Matt Bell’s rambunctious new novel may not require reviewing so much as dendrochronology. The science of reading tree-rings, that is — seeing what those wee strips have to tell us about both past and future. “Appleseed” achieves a similar breadth of vision, taking in America’s wilderness genesis as well as looming nightmares of environmental collapse. Events range across centuries and continents, shifting points of view, upending ancient myth, and busting through genre conventions, in particular sci-fi. Yet it’s all laid out clearly, in strata that bookmark every turning point, and one way or another, the central setting remains the woods of Ohio.
Starting with the title, the fiction always comes back to trees. The first, the novel’s heartwood, are planted by the so-called Johnny Appleseed. Born John Chapman, working alongside his brother Nathaniel, history confirms his existence, sowing orchards across Ohio Territory about 1800. The novel’s “Chapman,” however, is also a creature of legend, a faun with hooves and horns. A woodland being, his sections ring with hymns to nature — “amid all this untamed splendor, every acre of forest is an empire” — but he stumbles as well into stranger metamorphoses, confronting mythic demons and even tearing a hole in time. Nonetheless, he and Nathaniel follow the same plan as any other pioneer. They want to make money off the land, seeking “the total domination promised all righteous men willing to put to profitable use every square inch of this God-gifted earth.”
It’s subduing the wild as Manifest Destiny, a vision that has since had hideous consequences. That trouble dominates the other two plotlines, both set in the future, alternating with the frontier material. The first takes place within the coming century, more or less, and the second much later. That is, just as Bell keeps Ohio as narrative landmark, he follows chronology. Readers can sort matters out even when changes snap the head back, often in terrifying ways.
First, the “domination of the righteous” becomes corporate domination. An outfit named Earthtrust does “geoengineering on a global scale,” relying on slave labor and monstrous cloning. Their inhumanity triggers bloody rebellion, with eco-terrorism and suicide attacks — and then in the farther future, things really get bad.
In this set of narrative tree-rings, ice sheets cover the earth. The lone creature of consciousness is an AI, mostly “polymer and plastic.” To live, however, it requires “biomass,” the mulch it scrounges from under the ice, and more than that it’s got horns and hooves. Other details too recall the long-ago faun, especially when the robot begins to undergo its own extraordinary transformation, Ovidian. The machine begins to sprout “bark and branches and buds,” while within, a seed of hope takes root. “C-433” lurches off on a quest, seeking a sanctuary across the ice, and so generates a plot as compelling and desperate as that of the slave uprising against Earthtrust or the half-wild creature who spends his days taming the wild.
Plot matters for “Appleseed” as it does in few other novels of such subtlety or imagination. Bell has dreamed up fascinating hellholes before, as in the postapocalyptic “Cataclysm Baby” from 2012, the very title of which also reveals his rhetorical flare: the two words combine with crackling irony. Then his most recent fiction, 2015′s “Scrapper,” quieted things down. Its ravaged landscape was contemporary Detroit, its conflicts the all-too-common travails of poverty and racism. Thus what sets the new novel apart — sets it above, as his greatest accomplishment — is how effectively it brings together all his gifts.
The story unleashes prodigies old and new: both the ancient Furies (who carry a severed, screeching head), and a woman downloaded into a cloud of tiny nanobots, a mechanical ghost. It even makes room for Disney’s cartoon Appleseed, with its earworm of a theme song: The Lord is good to me. … Still, what surprises us most about these marvels is their emotional richness.
Though the major players vary in the degree to which they’re human, their struggles have a bedrock humanity. As one protagonist puts it: “All human plots move humanward, but what of the plot of the world?” Good question. It both shows off Bell’s gift for aphorism, nuggets that glitter throughout, and lays out a blueprint for his storytelling. Chapman and the others strive for control over their lives, even as their world tends implacably toward catastrophe. The drama’s elemental, in short, and so my few misgivings had to do with those times when the scaffolding of cause and effect got in the way. One or two of the near-future episodes felt overcareful, connecting the dots between Earthtrust’s science and the rebels’ sabotage.
But then again, that plotline may offer the greatest thrills. The guerillas are grimly heroic, the escapes hairsbreadth. Elsewhere, even a robot’s demise feels poignant, a reminder that “no story has ever ended so definitively that another could not be told.” The impact made me think of Jeff VanderMeer and his Area X trilogy, chilling the spine while engaging the heart. Then too, “Appleseed”'s pervading concern for forest ecology (“nothing truly wild was ever controlled without pain for all involved”) recalled Richard Powers and his phenomenal tree-text, “The Overstory.” Comparisons like that raise problems — the two older authors are miles apart — but they drive home my point: that Matt Bell has brought off a novel as exciting as any in recent years.
By Matt Bell
Custom House, 480 pp., $27.99
John Domini’s memoir, “The Archeology of a Good Ragù,” appeared this spring.