Archive for the ‘Kate Wilhelm’ Tag

With Neither a Bang nor a Whimper   Leave a comment

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm, winner of the Hugo Award for best Novel, 1977

The subgenre of science fiction that deals with visions of a post-apocalyptic world is certainly nothing new. In this rather drawn-out series of essays on Hugo Winners, I’ve reviewed The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester (1953) and A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (1961), both of which deal in some fashion – one more overt than the other – with a world that has crawled out of the ashes of destruction. An argument could be made that Philip K. Dick’s alternate history novel The Man in The High Castle (1963) is a post-apocalyptic vision of a different sort. In recent years, interest in this subgenre seems to have increased significantly. Considering the state of the world, these days, I suppose that’s not terribly surprising.

It’s not a style of fiction I often get into. Perhaps the unsettled times in which we currently live have made me too sensitive to disturbing visions for such tales to be entertaining or thought-provoking. For my money it’s bad enough the real world is overflowing with tales of a dysfunctional world; I need something different when I read for pleasure. So it’s a rare work of this subgenre that finds its way to my reading list, and when that happens, it’s generally a book that in some way transcends its marketing niche. A case in point would be the subject of this entry, a book that for me counts as one of the most outstanding and unusual examples of post-apocalyptic fiction ever written.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is a different take on this subgenre, something that is illustrated clearly by the way the apocalypse itself is handled. It’s clear at the beginning that terrible things are happening, and that both the natural world and human civilization are collapsing. Multiple symptoms of the slowly unrolling catastrophe are seen, but there’s no specific disaster scene, no single blow up that takes everything down, and no single smoking gun as a culprit. The crash is more of a long slide that takes years and generations to unfold, but is no less devastating for that slow pace. The reader knows what is going wrong with the world at large through discussions of the situation by the viewpoint characters, a group of families living in a valley off the beaten track, as they watch the combined ecological and social collapse close in around them. The world of Humanity seems to simply fall apart and die under its own weight, regrettably taking much of the natural world, or at least the animal kingdom, down with it. A truly massive, if slow, extinction that, for humankind, takes the form of a plague of sterility; extinction through attrition. When the collapse is complete, the extended families of the valley are all that remain, and it is how they survive that drives this story. They keep the human species alive, dealing with the plague of sterility, by cloning themselves. Multiple copies and multiple generations of cloned individuals push back the final extinction of humanity, while changing what humanity means with unforeseen and possibly unhealthy consequences.

More than that glimpse of the plot would give away too much of the story, something I try very hard not to do. Suffice it to say that the grand scheme for survival proves more complicated than anyone imagined, leading to serious problems as flaws in the society of clones come to light. The story is of a world fallen silent, as the title implies, and in that silent and ruined world this pocket of survivors struggles to move forward and to remain human, even as they come to question, and then attempt to redefine, what it means to be human.

To my mind, the point of this story isn’t the apocalypse or its cause; the author certainly doesn’t dwell on the calamity as if writing the script for a disaster flick. For all that there is a clear message here regarding our ghastly track record regarding treatment of this world that sustains us, this is as much (or more) a story about the conflict between the value of the individual and the community, and the double-edged sword of conformity. Not enough conformity, and you can’t hold a society together. Too much, and you have a system incapable of responding to the unavoidable changes brought by the passage of time. It also, in its way, underscores the danger of reduced diversity, of relying too much on too few to bear the weight of all that matters.

Some feel this story ends on a hopeful note, others think it depressing to the end. I must confess that my own opinion is divided between the two extremes. In the end, my recommendation is that you read the book and decide for yourself. In my opinion, it truly deserves its place among the classics of science fiction.

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