[May 11, 1962] Unfixed in the Heavens (The Seed of Earth, by Robert Silverberg)


by Gideon Marcus

A hundred and fifty years from now, the stars are finally attainable.  With the invention of a reliable and quick interstellar drive, the galaxy is now ripe for colonization.  But humanity is too fat and happy to leave the nest; the world government is forced to conscript candidates to become unwilling pioneers.  Six thousand men and women are sent on sixty starships every day toward some farflung world.  The goal: to ensure that the human race can be spread as widely as possible.

This is the premise of Robert Silverberg’s newest piece, a short novel published in the :June 1962 Galaxy called The Seed of Earth.  It’s really two novellas in one, the first half dealing with the lives of four conscriptees as they are selected and prepared for departure, and the second half about what happens to them once they reach their destination. 

Seed has an interesting, complicated history.  The second part originally appeared in the May 1957 issue of Venture as The Winds of Siros.  In this story, two newlywed colonist couples are abducted from their settlement by voyeuristic aliens who lock them in a cave and watch the emotional drama ensue.  After the four escape, the women determine that they were with the wrong men and change partners.  It’s all supposed to be rather daring and progressive.

Venture was a short-lived companion to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, designed to be a “more adult” alternative to F&SF.  What this really meant was more stories about sex, and since the stories were almost exclusively written by men (and modern society being what it is), there were a lot of demeaning, disturbing pieces in Venture

The example that turned me off of the magazine was, in fact, also by Robert Silverberg.  Called Eve and the Twenty-three Adams (March 1958), it featured an all-stag starship crew and the lone woman included on the roster to “service” them.  When she expressed reluctance at her role, she was drugged into submission for the duration of the flight.  It was all very light-hearted, just a rollicking tale.  Like Garrett’s Queen Bee.

Silverberg’s difficulty with the concept of feminine agency was also evident in Siros (and thus, in Seed).  The male colonists get to choose whom they want to marry from among the female colonists, and while the women have the right of refusal for the first few rounds, all of them must end up with someone, ultimately.  Now, as Siros plays out, we see that the system is not particularly rigid and, in the end, the woman colonists do have some choice in the matter.  But it’s informal, and it’s at the sufferance of the men.  Hardly an equal situation.

In fact, there is a strong streak of puritanical prudishness in Seed.  At one point, a woman’s pregnancy is described as “a lapse in virtue.”  I recognize that Silverberg’s intent was to show that our current (late 50’s/early 60’s) morality is antiquated and needs to be shaken up.  Hence, the laudable plot elements of wife-swapping and polyamory that form the core of Siros/Seed Part 2.  But it just doesn’t seem plausible that Earth of 2117 would be exactly as, if not more, conservative as modern day, and that only by unleashing humans on a raw world can they undo the straitjacket. 

Seed’s first part was added to Siros to make the piece long enough for publication as a stand-alone novel.  Ballantine and Doubleday, the “respectable” s-f publishers, rejected it.  H.L. Gold, Galaxy’s editor, accepted Seed for its paperback series (I reviewed one of them: the excellent The City in the Sea), but the series was discontinued before Seed saw print.  Ultimately, it ended up in the magazine proper.

Part One of Seed isn’t bad: a quartet of reasonably interesting character portraits with a bonus view through the eyes of the fellow tasked with finalizing the crew selections.  The characterization is better in this half, which makes sense – the Silverberg writing Part One was older than the one who wrote Part Two.  The problem here isn’t so much the writing or the flow.  It’s the flaws in the fundamental premise.  In Seed, forced emigration has gone on for a generation.  Are there really hundreds of thousands of habitable planets within 30 light years of Earth ripe for colonization without any need for protective technology or planetary engineering?  Are there even that many planets?  Does it make sense to invest just one hundred strangers in a colony rather than shipping more than one load to a promising destination? 

And how is it plausible that a draft for colonization is even required?  To all accounts, Silverberg’s world is no utopia – in fact, it seems hardly different from our current one, societally and technologically.  Surely there would be 2,190,000 immigrant candidates out of billions every year.  Contrast Seed with Heinlein’s Farmer in the Sky – there, one was lucky if one could leave Earth. 

The Seed of Earth is ultimately a rather unsuccessful “fix-up” story.  The beginning doesn’t flow well into the end, and neither portion rings very true.  I’d charitably give three stars to the first part and two to the second, for an aggregate of 2.5 stars.  That’s probably overgenerous, but I can give Silverberg credit for the effort, at least.