I actually picked this novel up at the college bookstore back when I was a college senior because it was being used in a class I didn't have room for in my schedule. I then never actually got around to reading it because every time I picked it up, the first paragraph just seemed oddly impersonal and distant to me. I finally realized recently that it would actually fit into the Keyword Challenge I was participating in this year, and moved it into the short term to read pile (or in sports terms, it went from bench warmer status to on deck).
The novel is set at an undetermined time in the United States, but definitely the future. The world is facing huge environmental issues, and societies are close to the brink of collapse. David is a member of a large yet close knit family that has been very successful, spawning doctors, researchers, and department store owners among other things which gives them useful skills and resources. The family's leadership can see the epic crisis that is looming, and as a result, the family comes closer together, all relocating to the patriarch's land under the guise of building a hospital. This gives them access and reason to buy a large amount of medical supplies and equipment without looking suspicious. In reality, the hospital is a front for Walt, David's uncle, to run his experiment in the caves with the assistance of other medical professionals, both in and out of the family. The only solution Walt and David can see to the future of the family and humankind is cloning. The livestock aren't breeding successfully, and neither are humans. Research suggests that after a certain generation of cloning, the specimens regain the ability to breed naturally, so the clones are supposed to be a kind of stop gap to prevent humanity (and their livestock) from going extinct before allowing nature to once again take its course.
The novel follows the collapse of society, and the beginnings of this secluded life on the farm, but David sees that their plans may not go as desired before he dies - the clones have developed ideas of their own about the future of society. From here the novel jumps forward, to a society of clones. While the society functions well enough, they are also at the point where they must explore their surroundings to continue to thrive, and salvage what they can from the abandoned, dead cities. It is here that this community reveals its weaknesses which are very much related to the lack of individualism and lack of creativity. At this point, the clones have no idea what their original function was as previous clones have rewritten their history.
Mark is born into this, the result of a relationship between two clones that have been behaving oddly as a result of exploring the world, and his individuality allows him to see the threat to the future of humanity.
I actually liked the first two sections of this novel the most, seeing how the family determined what they felt needed to be done to preserve themselves and humanity. Though this was written in the '70s, using environmental issues as the reason for the breakdown of society makes it still very much relevant to today. I also felt like the novel did a great job of showing the problems that would eventually arise in such a homogenous society as cloning could lead to, and enjoyed the inner conflicts that the characters faced. My biggest complaint is that the section with Mark both went into great detail about certain things, and yet wrapped up very quickly. Wilhelm spends a good portion of narrative on his development, his childhood and his sense of difference, but I would have enjoyed more time on the resolution. At the end, I couldn't help but wonder if a whole different issue had the potential to arise in the type of society being developed but that is a whole new discussion. Overall, I would definitely recommend it.