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The fruits of our labors – ‘Appleseed’

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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” (Custom House, $27.99) 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.

Last modified on Wednesday, 14 July 2021 07:50

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