Review: Seeds of the Earth by Michael Cobley

Seeds of the Earth by Michael Cobley
Seeds of the Earth by Michael Cobley

Seeds of the Earth
Michael Cobley
Orbit UK, 2009 (MM, Jan 2010)

Seeds of the Earth is the first in a new space opera series by Michael Cobley.  The cover features a nice one line quote from space opera master Iain M. Banks describing the novel as “Proper galaxy-spanning space opera.”  A statement that couldn’t be more true.  Seeds of the Earth is very old school with a large cast of characters and a diverse and wonderfully vibrant phalanx of ideas that makes for an great read and excellent starting point in jumping from my epic fantasy reading of November into the stars and beyond.

Seeds of the Earth opens with humanity’s first contact with the alien Swarm.  Or at least the tail end of that conflict as we more or less witness the departure of three human colony ships (note: I read the prologue while I had a fever of 103 and, for shame, didn’t go back and re-read it after).  The novel picks up a century and a half later on the human colony world of Darien where, after struggling with the rogue AI of their colony ship, the humans have settled in a peaceful coexistence of the nature loving Uvovo.   The discovery of an ancient Uvovo ruin dating back thousands of years to a conflict with a powerful and mysterious enemy sets off a chain of reactions that thrusts Darien and its human and Uvovo inhabitants straight into danger.

More to follow with potential spoilers…

Seeds of the Earth is full of ideas that ooze cool.  When it comes to the colony world of Darien these ideas help to evoke a vibrant picture of the planet’s geography, culture and society.  We learn, for example, that the people of Darien are composed of Scottish, Scandinavian and Russian stock as an experiment in blending what the old Earth government believed would be national and ethnic background most likely to live and work well together.  Thus throughout the novel you get a sampling, and frequently a mix, of dialect and names that lends a familiar feel to the people.  At the same time that mix of culture and dialect lends something of an alien and unique feel to the world as well.  Tossed into this cultural mix are the Uvovo short humanoids from the planet’s forest moon who worship a great sentient forest.   The uvovo have helped the colonists on Darien to adopt their nature friendly policies.  Of course we also get glimpses of the Uvovo culture as well and their sylvan and mystical feel lend a stark and welcomed contrast to the more technology heavy people and societies glimpsed elsewhere in the novel.

Early in the novel the Darien colonists receive a message, and later an ambassador(s), from Earth and her “allies” the Sendruka Hegemony.  The incorporation of the previously isolated Darien into the greater sphere of Human and Sendrukan influence has a distinctly familiar feel.  The sudden influx of news and information that is available to Darien is perhaps similar to what may have occurred in the years following the introduction of the telegraph, or the introduction of the transcontinental railroad in 1869.  I suppose what I’m trying to say is that the sudden introduction of Darien into the greater world of intergalactic politics seems to bear a certain historical precedence.   The brief though evocative experience readers get when first reading about Darien combined with the knowledge readers are given regarding Human and Sendrukan goals is precisely enough to create an atmosphere of tension and foreboding.

Each of the various factions in the novel is typically given a description casts them as either a good guy or a bad guy.  There are hints of nuance, a human purity faction on Darien or the non-AI assisted humans, but they are mostly just that; hints.  The villains are clearly villains and the heroes are clearly heroes.  I don’t have a particular problem with this and, as I said, there are glimpse of other individuals and powers who are shaded a bit close to the gray but by and large the  lines between hero and villain are pretty clearly drawn.  It is entirely possible that as the series progresses we will see these elements explained in more detail.

Cobley employs a variety of perspectives for his novel with each chapter titled by the character it follows.  All the characters are interest and well drawn.  Perhaps the most enjoyable and dynamic is Kao Chih who is the only character that gets to explore outside of Darien and its environ.  Robert Horst, the human ambassador from Earth, is perhaps the character I’d like to have explored a little more.  He is a troubled figure, still grieving over the death of his daughter with loyalties divided between his fellow humans on Darien and the orders given by his superiors and Sendruka allies.  His increasing reliance on the companions of an AI avatar of his daughter is fascinating but there is so little time spent with him that I was never certain if that reliance was the result of his own grief or some outside party.

My favorite idea, and I won’t explain it too much since I don’t want to spoil anything, is Cobley’s vision of subspace.  Something about it just fired my imagination right up and I’d love to see more of that.

As the first book in the Humanity’s Fire series Seeds of the Earth doesn’t end with any kind of definitive conclusion.  It instead ends with perhaps more questions then it started with.  Oddly, I didn’t find this to be much of a problem for me.  Seeds of the Earth feels the part of a greater story, as it should, and I am content in the knowledge that there will be questions answered in the next volume The Orphaned Worlds, due out in April 2010, and I’m excited to where the story goes and what new ideas Cobley will explore (which will hopefully be more subspace, in fact a whole novel set in subspace would rock).  If you’re look for a solid new(ish) entry into the space opera genre then look no further than the Seeds of the Earth.  It is, as many great sci-fi and fantasy tends to be, only out in the UK at the moment but Book Depository is listing a new edition due out in January 2010 for $5.99 with free shipping which, as far as I’m concerned, is a steal.

I should also note that Michael Cobley has some fine taste in metal.  He lists Opeth (perhaps my favorite band ever) and Paradise Lost amongst the band he listed while writing the book.  Kudos to you sir and might I recommend you check out the ‘states own Agalloch for some excellent black/doom metal.  You can read more about Cobley’s writing and impeccable music taste over at his blog Interstellar Tactics.

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