Tuesday, August 3, 2010

SF Masterworks #67: Kate Wilhelm, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang

In my previous reviews of Samuel Delany's Dhalgren and J.G. Ballard's The Drowned World, I noted how in the 1960s and 1970s the New Wave of SF writers had begun focusing more on social, cultural, and environmental matters than had previous generations of SF writers.  In her 1974 novel, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, American writer Kate Wilhelm tackles some of the same environmental issues that Ballard did in his 1962 work, except Wilhelm's focuses more on the deleterious effects of human manipulations than Ballard's depiction of humans as being hopelessly adrift in the face of environmental change.  Wilhelm also explores the issue of human cloning, decades before Dolly the cloned sheep led to global knee-jerk reactions to the ethical nature of animal cloning.  It is an interesting combination of two related issues, the effects of human nuclear testing on the environment and the consequences of creating a society of clones, a combination that works to some extent but perhaps lacks the power that such a contentious commingling should have achieved.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang take place over several generations in an isolated part of the Shenandoah Valley along the Virginia-West Virginia border.  A far-seeing wealthy individual, Grandfather Sumner, has spent years developing advanced biological technology in an isolated part of the United States as a way of preserving the human race from what he sees as a looming catastrophe caused by nuclear radiation destroying the protective atmospheric layers.  The world at the time of the story's opening has seen mass famines and extinction events seem set to occur as the radiation levels affect the ability of animals, including humans, to reproduce.  Here is how Grandfather Sumner describes it to his grandson, David, who possesses much of the technological know-how that would be essential for ensuring the success of his grandfather's plans to preserve the human race:

"I know the signs, David.  The pollution's catching up to us faster than anyone knows.  There's more radiation in the atmosphere than there's been since Hiroshima - French tests, China's tests.  Leaks.  God knows where all of it's coming from.  We reached zero population growth a couple of years ago, but, David, we were trying, and other nations are getting there too, and they aren't trying.  There's famine in one-fourth of the world right now.  Not ten years from now, not six months from now.  The famines are here and they've been here for three, four years already, and they're getting worse.  There're more diseases than there's ever been since the good Lord sent the plagues to visit the Egyptians.  And they're plagues that we don't know anything about.

"There's more drought and more flooding that there's ever been.  England's changing into a desert, the bogs and moors are drying up.  Entire species of fish are gone, just damn gone, and in only a year or two.  The anchovies are gone.  The codfish industry is gone.  The cod they are catching are diseased, unfit to use.  There's no fishing off the west coast of the Americas.

"Every damn protein crop on earth has some sort of blight that gets worse and worse.  Corn blight.  Wheat rust.  Soybean blight.  We're restricting our exports of food now, and next year we'll stop them altogether.  We're having shortages no one ever dreamed of.  Tin, copper, aluminum, paper.  Chlorine, by God!  And what do you think will happen in the world when we suddenly can't even purify our drinking water?" (pp. 13-14)

Grandfather Sumner's dire predictions do come true.  A superplague, combined with the increased pace of the famines, droughts, and other environmental disasters, wipes out virtually all of the human race, except in isolated pockets such as the compound that the Sumners occupy.  However, even those remnants suffer one last cruelty - all are now infertile, doomed to die unless they are able to reproduce themselves via clones.  Yet there is no evidence than anyone outside of Grandfather Sumner planned ahead for this eventuality, so the human race, in the second generation of this tale, apparently is limited to a small stretch of the Appalachian region, where clones of most of the surviving family members are now being produced in vats.

Yet there are some unforeseen problems associated with this.  Wilhelm does a good job in exploring the social climate that might develop if there were groups of vat-produced carbon copies of prior human selves.  Would there be a true sense of self-identity?  Or would the clones tend to view themselves as being parts of a whole rather than sharing in the evolutionary urges of traditional, sexually-produced humans?  These are provocative questions, particularly during a time in which debates on the environment, particularly the nature vs. nurture argument of how to raise children, raged in the United States and in certain parts of Western Europe. 

Wilhelm's approach to these issues is to use an accidental, sexually-reproduced human boy, Mark, to illustrate the problems she saw inherent in a static society where all are viewed as parts of a larger whole.  Doubtless to readers in the 1970s, the clone society, where sexual reproduction was discouraged, could be seen as a metaphor for the stifling control mechanisms in place in Communist regimes during that time.  Today, however, such a connection might not be as readily apparent to younger readers who did not grow up in fear of the nefarious power of the Evil Empire.  It is an interesting, if albeit quaint, discussion on matters of originality versus conformity, of freedom versus security. 

Yet despite the intriguing setting, Wilhelm's story lacks some of the power that it should have, considering the nature of the story.  In reflecting back on my reactions to this story, I found myself feeling as though she rushed through large periods of time in order to create a narrative that could stretch three generations and yet be barely 250 pages in length.  There are times where I was uncertain if she wanted to focus more on the environmental problems created by humans or on the consequences of having a clone society.  This division of focus dampened my appreciation for the novel, in part because Wilhelm failed to integrate these vital components of her story as well as she could have done if she had taken just a bit more space to delve further into the connections between environment and human societal creation.

This is not to say that Wilhelm's work is poor.  It is a flawed work, yes, yet its flaws serve to underscore just how ambitious her story truly was, especially for the mid-1970s.  It is not the most gracile of narratives, as outside of Mark, who is told more through the eyes of the clones rather than his own voice, the characterizations are mostly sketchy, due in part to narrative constraints.  But behind the flaws lies a thought-provoking story, one that still has some power thirty-six years after its initial publication.  While its power might be weakened from the flaws I mention above, it still contains a narrative force that is stronger than much of the SF produced then and afterward.  Is it a true "Masterwork"?  That is a debatable question.  Considering that it still feels relevant today, I would argue that yes, yes it is worthy of consideration of being a "Masterwork," but with the caveat that some of the narrative elements will feel quite dated today, particularly the metaphorical references to Communism.  Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang deserves to be read by younger generations of SF readers, if only to see first-hand some of the concerns that Westerners in general had a generation or two ago in regards to the environment, how to raise children, and the worries about the insidious nature of Communism as Westerners tended to view that centralized system of government.  It has its problems, but the rewards outweigh those deficiencies. 


  1. I have to disagree with you on this one. I truly loved the book. Not so much for its ideas as for its melancholic atmosphere and world-building. The subtle way in which the clones found what has happened to New York is a great example for that. Also the way further generations could not comprehend abstractions was chilling.


  2. I found the setting to be okay, but nothing really spectacular. Then again, I'm not the sort of person who often pays attention to the scenery. The New York situation I thought was interesting, but it could have been written in a more direct, personal fashion. Come and think of it, your examples remind me even more why I was vaguely let-down by the book, as it was a good premise that was told competently, but it just felt as though there were some elements missing that could have made it an outstanding book rather than a good-to-very good work.

  3. Oh well, beauty is in the eye and all that :)


  4. True. Later today, I'll start work on the Lindsay and Silverberg reviews. There might be a lot more to argue about with those two! :D

  5. Haven't read the first and didn't like the second too much, so bring it on :p

  6. Writing the Silverberg at the moment. Should be up in the next hour or so, depending on whether or not I choose to take a break for a while. I happened to have liked that one quite a bit ;)

  7. Oh, it's definitely good. Just left me completely uninvolved...

    Also, check your e-mail. Not the place for this, I know, but...