Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang

Haunting. Not your typical post-apocalyptic novel. I stayed up way, way too late last night/this morning reading the 1977 Hugo award winning novel Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm. In some ways it is reminiscent of A Choice of Gods and Way Station by Clifford D. Simak; it takes place in the future in an isolated rural setting and a family homestead plays a significant role in the plot. In Wilhelm’s novel, some events, which aren’t elaborated on, cause a global catastrophe. Before the disasters, the patriarch of a large group realizes what is going on and builds genetic facilities and a huge shelter for his extended family into the caves of a mountain. While the family survives the immediate disaster, they, like all other mammals, have been rendered infertile. The geneticists believe that by using a specific cloning technique the offspring will eventually become fertile again after a few generations.

Unlike many science fiction stories, this one centers on the people, in this case the clones, and how they evolve as a society. In the beginning, like normal teenagers, they take on an identity separate from their elders and create a society different from what the elders intended. While in some ways they are greater than the people they were cloned from, in other ways they are less. They all have a telepathic/empathetic connection and can’t bear to be alone. Slowly they lose their ability to see abstractions, to create new ideas, to adjust to unexpected events. Of course, even a cloned society has its rebels.

I need a few more days for the book to work its way into my psyche. I keep thinking about a conversation with a friend last week. We were talking about how teenagers were constantly texting one another. “They can’t bear to be alone!” she exclaimed, irritated. Each generation gains some things and loses others—and has its rebels who don’t go along with the wave.

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