Kate Wilhelm is only the second female writer to win one of these big science fiction awards. Like Ursula K. LeGuin, she seems to be more interested in the cultural implications of technology or alternative ways of ordering society. It also reminded me a great deal of two later novels by female authors: P. D. James’ Children of Men and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.
Once again, we’re in the ‘70s dystopian world of over-population and environmental disaster. The action begins on a small farm (I believe it’s in Virginia, but I don’t think the novel ever says for certain), where we meet David, a young medical student who has a crush on his cousin, Celia. These proceedings have the feel of a traditional family epic, but the novel quickly takes a turn. Society around the farm is crumbling, new epidemic plagues are killing millions of people around the world, and the rest are starving. At the heart of all these problems is the fact that most animals (pretty much all vertebrates) are becoming sterile, including humans and the domestic animals that they require for food. David and his family have seen the crisis coming, and they plan to save humanity through cloning. They retreat to their family farm, which they manage to defend from the death throes of humanity, and they dive into their research.
I quite loved the novel at this point. It’s an intriguing post-apocalyptic vision that moved very quickly. This all happens in the first fifty pages, and I was looking forward to the story of rebuilding human society from the ground up that I assumed Wilhelm was going to tell. But, instead, the book takes another turn. You see, as anyone who has watched a pulp science fiction movie on the subject knows, clones are eviiiiiiiiiil. David’s clones, in particular, have a weird group consciousness and are generally creepy. They take over the project of rebuilding humanity in their own creepy clone image. The latter half of the novel gets more interesting again, as we get the story of a non-cloned son of clones, Mark, who wants a return to individuality.
There are some interesting ideas here, overall, and this is a very well-written novel, but I could never really get over the implausibility of the evil psychic clones. It’s a cheesy horror-film idea at the center of an adult contemplation of changing society, and I’m afraid that it almost ruined a pretty good novel for me.
By the way, for the first time in years, we have a difference of opinion between Hugo and Nebula (the writers chose Pohl’s Man Plus over Wilhelm’s book, which was nominated). I don’t think either book was entirely successful – both suffer from shallow pop-psych views of human jealousy and betrayal and the roles that experimentation on humans would have on both. Pohl’s cyborg insanity is more believable than Wilhelm’s evil groupthink clones, but Wilhelm’s novel is brisker and more entertaining. I’ll give the nod to the Hugo winner yet again.