Earthseed: Flat

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsEarthseed by Pamela SargentEarthseed by Pamela Sargent

Earthseed, by Pamela Sargent, is the first in a science fiction YA trilogy that follows the inhabitants of a seed ship from Earth sent out long ago to colonize other planets. We pick up the story as Ship (the AI mind which is the vessel personified) is nearing its destination and thus as its young inhabitants must begin their preparations for life outside of Ship’s watchful, protective eyes.

Up to this point, Ship has been the kids’ parent and teacher, birthing them from artificial wombs and then raising them — there are no adults aboard. Now on the cusp of adulthood, the adolescents will soon move into “The Hollow” — a huge open-space area (Ship is a large asteroid) where they will build their own shelters, grow their own food, etc. in order to learn the skills necessary for when they are landed on their new planet. They soon discover, though, that learning how to farm or build homes pales in difficulty next to learning how to work together. Factions form that threaten to rip apart their community, violence starts to escalate, and then everything gets turned up to the boiling point thanks to two highly unexpected discoveries, as it turns out Ship wasn’t telling them everything.

There was some good potential in Earthseed. Originally published in 1983, Earthseed has the feeling of an old Heinlein YA, something along the lines of Tunnel in the Sky or Farmer in the Sky, say. But it never really hooked me, feeling “flat” for much of the reading.

Our main character, Zoheret, has the makings of the typical plucky rise-to-the-occasion protagonist, but I never warmed to her. She felt too removed, some of which might be due to her feeling so constructed to be that type of protagonist and part of that might be due to the relatively flat style. The other characters rarely rise above plot points, whether it be Zoheret’s friend who came out of the artificial womb not 100%, or the romance interest, or the female friends, or the bad guy. Interestingly, the only relationship that really did strike an emotional or even interesting chord was the one between Zoheret and Ship; I wouldn’t have minded more of that, though it says something that the most humanly engaging relationship involved an AI.

The plot itself veers a bit between predictable — you could see the internal dissension coming, the community split, etc. from afar — and jarring. The two big secrets that get revealed add plot complexity, but they follow too closely one upon the other, feel too similar, and feel overly contrived as a means of upping narrative tension.

“Flat” is the best one-word description I can come up with for Earthseed — the characters never engaged, the plot just sort of moved forward, we were told a lot via internal monologues, the style and prose lacked punch, scenes that should have been exciting just sort of happened and then we moved on. You can see how a Suzanne Collins, a Heinlein, an Andre Norton could have taken the exact same situation and exact same characters and turned it into a page-turner of a novel, one whose plot gripped you or whose characters compelled you, but that sort of response remained consistently, frustratingly out of reach for me. It’s a very workmanlike read, as is the second book Farseed, the independent sequel which follows mostly different characters (the children of Earthseed’s) on the new world but which shares many of the same problems. I’ll take a look eventually at the final novel in the trilogy, Seed Seeker, but at this point I’d hold off.

Ship hurtles through space. Deep within its core, it carries the seed of humankind. Launched by the people of a dying Earth over a century ago, its mission is to find a habitable world for the children — fifteen-year-old Zoheret and her shipmates — whom it has created from its genetic banks. To Zoheret and her shipmates, Ship has been mother, father, and loving teacher, preparing them for their biggest challenge: to survive on their own, on an uninhabited planet, without Ship’s protection. Now that day is almost upon them… but are they ready to leave Ship? Ship devises a test. And suddenly, instincts that have been latent for over a hundred years take over. Zoheret watches as friends become strangers — and enemies. Can Zoheret and her companions overcome the biggest obstacle to the survival of the human race — themselves?

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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