For the last several months, I’ve been reading along with selections for the scifi book group that Phil co-hosts. Seed, by Rob Ziegler, is September’s selection for Different Skies. I finished it several days ago, and it took me two days to mark it read on Goodreads because I couldn’t figure out what star rating to give it. (Compulsion to star-rate, personal criteria for star-rating and my need to serve the algorithm with accurate star-rating should be a whole other blog post.) I’ve never been so much at a loss to gauge my own reaction to a book.
The world of Seed is a drought-ravaged middle America, in which the bulk of the population is starving in cruelly harsh conditions. The primary currency is barcoded seed, genetically engineered and distributed by an entity called Satori, both a corporation and a living biological city with a literal flesh and bone structure.
Three main storylines interweave towards the climax. Brood and Pollo are orphaned brothers, originally from Texas but now part of the vast and piecey mass of migrants constantly traveling in search of shelter, water and fertile earth. Sienna Doss is a military commander who loves her work and lives by the mantra Don’t Fuck Up: do the job and don’t get bogged down in the stupidity and carelessness of long chains of command. Sumedha is an administrator of Satori, a genetically engineered human who can analyze and manipulate DNA.
Each of these storylines revolves around the defection and subsequent disappearance of Pihadassa, Sumedha’s partner and the creator of Satori’s drought-hardy engineered seed. Brood is caught up in a group that calls Pihadassa the Corn Mother, and believes she will save humanity from starvation. Doss is tasked with finding her and turning her over to the US Army, who believed she was defecting to them before she disappeared. Sumedha is struggling to understand why his mate, his perfectly engineered other half, has taken herself out of the circle of connection and creation that was their life in Satori.
These are three complex arcs with distinctly different tones, and Ziegler ties them together skillfully. The story is compelling, and the characters are well-developed. And yet, and yet: I didn’t actually enjoy this very much. I think I would have given it a higher rating if it had been a worse book. There’s a conundrum. There were too many miraculous escapes from certain death; I stopped fearing for the safety of my protagonists fairly early on. There was no attempt at giving a global context to the story, which is a thing that you often encounter in post-apocalypse stories, but which bugs me. Unless you’re writing in the first person, in which case your character probably doesn’t have access to information about anything but what’s physically in front of them, I feel like apocalypse is a thing that happened to the whole world and the existence of the rest of humanity should at least get a mention. Every storyline evoked a profound sense of pity in me, but no actual affection to hang my hope on. I will say that another way: I didn’t know what to hope for. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book that made me feel that way before.
Every time I read a post-apocalyptic novel, I wish I had a better background in political philosophy, and Seed was no exception. This time, I had to run to Wikipedia for a quickie education on Thomas Hobbes, who gets a casual mention from a maddeningly serene pundit early in the novel. Hobbes isn’t mentioned again, but the pundit keeps punditing smugly and at very inconvenient moments. He gets one of the last lines in the book, and it’s a very dark breadcrumb pointing in the exact opposite direction from the cautiously verdant ending. I think Ziegler intends the ending to be hopeful, but there are enough hints and unexplored trails in the narrative to make me doubt, and I wish he’d really sunk his teeth into the moral ambiguity and made Seed a harder book. The review in the New York Journal of Books ended by describing the book as “Not light. Not heavy.” I agree, but I’d have liked it better if it was one or the other. It could have been a much lighter B scifi novel and been thoroughly enjoyable, but what I really wanted was something deeper. I’m looking forward to seeing what Ziegler does with a second novel.