Sunday, December 4, 2011

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm (1976) - clones are creepy

1977 Pocket Book, cover art by Ed Soyka

This excellent science fiction novel (winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards) starts out with a near future doomsday scenario. There's massive pollution leading to climate change, plague and disease, starvation and economic collapse. So this super wealthy family, some of whom are politicians and scientists who foresaw the worst, prepared for the coming collapse of civilization by creating their own little scientific compound in a valley somewhere in New England. Ultimately the plan is to start a new community with the help of cloning. At first this just means cloning livestock, since all of the animals have been dying. But they soon realize there will be a shortage of people because of infertility, so they decide to clone humans too. Which is where it gets interesting. You see, clones are kind of creepy...

1976 Harper & Row with M. C. Escher cover
The tale is told from the vantage point of several different characters across several generations (clone generations not being quite the same as regular human gens). The main conflict, besides survival, is the individual versus the group. Nonconformity was a great concern in seventies literature, with science fiction writers being particularly intrigued by the idea of pitting individual freedom against what's best  for society as a whole. The sympathy would usually (though not always) side with the individual. Kate Wilhelm does a great job of presenting a case for both sides, although ultimately it is the individual who has the wherewithal to survive. The nonconformist has the imagination to navigate a new beginning, whereas the hive-minded clones are stifled by their reliance on the group. Yea for imagination!

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