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Appleseed by John Clute
(Orbit, 14.99, 337 pages, hardback; published 12 April 2001. Paperback, 6.99, 337 pages, published 4 April 2002.)

So, the man who possesses perhaps the pre-eminent critical voice in science fiction cover scanover the last two decades has produced a first sf novel... John Clute, with his wealth of experience and genre knowledge, may not get everything right first time out (it would be asking a lot to expect Appleseed to meet the critical standards Clute himself sets), but one thing is sure: he won't get it wrong for lack of thinking or effort.

In his excellent review at Science Fiction Weekly, Paul di Filippo draws our attention to the wealth of genre references strewn throughout the text of Appleseed, describing the book as akin to "a major critical paper ... track[ing] the development of postmodern space opera ... in narrative form"; a point reinforced by Clute's own afterword where he acknowledges some of his sources and borrowings: Crowley, Disch, Borges, Clarke, Wolfe et al.

So we can take it as written that there are whole layers of meaning I'm going to miss in this novel - layers only apparent to those more steeped in genre traditions and tropes than me (and as Clute acknowledges elsewhere on this site, no-one is going to get all the allusions on a first reading, or even on a first re-reading). A novel so immersed in the genre would really be best reviewed by, well, someone like John Clute.

One of the things that intrigues me about Appleseed, though, is that the vast majority of readers will not be so au fait with its roots. This is a novel with few compromises: in language and ideas Clute is pushing the boundaries, but is there a danger that he is pushing too hard and leaving many readers behind? This tension between ambition and openness, between cutting edge and space operatic entertainment, is a constant throughout the novel.

What's it all about then?

Nathaniel Freer - affectionately known to his AIs as "Stinky" - has taken on another interstellar freight run. Just an ordinary job, it seems, until, with Freer off-ship on Trencher, the world-city where they're collecting their cargo, his AI protector detects that he has suddenly become a very important person - and one at the centre of rapidly growing chaos. Also: why do two seemingly ancient battle Minds turn up when he only ordered one? And what is the cause of the data-eating plague that can destroy worlds, known as "plaque"? In Appleseed nothing is quite what it seems... So, as in any good adventure sf romp - and on one level that is what Appleseed is - a wily action hero-type takes on a seemingly ordinary job thinks he's in control and then steadily it emerges that he is being drawn ever-deeper into something Far Bigger. Appleseed has all the makings of a rip-roaring-if-revisionist space opera, following in the recent steps of authors like Alastair Reynolds and the earlier space-operatic revisions of Colin Greenland.

Where Appleseed both struggles and shines is in its execution. As Stephen Baxter says on the cover, "Every word is a special-effects firecracker" and on the inside dustjacket flap Joe Haldeman refers to "a glorious explosion of language and thought". Sometimes the prose in Appleseed is a thrilling display of pyrotechnics, but sometimes all those explosions are just too much.

At its best, there's an odd juxtaposition where the the dense and vivid prose - this is sf of high literary intent and achievement - conjures up with economic ease a glossy high-tech future that could almost be straight out of Star Wars. Sleek space ships, cities spanning entire worlds...

"Above the ship the passages of entry into Trencher flexed shut. Great spasms of light flickered off walls a klick distant. Hundreds of ships were visible, each cradled into its loading dock. Robot drones swooped through the maze, their prehensile claws guiding wires and tubes and cargo shoots into place. Hollow transport braids of all three authorised hues wove from ship to ship, giving crews and passengers access to the interior webs of the world."

There are some wonderful such scenes here: throwaway extrapolations, deft painting of the exotically far-future and alien. There's a lovely extrapolation of 21st century mobile phone culture, for instance:

"Following the unspoken rules that had increasingly governed homo sapiens behaviour in public since the first days of digital, they wore happy animated harlequin gazes of outward regard, slid their rapt eloquent gazes past any homo sapiens who might be standing near, directed their expressive gestures exclusively off-stage via brain links or earring mobiles to invisible communicants, who whispered intimacies back from the other side of Trencher ... or a foot away."

There are many such insights, yes, but often - too often - the reader is made to work particularly hard to get them. Not a terrible fault, perhaps, but a trap for the unwary.

"The theophrasts of the inner stars designate the masking of a Made Mind as a form of kenosis - the ultimately fatal incarnation of the divine into progeria of mortal flesh."

There is a wordiness familar from Clute's non-fiction. Or, to be fairer, it's not so much a wordiness as a commitment to using the most right word in any situation. This is not an over-written novel, it's an intensely-written one. At its best it's a fantastically effective technique: a spangly word-portrait that has a real sense of wonder bursting off every page. At its worst, it gets in the way, blinding the reader to Clute's wildly detailed imaginings.

I can safely say that I have not read a book like it all year. And you can safely interpret that description as both praise and sounding a note of reserved judgement.

Review by Keith Brooke.

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© Keith Brooke 17 November 2001