Finding themselves faced with economic and environmental collapse on a global scale, a wealthy extended family seeks refuge in the mountains, where they hope to survive and build a new community. When they realise that radiation and pollution have lead to high levels of infertility, they resort to using their DNA to create clones, who they intend to raise as their own children with the hope that they will be able to reproduce sexually again at some point in the future. However, as the clones grow up, it becomes apparent that they represent a different species of human and have their own ideas about how the community should develop. As you may have already guessed, it doesn’t involve returning to the old ways.
Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is told in three parts, the first mainly from the point of view of David, a young scientist involved in the cloning of the new humans. The second part is set an unstated number of years later and follows the consequences of the clone community’s decision to send an expedition out to the old cities. One of the consequences of this expedition is the birth of a boy called Mark, the natural child of two of the clones who came back “different”, who is the focus of the third, and probably most successful part of the novel. The disruptive effect of Mark’s presence on the now ailing clone community and his ambivalent relationship with his father’s cloned ‘brothers’ was the most compelling part of the story for me.
If you’re fussy about your world building and science, then this novel will probably aggravate because it requires a massive suspension of disbelief and you could drive a truck through some of the plot holes. For example, the family seems to have unlimited economic resources and, rather fortunately, includes several Nobel Prize standard scientific geniuses who are able to make a success out of human cloning in one generation. Wilhelm tells us very little about the science involved in achieving this. We also have to believe that these people are the only survivors of the global catastrophe, which seems a little unlikely when you think about it. At times, the writing is evocative and lyrical, but at others it’s a bit dull and plodding. The story is heavily plot-driven and I can’t say I cared that much about the characters, though the plot certainly did keep me reading.
However, if you’re more interested in science fiction as allegory, prepared to overlook the scientific details, and enjoy reading books which, while they haven’t dated all that well, have influenced the development of the genre, then you might like to give it a go. It certainly seems to be an influence on post-apocalyptic, dystopian science fiction, such as Octavia E. Butler’s far superior Parable of the Sower. Some of the better bits also reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian, speculative fictions – the keeping of fertile women as “breeders” of babies to produce more DNA for new clones, for instance. The better writing is atmospheric and genuinely frightening, especially when Wilhelm writes about nature and the parts where characters visit the ruined cities. I really enjoyed Mark’s lone excursion into the wastelands by river in the third section.
Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang also interested me very much as novel of its time and I’m not surprised that it won the 1977 Hugo Award and was nominated for the Nebula in 1976. It’s easy to forget now (though we really shouldn’t) just how genuinely frightened people were in the 1970s of nuclear war and the possibility of environmental collapse. You can imagine the women of Greenham Common Peace Camp nodding along to Wilhelm’s bleak prophecies. My own parents actually moved to an isolated part of Wales partly in response to these kinds of fears (I once asked my mother if she’d considered whether dying slowly of starvation and radiation poisoning would be better than going out quickly in the first flash and she said they “didn’t think about that”). But the idea that my parents, and many people like them, had of creating a more sustainable, lower tech society is very much in line with Wilhelm’s conclusion here, although presumably without the clones.
In its way, I would agree with the view that this is a classic of the genre, but overall I’d say it’s one for people with a particular interest in post-apocalyptic science fiction and the history of the genre. I don’t think it would convert anyone to science fiction.