The helix, unravelled

When I first started writing these reading group book reviews, I thought that I’d skip any books that I couldn’t be entirely positive about, styling myself after Nick Hornby’s essays for The Believer, in which he’ll at best refer to a “disappointing literary novel” or somesuch, and just move on with his life. But it turns out I’m no Nick Hornby. Who knew?

Seed isn’t a truly bad book, but it’s not a great one, either. And as a first novel, it shows promise — I wouldn’t necessarily be put off reading future stories by Ziegler — but the chances of me actually doing that are pretty slim.

Looking back at it, I still can’t quite put my finger on why I didn’t enjoy this novel, and that’s yet another reason why I’m no Nick Horby and the literary criticism cheques aren’t rolling in.

The praire saint wore a white lab coat with a black cross fire-branded onto the lapel, blotting out the name of some long dead doctor. He paced, pale and tall, between two burning fifty-gal drums. Split flew from his lips as he sermonized. Sweat gleamed on his forehead. He preached the end of days.

At the beginning of the 22nd century, the world lies in ruin following the collapse of the natural ecosystem following war and environmental neglect. Much of the continental United States has become a new dustbowl, and its citizens live as permanent migrants, always in search of new shelter and food. In Denver, however, a new power has risen: Satori, a bioengineered living city, who lives and breathes as one huge entity, with acres of photosynthetic skin in summer, and a forest of fur in winter.

It is from Satori that Seed is distributed; the only crops engineered tough enough to grow in the scarred landscape. Satori has near infinite power over biology, and has taken the human genome to new heights.  Landraces labour as a heavyset worker caste, advocates, spliced with snake and shark and all things predatory are her elite troops, and the Children of Satori work on new crops and new splices to shape the world for the mysterious Fathers.

Sumedha slept, folded in flesh. The city’s deep pulse throbbed the length of his body, soothing him, speaking its love […] It whispered of the skin stretched over its dome, contracting in the cold night wind cutting down out of the Rockies. Whispered of the warbling chorus sung by the wind turbines churning in their cartilage sockets out on the plain; of the corn digesting hot in it its subterranean guts. Sumedha listened, rapt, dreaming the helix.

Despite the interesting bio-punk premise, I really never got on with this book. While I was reading it, it was fine, but it never got it’s teeth into me, and there always seemed like something better to do than pick it back up and carry on reading. The first third was confusing, and all but the last  third felt slow. After it picked up speed, and treated us to a quite action-packed finale, the ending felt abrupt. I guess we can say I thought it had pacing issues.

I didn’t much care for any of the characters; not the refugee survivors, nor the government soldiers, nor the Satori-engineered humans. It was hard to get invested in any one of them. The soldiers were macho caricatures, and even Pollo, who rises in importance as the novel progresses, felt under-developed.

Seed is far from the worst book in the world, and others in the group liked it, so it can’t have been all that bad. Sometimes that’s going to happen with a reading group — the point is to expose you to books you might not have considered. Reading books with Different Skies has given me some of my favourite novels of the last few years, and on more than one occasion made me finish a book that I’d have otherwise set aside. Unlike a couple of those, however, I don’t think I’d have regretted leaving Seed unfinished.

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