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Friday, March 6, 2009

“Seeds of Earth” by Michael Cobley (Reviewed by Liviu C. Suciu)

Official Michael Cobley Website
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INTRODUCTION:Seeds of Earth” is the start of a new epic space opera series from Michael Cobley who wrote the critically-acclaimed Shadowkings epic fantasy saga. When I first heard about the title, I was very excited and had very high expectations . . . expectations which were only partially met. But the novel is very entertaining and a page turner with the potential of the series to be taken to the ‘next level’, so the second Humanity’s Fire book is still a must-read for me...

SETTING: In the Humanity's Fire universe, the galaxy is a crowded place teeming with civilizations, mostly biological, but some that possess AI components, or are even AI-dominated. This universe is layered and very old, permeated with decaying or dead civilizations that “sink” through these layers into alternate realities “below”—whatever that means—and into “our” layer where Earth resides. From this, a lot of violent history starts rearing its head with ancient enemies preparing to resume old battles for dominance in both old and new “incarnations”.

Until several hundred years before the start of “Seeds of Earth”, humanity was unaware of the Galactic civilizations. This “innocence” was shattered in the early 2100s when Earth was brutally attacked by a minor but aggressive hive species known as the Swarm. Despite a valiant defense, all seemed lost so Earth prepared several ark ships that might possibly save something of humanity. Three ships were launched, but only the fate of one is known at the beginning of the novel. The one ship, called Hyperion, manages to land on the planet Darien where the people reach a peaceful accommodation with the world’s local and ancient race, the Uvovo. Seemingly backward tech-wise but in unison with nature, especially with forests, the “mystical” Uvovo live mostly on Darien's moon Nyviesta, and had no problem cooperating with the colonists.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, humanity was saved at the last moment by the powerful Sendruka Hegemony of which the dominant species consists of giant humanoid bipeds living in a sort of symbiosis with AI companions. Taken under the Sendruka's “wing”, humanity has thrived mainly due to its aggressive nature that the Sendruka found useful under “proper guidance”. Nothing was known about the fate of the three arks until the existence of Darien became known to the Galaxy at large. Unfortunately, Darien exists on the border of a disputed territory between a fanatical, even nastier Sendrukan offshoot and a powerful coalition that detests the Hegemony and all it stands for, which promises violent change for the peaceful planet. Of the other two ark ships, nothing is officially known but during the course of the novel readers will discover their fates and meet their descendants...

As far as the characters, Greg Cameron is an Uvovo researcher and a friend of Chel, a relatively young Uvovo Scholar who has just been called in for one of the tests Uvovo undergo on Nyviesta to determine their path in life. Greg is also at a crossroads of sorts after his betrothal went off the rails.

Greg's uncle, Major Theodor Karlsson, was a powerful man in the army and government of Darien, but after supporting the wrong side of one of the periodic upheavals in the young colony's politics, he has been “blacklisted”. However, Theo is known as a man of integrity and still has his followers in the independent gun-toting “middle class” of Darien, so President Sundstrom—who has known about the planet’s dilemma courtesy of secret allies—uses him as both a conduit to the “underground” opposition and as a secret adviser.

Catriona Macreadie is another Uvovo researcher, one of the few humans accepted inside Segrana, the great mystical forest of the Uvovo on Nyviesta. She had a crush on Greg a while ago and while disappointed about his impending marriage, she renews relations with him when Greg's fiancee breaks the betrothal. Catriona has some secrets of her own, including being a reject of the “super genius” secret breeding project on Darien. She also possesses a very strange affinity for all things Uvovo.

Robert Horst is the Earth ambassador sent to Darien. A career diplomat with a conscience and a troubled personal history, he uses his companion AI modeled after the Sendrukan’s AIs as his one true friend and companion. Robert is charged with a delicate mission and sent into a situation that is even worse than anticipated since the Darien colonists deeply distrust any form of AI.

Lastly, Kao Chih is a descendant of the Tenebrosa colonists and becomes a player in the galactic game started by the “discovery” of Darien...

FORMAT/INFO:Seeds of Earth” stands at 496 pages divided into four parts and 56 chapters. Each chapter is titled after its character POV. There is a Prologue set when Earth was at its most desperate during the Swarm onslaught, which led to the launch of the three colony arks, while the Epilogue sets up the next book in the series with a cool twist. The narration takes place in the present of the novel and the main POVs are Greg, Theo, Chel, Katriona, Robert, and Kao Chih. The ending brings together some of the characters while separating others, and is a natural stopping point with the next book in the series promising more fireworks and more revelations.

March 5, 2009 marks the UK Paperback publication of “Seeds of Earth” via
Orbit UK. Cover art provided by Steve Stone.

PLOT HINTS AND ANALYSIS:Seeds of Earth” is a “classical” space opera harking back to the original templates of the 30s and 80s rather than the “new space opera” of the late 90s and 00s. So the book features lot of aliens and lots of civilizations which mingle, communicate, cooperate, compete or fight without too much explanation of “how” this is actually done. As a result, there is a strong feel of “costume aliens” typical of golden age space opera, and that detracted somewhat from my enjoyment of the novel...

Seeds of Earth” opens on Darien and for the first twenty pages we start getting the feel of the people there and their alien neighbors the Uvovo. Then all of a sudden the book becomes a whirlwind of information with the introduction of many alien civilizations, a complicated Galactic background, the news about the survival and seeming prosperity of Earthsphere, and the novel changes tone completely. I found this abrupt shift very jarring and it was a big weakness of the book on first reading. And once you start figuring out the new parameters of the series, there are several more jarring transitions including Kao Chih and his “tour of the Galaxy” which is way too convoluted in my opinion and another one that involves too many spoilers to describe.

So the novel feels a lot like a mishmash of all these different space opera tropes, rather than an organic construct. However, “Seeds of Earth” moves well, the action carries you, the twists and turns are well done, and you start caring about the characters, so I actually enjoyed the book quite a lot once I got into the flow.

Of the main threads, the ones that intrigued me the most was Catriona's journey on the Uvovo world, the connection with the “genius breeding” program on Darien that I expect will play a larger role in future installments, and Kao Chih's adventure which was fun in a somewhat campy way. I also liked the way Robert Horst grows in the novel from a seemingly minor character to an important role.

On the other hand, the threads involving Theo, politics, the impact of the Sendruka, and Earthsphere's arrival were predictable and somewhat less interesting. Theo is a powerful character though, but I found Greg disappointing. Set up as the novel’s “lead man”, Greg was unconvincing and became thoroughly eclipsed by several other characters. Chel and the Uvovo threads worked well too, but the author has just scratched the surface of that part of the story.

Overall, after the shaky opening, I found “Seeds of Earth” to be a very entertaining read, albeit a light, golden age-like space opera with echoes of Kevin Anderson’s Seven Suns saga and Charles Sheffield’s Builders series though with much more depth than the former, but not as interesting of characters as the latter. Still, there is a lot of depth to be found in Michael Cobley’s richly imagined universe, the characters beg deeper exploration, and the series as a whole possesses tremendous potential. So, I am very curious about where the series will go from here and hope the author can take Humanity’s Fire to the next level in the sequel. In short, Michael Cobley’sSeeds of Earth” is highly recommended, but with the caveat not to expect a powerful “new space opera” series but rather a lighter "costume aliens" like “classical” one for now. Hugely enjoyable though...


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