What is it about Paonia? That scenic, green-leaning Western Slope haven of old hippies, envirojournalists and organic gardeners has produced yet another grim work of post-apocalyptic, steampunk sci-fi, set in a near-future devastated by climate change, genetically engineered plagues and humanity's boundless capacity for betrayal and debasement. The book is being compared to Paolo Bacigalupi's groundbreaking 2009 novel The Windup Girl -- only it's not by Bacigalupi.
Seed is the debut novel from Rob Ziegler, another Paonia habitue, who happens to be Bacigalupi's longtime friend and colleague. (Rob makes a cameo appearance in my profile of Paolo that appeared in Westword last year.) But while the two writers share some superficial similarities -- a fondness for zeppelins, for instance, and the arduous details of scavenging for food and fuel in an exhausted world -- it's not fair to either writer to lump the two together, as Night Shade Books seems to be doing in its blurbing and packaging of Seed.
The Windup Girl is a richly textured, densely plotted vision of a future Thailand collapsing in political strife and technology gone amok. Seed is a nightmarish romp through the American southwest in the company of a bunch of amped-up badasses, with mutated body parts and viscera flying in all directions. It's a bit like trying to choose between Jean-Pierre Melville and Sam Peckinpah. Both are fine in their way, but you wouldn't want them on a double bill at the drive-in.
In Ziegler's world, the American dust bowl is back. Satori, a mysterious corporation with its own evolving consciousness inhabiting a giant dome in the ruins of Denver, doles out drought-hearty seed to ragtag migrants trying to eke a living out of the parched wasteland. Messianic "prairie saints," beleagured military commanders and genetically engineered caretakers of Satori all battle over a center that won't hold, while two wandering, scavenging brothers may hold the key to a better future.
Ziegler is a crisp, clean writer who doesn't bother much with explanations of the science behind Satori or the history that brought mankind to this hellhole. He's much more interested in working the grit and friction inflaming his narrative into convulsions of violence. Satori itself is a kind of half-beast, half-plant mess of cartilage and fur, and I got totally lost trying to figure out if the androidlike "Designers" created Satori or vice versa, but it didn't seem to matter much. At its best the book has the sizzle and urgency of a particularly involving, splatter-rich video game.
With a starred review in Publishers Weekly and scheduled to hit bookstores this week, Seed is poised to take readers on a trip to a brutal land where compassion may be the scarcest -- and most valuable -- resource of them all.
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