I am already inclined to focus on climate and man vs. nature in stories, but this year I’m really feeling the pull. So, let’s just casually review this next book that deals with the impending doom the news is talking about so much more often these days. Of course, when I say casually, I mean really dig into my own feelings about the issues at hand and how this book made me examine them. Appleseed, by Matt Bell, is a science fiction epic that dives deep into the christian and western mythology that inspired the creation of the United States of America, while examining the nation’s relationship to nature and climate change, with profound prose and tight storytelling.
Appleseed is a century- and millennium-spanning story that follows the lives of three folks and their relationship to nature within North America. Chapman is a faun (yes, that kind of faun) that travels the Ohio valley with his human brother, Nathaniel, as they clear cut forests and plant apple trees to sell to the growing number of settlers in eighteenth century America. Nathaniel hopes to civilize the savage and uncivilized land to add to the glory of God, while Chapman struggles with being not entirely human. John lives in the near future, the United States has abandoned the land west of the Mississippi river, and ceded the territory to a corporation called Earth Trust. John, in his younger years, founded Earth Trust, but abandoned them for life of illegally rewilding the west when his ex and CEO of Earth Trust, Eury Mirov, began taking liberties with the company’s goals. However, he is pulled back in by other dissenters to try to shut Eury down once and for all. The final story follows C-432, a being that lives thousands of years in the future that tries to survive among the arctic wastes as glaciers reclaim what was once North America. How all these stories are connected and what they say about our experience is for the reader to discover chapter by chapter.
Appleseed definitely falls into the “tough to judge” category for me. It’s an excellently written story with incredibly well defined and explored themes. Bell takes a lot of interesting risks with the story, and doesn’t hold the reader’s hand, allowing, and in some cases forcing, them to digest it at their own rate. Bell’s prose is fascinating as it changes pace and offers different details through the separate timelines, giving each one its own distinct feel. The characters are different enough from each other that the stories feel apart. But the stories and characters exhibit just enough of the same qualities to make the themes pop out throughout the whole book. I was astounded how easily I slipped back into the story every time I picked it up. The book urged me to consume it in a few days, and I accepted that this was the only way to truly experience Appleseed.
However, I am woefully confused by my reaction to the book. I enjoyed my experience with it, but every time I sit down to dissect the ideas that Bell has put forth, I get frustrated. It is not an issue of coherence; Bell’s writing makes it incredibly clear what is happening. His prose, though detailed and full of wonder for the natural world to the point that it meanders at times, is explicit in its goals. Instead, I think my issue is that this book is a discussion piece. It is full of ideas and unreliable narrators that talk about their own problems against a backdrop of increasing scope. The world Bell posits in his stories is both enchanting and horrifying, playing off well worn western myths and more recognizable tropes within climate fiction. It takes you to places you dreamed of as a child in elementary school American history class, both idolizing them and dashing them against a rock. He envisions a future that is without people, a world in which humanity has failed to stop or slow the effects of climate change, and it is empty.
It’s impossible to miss the “humans caused climate change” aspect of Appleseed. Bell succeeds in firmly rooting it within the creation of the USA itself. Using the myth of Johnny Appleseed, Bell dives deep into the heart of manifest destiny, and the un-wilding of North America into a godly paradise for good christian men. He deftly connects it to the middle timeline story of the near future and extremely far future through language, characterization and humanities relationship to nature. It’s an incredibly well thought out story that highlights the different steps along the way where we as a species failed to see the signs of our destruction.
Where I take issue is that his exploration is unfortunately narrow, and limited to a very specific American experience and christian-tinged worldview. It caused a dissonance whenever there were nods to other experiences outside this particular window, hinting at the complexity of the issue, only to have the book snap back into place and follow a very distinct pathway. I had trouble reconciling this robust and thoughtful look into America’s relationship with nature, while the story accelerated to a neat and tidy conclusion, complete with a John Hughes style “here’s where we are now” montage ending. It felt weird to place everything being discussed within the book as a “human” issue when it’s also detailing a very specific and narrow experience. It didn’t necessarily ruin my experience with the book, but I had a harder time suppressing my discomfort with it as I continued the story.
That all being said, Appleseed is still a fantastic experience. Bell’s grasp and use of language is truly a sight to behold. The book is an excellent example of how to tie major themes across different timelines, and pull from mythology to lend historical weight to the story. It is truly epic in that sense, with Bell’s use of western history and mythology. Unfortunately, it just started to feel a little too narrow for my taste when it comes to climate focused fiction. Bell merely hints at other ideas, instead of exploring them in relation to his themes, in my opinion, losing an opportunity to really dig into his themes of environmental stewardship. In any case, this is an admirable addition to the growing library of climate fiction.
Rating: Appleseed 8.0/10