By the time that Kate Wilhelm died in March 2018, she was arguably best known as a writer of mystery novels. She had first come to prominence, though, through her science fiction and had a long career in that genre beginning in 1956. Her career in SF peaked in the 1970s, when she contributed to the long-running Orbit series of anthologies, and taught at the famous Clarion Workshop for aspiring SF and fantasy writers. In both of these endeavours, she worked alongside her husband, Damon Knight (1922 - 2002).
In 1974, Wilhelm published the novella “Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang” in Orbit 15. Wilhelm added two further sections to the story, and published the result as a novel of the same title in 1976. Dealing with human cloning, community, and individuality in the aftermath of a global catastrophe, the novel proved to be the peak of Wilhelm’s success. It won the Hugo, Locus, and Jupiter Awards for Best Novel in 1977, and has come to be seen as one of the best SF novels focused on the topic of cloning.
Today, Where Late the Sweet Birds sang is by far the most visible and well-known of Wilhelm’s SF works - likely due to its awards success. While it is often said that its outsized profile distracts from Wilhelm’s accomplished work in short fiction, it is an intriguing post-apocalyptic tale in its own right.
The book is set at some point in the late 20th century, primarily in Virginia in the vicinity of the Shenandoah River. The first of the book’s three parts focuses on David, a young man who is part of a large and wealthy Virginia family, the Sumners. In the opening pages, the older members of the family survey the world situation and conclude that a major disaster is likely to occur soon. They see seemingly insignificant conflicts and environmental crises as the first portents of global collapse, and they decide to take action. The extended family gathers back in Virginia, bringing with them their wealth, resources, and expertise.
The Sumner family preparations prove to be much-needed. Wilhelm describes a catastrophe that arrives with dizzying speed. A cascading series of conventional wars triggers environmental collapse, a scramble for resources, and then a devastating nuclear exchange that destroys much of civilisation. The Sumners are protected from this by their isolated location, access to power from a nearby dam, and their stockpile of resources. Notably, Wilhelm describes how the rapid end to human industry has abruptly stopped global warming:
“The winters were getting colder, starting earlier, lasting longer, with more snows than he could remember from childhood. As soon as man stopped adding his megatons of filth to the atmosphere each day, he thought, the atmosphere had reverted to what it must have been long ago, moister weather summer and winter, more stars than he had ever seen before, and more, it seemed, each night than the night before: the sky a clear, endless blue by day, velvet blue-black at night with blazing stars that modern man had never seen.”
This brings to mind the significant drop in emissions of CO2 and other harmful pollutants during the lockdowns imposed as a response to COVID-19 in 2020.
Unfortunately, the survivors discover that in the aftermath, everyone - men and women alike - has been rendered infertile. The world may have become more beautiful in some ways, but soon there will be no people remaining alive to see it.
Faced with being the last generation of humankind, the Sumners take a radical step. They set up a lab, and begin to clone themselves. Due to his training and professional background from before the war, David is heavily involved in this project. It aims to use a few generations of clones as a “bridge” to a later time, when conventional reproduction will become possible again. The rest of Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang deals with the implications of this desperate project, which amounts to a remaking of humanity in a newly ruined world.
By the time of the second part, “Shenandoah”, the community in Virginia consists entirely of clones who have rejected the idea of reproducing naturally. This second segment of the novel focuses on Molly, a clone who is part of an expedition to ruined cities like Washington D.C. and Philadelphia. This experience awakens a degree of individuality in Molly, which makes her a pariah in the increasingly warped clone society. Finally, the last segment “At the Still Point” focuses on Mark, who was conceived naturally and similarly becomes a problem for the decaying clone community, which is deprived of innovation or any kind of new thinking.
Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang resembles three loosely linked novellas more than it does a conventional novel; in this way it plays to Wilhelm’s strengths as a writer of short fiction. The book also plays fairly fast and loose with the notion of human cloning; it is hardly what could be called hard science fiction. Instead, it is focused more on what becomes of a society when it becomes hostile to new ideas; when it becomes ruthlessly oriented around its own self-preservation.
It is true to say that the novel is an important entry in the history of cloning in science fiction. This isn’t because of any particular scientific rigour, but because of its powerful argument in favour of individuality and openness to change. Wilhelm’s most well-known book is also notable for its descriptions of the natural world, in a post-apocalyptic scenario. Its implication that a high-tech human society is incompatible with a thriving natural world is a challenging one, especially in the light of climate breakdown. If people can balance these two poles, then we may yet avoid the catastrophe at the root of Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang.
I write about classic science fiction and occasionally fantasy; I sometimes make maps for Doom II; and I'm a contributor to the videogames site Entertainium, where I regularly review new games.