Back to early Silverberg. There’s a charm to his earlier Ace Books, watching the development of a noted author, watching his style develop… even in the ’50s, his style is recognizable, though his later developments have a lot more depth and complexity. (Much less better plotting and more serious, less pulpy plots.) The weird trivia for this one? It’s dedicated to Robert Bloch, author of Psycho, Lovecraft-circle writer, and one-time president of the Mystery Writers of America.
I’m not a fan of the cover. The aliens as written in the book look nothing like the cross between a wookie and an anthropomorphic roving gang of pubes that Valigursky drew, which is for the best. Nor is the setting remotely like the description; they established camp in the midst of a windy forest, not the painted desert. Valigursky could be a capable cover artist, but not here. Is it just the lack of depth, or is that colonist in the foreground unloading that comically undersized crate with one hand? How do those people get in and out of their ship? I know that’s supposed to be corrugated metal or something but HEY ED CAN YOU PUT ANY MORE LINES ON THAT FRAKKING ROCKETSHIP? How about the fins, still space on there!
We start our tale with Dave Mulholland, mid-level bureaucrat who got the cushy job of determining who’s sent off to colonize space. In this world, in order to jump-start Earth’s space colonialism, rockets are sent off in a near-constant chain, each containing fifty men and fifty women; these lucky souls are paired off, married, and dumped off on a habitable solar body of some kind to colonize it. Someone had come up with the brilliant idea that, if mankind didn’t want to colonize the stars on its own, they’d do so by force, with the rather unsavory means justifying the major advantages it’d reap for future generations. Mulholland has a number of qualms about his job, but by keeping the selected colonists as numbers on a card, he manages to stay sane.
Let’s not get into the infeasibility of all this, such as the political and economical ramifications, much less the fact that they’re shipping off people at such a rate as to de-populate Earth; it’s a good idea if too science-fictiony, so let’s leave it at that. I’d kind of like to see a couple of novels following up on this idea—watching the colonies develop, with oral traditions of their home earth and the band of original colonists as folk heroes, seeing the planets slowly try to link together to form some collective, much less an empire. Like most of Silverberg’s early work, it’s stand-alone. (That could be a good thing.)
So, were you expecting Dave to end up on a rocketship blasting off to a colony world, as upcoming elections could see him out of a job? No, they already wrote that book, and it was called The Space Merchants. Instead, we’re taken to our cast of characters, who are, in order: a collegiate sad-sack (Mike Dawes), a singing tramp (Cherry Thomas), the cockiest swingin’ dick ever to come down the pike (“Ky” Noonan), and a whimpering ditz (Carol Herrick). The process is interesting—we see these characters’ daily lives up until they receive their space conscription letter, and how they take the news of their selection—and then, they’re off!
At their new home planet, things take a dramatic turn, and we enter the third act, or plot, as it were: the one advertised on the cover. Our four characters are dragged off by these crazy aliens, furry tentacled things, who are studying human actions and relationships. The last thirty or forty pages has passable tension and development as these four characters are stuck together and forced to make the best of it. While it’s a bit late in the story, it has some good tension, friction, and developing insights into the characters.
Many have said Silverberg isn’t very good at handling female protagonists; I haven’t seen him be really bad at it until now. Cherry and Carol are under-developed, and there’s a palpable sexism here. It doesn’t help that all the characters are forcibly wed to start a baby boom, and that Noonan spends most of the time slapping the female characters around… then again, he slaps the crap out of Mike Dawes, too. Signs of the times: Silverberg wrote it in the late ’50s, and it has that “women’s place is in the kitchen and bed” vibe. Also, there are no persons of color (at least, none are mentioned); if it was written ten years later, that could have been a major source of friction and development within the colonists.
Silverberg is by far the most readable Ace author I’ve ever read. His early prose is capable, even when the plot’s shallow or unbalanced. This plot has major problems, but Silverberg does have strengths: his writing is convincing (if the plot isn’t), and the ideas are at least original and well done. (If only those original ideas had been given the space to develop, tied together some more, and tightened up.) Other Ace authors aren’t as strong with their pens—Andre Norton leans towards the simplistic, John Brunner is stilted or awkward at points. Silverberg is often shallow and facile with his plots, but his writing is smooth, engaging my attention and compelling me on.
I should note that this book is riddled with grammatical errors: misspelled words, missing letters or punctuation, words that had their contents flipped (“yaers”). Every now and then I’ll see these kinds of errors in an Ace book, but when it’s only one or two, I end up forgetting; this one had over half-dozen that I remember. It makes the novel feel like rushed hack work, which it probably was.
The Seed of Earth feels like two good ideas crammed together to make one novel: the idea of systematic forced colonization, and the idea of aliens capturing space colonists and pitting them against each other. Neither are bad ideas; the shallowness is a problem related to Ace and its size constraints. It’s an average example of early Silverberg, and mediocre early Silverberg at that: it has nothing of the grandeur of his later works, though it’s passable as a hundred-forty-page adventure yarn. Though it’s bipolar, and not as well constructed compared to his better Ace novels. A weak, around-average entry composed of two interesting but insubstantial ideas.