Appleseed, John Clute

Orbit, 2001, 337 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 1-85723-758-7

After suffering through John Clute’s Appleseed, I’m ready to propose a law that will require mandatory knee-breaking for every critic who has the gall to unleash a fiction borefest on an unsuspecting public.

An explanation is in order: John Clute stands supreme as the world’s best science-fiction critic. His incisive commentary is compelling even if you haven’t read the book he’s talking about, and his views on the state of the genre deservedly provoke controversy. Read his reviews, and you’ll pick up vocabulary. His essay collection Look at the Evidence is in my library; I still refer to it from time to time as a demonstration of my complete lack of talent as a critic. In short, he’s the man, and I’m the weasel.

So, naturally, the release of his first science-fiction novel, Appleseed, should be an event in itself. Who better than a critic to show a lesson to the rest of the SF world?

Hey, stop laughing. It’s hard to lose one’s illusions.

The problems begin even before the first page of the narrative, as Clute thoughtfully includes an Author’s Note explaining the meaning of “Azulejaria” and “Mappemonde”. Sound the warning bells; we’re in for a bumpy ride.

How bumpy? How about a randomly-chosen prose excerpt for your perusal? Ready? Here goes: “Opsophagos consulted the crippled captive AI in its iron mask. They agreed that the Johnny Appleseed face of Klavier was artefactual, a play of light visible only from the command skiff. But the other face was no decal, no trick played on the instrument of the Harpe. The other face was the face of a planet.” [P.166]

That might have been a bad random selection; it’s actually almost vulgarly accessible compared to the rest of the novel. The word “unreadable” generally comes to mind.

But “boring” quickly follows it. Because not only is reading Appleseed a lot like wrestling in a mud pit with an octopus, when you manage to shine a light through the clouds of obfuscation and uselessly fancy prose, you end up with… not much. A standard mercenary trader story. A space opera that could have been written in the fifties if it wasn’t for the bad language and the sex.

Oh yeah, the sex. And the bad language. Having lived only five years in the seventies and having never indulged in recreational drug-taking, I don’t have LSD flashbacks. But I can certainly have bad literary flashbacks, and reading Appleseed took me back to my least favourite SF period, the brain-damaged late-sixties/early-seventies when “experimental” authors like Moorcock, Delany or Russ urinated in the common pool by stuffing as much gratuitous sex and language in otherwise insipid stories. Appleseed is not only an atrocious book; it’s an atrocious book from the seventies.


I seriously thought about stopping to read, an exceedingly rare event for me. I kept slogging on, against my better judgement. Maybe it would get better. It sort of did, for a while, but that ultimately proved to be a cruel illusion. I might have read the last third of the book. I certainly don’t remember any of it.

My point ultimately being that Appleseed is one of the worst SF books I’ve read in a while. Give me Star Trek novelizations or even another book by William Shatner; I might hate it as much as I do hate Appleseed, but at least I’ll have much more fun doing so.

[July 2006: Years later, not necessarily any wiser, I have come to regard my impression of the book as a personal failure of comprehension. Clute rocks and we’re just hicks trying to catch up. There’s a telling passage by Neil Gaiman in the Clute-hommage anthology Polder that goes like this…

[During the Milford writer’s workshop] we questionned his metaphors and similes. We would say: “John. You say here that ‘it was as if an entablature of salamanders performed a [myoclonic] can-can.’ Isn’t that a rather laboured, not to mention utterly opaque simile?”

And he would brush off such foolishness with an airy gesture. “You may think that,” he said, “but later in the story an entablature of salamanders will actually perform a myoclonic can-can. And then it will resonate.” [P.158]

…and so I am humbled. I will try this book again.]

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