When I first heard about Kate Wilhelm about a year ago, I was inclined to like her. “A female author writing sci-fi in the 60s/70s? Hell yeah, screw Heinlein!” Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is the third book by Kate Wilhelm that I have read and it is far and away my favorite. But I’m not sure if that means I think it’s actually good? Before I get into why, let me tell you what the book is about.
The Sumner family is large and wealthy and when they see disaster coming (world wide crop failure, climate changes, war, decreased fertility, and disease are all signs that what is coming is NOT GOOD), they begin to prepare. They have a hospital built and begin buying as much medical equipment as they can. As the world falls apart they secure their compound and start working on a cloning program right away. Their studies show that each successive generation of clones shows an improvement in their ability to reproduce sexually. By the third clone generation, the clones should be able to move back to sexual reproduction. But by the times they are old enough, that is not what the clones want to do. Because the originals were short handed, they began cloning talented/intelligent people in groups of four or six and now the clone siblings cannot imagine giving birth to a single child, who will be alone for the rest of their days. Each group of the clone siblings has developed an empathic ability that makes the group feel like a safe, cohesive whole. To be alone is abhorrent to them and when the time comes to reproduce, they make their own plans and the originals are too old and worn out to do anything about it.
That’s the first section, a set up for the next two, which explore what it means to be an individual. And it’s with these two sections that I have the most problems. To me, it seems as if Ms. Wilhelm had an idea that went something along the lines of, “I’ll use groups of clones to show that individuality is important!” and then didn’t develop it any further. The world-building, the characters, the philosophy behind the idea all lacked depth to my mind and it’s frustrating because it could have been amazing. But this is where I begin to struggle. Because I am, very unfairly, comparing Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang to works exploring similar themes by Ursula K. Le Guin (mostly the short story “Solitude” in Birthday of the World and The Lathe of Heaven) and most writers are going to look bad in comparison to Ursula K. Le Guin. Does the fact that I think Ursula K. Le Guin could have written it better mean Kate Wilhelm actually wrote it badly? Probably not. But after three books, I think lacking depth is a trend that I’m going to continue to see in Kate Wilhelm’s books. I am not discounting the possibility of reading books by her in the future but I am definitely going to set the expectation bar lower if I do.
P.S. The internet ate my first attempt at a review and I did my best to recreate it but feel like this is a lesser attempt. Poor, sad, second try. You’ll never live up to my memory of the original.