Author: Rob Ziegler
Published: 15 November 2011
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Genre: science fiction, biopunk, dystopia, post-apocalyptic
Source: Review copy from publisher via NetGally
My Rating: 7/10
It’s the 22nd century. The world’s oil supplies have finally dried up, but humanity has done the damage and the climate has risen by a devastating 5⁰C. North America is a wasteland, with most of its people reduced to starving migrants wandering across the land in the constant search for food and water.
The only viable course of food is Sartori – a massive, sentient, bioengineered city made of living flesh and bone. Its inhabitants are all post-human, genetically engineered beings whose main purpose is to design, produce and grow seed – a climate-resistant seed whose crops are now America’s only means of survival.
Then Pihadassa, a Sartori Designer (geneticist), defects from the living city in order to play out her own plans for sustainable life. Among the migrants, Pihadassa becomes known by the rumour of ‘the Corn Mother’ – a woman who will save them all from starvation. To Brood, a Latino teenage orphan, it’s just a rumour. He and his austistic brother Pollo, along with Hondo, an old man, get by as small-time thieves and Brood has no interest, or faith, in a search for a different life. Nevertheless, circumstances put him on the path to the colony that the Corn Mother is supposedly establishing, where fresh food is freely available.
Also on the hunt for Pihadassa is Agent Sienna Doss, the soldier who never Fucks Up. The US government – or at least the remaining scraps of it – want to get the Designer under their control so she can create seed for them. The government resents the power and necessity of Sartori, especially since its only remaining function is to distribute seed around the nation – a function Sartori could easily perform on its own. It’s a government “afraid of its own obsolescence” and Pihadassa represents an opportunity for it to reclaim power.
In the meantime, within the flesh walls of Sartori, Pihadassa’s mate Sumedha suffers the pain of his partner’s absence, while continuing with a series of genetic experiments that will affect both Sartori and the future of the human population.
Brood, Doss and Sumedha’s stories slowly move toward each other in an interesting and relevant novel that depicts a painfully plausible environmental future, the possibilities of genetic engineering, and the many ethical conundrums that are inevitably raised.
This review has been a difficult one for me to write, because there’s a hell of a lot going here. I’ve outlined the structure of the plot, but in fact it takes a while for it all to get put into place. Much of the first half of text is devoted to world-building and getting to know the characters. This isn’t a bad thing, but it does slow the overall. The characters themselves undergo a lot without moving the main plot forward all that much until the last third or so. For example, we spend a lot of time with Brood, who gives us a glimpse into what is now the life of the average American – endless travelling across a hot, dusty landscape, the constant threat of violence, and hunger that’s as much a part of life as breathing.
Doss on the other hand, enjoys a relatively privileged life as a government agent. She has a diet of “vat-grown chicken breast and weirdly perfect Sartori vegetables”, has well-made clothes and shoes, and is in good shape to do the many violent things the government requires of her. Normally I admire strong female characters, but I have to admit I didn’t particularly like Doss. She’s an archetypal American soldier – brash, gung-ho, and cold; patriotic but increasingly jaded. She’s not the type of character I generally have much interest in, and I felt no different here.
The most interesting character was Sumedha, Pihadassa’s mate, partly because he gives us a perspective on the best part of the novel – Sartori and all its related genetic creations. I’ve encountered other structures made of flesh in science fiction, but the scale of Sartori and its situation in a barren land makes it especially alien and amazing:
The city spread out below, an intermingled series of bending muscle towers and soft domes twined abruptly with the concrete, brick and plexi of the old city. Shadowy bone latticework showed through translucent skin. A thousand hearts beat oxygen and heat into a thousand buildings, pumped waste out onto the compost heaps along the northern fields. Far beneath Sumedha a group of landraces moved slowly on their hands and knees along a snake scale street. Their rough voices sang as their hands polished the scales with fur brushes. Sumedha closed his eyes and touched the wall, sure he could feel the city’s pleasure at the touch of its children’s brushes. A warm sensation spread through his body…Love. He opened his eyes and the helix [DNA] danced. Each building a different expression of its strange and brilliant will, yet part of a whole that fed sensation down lush nerve matrices to the center, here, to Satori tower, where Sumedha stood touching flesh, almost connected. Over it all stretched the dome, a mother’s womb shielding the city and its children from the mad seasonal swings of a climate knocked from its axis.
Sartori manages to be both grotesque and beautiful, depending on how you feel about its organic structure. People sleep cradled in flesh pods or amniotic sacs. Opening a ‘door’ involves a muscle contraction that parts flesh. Light comes in the soft glow of biolumes under the skin, and in some cases the colour changes to reflect the mood of a room’s inhabitant. Most of Sartori’s energy comes from photosynthesis, and the skin of the dome turns green and gurgles with sugar production in the hot sun. During winter it grows fur for warmth, and the rooms too have floors covered in soft fur.
Sartori’s inhabitants include Designers, advocates and landraces. The landraces are worker clones, designed with an instinct for labour. The advocates are perhaps the coolest creatures in the book, but also the most vicious. They’re designed for security purposes and although they look mostly human, they have the DNA of a variety of predators spliced into them. The advocates have a constant, barely controlled lust to kill things with their bare hands (their fingers are hard and sharp and can easily rip out throats).
Then there are the Designers, Sartori’s geneticists (responsible for creating seed, landraces and advocates) and general managers. Sumedha is one of these, and I appreciated the complexity of this very alien character. As a post-human creation with carefully designed instincts, outlooks and ways of communicating Sumehda was difficult to relate to but fascinating nevertheless. He and the other Designers have faces “so perfectly proportioned it made the rest of the world feel distorted”. They communicate not only through speech but through touch, smell, and their ability to ‘read’ DNA. They have an intensely sensual relationship to each other and to Sartori, to the extent that Sumedha experiences Pihadassa’s absence as much more than just an emotional loss. Their attitude to life in general is also one of deep appreciation and fascination, an attitude that’s an essential part of their design. The creator of Sartori insisted that if life on earth were to continue in the wake of all the environmental disasters humanity has caused, then human beings not only needed to change morally or ethically, but genetically.
While I admire these things about the Designers, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that they also come across as very cruel. Although they value life deeply, individual lives mean little to them, particularly the lives of humans and the ‘lesser’ genetic creations, such as the landraces. You get the impression that Pihadassa and Sumedha often view humans as nothing more than a combination of DNA strands to be studied and if necessary, killed and dissected. Sumehda, for example, is running a series of experiments on a young girl he has genetically engineered. He does without compassion, ignoring her protests that what he does hurts her. At one point her amputates her arm (under anaesthetic, at least) as calmly as he would take her temperature. He’s also paying a group of gangsters to bring him migrants who are suffering from a disease called ‘ theTet’. He needs them for his experiments, and doesn’t bat an eyelid at the fact that these people are locked up in cages and live in filthy conditions.
This plays into the novel’s ongoing debate about genetic engineering and the use of a being like Sartori. Clearly, it presents wonderful possibilities, and might even be a necessity in an ecologically damaged world. However, it is dangerous in the hands of someone as cold as Sumedha. Pihadassa offers a more viable alternative as she wants to return to a more natural existence in which “the mother shapes the helix, as she has always done” with only a little genetic management on her part. But it’s clear that Pihadassa is not exactly the loving ‘Corn Mother’ of the migrants’ rumours, so who then, should guide future developments? Of course the government wants to do that, but you know that’s just a struggle for power and has nothing to do with ethics.
Other issues come into play as well. Is it right to engineer beings like the landraces? They’re designed to enjoy manual labour, but are not acknowledged as individuals, as real people. The same question comes up with the advocates, who are nothing more than organic killing machines; they do not seem to want anything else but the chance to kill.
While I like the idea of a post-human future (it’s part of what makes me a sci fi fan), Seed cools my enthusiasm even as it ignites it, offering a sobering picture of the future. It’s a good book and an impressive debut that I appreciate for its ideas and the depiction of bioengineered life forms.On the downside there’s a large cast of characters, a complex plot and a lot of information about the world of the novel so reading can feel a bit of a chore at times. There’s a great deal of action and violence, but it doesn’t exactly transform this into a page-turner. However, the characters are refreshingly diverse, well-developed, and the world itself (Sartori in particular) is intriguing and relevant enough to keep me interested, if occasionally confused. Speculation about the future of human and animal life on our planet offers some much-needed food for thought regarding our lifestyles today, while revitalising the post-apocalyptic movement in fiction with some great ideas. If you’re interested in the recently defined biopunk genre or fiction that tackles issues of climate change, environmental sustainability and genetic modification, then I recommend you get a copy of Seed.