vast holdings in the Shenandoah Valley have pre-adapted them to survive what is coming, at least for a time .

Humanity’s atom bomb tests, pollution and over-harvesting have succeeded in tipping the world’s ecologies over into collapse. The Sumners are collectively canny enough to accept the evidence that they see and self-centered enough to turn their land into a secure little fortress in which to hide as the rest of humanity is wiped out in a surprisingly quiet apocalypse.

This does not entirely save the clan; not only do many of the Sumners and their outkin die from the new diseases but it soon becomes clear they are victims of mass sterility. Happily for the Sumners, before the apocalypse they constructed a medical facility of particularly advanced design, one able to clone the existing Sumners. Although there are some drawbacks to the cloning process, this will buy enough time to get by the infertility bottle-neck.

Perhaps because of widespread PTSD or just because the Sumners seem to be terrible people of the sort who might order a young clone to their room because she looks like a dead lover, the Sumners do not do a particularly good job of raising the clones. Lacking any particular sense of community with the humans who created them the clones dial the Sumner sense of entitlement up to 11, declare themselves a new and superior form of humanity and set out to establish a new world of the clones, by the clones and for the clones.

We follow the community through a couple of generations as they try to work out a sustainable way of life for themselves despite some fairly serious psychological limitations — clones raised en mass really don’t like to head out on solitary missions – and the fact they’re using a very high tech solution in a world whose industrial capacity is essentially zero. Their unique management style, which combines brutal exploitation of the designated lower orders with an ability to ignore and erase any fact that they deem unacceptable, does not help.

I am torn between seeing the cavalcade of abusive relationships in this as characterization or unintended commentary on SF’s society as the time. On the balance, the quality of the writing is such that I am inclined to lean more towards the first than the second; each generation treats the next merely as tools to be used for survival and because the adults cannot be bothered with mere empathy when it comes to those who will replace them, the consequences are pretty horrible, both in terms of how people are exploited and how successful all this is at accomplishing its goals. If we were supposed to find these people and their methods sympathetic, their schemes would have produced better results.

Similarly, I tend to see how the clones turned out not as the inevitable consequence of being clones but because they were raised by the Sumners, and the Sumners are terrible, terrible people whose one moment of foresight in no way compensates for all their other flaws. I will grant that the clone fondness for incest draws on a well-established tradition in this Southern family but even that is probably culture, not nature.

(I did wonder if Wilhelm ever met identical twins)

I would not hold out much hope that the descendents of these people will learn better any time soon: Mark may be able to break out of the limits of the community’s culture but one of his first acts while doing so is to drug and kidnap a bunch of fertile women for his own personal breeding stock. I don’t see that ending well for anyone except Mark.

The background is there to justify this little snow globe tale but I do wonder what the next few million years look like on this Earth. It seems likely that the humans have managed to kill off pretty much everything with a spine, aside from humans (if they survive the extremely narrow genetic bottleneck they are passing through), and while no doubt there are other survivors here and there, the world that emerges from this calamity must be as different from ours as ours from the world of the dinosaurs or their was from the world of the therapsids.

People think modern SF is pretty downbeat and gloomy but honestly, it’s just going over ground well-turned in the 1970s. You could tweak a few details1 and publish this as new; aside from the fact the book is about half as long as its modern analog would be this would fit in very nicely with modern dystopias.

Wilhelm won awards and nominations for her own works of science fiction, and worked long and hard to improve the general level of prose in SF. These days her output appears to be predominantly mystery, in particular the Barbara Holloway and the Constance Leidl & Charlie Meiklejohn stories.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is available as an ebook

  1. Sadly, the part where the Americans are astounded that birthrates in the Third World are falling could be left untouched.