Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang. by Kate Wilhelm.

Can the world end without zombies being involved? It may be hard to believe, but just a few years ago, stories set in post-apocalyptic times did not generally use zombies, vampires, or other supernatural means to bring about the end of the world. Humans seemed perfectly capable of it themselves.

Kate Wilhelm, an Oregon author now best known for her mysteries, started out in the science fiction field along with her late husband Damon Knight. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is a 1976 Hugo award-winning novel about the (possible) rebirth of civilization after life on earth has all but disappeared.

The first part of the book takes place at the beginning of the end of life as we know it: some kind of devastating disease hits the world; coupled with political instability and ongoing pervasive sterility, it is enough to bring us down. No zombies, nuclear bombs, or other spectacular event here; rather, death by entropy with vague environmental concerns mixed in. Although this might seem a bit of a cliché today (after all, if global warming is true, then we are living through our own slow-motion apocalypse right now), it certainly works within the story. A small enclave of people survive only by cloning themselves.

The novel has a carefully woven two-fold plot. First, there are the standard post-apocalyptic elements: how do humans survive, what can they learn from the past, how can they build civilization again? What makes the book compelling, however, is that Wilhelm also weaves in a tale of psychological suspense about the clone colony. Two main problems arise from the cloning: first, there is a slight breakdown of the genetic code with each generation. This makes each generation slightly less intelligent and creative. Although the effects are not really noticeable in the first generation, the cumulative effect becomes drastic. Second, the clones develop a hive mentality and social life. Set against this are main characters who are both creative independent.

The suspense Wilhelm would later employ in her mysteries is at work here, along with some good food for thought. A tale well told.