Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm (1976) 242 p.


The position of women science fiction is a Hot Topic in the Discourse, because in spite of heavyweights like Ursula K. Le Guin and Margaret Atwood, there’s no denying that it’s a genre heavily tilted towards male authors. So it’s great to see that writing stilted, awkward and crummy science fiction novels isn’t the exclusive province of semi-autistic male writers.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is the 1977 Hugo winner and a fairly colour-by-numbers post-apocalyptic dystopia, split into three parts. The first takes place as global society is crumbling, and a tight-knit family with a farmland valley somewhere in the Appalachians resorts to cloning to keep their numbers up in the face of declining fertility. Why exactly a clan of hillbillies had so many esteemed scientists among their number to kickstart that process is something I’ve already forgotten, which is part of the problem. In a novel attempting to convey the creeping horror of having members of your family endlessly duplicate themselves, it helps if the characters are not in the first place so paper thin: wafer thin, tracing paper thin, the kind of paper they print Bibles with thin. In any case, this is one of those apocalyptic novels that suffers from First Act Syndrome, when all the characters who weren’t worth the effort to remember vanish after the time jump anyway, and the valley has become the domain of a weird new society of clones.

I could go on but there’s not much point. There’s lots of spiritual guff about the power of nature, I guess some Soviet-era hysteria about the fascism of empowering society over the individual, some weird obsessions with incest. It’s not completely unreadable, but it is completely unmemorable (I’ve already forgotten the main character’s name) and it slots in perfectly alongside all those other mid-century sci-fi novels which are more interested in exploring an idea than telling a story or painting interesting characters, yet still doesn’t do any of those three things particularly well.