I prefer to read science fiction, and lately i have made a point of seeking out the older works in the genre. Now if i go to a bookstore to browse the SF section, books are hundreds of pages long, if not longer. I enjoy Neal Stephenson and George R. R. Martin and Peter F. Hamilton, but why are all of their books at least 500 pages, and that's just one volume out of many?
When you browse old sci-fi books at a used store (i heartily recommend The Book Nook here in Atlanta), you see that they are often much shorter. In fact, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang clocks in at a mere 256 pages, less than one fourth the length of the latest installment (book 4 of 6!) of Martin's epic series. Why have people become so wordy? Wilhelm says a lot in the book, and she doesn't need thousands of pages to say it.
Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is a novel of the death of society, as much good sci-fi is. In Wilhelm's novel, society ends because of some unspecified environmental disaster that causes a decrease in fertility. The first third of the novel deals with a group who attempt to save society through the use of cloning those few children that are born. It works, but the clones take over.
The middle third of the novel deals with clone society, with how people who grow up with four of five siblings that are identical create a society that is fundamentally different from what we consider normal. The challenges the clones face are alien, yet Wilhelm does a good job of helping the reader feel their humanness despite the differences. As time progresses, the clones become insular, which poses problems hundreds of years after society's collapse when they need to rummage through the ruins of civilization for supplies, and yet have a hard time being separated from their fellow clones.
The final portion of the book details the rise of a non-clone born by accident, how he cannot fit in to clone society, and eventually rejects it. He leaves to found his own non-clone society, thus proving that man will overcome all challenges that he can face, or something ultimately uplifting like that.
At any rate, the book reads rather easily, with enough action to keep things moving and enough ideas to keep it interesting. This book won a Nebula in 1976, so it is something of a classic, and to be honest i really enjoyed it. Telling an entire story arc with such an efficiency of words is something i can appreciate, as is stare at the massive (1040 pages) edition of A Dance With Dragons that mocks me. Modern writers could learn a thing or two from Ms. Wilhelm.