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Kate Wilhelm – Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang

Title: Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang
Author: Kate Wilhelm
Year: 1976

My odyssey through the Hugo Winners draws to a close, but there still seem to be treasures on the final stretch. Kate Wilhelm’s book Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang was presented to me as being the epitome of science-fiction writing on the subject of clones, and I must say I was a little bit hesitant at the beginning of the novel. However, the story quickly unfolds, presenting the end of the civilised world as we know it, but with some people in it with the foresight to prepare for the downfall. Their only way of ascertaining survival of the human race in the long run is through a flawed cloning process that quickly runs out of control.

I like many things about this novel. For instance, the author seldom bothers with the unimportant bits, making Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang exactly as long as it has to be. Another author might have told the same story using three times as many pages, which would of course have ruined the novel. However, this does not mean that the narrative is terse in any way, it just means that the author has an acute sense of what to describe and what to leave out entirely.

Also, the topic of cloning is interesting, because it is dealt with in a very philosophical way. I thought the subject was used in fiction to boredom, but I was proven wrong. Even though Kate Wilhelm wrote the book more than thirty years ago, it still feels relevant and important. The need for diversity and uniqueness is something which is essential in most contexts, not only after the fall of civilisation, which happens to be the background against which Wilhelm paints her theme.

Admittedly, I was close to giving this novel five snails, but I did not. Argument for five snails primarily involve the feeling created in the story, something I have difficulties putting my finger on. The title is derived from Shakespeare’s sonnet 73: “Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang”, and herein can be sensed the feeling I am trying to describe. A deserted church choir, fallen into ruins, and in the stillness of autumn, sweet birds are singing as nature recaptures what man once dominated. I am not saying that this is what Shakespeare meant, but I think the title really manages to catch the essence of the story.

Still, even though the story is intriguing and its concepts interest me highly, it will have to suffice with four and a half snail for Kate Wilhelm. Even though the characters are interesting, I think that parts of the story could have been better (do not misunderstand me; nothing in this book is bad), particularly, I think parts of it is old stuff I have seen before (also things that I know have been published before 1976). Anyway, I still consider Were Late the Sweet Birds Sang a masterpiece and highly recommend it to everyone.

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