David Sumner has a problem: the world as he knows it is about to end. what's a brilliant young man and his equally brilliant family to do? why, bring back members of that extended family, store supplies, circle the wagons, and build a lab which will eventually help the Sumner family to repopulate the earth, of course. sounds like a good plan to me.
there's something about the 70s that I just really dig. many things, actually. besides the wonderfully hideous clothes and the wonderfully not-hideous moustaches and of course all of the brilliant movies, one of the things I like about that decade is the science fiction that came out of it. sci-fi that is confident mankind is headed for cataclysmic change any day now; sci-fi writers that came up with all sorts of ways that mankind can survive or transform or transcend or even just die. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is such a book. one of the very 70s things about this novel is its sweet but not saccharine attachment to nature... if you don't dig nature, you have a lot to learn man. there's a vagueness to that sentiment just as there is a vagueness to what exactly is causing the world to break down. and that vagueness is also pretty 70s. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is not the sort of novel that will spell things out for you. you either dig it or you don't dig it.
Molly of the Miriam Sisters has a problem: she went on an expedition to see what could be found out there, and she came back changed. she doesn't see things the same way. she should probably try to change back; she's making her duplicate sisters uneasy and her community deals with unease in fairly drastic ways. but she doesn't want to change. she's not sure why she is drawing these disturbing images or why she finds such new comfort in nature, in being by herself. but she likes it. she likes being an individual.
and that's another great thing about the 70s, in sci-fi and beyond: that interest in exploring the necessity of both individuality and community. Wilhelm does not paint this after-the-fall society in broad strokes so that the reader can easily hiss at it. there is a nurturing, loving vibe to this future community. people support their siblings automatically. sexuality is nonchalant. it is a community that cares for its citizens. well, in its own way. but of course in the end Wilhelm cherishes individuality and this community is shown to be deeply flawed. if this sounds like the novel may be some kind of didactic screed on individualism, well, it's not. Wilhelm is subtle. she is a lovely writer but she is also fine with making the reader a bit uncomfortable. Molly's "descent" into individuality is eerie and unnerving, haunting, as strange an experience for the reader as it is for this new and vaguely threatening Molly - no longer of the Miriam Sisters.
Mark has a problem: he is not like the lab-bred brothers & sisters, and they don't like that. the clones don't like this natural-born kid. but they need him, they need his skills, they need his bravery, they need his ability to understand nature and to be by himself. unfortunately, they don't actually know they need him and how badly they need individuals like him for their survival as a race. at one point Mark builds a snowman. the young clones don't understand it and they don't really see it - because it is a lone snowman, no lookalike snowmen surrounding it. so they pelt it with snowballs and tear down the monstrous lone thing.
I love how this kid is portrayed as an arrogant little asshole who mercilessly pranks his clone relatives, blithely uncaring of the genuine harm they can and often expressly want to do to him. assholes make the best heroes for me because I can often see myself in them. I like their flaws, their humanity; heroic heroes are often quite tedious in the end. the 70s had no problem with asshole heroes. but although Mark is quite a jerk, he has something his family members don't understand outside of their clone groupings: empathy. jerks who are empathetic know how and where to hit the hardest. and so Mark hits the clones hard, right where it hurts.
great novel! a classic.