Kate Wilhelm's Sweet Birds: How protecting a species can endanger it

The musical, measured Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, by Kate Wilhelm — which won the Hugo in 1977 — is an artful admixture of clones and poetry, with a message that'll never get old.

Here's a funny thing: After I finished this book, literally the next one I happened to pick up, absolutely coincidentally, was Seize the Day by Saul Bellow. (I'm on this kick where I'm reading Nobel winners, too; hoping it'll make me smarter.) Now, it was published in 1956, and I'd never read it before.

So it was with some surprise that I discovered, quoted on page ten, the last line of Shakespeare's Sonnet 73 — which is, of course, the same poem from which Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang takes its title. Compounding my surprise into full-blown astonishment, a moment later it sunk in that the name of Seize the Day's hapless protagonist is...Wilhelm.

Whoa, that's a full rainbow! What does it mean? I dunno. I believe in God, so I would take it as a sign or portent, but I'm not sure if it's an indication that I'm on the right track — you know, life-wise, or at least reading-list-wise — or divine instruction that I should quit everything else and study the Bard. Or a directive to take up ornithology.

Anyway, let me tell you about the book.

It is divided into three sections and deals with life in a post-nuclear-apocalypse America — as a result, it's a bit reminiscent of A Canticle for Leibowitz. In the first part, "Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang," we meet the Sumner clan of Virginia, a wealthy and scientifically minded farming family whose elders see Armageddon on the horizon and prepare by founding a compound, centered around a research hospital where they hope to breed and clone livestock and crops, and thereby sustain a remnant of civilization for the dark age ahead.

David Sumner, recently graduated from Harvard, is one of the family members tasked with leading the effort. There is a sadness about him, stemming from the deep romantic love he nurtures for his cousin Celia, which goes unfulfilled for years due to the Sumners' interdiction against intermarriage. (Since this is the Internet, I feel compelled to add that Kate Wilhelm conveys this love as profound and sincere, without any sense of inappropriateness or weirdness. Your jokes about the South are hereby preemptively disregarded.) David and Celia deny themselves their happiness for the sake of the group: As kids, they become mortal enemies to ward off the pain; as an adult, Celia disappears on an ill-fated mission to South America.

Kate Wilhelm's Sweet Birds: How protecting a species can endanger it

By the time she returns, things have gotten very bad. Radiation has poisoned enough of the Earth that most mammal and bird species have gone nearly or totally sterile, including Homo sapiens. The Sumners have prepared for this: Besides animals, the hospital is also — unbeknownst to most of the family — set up to grow human clones, and research has demonstrated that clones of later generations will have the ability to breed.

What the research hasn't anticipated is what the human clones will be like. They are born in groups of six, all the same sex, and each group's members share a sort of twin telepathy. They can communicate feelings without talking, and sense when one another is in trouble. And gradually, they take over the compound from the older Sumners, who as individuals have no place in the new order.

The novel's second part, "Shenandoah," opens with six of the young-adult clones — all from different sets — readying themselves for a journey by boat to the ruins of Washington, D.C. The compound hasn't had any contact with the outside world for a long time, and they need supplies left over from before the end of the world to maintain their technology. The trip will mark the first time any of the clones have been separated at length and at a distance of any significance.

It doesn't go well. The six travelers' empathic bond with their siblings fades away, leaving some of the explorers mental wrecks. Their leader, Ben — a clone of David — manages to hold it together. The lone woman on the excursion, Molly — a clone of Celia — undergoes something else. Brought along because of her set's ability to reproduce in picture form anything they see, Molly survives the trauma by drawing. Cut off from her sisters, she begins to bring to her sketches a unique perspective, a distinct flair. She becomes an artist. And as cures go, this discovery of something special within is, in a sense, worse than what ailed her: When the boat returns to the compound, she can't let go of her new point of view. She can't rejoin her group.

Kate Wilhelm's Sweet Birds: How protecting a species can endanger it

That makes her an outcast, in much the same way David becomes an outcast at the end of the first section. She's sent to live alone in the old Sumner house. She and Ben, who is more affected by the separation of the journey than he wanted to believe, become lovers. Inadvertently — and in violation of the compound's strict rules — they have a child, Mark.

The book's final section, "At the Still Point," is Mark's story. Totally alone among the emotionally linked clones, he's torn between hatred of them and a grudging love because they're all he has. If being a pariah seemed awful for Shevek and Takver and their daughter in The Dispossessed, it's bluntly horrifying for Mark. There's an implacable grimness to the way the clones treat him — there's no understanding, not even an attempt to sympathize with how isolated and unloved he feels, because the group-thinkers just plain can't conceive of how it must be. Of course, for them it barely registers even when other clones die, except when the casualty is a direct sibling. But Mark and his singularity are abhorrent to them all, with the exception of one of Ben's brothers, Barry, who is now in charge.

Mark is a mischief maker, but the clones let him live because he can do things they can't. The older ones hate to leave the compound, and it's even harder for the younger ones, who are like recordings of a recording of a recording — the earliest clones lack a certain vitality, but the newest are just about incapable of initiative or independent thought. They can only do a job if they're shown exactly how to do it, and can't extrapolate from what they learn. They can't even make out the form of a man in a snow sculpture Mark creates. To them, it's just a pile of precipitation.

On the other hand, Mark is perfectly at home in the surrounding woods and reacquires some of the basics of science and craft from books at the old house. He builds canoes. He learns to track. When he's in the forest, he can hear the trees whispering, just as Molly could before him. The clones pick up nothing but terrifying silence.

You can probably guess that things do not ultimately turn out well for them. Inevitably, their aloof cruelty drives Mark away — he conceives and successfully executes his own plan to keep humanity alive — and, unable to replenish their supplies or produce offspring who can sustain themselves, the clones meet their own quiet end. When Mark visits the abandoned compound a few years later, the chickens there have gone wild.

One review I found online of Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang complains that the science in the book doesn't make much sense, and that the post-apocalyptic setting is conveniently empty of outside distractions. Which — yeah, OK. But to gripe about these things is to miss the point completely. All the words devoted to genetics notwithstanding, this story is much closer to allegory than hard SF.

The first section, as I said, takes its name from Sonnet 73, a somber meditation on drawing close to the end of one's life, on drawing close to the end of everything. The title of the second, I will venture, comes from this poem, by Carl Sandburg. I mean, I have no way of knowing if that's true for sure, but the allusion to the long-gone soldiers of the Civil War certainly fits: "The blue nobody remembers, the gray nobody remembers..." because yes, all conflict has indeed been forgotten, left behind, put out of the minds inside the "repeating heads" of the clones.

And the final section without question takes its title from "Burnt Norton," the first of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets. The poem is about a dilapidated country house, through which the poet is guided by a singing bird, a place where the past is present in the future and the future a part of the past.

Kate Wilhelm's Sweet Birds: How protecting a species can endanger it

Now, very beautiful, but what do you make of all the disparate ideas? It's hard to read Sweet Birds and not think that the themes can all be condensed or resolved into one perfect statement, because they pop up so neatly: The book starts out sounding like an environmental, anti-pollution tract, but it's not. Then there's the forbidden, doomed love of first David and Celia, and then Molly and Ben, and the other nods to how things change but stay the same. Molly's art and the sculptures Mark produces. A story Mark tells the younger clones about a forest spirit called a woji. And the young-adult feel of the novel suggests there ought to be a single clear meaning. But it's more like the various motifs are different parts of a piece of music, bumping up against, accentuating, and reinforcing each other. So if I had to pick one big thing, here's what I got out of this song:

Near the end of the story, Mark remembers something he once told Barry, about life at the compound, maintaining the systems the Sumner ancestors set up:

"We're living on the top of a pyramid," he had said, "supported by the massive base, rising above it, above everything that has made it possible. We're responsible for nothing, not the structure itself, not anything above us. We owe nothing to the pyramid, and are totally dependent on it. If the pyramid crumbles and returns to dust, there is nothing we can do to prevent it, or even to save ourselves. When the base goes, the top goes with it, no matter how elaborate the life is that has developed there. The top will return to dust along with the base when the collapse comes. If a new structure is to rise, it must start at the ground, not on top of what has been built during the centuries past."

That really resonated with me. I feel like there's a gaping disconnect between most Americans' lives and the ground those lives are founded upon — you know, like if the oil ran out or the electricity stopped or the supermarkets closed, a ton of folks wouldn't have the faintest goddamn idea how to get by, or even where to start.

So there's that. And then there's the most off-putting quality of the clones of Sweet Birds: not their inability to think independently, but their overriding need for safety. I just winced every time they discussed how uncomfortable it made them to go out into the woods; I was embarrassed for them.

Kate Wilhelm's Sweet Birds: How protecting a species can endanger it

And all of these things are connected. If you're not able to think creatively, you are impaired in an emergency. And that makes you very scared of emergencies, and prone to insulating yourself from them as much as possible. Consequently, you also insulate yourself from other unfamiliarities — which in turn renders you ever less able to think creatively.

I am embarrassed for a lot of real people today, too, because of their overriding need for safety. There's something terribly sad to me about the people who flipped out over Abby Sunderland's parents letting her try to sail alone around the world. There's something terribly sad to me about kids increasingly going to events in parking lots on Halloween to trick-or-treat, instead of door to door. There's something terribly sad to me every time another group of idiots on a school board bans a book to protect their darlings' delicate sensibilities.

What I would say, to wrap things up, is that the problem with all this love of safety is exactly the one the clones run into at the end of Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang — and probably, symbolically, also the same problem humanity has run into at the start of the book, leading to the species' sterility: If you're always concerned with being safe, you never grow or evolve.

In other words: Seize the day. Whoa, that's a full rainbow!

"Blogging the Hugos" appears every other weekend. In the next installment: Gateway, by Frederik Pohl, from 1978. Subscribe to the RSS feed and follow @blogginghugos on Twitter for updates.

Josh Wimmer is a freelance writer in Madison, WI. He can usually be found here.