Seed by Rob Ziegler
Reviewed by Matt Hilliard
21 November 2011
Seed, Rob Ziegler's first novel, is the latest science fiction novel to show us a future in which climate change is no longer a threat on the horizon but a reality to be endured. A century in our future, the weather in North America is swinging wildly between extremes. Summer in the United States is scorching hot and the coasts have been flooded by rising sea levels, but in winter there is heavy snow and extreme cold. At the start of the story, most plants and animals have died from this variability and, except for the privileged few on the East Coast who can afford climate controlled living arrangements, the much-diminished human population of North America must make long, arduous migrations twice a year to survive.
The only things keeping people alive are genetically engineered seeds that grow into versions of staple crops that can, at least briefly, survive the rigors of the new environment. For the masses of desperate poor, these seeds are both currency and the only source of food. The only organization capable of producing them in any quantity is a biotechnology company called Satori that now controls what was once the city of Denver. Each year, the company provides seeds to the U.S. government for use in climate controlled agriculture. Some of the resulting food goes to support the lifestyles of the elite and a living wage for those associated with the military, while the remainder, barely enough for survival, is distributed to the starving migrants. Theoretically the company is subject to American law, but while the government desperately wants to control the production of engineered seeds, decades of famine and the exhaustion of oil reserves have reduced the area under its control to the Eastern seaboard. In its Denver stronghold, Satori seems untouchable.
The novel opens with this tenuous balance of power disturbed by Pihadassa, one of Satori's four genetic designers. She defects to the United States government, heading east with a shipment of seeds, but she and the entire shipment disappear en route. Her partner, Sumedha, sets out to discover why she left in hopes of getting her back. This is not a simple matter, for Satori is not an ordinary company. Its four designers are themselves genetically engineered with the ability to intuitively analyze DNA. Manual labor and security are provided by subhuman clones bred for absolute obedience, and the company is housed within a vast biological building with muscles, skin, and perhaps even intelligence. The only job title held by ordinary humans within Satori is that of test subject.
Besides Sumedha, the book's other two protagonists are unaltered humans. Brood is a young Texan who, like almost everyone in the Midwest, migrates north into the Great Plains for the summers and then south into Mexico for the winters. Unlike most migrants, he makes ends meet by stealing Satori seeds from the gangs that control the refugee populations. The other viewpoint character is Sienna Doss, a tough female soldier who is sent west to whip what's left of a Kansas Army unit into shape and conduct an armed reconnaissance mission to locate Pihadassa.
Together, these three characters constitute a cross section of what's left of civilization. Brood is young, poor, and frequently desperate. Like almost everyone in the migrant population his English is heavily salted with Spanish words and phrases, though not to the extent that readers who don't speak Spanish will have any difficulty understanding him. Doss is a member of the tiny remnant of the middle class, living in a small climate controlled apartment in the new American capital in Philadelphia on the rare occasion she's off duty. Doss is old enough to remember what life was like before the worsening climate and the end of easily available oil combined to bring civilization its knees, making her a reasonable representative of the ancien régime. Sumedha, meanwhile, is both one of the most powerful people on the continent and the vanguard of the future, or at least one possible future. His altered genes, in his view, make him better adapted for the difficult new world than the humans that Satori theoretically serves.
This is a future could easily feel artificial. Upon reflection, each piece feels calibrated to play a specific role in the novel. Early in the novel, Satori corn is described as needing to survive "temperatures as high as one hundred forty degrees Fahrenheit, as low as negative twenty degrees" (p. 19), a climate that somehow combines the worst case scenarios of current global warming projections with discredited 1970s fears about global cooling. Because the story takes place in the summer, it's only the hot and dry section of the cycle (the realistic half) that is actually depicted, but the cold winters are what makes the whole world unsafe instead of leaving open the usual possibility of plants, animals, and people moving north. Beyond the climate, there are unrealistically few organizations even for such a reduced civilization. Satori is not just a biotechnology company, it's the only one, or at least the only one left. There is likewise a single gang that seems to function across distances the actual government can no longer conquer. And there's just one country, for although there is a throwaway mention that somewhere in Europe there are people in a similarly bad situation, the United States is essentially isolated. It isn't just alone on the international stage, either, as state and local governments are never mentioned.
It's a testament to Ziegler's prose that these nitpicks didn't bother me while I was actually reading the book. All these things are unrealistic, but they also simplify the novel in a way that allows the narrative to focus on the characters and their immediate situations without getting bogged down in exposition. This tight focus pays off thanks to the diverse and nuanced characters and Ziegler's naturalistic dialogue. This is a world where there's little reward for polite or superfluous speech and potentially large benefits to sounding tougher and less afraid than you actually are, and by capturing this reality the dialogue contributes enormously to building the novel's world.
This scene-by-scene realism anchors the novel's brutal, if mostly predictable, story. Satori is up to no good, and Brood and Doss must try to stop them in a fight which may consume what's left of humanity. As is typical of novels about the collapse of civilization, this is not a particularly happy story. These characters begin the book in fairly difficult circumstances, then endure a wide array of setbacks, suffering, and damage both physical and emotional as they struggle against both the environment and their fellow human beings. While the reduced and immiserated population are testimony to the failure of civilization to prepare for or respond to climate and energy challenges, the swift decline is alluded to but never explained, and the relatively prosperous circumstances of our era have passed out of living memory, leaving few avenues for either nostalgia or recrimination. For their part, the characters are worried about the future, however much of it they can hope to influence given their varying circumstances: the next meal, the next month, the next year.
They have a great deal to worry about, for although the collapse of the ecosystem is the foundation of the setting, the narrative is more interested in exploring human relationships under stress. In the modern world, there are a thousand different ways two people might be connected, but in Seed, the extremity of the situation has cleared almost all of these away. Only that most foundational of human relationships remains intact: the family. This is immediately clear from the characters' motivations: Brood protects and feeds his brother, Doss's paycheck supports her retired father and her hospitalized lover, and Sumedha wants to be reunited with his partner. Even Doss's commanding officer sends her west partly in hopes of recovering his missing daughter and assigns his own adult son to serve as Doss's companion.
But with everyone directly related to only a few people, such ties are not enough to sustain even the dramatically reduced civilization of Seed's North America, so the novel is full of larger associations that are created through metaphorical appeals to family connections. Sometimes there is some truth to it, as when the human founders of Satori are called the Fathers by their genetically engineered designers, or when those same designers are called mother or father by their creations. The poorly trained and almost completely uneducated troops serving under Doss call her Boss Momma, and since her expertise is both their source of pride and their best hope of survival, the terrible losses they suffer in battle only increase their almost cult-like attachment to her. But desperation leads people to apply familial terms to what are actually far more tenuous relationships, and the result is only self-deception. When the desperate refugees hear rumors of the defection of Pihadassa, they speak of her as the Corn Mother and convince themselves she will take them in, saving them from their privations, but in fact she sees them as little more than cattle and treats them accordingly. Brood even finds himself essentially conscripted into a "family" that tries to impose familial obligations on him based on nothing more than a few days' acquaintance and an initiation ritual.
With any novel that depicts such difficult circumstances, it's worth asking how relevant the story is. Viewed as a whole, the cold winters let us write off Seed's climate change scenario as essentially a secondary world, with no plausible path connecting our present with its future. That's a comforting way to read what can be an uncomfortable novel, and with its strong characters and well-paced story, Seed is worth reading on those terms. But ultimately that approach sells it short. The heat and drought of its midwestern summer is a real possibility for our future, and its depiction of a high-tech military intervention amidst a general breakdown of law and order inevitably recalls the past and present conflicts of the twenty-first century. But Seed is most compelling as a portrait of characters and a society struggling, and mostly failing, to adapt to changing circumstances. Even if everyone may not agree on exactly how technology and the environment will change in the next few decades, no one can deny that large changes are coming, and novels like Seed remind us that we will have to change as well.