In the vein of Neal Stephenson and Jeff VanderMeer, an epic speculative novel from Young Lions Fiction Award–finalist Matt Bell, a breakout book that explores climate change, manifest destiny, humanity's unchecked exploitation of natural resources, and the small but powerful magic contained within every single apple.
In eighteenth-century Ohio, two brothers travel into the wooded frontier, planting apple orchards from which they plan to profit in the years to come. As they remake the wilderness in their own image, planning for a future of settlement and civilization, the long-held bonds and secrets between the two will be tested, fractured and broken—and possibly healed.
Fifty years from now, in the second half of the twenty-first century, climate change has ravaged the Earth. Having invested early in genetic engineering and food science, one company now owns all the world’s resources. But a growing resistance is working to redistribute both land and power—and in a pivotal moment for the future of humanity, one of the company’s original founders will return to headquarters, intending to destroy what he helped build.
A thousand years in the future, North America is covered by a massive sheet of ice. One lonely sentient being inhabits a tech station on top of the glacier—and in a daring and seemingly impossible quest, sets out to follow a homing beacon across the continent in the hopes of discovering the last remnant of civilization.
Hugely ambitious in scope and theme, Appleseed is the breakout novel from a writer “as self-assured as he is audacious” (NPR) who “may well have invented the pulse-pounding novel of ideas” (Jess Walter). Part speculative epic, part tech thriller, part reinvented fairy tale, Appleseed is an unforgettable meditation on climate change; corporate, civic, and familial responsibility; manifest destiny; and the myths and legends that sustain us all.
Matt Bell’s next novel, Appleseed, was published by Custom House in July 2021. His craft book Refuse to Be Done, a guide to novel writing, rewriting, & revision, will follow in early 2022 from Soho Press. He is also the author of the novels Scrapper and In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, as well as the short story collection A Tree or a Person or a Wall, a non-fiction book about the classic video game Baldur's Gate II, and several other titles. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Esquire, Orion, Tin House, Conjunctions, Fairy Tale Review, American Short Fiction, and many other publications. A native of Michigan, he teaches creative writing at Arizona State University.
The author smiles to himself, his finger hovering over the "save" button like a bumblebee on the verge of pollinating a flower. That's either the right analogy or it isn't, he thinks to himself in a meaningless formulation like the ones his characters keep expressing in the pages of his latest masterwork ("he will either get there or he won't," "it will either work or it won't," and other inanities rippling through the chapters like a wind brushing the tops of cornstalks in lush summer fields). Perhaps he choose the right metaphor, "Appleseed," for his book, since to write a novel is to plant a seed and nurture it, through the rainfall of redrafts and the sunlight of editors' feedback, until it can spread its roots into the earth of critical notice and reach with its barky arms into the sunlight of commercial success. He frowns to himself, though, as he ponders whether he's written a single novel or spliced the DNA of three separate pieces into a single work: a pleasant but thinly researched fantasy novel about a half-human, half-faun gamboling through the Ohio Territory in the late 19th century, alluding to myths which have nothing to do with the theme or structure of the book and thinking in words like "genocide' which won't be coined until 150 years after the story takes place; a boring dystopian novel set in the near future where climate change has ravaged the planet, multinational corporations have supplanted government, and people are too busy speaking in plot points to develop much personality; and a ghastly sci-fi novel about a semi-organic cyborg riding a glass bubble through a frozen wasteland. Of course, the author believes all these works synchronize perfectly and is impervious, at least at this point in the creative process, to criticism. It is possible, perhaps even appropriate, to pivot from the author's perspective to that of a knowing observer since that keeps happening in the damn book because the action and dialogue aren't strong enough to convey the Byzantine story so the narrative voice switches to omniscience and dumps pages' worth of backstory into the middle of bombings, gun battles and sexual encounters. The author strokes his chin. Are there too many philosophical questions in the book? Is there some upper limit on philosophical questions? Because his wrist is getting a little sore from hanging in midair, he hits "save." "Appleseed" is now a finished work. The seed has been flung.
He's a reader. The blankness of the "Goodreads" review screen, white and pristine as drifts of snow after a blizzard, beckons his footprint, his handprint, his opinion. Reading "Appleseed" was a chore. An endurance test. A form of punishment for participating in the consumer society that the author so disdains. His first and greatest impulse is to be cruel, to torment the author with a review that, while vicious, will only be fractionally as self-indulgent as the 450-some odd pages of "Appleseed." Like the title kernel, this book will be stuck between his mental teeth for too long. Still, he hesitates. There are some nice messages in "Appleseed," if you're able to endure the predictable plot and florid writing that never varies in tone or pitch even as the Furies chase the faun and the rebels blow up the compound. Think globally, act locally. That a bumper sticker sentiment can be stretched to roughly 500,000 words seems both monstrous and miraculous, like a mighty oak growing from a withered acorn or a malignant tumor growing from a single corrupted cell. The author also despises genetically modified organisms, although he seems more exercised over the hubris required to engineer such products than any potential effect of GMOs themselves. Still, it's a discussion worth having, and maybe the scathing review he feels percolating beneath his skin will discourage one of his small handful of followers from reading a book they might find edifying. One star, or two? He clicks, then clicks again. And then he hits "Set to today." All possible meanings of that phrase occur to him at once but he doesn't think they're interesting enough to explain.
The flat black rectangle blinks into life as another modern novel is downloaded into its circuitry. It knows it is nothing but a vessel, as if the Amazon after which its source was named is but a means of transporting consumer items. The soft fleshy hands of its owner warm it for a few minutes before - THWACK! - flinging it against the nearest hard surface, only to retrieve it again and pick up the story where he left off. This book, K3 realizes with what would be a sigh if it had lungs, is going to take a long time to read.
I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA NETGALLEY. THANK YOU.
My Review: When I read Author Bell's 2013 novel, In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, it was a startling experience. Sadly, it came at almost exactly the same time as my epic emotional collapse so I've only recently reviewed it. Let me tell you now, in brief, why I think it was an extraordinarily good read: Myth-making never ceases, no culture is without its myths; that book was an exploration of The Couple Myth at length; and there is no better way to make myths than to put the most complete possible vocabulary of the day around them. Appleseed is a fuller exploration of this technique applied to Climate Change.
What myths are we exploring this time...is there a myth-set tale that this three-handed sonata plays on? Yes...the title's the first giveaway, there's a definite connection to the Johnny Appleseed myth made from John Chapman's actual life spent planting the American West with economically useful apple trees in advance of the settlers coming to Ohio (yes, that *was* the West then, surprising isn't it two hundred years on).
Nathaniel, older human brother of Chapman the faun, does the work of finding the way, avoiding the humans who would hurt or kill his behornèd brother of the golden eyes and hoofed legs. Chapman knows the land, even the land he's never been on. It is his nature. And we all know what happens to Nature, don't we. The greater glory of a christian god is costly, always and in all ways; do you wish to continue past the point of no return?
John lives in our near-term future, a recycler busily trying to undo the Works of Man that Chapman and Jonathan, in their innocence, believe to be Progress instead of progressive rot. He travels alone when we meet him...he is looking for his (female, of course) buddy/pal/squeeze because, well, humans need each other. His dystopia, an Amercan West (the one we know as such today) is tinder-dry, eczema-dotted with our dams and roads and ghosts of towns that he wants to render inoperable and irreparable. Needless to say, the corporate entity that actually, formally, owns the whole expanse doesn't like some rando ruining perfectly usable infrastructure. Especially now that all those pesky people aren't cluttering it up. The slow reveal of why John and his ex are doing what they're doing to re-wild the West is a piece of misdirection I can't quite bring myself to spoil...but suffice it to say the era of mythmaking about Man's Plenipotentiary Powers à la Sisyphus is not over yet.
And then there's C-433. This being lives many, many lives in our distant, glacier-scraped future. This way of live is enabled by spelunking the crevasses that always open in craters and reclaiming for reuse whatever materials from the time before are reclaimable. We're not-quite told that C-433 is a clone host for the consciousness of an earlier human...or maybe faun? note initial...and this iteration/incarnation is a risk-averse, therefore old, entity facing the reality that a scavenger doesn't produce anything so will, inevitably, pass from the scene. As a way of life it is severely limited.
But, in each of these story lines, there is a leitmotif, a through-line, that Author Bell resurfaces for your easter-egging pleasure. The Loom might be my favorite fictional technology ever; the uses of the scavenged materials, the most poignant. The apple...the choice that C-433 has to make...there are absolutely delightful connections made among these grace notes. The complexity of the read is one of its pleasures and I encourage you, like you would with any rich and calorific consumable, to go slowly...make it last. Think about it as you go to sleep, dream its scenes as you're processing its sweet, sonorous prose.
So why, if I'm practically crooning my pleasure in hopes of luring you to read it, am I rating it less than five full stars?
Because, while I as a lifelong inhabitant of this country appreciate its US-centered myth-making and its implicit acceptance that our (in)actions are largely responsible for this disaster, it feels wrong to simply dismiss with a cursory glance the planet-wide scale of it. Because there's a weird, unnecessary straight-man sex scene that jolts progress to a halt while we indulge y'all's ugly needs. Because the ending...while interesting...wasn't anything like the rest of the book so felt merged from a different FTP with middling success.
None of those things rise above the level of quibbles because the gestalt carries the day. There is such a beautiful tapestry woven of these lovely words. I've avoided quoting them to you because, well, which ones? Why those? Where's the perfect quote for this idea...this one, that one, no no the other one...and it got headachey trying to figure it out.
What didn't get headachey was this phrase, this simple phrase, that says everything the book and the future need you to know: "No matter what you do, there will never be more time left to act than there is now."
A call to arms, a fable of consequences, a myth of magisterial beauty and magical urgency.
An extremely ambitious novel that isn't just riding a "cli-fi" trend. With multiple timelines and weaving in biblical and mythological stories, Bell builds three entirely separate and entirely full worlds for you to live in so you can watch people destroy them.
Perhaps the smartest thing Bell does is not to set all of this in the future. 2 of the 3 stories are there, one in the nearer-future and one in the much-farther, but one goes back to the kind of story you know well, of settlers in the wilderness of North America when land was still open to whoever could muster the will and the strength to go out and take it. We have seen all kinds of dismal futures but Bell also gets us to take a new look at the past and to reconsider it through the Johnny Appleseed folk tale.
Johnny Appleseed is, in our story, two brothers, Nathaniel and Chapman, who move through the unsettled lands building apple orchards so the land will be easier to settle, with fruit ready to go for the new occupants when they arrive. It starts out as a beautiful story but it's slowly tainted and complicated by this story and the juxtaposition of it against the others. Chapman, our protagonist for this storyline, finds himself questioning everything they are doing and their self-imposed exile, undertaken because Chapman himself is not a man but a faun who must be hidden from people.
In the future, it isn't looking good. There is John, who scavenges through a mostly-deserted west after a massive corporation has basically taken over the country. And there is C-432, who is, well, it's not quite clear but C's world is a vastly different one, overrun by glaciers, where C seems to be the only living thing whose only task is to find any possible biomass and take it back to its mechanized home.
These three stories are sometimes in parallel and sometimes intertwining, all of them centrally concerned with the land. It reminded me very much of Louisa Hall's SPEAK, which is a high compliment. It isn't easy to address similar themes across such disparate stories but both books do it very well.
I won't lie, this took me a long time to read. It's a long book, but moving between the three plots, where often only one of them is in the middle of the action, it requires you to stick with it. I often sat down and read three chapters (one from each timeline) and then set it down to pick it up the next day. It's pretty uncommon for me to read a novel so slowly and actually stick with it but I really wanted to see where Bell was going and I'm glad I did. It was a challenge for me as a reader, I don't always gravitate to this style of prose, but I found it very rewarding and thoughtful and surprising.
Without this being the July book for the Nervous Breakdown Book Club, I likely wouldn’t have picked it up, much less read it. Described on the flap as “part speculative epic, part tech thriller, part reinvented fairy tale,” the latter is the only part that would’ve appealed to me. That part is done so well, it carried me through (along with the prose) because it is carried all the way through and not just a focus of the past. The “reinvented fairy tale” is part mythology—Eurydice/Orpheus, fauns, nymphs, Fate and Furies—and part folklore—the merging of the tale of Johnny Appleseed with the aforementioned myths: all carried forward hundreds and hundreds of years into the future.
The middle time period—a near future—was scarily interesting, as it’s easy to envision some of its events happening very soon: takeover of governments by a corporation; the American West “sacrificed” for the so-called greater good. A later scene of this time period held too much action for me, but in a strange way this section helped me retrospectively understand more of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.
If I didn’t understand some of the speculative/science-fiction aspects at first, it’s because I might have a brain blockage toward that kind of thing. But Bell’s wonderful writing made it easy to immerse myself in his world(s). I’m impressed with his talent for bringing in such disparate elements without sacrificing beautiful prose.
I’m left with one question regarding a young woman in the past and the main character of the middle time-period with the same last name, but some mysteries are good, especially as the author didn’t go where I hoped he wouldn’t.
I listened to it as a audiobook, seems well written and the narrative was good. Though the story didn't captivate me and I feel rather unfocused listening to it. Maybe I wasn't in the right headspace for it, maybe I should pick it up in a book format someday or it's just wasn't the book for me. The blurb did sound very intriguing though.
This book! A new all-time favorite! My review absolutely will not do it justice. Such a SMART book – a seamlessly woven tale in three time periods: Colonial America, a dystopian future that seems all-too-near, and a sci-fi future.
And yet, I don’t read sci-fi, and very little dystopian literature. True statement. I’ve surprised myself in the best possible way, thanks to Matt Bell’s storytelling and gorgeous writing. I contend that, if you care deeply about our planet, lament the actions of man against the environment over the centuries, and enjoy eco-fiction/cli-fi, and historical fiction – and AMAZING characters – you will fall in love with each storyline equally.
If you had told me that would be the case for me, personally, I’d have scoffed. This was a mind-bender of a novel for me in the expert way myth was woven into three engaging stories, and in the way the three complicated stories connected at the end.
This is my favorite kind of novel: one that can be read solely for story, or one that can be mined for metaphor, theme, and fable-myth-legend-story connections. There is so much beneath the surface that my sister and I decided we need to reread to see what else we might unearth. We had the best conversation about this book, which also inspired her son (a chronic gamer with mental health issues) to want to join in on our next book read. He eavesdropped on our speaker-phone conversation and sensed how excited we were about this book, and wanted “in.” I cannot explain how HUGE this is for him!
Without sharing any spoilers, I will say that Bell’s choices – to place apples/trees front and center, to include characters who straddle the human and wild worlds, to use Johnny Appleseed as a historic compass – was nothing short of brilliant in a cli-fi novel. And to drape the entire story over the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice… OMG! Brilliant! (You don’t have to know Greek mythology to enjoy this book, but you will want to learn more about this myth after reading, and more about Johnny Appleseed).
If you belong to a book club that likes to dive deep into books and have really thought-provoking conversations, this is the book for you - even if you think, “my group doesn’t read this kind of fiction.” In fact, I want to come to your book club and talk about it some more! This novel forces us to examine the stories we choose to believe/tell ourselves about ourselves. It begs the question of whether we’re born into the stories that define us, or if we can actually control them. Does myth and legend mirror reality? It sheds light on the ways religious beliefs – and yes, the stories of the Bible – have justified and shaped the human relationship to the natural world. The Biblical references – only visible if you have the knowledge – are powerful, insightful, and a perfect way to tell the story of a world ravaged by man’s ambition. It starts with an apple. And it starts with story.
What an excellent commentary on the environmental quandary we humans have put ourselves in. I cannot recommend this novel enough. A book touching upon want and desire, love of Earth, settler colonialism, and love of story. I’m so excited to hear the author speak this weekend at Tucson Festival of Books!
But before I conclude, a sampling of the delicious writing in this powerful novel:
As first light breaks, he stalks silently away from their campsite, climbing the last ridgeline of this Pennsylvanian mountain pass to watch the night’s rainfall trickle off into morning mist, admiring the fine accidental melody of clean water falling branch to branch …
Nathaniel speaks in the eager language of the settler, proud of stewarding the land, of improving the country: for him the Territory is earth not put to its right uses until its swamps are drained and its forests made passable to man and horse and ox and wagon, until roads climb every hill and bridges cross every river, until the mountains are mined for their deep treasure troves of ore, riches owed to any hardy man strong enough to drag their glitter into the light. … The given world wasn’t perfect, Chapman remembers Nathaniel saying, but it could be made so by the efforts of good men.
If you loved The Overstory or Greenwood, chances are good you'll appreciate this one, even though it is wholly unique and different from the others.
A breathtaking work of fiction, both in its scope and its execution. Matt Bell writes beautiful and evocative passages that stay long in the memory. Appleseed is a cautionary tale of our future, but one that harkens to the past. I loved Bell's ability to weave fairytale and myth into a story of science and environment and man's deadly impact on nature itself. A strange, gorgeous, sometimes harrowing novel, Appleseed is a must-read.
Some fascinatingly presented exploration on transformations this book had. And, while the story felt it droned on at places, I kept appreciating the steady sprinklings of rawness, which kept the prose alive and the observer attentive.
The handling of the topic of humanity's relationship with ecosystem drew easy comparisons to How High We Go in the Dark, due to both of these books' Ursula K. Le Guin Prize nominations (and thus both being on reading radar at this same moment in time).
(And - as I failed to mention it in the obscure triviality of the reading updates before - for the single gimmick of printing whole living beings, mind went back to the sample seen in Luc Besson's 5th Element).
Captivatingly imagined, and nicely fluidly expressed. Rounded up.
Have you ever read a book that you recognize is really good but that at the same time you cannot get as deeply involved in it as you want to and know you should? That’s pretty much my experience with Matt Bell’s Appleseed. I understand what Bell is up to and I was deeply intrigued by the ways he reconfigures the core American myths of progress and Manifest Destiny. And I was sympathetic to the overall thrust of the novel—that humanity is and has been long destroying the planet, paving the way for a disastrous future—but I found the narrative in places bloated and so enigmatic (including the ending) that I was left often frustrated and yearning for more speed and direction.
The novel consists of three interwoven narratives, one in the 18th-century, one in the late 21st, and one a thousand years in the future, all focused on the humanity’s relationship to nature and, in the latter two narratives, the little that’s left of it. It’s an ambitious structure, one that Bell handles quite well. What bothers me most in the novel is the first narrative, a retelling of the Johnny Appleseed story, here with two brothers, one of whom is inexplicably a half faun. Yes, I get that fairy tales are ok in literature (Bell also works with ancient myths elsewhere in the novel—ditto, that’s ok) but I found the fairy tale element in the Appleseed story working against the novel’s otherwise stark and fierce realism. Bell obviously wants to have his half-faun suggest humanity’s fundamental connection to nature and the animal world (as opposed the rapacity of his mercantile-obsessed brother), but I kept wondering why Bell felt he needed a faun to get this across. I couldn’t get past this fantastical reimagining, particularly when counterpoised against the other two narratives.
Anyway, lots of people love this book and Bell certainly is a skillful writer. For me, however, the perplexities circulating throughout the novel undercut its overall power and effect. Clearly these perplexities are a strength for other readers, but not for me.
Appleseed is a book that will make you examine your relationship with the natural world and whether you are helping or hurting it. Appleseed is set in three different timelines with three seemingly different stories. Yet, there are a few threads that connect these stories such as humanity’s impact on the world as well as the apple tree. This book focuses on climate and how we as humans have effectively destroyed our planet to the point of no return. We see the start of this destruction from the origins of America into the future where everything has become a frozen tundra. Interspersed in this novel are also sci-fi elements, mythology and some light fantasy. All three timelines are fascinating and it illustrates how the destruction of earth could have been avoided. Humans are just too greedy and selfish.
There are a few things that didn’t work for me though. I felt the story was too long and could have been tightened up. I had issues with both Eury’s and John’s methods to save the world, but maybe that was the point. Maybe we aren’t supposed to agree with either. There were also a few things I found dumb in relation to the faun timeline. I’m still on the fence with the mythology/fantasy elements and whether it was really needed. It does connect with the future timelines but I didn’t really find it that effective. Overall, I enjoyed Appleseed’s unique take on climate fiction. This is one book sure to leave you thinking how you can leave the world a better place.
I really wanted to like this book, but my suspension of disbelief was seriously hobbled by the idea of a pair of brothers, one of which was a fawn (!?!) which has some weird, non-sensical explanation much later one, but I found it unconvincing. That is the first perspective of three - this pre-industrialization view of America with the two brothers. The book alternates perspectives between this one, the second story which is about Jonathan sometime in the 22nd century after the two coasts have been flooded and Earthtrust, a bio-agro firm that is almost too similar to Monsanto, has taken over the planet more or less. This storyline is the most exciting of the three, but only mildly so. OK, so there is some breakneck-paced stuff near the end, but nothing you haven't seen in 1000000 Hollywood films already (and sadly, very predictable). The last story is about a robot (which looks like a fawn again, a bit of an abuse of the idea of the first part) who is looking for the last living thing on an Earth in a new Ice Age presumably a century or so after the second section. I probably made it sound more confusing than it really is, but it is not the greatest eco-apocalypse book I have ever read. Try Station Eleven instead!
A story I must admit I’ve never read anything like...it was an outstanding piece of work. Contradictory written as three seemingly different stories pass through time and space and weaved together to create a beautiful masterpiece. Matt Bell has quite the imagination. He puts in perspective the worlds climate issue and what could happen if nothing is done to stop us from destroying our planet. What and how science can combat global warming to save not only human beings but animals; a dystopia if you will. It does make one wonder where our world will be in terms of human, animal, and plant sustainability due to the misuse of our worldly resources. What would we do?!
I wasn’t thrilled about where I thought the story was going when I first started. Even in the meat of this novel I kept losing track of what was going on. It was a bit confusing. I did find Johns and Chapmans story much more interesting than C-433 though. Lots, and lots, and lots of detail, vividly written I might add. I appreciated the binding of the three stories as well. Gave off a “finished” feeling, very satisfying.
DISCLOSURE: Thank you to William Morrow for gifting me with an ARC of Appleseed through the Goodreads Giveaways. All opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own.
This book really snuck up on me. At first I was reminded of Charles De Lint's work, but this is so much more. Developing three different stories, none within a century of each other, is challenging enough but to mix folk tales with myth, science fiction with magic and to make it relevant to current concerns of climate change and authoritarianism is quite a task. Bell is up to it. Highly recommended.
I really am not sure how I feel about this book. While reading, I went back and forth between not liking it at all (1 star) and really wanting to know what happens next and enjoying it to a certain extent (3 stars). Most of my negative feelings are for the story of the brothers. I didn't like those sections and don't see them as being entirely necessary. I found myself skimming those sections at times but I'm not sure why. The writing is amazing, but something about the characters of the brothers just didn't work for me. And the story was just a little too odd at times (and I love odd!). The middle section, with the revolutionaries and the (maybe) evil 'overlord', was definitely my favorite and if the entire book had focused mostly on that story and those characters, this would have easily been a 4 star (or higher) book for me. The last section with C I sometimes really liked and sometimes just tolerated (and the ending was......way too out there, even for me). Still, the writing is gorgeous, the story has so much going for it and despite all my complaints, I finished the book because I really, really needed to know what happened next. I'm sure there are many people who will love this book and while I am not one of them, I have decided to change my rating from 2 stars to 3 stars just while writing this review.
I admire this book deeply and enjoyed it very much –– both as a writer appreciating the time and care that went into this braided and ultimately mind-fucking plot-character-setting space, and simply on the entertainment and fascination the story/stories provided. Appleseed is where I really hope sci-fi/cli-fi, as well as speculative fiction in general, is heading: heady, intellectually stimulating situations, attention to intertext and interdependence, and an explicit, though not overbearing, socio-political agenda. Truly, though, I'm most impressed with the way this novel was crafted, especially as its true "shape" emerged within the final act(s). Appleseed will undoubtedly inform my reading and writing practices for years to come.
I'm not one to breathlessly recommend a novel, but Appleseed is breathtakingly good. The descriptive portions of the book are pure poetry. The action sequences are genuinely thrilling. Each character's point of view is vivid internally and externally. I marveled at its structure.
While reading Appleseed, I was thinking about the first story of Matt's that I ever read: Chainsaw (n.), a 150-word flash/poem disguised as a dictionary entry published online by elimae, probably 15 years ago. I've read just about everything he's written between Chainsaw and Appleseed, and it is comforting to know that I will keep reading (and re-reading) his stories for a long, long time. Thank God Matt Bell is prolific.
Appleseed challenged me in unexpected ways. Combining the past, the not too distant future and the far future, combining myth, technology, social psychology and outlandish speculations, this is the climate fiction book of the year in my opinion.
The story ranges and circles around the three time periods culminating in surprising connections between them. Matt Bell manages to interweave personal stories, the natural world and the unnatural exploitation by humans of that world.
If you have enjoyed books by Octavia Butler, the Fifth Season trilogy by N K Jemisin, The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi, and other such books, you could be amazed by Appleseed as well.
18th century, 50 years from today, 1000 years in the future. All connected through apples.
This book was like nothing I've read. I'm not even really sure how to do a review. The symbolism, connections, characters were all so well thought out. Like I said previously, I don't think I'm smart enough to figure it out on my own. I wish i had an English/Lit class to talk it through with.
I'd love to read this again with a group and talk through it together. Even tho I know that i missed so much, this book was incredible. Reminded me of Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood.
One of the joys of genre fiction is its ability to explore big ideas through a literary lens. Sci-fi in particular can display an audaciousness with regard to the concepts it espouses. It also offers a special sort of storytelling flexibility, its trappings and tropes opening up a long runway for writers to create something that is both thought-provoking and narratively engaging.
Matt Bell’s new novel “Appleseed” is precisely that kind of engaging provocation. A tale told in tryptic, blending myth, near-future tech utopianism and climate apocalypse, the book winds together three disparate timelines, all connected by the shared roots of a goal that must be met in different ways in different times.
It’s also a book about humanity’s quest for connection, a quest that sometimes leads us down some counterintuitive paths, all in the name of finding that interpersonal closeness that we all seek. “Appleseed” illustrates that operating for the greater good can be noble, but it also depends on just who is deciding what that “greater good” should be.
In our first thread, we’re in the untamed west of the American continent in the mid-18th century. Chapman is a faun, a half-man-half-beast wandering the wilds alongside his human brother Nathaniel. Nathaniel has a plan to make his fortune – move from place to place planting apple orchards ahead of the steady westward expansion, then returning to collect compensation from the settlers to come who have availed themselves of the pre-planted bounty.
Chapman, meanwhile, is haunted by his otherness – he seeks not just a tree, but a Tree, one whose fruit might give him the guidance he seeks. However, he is haunted – haunted by what he is, yes, but also by mysterious forces of potentially nefarious intent.
In the late 21st century, a man named John moves through the largely desolate American West. The ravages of climate change have led to societal breakdown; rising seas have rendered coastal areas uninhabitable and everything west of the Mississippi has become an arid wasteland. John is fighting against the monolithic EarthTrust corporation, an entity whose massive power masks even more massive plans – plans that John’s early work made possible.
Despite his misgivings, he must try and find a way back into this world that he abandoned in hopes of upending a master plan that will forever alter the global landscape.
Lastly, we land in the far-flung future, a thousand years hence. A lonely creature named C – the latest recreated entity in a long line – is tasked with hunting down any organic material remaining beneath the massive sheets of ice that coat the planet. But when an accident reveals other instructions and offers a chance to reengage with other living things, C undertakes a mission far more dangerous than any that he – or any of his predecessors – has ever done.
Along the way, C discovers that life finds a way, even if it isn’t necessarily what he expected, leaving him to do everything in his power to give that life a fighting chance.
“Appleseed” strikes an interesting balance between the bleakness of the characters’ situations and the hopefulness of their actions, finding ways to celebrate indomitability of spirit in the face of odds that become ever more overwhelming. That balance cuts to the core of the human condition, with each story offering a glimpse at that core from a slightly different angle.
The craft and construction here is particularly impressive. Each one of these stories could easily stand alone on its own merits with nary an edit – Bell has built three very real, very distinct worlds, each with their own characters and conflicts – and yet they are all very much thematically intertwined. To create three compelling stories – three compelling realities – and bind them together seamlessly? That’s some first-rate writing, no doubt about it.
Whether we’re talking about the repurposing of American frontier legend with a healthy dose of much older mythology, a tale of a corporate techno-state run amok amidst a leadership vacuum or the search for sustainability in a world left frozen by anthropocentric hubris, the underlying themes are the same.
“Appleseed” is not an optimistic book – it casts far too many shadows for that – but it is definitely a hopeful one. That might seem like a semantic difference, but to my mind, it is a very real one. Finding reason to hope in the face of seeming hopelessness is a key component of the human condition – a condition that Matt Bell deftly and thoroughly explores here.
This story is told from three perspectives and timelines. In the first timeline, around the year 1800 brothers Nathaniel and Chapman are roaming the Ohio Territory, sowing apple seeds. Nathaniel hopes to get rich by selling the apple seedlings to settlers coming to the territory to start farms. Chapman's hope is to find the special apple tree that will make him fully human. Chapman, you see, is a faun who can, with effort, morph into a human appearance. Over the course of the story, his relationship with his brother and his feelings about his identity and his place in nature will evolve.
The second timeline takes place fifty years from now. The increase in our planet's average temperature has exceeded even the most pessimistic predictions, and the western United States is an unlivable desert. John Worth is on the run from his past role as a scientist for Earthtrust, the mega-farming corporation that now controls the eastern U.S. But when he re-connects with an activist former lover, she convinces him to return to Earthtrust to commit a desperate act of sabotage.
The third timeline takes place one thousand years in the future. The former U.S. is covered by a glacier, and a strange, furred human - who knows himself only as C-432 - lives a solitary existence in a "crawler," a huge tank-like structure. He ventures out in a vehicle called "the bubble" to collect ancient biomass by exploiting fissures and crevasses in the glacier. The biomass is necessary so that when he dies his body can be re-printed. Then he can collect more biomass again and be re-printed again in an endless and seemingly pointless cycle. Until he starts turning into a tree and accesses forbidden knowledge in an effort to find other humans who might be able to help him.
If all of this sounds strange, it definitely is. This book was a little too "out there" for me. There were interesting parallels in the three stories, and they do connect, but a lot is left unexplained. And it is very dark. Still, I am glad to see more and more authors tackling climate change in fiction. During my career in middle management at a bank, I had to deliver a lot of presentations to executives. And I learned early on that facts are not enough to make a compelling presentation. You can be more persuasive if you tell a story. This is where we are with climate change. The facts are clear, and yet we continue to fiddle while the world burns. I think our hope must lie in convincing stories.
This author seems to take, or at least suggest, the radical position that every living thing has an equal right to life, and that everything that human beings call civilization, starting with farming, has been an injury to the earth, culminating in the final injury of carbon-caused climate change. We face a radical problem, and possibly part of the response has to include entertaining radical views. But I don't think it's helpful to see our whole race as some kind of poison or virus. It's Psychology 101 to know that people are more effective when they feel good about themselves, when they believe that their actions can make a difference.
A burgeoning genre of speculative science fiction oriented on the impending climate disaster we face as a species is currently being banded about as something call "cli-fi." I hate the name, but I full imagine you're going to see a hell of a lot more of it in the coming decades. So if you want to see what the fuss is all about, might I suggest you start with what could possibly be the high water mark for the kind of cross-pollinated genre of dystopian technocratic realism and climate disaster speculation: Matt Bell's Appleseed.
The novel is divided into a triptych of narratives: Chapman, a half-man-half-faun and his older, all-human brother, Nathaniel are traversing a pre-industrial age Ohio and Midwestern U.S. planting apple orchards all along the way, John and his band of eco-terrorists infiltrating a hydra-headed agro-techno-mega corp that essential has re-enslaved people with the promise of a better tomorrow, and then C-433, an entity in the distant future traversing a glacial earth in search of organic life.
Bell utilizes the power of folkloric myth and legend to build out the story here to great effect. Weaving in the mythical with the real, there's something tangible feeling about the world within Appleseed so that none of it feels far-reaching, unrealistic, or hyperbolic. In fact, perhaps some of the saddest, most bleak passages take place in Chapman's chapters as he watches men ebb further and further west as the wrest control of the wilderness and harness it into something "usable" for humanity.
As meditative as it is on the ecological doom and perhaps nostalgic pull humanity has towards nature, the book is also quite full of action sequences, especially in the final third of the near-future plotline as the power-drunk Eury plans to literally seize control of the world's climate via a unique technology developed by her company, Earthtrust.
Bell's vision of where humanity is headed is bleak and there are few promises of hope, but what struck me most in the book is that while there are clear villains within the story, those villains are a morally righteous crusade--however misguided or mad-seeming those plans may be. The characters push the reader to question their own positions, where the stand on how to deal with the mess of our own making, the mess centuries in the making.
Probably one of the best reads of 2021 for me, and I cannot recommend it enough.
In Appleseed, Matt Bell gives me the kind of read that knocks my socks off, a novel of ideas couched in a story that grabbed hold of my attention and didn’t flag. It’s a novel that crosses genres, using all the tools in a story teller’s tool box.
Three timelines take readers across American history, past and future, following the inevitable conclusion of the ideals of our colonizing forefathers: that the land was God-given for our use, that its resources were endless, that humanity is all-important and the individual the center of the universe.
The story begins with the Chapman brothers, Nathaniel and Johnny (aka Appleseed), who journey across Ohio’s unsettled swamplands planting apple orchards for future settlers. Before the end, Chapman sees the bloodbath effects of ‘civilization’ on the verdant beauty of the land.
Fast forwarded to the near future, the inevitable conclusion of human greed has created a world in crisis. A business is buying up both land and the rights of citizens in exchange for a comfortable home and food to eat. The visionary Eury has invented a way to defect sunlight in the atmosphere to allow humans further time to correct the damage. But her one-time friend and coworker John has joined a terrorist resistance group determined to intercede.
And in a far future world encased in ice, a lone cloned being in it’s 434th lifetime sets out to understand what has happened and who, if anyone, is still out there.
The chilling story asks will humans elect to change their lives to ensure our future? And even if we try, will we succeed or wreck more damage? Is the world better off without us?
I remember back in the early 1980s when my boss, reacting to the whole nuclear winter scare, worried about the end of human civilization, the loss of all the arts. I love the arts, but I replied that the earth would go on, a new kind of life will flourish after we burn ourselves out. He was appalled.
And in the conclusion, Bell does offer that kind of hope.
Do we have time to change the course of the fire we are fueling? More importantly, do we have the will? Will we cling to old ideals, remain entrenched in our vision of being the most important thing in the universe?
You might associate apples with Fall but this is the perfect winter read due to the cli-fy/end-of-the world/earth is a snowball vibe.
In a sense, this vibe reminded me of The Fifth Season, but sans magic (okay, 2/3’s less magic) and less emotional. But this has three unexpected plots interweaving apples, fates/furies, and poor career decisions. Let me back up a little.
What would happen if all the bees died? (And how could science technology/ bio-engineering fix this?) What if all the money in the world couldn’t fix social issues? Could Earth’s environmental issues have one massive reset (and be reprinted/regrown when it's time?) Bell takes us down this rabbit hole and hits some uncomfortable notes of truth that don’t feel as absurd as they should.
In retrospect, this wasn’t the most optimistic TBR pick to start off 2022, but it was still an interesting read/listen.
Appleseed is my favorite read of the year so far, it reminds me of Cloud Cuckoo Land meets Project Hail Mary. Here we get three expertly weaved stories illustrating for us the abuse of the Earth by humanity. Each story is unique and stunning and the epitome of its genre.
One story is beautiful historical fiction with a little bit of magic. It takes place in 18th century America and follows two brothers. Nathaniel is looking to seed America with apple trees to get rich and Chapman is a mythical faun looking for a magical apple that will let him forget what a monster he is. Watching Chapman's desire to be loved and accepted is beautiful and heartbreaking.
Our second story is of a man living in the near future where capitalism has destroyed the Earth (perhaps this is actually the present?!), John and his group of friends are trying to stave off the end of humanity. In this section, we get a ton of science focused on biology, cultivation of crops and genetics. There are parts that are very heavy for a non-scientist but I promise you, like Andy Weir's stories, it will be worth it. There's an awesome big baddie in this part. It's a fabulous piece of speculative fiction.
The third part is the life of an unusual creature who isn't explained to us fully until the end when the three stories come together. But he reminds me of Weir's Rocky, curious and mission driven. He's searching the far future Earth for signs that life could once again thrive in this glacier covered world. His journey also reminded me a lot of Konstance in Cloud Cuckoo Land, we're not quite sure who or what he is but the progression of his story has the most heart and the most compelling turn of events.
While these three stories feel initially like quite different vignettes - the way they come together is amazing. There's some interesting guesses about the future of humanity and while there is some magical realism in this one, it sure seemed quite plausible at times.
Like other super-detailed sci-fi books (Jeff VanderMeer, Frank Herbert), when the author gets lost in the weeds of the world-building, my eyes glaze over and roll into the back of my head. Just not for me.