Appleseed, Matt Bell (Custom House 978-0-06-304014-4, $27.99, 480pp, hc) July 2021.
It may be that the overriding theme in the recent spate of Anthropocene apocalypse novels isn’t disaster, but complicity. It’s what sets them apart from earlier secular eschatologies dating back at least as far as Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, in which plagues or floods or asteroids just sort of show up and do their thing, with humanity guilty of nothing more than overweening pride. But, as the scholar W. Warren Wagar noted many years ago, that all began to change after the First World War: by his count, two-thirds of fictional global catastrophes prior to 1914 were natural, but afterward two-thirds were the result of human action, mostly involving cataclysmic wars or superweapons. Without totting up any numbers, I’d be willing to lay odds that, at some point in the last thirty years or so, the focus has shifted again, the post-nuclear wastelands of novels like Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz giving way to ecological wastelands like those in two novels out this month, Claire North’s Notes from the Burning Age and Matt Bell’s Appleseed. Neither portrays a single spasm of global suicide like earlier nuclear-warning novels, and neither lays the blame on a handful of unhinged generals or Dr. Strangeloves. Instead, both make clear that we’ve all long been complicit in disaster, and Bell’s novel even suggests that complicity dates back at least a couple of hundred years.
Appleseed (not to be confused with John Clute’s intellectual space opera from 2001) is an enormously ambitious novel. In the tradition of bestsellers by Michael Cunningham and David Mitchell, Bell traces, through alternating chapters, three timelines separated by generations, eventually weaving together their connections. At the end of the 18th century, a half-faun/ half-human named Chapman sets out with his human older brother Nathaniel to plant whole orchards of trees in the Ohio territory, with the idea of returning later to collect fees from settlers benefiting from the grown trees. Near the end of the 21st century, in a climate-devastated America dominated by the giant corporation Earthtrust, a former programmer and microbiologist named John joins other “rewilders” in destroying much of the human-made infrastructure in the west, to give nature a chance to reassert itself. And centuries in the future, a lone cyborg called C-432 (soon to be called C-433, since he’s pe riodically regenerated) wanders across a massive glacier that has overtaken North America, looking for remnants of human civilization buried beneath it. Since we learn that C-432 has both hooves and horns, the parallel with the faun Chapman is obvious, but it takes a while before we learn how that far-future icescape derives from decisions made in the middle sections.
Bell not only radically shifts tone between these three timelines, he confidently hops genres as well. The timeline involving the half-human faun Chapman evokes not only the frontier legend of Johnny Appleseed (whose real name was John Chapman), but aspects of fairytale as well (Chapman is seeking the one apple that might make him fully human, and is occasionally pursued by shape-shifting witches). These chapters, covering decades as the frontier shifts from Ohio to Indiana and then further west, are the most accomplished in the novel, and the ones that Bell seems most comfortable with. In terms of the novel’s larger themes, the central issue becomes a clash of worldviews between Chapman, who finds comfort in the wilderness, and his brother Nathaniel, an apostle of Manifest Destiny who believes the wilderness is there to be “brought to heel by industrious men.” “The wilderness must be pushed back,” he argues. “God had made the world, God had given the world to men, and men would show God their thanks by perfecting His creation.”
That attitude, without the false piety, is also at the center of the near-future narrative involving John. The entire US west of the Mississippi, devastated by floods, quakes, fires, and drought and nearly depopulated, has been declared a Western Sacrifice Zone. In the east, most citizens have indentured themselves to Voluntary Agricultural Communities (with voluntary meaning pretty much what it always means in a dystopia). These are run by the massive Earthtrust corporation, which is the brainchild of John’s childhood friend and former lover Eury Mirov, a brilliant but eccentric scientist who talks like Victor Frankenstein and dresses like Cruella de Ville. Having essentially cornered the market on natural resources and become de facto CEO of the whole country, her latest grand scheme is to cool down the Earth by flooding the stratosphere with sun-blocking sulfuric aerosols, then to repopulate it with creatures – and people – who are essentially 3D-printed from the enormous vats of biomass which Earthtrust has been accumulating for years. As John and his allies set out to thwart her schemes, these chapters segue from wasteland survival to corporate dystopia to high-stakes thriller set in a very nifty high-rise villain’s lair.
It’s not really a spoiler, since most readers will see it coming, that C-432/C-433’s glacier-covered far future has something to do with that scheme to cool the Earth. The idea of the lonely robot seeking the traces of lost humanity is familiar in SF, literally from Aldiss to Zelazny, and while C-432/C-433 isn’t entirely a robot (he’s partly one of those printed critters), by the time he gets to the ruins of Las Vegas he might as well be WALL-E, wondering what those silly humans were up to so long ago. With his faun-like hooves and horns he obviously recalls Chapman, but he’s also a product of Eury’s biotech schemes. As if to burden the poor thing with every last symbol in the book, he also discovers a living tree bole, which then takes root in his own body, threatening to crowd out the remaining human bits. Despite this, he and Chapman are easily the most touching figures in the novel, not quite one thing and not quite another, not fully at home in either the human-made world or the wilderness. They provide appropriate bookends for a novel that sometimes threatens the reader with whiplash as it swerves from pastoral frontier fantasy to high-tech chase thriller, but that is undeniably a thoughtful, energetic, and at times almost visionary achievement.
Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.
This review and more like it in the July 2021 issue of Locus.
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