The Seed of Earth: A generally pleasing work from one of sci-fi’s best

The Seed of Earth by Robert SilverbergThe Seed of Earth by Robert Silverberg

Men of a certain age may recall a particular trepidation that was attendant with the coming of their 18th birthday; i.e., the fear of being drafted into the armed forces. From 1940 until January ’73, males here in the U.S. could be drafted, even during peacetime, to fill vacancies in the Army and other services, and well do I remember the sigh of relief that many breathed when the draft disappeared, in favor of an all-volunteer system. But, as Robert Silverberg’s 1962 novel The Seed of Earth had already demonstrated, conscription could entail far more intimidating prospects than a mere two-year Army hitch.

For the future Grand Master and multiple Hugo and Nebula Award winner, The Seed of Earth came at the tail end of his first phase of writing. Silverberg had already seen 17 novels released before Seed’s first appearance in ’62, as one-half of one of those cute little “Ace doubles” (F-145, for all you collectors out there), backed with the Silverberg short-story collection Next Stop the Stars. Remarkably, the author was only 27 the year his 18th novel was released (not to mention the roughly 250 short stories and novellas already under his belt!); he’d ultimately come out with another 60 or so, during one of science fiction’s most prolific careers. (During this period of semiretirement, Silverberg’s sci-fi output was significantly reduced; Recalled to Life was his “only” other sf novel to be released in ‘62.) In his introduction to the 1982 Ace edition, Silverberg reveals that Seed was expanded from a 1957 short story of his called “The Winds of Siros” (chapters 1 – 10 of the novel are completely absent from the short story), and that he’d hoped to place the novel with either Doubleday or Ballantine, the only prestigious sci-fi book publishers at the time. When both houses refused the young author’s work, he ultimately settled for it to appear in yet another “Ace double” (as most of his earlier 17 had been), consoling himself with the thought that at least another work of his was on the flip side.

In The Seed of Earth, the year is 2116, and the governments of the world have recently decided that it is mankind’s destiny to settle as many planets in our galaxy as possible. As volunteers had been scarce, a system of conscription has arisen, in which computers select citizens, ages 19 – 40, at random, to serve as planetary pioneers. (As the original Ace cover blurb ran, “If your number is up, you go to the stars.”) Sixty ships are soon leaving the Earth every single day, bound for 60 different planets, each ship carrying 50 men and 50 women. Five of those daily ships are sent out from the U.S. During Seed’s opening chapters, we meet three citizens who are appalled to get their “draft notices” in the mail: Mike Dawes, a 20-year-old college student from Ohio; Cherry Thomas, a 25-year-old nightclub entertainer from NYC; and Carol Herrick, a mousy, 23-year-old stenographer from the Bay Area.

And we also meet Ky Noonan, a big, tough alpha male, a 30-year-old from Baltimore, who is fed up with life on Earth and in the harsh colony domes of Venus and Mars, and who actually has the temerity to volunteer for pioneering service. Thus, we follow these four as they travel to the space field in Bangor, Maine, get their brief orientation, and blast off aboard the cramped starship Gegenschein (an excellent word; look it up!), along with 96 others, for their four-week journey to Osiris, the ninth world of the star known as Vega. Once landed and left to their fate, the 100 settlers face troubles almost from the get-go, when their camp is attacked by apelike aliens and Dawes, Noonan, Thomas and Herrick are kidnapped. They are left in a cave in the middle of a cliff face, an unescapable prison, where their various personalities soon start to grate and abrade on one another, while the aliens observe as the psychosexual conflicts begin…

In that previously mentioned introduction, Silverberg tells us that when he wrote this particular novel, he thought that he was putting “probing details of character revelation” therein, only to realize, years later, that that was actually not the case. To be fair, however, The Seed of Earth does seem more concerned with the inner thoughts and motivations of its four lead characters than had many of his other, early novels. This is most apparent in the book’s final section, in which the four begin to crack under the strain of their enforced cohabitation. (Tellingly, Dawes at one point ponders a line from a theater piece that he’d once seen: “Hell is other people.” The line comes from Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 play No Exit.) The author makes us deeply feel what it must be like to look at Earth for the final time before leaving it forever (“… never again the glory of autumn-tinted maples, never the sight of football players racing down a field, never again a hot dog or a hamburger or a vanilla sundae…”), and realistically describes the cramped tedium of the journeyers’ four-week transit in “nospace.”

Silverberg also gives us a detailed look at the inner workings of the Colonization Bureau, during which we learn all about the selection process, and the limited exemptions that are available to all those selected. It is a compulsively readable work, one that most readers should be able to gulp down in a sitting or two. The author, even at this early stage in his career, always evinced an almost uncanny ability to select the just-proper word, and to keep his story both intelligent and fast moving. Seed may be a minor Silverberg work, especially as compared to many of those from his classic, middle period (1967 – ’76), but it remains a highly entertaining one, and well worth any reader’s time. The book was not the first instance of the author positing the notion of a randomized computer selection process shaping a society — his fifth novel, Master of Life and Death, had given us a computer selecting citizens for euthanasia, as a means of population control — but still finds him in full imaginative flower, even to the point of predicting the use of “synthesizers” in popular music.

The Seed of Earth, of course, is hardly a perfect work. The book is a tad on the short side, even in this expanded version, and could easily have served as the basis for an entire series, or at least a sequel … say, set on Osiris 20 years later. Despite his occasional facility at prediction, Silverberg still has the offices of the Colonization Bureau issuing mimeographed sheets (the beloved author, apparently, could not foresee something on the order of a Xerox copier for the early 22nd century!). He even makes the mistake of telling us that Vega is 23 light-years from Earth (it is, in actuality, more like 25), and, despite that aforementioned skill in word selection, confuses “umbilical cord” for “umbilicus.” But these are minor piffles. The bottom line is that The Seed of Earth is a generally pleasing page-turner; an at times exciting and always colorful work from one of science fiction’s best. As for me, I just ate it right up. And, H. Rider Haggard enthusiast that I am, how could I possibly resist when Silverberg describes that cliff side cave as “Haggardesque”? I loved that…

The Seed of Earth — (1962) Publisher: The computer had chosen them — a small cross-section of humanity to serve Mankind’s Destiny. Out of seven billion people on Earth mechanical chance had selected them as involuntary colonists on an unknown planet. In seven days they would be on their way, on a sink-or-swim mission to a lonely world beyond the limits of the Solar System. It was a summons each had privately dreaded, yet always been prepared for. But no one had prepared them for the vicious attacks of sinister aliens…

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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7 comments

  1. An exotic dancer and a mousy stenographer. A swaggering male in his prime and a “student.” I can’t help thinking Silverberg dug through his file on “porno plots” before he wrote this. And I’m not slandering him; Silverberg is very open about writing smut in order to pay the bills.

  2. Even with the slight faults, this sounds wonderful. (But then, I think that about all of Silverberg’s work.)

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