Saturday, 14 December 2002

John Clute: Appleseed (2001)

Edition: Orbit, 2002
Review number: 1136

Until the publication of this, his début novel, John Clute has been best known for writing about science fiction rather than in the genre, and his wide ranging knowledge shows in Appleseed's cross references. The most obvious link, as far as a reader is concerned, is not within the genre, but to the novels at the more flamboyant end of stream of consciousness, to James Joyce's Ulysses, for example, or to the richness of Borges.

The plot is less important than the imagery and, indeed, is pretty rudimentary; the novel describes a trip to a world on which a cure might possibly be found for plaque, a disease which attacks both machine and organic intelligence. The densely packed allusive style in with Appleseed is written also makes it hard to read, particularly when it comes to picking up the details of the plot. (Stream of consciousness novels are frequently difficult to read, and in each case the reader must decide whether it is worth the effort to decode them; a typical snippet of Appleseed, for instance, reads: "A mask bearing the fist appaumy spoke. 'Queens have died', said the Uncle Sam, 'young and fair.'")

One of the biggest technical challenges in science fiction writing is to find a way to represent the alien, whether it is a non-human intelligence or the effects of new technology on human psychology and culture. (You could in fact argue that this is the very essence of the genre.) This is the purpose for which Clute has chosen to use this style, to render an almost incomprehensible universe (and there is, after all, no particular reason why we should understand the real universe) - home to many aliens and a bizarre mix of reality and virtual reality. It's a clever idea, and often works well (for example, in the humorous description of the rituals following an alien birth, which is the best passage in the novel). In general, though, I didn't feel that Clute was a good enough writer to carry it off, and this combines with the minimal plot to make some sections seem more about flashy prose than substantial content. There are many interesting ideas, particularly the use of this style to convey alienness, so Appleseed is worth a read if you're interested in literary technique. I can't help feeling that CLute would have done better to attempt something less ambitious for his debut.

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