Author: Pamela Sargent
Genre: Dystopia, Science Fiction, Young Adult
Publisher: Tor Teen (originally published by Harper & Row)
Publication Date: March 2012 (originally published 1983)
Paperback: 288 pages
The classic YA science fiction adventure by Nebula and Locus Award–winning author Pamela Sargent
The 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?
Stand alone or series: Book 1 in the Seed trilogy
How did I get this book: Review copy from the Publisher
Why did I read this book: I’m always on the lookout for old school science fiction, especially of the dystopian variety. When I saw that Earthseed was being republished by Tor, I couldn’t resist.
Earthseed begins with a familiar premise: after mankind has wiped out the majority of Earth’s natural resources and damaged its ecosystem over the centuries, humans turn to the stars for a new home. These human survivors have thrown their hopes on a distant system in deep space, creating an artificial intelligence powered space ship, loaded with the history of human culture, knowledge, and the genetic material to create new humans, crops, and animals. As Ship nears its destination, just years away from reaching the new planet, it executes its mission to create and nurture human children from its genetic stores.
Zoheret and all of her fellow shipmates have grown up under the careful watch of Ship, learning about Earth’s past and preparing for a future on a new planet. But Zoheret and her friends come of age at fifteen and come ever closer to reaching their new home, things begin to change. To best prepare its children for the reality of pioneering a new world, Ship creates a competition and gradually begins to withdraw the careful protections and conveniences with which it has provided its passengers over the duration of their young lives. As the teens cope with the reality of creating a new society, divisions form, violent tendencies are exposed, and the truth of Earth’s past history, Ship’s mission, and the future of humanity comes to a dramatic, terrifying head.
Inevitably, when reviewing older SF titles like Earthseed, there’s the question of datedness. Having read and reviewed Monica Hughes’ The Game earlier this year, there certainly is something to be said for the context and point of time in which a novel was written – in the case of The Game, while the overall conceptualization was fantastic, the execution and depth of character was somewhat wanting. Earthseed begins with honest-to-god ROLLERBLADING around a spaceship.
I repeat: Rollerblading. On a spaceship.
How freakin’ 1980s-early-’90s baller is that?!
All joking aside, I am happy to report that Earthseed stands the test of time. In the lingo of an ’80s child, Earthseed is a totally rad book.
The premise of the novel is a familiar one, and fairly standard in future-dystopia SF fare, from the aforementioned The Game to Wall-e, but I think handled with a (surprising!) deftness and freshness in Earthseed. There are a number of unpredictable twists, plot-wise, as Ship hurtles its way to a new planet, and besides the rollerblading, the novel didn’t feel dated at all.1 Yes, this is soft science fiction (e.g. faster-than-light space travel, an enormous ship that houses an entire ecosystem that takes days to traverse in its hull), but I loved the jungle-within-the-ship setting and the juxtaposition of high-technology against a new low-tech environment, and watching how characters would respond. I also loved the diversity of the cast, encompassing many different races and cultural namesakes, which is, again, not something I expected in a book from 1983. Also unexpected was the level of brutality in this book, since it is billed as a YA novel. Earthseed doesn’t shy away from anything – I’m talking teen sex, jealousy, infidelity, drinking, deception, murder, you name it. One of my complaints with much of the contemporary YA dystopian market is its lack of teeth – there’s never any fear that our heroes are in the wrong, that they won’t prevail or survive. In Earthseed, this is decidedly not the case. Characters do what they have to do in order to survive – and many of them die. Our heroine, Zoheret, makes many questionable decisions, and though her heart is in the right place, she’s not idealized or infallibly right, which is wonderfully compelling. At one point in the novel, Ship tells Zoheret that she’s not the smartest, or the kindest, or the most deserving – but like Ship, there’s something about Zoheret’s dogged stubbornness that is appealing.
Beyond Zoheret, many of the overall characterizations were perhaps a tad superficial, but only because the cast is so large – I do think the actions and justifications for all made sense and rang as genuine. I liked Ho’s conniving and Manuel’s selfishness – though these are archetypes that one often sees in society-falls-apart type of stories, they are archetypes for a reason. Ultimately, though, I think what I loved most of all about Earthseed is that the character of Ship (because yes, Ship is a central character) is not an evil robot/AI monster with a twisted agenda. I feel that in many contemporary SF novels, technology is demonized, and in this book, Ship is the voice of reason and civility; it is the peacemaker to our warlike tendencies, the Vulcan to our messy human emotions.
Ship is, above all, a nurturing force that is seeding the future with hope that mankind can change. And that kind of optimism, especially in a novel as bleak and gritty as this one is, is brilliant.
I’ll be back for Farseed very, very soon.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From the official excerpt:
Manuel suddenly climbed onto a table near the front of the room and held up his arms. He waited until the room was still, then spoke. “We’ll all be going to the Hollow soon to live. That’s what I want to talk to you about.
“We have to learn how to live by ourselves,” Manuel went on. “So I think Ship should shut down its sensors while we’re there. We’re getting too dependent on Ship. We always expect it to be there, and it keeps us from thinking for ourselves.”
Zoheret looked down. If anyone else had proposed the idea, she might have agreed easily. But Manuel had said it. He was always in trouble even with Ship watching; what would he do without Ship’s vigilance?
Rating: 7 – Very Good, leaning towards an 8
Reading Next: The Humming Room by Ellen Potter
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- On a side note, this is the mark of an excellent work of SF – take Ridley Scott’s Alien, for example. I can still watch that 1979 film today and be thoroughly convinced by the acting, the set, the quality of the aliens…that’s pretty awesome, and no small feat. But I digress. ↩