APPLESEED, by John Clute
Orbit, 2002, 6.99, 337pp
ISBN 1-84149-100-4

This reviewed first appeared in The Alien Online

Ahem. Well, that was certainly something.

For those discovering Appleseed for the first time in this review, some basics:

Nathanael Freer is a trader in command of the ship Tile Dance piloted by the AI KathKirtt some 2,000 years in the future. Earth has long been in ruins, destroyed by 'plaque', a devastating data plague that destroys all computers and minds - except, strangely, human minds. The galaxy is currently bursting with all kinds of life but the plaque is laying a heavy fin de seicle air over everything. Not that Freer minds as he and his ship have secured a meaty contract to deliver a Made Mind to the mysterious planet of Eolhxir, a contract which, as in all good storylines, there may be more to than meets the eye.

Appleseed is a true work of science fiction - soaring at the edge of imaginability, its richness and grandeur defy the reader to make sense of it, demanding that this relatively short book take a disproportionately long time to read - and, like Joyce's Ulysses, another notoriously 'difficult' read, the action in Appleseed takes place over little more than a day (assuming you can bring yourself to ignore time spent frozen in suspended animation).

The core story becomes increasingly recognisable as a reworking of the Grail quest -amongst other sources Eliot's The Wasteland is playfully but repeatedly quoted, 'Ynis Gutrin', the name of Tile Dance's multi-faceted 'control' room is the Welsh name for Glastonbury - the 'Isle of Glass' - and the original 'Johnny Appleseed' was a man named John Chapman who roamed the American wilderness in the 19th century devotedly planting apple trees.
There are undoubtedly many more references I've failed to pick up on, but these examples, I hope, give you a taste of this postmodern pick'n'mix technique.

Appleseed is full of such obscure references, none of which (as far as my limited studies have been able to tell) are simply throwaway. This is, at times, a very difficult book to read properly, i.e. to try and engage with on all the levels of meaning that Clute has imbued it with. Not only are the references obscure but the language is too, although this should obviously present fewer problems for the experienced sf reader. For example, picking a page almost at random:

'The mask through which themself spoke would be double again; its two visages manifesting the two aspects traditionally unveiled by fully enabled ship Minds when serving homo sapiens, wanderers bound to home: the flyte mask, which expressed passionate love for the intersection of Mind and world, on behalf of the client; and the jack mask, which expressed the direction home of the inner Mind'
(page 76)

Note how rich this language is and how precisely chosen - precisely chosen to the point of being anal at times. Clute makes no apologies for using obscure but correct terms over commonplace and 'fuzzier' ones, never stopping to allow the slowcoaches to catch up.

However, even Clute has to rein his imagination in at times and is forced to declare that Freer has chosen our present era as a 'period of empathy' in his personal use of references and cultural landmarks. As I said earlier, Appleseed is at the edge of imaginability but must necessarily be bound somehow to things known and explicable to us if it is not to veer beyond imaginability. I would suggest that the ultimate sf story possible might be a simple equation (a Theory of Everything, perhaps), but it would be a story legible or recognisable as such in its implications to precious few.

Je ne sais quoi.

Thus we see the tension between the two essential components of sf as proposed by Darko Suvin. Suvin's definition, as you may know, is

'..a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author's empirical environment'
(Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, p.7-8)

which seems to me to describe this equally defiant and rewarding novel to a tee. The narrative in Appleseed is stretched taut by a tension that arises from, on the one hand, representing a plausibly alien far future with, on the other hand, the language of today. Perhaps, then, it's only logical that a tactic increasingly being used to overcome this tension by some of the more artful writers in the genre is that of using obscure or archaic words to estrange the reader from actions or objects, rather than inventing 'futuristic' terms (although we may see Jack Williamson as their forerunner in this respect).

This would seem a somewhat paradoxical development in sf: self-consciously using old words to describe the new; but given that both are unfamiliar the process of estrangement works just as well - and arguably far better than with made-up jargon in that the language is recognisably and provably human, alien simply because of its distance in time (whether forwards or backwards would appear to be irrelevant, the effect is the same). Thus legitimacy of a sort is granted through continuity of language.

And, purely as a side effect, this alienation enables and encourages some simple dictionary research on the behalf of the more diligent reader to understand what is being said. Never a bad thing.

In fact it's possible to see Appleseed as a comment upon Suvin's definition, since the central, repeating element of the plot is a reuniting of separated elements who have remained in ignorance of each other until the Johnny Appleseed character (the author?) reunites them, bringing about their rebirth. These renewal events resonate on an increasing scale throughout Appleseed culminating in the book's final line (which I won't quote here).

Appleseed is a very fine example of what sf can do, and of what the sf genre is capable of when it's not bogged down in evil galactic empires and wookie books; a difficult though rewarding novel that, probably, ultimately, won't make John Clute a lot of money or a target for celebrity stalkers. What it may do is significantly strengthen the claim of sf claim to be taken a lot more seriously.

Then again, it is a book about aliens and spaceships - ha ha!

Buy it from Amazon.co.uk