Monday, November 11, 2019

The Hugo Initiative: Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1977, Best Novel)

Dossier: Wilhelm, Kate. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang [Harper & Row, 1976]

Filetype: Novel

Executive Summary: The novel opens with the gradual (and then rapid) collapse of civilization due to environmental issues, radiological attacks, falling birth rates, and global disease. One family forms an isolated community and because they're wealthy and have strong scientific education and access to equipment, manage to clone themselves with the hopes that after a number of generations humans will be able to biologically reproduce and the species can be saved even though it may be only this one family. 

Cloning, of course, provides its own difficulty and after several generations it is clear that the clones view themselves as a more evolved species of humanity and the surviving original family members find themselves pushed out and the difference between the clones and "natural" humans is in stark contrast and conflict.

Legacy: Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang won the Hugo Award for Best Novel, was a recipient of the Locus Award for SF Novel, was a finalist for the Nebula Award as well as the John W. Campbell Award for Best SF Novel. By the time of Wilhelm's Hugo Award she had already been a ten time Nebula Award finalist (with one win) and a previous Hugo Award finalist. 

When Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang won the Hugo Award in 1977, it was only the third novel written by a woman to be so awarded. The other two were The Left Hand of Darkness (1970) and The Dispossessed (1975), both by Ursula K. Le Guin.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is generally considered a classic of the genre, though it is not often discussed today as some of the Hugo winning novels in the years before and after still are.

In Retrospect: Through the clones in Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm examines the idea of what it means to be human - though without most of humanity around to interfere with that conversation. Is one individual more important than the overall health of the community? What is individuality worth within a community? 

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is a bleak novel, not just because it is post apocalyptic and borderline dystopian but of how the breakdown of technology over the decades without new parts and training for how to make the repairs impacts the community at the same time that later generations of the clones are becoming less and less recognizably human. Each subsequent generation of clone becomes more and more specialized in what tasks they are suited for and lose the ability to truly creatively think for themselves. At the same time, any deviation from the "norm" is severely punished. Women who can't intellectually benefit the community are primarily used as breeding stock.

Actually, that may be the dystopian part that makes the novel so bleak. It's fairly disgusting.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is not as smooth as more modern novels are. The style reads as somewhat older than it is (40+ years old), but the concept of the novel and the storytelling resonate very well today.

I don't have a scientific background, but the idea of cloning leading to a group telepathy is absurd on its face (though not an unusual concept in fiction regarding twins and possibly also clones), but the breakdown through generations of cloning the clones makes perfect sense. 

As a whole, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang still holds up more than forty years after its first publication. There are problems and problematic elements (a lot of incest and the abduction of women at the end of the novel for reasons, just to name two), but there is power in Wilhelm's writing.


For its time: 5/5
Read today: 4/5.
Gernsback Quotient: 9/10 

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 3x Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan.