The magic incarnated by Chapman is followed by the malevolent wonders of technology in the novel’s second major thread. Here, we follow along with John, a brilliant inventor turned repentant eco-rebel, as he tries to atone for his part in creating an Ohio-based, planetwide mega-interest known as Earthtrust. Earthtrust, founded by John’s childhood best friend to help fight the ravages of overfarming and climate change, has become an unambiguous part of the problem. We get a clear idea of where it is all heading in the book’s third thread. In this grim vision of the future, a lonely, haunted entity known first as C-432 and then as C-433 scours the frozen continent for pockets of biomaterial to bring back to the derelict hunk of metal it calls home.
The two C’s in this third thread share not just a letter but also hooves and horns with Chapman from the first — a sign of the skein of connections Bell builds his novel around. The perfect apple one character is searching for is connected to the perfectly inedible bioengineered specimens encountered by another, which in turn are linked to the fruits of an extraordinary future tree that emerges from some highly unexpected soil. Elsewhere, the flowers, chicks and rabbits of the opening pages are glimpsed again in the empty cloned eyes of future animals, and they in turn find their echo far in the future in creatures made of tiny flying robot swarms.
Bell wisely resists going overboard with connective and structural conceits, and so prevents “Appleseed,” with its tripart design of tightly woven threads, from turning into a giant puzzle whose mere completion might have, à la “Cloud Atlas,” by David Mitchell, overpowered its emotional content. Bell is clearly not out in this formally ambitious but still deeply humane work to score points for making nifty formal moves. An appealing earnestness undergirded by deeply felt optimism infuses “Appleseed.” Meaning that if we are not in for the literary equivalent of a Rubik’s Cube in its pages, nor do we have on our hands an unrelentingly savage postapocalyptic hellscape like Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” The direct influences in “Appleseed” — drawn as much, one senses, from high-concept film, television and video games as from literature — lie elsewhere. Bell has metabolized his nodes of inspiration well enough that while they lend interesting texture (a touch of “Westworld” here, of “Black Mirror” and “Oryx and Crake” there), they never overwhelm. This is as it should be. Shoving the whole world over the brink and trying to envision a way in which it might be meaningfully, not cheaply, hauled back up is too tall an order to be played out against a backdrop of nods and winks: Bell has the radical organic rebooting of the whole planet in his sights.
Half measures — like the tepid carbon offsets and slightly more stringent emissions standards we’ve fooled ourselves into believing will somehow solve our problems — won’t get the job done there. The land-taming, rewilding, reseeding and atmosphere-altering ventures that Bell’s flawed, fascinating characters engage in are good as far as they go, but ultimately, “Appleseed” suggests, our current ways of being will all have to be pounded into very small pieces — “Gravel of marble countertops, of ceramic dishes, of stainless steel appliances. Gravel of fences and roadways, gravel of streetlights and traffic signals. Gravel of plastic chairs and plastic dishes and plastic children’s toys” — before anything resembling a rebirth can begin. What emerges on the other side of the apocalypse as “Appleseed” construes it will barely resemble what went into it. But it stands a good chance of being beautiful.
The tough but bracingly redemptive “Appleseed” certainly is. If there are a few small missteps along the way (like the Disney-meets-David Lynch moment near the novel’s end, when sinister dwarves appear), what nearly 500-page novel that takes on the fate of a grievously wounded planet doesn’t have a few? The big picture is that Bell has achieved something special here. “Appleseed,” a highly welcome addition to the growing canon of first-rate contemporary climate fiction, feels timely, prescient and true.