Book Review: Matt Bell’s APPLESEED

It’s the last Wednesday of the month (how did that happen?!), so it’s book review week.

I first read APPLESEED back in 2021 when it had just come out. I was struck by its complex structure and characters, but had a hard time following the plot and came out the other end not quite sure what had happened.

I read it again this fall, as I was using it as background for a book review I wrote for The Millions. This time around it really clicked. I could see how the structure supported the narrative, and I was able to follow the disparate storylines until they coalesced near the end. I found the tidbits that linked people and events from various timelines, and ultimately got the message Bell was trying to send.

So what is APPLESEED? It’s a genre-bending book that contains aspects of science fiction, magical realism, and post-apocalyptic fiction. Perhaps it’s even a climate change manifesto: as Bell writes, “Story becomes belief, belief makes action, action creates reality.” It’s written in three strands: the past (sometime in the 1800s), the near future (within 50 years of now), and the far future (a century or two from now). Several characters inhabit each strand, but some jump ship to other strands partway through the book.

In the past thread, Chapman, a faun, works with his brother Nathaniel, a human, to plant apple orchards in the new Territory where no one has yet developed farms and towns. He dreams of growing the one apple that will turn him from a faun into a human.

In the near future thread, John inhabits a devastated America with no arable soil, no water, no vegetation: “The coasts quaked and drowned, the centre burned up and blown away.” He’s part of a widely dispersed group that travels the country in electric vehicles, blowing up dams and power stations, trying to erase the face of humanity on the landscape.

Also in the near future, John’s former childhood friend, Eury, runs Earthtrust, a global series of factory farms that grow fruit, grain, livestock, and other GMO foods. They’ve even come up with a corn crop that pulls contaminants from the soil. People sign away their rights to become the property of Earthtrust and work as ‘volunteers,’ with their every need provided for. “How quickly you adjust to whatever diminishments the world allows,” writes Bell. Eury is highly ambitious and focused on saving the world with a dangerous technological ‘fix.’

In the far future is C-433. He’s a 3-D printed faun who lives in a mountain stronghold abandoned years ago and surrounded by glacier ice. He is number 433 in a series of fauns who have been stationed here, each one remade by a biometric 3-D printer after they die. C-433 defies the voices of the previous fauns who tell him to stay in the stronghold, instead leaving to find out what’s at the main base: Black Mountain.

The climax of the book is when John and Eury face off over Eury’s future plans for Earthtrust. Because John used to work with her, he has inside knowledge that he can use to sabotage her plans. This triggers C-433’s world – and his surprising find at Black Mountain in the far future.

There are many other details that feed the magical realism and post-apocalyptic aspects of the book: C-433 growing a tree on his body, for example, complete with blossoms and insects. Earthtrust vacuuming up all the organic material it can find across the continent to feed their biometric 3D printer. Hackers finding old footage showing what Earthtrust has really done to society and what its plans are for the future. Chapman on the run from three witches who carry a singing head and want revenge for something a faun (but not Chapman) did in another life.

APPLESEED shows the folly in Chapman and Nathaniel’s idea that homesteaders would pay for the orchards they planted. It reveals John’s folly in thinking he’s making a difference by wiping out human infrastructure. It reveals Eury’s folly (and hubris) in thinking she can return the world to an engineered version of its former state with her factory farms and biometric 3D printer. Above all it shows that we can’t escape the scourge of climate change, and we can’t engineer our way out of it.

Bell argues that the world has changed cataclysmically many times in the past, before climate change. “The industrial revolution was a cataclysm. Before that, the colonization of the Americas, of Africa, the genocides and environmental devastation that followed. Then later, the invention and weaponization of the internet, the coming of big data and inescapable surveillance.” In other words, Nathaniel and Chapman’s world started with the colonization of America and ended with the industrial revolution. John and Eury’s world started with the industrial revolution and associated environmental devastation, then moved into the surveillance era. C-433 is part of a new world, however, where the cataclysm is widespread glaciation in a cold climate.

Ultimately the solution to climate change lies with people, with communities, who are aware of the problems and dangers and are willing to work together to address them. Including limiting growth.

As one of John’s compatriots says, “No increase in efficiency…has ever resulted in a true decrease in total emissions; instead the more we saved, the more we used. “The one choice we never make is to leave the oil in the ground, to let the trees grow uncut, to let the water slosh in its aquifers. Once we have the capacity to use a resource, we use it all. We grow, whatever the cost. All one energy-efficient, water conserving city means is that another city can be built. There is no such thing as sustainability as long as unlimited growth is the end goal.””

Maybe rewilding–including terraforming–to return the land to a less degraded state is required, as in building hedges to support wildlife and stopping the trucking of sand to the coast. Maybe blowing up infrastructure like dams, which hamper fish passage and reduce the health of streams, is required (and has already been done on the Elwha River and other locations).

Maybe C-433’s tree growth is a bit of hope in the darkness–a living thing in a far future world long bereft of them. Perhaps it marks the end of the glaciation and the beginning of the thaw.

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