The Hummingbird Effect by Kate Mildenhall

Reviewed by Wendy Lipke

Before beginning to read this third novel by Australian writer Kate Mildenhall, I needed to remind myself what The Hummingbird Effect was. The computer told me that the hummingbird effect demonstrates that an event in one field can trigger completely unexpected outcomes in wholly different domains. This connectivity cannot be predicted or planned, and it is only knowable in retrospect. This however did not give me any clues as to what this book could be about.

On delving into this reading journey, I discovered that there were stories about four different groups of women, past, recent present and future. They were stories about love, family and consequences and what people might be prepared to sacrifice for the chance of a brighter future. Also being highlighted in these stories are concepts of friendship and romantic relationship, the politics of work and the introduction of technology, Artificial Intelligence, climate, and the future of the world. There are two stories set in Footscray, Victoria. The first is bound up in the history of the meatworks in the 1930s while the second, set nearly one hundred years later, concerns a same sex relationship and the decisions around freezing human eggs for future use. Some of the descriptions are quite explicit.

The third storyline concerns the COVID shutdowns in 2020, and a woman who is housed in a nursing home because of the onset of dementia. The last story moves well into the future to 2181 and provides a narrative around the Collapse of the world as we know it today. Yet even here there is a desire to strive for a better future life.

The author has used a most unusual way to present the information. While three of the stories are presented in a usual narrative, the one set in the nursing home relies more on text messages, reports or diary entries to provide the information. These stories alternate throughout the book and are accompanied by short chapters about the Hummingbird Project and interaction with the AI language model. One request given to this technology is for a list of human innovations that could be uninvented to make the future world healthier, more equitable and a better place for all to live (93).  The reason for the name Hummingbird Effect is explained on page 95. No date is allocated to this segment in the book. Also included on page 172 is a diagram of the Hummingbird Algorithm which might mean more to some readers than others.

Before the stories begin there is what appears as an index but not set out in the usual way. This shows the storylines and dates in a flowing pattern. At the beginning and end and once more within the book there are sections called Before Now Next. These are narrated by a river and describes what it sees as it flows along in its particular habitat, as a ‘vein, a course, a thoroughfare…  for rivertime moves through the world according to its own logic, its own rhythm, and is not meant to be understood’ (115).

Though very unusual in many ways, this book includes many topics which will resonate with the reader, and they will get from the reading what talks to them individually. Although this book contains a smorgasbord of ideas, there is a fine thread that binds them all together.

This is a book not all readers will appreciate; however, it is thought provoking and has been crafted cleverly so that it all connects, hence the title The Hummingbird Effect.

The Hummingbird Effect


by Kate Mildenhall

Scribner Australia

ISBN: 978 176085 528 4

$32.99; 320pp


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