Orbit, 2001, 337pp, £14.99
reviewed in Foundation 83, Autumn 2001
‘Every word is a special-effects firecracker,’ Stephen Baxter is quoted as saying on the spare, tasteful and curious cover of this book, and therein lies the beauty and the problem of John Clute’s prose.
Language is, as a matter of course, problematic for science fiction. In a genre that, by definition, must deal with the new, the different, the alien, words must be found to encompass such strangeness. Hence the prevalence of neologisms as one of the characteristic features of science fiction. And when a work is set, as here, some thousands of years in the future, the problem is amplified. Not only will the language have changed, such that no one will speak a language we might readily understand any more than we would understand the Latin or Greek or Aramaic of two thousand years ago, but the referents of that language – the ‘things’ (objects, philosophies, entities) that the language is used to identify and explain – will be vastly different also. Such is a given of science fiction: we would not write the fiction if everything stayed the same. But how to illuminate such differences for an audience without the benefits of the future language, without first-hand knowledge of the referents to which the words point?
Clute’s solution is the exuberant deployment of a vast vocabulary, such that each sentence is crammed with words half-recognised, with familiar words in unfamiliar contexts, with words that clearly do not carry their normal meaning though what they are used to mean remains obscure. It is a technique that resembles the one employed by Gene Wolfe in The Book of the New Sun, though in the giddy swoops from high hieratic to low demotic (‘okey dokey’) I was reminded more forcibly of Samuel R. Delany.
Another trick is to employ a host of pop-culture images that, in a sense, democratise Clute’s language, giving us familiar clues to the scene or sense of what he is saying. Though in this, when I find Neil Simon’s play ‘The Odd Couple’ getting a passing mention at one point, ‘Little Nemo’ at another, I worry that not only would such cultural icons have been long forgotten by the distant future of this novel, but even today, for the contemporary reader, many such references are liable to sail past unnoticed and unrecognisable.
I also found myself having to stop and rub my eyes and wonder on more than one occasion when it appeared that Clute, with his seemingly eidetic memory for every page of the OED, had actually chosen the wrong word. The very first sentence, a sentence so important that it is repeated on the back cover, tells us: ‘There had always been something about a planet of cities that made Freer long for the sky’ (p. 1). But ‘sky’ is a planet-bound concept, a word for looking out from within the prison of the atmosphere. In this universe, as we are shown graphically on more than one occasion, even when ships dock at a planet they are tethered far out beyond the edges of the atmosphere, and there is no reason to suppose that Freer has ever even seen the ‘sky.’ What he longs for, the freedom adumbrated as the opposite of cities, is ‘space.’ Again, much later in the novel, when Freer arrives at Klavier, he sees something as from a plane, a vessel he would never have known (for planes are never included among the many far more effective means of travel mentioned throughout the book).
Such things, extravagance of language, unfamiliarity of cultural reference, apparent slips in vocabulary, are hiccups that slow our reading (and this is not a work that anyone would read quickly) and distract from whatever it is these words are meant to illuminate (though it is an illumination that seems to leave much in shade). Nevertheless, there are times when Clute’s lushness of prose results in something extraordinarily apposite and lovely, as when he talks of ‘the ratking tangle of wormholes.’ (p. 10) Though even here I wonder how quickly readers who might ordinarily expect to have the tail-knotted bundle of a reputed rat king explained to them, would pick up on it as the (abbreviated) explanation of something else. By chance I read a sentence which described: ‘three lopsided worms, twining ouroboros, incised around a winged caduceus wand’ (p. 29) only moments after reading a letter in the Independent (5 June 2001) in which a (presumably not uninformed) reader noted the ‘long words’ he did not understand in one article, including the word ‘ouroboros.’ This is not in itself a problem. It is part of the contract we enter into as readers that we explore the meanings of a book; relishing new words, chasing up unfamiliar definitions, contribute to our pleasure in unlocking the text. Nevertheless, if one has to check in a dictionary or Brewer’s every few words, the sense can get lost, and if the sense is lost then the story is beyond reach.
The danger Clute runs in his answer to the problem of the future, therefore, is that whatever tale he has to tell becomes invisible. It is a danger he avoids only because, of necessity, we stop asking what each and every word may mean, and instead simply glory in a stew of words, and because his story is actually quite simple. Freer is a human trader in a universe of many species, a universe in which humans, if not exactly the lowest of the low, are far from top dog. An information plague, ‘plaque,’ mysterious and incurable, is sweeping from world to world. Freer has arrived at Trencher to pick up a new payload, though there is something a little odd about what this cargo might actually be and even where it is due to be delivered. While on Trencher, or rather in a red-light docklands region which seems to be some way off the planet surface itself, there is an attack which kills millions but which Freer manages to escape with the help of the AIs who run his ship, and by the intervention of another human who appears as the pianist in a sleazy bar. Back aboard his ship, ‘Tile Dancer,’ Freer finds his guide to his next destination already waiting, a leafy alien who informs him that he will be heading for Eolhxir (I pronounce it ‘elixir,’ which seems highly appropriate), though exactly where this place might be, no one seems too sure. At Eolhxir are to be found ‘lenses’ which appear to be the answer to ‘plaque.’ (In any synopsis of this novel one inevitably finds oneself using words like ‘seem,’ ‘appear,’ ‘might,’ slippery words which keep sending one skating away from any hard and fast account of what is going on. This is partly because Clute’s central characters are themselves operating in a cloud of unknowing, and partly because his prose works against any simple declarative statement of fact.)
Freer’s journey towards the mysterious Eolhxir takes him first to the even more mysterious Klavier, which may be a world or may in fact be a sort of ship. Here, he meets again the pianist, who turns out to be Johnny Appleseed, the mythic figure who bestrode the American West in its frontier days, strewing about him the seeds of agriculture and civilisation. Now, it would seem, Johnny Appleseed had something else to spread in the cause of civilisation: the lenses. But attacking plaque brings powerful enemies, in this case the vast corporate bodies who control the net of information that links the worlds, and who are, for their own reasons, the perpetrators and disseminators of plaque. Specifically, it brings the Harpe. It is not altogether clear what the Harpe is/are. They are one and it is many, a self-eating, self-generating entity that is never actually described although Clute recounts its behaviour and enumerates its parts with obsessive detail. The parts may have comfortably familiar names – ‘mouth,’ for instance – but it is clear that although this may have a similar function it is by no means like anything we might recognise as a ‘mouth’. Although the novel seems at times to be one long description, it can be remarkably vague when it comes to anything we might actually wish to visualise.
So the Harpe come. And while ‘Tile Dancer,’ acting upon some ancient imperative that has, to this moment, lain dormant within the Made Mind of the ship, begins to knit together the parts of Klavier into a greater unity, the Harpe attack. What we get, when the novel suddenly shifts gear like this, is a burst of extreme and bloody violence told with unexpected breathlessness. But our hero cannot be killed. The forces ranged upon his side, the Made Minds that are his colleagues, the ship of immemorial antiquity, the Predecessor which is what our leafy passenger is abruptly revealed to be, are too powerful for any opposition. He may be knocked about, but he is always in command of the situation. His former wife, unexpectedly restored to him, might be brutally beheaded, but he simply grabs hold of the head and she is restored. There may be mystery here, in the form of secrets we are not told or do not fully understand, but such magical power means there is little in the way of suspense. We wait breathless to see how Freer might restore his situation, not heart-in-mouth to see whether he will survive.
And Clute has one final twist awaiting. For this is not a conclusion, but a beginning; the Harpe are not alien, but God. And we are rooting for the other side.
Appleseed is a novel of curious contradictions: a brutal story that should be read for its beauty; a work of high-cultural lyricism used to tell a tale of pulp simplicities. It is not a novel that the casual reader will pick up and find themselves dragged into, willy-nilly. It is a novel that has to be worked at slowly and patiently, teasing out the meaning from extraordinary convolutions of prose. It is a novel that demands much of the reader, not least a willingness to accept revolution, to witness the uprooting of expectations, taste and our common understanding of our humanity. It is not nice, it is not easy, it may not even be good: but I suspect it may be important.