Friday, November 8, 2013

Hugo Winner and WOGF Review: 1977 Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang

Kate Wilhelm
Read 1/2013, reviewed 4/26/13, revised 11/7/2013
5 stars

This book is a great post-apocalyptic/dystopian future novel.  It is a variation on the “Brave New World” themes of cloning, societal control, and personal rebellion.  In this book, the clones rule an enclave created by an extended family on the eve a nuclear war.  But there are flaws with the creation of the clones, including the requiring of infusion of original DNA every few generations, and a crippling emotional need to be close to one’s clone siblings.  One non-clone, Mark, is born and becomes an outcast and potential savior of the human race. 

The environment is another major theme in the book.  This is the first reference that I’ve come across in literature where the concept of nuclear winter is discussed.  Popularized by Carl Sagan and sensationalized by popular media, it dominated our cold war nightmares in the ‘70s and ‘80s.  Many popular books and movies about nuclear war depicted the radioactive devastation in the aftermath of such a war.  Instead of the radioactive desert, Wilhelm explores the shortening of the summer and the advancement of the glaciers. 

Wilhelm uses the forest almost as character of its own.  She creates a contrast between the relationship between the clone society and the forest surrounding it versus Mark’s relationship with the forest.  One sees it as oppressive and terrifying, the other sees it as friend and refuge.  Despite the fact that this book was written during the early days of environmentalism, I think she accurately forecasted the backlash against it, which came later in the Reagan and Watt era of the destruction of the American forests.  Mark’s relationship with the forest made me think of the themes of the film “Silent Running” and the song “Boy from the Country” by Michael Martin Murphy. 

Wilhelm, who I had never heard of before my Hugo quest, is a master of setting mood.  This is one of those books that put me in a completely different head space.  Every time I picked up the book, I was immediately transported into its environment, the uneasy, false eden as seen through the desperate other, who is rebelling against the conformity of the society.  It speaks to everyone who feels different.

I was surprised and thoroughly satisfied by this book.  I would go so far as to say this is an unsung, forgotten classic of SF.  I give this book a 5 star rating, where 5 stars is only awarded when I find a book so powerful and moving, it stands far above other great books.

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