Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang
by Kate Wilhelm
1977 Hugo Winner for Best Novel
I was dead certain that this book was going to be a slog and a half. The dust jacket screamed "generic crap". A one sentence synopsis is a bunch of people in rural West Virginia try to survive the collapse of civilization. That was the essence of the plot synopsis on the dust jacket. And yet this turned out to be one of the best post-apocalyptic novels I ever read. The reason is simple: characters. Wilhelm populates Where Late the Sweet Birds Sing with an army of richly written characters that are driven into conflict by their personalities. No matter how awful some of things they do are (and some of them are pretty terrible) you can understand why they think it will help them survive.
Let me give you a bit more detail on the story (and take my word for it that all of this plays better in the novel than it sounds). Pollution, wars, disease, and other stresses have finally broken humanity and worldwide everyone and most animals becomes infertile. An extended family of survivalists think that this will go away as these problems vanish but humanity has no way to last that long. To insure that humans will go on they build a large cloning facility below their home and settle in to wait out the end of the world until their descendants can have children once more. It turns out the clones don't like that plan. Batches that are decanted together have a Midwich Cuckoos style telepathic link between all of them so long as they don't individualize too much.
Jump ahead a bit and the clone society is starting to fail. The replacement parts are running out and they haven't been able to scavenge new ones. They can last a few more generations but they have to do something. They don't want to start making babies again since anyone who becomes pregnant loses the telepathic link and winds up being an outcast from their society. One brash woman struggles to be an individual in this society only to be tormented by it. Her child, who she hid from the village for almost a decade, however has many of the personality traits needed for survival the clones lost. The fate of the survivors depends on if the clone society can adapt to his way of life and if he can forgive them for his mother.
For a short book Wilhelm really packs it in. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is obviously a novel stretched over generations and yet it doesn't feel like one of those sprawling overwordy "epics" that were in style at the time (we've got new styles of sprawling overwordy epics now clogging up shelves like a blood clot going to the brain). Wilhelm has a tight focus on the characters and the problems of the society and doesn't waste a word.
As I stated the strength of this novel is in the characters all of whom are driven to have people (not just themselves) survive and to have children. The initial survivors are trying to keep humanity going long enough but find themselves overthrown by their own creation. The clones lose the ability to survive independently for the sake of their own new society and are threatened by a handful of individuals. They maneuver and squabble and undermine each other but each thinks they are doing it for the good of humanity.
Perhaps the most disturbing bit of survivalism is how the clones treat fertile women. Since there is a copy degradation problem with the clones that prevents there from being more than five generations from the original they recognize that they will need an infusion of fresh DNA to maintain their culture. To that end when the first few start becoming pregnant the women are sequestered and forced to continue breeding the next generation. It's a concept that can be understood intellectually from a standpoint of the survival of the species (the clone's reasons is the same cultural reasons why women's roles in society were limited until the recent past) it is disturbing and an unpleasant step backward for people who claim to be building a better future.
I was impressed at how Wilhelm took such a generic, standard story and turned it into something special. The whole book has a melancholy feeling as the earth goes out with a whimper rather than a bang but at the same time there is a hopeful edge that the struggles that all of the characters go through may lead to a rebirth. It's a lovely novel and even though I went in expecting something awful she won me over.