Published by Orbit June 2012
Mass Market Paperback, 640 Pages
Review copy courtesy of the publisher
Earth suffered devastating near world shattering losses in the war with the Swarm, the first intelligent life humanity encountered in the universe. The Swarm stepped away to mend their wounds and meanwhile, humanity built three starships to spread our seed across the galaxy to ensure our survival. That starting point is similar to David Weber’s Safehold saga, but Cobley takes Humanity’s Fire, the first book of which is Seeds of Earth, down a different path. Focusing primarily on the planet Darien, where the ship Hegemony settled, the novel focuses on humanity’s relationship with alien allies and its burgeoning place in the galactic community. Cobley also shows the story from one of the lost colony ships.
What makes Seeds of Earth a novel full of that grand sense of wonder, in part, is the many non-human races who comprise the galaxy. Humans (and the Swarm) are far from the only sentient beings in the galaxy. On Darien, humanity has befriended the Uvovo, a race with mystical, symbiotic ties to their world. Our point characters with the Uvovo are Greg, the scientist who’s been studying the race and its history and Chel, his Uvovo Scholar friend and advisor. The two become friends and confidants before, during and after Chel undergoes a Uvovo ritualistic transformative ceremony called husking (which bears some similarities to the transformative race of the Piggies (aka Pequeninos) in Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead).
Though Greg and Chel might be considered the leading characters in the narrative, perhaps because Greg’s POV chapter is the first following the epilogue which sets the milieu’s foundation, Cobley employs a rotating POV third-person omniscient narrative for the novel which allows the reader to view this future world through the eyes of various people. Greg’s uncle Theo, a highly placed military official, was enlisted by the president of Darien, Sundstrom to find out more about the last minute saving of Earth by the Sendruka Hegemony shortly after the seed ships were sent out into the galaxy. Robert Horst is an ambassador from Earth sent to Darien, but he isn’t alone. He’s got an A.I. implant named Harry who helps him to reconstruct a digital simulation of his deceased daughter. Catriona is Greg’s ex-lover/girlfriend/fiancé and also a xenobiologist whose been accepted in the Uvovo’s mystical forest Segrana (it should be noted that Seeds of Earth was published prior to the release of James Cameron’s Avatar). Our last human character is Kao Chih, the lone POV from Tenbrosa. Clearly, Cobley is showing this story from many angles and he pulls it off very well. In particular, the Greg/Chel combination works very well with Greg as our “eyes” looking into the alien culture and history of Chel’s race, the Uvovo.
As a parallel to the fairly wide canvas of characters, the galaxy in which the novels take place is even broader. The Sendrukan Hegemony functions as the mysterious yet powerful governmental body of the galaxy with questionable intent. The world of Darien itself is alive and has a symbiotic relationship with the Uvovo and Darien itself is the location of an ancient war that transformed Darien and its moon; a war that could be a hint of the past coming back to haunt those who forgot. The Swarm are not to be forgotten either though they are a mere memory and possible threat in the proper narrative of the novel.
Seeds of the Earth is a vast-canvas galactic space opera that exemplifies the qualities readers so enjoy in this space opera renaissance – multi-planetary society, dependence on artificial intelligence, alien horde as the enemy, mystical/mysterious alien allies, colonization of humanity, and more importantly he uses these familiar ingredients in a way that is fresh. Cobley packs a lot of ideas and elements into the novel which flows fairly organically. For example, the artificial intelligence utilized by Earth humans is considered the Dreamless by he spirit of the planet Darien.
There’s a quote from Iain M. Banks, author of The Culture series, one of the defining Epic Space Opera series on the cover of the book and with that, it is easy enough to draw some comparisons between the two writers/series. Another author with whom I’d compare Cobley is Eric Brown – both authors throw their paint on a wide canvas balanced with considered control and calculation in terms of plot and character. My only negative criticism is that the middle of the novel, more like the third quarter of the novel, felt a bit slower and scattered than the remainder of the novel.
With a very strong opening and an ending that promises a lot more to come in Humanity’s Fire, I found Seeds of Earth to be exactly the book I hoped it would be – a perfect example of Space Opera done extremely well.
© Rob H. Bedford