I must have been 17 when I first read this book. Always a precocious reader I took a class in science fiction/fantasy at the local junior college back before we had AP classes in high schools. Once a week, my friend and I drove 20 miles to Hayward, California, the nearest junior college at the time, where we spent the evening discussing books like Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, which blew us both away back in the day.
Re-reading a book like that, decades later, can make one anxious. Just how well will it hold up?
I’m pleased to say that Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang held up very well. The story is set in a not too distant future, when various things have worked to render the human race infertile. The only hope for our survival is reproduction through cloning. But the clones all begin to break down after the fourth generation, and they don’t act quite human.
The book is divided into two sections, the first dealing with the decline and fall of humanity. The story is entertaining on its own as we follow David, a scientist who moves to a remote laboratory complex where he works on the initial stages of the cloning project. The book raises lots of questions about the value of individuality versus the value of community. Here David talks to one of the clones just before the clones take over:
“Remember when one of your women killed one of us a long time ago, David? Hilda murdered the child of her likeness. We all shared that death, and we realized that each of you is alone. We’re not like you, David. I think you know it, but now you must accept it.” He stood up. “And we won’t go back to what you are.”
David stood up also, and his legs felt curiously weak. “What exactly do you mean?”
“Sexual reproduction isn’t the only answer. Just because the higher organisms evolved to it doesn’t mean it’s the best. Each time a species has died out, there has been another higher one to replace it.”
“Cloning is one of the worst ways for a higher species,” David said slowly. “It stifles diversity, you know that.”
“That’s assuming diversity is beneficial. Perhaps it isn’t,” W-1 said. “You pay a high price for individuality.”
This is one of the few times in the book when the plot slows to discuss issues. For the most part, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang moves along like most plot driven novels, though the second part of the book is much more character based.
The second part takes place several generations later when a fertile clone manages to reproduce sexually, something that has become both very difficult and against the law. She keeps her son separate from the community and attempts to raise him as a fully human individual. After they are discovered, she is forced to flee and the boy is raised by the community of clones.
By this time, it has become clear that the clones will not survive unless they move to a new location and go back to reproducing sexually, become individual again. They have used up their supplies, and they lack the individuality needed to come up with new solutions. Clones can only do what their ‘parent’ taught them to do. They cannot innovate. The boy, Ben, is the only one left who can still think on his feet, like an individual, so he is the only who can lead the rest of the community to a new life.
It’s a great story, full of interesting ideas and questions that are still relevant today. And I was delighted to find a lot of darn good writing in it, too. I’ll be keeping this one around and may very well end up reading it again in a couple of decades.