Friday, May 28, 2010

Book Review: Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang

Kate Wilhelm
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –


Kate Wilhelm’s writing is subtle and understated. It grows on you gradually.

This story sucked me in so slowly, in fact, that at first I thought it was going to be boring.

Also, the first part of the book, which takes up about a quarter of its total length, is basically an introduction to the rest. So many major events happen and so much time passes during that first section that it seemed like too much; I thought I was never going to be able to get into any of the characters. I would just start to get attached to one and then they were gone.

The later sections of the book go at a better speed, however. And for them to work as well as they do, I guess the first part has to cover that much ground.

This is a post-apocalyptic story in which we have destroyed our environment with radiation and toxic chemicals. All the pollution and contamination cause people to become infertile and, over time, Earth’s human population gradually dies off and dwindles down to almost nothing. And, to top it off, another ice age begins and glaciers start crawling all the way down into Maryland.

Only one very organized, very wealthy family in the Shenandoah Valley continues to reproduce – by cloning themselves. They saw the writing on the wall, trained themselves on the necessary technology, and built themselves a secret compound complete with hospitals, laboratories, incubators, schools, and dormitories.

This is all very well and good for them, the saviors of the human race, but then something creepy starts to happen. Instead of producing one child at a time, the family scientists begin to produce sets of identical children. At first there are twos and threes and eventually they get up to sevens and eights.

The sibling sets start to discriminate against oddball “singles” with increasing viciousness. And, at the same time, the sets grow progressively more and more group-focused until they are completely dependent on their clone brothers or sisters to function. They are unable to think originally or creatively on their own.

Ironically, this means that the clones themselves are headed for extinction, since they cannot invent new technology or repair their equipment when it breaks, much less adapt to the approaching glaciers. And they have ostracized the single children, the only ones who can do these things.

Eventually, though, the clones are in turn saved by one of the few remaining “regularly-bred” humans – and the human race is (ta-da!) preserved to start over again the original way.

Okay, maybe that ending is a little too neat. But, overall, I liked the book. In particular, I thought that Wilhelm did a good job of taking an idyllic setting and a group of happy fresh-faced youths and gradually making them into something more and more sinister and unpleasant. Something almost as sinister and unpleasant as… junior high school.

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