The Hugo Project: 1977 – Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang

31 Mar

Previously on the Hugo Projectaccessing alienation via relativity.

I’ve decided I’m just crazy enough to try to read every book that’s ever won the Hugo Award for Best Novel…and, of course, that I want to share this insane experience with all of you. Kindly restrain expressions of individuality at our next stop; the clones find it unsettling. Sixty-odd posts of science fiction, speculation and social justice continue!

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang

Kate Wilhelm
published in 1975


Environmental problems caused by pollution and nuclear fallout threaten humanity with sterilization and extinction. A small group manages to survive, hoarding resources in a secluded valley and cloning themselves to assure the survival of the species. The human species dies out, but the clones survive, creating their own culture and their own seemingly idyllic society. But resources, including technical equipment vital to clone growth and production, are running low, and some must be sent out of the valley to salvage what they can from the ruined cities. The first expedition returns with something far more dangerous – individuality…


Warning! Mild spoilers ahead!

Don’t look now, but it’s another female author! TWO whole women out of nineteen authors thus far! THREE books out of twenty-four! And we haven’t even made it to the 80s!

Not a lot to say on this one, really. This week we get a break from the physics-y books, which is a little sad for me but perhaps a welcome relief for all of you. The major science of this fiction is bioengineering, specifically cloning, about which I know very little. But the point of any good science fiction novel is not the science itself, but the social and emotional repercussions of new knowledge and technologies.

The clone’s empathy is..interesting. Certainly not very appealing to me; I’m too much of an introvert, or too much of an individual. I don’t think I’d want five other people knowing how I felt all the time. I wouldn’t want to always need to be near them. The clones use isolation as punishment – like the few individuals in the book, I need long periods of solitude. I need human contact and interaction as much as the next person, but I don’t need it or want it constantly.

The “breeders” disturb me. The clones seem happy to continue producing more clones of the same strains, so why do they allow pregnancies at all? From the outside, I see the need for continued genetic mixing, but the clones don’t seem to care much about that. Very few clones are fertile; for the males who are, it isn’t a big deal, but if a female clone is fertile, then she is cut off from her sisters (with whom, as mentioned above, she needs a great deal of closeness) and basically kept drugged and used as a brood mare for the rest of her life. This is abuse, plain and simple. How can the clones be fine with this? I can see where perhaps the doctors (who are, shockingly, male) are okay with it; they’re rather detached about using (and ending) individual lives in service of the whole community. But how do none of the female clones fear this? They have to know that it’s a possibility. Or are they too caught in the group think to consider it?

I’m realizing that my frustration stems from wanting to know more characters better, to see how individuals interact with the society they live in. But they’re not individuals, with a few exceptions. Clone society is frustrating. No wonder they don’t like individuals – and individuals don’t get on too well with them.

As an educator, I was interested to see Wilhelm’s thoughts on divergent thinking, though of course she never uses the term. Divergent thinking is basically the ability to think outside the box – to solve problems creatively and originally. Obviously divergent thinking is crucial for humanity’s survival – and the clones can’t do it. Later strains have lost the ability to be creative, or to even recognize creative representations made by others. They are little better than computers – they can do anything they have been taught perfectly, but they can’t initiate new action. They can’t create knowledge or solutions to new problems. Which is where the individual vs. clone group thing comes in again. I can’t claim to be a terribly divergent thinker, but I enjoy stretching my brain, thinking creatively, solving puzzles and problems. I like being an individual too much.

Not sure anything I’ve said makes sense so let’s do the review quick before I fall asleep…

Race: Very few characters are described physically, so technically they could all be any race. Probably we’re supposed to assume the white default, however, especially as all names are European.

Gender/Sexuality: Interesting. On the surface, the sexual practices of the clones seem to include homosexuality/bisexuality and polyamory. However, given that the clones are more of a group individual/hive mind than anything else, it would appear that sexual play within one clone group is really just masturbation, and play between two groups is more like a conventional monosexual pairing. No gender identities beyond cis male and cis female are included.

Other: As always when one ventures into genetic engineering and the implied quest for some kind of physical and mental perfection, there are obvious questions of ableism. These go largely unaddressed in the book, though the clones are quite blase about their use of euthanasia. Clones that are physically or mentally disabled as a result of an accident/trauma to the point of causing serious distress to their brothers/sisters are euthanized; presumably and clones with disabilities noticeable at birth are also.

OVERALL RANKING: 8 out of 10 (rankings subject to change as my sample size increases).

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Posted by on 31.3.2014 in Books


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