Book Review: Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm (Audiobook narrated by Anna Fields)
When the world goes through an apocalypse consisting of virulent strains of the flu, lack of food, and nuclear warfare, one wealthy family manages to survive because they saw it coming. Made up of highly intelligent and highly educated people, such as doctors and scientists, the family creates a 200 bed hospital and uses this as their home base. But there is a serious fertility problem, and how they address it just might change the core of humanity.
I love reading classics of scifi. It’s endlessly fascinating how different people in different times imagine a future (or an apocalypse). This award-winning book had the bonus of being written by a woman, which isn’t always easy to find in older scifi. I also was intrigued by the cloning theme. How would someone in 1977 view something that was, as yet, nowhere near as close to a reality as it is now, with our cloned sheep?
The book starts out incredibly strongly. So strongly, in fact, that I actually had nightmares from it, which never happens to me ever. I am basically a rock of horror and scifi, but this one creeped the bejesus out of me. It’s that creepy combination of incest and cloning. The family are really not people you would want retooling the world. They’re everything that can be (and usually is) bad about the 1%. They’re selfish, self-centered, snobby, and routinely employ nepotism. I found the incest in the first third of the book talking about the first generation of the family to be an interesting metaphor for how the elite can become so backwards and grotesque from sheer isolation. It’s powerful and moving, and a scenario that will remain in my mind.
The second third of the book focuses in on a woman, Molly, from the first generation of clones. This is disturbing in its own way, because they don’t just clone everyone once and have done with it, no. They clone everyone multiple times until there are clusters of the same person at different ages wandering around. They call these clusters “brothers” and “sisters” with the name of the original person as the name of the group, even though the individual ones have their own names. It is profoundly disturbing. This second third looks at the society of clones that the original family unintentionally made. It’s fascinating in its own way and an interesting different way of telling a post-apocalypse story. Often we get only the first generation, but here we get multiple generations.
The last third, unfortunately, didn’t live up to the first two-thirds of the book. Without giving too much away, it looks at a boy who came about by natural methods who gets integrated into the clone society at the age of five. They decide not to clone him and give him brothers for unclear reasons. This last third then looks at his impact on the clone society. I didn’t feel that this worked as well for multiple reasons. For one, it’s almost as if Wilhelm freaked herself out and backed off from the profoundly disturbing story she was telling and went a more conventional direction. That was disappointing. For another, I found it disappointing that she chose to make this game-changer a boy. I expect women scifi authors to be at least a bit cognizant of the need in scifi for more female main characters. In this one, the first third is a man, the second third a woman, and the last third a boy. That is not the best stats from a woman author. I also found certain parts of this to be very boring and slow-moving compared to the first two-thirds. That makes for odd pacing in a book.
Of course, my complaints about the last third backing off, being more conventional, and being rather dull don’t take away from the first two thirds at all. They bring about so many interesting societal questions. For instance, is the incestuous nature of the elite necessarily bad or will it one day save humanity? Will cloning remove something that makes us human, even if they look right? Is it better to cling on to technology at all costs or release it and go back to simpler times? And what about sex? Is monogamy natural and polyamory unnatural? Or is polyamory more welcoming and loving than potentially possessive monogamy? The questions go on and on, which is what is great about scifi.
As for the science itself, it is quite well-done. Wilhelm clearly thought through both keeping a closed-off community alive and cloning and bringing to term embryos. She also put thought into the scientific basis for why clusters of clones would be different from individual humans, touching on psychology and twin studies. I was a bit irritated that she bases the survival of these people on cloning farm animals, when that is not a good use of their limited land resources. Studies have shown many many times that a combination of farming vitamin-rich plants and hunting/gathering are the best use of limited land resources, so this particular element rang a bit of bad science. However, I am not certain how much land usage had been studied in the 1970s, so that could possibly just be a sign of the times.
Now, I did read the audiobook, so I should touch on the narration. Overall, Anna Fields does a very good job. I really enjoyed that they chose a female narrator for a book written by a female author. It let me almost imagine that Kate Wilhelm herself was reading it to me. Fields mostly strikes a good balance of changing voices for different characters without going over the top. The one exception to this is when she narrates children. The voice for that made me cringe, but they mercifully speak only a few times. Mostly, Fields reads smoothly and is easy to follow. She narrates without accidentally putting her own interpretation onto the work, which is ideal for an audiobook.
Overall, then, this is a fascinating classic of scifi. It examines the apocalypse through the lens of the elite, thereby analyzing and critiquing them, but it also looks at possible consequences of cloning and ponders what ultimately makes us human. Although the last third of the book is a bit less creative and more conventional than the first two, it is still a fascinating read. Recommended to scifi fans, particularly those with an interest in group dynamics.
4 out of 5 stars