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Book News

Still relevant after all these years

'Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang'
by Kate Wilhelm

Orb/Tom Doherty, $13.95

Review by L.D. Meagher

(CNN) -- The world is going to hell. Humanity has so fouled its nest it can no longer survive. Around the world, economies are crashing. Waves of new diseases spread across the globe decimating entire populations. The survivors choke on the polluted air and find no sustenance in the filthy water. The days of the human race are numbered.

There was nothing breathtakingly original about that scenario even when Kate Wilhelm published her novel "Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang" in 1976. What is breathtakingly original is the response she fashioned to the prospect of environmental collapse. It won a Hugo award. On its re-publication 22 years later, the doomsday scenario remains distressingly relevant and her approach to survival is suddenly as compelling as the latest edition of the journal "Science".

The story unfolds in a secluded Virginia valley where an extended family marshals its resources to provide for itself and its posterity in the face of impending global disaster. The real threat is not pollution or disease, but the alarming decrease in fertility among livestock and people. The patriarch of the clan decides there is only one way to protect the family: a crash program of cloning.

Over the years, as the world recedes from the valley, the family survives by replicating itself. At first, the clones seem identical to the original family members. Eventually, however, it becomes apparent that they are very different. Wilhelm follows the family through three generations. The first establishes a stronghold and launches the cloning project. The second reflects the new social structure the clones establish. The third exposes the dangers inherent in that structure.

Such a synopsis may leave the impression this is a massive novel of sweeping scope. It isn't. It's a very compact book. Wilhelm keeps her attention focused on one member of each succeeding generation, and uses that individual to tell the larger story. The technique allows her to enrich the characters and provide a human texture to what could easily have been a science-driven plot. The science is there, but it is only a thread in her colorful narrative tapestry.

"Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang" richly deserves the praise it won a generation ago. It offers thought-provoking approaches to the still-real threats facing humanity. It serves as a cautionary tale for those testing the boundaries of the biological sciences. It addresses the fundamental question of what it means to be human. It richly deserves to be read-or read again-for its insights that remain startlingly fresh.

L.D. Meagher is a senior writer at CNN Headline News. He has worked in broadcasting for nearly 30 years.

Other reviews by L.D. Meagher:

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