Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm
Publishing Details: Harper and Row, January 1976
Back-of-the-Book Summary: The spellbinding story of an isolated post-holocaust community determined to preserve itself, through a perilous experiment in cloning. Sweeping, dramatic, rich with humanity, and rigorous in its science, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is widely regarded as a high point of both humanistic & hard SF, winning SF’s Hugo Award and Locus Award on its first publication.
My brother recommended Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang to me two years ago, and those are two years without this book that I can never get back. I never think I’m going to like sci-fi (and the blurb doesn’t lie, this book doesn’t shy away from the “sci” part of that equation) but I finished this book in 36 hours.
What I Liked:
Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is a sci-fi book that reads like a science experiment in its openness. Kate Wilhelm doesn’t try to force certain results (AKA, a MessageTM). Any time cloning is involved, heavy-handed messages about individualism are often around the corner, but Wilhelm doesn’t oversimplify that way. Like a scientist, she is clearly in control of where the story is going, but she isn’t in a rush to make any assumptions or come to any conclusions.
To counterbalance the individuality bent, Wilhelm uses the dystopian setting to remind readers of an inherently bigger picture. Sure, cloning could present a threat to individuality as we currently know it, but how much does that matter when the human race is facing extinction? According to most Western civilizations, humans are inherently individual, but Wilhelm reminds us that individuality is not our defining trait. Humans are also defined by our desire to move forward, desperate to not only survive, but progress, at all costs, making us deeply utilitarian on some base level. Wilhelm zooms in and out of these ideas effortlessly, showing the reader as many angles as possible.
Philosophically, that’s all fascinating, but I wouldn’t be able to read it in a day and a half if it weren’t brilliantly written as well. The plot, the characters, the psychology, these are all incredibly strong points in this book. I can’t explain why they’re so great without spoiling anything, but just know that David and the Sumner’s are just the beginning.
What I Disliked:
The last four pages.
At the very end of the book, Wilhelm takes a clear philosophical stance, effectively cutting off the experimental tone that made the rest of the book so poignant and unique. It’s not that I wanted Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang to be anything it wasn’t; I was never under any illusion that this was a human story that discussed science and philosophy and politics. This is an inherently political story, and while the characters are empathetic and well-written, they were never the point.
Wilhelm presents the book almost like a thought experiment, forever keeping philosophical options open. In the last four pages, she slams the door, and it makes you wonder if she’s been steering you this direction the whole time, if it was ever as open-ended as it felt. Sadly, it becomes one of the worst kinds of endings: one that taints the rest of the book retroactively.
You Might Like This Book If…
- …you like political sci-fi
- …you enjoy following a wide cast of characters
- …you’re looking for a more intense read
- …you’re in the mood to question the definition of humanity
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