Imagine the scenario; climate change and ecological destruction has reached the point where a great catastrophe is about to unfold unless world leaders agree to "Turn off the factories, ground the airplanes, stop the mining, junk the cars." What would you do? If you're a member of the Sumners family in Kate Wilhelm's Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, you decide to build your own hospital and research centre, and start cloning yourselves to save the human race.
First, I thought, what a ridiculous idea, that one single family would have all the scientific and technical knowledge to be able to achieve that. Then, I thought, imagine the only people to survive and repopulate the earth would be clones of your own siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, parents. Don't get me wrong, I love my family, but we're not The Waltons.
So, a couple of chapters in and Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is looking like a daft story. You start to wonder why the book won so many prizes on publication in 1976.
You keep reading tho', thinking it's bound to reflect the age in which it was written. The sex scenes are clunky, and all that free love writhing about on mats surely echoes the late '60s early '70s hippy scene. There's also an annoying, unquestioned acceptance of the patriarchy. None of the female characters are involved in the cloning master-plan, and if one of the girls decides to go out into the world to help the less educated and less fortunate, she's made to feel like a traitor. For all the silliness tho', Kate Wilhelm manages to draw you in to her post-apocalyptic world, especially with the vivid descriptions of nature.
The book is split into three parts, following three generations of Sumners. First David, who lives through the catastrophe that kills humans and animals, and survives thanks to the forward thinking of his father and uncles. In the second part, one of the clones, Molly, becomes "ill" after being isolated from her clone sisters. This is a threat to the community, since "Early on, the family had decided ... if any brother or sister became mentally ill, his or her presence was not to be tolerated." Before Molly's future is determined, she conceives a non-cloned son named Mark, through whose eyes we experience part three. Here's where the theme of the book really raises its head, the conflict between individuality and conformity. You start to wonder how things might turn out if “For the first time since mankind walked the face of the earth ... there will be no misfits ... And no geniuses”.