Friday, September 3, 2021

Summer Reading List No. 2-Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm

I wrote recently of Kate Wilhelm (1928-2018). I had never read anything by her, but in reading about her, I became intrigued. So I looked on my shelf and found Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (Timescape-Pocket Books, 1977). I read it this summer.

First I should say what a good writer Kate Wilhelm was. Her prose runs clear and smooth, like a river. There is feeling in this novel and an awareness of the importance of human relationships. There is also color. These things are too often lacking in science fiction.

I work as a forester and I'm always glad to see and read stories that take place in the woods and that involve trees. In her statement in The Faces of Science Fiction, Kate wrote about gardening. She knew her plants and she knew her trees. The title may mention birds, but she named more trees than birds here: pine, spruce, and fir; sassafras, silver maple, and bitternut hickory. What other writer in all of literature knows or has named bitternut hickory in her work? But the title is apt, for it is a kind of lament, an allusion to things that have been lost.

If you're trying to categorize Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, you could call it a post-apocalypse. You might also call it an example of the cosy catastrophe. But in its depiction of a collectivist society guided by science and the needs of science and run by almost soulless (and eventually stupid) clones, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is also a Dystopia. And it's clear where the author's sympathies lie, for they are with individual human beings and against collectivist unity. Some illustrative quotes:

     Barry was shaking his head. "Psychology is a dead end for us," he said. "It revives the cult of the individual. When the 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 individuals within it. If there is a conflict between those two choices, we must abandon the individual." (p. 100)

* * * 

[Ben speaks:] "Always before us, in infancy there was a period when ego development naturally occurred, and if all went well during that period, the individual was formed, separate from his parents. With us such a development is not necessary, or even possible, because our brothers and sisters [i.e., other members of the unit] obviate the need for separate existence, and instead a unit consciousness is formed." (p. 106)

* * *

[Carl speaks:] "If the human baby [i.e., naturally conceived and carried to term by the mother] has a birth defect, caused by a birth trauma, he can be aborted, and still the cloned babies will be all right."

     "That's hardly in the nature of a drawback," Barry said, smiling. There was an answering ripple of amusement throughout the class.

     He waited a moment, then said, "The genetic pool is unpredictable, its past is unknown, its constituents so varied that when the process is not regulated and controlled, there is always the danger of producing unwanted characteristics. And the even more dangerous threat of losing talents that are important to our community." He allowed time for this to be grasped, then continued. "The only way to ensure our future, to ensure continuity, is through perfecting the process of cloning [. . . .]"

     "Our goal is to remove the need for sexual reproduction. Then we will be able to plan our future. [. . .] For the first time since mankind walked the face of the earth," he said, "there will be no misfits."

     [Conceived through natural sexual reproduction and born from and reared by his mother, Mark, a misfit, retorts:] "And no geniuses." [Emphasis added.] (pp. 132-133)

* * *

There is euthanasia also in this perfect and planned society. Certain women, called breeders, bear children naturally but have them taken away to be reared and educated (or indoctrinated) by the State in the form of the community. These women are kept in a drugged state in an attempt to control or at least dampen their depression and despair.

* * *

So in Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, we see all of the elements of Utopia/Dystopia: unity, conformity, collectivism, planning, regulation, control, extreme risk-aversion by the Community/State, abortion, euthanasia, attempts to do away with sex (love, too, of course), attempts to eradicate the individual, the view that children are the property of the Community/State, intolerance and punishment of nonconformity and dissent, fear and hatred of and alienation from nature, etc. You might recognize these elements in the real world of today. Yes, they're here. An example from just this week:

"Designer Baby Revolution: Can We Outlaw Sexual Reproduction?" by Cameron English, on the website of the American Council of Science and Health, August 30, 2021.

 * * *

As with so many science fiction writers, Kate Wilhelm was prescient, but then anyone with an awareness and understanding of human nature can probably foresee these things. Maybe the purpose of science fiction is to expand the reach and appeal of philosophy, ethics, theology, psychology, politics, economics, etc., into the popular realm by turning these things into readable, enjoyable, satisfying fiction. Anyway, in its closing, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang sums up the reason for the satisfaction, happiness, and end of loneliness now felt by Mark, the former misfit: "Because all the children were different."

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm, winner of the Locus and Hugo Awards for best novel in 1977 and nominated for the Nebula Award in the same category that same year. The cover art is by Edward J. "Ed" Soyka (b. 1947).

Original text copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley

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