Science Fiction Studies

#81 = Volume 27, Part 2 = July 2000


David Ketterer

Spin-Doctoring the "Testesical" Apocalypse

John Clute. The Book of End Times: Grappling with the Millennium. HarperPrism (415-477-4400), 1999. xii + 240 pp. $30.00 cloth.

There is an obvious risk in publishing in November 1999 a book about the turn of the millennium that will be reviewed in the present year, 2000. It now appears that the "Y2K bug" was overhyped, but John Clute (coeditor of those magisterial encyclopedias of sf and fantasy) could not have known that when he wrote The Book of End Times. He introduces the threat early—"a lot of computers may blow at the strike of midnight on 1 January 2000" (9)—and periodically reminds the reader throughout (162, 167, 178, 224). There is the danger that readers’ overall confidence in Clute’s argument might be undermined by their knowledge that the perils of the Y2K bug were very much outweighed by the various, largely non-computer-generated problems that plagued London’s Millennium Dome and giant ferris wheel "Eye" by the Thames.

Because The Book of End Times entwines an argument about the new millennium with an important and no doubt controversial theory of sf’s development, it is likely to be regarded as Clute’s summa. And because the main argument is not anticipated but accretes over the course of the book, it may be helpful to begin this review with a summary. The year 2000 or 2001 does not mark the arrival of anything like the capital-M Millennium of the Book of Revelation, but there are senses in which what happens in the twenty-first century might well be catastrophic. Waiting to be revealed is some kind of devastation (the seeds of which were planted in the twentieth century) claiming most or all of life on Earth, or else some way out—seeds of renewal and survival (also apparent in the twentieth century). Allied to those considerations is a distinction between "First SF" and what is not so named but must be called "Second SF" (both stages exemplified by American sf). First SF, or "Big Story" sf, peaked in the pre-Sputnik era and had become tired "by about 1975 or 1980" (181), round about when the first edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction was published (1979). Clute associates First SF—consensus Star Trek style sf, "sci-fi," and the source of the iconic imagery of the twenty-first century—with the wrong, one-track, fixed story of Millennium. He associates wiser Second SF, or "multi-small-story" sf, with the open-ended cornucopia of story that is the Book of Revelation, the Apocalypse as most positively understood (perhaps as a typological summation or microcosm of the Bible). It is in Second SF that may be discerned the seeds of a positive twenty-first century, or at least a blueprint for survival.

There is, of course, a Big Question to be asked about all this. To what extent is Clute’s argument, particularly as it relates to sf, hindered or helped by the application of his generalized senses of the Christian concepts of Millennium and Apocalypse?

According to Clute, the sf "that is being written now about the next five to fifty years is sf about surfing" (182), and he has attempted to provide an analogous experience for the reader of End Times (as I shall henceforth abbreviate his title). The book is a handsomely produced coffee-table volume that effectively marries text and illustration. Clute’s text is regularly interrupted by an anthology of apposite dire or portentous quotations from such diverse thinkers as Henry Adams, D.H. Lawrence, Dwight Eisenhower, Leonard Cohen, William Empson, William Blake, etc. All of the text (whether in regular or emphatic type and layout) is superimposed on illustrative material, whether computer graphics or appropriate reproductions. Almost every page of text is paired with an illustration that does not simply provide a background for the text—reproductions (some familiar but many not) from such artists as Hieronymus Bosch and Howard Finster, from such films as Forbidden Planet (1956) and The Name of the Rose (1986), or from other visual media. Sometimes, this generally very telling collage presentation makes for strained reading—when, for example, Clute’s text is interrupted by a quotation that is not clearly signaled. It was not immediately apparent to me that the concluding quatrain of an unidentified poem on page 133 (where its layout suggests a complete poem) is to be found on the following page 135 (where it is identified as Thomas Hardy’s "Channel Firing" [1914]) against a two-page reproduction of Roger Brown’s Final Arbiter (1984), a skeleton rider atop a running skeleton horse. This striking painting does, of course, superbly highlight the power of Hardy’s final stanza. The use of bubble print for some headings and short quotations, or the use of varieties of standard print in different colors against variegated backgrounds, also sometimes presents difficulties. Most such aspects of design and layout would, of course, have been the publisher’s responsibility, not Clute’s. And by and large the experimental presentation makes for a stunning synergy of text and illustration.

The "Prologue," which states Clute’s premise "that millennium fever is nonsense, but ... apocalypse is not" (1) and defines the terms "hysteria," "apocalypse," "apocalypticism," "millennium," and "millennialism," is preceded by a quote from an unpublished 1999 speech of William Gibson’s that expresses Clute’s general point: "I do not usually deal in the capital-A Apocalypse. What I’ve said so far has to do with the ongoing, the daily, the little-a apocalypse, and I believe that each of us today is aware, to some degree, of some convulsive quality in contemporary existence which may actually be new in the experience of the species" (xii). Clute and Gibson’s little-a apocalypse does not mean the literal end of the world. They are concerned with the possibility that the turn of the millennium coincides with a reality paradigm shift—a "philosophical apocalypse." To varying degrees a "philosophical apocalypse" is also a "metaphorical" or "rhetorical apocalypse." Too much metaphor and too much rhetoric and it is not a true philosophical apocalypse at all. There is no question but that a new twenty-first-century reality is in the process of being "constructed." Only with another century’s hindsight, however, will we know whether or not that reality first coalesced around, say, 1980 or, say, 2020. One can predict with some assurance that it will not be dated from 2000 or 2001.

The first of the book’s four parts is entitled "A Story Called Millennium." It provides an overview of "the hysteria-ridden world of 1999 ... and of how we fail to describe it to ourselves" (7). As evidence, Clute examines the fall 1997 issue of Life magazine on the closing millennium and a 1998 article from the British newspaper The Observer. The issue of Life includes a list of the most significant events since the year 1000. It is, Clute underlines, a winner’s list determined by the story of progress, the Whig interpretation of Western history—"what is real is what leads to us." The celebration of "rise" blocks out the cyclical story of "renewal" (25). The most important scientific event of the first millennium, according to Richard Powers in a similar special issue of The New York Times for April 18, 1999, is not in Life’s list:

This event—the demonstration by Ibn al-Haythan, or Alhazen, that light traveled to (not from) the eye—was of vital importance, not only because it solved a centuries-old dispute, but because Alhazen proved his case not through abstract argument but through observation. He asked observers to stare at the sun. If their eyes began to burn, it meant that light was entering them. Their eyes began to burn. Case proved. (25)

Clute mentions some of the events that are in Life’s list but not always with a clear sense of chronology: "The 1500s and the 1600s are chock-full, with twenty-one big ones. Some of them, such as the Industrial Revolution [?] and Luther’s invention of Protestantism, rank very high...." (26). Life’s last major event is homo sapiens on the moon: "Nothing since 1969 is worth noting" (28). But, Clute argues, the moon landing was a climax that points backwards, not forwards. President Nixon’s "practical" 1972 decision that NASA focus on the development of the space shuttle rather than space exploration was the more forward-looking event; thereby Nixon betrayed the American myth of Manifest Destiny, "smashed the ladder of history" (32), generated "a sense that we have entered the end time," and so "created a climate for apocalyptic thought" (33). History lost momentum and "retro sf" ("sci fi") came to the fore. This phenomenon is typified by the success of Star Wars in 1977.

The refusal to face what is really happening—the claim, à la the 1975 film Jaws (and as a chapter title has it) that "There is No Shark" (51)—is epitomized for Clute by an essay in the British Sunday newspaper The Observer for February 15, 1998. The essay reports that an American geologist, Dr. Roger Hooke, calculates that "the earth moved by humans exceeded that moved by rivers 25 years ago" (56), but rather than confront the dangerous environmental implications, the reader’s attention is directed to a Flintstones cartoon joke that trivializes the story and creates "a frame of comic irony" (59).

Part Two, "What to Do in Dreamland Till We’re Dead," finds its clue in the 1998 craze for the interactive Tamagotchi toy. This compulsively distractive device, which resembles a worry stone rather than a prayer bead promising transcendence, offers the illusion of meaningfulness—and hence what Clute, who has a knack for naming social and fictional phenomena, dubs "the Tamagotchi gesture" (72). A list of nineteen "phenomena that mimic or manifest the Tamagotchi gesture" includes "manned space flight as it exists in 1999," "frequent-flyer programs," "modern computer games," and "the fin de millénium itself" (76-78).

Clute finds further guidance in Elaine Showalter’s Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture (Columbia UP, 1997). Clute has already defined "hysteria" in his "Prologue": "From hysterion, which is Greek for ‘womb.’ A disease—often now called ‘conversion disorder’—where some scarring but inadmissible stress, which may be physical in origin but is usually psychic, surfaces as a symptom or symptoms seemingly unrelated to that original stress" (1). Enlarging on that definition, Clute claims that not women but "Men are the hysterics of the race. Hysteria might better be called testesia" (82-83). It follows that our construction of the millennium’s end might well be characterized as "testesical." And so Mark Kingwell’s interpretation in Dreams of Millennium: Report from a Culture on the Brink (Viking, 1996) of the famous 1956 film Forbidden Planet (misdated 1966 and later [146] mistitled Fantastic Planet) as a case of "hysterical displacement" is spot on: "We have the power to destroy ourselves, this film suggests, only when our own unconscious wishes and fears are sent into the world. When, indeed, they become the world—a tissue of irrational fears, a screen onto which we project our various phobias and desires" (90). It is a pity that the facing-page still from Forbidden Planet is of the benign robot, Robby, and not of the "monster from the id." Perhaps Walt Disney’s fee, as creator of the monster, was too high.

The phenomenon of chronic fatigue syndrome may also be a manifestation of hysteria/testesia. The Roswell "conspiracy" and the popularity of The X Files feed more proactive reactions: "Increasingly ... [i]t is the feeling, on the part of many of us, that not only was the world made up in the first place, probably by God, but something or someone has betrayed what was intended. That we are not simply victims of the way of the world: that we are, in fact, persecuted" (123). And so some "bitch about the government," some "await the Rapture," and some "are abducted by aliens. At least they care" (123-24). Clute’s sometimes scattershot approach leads to occasional careless repetition in this section. Within three pages, we are twice told that Chris Carter created The X Files (123, 125). I was uncertain as to whether or not the repetition of a quotation from Michael André Bernstein’s 1992 Princeton UP book Bitter Carnival: Ressentiment and the Abject Hero (on page 126 and, with some preceding sentences, on page 141) was an accidental slip or aimed at incremental impact.

Part Three, "There Is a Wasteland and It Is Us," focuses on false prophets and "toggle points." Peddlers of the millennium, itself "a contraption of architecture and hype," are Hermes figures "in trickster motley" (131), like Nostradamus (1503-66) and Joanna Southcott (1750-1814). Clute’s freewheeling style of argument and speculation is, by turns, persuasive and over-the-top. Is T.S. Eliot’s line, "These fragments I have shored against my ruins," most fruitfully understood as "a slogan for [body] piercers" (142)? But Clute’s account of the ways in which the postwar boomer generation has shaped the millennium’s turn is instructive: "the world historical shock of a mass conversion of boomers to millennial anxieties could in itself create the formal requirements for the realization of those anxieties. The millennium is a midlife crisis for boomers" (146). Following an appropriate quote from Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888)—"Living as we do in the closing year of the twentieth century..." (148) (which I misread, as craftily intended perhaps, as Clute’s factual statement rather than Bellamy’s fictional one)—Clute notes "an apocalyptic undertext" (151) in late twentieth-century nonfiction and turns to a monitory listing of "toggles," decisive moments of change, here late-twentieth-century negative changes.

Clute’s source for the useful concept of "toggle" points seems to be the same 1999 unpublished speech in which William Gibson spoke of little-a apocalypses: "(This perpetual toggling between nothing being new under the sun, and everything having very recently changed, absolutely, is perhaps the central driving tension in my work.)" (51). The definition first given beneath this quote is repeated on page 156: "Toggle: A switch between before and after in the world, when a difference in degree turns visibly into a difference in kind. A toggle occurs when things not only change but are seen to change." Clute instances fifteen toggles. His toggle 11 is representatively malign: "The point at which, by standards of nutrition universally recognized, the number of starving people exceeds the number of those who are obese" (157).

In Part Four, "How Are Tricks?", Clute suggests some alternatives to millennialism as strategies for dealing with the apocalyptic temper of our times—the little-a apocalypses all around us. It is here, I believe, that Clute stretches, or spin-doctors, the terms "millennialism" and "apocalypse" in ways that seriously muddy their core theological meanings. "Millennialism" comes to mean simply a single-minded, fixed story while its opposite—multiple, fluid, open-ended stories—is to be understood as exemplified by the Apocalypse, the Book of Revelation. All of which bears on Clute’s provocative theory of two stages in the history of sf, the first covered in the first edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (Granada, 1979) and the second adumbrated in the second edition (St. Martin’s, 1993). The fragile, "single-minded future" of First SF (with significant exceptions I assume) bears "a humiliatingly close relationship to millennial thought in general" (174). Millennial thought is anxious and hysterical and can only deal with binaries—heaven or hell, eutopia or dystopia. But is not Clute himself here indulging in binary thinking: dark ages, Big Story, wrong story sf permeated by millennial "scenario" thinking versus enlightened contemporary sf? Is not Clute here offering us a simplified, overstated, and possibly wrong Big Story? And is he not writing a Whig history of sf, the kind of winner’s history that he criticizes Life for applying to its list of important first millennium events?

Clute makes a number of sweeping generalizations in distinguishing First from Second SF. Most controversial is the claim that "conceptual breakthrough," which described "First SF to a nicety," does not "describe the kind of sf now being written by live talents." Clute records that Peter Nicholls "devised the term ‘conceptual breakthrough’—that moment at which a new paradigm of perception or knowledge replaces, usually convulsively, the old—to describe the central movement of sf" (181). My own preferred analogous term is "philosophical apocalypse." Clute claims that "conceptual breakthrough" works only with Big Story (wrong story) SF, which "is a thing of the past" (178). Second SF is "about surfing" (182), not conceptual breakthrough. I would argue that Second SF is about both surfing and conceptual breakthrough.

First SF may largely be defined by its commitment to a positivist philosophy. The moment of conceptual breakthrough involved the replacement of error by truth. The weakening of the relationship between positivism and sf, which does seem to have occurred around the period 1975-80, went hand-in-hand with a strengthening of the relationships among sf, some forms of fantasy, and postmodernism in general. Unfortunately, Clute does not address these crucial developments. Conceptual breakthroughs or philosophical apocalypses take different forms in the context of post-positivist sf, but they remain central to understanding the genre. Conceptual breakthrough now involves the replacement of error by the understanding that there is no clear truth, certainly no single truth. (At the same time, the burning eyes lesson taught by Alhazen should not be forgotten.) When Gibson talks about his concern with mini-apocalypses, small-a apocalypses, apocalypses toggling between the radically new and the forever-the-same, he is talking about the experience of flickering, perhaps subliminal, conceptual breakthrough in Second SF. And certainly Gibson continues to at least hint at conceptual breakthroughs in the three ways possible and already familiar in First SF (and all at the same time): he speculates about new definitions of reality (and the inability to distinguish between reality and computer-generated virtual realities); new definitions of the human being or the end of being human (in terms of DNA coding, information, and digital identity); and unsuspected outside manipulators (shadowy multinational corporations and cyberspace entities).

Clute plumps for Bruce Sterling’s novel Distraction (1998), set in "2040 or so," as his optimal example of surfing sf—"sf about the kind of people it will take to cope with a hundred futures rather than one" (182). Presumably the textual/visual collage that makes up End Times was designed to encourage the surfing talents of its readers. Oscar, the protagonist of Distraction, exemplifies the positive possibilities of being a spin doctor—a useful trickster. Clute sees himself in a similar role. He is the spin doctor Hermes giving us the little messages, the vignettes that just might add up to a renewed and decidedly Big Picture. It is unfortunate that the real-life scenarios he describes amount only to a binary choice—roller-blading, plugged-in youth in Camden Town, London (where Clute lives) versus golfing retirees in reactionary Maine, USA. It may be, however, that this too-simple opposition (which apparently values that ultimate Tamagotchi gesture—most mobile phone calls) is redeemed by Clute’s closing thoughts.

Just as for Clute the true history of sf is American, so it is not to a version of Blake’s visionary London that Clute finally looks in hope but to America. "The past [like First SF?] drags you under" (194). America (the future?) "is the true land of the trickster" (200)—the confidence-man. It is there that Clute’s hope for positive, philosophical/conceptual/rhetorical apocalypses resides. The Apocalypse, the Book of Revelation, will help, because it may be regarded as "a cauldron of story" (223) from which a new, preferable mappemonde, a map of the world (or should that be maps plural?), may be created. This description of the Book of Revelation is, of course, pure spin-doctoring—it is rather End Times itself that seeks (with some success) to provide a cauldron of invention. The relationship between sf and the turn of the millennium is an important and necessary topic that deserves further study. End times can, as the cliché has it, be beginning times. Certainly End Times effectively begins the exploration of the second millennium’s end, as filtered through, and constructed by, the apocalyptic imagination of sf.

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