Gary K. Wolfe reviews Appleseed by Matt Bell – Locus Online


Apple seeds, Matt Bell (Custom House 978-0-06-304014-4, $ 27.99, 480pp, hc) July 2021.

The dominant theme of the recent wave of Anthropocene apocalypse novels may not be disaster, but complicity. This is what distinguishes them from earlier secular eschatologies dating back at least as far as that of Mary Shelley. The last man, in which plagues, floods or asteroids arise and do their thing, humanity being guilty only of excessive pride. But, as scholar W. Warren Wagar noted many years ago, everything started to change after World War I: according to his tally, two-thirds of fictitious global disasters before 1914 were natural, but after, two-thirds were the result of human action, mainly involving cataclysmic wars or superweapons. Without racking up any numbers, I’d be willing to bet that at some point in the past thirty years attention has shifted again, the post-nuclear wasteland of novels like Walter M. Miller, Jr. A hymn for Leibowitz giving way to ecological wastelands like those of two novels released this month, Claire North Notes of the Burning Age and that of Matt Bell Apple seeds. Neither describes a single global suicide spasm like previous nuclear warning novels, and neither blames a handful of unhinged generals or Dr. Strangeloves. Instead, the two make it clear that we have all long complicit in disaster, and Bell’s novel even suggests that the complicity dates back at least two hundred years.

Apple seeds (not to be confused with John Clute’s 2001 intellectual space opera) is an extremely ambitious novel. In the tradition of the bestsellers by Michael Cunningham and David Mitchell, Bell traces, through alternating chapters, three chronologies separated by generations, ultimately weaving their connections. In the late 18th century, a half-faun / half-human named Chapman set out with his older human brother Nathaniel to plant entire orchards of trees in the Ohio Territory, with the idea of ​​returning later to collect. royalties from settlers benefiting from cultivated trees. Towards the end of the 21stst century, in an America devastated by climate and dominated by the giant company Earthtrust, a former programmer and microbiologist named John joins other “savages” to destroy much of the man-made infrastructure in the west, to give nature a chance to reassert itself. And centuries later, a lone cyborg called C-432 (soon referred to as C-433, as it is periodically regenerated) wanders through a massive glacier that has passed North America, in search of remnants of human civilization. buried under him. Since we learn that C-432 has both hooves and horns, the parallel with the Chapman Fauna is obvious, but it takes some time to learn how this distant glacial landscape stems from decisions made in the central sections.

Bell not only dramatically changes his tone between these three timelines, he also confidently jumps between genres. The timeline involving the half-human Faun Chapman evokes not only the frontier legend of Johnny Appleseed (whose real name was John Chapman), but also aspects of the fairy tale (Chapman is looking for the only apple that could make him fully human. , and is sometimes chased by shapeshifting witches). These chapters, spanning decades as the border crosses from Ohio to Indiana and then further west, are the novel’s most accomplished and those with which Bell seems most comfortable. In terms of the novel’s broader themes, the central issue becomes a conflict of worldviews between Chapman, who finds solace in the wilderness, and his brother Nathaniel, a Manifest Destiny apostle who believes the wilderness is here to be. brought to heel by industrious Men. “” Wild nature must be repelled, “he argues.” God had made the world, God had given the world to men, and men would thank God by perfecting his creation. “

This attitude, without false piety, is also central to the near-future narrative involving John. The whole of the United States west of the Mississippi, devastated by floods, earthquakes, fires and drought and nearly depopulated, has been declared a Western Sacrifice Zone. In the east, most citizens engaged in voluntary farming communities (volunteer means pretty much what it always means in a dystopia). These are run by the huge Earthtrust company, which is the brainchild of John’s childhood friend and former lover, Eury Mirov, a brilliant but eccentric scientist who speaks like Victor Frankenstein and dresses like Cruella. of City. Having essentially cornered the natural resources market and become de facto CEOs of the entire country, his latest big project is to cool the Earth by flooding the stratosphere with sulfuric aerosols blocking the sun, then repopulating it with creatures – and people. – which are essentially 3D printed from the huge biomass tanks that Earthtrust has been accumulating for years. As John and his allies attempt to thwart his plans, these chapters shift from wilderness survival to corporate dystopia to a high-stakes thriller set in the lair of a very crafty high-rise villain.

It’s not much of a spoiler, as most readers will see it coming, that the distant glacier-covered future of C-432 / C-433 has something to do with this plan to cool Earth. The idea of ​​the lone robot seeking the traces of lost humanity is familiar to SF, literally from Aldiss to Zelazny, and although C-432 / C-433 is not entirely a robot (it is in part one of those imprinted creatures), by the time he gets to the ruins of Las Vegas, he might as well be WALL-E, wondering what those silly humans were doing so long ago. With his hooves and animal-like horns, he’s obviously reminiscent of Chapman, but he’s also a product of Eury’s biotech schemes. As if to load the poor with all the symbols in the book, he also discovers a bole of a living tree, which then takes root in his own body, threatening to evict the human remains. Despite this, he and Chapman are easily the most touching characters in the novel, not quite one thing and not quite another, not quite comfortable in the man-made world or in nature. Savage. They provide appropriate bookends for a novel that sometimes threatens the reader with a whiplash as they transition from a pastoral frontier fantasy to a high-tech chase thriller, but it’s undeniably a thoughtful achievement. energetic and at times almost visionary.

Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Surveys (BSFA 2006 Prize; Hugo nominee), Bearings (nominated by Hugo 2011), and Observations (2011) and his Evaporation of genres: essays on fantastic literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Previous books include The known and the unknown: the iconography of science fiction (Eaton Prize, 1981), Harlan Ellison: On the Edge of Eternity (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic 1950s Novels in 2012, with a similar set for the coming 1960s. He 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 series of 24 lectures How great science fiction works appeared in The Great Courses in 2016. He received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for over 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.

This review and more in the July 2021 issue of Place.

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