Monday, July 6, 2015

Review of Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm

Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is an intriguing novel.  Having a structure that nicely suits its intents, possessing good, even enjoyable prose, creating imaginative tech and scenes, and escalating plot complementary to the coming of age of a young man, it’s only that its politics are so contentious that the novel is not regarded as a masterpiece (though I’m sure those who agree with its politics regard it as such).  Not for the contentious nature of its politics rather its straw man ideological conflict (the opposite of contentious!), I feel precisely the same about Kate Wilhelm’s 1976 Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang. 

The writing on the wall, a rich family in the US sets up scientific laboratory to discover ways to avert humanity’s doom at the outset of Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang.  Male and female fertility dropping, disease spreading, and environmental ruin taking hold, their lab discovers in the knick of time that cloning humanity restores fecundity, allowing the species to continue.  Thus, as the human population outside the lab dwindles to zero, a new generation—a generation of clones, enters the world. Eventually forming their own enclave as the originals die off, the clones settle into a society where conformity is not only the norm but expected.  Though the women set up in breeding programs with the hope of returning humanity to the state it once was, a wrench is thrown in the works with the birth of Molly.  An artist who sees the world differently, her clash with the clone society spells big changes for their community, and eventually the world.

If it isn’t obvious, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is a Cold War text confirming the integrity of the democratic West.  Nothing challenging about the novel, it erects a straw man of socialism, and knocks him down.  This is something of a disappointment because, like Starship Troopers, Wilhelm does all the little things right to build a good strory.  The prose is smooth, the elements are properly couched in a fitting plot, some of the relationships tug at the heartstrings, and the narrative generally remains focused throughout.  Nothing blatantly wrong with the execution, it’s in ideological originality the novel crumbles.

Wilhelm rarely, if ever, delves into the humanity of being a clone.  Instead representative of a Borg-on-Earth mindset, the clones are contrived to occupy the simplicity of bad guy territory.  Like Russia in Hollywood in the 80s, they are painted in the malevolent red of “socialism”.  Molly and her son likewise monochrome in reacting to the restrictions on their rights to individual expression, Wilhelm offers no nuance or middle ground between the two sides, when, in reality, the gulf is fully populated by subtler perspectives. 

As a result, the story becomes unrelated to the reality it is supposedly commenting upon.  Overly-simplistic, the arrangement all too easily preys on American paranoia at having freedom taken away, and by doing so, does or says nothing new.  Like beating a dead horse, Wilhelm confirms that, indeed, individual freedom is best for the advancement of the species—a sentiment unmatched by the pretension of the title.  Humanity more flexible and malleable in reality, the novel feels as though the characters have been separated along a black and white conceptual divide rather than falling naturally into the myriad places we see in the real world.  After all, there is no political divide in the US, rather political divisions.

…Mark stood up and his eyes glinted as the light changed in them. “That book is a lie,” he said clearly. “They’re all lies! I’m one. I’m an individual! I am one!” He started for the door.
      “Mark, wait a minute,” Barry said. “Have you ever seen what happens to a strange ant when it falls into another ant colony?”
      At the door Mark nodded. “But I’m not an ant,” he said.

Ooh.  Great quote! We’re hitting 11 on the profound meter, boss! Could somebody get Ayn Rand on the phone please!!”  I hope my humor is not misinterpreted, but that is the depth of philosophy in Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang.  YA fiction, ok.  But adult fiction should perhaps be a touch more complex. 

In keeping with the simple ideological presentation, something must be said of the conclusion.  Conveniently skipping the realities of twenty years of utopia building (as if the Faberge egg could be built by made so easily), the novel commits the sin of ending on a fairy tale note—sweet and singing (get it?). The perfect society, apparently, is the result of the individual taking a step away from the herd, implementing their own ideas, everybody follows them, and voila, utopia.  This is interesting considering Wilhelm spends the whole novel deconstructing the idea that conformity is BAD and non-conformity is GOOD (Ayn Rand are you listening?!?!).  Yet, in the conclusion, individualism is good as long as YOU are able to get a group of people to ignore THEIR ideas and follow YOUR ideas.  In short, a true utopia seems to imply some balance of conformity and non-conformity, and the novel, consummated by the fairy tale ending, does not seem to reflect this balance.  Wilhelm provides little information as to the all-so-important details of her utopia/fairy tale, but seems to have left the people in a situation not so different from where they began politically and socially, which begs the question, wouldn’t the cycle start again?  Has she truly solved humanity’s problems?  I digress…

In the end, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is a paper tiger.   Performing all the basics of storytelling correctly (and some even softly, nicely, touchingly), it tells of the end of humanity as we know it and its evolution into something more (the same) in the aftermath of a global epidemic.  But ideologically it is collapsible. Taking a b&w view of humanity and politics, it does itself no favors by its simplistic approach.  Ending in a utopia that speaks more to fairy tales than the realities of the human condition, its concepts say nothing that has not been voiced over and over since communism first threatened the US.  For a more adroit examination of the subject matter in a similar post-ap scenario, see Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow.  Likewise, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale unpacks the idea of female conformity and oppression in significantly greater—and adult—detail.  I’m not an ant, indeed.

For different perspectives of Wilhelm's novel, please see the following reviews from other quality voices in the community:


  1. It is rather heavy handed in its critique of socialism, isn't it? I thought it very much marked it as a book of its time. If I compare this to the way Ursula K. Le Guin handles similar themes in the Dispossessed, Le Guin's novel has aged a lot more gracefully.

    1. Agreed. The Dispossessed takes its ideology one big step further to remain relevant to this day.

      Also, thanks for the comment. I knew there was another good review I had read somewhere but couldn't remember. It's been added. ;)

  2. That's twice that a book I really liked has been essentially pigeonholed as Randian tripe. I'm starting to wonder whether I'm some latent laissez-faire Objectivist deluding myself as a progressive leftist. I don't like Wal-Mart AND I have a problem with conformity. What's a girl to do?

    I really hate that individualism has become synonymous with anarcho-capitalism. (AND objectivism. Being objective should be a good thing. Give us back our words, Ayn Rand!)

    Regarding the message of the book, she painted small community tyranny as nightmarish-- which doesn't seem on par with it being an anti-Communist message. Small community tyranny isn't the same thing as large state regulation. While I agree that Wilhelm's writing is Cold War-influenced (and what SF author of the time wasn't?), I think she is more influenced by the threat (and perhaps, promise) of nuclear apocalypse, rather than by any overt political stance.

    Putting aside the message of the book, I thought Wilhelm captured the mood of her restrictive, conformist society very well, and a lot of moments with the clones felt genuinely creepy and suffocating. It's probably one of the few books I've read in the past couple of years that had scenes that really creeped me out.

    1. I don't think Wilhelm's novel is intentionally an Objectivist Manifesto (if we can assign any meaning to the term 'objectivism'), but I do think she intended the outcome to be very much in line with American individualism - the pioneer spirit amidst pressure to conform. Perhaps I jumped too far to parallel conformance with socialism, but that was the vibe I was getting. The scale of the effect of Molly's son (the fairy tale ending), I felt, was intended to contrast the scale of the clone community - something which only the size of socialism matches. A small town mentality seems too small by comparison of effect. But that, of course, is wiiide open to discussion.

      Has individualism become synonymous with anarcho-capitalism? I don't ask out of doubt, rather curiosity. I mostly depend on friends to tell me when something important happens in the world, and thus miss out on most of the details.

      I wasn't so much creeped out by the clones, as I was frustrated. They were more like robots than humans, and given what we know of cloning, they seem to defy the notion of human. I've seen much worse, but for a book presuming to deliver such a profound message, they struck me as too stereotypical. But, like most things about books, this too is wiiide open for discussion - especially since I seem to be in the minority about the novel.

    2. It seems like some people I talk to object to any of Rand's tenets and individualism is one of them, but it's confusing to me because individualism is part of many leftist philosophical systems, too. I used to be a political news junkie, but shut down after the reelection of Bush and all that mess, so, like you, I feel like I missed something in the public discourse to explain that leap. I get your reaction to anything that rings like American individualism, which has more to do with business and the economy, while cultural pressures (nuclear family, Christianity) remain the norm.

      I think what Val says in her review about clones having it bad in fiction is an astute observation, though. It's something that had never occurred to me.

    3. His ;)

      It's not so much the worship of individualism that bothered me in this novel (and many other sf novels for that matter, it is a very common topic) but more the automatic dismissal of anything collectivist as corrupt, leading to stagnation and inferior to any system bases on self interest.
      It's not that these systems don't have their problems but one could just as easily argue that putting your own interests first has lead to some of the most horrific acts in human history. For all we know, the disaster that befell Wilhem's world was caused by it and history will repeat itself once a new, individualistic society has managed to establish itself. And yet most people interpret it as a victory for the individual. It doesn't feel like one to me.

  3. I got so far with this but then gave up. I had high expectations of something good, and parts of it were good. But then I just lost interest.

    1. Why did you lose interest? Her style? The lack of realism? Something else?