The burden of the burning world falls with a peculiar weight on the shoulders of young people: they didn’t cause it, but they carry the curse of growing up in it. Aspiring to fix it is more than coming generations should be asked to do, but the myopia of suicidal capitalists and their tendencies has put that millstone firmly around their necks. In this context, the explosion of young people’s literature exploring humans’ relationship and responsibility to nonhuman life is a positive expression of the growing awareness of—and resistance to—that inheritance.
Sim Kern’s Seeds for the Swarm brings that impulse to a genre—dystopian teen fiction—that has dominated the speculative market since The Hunger Games (2008). Like Suzanne Collins before them, Kern marshals philosophical and social arguments in the course of their characters’ trials and adventures. The result is a fast-paced, challenging first novel that confronts the betrayal of adults in making such a mess of things for the future generations, and explores the multiple reactions of communities on the brink of extinction.
The United States of Seeds is one polarized between those with access to water and those without: “Lush States” feed off the “Dust States,” outsourcing dirty extractive and refining industries to the desertified waste of the Southwest. The book follows Sassaparylla McCracken (Rylla), the working-class “dusty” daughter of a refinery worker in southern Texas, as she navigates her first year at an elite Lush State university.
Rylla is recruited after becoming an internet sensation for challenging the planned damming of her beloved Guadalupe River. Rylla crashes the state senate’s hearing on the dam, and her impassioned speech catches the attention of Professor Alexandra Watt at Wingates University. The school gathers the brightest young minds—regardless of background—to prevent the approach of X Day, when the earth will fail to support life any longer.
When she arrives at the school, most of the students recognize her not for her principled resistance, but for a viral remix of her comments retitled Ass is Hope. Her notoriety as a viral sensation only heightens her scholarship-kid sense of not belonging. When Rylla stumbles onto the existence of a shadowy project called The Manifest spearheaded by Watt, she feels further alienated, doubting the altruism of her new benefactors.
Kern’s descriptions of the not-too-distant future carry a satisfying dose of jibes skewering familiar targets: for example, a cable news channel called Actually True News that is anchored by Barbie Washington and Chet Strongman, reporting on candidates that have to dress to match corporate donors’ brand aesthetic. But at the heart of the book is Kern’s deep love for the natural world, communicated through Rylla’s reflections on the environment around her. The high points of her young life are moments spent studying the trickle of the Guadalupe River with her brother Tyler, identifying insect species, and communing with the other creatures struggling to thrive in the now-hostile biome.
People familiar with Kern’s novella Depart! Depart! (2020) or their more recent short stories (just released as a collection from Android Press) will recognize Rylla. She is not a Chosen One, or a particularly heroic personality. Instead, Rylla struggles in the familiar way of young people in over their heads. Like other Kern characters, her sense of solidarity and responsibility forces her to take action far beyond her comfort zone, like when Rylla joins the bad boy/bioengineer genius/love interest Theo in hacking Watt’s office communications to learn more about The Manifest.
The usual elements of young adult literature (crushes, conspiracy, unreliable adults, quirky friends) are interwoven here with much heavier, and headier, issues. When the pressure of being a dusty surrounded by more resourced peers in an elite setting becomes overwhelming, Rylla turns to drugs to combat panic attacks. Students grapple with solving the epidemic of Gotterdammerunganst: the depression caused by knowing that all life on the planet will come to an end due to human mismanagement.
And at the philosophical heart of the book is the question of how humans might protect the planet most effectively: by abandoning or employing technology? Is scientific “advancement” in the final analysis always a destructive force? Would the extinction of humans ourselves be the ultimate cure? Kern comes down on the side of humans’ ability to thoughtfully deploy technology as ecological stewards, but Rylla moves toward this understanding in fits and starts, undermined at times by her own struggles and prejudices.
Rylla’s closest friends, who are all Science majors in the school’s house-like factions, advocate for high-tech solutions to the crisis. Repping their individual fields, Rylla’s friends advocate for different strategies for tackling climate catastrophe. Kern ably weaves these hypothetical solutions into cafeteria debates between overachieving teens, giving the readers as much credit to follow the science as they give the characters making them.
Rylla and her Humanities classmates, however, have the job of debating the ethics of applying science to the real world. These students travel the world on “field trips,” embedding themselves in movements looking to address the failing biosphere to learn and critique the effectiveness of their methods. In particular, the students are allowed to comment on proposed research projects, and Rylla’s resistance to bioengineering is exposed, marking her as low-key reactionary. That Theo is the bioengineer making the proposal only makes it more uncomfortable, but the school ultimately decides to fund his prototype implant to control illegal cow breeding.
Much of the fun of the book lies in Kern’s unpacking the contradictions of self-satisfied would-be escapists. The Humanities majors’ field trip to a self-styled Camelot, complete with a rigidly gendered division of labor and a ban on modern tech or medicine, is pivotal in Rylla’s understanding of the limits of a retreat from modernity. Tempted to stay when she falls for the ultrarich playboy-in-recovery Alastair, she is forced by her classmates to confront the parasitic relationship the enclave has to the surrounding communities and ecosystems.
The overarching mystery—what is The Manifest, and can her mentor be trusted?—is a curious enough question to keep the plot moving and push Rylla into new relationships and challenges. But toward the end of the book, the emergence of a cultlike drug cartel called Gaia’s Legion pulls the Humanities majors into a new mystery: who is its leader, Vulpini, and what is his plan? The cartel preaches an extremist, antihuman fix to the world’s problem, and the students fear the Legion intends to commit genocide in the name of saving Earth.
That Vulpini is revealed to be Alastair is somewhat convenient, but his manipulation of Rylla to access Wingates’s devastating experimental tech raises the stakes dramatically, both for the arguments against bioengineering and for Rylla’s need to redeem herself. To stop the coming apocalypse, she is forced to take accountability for her failures and weaknesses, and to face off against Alastair.
The revelation that Theo’s bioengineering project could be used to sterilize— or kill— not only cows but humans, too, leads the students to surmise that The Manifest is a last-ditch effort to save humanity by eliminating most of the population. The ethics of sacrificing the many to restore ecological balance and preserve a future on Earth, and of who would be saved in such a scenario, are left unresolved at the book’s close, setting up the coming sequel. In addition, the emergence of an armed resistance movement called the Dust Liberation Army led by Rylla’s brother Tyler forces Rylla to consider what Watt’s motivation is in sending her to intervene? Does Watt really want peace, or is the coming war another part of The Manifest?
As the first of a planned trilogy, Seeds for the Swarm delves into fiercely needed and relevant conversations that are poised to deepen in the coming volumes. Kern doesn’t pull any punches on the environmental consequences of consumer capitalism, nor do they avoid the social and emotional impacts of living through an age of mass extinctions. The subject lends itself to nihilism, but Rylla’s commitment to family, friends, and justice provides a glimpse of hope that is badly needed in the coming fights, real and fictional. Perfect for teen readers struggling with their own feelings of despair in our own unstable world, it is also a welcome and provocative read for all fans of YA.