An Epic Tale of Witches, the Far Future, and Legend

Matt Bell’s Novel ‘Appleseed’ Blends Climate Change With the Supernatural

Janet Stilson
Counter Arts
Published in
5 min readMay 15, 2024

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Photo by S. Widua on Unsplash

While I was reading Matt Bell’s book Appleseed, two other wildly different novels sprang to mind: Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, an historical tale about the demise of extraordinary forests, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s speculative The Ministry for the Future, which imagines how certain people and governments will act as extreme weather becomes intolerable. And yet Appleseed is hardly a combination of the two. It stands on its own as a work that blends together myths, legend, and the supernatural as it explores where America once was and what it might become.

Like Ministry, Appleseed is solidly in the cli-fi (climate change sci-fi) genre. It skips back and forth between three points in time, seen through the eyes of three protagonists.

One main character is a faun named Chapman, taming the wilderness in 18th century America with his brother, Nathanial, by planting apple trees. Chapman’s physical state, with horns and hoofs, keeps them on the far edges of the frontier (largely in Ohio), away from people who would be frightened to see him. Nathanial has a bad case of “manifest destiny,” driven to tame the wilderness through the apple tree plantings as they move westward.

John, a second protagonist, lives 50 years into the future, when extreme weather has ravaged the world. He’s part of a small band of rebels that seeks to undermine a monolithic company that John had previously helped to found. Complicating things a tad: the company’s brilliant leader, Eury, is John’s former lover. Most of the U.S. population is now under the company’s (and ex-lover’s) thumb.

The book’s third main character, C, lives a thousand years into the future, when North America is covered with a massive ice sheet. C has been “reincarnated” over and over again through a printing process that’s run by a mysterious system. It allows each new version of C to benefit from the memories of the C’s that came before him. He goes on a harrowing journey across the arctic landscape to find some form of civilization.

Links between the three worlds slowly emerge as the story moves along, and readers are kept guessing about the ultimate points of cohesion until close to the end. As an example, I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to tell you that C has his own distractions related to an apple tree, and he has the body of a faun (shades of Chapman).

QUIBBLES & PRAISE

While I certainly recommend reading this book, I do have certain quibbles. It took me a while to fully commit to reading it — putting the novel down for a spell, picking it back up again. That has to do with my tastes: I like books with a varied range of emotions, and Appleseed felt a little flat, on that tonal scale. Humor is not a notable characteristic, for example.

That’s not to say that there aren’t points when the emotions can be quite touching. At one point — when Chapman is thinking about the love he feels for Nathanial — Bell writes: “A brother is enough. A brother is a magnificent thing, a gift given and a gift returned in kind, wherever one brother brothers the other.”

Another quibble had to do with John, our man in 2070s America. He is certainly brilliant in his own way, but for the most part he goes along with the agendas that other people set. He didn’t have a great deal of agency. He does his part to change things, but much of what he does is in response to the wants and plans of his former lover, Eury, and his current one, a fellow saboteur named Cal.

While I was slow to commit to the book, the swirls of supernatural elements ultimately sucked me in. What’s not to like about three ghoulish witches carrying a singing corpse head? And there’s something called the flicker — which carries people into other times, or states of existence. (How cool is that?)

I also was taken with Bell’s version of Johnny Appleseed’s origin story and his references to the Furies, who are goddesses of vengeance in Greek mythology. There’s also reference to Orpheus rescuing his wife Eurdyce from hell. And of course the story flirts with that apple-eating couple Adam and Eve.

‘VOICE LIKE UNDERGROUND WATER’

The abundance of imagination Bell displays in long descriptive passages is also striking. To give you one small taste of this, here are a few lines describing what Chapman experiences when he looks at one of the witch beasts:

“When she opens her mouth to speak, it’s in a voice like underground water, the deep secret of a hidden river rushing with ancient rain-seep, its currents coldly crashing through limestone conduits. There is sense and syntax in the sounds she makes, Chapman’s sure, but the meaning of her speech remains foreign.”

As Matthew Gavin Frank wrote in an Orion article about the book:

“It’s too easy to call Appleseed an elegy for the earth as we know it, though there are many elegiac passages. It’s too easy to call it an indictment of extractive capitalism and the rapaciousness of Manifest Destiny and corporate greed. It’s that, and more than that. The book manages to be both a love letter to the earth and a plea to humanity — desperate, earnest, empathetic, and urgent — for a more generous way of living upon it.”

In the same article, which is a Q&A, Bell talks about another aspect of the book that I admired: the more villainous characters aren’t entirely evil. “Eury Mirov, the antagonist in the near-future storyline, has spent her entire life trying to save humanity from the worst of climate change, just not in the way I want it done,” Bell explained. “One of the reasons John finds her arguments so compelling is that her motivations are nearly entirely correct.”

In one of the Appleseed passages told from John’s point of view, Bell writes:

“It isn’t always possible to know what other story might be better for everyone. But it must always be possible to refuse to be a bit character in the wrong story someone else is telling, to refuse to do your part to enact the last chapter of a tale so destructive it’s about to cost the world.”

I can imagine Robinson putting the same passage in The Ministry for the Future.

That sense of noble purpose also speaks to the thirst so many of us have for solutions that will keep the Earth habitable and abundant for centuries to come. Bell’s Appleseed doesn’t seem that plausible to me, as it plays out what the world will become and how we’ll get there. Though others might disagree. Regardless, it still scratches an itch, the one in our head that asks: “What’s going to happen to our world?” And it does so with a literary voice that’s so admirable.

In the end, Appleseed is a book where a love of complex, rich storytelling and a passion for our ever-evolving Earth come together.

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Janet Stilson
Counter Arts

Janet Stilson’s novel THE JUICE, published to rave reviews. A sequel will be released in May 2024. She won the Meryl Streep Writer’s Lab for Women competition.