This book landed on my to-read list in 2009, and I remembered nothing about it when I finally tracked it down at my library. (For a while, I actually owned a used copy in the UK, but it went missing. Very mysterious. I suspect the AIs had something to do with it.) As I started reading Seeds of Earth, I wanted to dislike it. I wanted to find faults with it. Disappointingly that didn’t happen; frustratingly I found myself drawn into the story and Michael Cobley’s intricate depiction of a multiverse-spanning war of ages.
It’s hard to fault a book in which the backstory is so rich. Cobley crafts a universe in which aliens devastate Earth and humanity launches colony ships in a last ditch effort at survival. As a result, we find ourselves entering an interstellar civilization of dazzling complexity. But this galactic-political struggle is actually just the foreground of a much longer conflict, the players of which are more long-lived: AIs, cyborgs from past universes, and a mysterious AI-like entity known as the Construct.
Either of these two stories alone would have been enough for an interesting novel. It’s the way Cobley combines them that makes for such an interesting book. At the basic level, there are events that happened in the deep past—like, before the birth of this universe—or that happened millennia ago, when humanity was just struggling to master fire. Cobley reminds us that if we begin to engage with issues of interstellar space, we must necessarily confront issues of interstellar time. And so Seeds of Earth is similar to books like Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space series, in which our human (predominantly, at least, in this book) main characters take up banners in conflicts begun long before they were born.
That being said, while the tropes Cobley invokes are going to be familiar and comfortable to space opera fans, where Seeds of Earth falters is in attempting any sort of originality. The history, the nature of the conflicts, even the large-scale development of the present plot is not all that fresh. Substitute “Forerunners” for “Progenitors” or any other generic name for people who came before us and perhaps gave rise to us, and you’ve got the foundations of what Cobley is hinting at here. This is not revolutionary new space opera, just the same ol’, same ol’ competently executed.
Similarly, I can’t be as enthusiastic for the characterization as I am for the backdrop. Cobley uses a lot of different points of view, and that keeps the narrative interesting. But there is only one POV female character—the token woman scientist who is sensitive to the ecological needs of the alien flora and fauna—compared to swathes of men who gallivant across the galaxy, across Darien, or merely gallivant in general. Now, pretty much every other minor character who is a woman happens to be capable and admirable; I don’t think Cobley is being deliberately sexist so much as unthinking in how he has distributed his POVs.
Seeds of Earth is set roughly 250 years into the future, but Cobley doesn’t show us a very altered human society, either on Darien or within the Earthsphere. Even though our Earthsphere representative Robert Horst has an AI companion, he seems very human. So this book isn’t posthuman in the sense that it examines how humanity changes as comes to rely on AI. Instead, the AIs merely become the generic villains to the plot. And that’s a little disappointing.
On balance, I enjoyed Seeds of Earth. It’s an entertaining story. It isn’t particularly new or breathtakingly thoughtful in its use of science-fiction tropes. But if you are in a space opera mood; if you’re looking for an SF adventure that doesn’t require a lot of concentration or cultural adjustment, then this book will probably satisfy your craving. Cobley knows how to plot, knows how to pace, and even if he doesn’t always delve as deep as I’d like, he has a respect and love for the genre that enhances his setting and storytelling.