Over the weekend, I read Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm. It's a quick read - only 254 pages. But damn. Those are a powerful 254 pages. This novel won the Hugo in 1977, but went out of print for a while. It had a second run in 1996. I read it this weekend because I joined a sci-fi/fantasy book club here in Peoria. I'm kind of hoping that this club will help me find and engage with some sci-fi/fantasy classics that I haven't picked up before. I feel like I'm missing out on the great stuff that helped shape the (sometimes good and often questionable) genre fiction I love today.
Wilhelm's novel starts with David, a bright boy who turns into genius adult, and his cousin Celia, whom he loves. Global catastrophe strikes all around them - pollution overload, flood, famine, draught, war, and use of the bomb. David and Celia are part of a diverse extended family living in a valley in Virginia. This family is comprised of scientists, farmers, scientist farmers, business owners, health workers, and any other profession one can think of. Together, they fortify their valley and weather the apocalypse. But they come to realize that all of their women are infertile. In order to continue the human race, David and Celia work to develop and perfect a cloning experiment that doesn't quite turn out the way they had hoped.
Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is terrifying. It isn't gory or explicit. In fact, it's terrifying in part because Wilhelm uses fairly simple imagery to get her points across. Not much time is spent at all on the disasters that destroy the earth. They happen and the family adapts. Celia spends a number of years in South America early on and it is her return that puts things in perspective. The American government has been lying to other nations and its own people about the intensity and magnitude of their problems. Celia had been under the impression that America was doing well. Many other nations held the same belief, prompting anger and attack. No one knew how bad the famines were until they ran out of food. The government collapsed. The only reason David and Celia's family survived was because they knew to read between the lines.
Would any of us be able to do the same thing 35 years later? Would Americans know if the end was near? Current events make Wilhelm's novel especially frightening. However, David and Celia's story is only the first act in a three part narrative. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is hard sci-fi. While disaster sets the stage for this story, Wilhelm focuses on cloning and its problems and benefits. The dichotomy of individual vs. collective runs throughout, as does the dichotomy of the natural vs. the manufactured. Wilhelm warns of the distance that has come between people and nature. While we aren't clones today, I think we've come to depend on each other far more than on ourselves just as the brother/sister units of clones do in Wilhelm's novel. If modern technology and methods all came to a crashing halt, there are very few people today who could live off the land and survive, and even fewer who would take a proactive stance on doing so.
This is a fast read, but not one I'm like to forget anytime soon. Be sure to check it out, especially if you're a fan of Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005) or Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (2003). And also read its predecessor, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1931). And if you've never read any of these books, bet on the ball, people! They're awesome!