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Appleseed
John Clute
Orbit paperback £6.99

review by Patrick Hudson

John Clute is a well-known SF critic, and his penetrating and precise criticism has appeared in SF journals since the 1960s - his early work appeared in New Worlds and he was one of the founders of Interzone. He is co-editor of The Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction and The Encyclopedia Of Fantasy and his work appears regularly in most of the current high profile SF magazines. His criticism tends toward the literary - he takes SF as seriously as any other strain of literature, and his intellectual approach has been very influential among British SF writers.
   His non-critical output is less well known. His entry in The Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction (where else would I turn?) mentions several short stories and a non-SF novel in the 1970s, but I've got to say that Appleseed is the first I've read of his fiction.
   Thousands of years in the future, Nathaniel Freer runs a cargo ship, the Tile Dance, taking freight jobs and trading. His shipmates are AI companions that float about him like guardian angels or sit at the corner of his eye like a teardrop, answering his questions and granting his wishes. A trip to collect a freight commission ends in a planetary attack by the ominous Insort Geront, a malevolent alien corporation, and Freer only just escapes alive. The cargo turns out to be more than he expected, a conspiracy that connects the Insort Geront, a data plaque that is destroying the universe, and a mysterious figure called Johnny Appleseed.
   Appleseed is a noir space opera with one foot in the Golden Age of Asimov, one foot in the mean streets of Chandler and another in the surreal world of Burroughs. This three-legged beast is a little unsteady. Clute indulges his talent with words at the expense of the story and gets bogged down with long scenes of exposition. The characters remain undistinguished, their nuances lost in Clute's idiosyncratic style and their habit of doing nothing but expositing backstory.
   Clute does, however, invest his post-human future with great verve and style. The tiled interior of the Tile Dance comes sparklingly to life, and the interaction between the human Freer and the AIs that assist him is cleverly presented. The Insort Geront is a bizarre race of autophagic aliens - somehow self-eating and constantly regenerating, genuinely alien to the point where I began to wonder if it weren't a metaphor for some sort of electronic life form, perhaps an evil twin of the good mask AIs that are Freer's companions.
   This lack of clarity is the novel's major flaw. Clute presents a bizarre world in its own complex language, and meaning has to be teased from the text with great effort as we try and picture the scenes and events of the novel. Without a particularly dynamic plot or a compelling character, it simply doesn't seem worth the effort. Appleseed will appeal to the appetites of readers with an interest in formally daring, literate SF, such as John Crowley, Ian Watson and Gene Wolfe, while other readers may find the richness of the mix a little wearying.
Appleseed by John Clute
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