Appleseed by John Clute

Rob Nostalgebraist’s Goodreads reviews are fun to read, so I read nearly all of them some time ago. That’s how I came across John Clute’s novel Appleseed.

Before talking about Appleseed, a bit of setup. Nostalgebraist is very bright. In particular, his very-bright-ness is of the “see through complexity” variety. One salient way he made an impression on me was when he saw through Karl Friston’s “free energy” BS when everyone else was puzzled. (I have yet to see a counterargument to rebut that post. Instead there’s been support by e.g. jadagul, the other of the two math tumblr users I respect above all else.) And by everyone else, I mean people like Scott Alexander, who in turn (in his post God help us, let’s try to understand Friston on free energy) quoted the following memorable passage from the journal Neuropsychoanalysis:

At Columbia’s psychiatry department, I recently led a journal club for 15 PET and fMRI researhers, PhDs and MDs all, with well over $10 million in NIH grants between us, and we tried to understand Friston’s 2010 Nature Reviews Neuroscience paper – for an hour and a half.

There was a lot of mathematical knowledge in the room: three statisticians, two physicists, a physical chemist, a nuclear physicist, and a large group of neuroimagers – but apparently we didn’t have what it took.

I met with a Princeton physicist, a Stanford neurophysiologist, a Cold Springs Harbor neurobiologist to discuss the paper. Again blanks, one and all.

(If you’ve been following math, this is very reminiscent of the drama surrounding Mochizuki’s claimed proof of the abc conjecture. In particular I’m thinking of Stanford arithmetic geometer Brian Conrad’s Notes on the Oxford IUT workshop, albeit at reduced scale. In that case, the best specialists in the world convened for a full week, and at the end of it there was still a haze of incomprehension clouding everyone’s vision.)

So: nostalgebraist is “see through complexity” sharp. Given that, I was very intrigued to see his review of Appleseed begin like so:

When I finished this book I was too dazed and worn out to give it anything like the kind of review it deserved. I ended up just resorting to the worst reviewer’s cliche in the book — “what was this guy on?

I still don’t feel like writing a real review, but in lieu of that I can at least throw some quotes at you. Quotes are specially informative here because what distinguishes this book from all the other science fiction I’ve read isn’t plot or characterization or worldbuilding — all pretty good, mind you — but its use of language to disorient and dazzle the reader.

I’ve always been confused by the preference many science fiction writers and fans have for plain, unadorned language — isn’t science fiction all about going to new and strange places where people may think, and thus talk, differently? The future will break the world apart into categories along different lines than the present, and those categories will be embodied in words.

Well, Appleseed’s style is anything but plain, and it is one of the only works of science fiction I’ve read that really sounds like the future.

First of all, this is precisely what’s nagged me about most sci-fi depictions of the future: they always sound so anachronistically contemporary, which sets off my implausibility detectors like a goddamn klaxon. Second of all, if even nostalgebraist found it challenging, what the hell chance do I have? But I was already riveted.

Nostalgebraist then gives several quotes from the book, and says:

What you think of these passages is a pretty reliable determinant of what you will think of the whole book.

If you are the sort of SF fan who won’t be able to enjoy the book unless you can determine precisely what each of Clute’s funny words means and what basis it has in real science, then you won’t like Appleseed.

On the other hand, if these quotes make you hungry for more psychedelic future-speak, Clute is your man.

The first quoted passage from Appleseed is this:

A timorous sibling tched softly within striking distance of the breakfast head of the Harpe in command of the great ark in orbit around Trencher with its stuffing of deep-sleeps snoring through their brainchip tasks. The sibling masticated with tiny nibbles the real-paper printouts in its glutinous ticklers, which it extended, perhaps hoping to donate an extensor limb. The commanding officer — a grown sibling of Opsophagos — took the printout in the mouth of its slack-eyed famished breakfast head, read the co-ordinates displayed, pulled down a three-horned screen and punched out the designated location. Chip-sluggish, the screen cleared, in time to reveal Number One Son wobble bare-arsed into the homo sapiens braid. Controlling their aversion to sigilla, the commanding officer began to jubilate.

They almost ate himself alive with joy.

Clute, it turns out, is definitely my man.

Unfortunately the book is old and wasn’t very popular when it came out, so I wasn’t able to get a copy of it for the longest time.

Until today! I discovered a copy on the Internet Archive available for free 15-day borrowing. So I’ve just started reading it. Here are some of the more memorable quotes from the beginning of the book.

Appleseed is, above all, linguistic performance art. There’s not much of a story, but the way it’s told — hoo boy.

The ship Tile Dance docking in an old ecumenopolis, or world-city, called Trencher:

One thing I realized was how biological all the metaphors were. I’m used to reading SF by math/physics/CS types: Egan, Rajaniemi, Stross, Rosenbaum, Rucker etc. Even Peter Watts’s work (which I love) doesn’t feel so wet, so sensual. This was a striking change.

The ostensible antagonists:

“Flesh is grass” is a recurring theme. Here’s another quote:

Local news as “data perfume”:

Number One Son:

I like this passage. Sometimes you just wanna get the job done and “go home”, metaphorically construed:

This too — a depiction of the dermis-level innards of a mature world-city, holographically viewed:

More Trencher:

The “data smells” metaphor is starting to grow on me:

The sole human aboard the cargo ship Tile Dance, Freer, is naked. (Of course he is. So would I be. I am in fact, right now, and I’m not even aboard a spaceship.) This is a description of how he decides to get clothed:

Tile Dance is quite the spaceship. Here Freer is exiting what we’d call the “control room” (here Glass Island) and disembarking from the ship:

Glass Island itself:

Elsewhere, reentering Tile Dance:

The ship is pretty much alive:

A description of a powerful AI, or “Made Mind”, being awakened from slumber:

More Made Mind, and the allure of mortality (which doesn’t make much sense to me, a mortal):

One thing that always comes up is “toons”, which deliver stuff like spammy ads:

The fate of Trencher’s humans seem pretty bleak:

This scene reminded me of the imagery during the speeder chase on, or above, Coruscant:

Humans out for a stroll in Trencher:

What happens if you walk around Trencher without a spam filter?

Social mores are different. Here Freer watches the start of a play:

Elsewhere, background commentary:

Clute’s rendition of momentary loss of augmentation:

Clute’s rendition of bodily speedup — I’m a great fan of depictions of this, my favorite being Rajaniemi’s in his Quantum Thief trilogy:

Data plaque, one of the book’s major plot points:

Talking to “a flesh non-homo-sapiens bipedal” embodying what’s basically the GPS for this particular cargo shipment (so not quite, but pretty much, an alien):

and:

The dialogue is… difficult.

Sometimes I wonder what paragraphs like these mean:

All this, by the way, is in the first quarter of the book.

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