Review of Earthseed
Reviewed by: Marianne Dyson, November 2007
Earthseed by Pamela Sargent is the story of a group of teenagers being prepared to become the first human colonists of an exosolar planet.
An AI ("Ship") has been the children's mother, father, and teacher for 15 years, and is now weaning them of dependence on it for their survival. To accomplish this, Ship has devised a race through the "wild" part of the hollowed-out asteroid where all sorts of Earth plants and creatures live, including bears. Ship has turned off its sensors in this area, so that the children are truly on their own with only their wits and stun guns for protection.
The main character, Zohert, is on a team with a boy named Manual that she is attracted to. To win, their team must cross the "Hollow" in the shortest time. They can use any route or method, but all team members must make the crossing for the time to count. The main competition is from a team led by a ruthless boy named Ho. The traps and tactics employed by Ho to slow down the other teams cause members of another team to be badly injured. Zohert insists on helping the victims, delaying her team and causing them to lose, and putting her at odds with Manual.
Many of the teens resent that Ho wins despite his tactics. But Zohert understands that Ho's actions represent doing whatever it takes to survive: a trait that will be important on their new world. She also understands that it is up to the humans to decide how to act—Ship will not always be there.
Soon after the competition, the children, without the supervision of Ship, build homes and establish farms in the Hollow, the last step before moving to a planetary surface. Ho and Manual split from the main group and steal supplies from them. Revenge for the theft escalates to war. An appeal for help to the Ship reveals an even larger problem that challenges Zohert's view of her world, herself, and her future.
The only science I question has to do with the Hollow. Because they have gravity in "the corridors," I assume the Hollow is the center of the asteroid sphere, though the asteroid may be some other shape. Because a sphere can only rotate on one axis, there can only be artificial gravity in a ring perpendicular to that axis, i.e. on the inside of the equator. (This is why space colony designers prefer cylinders!) Assuming this asteroid is so huge that the children cannot see to the opposite side, they would still have a "sky" of clouds above them, and the "ground" would curve upward in all directions. A trip to the "edge" of the ring of land would find them becoming weightless. Surely the children would have discovered that they could fly and/or propel themselves across the Hollow by simply going to these edges (or the "ends" of the cylinder)? I was disappointed that the unique environment of the asteroid starship is not utilized more in the story.
Also, the existence of large predatory animals such as bears and bobcats in the Hollow defies common sense. Why waste limited resources on animals that are not food for humans and at the same time put those humans at risk? The Ship supposedly has a huge supply of seed stock, so it is not necessary to carry live animals to preserve them. The main ecological concern for the children should be balancing the microbes and plants and animals to provide them with sufficient food, building materials, and medicinal resources under different rainfall, lighting, and temperature conditions. Animal populations can be controlled and contained using physical barriers and traps, or through neutering or hunting by the humans.
The computer has supposedly been programmed to create "pure" humans capable of living on a frontier world, but the children grow up in an artificial environment, use roller skates, and have access to instant food, entertainment, communications, and an enormous library. Regardless of what the designers intended, these kids will embrace science and technology. They will be driven to figure out how to recreate the things they have become used to such as electric lights and indoor plumbing. Yet these bright kids set up primitive camps in the Hollow without any of these things. For example, a lot of their problems were caused by a lack of communications. They had to physically travel to talk to each other. Yet they don't even attempt to set up a communication system using lights or sounds or even messages propelled across the sphere on roller skates, let alone radio. I found it hard to believe the children would willingly choose or ever be happy to live as cavemen after being raised in a starship. Instead, I would expect them to bend Ship to do their bidding. (Maybe that's in a later book? This is a trilogy!)
As stated on the back of the book, the "big" question is can humans "overcome the biggest obstacle to the survival of the human race—themselves?" This book shows how a "simple" competition can lead to interpersonal conflict, factions, and escalate to war. As the main character discovers, survival of the fittest does not necessarily include survival of the nicest. The issues of how to deal with conflict as well as handicapped and injured individuals deserve at least as much discussion as propulsion and life support systems. These issues have implications for what sort of government might work best on a space colony, and also the role of parents and teachers in shaping the attitudes and motivation of the young who will inherit these new worlds. Future space colonists such as Zohert must decide what kind of society they would like to have, and what they are willing to sacrifice on a personal level to make it happen.
This book does not have any explicit sex, but it does have sexual situations that some parents may consider inappropriate for younger readers. There is also violence, and some characters die. There is no religious content.
I give this book 1 point for accuracy, 1 for descriptions, 1 for a new perspective, 1 for grammar, 1 for characters, and half a point for science use in the plot. Total: 5.5 points. Recommended. Earthseed is an engaging story with strong characters and a convincing otherworldly setting.
A sequel to this book, Farseed, is now available. An excerpt of Farseed is included in the back of the new edition of Earthseed. This sequel takes place 16 years later on the surface of the planet the original children colonized, with the main character being Ho's daughter.
Author: Pamela Sargent
Date: 1983, mass market paperback, 2007
Retail Price: $6.99