My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is a book to read for its ideas rather than its characters. It is the story of a world that is suffering from radiation and other forms of pollution. The ability to reproduce has been damaged. Human and other animal species are disappearing. Plant life has also been affected, so there's less food and the remaining people are fighting for what's left. A family of scientists is working on a solution to this problem. They plan to use cloning to create livestock and people who, hopefully, will be fertile.
The novel starts out with two cousins, David and Celia, who are in love. Wilhelm uses their love to point out differences between naturally born humans and the first generation of clones.
Three Celias came into view, swinging easily with the weight of the baskets, a stair-step succession of Celias. He shouldn't do that, he reminded himself harshly. They weren't Celias, none of them had that name. They were Mary and Ann and something else. He couldn't remember for a moment the third one's name, and he knew it didn't matter. They were each and every one Celia. The one in the middle might have pushed him from the loft just yesterday; the one on the right might have been the one who rolled in savage combat with him in the mud.
These new clones have a unique sense of empathy. They are extremely close to their “sisters,” but don't reach out well to others. Sex is something the clones are obligated to have and something they enjoy, especially in large groups, but it is never a drive that pushes them into one on one, romantic relationships. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang was first published in 1977 and I wonder if this aspect might have been a reaction to the Sex, drugs, and rock and roll philosophy of the sixties and early seventies.
There are a number of problems inherent in the idea behind this plot. First of all, there are life forms that are not affected by the pollution. Trees seem to grow fine and so does grass. But beyond this and other technicalities are the problems of a plot about people who have trouble caring for each other. Wilhelm works her way through this by having some characters who still can care.
Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang would make a good book club selection because the ideas have the potential to stimulate a great discussion. I found the reviews on Goodreads to be fascinating while the novel itself never captured me completely.
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