Where Late the Sweet Birds Sing • 1976 • SF novel by Kate Wilhelm


Meta: isfdb. SF Master works #67. SF novel of Kate Wilhelm published in 1976. It won the 1977 Hugo, and Locus awards.

A Post-Apocalyptic story about an isolated group of clones in their Appalachian hideout, their history and future.

The story itself wasn’t that great – simple, predictable, diffuse. Only the ending was emotionally adequate.

Main strengths were the nature centric, poetical language which you don’t find very often in SF. Sometimes, it read like a description from Colonial North America with native Americans fishing and talking to the trees. Rivers flooding on dam bursts, nature growing as humanity retreats, vast empty landscapes, ruined cities. You’ll find poetry everywhere in this novel, starting from the title which cites Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, starting with
“That time of year thou mayst in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.”

The other part’s titles are also citations which fits the general poetic hayfield feeling very well:
Second part’s title “Shenandoah” refers to the Virginian river, covered by several poems, e.g. one from Carl Sandberg. Third part’s title “At the Still Point” is taken from T.S. Eliot’s poemhttps://www.goodreads.com/quotes/5827…

Another strength was the juxtaposition of normal humans and the clone society. The latter one being nearly as pack-minded as the Tines in A Fire Upon the Deep. This contrast remembered me a lot of the newer Beggars in Spain with its new generation of sleepless kids opposing human society.

Cloning is one of the central themes of SF: Bokanovsky’s process in Brave New World comes to mind. But there are other contestants as well: Nine Lives is a story from Ursula LeGuin which seems to be the basis for Kate Wilhelm’s novel. Novelette “Mary” in The Best of Damon Knight or Cloned Lives (note that she is Knight’s third wife), only to name a few. In addition, there is the multiple-award winning Cyteen spinning around one clone protagonist.

Wilhelm published an eponymous novel on cloning in 1965 with Ted Thomas – The Clone – I didn’t read that one, though. It was nominated for the Nebula Award but lost to Dune.

If you’re hunting for literary references on cloning, I’d suggest I Am the Other: Literary Negotiations of Human Cloning – don’t know if that one is really good, though.

The novel isn’t good at scientific aspect – wherever you dive into scientific motivations, you’ll find large holes: cloning and several other predictions like energy production isn’t rooted in science at all. It is more the humanistic aspect, the philosophical musings embedded in beautiful descriptions making this work worth reading. In the end, I didn’t find the predictions and philosophical questions convincing: The group consciousness is introduced without motivation or understanding, and I don’t believe that creativity is linked to individuality, but alone the dispute was very worthwhile.

It won the Nebula Award in 1976 and the next year’s Hugo Award, it is included in several lists as “must-read” SF. I don’t think that it is an outstanding work of literature, but I enjoyed it and recommend it.

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