Exclusive Interview: “Seeds For The Swarm” Author Sim Kern
Like a lot of people (but not nearly enough) writer Sim Kern is worried about our planet’s climate. And like a lot of people who are teachers (but not nearly enough of other people) Kern is trying to effect meaningful change by educating their students about this issue. Though they’re doing it not just through lectures and dioramas, but with Seeds For The Swam (paperback, Kindle), a young adult cli-fi sci-fi novel they hope students of all ages will find enlightening and entertaining.
I find it best to begin with a summary of the plot. So, what is Seeds For The Swarm about, and when and where does it take place?
Seeds For The Swarm takes place in 2075, in a world where we really haven’t taken any meaningful action to address climate change or dwindling watersheds. As a result, all the land west of the Mississippi has desertified and become known as “The Dust,” and political lines in the U.S. have largely been redrawn around water rights.
18-year-old Rylla McCracken has always dreamed of escaping The Dust. It seems almost too good to be true when she’s offered a spot at an elite, secretive university founded by billionaires, where youth are tasked with saving the world. And as she learns more about her new school, she discovers: it is too good to be true. And maybe billionaires don’t have the best plans when it comes to dealing with the climate crisis. Hijinks and nefarious plots and nanobot swarms ensue as Rylla and her new-found family of friends take on the ruling class.
Where did you get the idea for Seeds For The Swarm, and how, if at all, did that idea evolve as you wrote it?
I actually got the idea way back in 2013 during an intense bout of climate anxiety and despair. I was teaching seniors in high school at the time, and there were no books targeted for their age group that meaningfully addressed climate change. (And there are still far too few, IMO!) I wanted to write a book that wouldn’t lie to kids about the enormity of the dangers we face, or its causes, but that would also be the kind of fun, epic, goofy sci-fi that I found irresistible when I was their age. And I wanted it to be full of meaningful friendships and romance, to reassure kids that, even mid-mass-extinction, there is fun and joy and beauty to be found on this incredible imperiled planet, and life is still very much worth living.
Seeds For The Swarm sounds like a sci-fi novel, but with a little cli-fi seasoning. Is that how you’d describe it?
It’s definitely sci-fi. In fact, there are some deux-ex-machina-esque technologies which aren’t so much realistic solutions to climate change, as they are necessary plot devices to explore what would happen if a group of college kids gained god-like powers which gave them a fighting chance against the global military-industrial-police state, which is currently preventing any meaningful change of the status quo. I’ve heard the story pitched as both dystopian and solarpunk, which is wild to me. I definitely think this first book lands solidly in “dystopia” realm, though what does that even mean when we’re already living in dystopia? The goal of the series, however, is to wind up in a place much closer to utopia. This book sets the stage for these teens to transform the world.
Seeds For The Swarm has also been called a young adult novel. But is it the kind of YA story that’s written for young adults or the kind that’s YA because it doesn’t have anything inappropriate for young adults and thus can also enjoyed by old adults who are, say, fifty-five but immature…I mean, young at heart?
I originally pitched the book as “New Adult,” which isn’t a widely accepted publishing label. But it’s accurate, because I wrote this for the age group it’s about: 18-22 year olds, high school seniors or college kids. I conceived of the plot while teaching seniors. There are some plotlines which are drawn heavily from my own experiences in college. Rylla makes the kinds of mistakes (lots of them!) that I made in college. Because there’s sex and cursing and drug use (all of which heavily featured in my college experience), some people think it’s too adult for “YA.” But I think these features are realistic, at least to my life, and will give it crossover appeal for older readers and those who are the same age as the characters.
Seeds For The Swarm is your second novel after Depart, Depart!, though you also have a collection of short stories called Real Sugar Is Hard To Find. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Seeds but not on anything else you’ve written?
Seeds is my only YA novel, so it’s heavily influenced by all the 2000’s YA dystopias that my students were reading and loving while I was a teacher, like Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series or The Hunger Games. However, since I wrote it in 2017, I think Seeds wound up having a very different flavor from those books. Writing dystopia in the post-Trump era changed everything. Gone are competent, centrally controlled, Soviet-esque authoritarian governments. Instead, the ruling class needed to be portrayed as even more chaotic and ridiculous than they are now, even as they do enormous damage to the planet and society.
This novel was also heavily influenced by the sci-fi I grew up on. You’ll see the “secret elite college” trope from Ender’s Game. I’ve always thought of Rylla as a teen girl Arthur Dent from Hitchhiker’s Guide: an overwhelmed and remarkably unremarkable every-girl who keeps winding up in the wrong place at the right time. And of course, the novel is chock full of tropes from my first and greatest sci-fi love, Star Trek: The Next Generation. Most of my other fiction, being for adults, has been comparatively more realistic and gritty. But in this book, I was more willing to bend the laws of physics with some hand-waving technobabble in order to serve a fantastic plot or drive home a philosophical point.
Now, you’ve alluded to the fact that your hope for Seeds For The Swarm is that it’s the beginning of a series. Given that, are any of the stories in Real Sugar Is Hard To Find connected to this series?
There actually are some Easter eggs, where I mention certain pieces of technology from Seeds in stories in Real Sugar. Mostly because I’m lazy and once I think up a really useful or narratively interesting bit of future tech, I want to use it again without coming up with a new name.
Hollywood loves turning YA sci-fi stories into movies, TV shows, and games, especially when they’re dystopian. Do you think Seeds For The Swarm could work as a movie, show, or game?
I’d love to see it as a movie or series. Again, I wrote it with those blockbuster dystopias like The Hunger Games in mind, so there’s plenty of cinematic visuals. The climactic scenes of the book — set inside a city being devoured by nanobots — would be so cool to see on screen.
And if someone wanted to adapt Seeds For The Swarm into a movie or TV show, who would you want them to cast as Rylla and the other main characters?
Oh geez, I’m getting to be the age where I am badly out-of-touch with teen actors and celebrities. So let me just cast the older characters. I think Megan Mullally [Will And Grace] could do a hilarious performance as Rylla’s mom, Amaryllis McCracken. Patricia Arquette [Boyhood] has the sweet-yet-harboring-terrifying-secrets demeanor to play Professor Watt. [Orange Is The New Black‘s] Lori Tan Chinn’s understated humor would be great for Sister Fungi. And Theo James [The White Lotus] would make a perfectly creepy and sickeningly handsome Logan Penndragon.
Finally, if someone enjoys Seeds For The Swarm, what somewhat similar sci-fi novel of someone else’s would you suggest they check out?
Nicky Drayden’s Escaping Exodus duology [Escaping Exodus and Symbiosis]. Both our books are in that crossover-adult but could be YA age range. We’re both writing cli-fi sci-fi, but with technicolor, outrageous future tech and worldbuilding, rather than some gritty post-apocalyptic dystopia. Neither shy away from the need to dismantle and upend just about every facet of society in order to address climate change. Plus, they’re just delightful books.