Of Blood and Honey, which is probably going to make my best of 2011 list. Rob Ziegler's début Seed comes with a bonus recommendation from Paolo Bacigalupi, one of my favourite authors of the past few years. Not a book to pass up on, especially since it deals with subjects of climate change and genetic engineering, always good for drawing me into a story. In their marketing, the publisher leans heavily on the thematic similarities with Bacigalupi's enormously successful novel The Windup Girl. I found Ziegler's style very different from Bacigalupi's but certainly no less interesting.
In the early 22nd century, Earth is suffering from severe and abrupt climate changes. Temperatures reach extremes in both directions, patterns of precipitation shift constantly and stabilization of the planet's climate is a distant dream. On top of that, wars have been fought in the past century over the last oil resources the Earth still hid. Now that these have run out, economic collapse is a reality. In the US, large sections of the populations have been reduced to an existence as nomads. Travelling between the zones where agriculture is still possible, they eke out a living on what little Satori company, the only source of viable seeds of crops that can withstand the extreme climate. Given this monopoly, Satori is the de facto leader of the state. It is keeping tight control over its knowledge of genetic engineering. Until internal disagreement causes one of their top genetic engineers to defect that is.
One of the major environmental issues Ziegler uses in this novel is the use of so-called terminator technology. Crops carrying this particular modification produce sterile second generation seeds, preventing the farmer from saving part of his harvest to sow the following year. A way of farming that is still common in developing nations in particular. It's been criticised for creating a dependence on the company producing the seed that would leave the farmer very few options. The company most closely associated with this discussion is Monsanto (which is actually named in the novel), although other companies have done research in this direction. One of the justifications for its use is that is would help keeping other genetic modifications from spreading to wild populations. Not surprisingly, this does not impress the environmentalist, many of whom are not too keen on genetic engineering to begin with. Some nations have gone so far as to outright ban the use of this technology. There has been so much resistance to the idea that Monsanto, to my knowledge has not marketed this product, which is probably for the best. I think a situation where the production of staple agricultural crops is dependant on one or a mere handful of companies providing seeds is asking for trouble.
Ziegler takes it a step further than scary however. Satori's knowledge of genetics is not limited to just crops. They have created improved versions of humanity, better adapted to their environment than the outmoded wild populations still burdened by their savannah evolutionary heritage, as well as creatures specialized to specific tasks. Organic material can be shaped and manipulated for just about any purpose. It results in a number of chapters, mostly seen through the eyes of the Satori designed Sumedha, that bounce from the comforting warmth experienced in utero, to the disturbing, barely restrained aggression of the predatory advocates, or the grotesque use of living tissue as building material. Satori has created an almost alien community out of the building blocks of life.
The author balances this strangeness with two more conventional points of view. One from a migrant boy, basically an outcast and beggar making a living in a community where theft and murder are facts of life and our hero Brood is certainly not above these things. His chapters show us just how far the once greatest economy in the world has descended. It is a bleak existence, but one that breeds resourceful survivors. The second point of view is that of the ex-ranger Sienna Doss, someone still part of what passes for civilized society. She is one of the most bad-ass women you'll find in science fiction. Very determined but with all the subtlety of a bulldozer. With Satori's predators, Brood's survival instinct and Doss' access to military resources, the finale of the novel can only be called explosive.
Ziegler's style is one that relies on dialogue a lot. He doesn't offer much in the way of explanation for what has happened to the world in other ways, but preferring to let the readers draw their own conclusions. That made it first chapters a bit of a challenge for me. Especially Brood, who uses a lot of Mexican slang in his speech was hard to follow at times. Once I settled into the story it was a blast. Ziegler doesn't offer much in the way of explanations but he also doesn't let details distract him from the story. It is a very tight plot. Some readers might even prefer a bit more world building. How the remnant of the US government works for instance, remains a mystery. As does what is going on in the rest of the world. I didn't think the story needs that additional weight though. It worked fine for me as it is.
Night Shade Books reeled in another talented author with Rob Ziegler. Seed is a convincing début that will no doubt please fans of the post-apocalyptic sub genre. What impressed me most was the way the author combines the Buddhist sense of calm and being part of a greater whole, with the pent up aggression and inevitable, lethal conclusion that follows from their mastery of genetics. Satori is disturbing on many more levels than the environmental issue of producing sterile seed. Seed incorporates a number of themes I like to see in science fiction, for me personally, Ziegler has hit the bullseye. But I think that even for readers who do not share my peculiar preferences, this novel has a lot to offer. It is definitely recommended reading.
Author: Rob Ziegler
Publisher: Night Shade Books
First published: 2011