Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang – Cloning, Socialism, and the Individual

The blurb on the cover of my copy of Kate Wilhelm’s 1976 novel Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, my second book in the Worlds Without End Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge, claims that it is the most important novel about cloning ever. I was skeptical at first, but by the end of the novel I was pretty convinced that Wilhelm was doing something unique with the issue of cloning, engaging with the ethical issues from a different direction. At the same time, I’m still struggling with how to understand the final message of the text, whether Wilhelm wants us to celebrate the “individual” or understand that the “individual” is constructed out of a particular set of circumstances.

The Plot: David and his family begin reading the signs of the coming apocalypse with enough time to prepare an elaborate medical facility and living space for many people, including farmland and livestock. It quickly becomes apparent that the spreading plague and chemical fallout is making many of the inhabitants of the compound, both human and animal, sterile, and David and his fellow biologists design a plan for maintaining the human race via cloning. However, as the clones grow and develop, it becomes increasingly clear that they are incredibly alien from their human elders; rather than distinguishing themselves as individuals, clones understand the cloned siblings collectively to constitute a unit, and the mental development, including telepathy, reflects this. As the human elders die off, the clones set up a new society, but when the clones send off an exploratory party made up of individuals from different sibling sets, the traits of individuality begin to reappear, eventually resulting in the casting out of one woman and her further imprisonment upon becoming pregnant. Her son, Mark, is the protagonist on the last third of the novel, as the clones begin to exhibit signs of depletion in creative thinking and problem-solving skills and Mark begins his own plans to save the human race.

The novel’s division into three sections with multiple perspectives is interesting insofar as it does and does not allow us to enter the hive-mind of the clone sibling group. The hive-mind of sibling groups is difficult to represent through the kind of limited third person point-of-view that Wilhelm uses; it is almost as if as soon as Wilhelm becomes narrating from their point-of-view, the cloned characters begin separating from their siblings. And, this is exactly what is happening, though not necessarily because of Wilhelm’s narrating; instead, Wilhelm can only tell the story from the point-of-view of characters who are coming closer to the “individual” that we understand. Since part of the argument of the novel seems to be that the kind of hive-mind that is the consequence of human cloning is a bad thing, the reader not seeing things from the clones point of view works well.

Of course, hive-mind isn’t entirely a correct description; at first, the sibling groups themselves might be understood as individuals with many bodies. Increasingly, though, the clones become unable to function without someone to give them directions. The younger clones are unable to make meaning of abstract representations or conceive of anything that isn’t already in being. Wilhelm seems to be suggesting that individualization is key in problem-solving because it forces us to imagine what is going on in other’s minds in order to participate in social activities; because the clones are telepathic, they never develop these skills. Interestingly, the evolution of telepathy does not seem to affect the clones ability to use language, or even really seem to change the language they use. However, as the younger clones lose the ability to conceive of abstracts, they begin to see Mark’s ability to construct stories as something magical. One might even go so far as to say that rhetoric, or at least the canon of invention, is held in high regard within the discourse of this novel.

I’m still troubled by the ending. On the one hand, I can see where Rachel Hyland at GeekSpeak is coming from when she writes, “mostly it’s kind of a treatise on the value of individual liberties, almost an anti-Socialism manifesto, certainly a passionate argument against conformity.” It’s hard to miss the dystopic socialism of the clones, especially when they’re primary philosophy is this: “There is not individual, there is only the community […] What is right for the community is right even unto death for the individual. There is no one, there is only the whole.” At the same time, the necessity of the individual seems to be born out of particular circumstances; several times throughout the novel, Wilhelm alludes to pioneers and suggests that given the circumstances (i.e. human civilization crumbling and the clones having to rebuild the infrastructure), the ideology of the individual is the most effective for bringing about the changes the characters seem to want. Josh Wimmer at io9.com attributes the clones’ downfall not to their socialist practices but to their overriding need for safety, perhaps because the loss of a sibling is such a traumatic experience for the whole sibling group. This primary desire is not conducive to the kinds of activities and practices that must happen in order to revive something like civilization.

In the end, I’m pretty sure that Hyland is right, that the authorial audience for this text is one that would accept the argument that individuals and their rights are just better than socialist constructions. While I’m not persuaded of that, I am fairly convinced that “socialism” of varying degrees requires a certain kind of infrastructure, and that infrastructure is often built by the ideology of the individual.