The SFF Librarian Reviews: Appleseed by Matt Bell

SFF Librarian Reviews

Jeremy Brett

As a voracious reader, and as someone for whom science fiction and fantasy are part of my daily job as a science fiction librarian, I come across a lot of wonderful work in these genres. I love bringing to the attention of interested readers books and authors that bring me joy, some of which may have slipped below people’s radar, and I do so most months in The SFF Librarian Reviews series for ARB.

Let’s explore strange new worlds together!

Under Review:

Appleseed. By Matt Bell. Custom House, July 2021.

What a very interesting book Appleseed (Custom House, 2021, $27.99) by Matt Bell is. I can’t quite decide whether it really works or not, but it’s definitely thought-provoking, and stayed in my mind long after I finished it. That’s certainly the mark of a book that has a fair degree of punch to it. It’s a story of the environmental cost of heedless human “progress” and our seemingly innate drive to expand, certainly an issue of no little concern in this era where we are all living out the consequences of previous generations’ relentless drive to dominate and “civilize” the natural world. And that makes the book important.

Add Appleseed to the growing list of SF books that seeks to wrestle with the existential threat of climate change. In this it isn’t particularly singular, though it’s a welcome addition to that growing list of stories that we as human beings can use as imaginative sources for coping emotionally and physically with climate change. Nor is the book unusual in its fundamental structure. The book is set in three different times – late 18th/early 19th century frontier Ohio, a postapocalyptic America decimated by environmental damage and sociopolitical unrest, and a North America a millennium from now, where the surface of the planet has been covered in ice. Where the book really sets itself apart from standard climate change fiction is its identity as a quasi-fantasy living inside a science fiction shell (much as a seed lives inside an apple): its connection to myth and legend, though, is not merely a gimmick, but it reinforces a connection between our current situation in the natural world and the fertility of creation, with which so many myths and legends concern themselves. Reading Appleseed this way, we can see the book as itself a story of mythical recurrence, where new beings and new ways of living are reborn out of chaos and disaster.

On the American frontier, two brothers, Chapman and Nathaniel, busy themselves planting apple trees, the genesis of an eventual transformation from wild land to tamed human-centered and settled agricultural space. Chapman is, of course, based on the legendary figure John Chapman (“Johnny Appleseed”), a Swedenborgian preacher and naturalist (and, let’s face it, a walking allegory) who planted nurseries of apple trees across Pennsylvania and Ohio. Bell casts Chapman as not a human being, but a faun from Greek mythology, born to humans. Chapman is a contradiction, even to himself. He is a wild creature of the woods, who brings life and fecundity to the wilderness; yet, even as he does so, he knows he is enabling the retreat of wild places before the onrush of human civilization. His dilemma is that of all of us who love the natural world and want to preserve it, but who also would rather not surrender technological and industrial “progress”. Chapman is prone, as are the seeds he plants and much of the natural life around him, to transformation. He moves between human and faun form, and the world in which he lives relentlessly changes as well, though only in one direction.

Chapman follows the sweep of his brother’s hand, sees only the world his brother told him would come. For the first time in his life, there’s a human voice always within earshot, every hour, dawn to dusk. Forests made farmlands, trees made houses and churches and general stores. Rocks dug from the earth and stacked into walls, branches cut into rails separating homesteads into discernable plots and parcels. Cattle and pigs and goats roam open pastures once dense swamplands, every river and stream and creek diverted to irrigate the many new farms. A windmill turns one millstone, another is powered by a waterwheel beside a creek bed; everywhere human ingenuity puts the land to work, everywhere human will makes the land productive. Corn in perfectly painterly rows, roaming sheep attended by herding dogs, an apple or pear orchard beside many of the new homesteads. How many of these apple trees did Nathaniel and Chapman plant?

The cost of this change is further change. In the novel’s second setting, John (a new iteration of Chapman) is a member of a near-future resistance group striking back against the massive corporation Earthtrust, of which he was once an employee. The American government forced the evacuation of the entire climate-change-scarred western US and sold it for pennies to Earthtrust, which now vastly overpowers the government. Now John’s group of rewilders sabotages and destroys the manmade footprint across the West; this restorative campaign meets its greatest challenge in Earthtrust itself, which, in the manner of shadowy corporations everywhere, has its own plans afoot, with its chairperson Eury Mirov determined to exercise her own will across the entire planet in an attempt to save it. Transformation runs through this section of the novel as well: the land has been remade and will be remade again by the force of human will. It is always a gamble, but humans seem destined to make these kinds of dramatic gestures, even with the best motives at heart. We are active creatures, and we make change in doing so.

Separated by a thousand miles, Eury and John think more or less the same thoughts. They think: Not to act is still acting. You cannot win by refusing to play. Even if you play, you will likely lose. So you don’t play along, but you do act. You act, not knowing if what you choose is right. The past is unchangeable, the future unknown. You act, making the best choice you can in the present, the moment that is passing, that is now past.

“Always,” Cal says, “there will be life, no matter what we choose. All we’re discussing is whose lives get saved, all we’re deciding is how good those lives will be. Human or nonhuman, animal or plant, it doesn’t matter to Eury Mirov. She guarantees only the steady diminishment of the shared world, only the suffering of the many until the planet is ready to be given to the few. I say abundance or nothingness, abundance or nothingness for all.”

The novel’s third section depicts a far future very much at the end of a cycle of change. North America and the detritus of civilization are locked in stasis, buried under thick sheets of ice. Living a life of absolute solitude is C-433 (Chapman again), a cloned iteration of a line of technicians that have spent countless years digging through the ice, scavenging for any remains of the natural world to recycle it for power generation. Yet in this cold, white endlessness, there stir the beginnings of yet another Ovidian metamorphosis: C-433 himself becomes the vehicle and personification of a new change, a new stage in the Earth’s evolution. There’s an optimism here at the world’s end, that it might prove the world’s new beginning. The world recurs and recurs, just as many systems of cultural myths have told us, and just as the seed of an apple gives birth to an apple and as that apple—when it dies—contains the seeds of its own rebirth. In that natural cycle there is hope; what Appleseed does well is to find hope among the ruins.

Jeremy Brett (he, him, his) is an Associate Professor at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, Texas A&M university, where he serves as Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection, one of the largest of its kind in the world. 

Transparency Statement

This series was commissioned by editor Sean Guynes in October 2020. No review copies were arranged by ARB.

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