Guest Post: Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm (1976)

The first in my Kate Wilhelm’s SF Guest Post Series (original announcement and post list) comes via Admiral Ironbombs (twitter) who blogs, rather compulsively, on Vintage SF and other things over at Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased.   Check out his site if you haven’t already!


(Ed Soyka’s cover for the 1977 edition)

Won the 1977 Hugo Award for Best Novel

Won the 1977 Locus Award for Best Novel

Nominated for the 1977 Nebula Award for Best Novel

Before Joachim asked me to write a review as part of this guest post series, I didn’t know much about Kate Wilhelm. (That being the point, of course, a way to raise awareness of lesser­-known but deserving authors.) I knew Wilhelm was the wife of famed editor­critic Damon Knight, I’ve seen other SF bloggers write glowing praise for her novels, and I’ve enjoyed a few of her short fiction in the not too distant past. But I’m actually more familiar with her work as a mystery writer—­­­her début novel More Bitter Than Death was a mystery, as were most of her books since the 1980s. Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1976) is her most famous entry, winning a clutch of awards and earning nominations for several others upon release, so I decided it would be a good place to start. I admit it, I’m the jerk who cherry-­picked Wilhelm’s most famous novel from the guest post series’ list of available reads.

As ecological catastrophe looms, David Sumner’s family takes humanity’s last gamble: in an attempt to preserve the human race in the face of global sterility, the Sumner clan holes up in a hospital­-laboratory complex to clone a new generation. This proves to be something of a success with unintended consequences: only the first four clone generations are fertile. And worse, the clones seem to have different ideas than their human creators in how this new human race should grow: genetic diversity is not seen as a benefit but a hindrance. The same goes for diversity in individuals­­—the clones exist as a collective, where free thought and creativity are unheard of. The narrative jumps forward to follow a clone named Molly on a voyage to explore the ruins of Washington D.C. On that trip, the clones make a discovery that will change the very fabric of their being­­­—sowing seeds that come to fruition with the third point-­of-­view character, Molly’s son Mark, as he changes the clones’ society forever.

Vincent Chong’s cover for the 2012 edition

The novel examines the relationship between society, community and individual, and those themes form the backbone of the novel. The clones establish a society that follows their comprehension and belief for how this new humanity should be structured­­­—alterations due to the ESP-­like ability where batches of clones share emotions and feelings, an empathic link to other clones from the same genetic source. This causes them to form a collective society as individualism is beyond their comprehension; since everything they do and feel is shared within the group, isolation becomes akin to torture, and individuality is a frightening heresy. They are not selfish or petty, acting in the community’s best interest, but can enact great cruelties of compassion­­­—they take great pains to keep the humans and fellow clones alive, but retain many of their fertile members as little more than breeding stock for artificial insemination, hoping to create an army of young clones to reclaim the cities of New England.

Jon Sullivan’s cover for the 2006 edition

David realizes what he and his family have created is not humanity’s salvation but its replacement, though his attempts to alter the clones’ course fail; instead, it’s the great trauma that Molly faces that triggers a new awakening within the clone society. The clones become worried as she develops latent traits of individuality, thought long-­lost and dormant by the clone leadership. And her son, Mark­­­—the product of sexual/biological reproduction­­­—lives on the fringe of their society. Learning from Molly and old books, he has traits that the community needs: the ability to survive and explore out in the wilderness, as the other clones grow terrified under the solemn trees. Mark is creative and self­-sufficient, but he cannot exist on his own—­­­without a community, without heirs, leaving the clone society will make him an evolutionary dead­-end. He even tries to connect with the clones and breeders, looking for someone who can understand and befriend him, to no avail. His alien individuality and childish pranks make him into a danger to the collective’s way of life, and creates a tenuous link between the two groups: each finds the other incomprehensible, but both have something the other needs.

Lauren Helpern’s (?) cover for the 1998 edition

At one level, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang might be read as an allegory for libertarianism, railing against communism or “keeping ­up­-with-the-jonses” conformity, an overtly simplistic black ­and­ white comparison where the individual is good and the community is bad. If that was the author’s intent, I didn’t see it as that stark of a good-­bad contrast. The clones and their society have serious flaws, and with each new generation it gets worse—­­­with each successive generation, the clones lose more of their creativity and individuality. They are blind to their flaws, unable to see what they are missing for their lack of it, and many of them are presented in a humane way despite their limitations. And while Mark could escape the collective at any time, without a community of his own nothing will change, and nothing he’s learned would carry on to a new generation. The book investigates some prescient issues—­­­what is the relationship of the individual to the community? How do the individual and collective interact, when both have something the other needs yet cannot comprehend? Can one person change the workings of an entire society?

Ed Soyka’s cover for the 1983 edition

I’m well acquainted other pastoral post-­apocalyptic novels—The Long TomorrowGreybeard, City and other Simak stories—­­­but I think Wilhelm pens it better than anyone else. Her prose that sways gently like grass under a warm summer breeze, with a compelling elegance and a rich texture. She has an incredible ability to create fully realized and sympathetic characters, making them into living, breathing people who spring off the page.  And this prose is underlined by raw power—­­­emotion that pulls at your heartstrings. I’ve seen other reviews that criticize the novel as faulty science, finding many of the “clone society” ideas to be implausible. Let’s leave aside the fact that David’s family were not trained scientists and didn’t have time to perfect their cloning methodology, which seems a plausible enough reason to me. I think those criticisms overlook what the novel is saying—Wilhelm wrote a potent allegory with much pathos, a parable that investigates key elements of human society. This is a classic of Soft  SF­­­—a book about people and culture ­—not a textbook for how to clone a living organism.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is a gripping novel that clings to your soul, a skillful and thought-­provoking read written in beautiful prose. Her pastoral eco­-apocalypse and clone society are rich in detail that gives great insight into the roles of the individual and the collective.  While others may criticize the book’s science, I found the story near to perfection and give it a high recommendation. Wilhelm writes with impressive emotion and power in her work; Where Late is not only one of the most heartfelt SF books I’ve ever read, it also digs into some truths of the human condition with ringing authenticity. If you’re looking for a quality post-­apocalyptic novel, or if you want a brilliant examination of family and the individual, or if you dislike SF because you think it is only about cold and detached science, read this book. Despite winning the Hugo and Locus, I don’t think this book gets the recognition it deserves, and every SF reader should consider reading it.

(M. C. Escher’s cover for the 1976 edition)


List of Guest Posts

The Infinity Box (1975) via Heloise over at Heloise Merlin’s Weblog

The Killer Thing (1967) via 2theD over at Potpourri of SF Literature

Margaret and I (1971) via Max Cairnduff over at Pechorin’s Journal

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1976) via Admiral Ironbombs over at Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased

Welcome, Chaos (1983) via Megan over at From Couch to Moon

Year of the Cloud (1970) via Mike White over at The Finch and the Pea 

List of my previously posted reviews

Collection: The Mile-Long Spaceship (1963)

Collection: The Downstairs Room and Other Speculative Fiction (1968)

Novel: Margaret and I (1971)

Novel: Juniper Time (1979)


For more book reviews consult the LIST

For more articles + my Michael Bishop Guest Post series consult the LIST


For more book reviews consult the LIST

For more articles + my Michael Bishop Guest Post series consult the LIST

28 thoughts on “Guest Post: Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm (1976)

  1. Lovely, impassioned review about an impressive book that raises many gnarly issues. I, too, enjoyed it and found it has lingered in the memory – as do the issues it examines.

  2. Nice review! I agree it’s beautifully written and well worth reading, but I had mixed feelings about this one. To me it was a well-executed version of something that has been done many times before, and it didn’t add much of an original angle. Reading it, I was especially reminded of Silverberg’s The World Inside – the insular, free-love society,the utopian refuge that has now become a prison, the misfit youth’s journey outside society, etc.

    But I suppose that criticism could be made of a lot of coming of age post-apocalyptic novels, which doesn’t stop me from reading and enjoying them!

    I am surprised that people get hung up on unrealistic science of cloning in this book. It is unrealistic, but no more so than most SF – including most hard SF. People who read SF for realistic science will nearly always be disappointed.

    Interestingly, Clute says her earlier novel ‘The Clone’ with Ted Thomas was a realistic treatment of cloning, but I haven’t managed to get my hands on it.

    • Thanks Mike! I can see where you’re coming from, and as much as I love the subgenre, that’s actually a problem I have with a lot of post-apocalyptic fic—repeating the same elements that have done before. To me, Where Late is a lot like The Road: it triumphs due to its style and emotion, and the way it used those is what set it apart in my mind from similar novels.

      (Also, wasn’t The World Inside heavy on overpopulation, when Where Late is much more pastoral? That’s one of the few Silverbergs from the ’60s-’70s that I have not yet read…)

      I am surprised that people get hung up on unrealistic science of cloning in this book.

      Yeah, it comes across as rather nitpicky and a narrow definition of science fiction… kind of like those one-star reviews I’ve seen of Le Guin, Butler, Silverberg, etc. for “not being science fictional enough” (I assume these comments mean the book lacked hard physics or laser robots, take your pick). I’d rather disconnect from the predictive “Bob said we’d have flying cars in 199X, and here’s the math he used to accomplish that!” and look at the work’s deeper meaning and historical context. But, everyone’s mileage does vary 🙂

      • Agreed, Wilhelm’s book trumps Silverberg for style & emotional power. I can see why it is much more popular. What surprises me about both World Inside and Where Late is that, despite coming after the initiation of the New Wave, and despite these authors having previously written edgier stuff, the books are really similar to stuff written in the 50’s – you mentioned The Long Tomorrow.

      • I found The World Inside quite edgy — not stylistically but content wise. And, the act of rebellion is not one traditionally in novels. And, those who rebel certainly don’t overthrow the system. I thought it was a very good take on overpopulation.

  3. Great review, as always, Chris! I’m glad you enjoyed this one– it was also one of my favorites when I read it. All great points, especially about the libertarian elements– the whole “community as fascist” theme is both horrific and uncomfortable. The book I reviewed is quite different in that respect.

    I can’t believe people pick on this book for its lack of accurate science. Talk about missing the point.

    • Thanks Megan! I feel like the worst kind of slacker because I didn’t even know you’d reviewed this one 😦 But I did think it was right up your alley, so there’s that! Will read your review RIGHT NOW

      the whole “community as fascist” theme is both horrific and uncomfortable

      I think it’s just one take on the novel’s very deep concepts, that whole examination of the relationship between the individual within (and outside of) society. Wilhelm gives a lot more food for thought than “libertarianism good, communism bad”… never really got that vibe, though I’ve seen several reviews mention it.

  4. Well, notice how I did not mention my own review of this book? It was back in the early days when FC2M was more like “Megan’s Sloppy and Subjective Reading Diary.” So no pressure on going over there. Really not a big deal.

    I’m pretty sure it was a Boaz recommendation, btw.

    The libertarian element did not occur to me until you mentioned it. I mostly remember it as a distrust of science, almost Frankenstein-esque. But what I love is Wilhelm’s delicate, yet heavy tone. Truly beautiful fiction.

  5. Geesh, I feel like an ass with so much approval, but I have a somewhat negative view of the novel. I agree with the quality prose, the nice structure, the emotional touch, etc., etc.; Wilhelm has her technique down, for sure. But the ideology the novel presents (similar to the work of Ayn Rand) was a bit simple, even troubling. Where Late the … a very, very American novel preying on American paranoia at having freedom taken away. The conformist anonymity of the clones is presented as ‘bad’, and the ‘all I need to do is put my ideas into action regardless of what everyone thinks to achieve success’ view of the protagonist is presented as ‘good’. It confirms the integrity of the democratic west while tearing down the rottenness of socialism in the east – an idea that was a bit worn even in 1976. This black and white divide I did not find very complex or endearing, and in no way relevant to multitude of political divides that actually exist.

    Moreover, I really disliked the ending, particularly the idea that a utopia could be built in twenty years on the foundation of free choice. The wild west (i.e. the ultimate in a free choice society) isn’t called the wild west for nothing. The idea that a person must give up some freedoms to better the whole was just not part of the discussion leading up to the utopia. Yet that is precisely how the people find their way into the fairy tale ending… Ideologically inconsistent.

    But obviously I’m in the minority here… 🙂 Did I miss something?

    • I agree the idea was worn, as you say – it was done over and over in the 50’s. The Long Tomorrow, as Chris mentioned, and John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, and several others.

      Though these themes are well-worn, I did find the double-transition interesting: in the first part, with the coming of the clones, members of the earlier generation eventually realize that they’re dinosaurs, already obsolete in the society they built. That transition happens again at the end of the book, when the clones realize the same thing about themselves. That made me read this as more than a simple morality tale of freedom good/ conformity bad.

      • Interesting, I didn’t notice that. It’s been a while since I read the novel. Was the second transition progressive or regressive? By that I mean, the clones allowed humanity to survive, but at the cost of their individuality, whereas in order for the clones to survive, they needed to find/return to individuality. Is this a a finding or a return? Given the fairy tale ending, I suppose a finding, but I can’t remember…

      • The most appealing thing, at least to me when I read it years and years ago, was her craft and way of telling. Also, I am not sure that because we might be able to reduce it to “simple morality tale” (most narratives in their most distilled form are anyway anyway) is a knock against it. The way such a story is told really elevates it above its peers. The central core is most definitely rooted in earlier SF but that is hardly surprising. We constantly reinvent the dystopia/the apocalypse… Her work has a certain psychological power lacking her many of her contemporaries. For example, Pamela Sargent’s horrid clone novel, Cloned Lives (1976), from the same year is case in point, it completely fails in interior depth and devolves into endless melodrama.

      • I don’t think I vocalized it well, but I didn’t see it as a black/white morality tale because of how Wilhelm handles the clones—I saw them presented as flawed but sympathetic, a bit alien but not necessarily bad or wrong. As Mike points out, there’s the cyclical theme where both the last humans and older clones realize they’ve outlived their usefulness and are seeing the shape of things to come, but are unable to change it. The last section felt like a kind of dirge for the clone society as the elders try to use Mark as a teacher for their next generation and fail, as only the one elder can admit that it’s the swan song for their society. Thus, much as humanity has met its apocalypse, so too does its clone replacements.

  6. @Jesse: I suppose the second transition could be labeled progressive from the point of view of the small group of people who follow Mark, leave the clone society, and set up a new one that manages to thrive. The clone society itself doesn’t adapt or return to individuality — it goes extinct, just like the earlier human society.

    That’s one thing that keeps this from being, as Chris said, a simple black/white story about freedom vs. conformity. There is a parallel theme about adaptation to new circumstances. The clones were initially better adapted than normal humans to the changing world, but in the end, they themselves were unable to adapt.

  7. @Joachim: As something written in 1976, this book does take an interesting approach to the post-apocalyptic/dystopia genre. Like you say, it has Wilhelm’s trademark psychological power. She achieves it despite telling a somewhat old-fashioned story. Others like Ballard, Delany, Brunner, and Dick were innovating on the post-apocalyptic formula, yet she wrote something compelling while largely sticking with plot that could have been written in the 1950’s.

  8. Great review, rather too good actually since I have to write one myself in a bit (I got Margaret and I). I’d have appreciated a lower starting bar.

    The politics sounds interesting. Were it a trite libertarian manifesto I admit I’d find that alienating, but it sounds more complex than that which is good. I’ll read more of the series though before I decide where I go after Margaret and I (which so far is shaping up well, though Joachim tells me it drops off a bit near the end).

    As for the science, hard SF is part of science fiction, not all of it. Scientific plausibility is one SF metric, but definitely not the only one. Besides, what counts as hard SF changes over time. Larry Niven’s Known World books with their telepathy and telekinesis and faster than light travel were seen once as hard SF, now they’re distinctly soft. The good ones remain good though, even where the science has dated.

    • I’ve said it or something very much like it before,but I’m going to say it again,to make clear a very pertinent point.So much of what is published within the science fiction genre,is rather,speculative fiction.That means it can’t be catergorised within science fiction or any genre and takes account of what has and is happening within the wider world of literature.This also means it can be judged apon literary merit,style and brilliance of inventive content.This also applies of course to great books that were published outside of science fiction confines,such as Anna Kavan’s “Ice” and Angela Carter’s “Heroes and Villians”,but they don’t get into trouble!

      That’s why the “good ones remain good”.

      • I think genre is rather more slippery than you want to make it out to be… But that aside, the “good ones remain good” even if they are not “speculative” (whatever that might mean) and are “SF” (again, whatever that might mean). These definitions are rather artificial by their very nature… SF takes into account what is happening in the wider world of literature — the New Wave is case in point. MOST thought that they were trying to elevate SF as a genre, not operate entirely outside of it.

        So, although you might have said it before, I’m not sure it is as definitive or straightforward as you make it out to be…

        • The New Wave developed their own literature within sf that was not limited by what the mainstream thought it was right to write,and created something unique and literary.It would not have happened outside of the genre.

          There is nothing definite about speculative fiction.I think and sure you will agree with me,that science fiction as a genre is difficult to define,and to be honest,you can’t.Speculative fiction is much broader and more fluid,with no borders,and so is easier to place books within it that can’t always be catergorized.

          The point I was trying to make was,that this is why “science fiction” doesn’t have to be scientific to achieve greatness within the genre.

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