The Agony and the Ecstasy

In Appleseed, Matt Bell rewrites the future, and the past.

matt bell, appleseed
Jessica Bell

Matt Bell’s third novel, Appleseed, tells three kinds of stories about the climate crisis—and in the process addresses three kinds of anxieties that tend to hover around climate fiction.

Is the genre doom-and-gloom, dwelling too little on the humane and verdant world we once had and might possibly have again? One strand of the novel follows Chapman, a faun who, with his human brother, Nathaniel, seeds the Ohio Territory with apple trees in the 18th century, balancing their livelihood with a caretaking instinct.

Is climate fiction too lecture-y? Another plotline offers a techno-thriller set in the not-too-distant future, in which extreme heat and massive die-offs have left much of the United States to rely on Earthtrust, a megacorporation that has strong-armed citizens into laboring as indentured farmhands. The company’s director, Eury, is pursuing a monomaniacal plot to cool the earth, while her former partner John is attempting to monkey-wrench it.

Does climate fiction fail to show us what the long-term stakes are, the true endgame of our folly? The third thread of Bell’s novel takes place in the far future and follows C-433, a creature capable of self-replication (thanks to Earthtrust technology), as it heads west during a new ice age. C-433 is bound for Black Mountain, where, it’s been said, the last of humanity remains, if it remains at all.

These three braided narratives are connected by a shared lineage. They’re also bound by mythological themes. Chapman is a product of a kind of primal-earth mythology in which fauns are condemned to live in linear time. Eury is short for Eurydice, who in Greek myth was trapped in the underworld. But Earthtrust’s Eury is hubristically confident: “I’m who she would have been, in a better story. The one who escapes, the one who saves herself, the one who is enough to save everyone else.” And C-433 exemplifies the legend of eternal return, regenerating as half tree–half human in an “earth reset.” But Bell asks, “What good is the earth reset, if nothing living survives?”

Appleseed is wildly ambitious by the standards of climate fiction and most novels, period; Bell applies some spectacular world-building. The Earthtrust thread—in which the corporation assures people there’s nothing wrong with human-made climate change that can’t be fixed—feels like a persuasive extension of current events. Eury summarizes our trajectory with a sinister logic that encapsulates a half century of wheel spinning on climate change: “Starting late last century, corporate greed weakened democracy’s safeguards; now, in the places where the safeguards are weakest, we’re free to act. Now we exploit the gaps left in our democracy to save our people.”

Her master plan, called Pinatubo, involves using manufactured “nanoswarms” to cloud the stratosphere, theoretically cooling the planet long enough for humanity to develop a better solution. But John, who invented the robot bees these swarms are modeled after, sees only a high-tech variation on the usual kick-the-can schemes, with more opportunities for Earthtrust to exploit.

Bell’s story is audacious beyond just its plot—he’s attempting to shift our focus from mankind to nature, or at least suggest that we keep them in balance. “All plots move humanward, all human plots move toward the human,” he writes. In the case of most novels, that’s a platitude; for Bell, it’s a critique. The faun Chapman, as his name suggests, is modeled after John Chapman, a.k.a. Johnny Appleseed. But Bell notes that the Appleseed myth papers over a history of exploitation: “The new peoples of Ohio and Indiana make their own myths, raising up the brave pioneers who came before, erasing crude violence and genocide in favor of edifying local legends and entertaining folk tales.”

Human stories, in other words, don’t tell the whole story. Indeed, they deliberately bury some of the most meaningful narratives.

Early in the book, Bell weaves in a quote from Wendell Berry that underscores this notion: “A man with a machine and inadequate culture is a pestilence.” Appleseed is a vivid portrait of three inadequacies, three pestilences.

The novel is imperfect. Its three-part structure makes it seem even longer than its 400-plus pages, giving us the feeling of reading three books at once. The plot can creak, especially when it comes to Eury, whose character is little elevated beyond Bond villain. And Bell’s style, which privileges repetition to create forward motion, sometimes drags. The approach defined his engrossing first novel, 2013’s In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, which also dwelled on creation myths. (The title gives you a sense of its style.) In Appleseed, Bell tones down the language, but some bloat remains: “Chapman saws the trees, Chapman hauls the logs, Chapman clears the brush and pushes the plow and swings the hoe, Chapman plants and plants and plants every seed himself.”

Still, it’s to a noble purpose. Bell wants to achieve escape velocity from conventional climate fiction, which effectively has two rhetorical moves: it can prescribe or it can caution. Both are hell on a novel; one scolds, and the other lets readers off the hook.

Appleseed doesn’t completely avoid that. Eury proposes a twirled-mustache future in which “the endangered many volunteer to preserve the better lives of a privileged few,” while John’s side proposes an earth where everyone is saved. As one colleague puts it, “I say abundance or nothingness, abundance or nothingness for all.”

Would a more sensible hybridity spare us these devil’s bargains? True change, Bell suggests, would involve more than carbon credits and energy-efficient bulbs. It would mean a more radical way of thinking about humanity, including a willingness to sacrifice progress for the sake of endurance. More faun, less clone.

How to do that? Appleseed offers a glimpse of what a hybrid existence might feel like—no small feat and better than a lecture. But after that, we’re on our own. As Chapman thinks, recalling a book his brother once read to him, “Was that all books contained? Knowledge but not answers?”•

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Mark Athitakis is the author of The New Midwest (Belt Publishing), a critical study of contemporary fiction set in the region.
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