If you’re looking for a book that involves survivalism, nuclear apocalypse, cloning and the dangers of cloning, the importance of communal life, the importance of individualism, and an attempt to balance a view of human nature between good and evil, then you should read Kate Wilhelm’s classic Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang.
This was a better book than it should have been, given how many sharp turns it takes in terms of plot and character. [Spoiler alert, though it’s an old enough book that it shouldn’t matter that much.] We begin by meeting David and getting a picture of his relationship with ‘the family.’ This is a constellation of cousins, uncles, parents, grandparents, and all manner of other relatives who keep in close communication with each other, support each other, and encourage each other to contribute to the good of the family and of society. We quickly learn that the family elders believe a collapse is coming–in fact, is even already in progress–and that they have been preparing a compound where they can all gather and survive. This compound has the latest in technology to help them fight the plague and resist the spread of infertility, as well as produce food and shelter in the wake of nuclear winter with an eye to preserving technology and civilization. Cloning is their answer to the problem of infertility, but that leads to another problem. Clusters of clones are somehow psychologically connected to each other, aware of each others feelings and difficulties and in a sense working as a single organism, rather than as individuals. Quickly the clones take over and begin their plans to propagate a new ‘human species’ composed of clones with ‘breeders’ serving as an emergency reserve. The restored technological world will be different than the old world of individualism. Yet the clones find that their dependence on each other makes them unable to explore and forage for much-needed supplies, and makes them depend on one of the few individuals who can still live by himself and work with the natural world. The clones warn against this individualism, even as they rely on it, and point out that it was the world of individuals which had resulted in the catastrophe and that pursuit of individualism will only result in the repetition of the cycle of destruction.
And yet, the individual at the end of the day is the one who survives. Mark, the last individual, leads a group of the more malleable children out of the old family compound and into a new, simpler lifestyle with slow progress (moving from building wooden structures to building fired-brick structures) towards a long-term view of survival, without insisting on holding on to the technology of the past. In his concluding reflection, Mark thinks:
“Five thousand years of savagery, Barry had believed, but that was time measured on the steps of the pyramid, not by those who lived any part of it. Mark had led his people into a timeless period, where the recurring seasons and the cycles of the heavens and of life, birth, and death marked their days. Now the joys of men and women, and their agonies, were private affairs that would come and go without a trace. In the timeless period life became the goal, not the re-creation of the past or the elaborate structuring of the future. The fan of possibilities had almost closed, but was opening once more, and each new child widened its spread. More than that couldn’t be asked.” (250)
Even this conclusion is worth kicking around a bit. I think the idea is that human life is most fulfilled when it is a natural (kind-of) family working together to survive in harmony with nature, rather than worrying about all the things civilization requires of us, including technology and holding on to life exactly as we think it should be. Rather than worrying about the general future of civilization and the daily requirements of modern life, delight in a simple and natural existence is what we should find most fulfilling. And I think there’s both something appealing to that and something not quite fulfilling. Certainly we won’t find satisfaction in all the claims of modern civilization. Preserving our technology and our affluent lifestyle isn’t and shouldn’t leave us feeling as if we had accomplished all we were meant to. We were made to be content with more than smart phones and fast food. But it’s also the case that we were made for more than the simple life. We were even made for more than full bellies and a comfortable shelter–even living at the most basic level should leave us wanting more. We are, as Augustine reminds us, made to be fulfilled by our relationship with God. Our true fulfillment comes only when we repent and believe in the good news of Jesus Christ and have our broken relationship with God set right. Then we find that we are fulfilled in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, whether in a technologically advanced society or in a simple farm in the woods.
Again, this is an interesting book with much to recommend it. In the hands of a lesser writer so convoluted and twisting a plot would have meant catastrophe. Wilhelm pulls it off, and as a result this book is a great read.