Monday, October 8, 2012

Microreview [book]: Seed by Rob Ziegler

Seed, by Rob Ziegler [Night Shade Books, 2012]

The Meat

Post-apocalyptic fiction is experiencing a renaissance of sorts lately. True, the Cold War fears of nuclear annihilation, which served as the backdrop for so many of the classics, have receded into history. But we have our own existential "threats" and "bogeymen" now: rapid and irreversible climate change; the collapse of state power, welfare and the global financial system; terrorism; overpopulation; and the rise of autonomous, unregulated and unaccountable corporations. None of these are newcomers to science fiction--they are, in varying combinations, the central preoccupations of John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar, Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower/Talents and John Shirley's A Song Called Youth trilogy. But the exact configuration of these fears in the post-911 zeitgeist is arguably quite different from what you find in any of these.

This zeitgeist serves as the starting point for Seed, Rob Ziegler's dazzlingly inventive debut novel for Night Shade Books. Seed takes place in a not-too-distant future United States devastated by anthropomorphic climate change, whose decimated population lives and toils in a state of near-perpetual migration. Massive fluctuations in both daily and seasonal temperatures have turned much of the country into desert, making animal husbandry impossible and killing off most species living in the wild. The only real source of food comes from genetically-modified seeds produced by the mercurial Satori corporation, and distributed by a shell of civilian and military authority--no longer democratic and in the slow process of withering away.

Action begins as one of Satori's seed designers, the clone Pihadassa, decides to leave the living, flesh-and-cartilidge dome that covers much of downtown Denver and serves as the corporation's headquarters. Her motivations are unclear, though we are led to understand that she has reached a point of irreconcilable difference with either the aims or means of Satori. The government, meanwhile, desperately wants her to defect, in the hopes that her bioengineering skills can help return it to former glories. But Pihadassa escapes her would-be captors, and settles with her clone "family" under a new protective dome in rural Kansas. Called "Corn Mother" by the migrants, she becomes a symbol and beacon of hope to which migrants from across the midwest flock.

From this point we are introduced to three perspective characters: Chicano migrant Brood, who travels the southern midwest with his autistic brother Pollo and their surrogate father Hondo; Agent Sienna Doss, a special operative tasked with finding and extracting Pihadassa to Washington; and Sumedha, Pihadassa's partner and Satori's chief remaining Designer. As their narratives begin to converge on Pihadassa's dome in Kansas, Ziegler slowly reveals the truth about Satori and the world it dominates.

Seed owes a great debt to the work of Paolo Bacigalupi, and in particular to his Hugo and Nebula winning 2009 novel The Windup Girl. Indeed, they share many concerns--most clearly with the potentially devastating effects of climate change and vision of a future dominated by private biotechnology corporations. Yet Seed is, in many ways, the better book. Though highly praised by many critics for its inventiveness and compelling drama, others criticized Bacigalupi's exoticizing, at-times ambivalent approach to both its Thai setting and to Emiko, the eponymous "windup girl." While these criticisms are valid, so is the praise. With Seed, Ziegler builds upon the compelling aspects of Bacigalupi's work, yet not only avoids its problems, but manages to invert them.

The thing is, that despite all the horrors and problems of future America (and I won't spoil these for you), Ziegler's debut is, at its heart, a celebration of the rugged, American pioneering spirit, and of American diversity. This last point is one I'd like to dwell on for a second--the Western, and its descendants in post-apocalyptic fiction, are often very white. Seed is very much a post-apocalyptic Western, but one in which none of the perspective characters are actually white. Sure there are white people in the book, many of them, but they are the people our perspective characters interact with, not the main event.

If done poorly, this might raise red flags. But Ziegler has clearly done his research, consulting several people to make sure he portrayed the Chicano characters accurately and with respect. And race, generally speaking, serves mostly as backdrop for Seed, where it helps us understand the details of individual manifestations of our common humanity, but does not slide into lazy stereotyping or determinism. In a genre that often struggles to talk about race and related forms of difference, this strikes me as a very constructive entry into the conversation.

It's also indicative of Ziegler's comfort juggling multiple narrative voices, even when they differ tremendously from one another. The clones are just as convincing as Brood or Doss, and the contrast between the clarity of their geneticist logic, on the one hand, and their struggle to come to grips with the moral implications of their position in the world, on the other, is remarkably well-handled. In some ways, the Sumedha chapters reminded me of the Somni section of Cloud Atlas, if it were marked by greater moral ambiguity. I like ambiguity. And I loved Cloud Atlas.

All that said, Seed is by no means perfect. The vast gulf between narrators and the language they use can be jarring, and as such, Seed lacks the fluidity of Bacigalupi's excellent The Drowned Cities. I also think that, as much as I enjoyed it, there's just too much going on--too many characters, too many unclear situations, too many opaque motivations. There's a realism in that, but one that could have used a sharper focus.

In the end, though, Seed is a captivating debut by a clearly formidable talent. Though some may dismiss it as a Bacigalupi clone, they would be wrong. This is about as good as a debut gets, and I'm already counting the days until his next book comes out. Highly recommended.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for the intense and convincing vision of the future; +1 for great characters with authentic subjectivities ; +1 for managing to talk about race without explicitly talking about race, and saying something interesting too.

Penalties: -1 for jarring perspective shifts; -1 for too much "stuff" at times.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10. "Very high quality/standout in its category."