March 4, 2013

Book review: "Seed," by Rob Ziegler

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Seed, by Rob Ziegler

By Rob Ziegler
Nightshade Books

Whenever I think of the term "cyberpunk," easily my favorite literary genre back in the '80s when I was a teenager, I think of a very specific combination of qualities -- four or five different storylines that all merge into one at the climax, set in a day-after-tomorrow dystopia, one where the dizzying sci-fi inventions of Mid-Century Modernism have been turned on their heads, so that what the author is really exploring is the ways that cutting-edge tech has trickled down in a corrupted and heavily modded form to the street level of the lumpen proletariat, with the story's style and characters heavily influenced by the underground culture of its times (so in the case of classic '80s cyberpunk, for example, American and British punk music, which is how the genre got its name in the first place). And all of these things can be said about Rob Ziegler's contemporary Seed as well, a superlative cyberpunk novel but one you might not even recognize as such at first; for instead of revolving around pale computer hackers in London, Seed's heroes move among the decidedly sweatier circles of Mexican skaters in the American Southwest, and instead of being obsessed with virtual reality, this book deals with the much messier proposition of intelligent wetware and the coming agricultural apocalypse. Set in a world dealing with an unnamed past catastrophe where normal plants can no longer grow properly, the plot in general is fueled by the conceit that one private company eventually became the sole saviors of the entire American populace, by being the first to create an artificial intelligence that not only could genetically engineer seeds that would grow in this post-apocalyptic environment, but also literal living buildings made out of biological skin and bone, maintained by a small army of sub-intelligent clones who all operate under a hive-mind system. The various small storylines we follow throughout the book, then, all deal in one way or another with this central conceit -- there are the scrappy Latino brothers trying to survive in an anarchic, gray-market society, there is the "manager clone" who is thinking of defecting from the company (and taking all its confidential intellectual property with it), there is the disgraced military commander who has been ordered by a now cuckolded White House to go find this runaway clone, and on and on in this vein, each of them giving us a small specific look at this grandly epic universe Ziegler has built up step by step.

Now, just to be clear, like most genre novels Seed is filled with things that will drive non-fans of that genre a little crazy -- the dialogue can be a little stilted at times, some of the characters a bit too corny, and of course you need to be into bizarre science-fictional concepts in the first place to enjoy it at all -- and let's also be clear that even SF fans that aren't necessarily into cyberpunk will find some faults with this too, a book that can sometimes fixate too much on the action sequences rather than the "big picture" topics being discussed. But if like me you are a fan of early William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Charles Stross and other established cyberpunk authors, you will find this an incredibly satisfying read, nearly perfect at hitting all the beats that a story like this needs, while maintaining a fast pace and constantly offering up unique little speculative nuggets for your brain to chew on for a while. (I especially loved the reveal of who exactly is behind all these sinister goings-on at this shadowy company, but for the sake of spoilers I will leave that a surprise.) A book only for a niche audience, but a niche audience who will passionately love it for what it is, Seed will almost certainly be making CCLaP's best-of lists at the end of the year, and it comes strongly recommended to those who think in advance that they might be interested in it.

Out of 10: 8.9, or 9.9 for cyberpunk fans

Filed by Jason Pettus at 1:46 PM, March 4, 2013. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |