Review: The Seed Collectors

Scarlett Thomas’ The Seed Collectors is sprawling, like the roots of a tree. That’s appropriate, since it begins with a family tree: that of the Gardeners, many of whom are named after plants – Bryony, Clematis, Ash, Holly. Some years ago, the previous generation of Gardeners disappeared into the rainforest, in search of a plant whose seed pods, it’s said, are the source of true enlightenment – at the cost of an excruciatingly painful death.

The novel opens with the death of Oleander, great aunt to the current generation of Gardeners. She’s left all her surviving descendants a seed pod each, as well as leaving behind a mansion, Namaste House, which has been converted into a retreat for celebrities and very rich people, and a large fortune.

And it wanders forward from there, dipping into the lives of various Gardeners, Namaste House staff, starlets, and at one point a robin, these diverging perspectives bound loosely together by the mystery of the seed pods and the question of what will happen to Namaste House.

At heart, I think, The Seed Collectors is a novel about enlightenment, which Thomas sees as interchangeable with transcendence: according to Oleander, the novel’s wellspring of spiritual wisdom, the seed pods have the power to free souls from the cycle of reincarnation and individuality to become, er, one with the universe, the World Soul. (Yes, this is cheesy; more on that later.) So many of the Gardeners lead variously self-destructive and ultimately selfish lives: Bryony, the ultimate consumer, drinks and eats and shops to excess, to distract herself from her marital problems; the odious botanist Charlie insists on a paleo diet and has a shopping list of attributes he wants in his girlfriends; creepy academic Oliver bumps up the grades of a pretty girl in his class and utterly fails to understand the point of a team-building exercise that requires people to be unselfish so everyone can win. Interspersed with these stories we have bits of Oleander’s wisdom, as the characters begin to unravel the mysteries of the seed pods, and thought experiments that ask us to reframe the world (“If you discovered that you were the only person in the world, and everything you see around you was in fact a part of you, dramatised, how would that change what you are doing right now, right this very instant?”), and intertwined through all of this are the roots and leaves and seeds of plants, familiar as breathing and yet also unfathomably alien.

Like the two other Thomas novels I’ve read, The End of Mr Y and Our Tragic Universe, The Seed Collectors looks at how we codify and curdle reality – in Lacanian terms, how we freeze the terrifying incomprehensibility of the Real into the safety of the Symbolic – and at how, despite everything, reality still leaks out, calling all our cultural values, and so our very subjectivities, into question. In the earlier novels, that codification takes place mainly through narrative: we kill reality into art, limiting the shapes our lives can take as we do so. In The Seed Collectors, individual identity itself is what obstructs and conceals the Real: the things we use to mark ourselves as different from other people, whether that’s a special diet, nice clothes, tennis prowess, being the best at team-building, or sitting in first class on a train. To Thomas, these are all artificial (Symbolic) constructs. And the seed pods, symbols (perhaps ironically) of an alien Nature which can’t be codified into the Symbolic (though botanists like Charlie try), are how the Real erupts into the world – by taking souls out of the cycle of reincarnation, they take them back into the Real, back into nature, and planthood.

I should stress that The Seed Collectors is a good deal less hokey than all this is making it sound. Thomas’ voice throughout the novel is chatty and relaxed, and she has great empathy for most of her characters (well, apart from bloody Charlie). It’s a novel you want to spend time in.

But. (You know there’s a but, don’t you.) There’s a catch with representing the Real in fiction, which is that it’s very hard to do – because fiction is part of the Symbolic, so it can’t actually represent the Real, not directly. I bounced hard off Oleander’s wisdom, her explanations about reincarnation and transcendence – to me, these sections of the book felt trite and too easy. Because, when you get down to it, reincarnation is just another schema in which to confine the Real. It’s just another human way of looking at the world; another order of the Symbolic.

Incidentally, this is where I think speculative fiction has the edge over realistic fiction. When we read SFF, we know it’s not meant to be taken literally; it’s always working metaphorically, or ironically. So it’s much better placed to think about the Real, and about elements of human experience that we can’t put properly into words without diminishing them. SFF can gesture at things realistic fiction can’t say, because SFF is always already gesturing indirectly at the world. That’s how it works.

So my issue with The Seed Collectors is that it isn’t quite SFnal enough. It doesn’t work symbolically enough: it wants us to take reincarnation as literally, as matter-of-factly, as we take the realist sections of the novel. Which, of course, we can’t: it’s a different order of thing. It can only ever be taken metaphorically; but Thomas doesn’t give us the right protocols to read it that way.

The Seed Collectors was a disappointment after Our Tragic Universe (but then, almost anything would be). I get what Thomas was trying to do (well, sort of), and shifting our fundamental notions of reality is not work that every novelist is having a go at, so props for that. It just – didn’t work for me. Sometimes that’s how it goes.

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