Monday, 19 October 2015

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm

I picked this book up at long last as part of my read of all the Hugo nominees. Kate Wilhelm's book won the year I was born, so I tend to figure it was a very good year. And on the whole, this is a very good book. It's chock full of ideas, and raises interesting questions about what subtle things might be lost if we fundamentally changed our ways of interacting with each other.

At the start of the book, the world is collapsing. Ecological collapse is imminent, new pandemics on the doorstop. People and animals have stopped having babies. One family out in the hills has the money to recognize the problem and set up a research lab, aimed at figuring out cloning. The problem is that cloning seems to work for a few generations, but then rapidly deteriorates.

The first generation solves the problem - clone for a few generations with new techniques, then go back to livebreeding. But the next generation is the first one of clones, and their social structures are utterly different. Six of each clone is created, exact replicas of the original family, and they are bonded in ways that go beyond sibling closeness and verge on telepathy. They can sense when others of their cohort are injured. They have their best sex with each other, as who knows your body better than another you? (Most are infertile, so sex for procreation is mostly out - and when cross-cohort sex does occur, and babies are very rarely started, the mothers are taken care of so the babies can provide the basis for new clones.)

Within this, they start to have machinery break down, and six unrelated clones go out to do a first reconnaissance. They are haunted by being away from their cohorts, and some are able to reintegrate on coming back, but at least one is put down. And here the book starts to get a little horrifying. Injury they will tend to, but mental illness upsets the minds of the others in the cohort as well, so this nascent society believes that the best solution to that route is simply to terminate the offending member.

Then we start to find out more about the breeding mothers, and it gets more horrifying - conditioned with fear so they can't leave their quarters, permanently separated from their cohorts, artificially inseminated once a month until they have as many babies as they can have, then euthanized. (Through most of the book, the main characters were male. This disappointed me slightly, given that this is written by a woman. Then we got to this section, and it was terrifying in a way that I think only a woman could have written.)

We go on to the third generation, the natural-born child of two of the clones who had been affected by the reconnaissance trip. Problems arise, not only because he doesn't fit into the society, but because the clones have been losing something without realizing it. The older generations, now being pushed out themselves, start to see that the newer clones are indeed degrading, but doing so in a subtle way - losing their capacity for abstract thought. They can do what they are taught, and well, but they can't put things together themselves. Creativity is beyond them.

This insular society is doomed to fail, and Mark, the natural-born child, needs to figure out what he can do (or wants to do) to keep the last remnants of society from disappearing.

It's a fascinating book, about the strengths and weaknesses of community over the individual, and some of it is truly chilling. It feels like science fiction from the 70s, and I mean that in a good way. This is a provocative look at unintended consequences, and where they might lead a fragile society.


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

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