In A.J. Colucci’s 2012 debut, the sci-fi thriller The Colony, she describes a world where ants rise up to challenge the tyranny of pesticide-wielding humans. Instead of Planet of the Apes, it’s Planet of the Ants — and with her second novel, Seeders, she’s written a veritable Planet of the Plants. Unfortunately, the result isn’t nearly as thrilling as it ought to be.
Seeders‘ concept is inherently more promising than The Colony‘s: A disgraced but brilliant botanist suffers a mysterious death. The small island where he’s been conducting research becomes the flash point of a strange phenomenon: The flora now seem able to communicate, telepathically yet subtly, with people. And the suggestions they’re whispering into our ears are not good. Huge questions get raised: What is the definition of intelligence? Of sentience? Of the soul? And if those definitions suddenly change, how does it affect our roles as cogs in the great ecological machine we call Earth?
But the book doesn’t tackle these questions — it seems content simply to bring them up. After that, it’s nothing but pulp. And lackluster pulp, at that.
Isabelle Maguire is the daughter of George Brookes, the deceased botanist whose experiments have led to a breakthrough in plant-to-human communication. An abused wife with two adolescent sons — one of them brain-damaged after a tree-climbing accident years prior — she brings her family to the fictional Sparrow Island to attend the reading of her father’s will. Two others from George’s past show up: Jules Beecher, his former protégé, and Ginny Shufflebottom, his former lover.
Both are stereotypically British, as if the name “Ginny Shufflebottom” wasn’t a dead giveaway, but at least they feel right at home. Every character in Seeders is a stereotype: Isabelle has felt trapped her whole life, which is why she remains in a bad marriage. Her elder son Luke is a 15-year-old science nerd with hormones in overdrive. And Monica, a 16-year-old juvenile delinquent that Isabelle’s family has implausibly taken in, is every horror director’s idea of a snarky, troubled, teenage vamp.
Like The Colony before it, Seeders is supposed to be a horror story as well as a sci-fi thriller, but the horror never happens. The pace is slow. The tension is slack. And the few random elements are meant to induce chills — like doll heads suspended from the trees of the forest — wind up being not only silly, but in some cases huge red herrings.
Gratuitous false clues are one thing. Even worse is the glaring MacGuffin: While Sparrow Island spirals into chaos as its guests succumb to odd behavior (and even odder fungus), half the cast is off on a wild goose chase to recover an invaluable red diamond named — no, really — the Crimson Star.
Colucci’s writing isn’t entirely without merit. Her prose is brisk and crisp. Flashes of vivid imagery and sympathetic characterization crop up here and there. But they’re overwhelmed by clichés and gratuitous plot machinery. Just as events reach a fever pitch of peril, the horny teens relax their guard in order to fool around — because they’re teens and they just can’t help themselves. Isabelle does the dumbest thing possible at the worst time imaginable, a fact she’s well aware of. For no good reason, she does it anyway. Cell phones don’t work on the island, naturally. The only means of contacting civilization, a two-way radio, inexplicably stops working because the plot wouldn’t work otherwise.
Seeders is a lean, straightforward book, yet it confuses itself. Sean, Isabelle’s disabled son, suffered his tragic accident at the age of eight — until that’s suddenly changed halfway through the book to age six. Isabelle’s late mother is introduced as a woman who faked a host of chronic illnesses in order to get attention from her daughter — only that’s later reversed, without explanation, at which point her mother has always actually had those illnesses. Alone, those aren’t deal-breaking errors. But they add to the overall impression that Seeders is a scrambled, frustratingly inconsistent read full of dangling threads and dead ends.
Towards the end of the book, Colucci throws in a mention of ants, and how it’s possible for them to be turn against humans the same way plants have. It’s a clever nod to The Colony, and one that places her two novels into a pigeonhole: alarmist fables meant to warn us of the dangers of ecological abuse and exploitation, not to mention how human supremacy may be our ultimate downfall. It’s a sound message, and even a profound one. But not even those good intentions save Seeders from being a high concept, disappointingly executed.
Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club