John Clute, Appleseed (Tor, 2001)

To set oneself up as someone who can actually describe John Clute's Appleseed is tantamount to hubris. At best I can only claim to intimate the richness and fascination of a book that -- well, look at it this way: What if James Joyce had written Alice in Wonderland, with, perhaps, Philip José Farmer as the editor? Taking, mind you, the entire history of science fiction, complete with footnotes, as a subtext and adding touches of the history of Western civilization and fitting it into a nice little adventure/thriller.

Nathaniel Freer is a trader who owns/inhabits/is partner to/rides the ship Tile Dance, which itself is much older than Freer can imagine. The ship is actually run by the AI KathKirtt, a bipartite intelligence that is navigator, cook, companion, nursemaid, and cabin boy, and is probably the ship itself. Freer has a contract to carry nanoforges to the planet Eolhxir. Since no one is sure just where Eolhxir is, the deal includes a Route-Only intelligence that turns out to be a female topiary parthenogenete named Mamselle Cunning Earth Link. She also happens to be a member of the species that settled Eolhxir and discovered an immensely valuable Predecessor artifact -- millions of them, actually. Needless to say, the actual goal of the journey is not to deliver nanoforges. Equally to be expected is that someone doesn't want the voyage to be successful -- in this case, a fleet headed by a ship of the Insort Geront, a care consortium -- what we would call spaceborne retirement communitiy -- now owned by the nonhuman Harpe. Tile Dance suffers some damage in its escape from the first attack and puts in for repairs at Klavier Station, owned, it would appear, by a human called Johnny Appleseed.

It's hard to know what's most important to alert you to in this novel. First, perhaps, is the fact that Clute discusses two terms, which he points out are not otherwise defined, in an author's note at the beginning of the book: azulejaria, the Portuguese art of tile painting in which scenes from the European drama and commedia dell'arte form panels that spill over the boundaries of the individual tiles; the other is mappemonde, the medieval and early Renaissance maps of the known world that often centered on Jerusalem and equally often contained trompe l'oeil landscapes, much in the manner of the vegetable "portraits" of Arcimboldo. However, to take these two words as mere vocabulary would be a mistake. Keep them as metaphors in the back of your mind while you're reading, because they provide the conceptual base for the narrative, how it cascades from one image to the next, a hint of the flashes of recognition as words and ideas from science fiction, Christmas carols, American history and legend, medieval iconography, and contemporary life appear and disappear, bleeding into each other without clear boundaries, so that it's all there but nothing is quite what it seems at first glance.

In post-cyberpunk science fiction (and I think one must term this book, and a number of others I've run across recently, "post-cyberpunk"), the information age is a given (although it's interesting to note how many recent works of science fiction still treat computers in a fairly primitive way). In Clute's hands, cybernetics becomes a mode of transformation. The artificial intelligences, of which there are several who appear as distinct characters, are, understandably even more fluid than the "meat" personalities, and, in fact, the line separating the two is pretty blurry. The ship itself, because of this, is a fluid environment, extruding members and revealing new faces as they are needed. Clute makes this into a powerful image of the universe as a super cyborg, electronics, mechanics and organic physicality blending together seamlessly. Of critical importance as well is the tendency of information to get "dirty" as it is transmitted from one receiver to the next, sometimes causing the complete collapse of networks and wiping planets and even whole sectors out of the galactic association. This is not a new idea with Clute, but he presents it as a fully developed foundational aspect of the story.

There is a distinctly earthy humor in the book, as well as a matter-of-fact use of strong language. Homo sapiens, whose world was one of the earliest to collapse under information plague, are an anomalous species, given to violence and public copulation and also, ironically, both highly odorous and scent-deaf. (Freer's nickname among his AIs is "Stinky.")

The prose is strong and fluid, with a mad, Dionysian ecstasy that pulls the reader along, as though one had fallen in with a group of highly articulate Bacchantes. And, as rich as the book is in references, one need not be terribly erudite to understand and enjoy it. The images and references, the lines and phrases popping up from your favorite authors or familiar songs from your childhood, just make the text richer and more absorbing. It is simply a pleasure to read.

Although it is a bit like the Mad Hatter's tea party, as experienced by Leopold Bloom.

[Robert M. Tilendis]