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John Clute
Orbit Books, 337 pages

John Clute
John Clute was born in Toronto in 1940. He was raised there, and in Vancouver, Winnipeg and Montreal. He first left Canada in 1956, and returned to Toronto in 1964, where he wrote for the Varsity, did the New Fiction weekly column for the Toronto Star (1966-1967), and wrote reviews for the Globe and Mail and other papers before 1968, when he moved to London, England.

John Clute's work as an author and editor include his first novel, The Disinheriting Party (Allison and Busby, 1977), the 5 volume Interzone: the Anthology series and his key role in putting together The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. His awards include 3 Hugos and a World Fantasy Award.

John Clute Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Interview: John Clute
SF Site Review: Appleseed

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rich Horton

Approaching a novel by a man known first and foremost as a critic, and moreover a man known for his formidable intelligence and vocabulary, and his enjoyment in wielding both, is at the same time interesting and a bit intimidating. And indeed, John Clute's Appleseed is itself quite interesting: and quite intimidating. I come away from it rather in awe at the imagination evident both in the world-building and the prose; and rather in awe at the ambitious conceptualizing. At the same time I concede that I found the book difficult. The writing is extremely dense: line by line a pleasure, but a pleasure which requires some labour to achieve; labour which is perhaps tiring over time.

The setting and technology are also densely imagined, and here I am less sure of the success of the book. Much of it was nigh incomprehensible to me. Still, the setting remains fascinating, and perhaps because of the difficulty of comprehension it may be the more convincing as a true far-future world. That remains as ever the tightrope an SF writer must negotiate: how to convince the reader that the future portrayed is a true future and not a slightly-altered present, while at the same time allowing the reader to "inhabit" the space of the book.

Finally, the characters and plot are perhaps disappointments, or at any rate not what this book is worth reading for. The central character remained distant, not fully believable, and not very distinctive, though some of the peripheral characters were quite interesting. And the plot, stripped of the ornate cladding of setting and language, is quite a straightforward chase. Though that is hardly a negative feature; it's just not particularly a plus either.

To restate the above a bit differently: anyone familiar with John Clute's critical work will know that his prose is not simple, though it is precise and at its best exhilarating. They will also know that Clute is passionate about SF, and that he has an abiding fondness for the sub-genre called Space Opera. (And if, as I have, they have read his only previous novel, the non-SF The Disinheriting Party (1977), they will know that he can write difficult fiction indeed!) In many ways, Appleseed is precisely the SF novel one might have expected from John Clute.

The story starts with Nathaniel Freer, an instance of that hoary SF trope, the solitary interstellar jobbing trader, coming to a system called Trencher to pick up his latest cargo, a shipment of nanoforges for the planet Eolxhir. Freer might seem at first glance an ordinary human, but we soon learn that his milieu is not ordinary at all. Earth is long dead, a victim of a galaxy-wide information disease called "plaque", which seems to corrupt any computer based systems it infects, leading to complete disorder of information. The still-uninfected parts of the Galaxy are inhabited by a mix of "meat" species and AI's (or "Made Minds", in Clute's felicitous term). Among these for some reason humans have a special place, due apparently to their sexual habits. The AI's are extremely powerful, at full power making use of the quantum foam of the universe, but they are risky too as they can carry plaque. At Trencher, Freer picks up his cargo and, in addition, buys a couple of potentially useful Made Minds: the war machines SammSabaoth and Vipasanna. These seem especially fortunate acquisitions as Trencher suddenly comes under attack, apparently from both plaque and from an inimical alien entity called Opsophagos of the Harpe.

Freer, his ship the Tile Dance, which may be an artifact of the mysterious Predecessor species, his personal Made Mind companion, KathKirtt, his two new Made Minds, and an alien passenger named (delightfully) Mamselle Cunning Earth Link, who is the only person who knows where they are going, find themselves in a desperate fight/chase. Soon they are holed up in a sort of repair station/planetoid called Klavier, where they meet an odd character who calls himself Johnny Appleseed, and they learn a bit more of the real cargo Freer has picked up, and the value of this cargo. Furthermore, Appleseed has a surprise for Freer, in the form of his long lost lover (also delightfully named: Ferocity Monthly-Niece). The book continues to spiral further into strangeness. Though in the end, the basic outlines of the situation and a general sense of what has happened come fairly clear. There is plenty of quite fierce action, but as with many books featuring purposefully incredibly advanced tech, it's hard for the reader to quite believe in the peril to the characters, as the powers of the players seem all but arbitrary. The final resolution manages to be emotionally affecting despite some of the distancing effects of much of the book. A sequel seems probable, but this book comes to a reasonable close in itself.

Read this book for the often intoxicating pleasure of the prosody -- though to some people's taste it may be simply too much of a good thing. Or read it for the heavily recomplicated and well-imagined, if hard to follow, details of the setting and technology. Or for the sense of a truly different future (though Clute does cheat just the slightest bit: by having his protagonist's primary historical period of interest be 20th Century Earth he allows himself to make a number of contemporary allusions). Or for the occasional funny dialogue -- particularly that of Mamselle Cunning Earth Link, the most intriguingly depicted character. (At times I thought I detected echoes of Alfred Bester, in particular.) Be prepared for a bit of a tough go -- transparent prose this ain't! And as I said, the plot and characterization are not as interesting as the prose and setting -- so there are certainly longueurs. But on the whole Appleseed rewards the effort, and I suspect it might reward a second reading even more.

Copyright © 2001 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at

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