John Clute: Yakfests of the Empyrean

By Matthew Davis

"Je résolus de m'informer du pourquoi, et de transformer ma volupté en connaissance." Baudelaire, Richard Wagner and Tannhauser in Paris, 1861

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John Clute has been writing for over 35 years, and in the process he has become an integral part of science fiction's history. Clute was born in Toronto in 1940; he attended New York University and began writing general book reviews in the mid-'60s for the Toronto Star. His first significant SF reviews appeared in the late 1960s in New Worlds when he moved to England after years of alternating between Canada and the United States. In the late 1970s and 1980s he began to appear regularly in notable venues like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Times Literary Supplement, while he was also instrumental in founding the British SF magazine Interzone. Although his book reviews have been collected in only three volumes: Strokes (1988), Look at the Evidence (1995), and Scores (2003), he has shaped the understanding of SF and fantasy through his involvement in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (writing the majority of the individual author entries) and The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (writing the majority of the thematic essays) as well as with his own volume, Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia (1995), a more personal yet still rigorous stroll through the family gallery of SF history. Clute stands out, not just because of the depth and breadth of his knowledge, but also for the individuality of his writing; even the most formal sentence plucked from one of his scholastic works is readily identifiable due to his individual judgement and style.

Despite this, Clute has not always been regarded favorably throughout the SF community. When his criticism first appeared in New Worlds, his essays were typical of the controversial New Wave fiction they accompanied; they were counter-cultural, implicitly anti-American, deliberately stylized, and they introduced both intellectual jargon and four-letter words. SF criticism serves not only the SF community, but also a larger general audience who found Clute to be an erudite (but not necessarily forthright) reviewer. SF writers, desperately wanting their reviewers to shill for them, found that Clute's intellectual acumen seemed to be demoting the writers' primacy and appropriating their creative fire. SF reviewing has often had a strong tendency to be plot-oriented or to gush over technological content, whereas Clute's recensions of plot tended to make him appear effortlessly superior to the plodding book in hand, and his expansive loquacity and highly dramatic style of writing could arouse hostile feelings of inferiority in SF fans. The fact that SF has long been riven by political assumptions about what the future ought to be, and that Clute in his writing would appear to espouse a politics of forceful liberal irony only makes for one more area in which he is uncongenial to some in SF circles.

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From his earliest reviews, Clute intended to establish a new form of SF criticism. By the late '60s, such SF scholarship as existed had largely developed into enclaves of fannish gossip, where Wollheims or Moskowitzs would self-pleasedly chunter to each other about who said what to whom at which convention (and who sold what for how much), or into smug competitions to trace the lineage of the first cockroach time-travel nuclear apocalypse story in Eldritch Conjectures magazine. Clute knew that SF was not only worthy of real criticism, but that it needed it. Just as the New Wave was an attempt to develop science fiction in new and necessary ways, so proper criticism, dedicated to hard cogitation and stringent rethinking of the models SF had adapted, was vital if SF was to develop the stories it had to tell. Clute said that Canadian SF writers, like A. E. Van Vogt and Gordon Dickson, wrote about protagonists afflicted with the burden of guiding humanity up the evolutionary ladder, and it might be said that Clute has undertaken a similar responsibility for SF's understanding of itself.

Although fervent claims have been made by readers that SF is a highly intelligent form of fiction, it is often far from intellectual. From the beginning, Clute was eager to employ critical implements that hitherto had not been brought to bear upon SF. While all critics wrestle with constructing a useful definition of SF, it is typical that Clute turned to Northrop Frye to describe SF as a "romance" radiating a glow of subjective intensity that the realistic novel lacks, whose generic forms are the offspring of the iconicity of the romance stripped down for action (it can be argued that for Clute, the history of SF itself is another glamorous "romance"), and whose stylised protagonists expand into psychological archetypes (the hero becomes "The Hero," etc.). Clute sidesteps matters of socio-political prediction or technological extrapolation to look at the form and qualities of the genre as a whole, as one of many, not as a "unique" category as many prior SF apologists had defensively proposed. Clute's concern has always been to examine how SF describes itself as a genre, how its expectations of its form and content are composed, how innovations arise and are assimilated, and how SF's tomorrows are born out of its yesterdays.

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Clute's history of SF is predicated on the belief that it tells a Story (oh dear, yes), that the world is transparent to certain techniques of explication and that it is ultimately, if complexly, knowable. However, this history is complicated by the fact that modern SF's history is almost consonant with Clute's own life. The problem, therefore, is one of distinguishing the dour emotional response to the aging and enervation of one from the disappointments of maturity of the other. Clute identifies as "First SF" such writers from the 1930s as Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein, who wrote histories of the future in which progress was innate to man's condition, where the future (and it was really only the one future) was an endeavour men could create and tell stories about ("daedal and storyable") and which was largely concurrent with the American imperium. Although by the 1960s, technological progress had arrived in the real world, dazzling SF adventures had not, and as the imperium was showing cracks, a sense of disappointment, stasis, and limitation set in. Sputnik was symbolic in its suggestion that earlier stories in space might have been fundamentally wrong. As the New Wave thrashed about in adolescent revolt trying to escape and evolve, and "First SF" fled in fear into a literary and scientific fugue, retreating into an astronomical arcadia where "hard" SF has long remained, the realization dawned that we were trapped in history and that there would be no leap upwards.

Until this point, SF had a largely monolithic view; it had been telling the one story of man's ascension through the cosmos, and Clute was afraid that SF had taken a wrong path and was now being shaped by futures it had failed to notice. The late 1970s offered a partial breakthrough for Clute; John Varley's revelatory recounting of man's exile from Earth demonstrated that there was no longer a single story to tell or scenario to follow. Due to the fact that Varley's futures were about "competent survival in the shit house," he became Clute's model writer of this new generation. For all that cyberpunk seemed open to new technological opportunities and its lone protagonists continued Varley's example, Clute still spent much of the 1980s fearful that SF had finally reached its dead end. He suspected that SF had told the Story it was destined to tell, but that it had failed to live (Clute thus ironically became the critic wishing for the death of SF that Wollheim had accused him of being back in the '60s). But during the 1990s, as cold war stasis came to an end alongside new emerging fears of ecological catastrophe, Clute hoped that (for good or ill) the stream of history would finally flow again.

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In much of the SF from the late '80s and '90s, Clute identified widespread recursivity, nostalgia, and self-referentiality as indications that SF was in its final, decadent phase. One of the rewards of being a fan has always been the joy of recognising and reconfiguring generic works, of mainlining into a particular literary history. The knowingness Clute had worked to acquire was now shared by all, and as writers became unable to create new futures and neologisms (instead revisiting familiar futures we never had), signs seemed to indicate that the programme of SF had stalled. However, a change of perspective made Clute realize that the solution to this dilemma was to champion the power of changes in perspective and to acknowledge the deep psychological importance of the form of "Stories" and their constituent cliches, rather than to decry the fact of their exhaustion.

As contemporary life is now too awash in information for us to have a coherent understanding of the present from which to build a consensus for extrapolation, so SF is no longer about nostalgic futures, but becomes rather a joyous dance of generic SF protocols and information theory. In the new world of information theory Clute acknowledged the power of recombination, that cliches are armatures of the absolute which we crave, and in writing The Encyclopedia of Fantasy he examined the power of the constituent elements of Story. Weary and jaded readers will reawaken to a proliferation of means by which we can interpret the density of the present, as SF becomes the vital profusion of almost innumerable and relevant sub-genres. "Any good SF novel written by an intelligent author at the peak of his craft is a byte dance and sorting of all the SF protocols we are likely to call up from memory" (NYRSF, January 1991).

For Clute, the practice of SF is almost identical to the criticism of SF. Most fiction cannot help being ironic, since we know more about the shape that Stories (note the capital, please) take than their protagonists ever will. In this way SF becomes broader; it names the array of potentially differing readings (as one might expect from a critic) we can make of the world. It becomes the celebration of points of view, of arguments about our condition, that we comprehend our world though sets of conventions and filters that develop and operate much like any genre's own conceptual structures and modes. The idea that the world can be read as a Story makes the act of criticism redemptive; it can return us to the wellspring of innocent and powerful creativity. In this context, Clute concentrates on the debt that the author owes to his creation. What he calls "misprision" is the deliberate misreading of the book, the necessary job of freeing the book from its author so that it can live again, and in this reconstruction the reader-critic is the vital co-creator who makes the writing live. Indeed, to the extent that a story can be effectively paraphrased it is a load of old rote produced by an author bored or unwilling to shoulder the necessary impassioned act of creation; it falls to Clute to bring his own fervour and facility with cliches and archetypes to crack the book open and to take authors to task for the poverty of their fictional realization. The fear for Clute, in his encyclopedic knowledge and the sense of tradition within which an author works, is that his taxonomy will instead become taxidermy of the living SF he loves. Those writers Clute praises most highly, like Gene Wolfe and John Crowley, are those who realize the importance of genre tropes, unite the Story with its meaning, and grant the necessity of bestowing that Story a freedom of its own.

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Clute's emphasis on the importance of Story is to be expected from a critic who has always tended to avoid thematic explication and rote paraphrase. In the days of Campbell-influenced "First SF" with its primary concern for man's role in the universe, the role of the critic seemed simply to be to celebrate those individual plots and gimmicks that incarnate humanity's manifest destiny. The Campbell who is more of an influence on Clute is Joseph Campbell, the author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Clute's tendency is to speak of tropes and archetypes and their own necessary energies, but he always relates them to practical writerly and emotional needs. His immediate forebearers are William Empson and Northrop Frye, who analysed the psychology and structure of the myths that underpin all Stories. A critic like Frye whose archetypes describe the religious journey from Creation to Apocalypse will always appeal to the millenarian-minded author of The Book of End Times (1998). Indeed, if Clute's writing has a theme, then it is probably "Beware of the God." Clute's first novel The Disinheriting Party (1977), a castration-obsessed Pynchonesque romp, is indicative of the importance of gnostic-tinged rebellion to his thought (what it is about American writers and their bloody fathers?). Yet for all that Clute is attracted by those father-fixated gnostic attempts to escape from authority and strictures and create a new breathing world, ironically he ended up encapsulating the history of SF and its individual authors in his essays and encyclopedia entries and so created much of the critical language and rules by which SF and fantasy are now interpreted.

Rather than imposing one meaning, Clute celebrates catholicity. The all-encompassing nature of his encyclopedias represents an attempt to shake off any determining Whig historicism that would restrict and reward the relevance of writers to the degree they participate in a chain of development culminating in our self-congratulatory present. Instead, Clute celebrates them all, and in his reviews he welcomes all writers and relishes their individual qualities. Clute is devoted to the attention demanded by the power and specificity of individual details. For years he made recurrent heavy use of the critical term, "haecceity"—an individual essence, a unique and specific "thisness" appropriate only to each given entity. For Clute the most important thing is the detailed, multitudinous, actualised density, texture and presentness of the Story's world in its language: "to the end that the reader lives in the humid hallucinatory presence of the ultimately alien and strange. This complex impaction of information—this interwoven mosaic—is what a novel can offer" (F&SF, January 1979).

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For the same reasons, Clute writes the prose he likes to read, designed to be noticed and savoured, exuberant, punning and highly dramatised, maybe even to envision alien artefacts in the same way that SF Stories do. Clute's prose might be thought of as a net of words, metaphors, and connotations criss-crossing, in which the ultimate meaning, never wholly explicit, thrums along the web from which we must try to find our way out, where God (or the author) is the spider who will try to trap us. Because of this, many readers can find him verbose or obscurantist, yet his is a critical vocabulary that decries "noise," "chatter," "chunter," "doubletalk," "gabfests," "concatenation," "Babel," "babble," "jaw-jaw," "volubility," "rhetoric," and "clatter" for defacing "transparency" and "clarity." With its hop-jump-kick-glissando-turn-jazz-hands-and-new-paragraph patterning, its inhabiting of the present tense and heavy use of hyphenated phrasing and surprisingly enfiladed adjectives and adverbs, Clute's prose bears no small resemblance to sprung-rhythm, and given that "haecceity" is a term little circulated outside academic Hopkins criticism, and that his regular use of "inscape" also originates with Hopkins, it may be that the religious Gerald Manley Hopkins is an important model for Clute. For Clute's is a criticism that unembarrassedly draws upon the ontological language that formal religion has built to house itself, for SF in its dramatised metaphors and Stories has shouldered that same burden.

If SF has an ultimate purpose, a teleology, it is to reawaken us to the fresh possibilities of existence. In his reviews of contemporary American fiction for The Times Literary Supplement during the 1980s and 1990s (largely, and maybe significantly, uncollected) Clute found a pained asphyxiated wilderness, a hinterland bereft of new frontiers, its protagonists unable to light out for new territories, elegiacally immured in a sidelined viewpoint of fixed belatedness. Because it is the very flipside of this, Clute has repeatedly hailed the anima mundi of space opera as the most successful and significant examplar of SF during the last 25 years; it leaps out of the trap of history into a cosmogenic pluralism: hence Clute's first SF novel, Appleseed (1999) is a space opera. Appleseed explicitly dramatizes many of the ideas and symbols explicated in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. The Story is replete with Masks, Transformations, an Amnesiac Knight whose redemptive Fisher King purpose is unknown to himself, Thresholds crossed, the Revolt against God, Instauration (rebirth of the world through Hermetic knowledge), and a Slingshot into Eucatastrophe (happily ever after). The first half of the novel is a densely realised space buccaneer adventure in a world where the life-fluid of information is being thinned out by plaque and sclerosis, while in the transcendentally-minded second half the book becomes its own summation as characters stand around explaining the plot and its rituals and icons of sex and healing, so becoming more like a real high opera, creating an overall effect of a pre-Raphaelite Arthurian tableau embellished by Merzbau interpretations of The Gutenberg Elegies. Appleseed, although less mobile than much of his best criticism, puts his beliefs into practice, where characters who come to understand the constructed environment in which they abide (the world of the Story constructed by the author), learn its extents and possibilities and in this awakening to the transparency and comprehensibility of the self and the world, by an heroic act of knowing can attempt some gnostic transcendence and world metamorphosis (that's plot resolution to you and me). It is a slingshot into deeper understanding that Clute wants his or any reader to take from the fiction they read, and it is what Clute the critic offers to the whole field of SF.


Matthew Davis has had essays appear in Foundation and The Internet Review of Science Fiction.