America has been getting the shit kicked out of it in print lately. From Brian Francis Slattery’s Liberation to Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock, the United States has recently become a prime target for speculative fiction of the post-economic-collapse variety. But it isn’t all doom, gloom, and cautionary criticism. Case in point: Seed. Rob Ziegler’s debut novel posits an economically depressed, ecologically devastated future in which human misery is the one natural resource America hasn’t depleted. But like Liberation and Julian Comstock, Seed celebrates America’s grit, ruggedness, and pioneer spirit—by putting the country through unimaginable hell.
Granted, it takes Seed a good long while to get to the celebration. In a 22nd century scarred by famine, plagues, climate change, and almost-total government disintegration—a backdrop reminiscent of Paolo Bacigalupi’s recent The Windup Girl—survival lies with Satori, a living city that’s been bioengineered out of flesh and bone over the ruins of Denver. Satori produces barcoded seeds able to withstand the harsh environment. The distribution of those seeds to the nation’s migrant populace, however, is subject to violent cartels. Amid the hardship and decay, two Mexican-American orphans, Brood and Pollo, are caloric pilgrims grubbing for bare sustenance. Meanwhile, a former soldier, Sienna Doss, is assigned to retrieve a missing administrator of Satori, which manufactures clones to maintain its vast, biological infrastructure. And inside Satori, a functionary named Sumedha conducts experiments that may or may not be designed to serve the endangered human race.
As stark as Ziegler’s scenario is, his prose is even starker. He lingers over pain and hunger excruciatingly. The hardscrabble refugees and repurposed debris of the Southwest and Midwest are portrayed in gaunt, chiseled detail. Dub music permeates the countryside “like the echo of civilization.” But an abiding love for the land and its people lights even Seed’s darkest moments. And in the Satori scenes, Ziegler opens up and lets his syntax sing. Like a planned community zoned by H.R. Giger and David Cronenberg, the bio-city’s muscled walls and pulsing doors are rendered in vivid, grotesque strokes. The transitions between these settings are sometimes jarring, and the occasionally rote military-science-fiction jargon that dots Doss’ scenes doesn’t help. But Ziegler hits his lyrical stride just as the book’s clashing lines converge in a poetically brutal climax.
And therein lies Seed’s most disparate element: hope. Nimbly steering clear of preachiness and sloganeering—in spite of the clearly contemporary message—Ziegler offers a slim thread of redemption that stems from his characters’ archetypal American ass-kicking. The pyrrhic triumph they exact is exhilarating, but it defuses some of the visceral, unflinching horror that comes before. The chemistry, though, is only marginally out of balance. Overwhelmingly, Seed is a taut yet teeming future-shock thriller, not to mention a worthy addition to the perverse, burgeoning canon of dystopian Americana.