the Little Red Reviewer

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm

Posted on: January 4, 2019

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, by Kate Wilhelm

published 1976

where I got it: purchased used copy









I’ve been looking for a copy of this book for years.  I had no idea what the book was about, couldn’t seem to find a copy to save my life, so when I did finally find a copy in a used bookstore, I didn’t care that the cover art was obscured by an ugly sticker, I didn’t care that the ratty paperback appeared to be a library discard, I didn’t care that the back cover copy had a glaring spelling error. THIS BOOK WAS MINE NOW. FINALLY. (yes, i know about Amazon. Yes, I know about ABE books.  The joy of visiting used bookstores is better than anything on Amazon or Abe)


Described as a cautionary, quiet science fiction novel about surviving an apocalypse, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang won the Hugo, the Locus, the Jupiter, and the Campbell award, and was nominated for the Nebula award.   Along with her husband, Damon Knight, Kate Wilhelm was among the authors who started the Clarion Workshop. Kate Wilhelm passed away at the age of 89, in March of 2018.


As the story opens, it’s not so much an extinction level event that begins the apocalypse, more a slow death of a thousand cuts. Radiation leaks, soil that can no longer sustain agriculture, outbreaks of disease, famines, droughts, all which lead to riots and civil unrest.


The wealthy Sumner family wasn’t entirely sure what was happening or why, but they knew something horrible was on the horizon, so they planned. A valley full of livestock. A privately funded hospital full of everything they could purchase. A private mill for electricity. Underground bunkers.


The goal was for the entire extended family to be self sustaining, no matter what happened to the rest of the world. What they never saw coming was the sterility, the dead children, the lost pregnancies. What’s the point of planning for survival if no one can have babies?   If you can’t create babies the old fashioned way, learn how to make them a new way: through cloning. But even the clones couldn’t naturally have children, so that was another scientific puzzle for the scientists in the family to solve.

Immediately, there is a cultural divide between the cloned children and the naturally born adults. The adults, they know this is the only way to save humanity.   Can they come to accept these strangely identical children?


You like your uniqueness, right? You like that you are a combination of your parents, but pretty different from your siblings, right?  As humans, we like to have things in common with our family members and friends, but we also like to have things that make us unique. Our style of dress, our hairstyle, how tall we are, if we have freckles or not, what our toenails look like,  etc. Being unique makes you, well, unique!


With the focus on survival through cloning, the plot being comprised of character vignettes, and the many of the character’s underlying need to stay connected to their past, I was constantly reminded of Marina Lostetter’s Noumenon books.  I wonder if Lostetter was inspired in part by Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang? That’s something I love about reading older fiction, you can see where today’s fiction came from. Everyone is inspired by something or someone, right?


As the generations go by in Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, the clones find uniqueness increasingly ugly and dangerous.  The goal is to be identical to your siblings. Maybe you were a batch of 5, maybe a batch of 10. If someone can tell you apart from your sisters, you’re doing it wrong.  Sounds strange, doesn’t it? Not only in mode of dress and mannerisms, but the society only allows identical ways of thinking as well. Even art and all sorts of visual expression, is seen to be dangerous, because in a Harrison Bergeron kind of way, if not everyone can do it, then no one should be able to.


Enforcing a specific way of thinking until only that way of thinking feels natural and safe, talk about a cautionary tale!


About half way through the book is this passage:


“Psychology is a dead end for us”, he said. “it revives the cult of the individual. When a unit is functioning, the members are self-curing.


“  . . . We all know and agree it is our duty to safeguard the well-being of the unit, not the various individuals within it. If there is a conflict between those two choices, we must abandon the individual.”


What happens when humanity gives up on individuality and uniqueness?  Maybe that’s what is needed to survive an apocalypse. But what will we have lost, and can we ever get it back?


With the plot moving through time so quickly, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to connect with the characters. Luckly, that proved false. I connected right away to Molly, and then easily connected to her son Mark.  Perhaps it was because Molly and Mark are the closest characters to me – they value art and expression, enjoy storytelling and mythology. Are Molly and Mark, with their artistic expression, their imagination, their ability to live by themselves, their uniqueness – are they a danger to the society of clones, or will they be the ones to bring humanity in a new age?


Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is an easy book to read.  The plot is not complicated, the prose easily flows along.  Molly and Mark (and David and Celia, to a lesser extent) are characters with depth and dreams, while nearly everyone else is purposely flat and interchangeable.  The story does not feel dated or stodgy.


What other books have you read that involved cloning as a means of survival, either after an apocalypse or as a method of keeping people alive on a generation ship? What was gained by a society of all clones? What was lost? What do you think the next iteration of the “survival through cloning” story will be?


The title is a reference to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73. Some quick internet research tells me that this Sonnet is composed of three short quatrains, in which can be found numerous metaphors to aging, dying, yet not losing your connection to the world.  Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is also composed of three parts, the first in which the world as we know it is aging and trying to plan for an unknown future, a middle one in which the old ways are nearly dead, and a third part in which a connection is struck between the new humanity and where we came from.


6 Responses to "Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm"

I have to say, I always get a bit irritated by SF clones. They’re always a threat to individuality, and often portrayed as in some way not really fully human, not truly ‘real’.

OK, except do these authors not realise how offensive that is? Have they not noticed that we HAVE human clones already? They’re called identical twins. In my experience, they’re not particularly lacking in individuality or diversity – genetics are such a small part of personality.

I’m not as annoyed in this case, where it’s spread out over a period of time and about the development of society as a whole – the desire to be the same is a real thing, and probably would be stronger in a society where everyone looked the same. It’s not quite the same as the stories where first-generation clones are basically identical robots. But it still feels weird to me, making a SF novel out of a very common and unremarkable condition.

[also, I doubt that, for a species for whom weirdness is inherently attractive, the love of similarity would really become all-powerful, but I can accept it as a thought experiment…]


in the case of Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, cloning is answer to keeping humanity alive because in the thought experiment of this story, we literally can not have babies anymore. it is the choice between “this is the last generation of humans, ever”, and cloning.

many of the clone generations would be exactly as you describe – they are identical twins of each other – triplets, sextuplets, octuplets, etc.


And in reality, twins are more or less the same as everyone else, so a society of “what if everyone was a twin?” probably wouldn’t be that different from our current society in which only some people are clones.


1. Let’s here it for books bought in shops with our whole selves present at the transaction.
2. This sounds so good. Right up my alley.
3. I love that green cover.
That is all. 🙂

Liked by 1 person

What an interesting book you found!


it was really enjoyable!


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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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