Science Fiction Studies

# 71 = Volume 24, Part 1 = March 1997


 

REVIEW-ESSAYS

BOOKS IN REVIEW


Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.

The Critic

John Clute. Look at the Evidence. Essays and Reviews. Liverpool University Press, 1995; Serconia Press, 1995. xii+465. $35.00 cloth, $15.00 paper.

John Clute is most fortunate among men. As the editor of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction responsible for author entries, he gets to write his own niche in the history of the genre. Let's see what he says:

Canadian novelist and sf critic; in the UK from 1969. His first publication, a long sf-tinged poem called "Carcajou Lament," appeared in Triquarterly in 1959. He began publishing sf proper with "A Man Must Die" for N[ew] W[orlds] (1966), where much of his earlier criticism also appeared; further criticisms and reviews have appeared in FSF, Washington Post, Omni, Times Literary Supplement, New York Times, New York Review of Science Fiction, Interzone, Los Angeles Times, Observer, and elsewhere. A selection from this work appears in Strokes: Essays and Reviews 1966-1986 (coll. 1988 US).... He served as Reviews Editor of Foundation 1980-1990, and was a founder of Interzone in 1982.... JC's criticism, despite some studiously flamboyant obscurities, remains essentially practical; it has appeared mostly in the form of reviews, some of considerable length. He was Associate Editor of the first edition of this Encyclopedia (1979) and is Co-Editor of the current version. His novel, The Disinheriting Party (1973 NW; exp 1979) is not sf. [JC]

Not much flash here. A newcomer to sf criticism, or just to British sf, might be forgiven for thinking that this little eulogy is the modest marker for a modest little cleric in the service of the genre, a Canadian no less, who has written a little "sf-tinged poetry," a little sf proper, a little "not sf"; his practical reviews have appeared in the bourgeois press; he has founded and served and edited. If it were not for the suspicious "studiously flamboyant obscurities" (the only evidence of which in this entry is the phrase itself) to tease the reader's imagination, Clute's miniature self-portrait would be grayer than a Casio with a dead battery. Coming from Clute, it is merely efficient and laudable self-effacement. If anyone else had written such an entry, it would have been an outrageous diminution. What it leaves out is that John Clute is perhaps the foremost reader-critic of sf in our time, and one of the best the genre has ever known.

Clute has been favored by history. Born and raised in Canada, educated for a while in the US, and an emigrant to London in adulthood, he has known all three of the Nordic Anglo cultures from the inside. He has been able, without migrating away from his native tongue, to view things from several insides and several outsides. He has never worked within the sf-publishing establishment, and he has not identified himself with the writers, so neither camp has claims on his judgment. He has never been an academic, so he has felt no professional pressures to define sf narrowly. His publishers and editors have been extraordinarily indulgent, allowing him to print almost exactly what he wants at the length he wants it. He has repaid them with some of the most original, literate and joyful sf criticism that has ever seen print.

Look at the Evidence is Clute's second collection of critical reviews. For reasons best known to Clute himself, LAE, like its predecessor Strokes, may be very hard to find. Distribution by its American publisher, Serconia Press, seems nonexistent; Books in Print does not even list it among Clute's titles. Perhaps this is the price Clute must pay for resisting editorial meddling. If it were not for the University of Liverpool Press edition, this invaluable volume of sf criticism might be inaccessible.

LAE has three parts, according to Clute (four by my count): an introductory section laying out Clute's critical principles and autobio; the main body of some 150 book reviews, organized in chronological order by year (1987-92) and by publication venue (Interzone reviews separated from others); and a section of six short essays on individual writers (Capek, M. John Harrison, Aldous Huxley, Meyrink, Herbert Rosendorfer, and Tiptree). These concluding writer-essays are actually appendices, useful mini-biographical exercises, but not part of the book's overall design. Over the years Clute also published roundups of each year's sf-related production for Orbit, New Worlds, and Nebula Awards. These annual overviews Clute clearly considered a distinct project altogether, for they are linked by metaphors and imagery, the critic returning at the end of each year to examine how the genre as a whole has fared. The roundups, moreover, allowed Clute to review books only tangentially related to sf by important mainstream writers. These three levels (excluding the appendices)--the critic's overview, the yearly report on the genre's "evolution," and the individual reviews--ground Clute's criticism in three kinds of attention, in ways no less sophisticated than abstract theoretical sf criticism, no less topical than professional sf-reviewing, and much more personal than both.

The opening section, "Necessary Golems," combines revised versions of texts Clute presented to various audiences from 1988 to 1994. The first half has to do with what he calls the "Protocol of Excessive Candour." Clute here, at the outset, shows his tough love. He informs us that he is committed by principle to hard-hitting truth-telling, even though he may be bound by friendship to many of the writers he is reviewing.

Reviewers who will not tell the truth are like cholesterol. They are lumps of fat. They starve the heart. I have myself certainly clogged a few arteries, have sometimes kept my mouth shut out of "friendship" which is nothing in the end but self-interest. So perhaps it is time to call a halt. Perhaps we should establish a Protocol of Excessive Candour, a convention within the community that excesses of intramural harshness are less damaging than the hypocrisies of stroke therapy, that telling the truth is a way of expressing love; self-love; love of others; love for the genre, which claims to tell the truth about things that count; love for the inhabitants of the planet; love for the future. Because the truth is all we've got. And if we don't talk to ourselves, and if we don't use every tool at our command in our time on Earth to tell the truth, nobody else will. (3-4)

This statement has already received some attention, pro and con.1 It bravely shows, in the very first pages of LAE, both the excellences and excesses of Clute's criticism. He will not be a genre-booster, he is responsible only to his conscience and his Shaper. But it's not an easy task, and it appears he has to psych himself up before he gets it done. In the ecstasies of truth-telling, he is, as he himself admits, prone to "egregious flights of autodidactic Big Thinking" (7), full of grand sentiment, rhetorical repletion, and the slightly comical posturing of Sf-critic as the Conscience of the Race. This sort of posing is relatively rare in the hundreds of LAE's subsequent pages. Clute fortunately doesn't seem to follow his own protocol too closely, and one of his most admirable qualities is his gift for panning a book without harshness. Although he has his bÍtes noires, writers and subgenres he cannot love, Clute treats most writers, especially British sf writers, with considerable generosity. Excepting the demolition of some irresistibly awful targets (hilarious reviews of The Legacy of Heorot and Stephen Donaldson's The Gap Into Conflict, for example), Clute generally tempers his criticisms with self-ironic humor. Typical of Clute's rather Nabokovian tendency to ironize his own statements at the moment he is uttering them, the only thing truly excessive about his writing is his rhetoric, not his "candour."

The Protocol seems in fact merely a respectable justification for a more spunky idea: that the critic's goal is misprizing (again the irony, Clute misprizing Harold Bloom's notion of misprision). A piece of writing, for Clute, is inert until it is vitalized by a reader's interest; such interests are always more or less personal, and thus a work demonstrates its freedom from the overprotectiveness of its author-parent by becoming usable by others for their own needs. Criticism is not about revealing truth, nor can it distort a work. The critic's is not the final word. There is no final word, only a dialogue among real human beings responding to works with interest and care. Clute demonstrates his point with a hilarious account of the critique of Strokes by a youthful Rob Latham. Latham, at the time requiring that critics meet the Grad School Standard of theoretical sophistication, panned the book (according to Clute) for being ideologically retrograde. Clute deftly turns this critique (which is not inaccurate, by the way) against Latham through a nice use of quotes-- misprizing, one might say, Latham's misprision of Clute. But Clute stops the game in the end with a characteristically chivalrous bow:

In accomplishing this dismantling, Latham is performing the critic's task: that of unmasking the being of the book, re-creating that being; freeing the book from the author of the book, and from the beehive cloister of the affinity group; and, in the end, granting a privilege. The author's true privilege is to be misunderstood (how many of us, glaring into the airless mirrors of unpublishable selfhood, ever get the chance?) and the critic's true function is to make understanding into a door of perception. So with Latham's help, I open the door. I see how the book can be seen. (7)

It's hard to argue with either the protocol or misprision, since the first is practiced mainly in the breach, and the second fends off critique a priori: it's all misprision anyway. Clute's axiom of misprision also acts as his shield of humility. If we accept it, we can disagree with him, but not reproach him for misunderstanding the author's words.

Much more useful is the second half of "Necessary Golems," in which Clute tells his critic's life-story and, in tandem, parses the history of Anglo-Saxon sf. Clute was a 17-year old Canadian sf-fan in Chicago ("where the Future Histories started" [8]) when Sputnik was launched. In a moment, the future was transformed:

What I'd lost--what sf had lost--after Sputnik had stitched its way back and forth across the new mundane sky, was the old sense that space was a magic portal, a sky-hook capable of hiking us into the future. What Sputnik did--what indeed the whole, archaic, doom-ridden space programme accomplished as it lunged into a future that did not work--was to drag traditional sf backwards into a real now. Space was no longer free space. Overnight, space became a sentence in the seamy contentious intricate story of humans upon the planet, a continuation of life on Earth by other means. (8-9)

Clute attributes his critical perspective to this disillusionment in late teenage. But clearly, the disillusionment was not only his, the entire spirit of sf had changed. His generation (he notes that he, Disch, and Spinrad were born in the same year) experienced the space age as real history's brutally candid critique of sf's illusions about humanity's control over the future. The grand unified genre of what Clute calls "First SF" broke into pieces and variant viewpoints under the pressure of real historical events, just like the ideological myth of Anglo-European domination.

Before Sputnik, First SF had thrived in a native habitat, which included the moon and the stars as draws: speedlines pointing to the future and marshalling our dreams. Afterwards, new versions of sf, new conversations, began to collide with the dying gabfest of Future History, and First SF sporulated into a series of loose, overlapping genres. As genre critics, it is only right and proper for us to note that Sputnik changed--once and for all--the conversation of precedents that bathed First SF texts; that what followed was the teeming, immensely fruitful squabble we now inhabit.... (10)

First SF is thus "a completed topic"; although it may be revived again and again by perpetual nostalgia machines, its project is bankrupt, it has no more truth to tell. As an aside, Clute proposes that this sense of a receding future, the loss of dreams of temporal empire, has made sf an even more American genre than it was earlier, since the sense of belatedness is typical of American literature. This is one of those fetching ideas that Clute tosses off throughout LAE like a potentate tossing excess coin into the street. If it is true, one might ask, why are so many of the most original and lively sf writers currently coming from the British sphere (Paul McAuley, Gwyneth Jones, Jeff Noon, Ian Macdonald, Iain Banks, Simon Ings, Gill Alderman, Christopher Priest)?--to which fact LAE is itself a testament, with its high proportion of reviews of British writers.

With this collapse of First SF's "future that did not work" (9), sf writers gradually began to change their points of view. First SF's deep devotion to the First World is gradually being replaced by attachment to a version of the Third World, the dominant hero-as-colonizing-power replaced by the subject position of the colonized.

...over the last few years, sf has lost its profound attachment to the old set of Fables of the First World: tales whose protagonist, usually human, represents the dominant species in the venue being described, the species which knows how to get to the future. I think that sf stories today are more and more beginning to sound like Fables of the Third World: stories whose protagonists, often human, represent cultures which have been colonized by the future. The future may come in the form of aliens, or the catnip nirvana of cyberspace, or as AIs, or as bio-engineered transformations of our own species: but whatever it touches, it subverts. (11)

This is, of course, a debatable point. The continuing success of gung-ho, Galaxy Control sf--whether in its liberal, inoculated Star Trek guise, or its militaristic, imperialist Niven-Pournelle incarnations--show First World stories are still robust. As does also the still perceptible influence of Star Wars/LG5-er sf writers on sectors of the shadow high-tech policy establishment. Clute's perspective does, however, help explain many of the tendencies and prejudices in Clute's reviews.2

The period 1987-1992 was one of the most vibrant in the recent history of sf. If 1957 was "When It Changed" for the genre, it was the late 80s that closed the era completely. The death of Asimov, in particular, symbolizes for Clute the demise of the dinosaurs who dominated the field from the beginning, and the beginning of an evolutionary differentiation of new species of sf writers: "slipstreamers, alpha males, difficult women, neophytes, neighbours, expats" (281). This period saw the publication of many remarkable works categorized as sf --The Anubis Gates, Aegypt, Great Sky River, Fire on the Mountain, Terraplane, Heathern, The Child Garden, the XENOGENESIS trilogy, Earth, Queen of Angels, Tehanu, Hyperion Cantos, The Difference Engine, Synners, Stations of the Tide, Eternal Light, Xenocide, Sarah Canary, Doomsday Book, A Fire Upon the Deep, Red Mars, Steel Beach, and many others. (Some of the others were Count Geiger's Blues, Fools, Chanur's Legacy, Hellburner, Quarantine, China Mountain Zhang, Destroying Angel, Snow Crash, White Queen, which Clute reviewed either later or not at all, for reasons unstated in LAE.) How does one describe the field to which all these belong?

Given Clute's preoccupation with "When It Changed," it makes sense that his hardest words are for the dinosaurs, "alpha males of the veldt" and the sharecroppers who try to sell nostalgic retro-fantasies of Power. The death of Asimov, "the default voice of American sf"(278), marked the demise of the most important of the dinosaurs. He, like the other survivors of his generation had devoted his last years to encoding the imaginative visions of the earlier works into stone tablets, "cargo" from a purer age. The last true survivor, Arthur C. Clarke, Clute treats with courtesy, because he belongs the Scientific Romance tradition; but even he has been corrupted by "the Chamber-of-Commerce consciousness of the otiose Gentry Lee" (142) and now even the great Rendezvous with Rama has been co-opted by the Cargo Market: "further sequels are projected, sequels to the sequel, frequent-traveller Ramas, Ramada Ramas" (142). The alpha males of commercial hard sf inspire some of Clute's funniest, most withering reviews (see especially The Legacy of Heorot and The Ring of Charon). The fun of these of these demolition jobs would be justification enough. But Clute seems to feel that technophilic hard sf is something of a noble adversary, a black knight that must be respected. Accordingly, each time he treats such writers he feels compelled to offer a number of descriptions of hard sf, each a slightly new definition, and each immensely rich with potentials for elaboration.

Although he claims to love hard sf, it is clear that Clute is philosophically aligned with its antagonist, Scientific Romance, which he treats as the noble, albeit introverted and melancholic, hero of recent sf, which survives the fray by simply withdrawing to the sidelines and keeping a sharp, sad lookout. Clute elaborates several times in LAE on Brian Stableford's notion of Scientific Romance, implying repeatedly that it is the appropriate mode for a time of imperial disintegration like the present fin de millenium. Where "American plots tend to work as access routes for the kingship raids of the hero," the plots of Scientific Romance "tend to be exemplary, illuminative, perspectival" (81).

For the reader accustomed to the cinematic/pulp felicities of the traditional sf novel, the protagonist of a scientific romance will tend to seem passive and morose and bespectacled and plump; not the man on the horse who saves the galaxy, but his scribe.... [He] is not an engineer, but a gaze.

The desiderium inherent in that gaze--remote, poetical, ruminative, melancholic, fin de siècle--infuses the archetypal scientific romance with a powerful sense of retrospect. The vista is long and deep; and in most scientific romances, a flow of these vistas, or aperçus, will gradually impart an evolutionary argument to the tale, a sense of (usually brooding) entelechy beyond our physical compass, for we are not superheroes, nor immortal; but not beyond our awe are the rules which bind, from so long ago, just as in most scientific fantasy novels. (105-06)

Self-portrait of the critic as a fin de millennium man?

Clute's tendency to view the development of the genre itself as a form of chaotic postmodern scientific romance permits him to ruminate over subgenres like the Star Traveler describing cosmic cultures in Stapledon's novel. Beyond the great battle between hard/triumphalist sf and melancholic/illuminative sf are dozens of new players: "entelechy operas," "upsidownias," "menarche weepies," "Puppet Dark" tales, "space-mall sitcoms," punks (cyber and steam), the "Neoplatonism for profit" of the "New England School of Ethical Romance," horror-fantasy sf, memory-theater opera, alternate histories. Clute clearly enjoys this proliferation of sophisticated subgenre/subcultures and seems particularly fascinated by works that subvert traditional sf--such as Banks' Consider Phlebas, Stableford's Empire of Pain, McCauley's Eternal Light, Fowler's Sarah Canary, Simmons' Hyperion Cantos, and the books of Gene Wolfe.

LAE is a wild encyclopedia, though, and the reader never knows which books and which subgenres will elicit what sort of response from Clute. Even though he writes passionately against the genre of alternate histories being included among sf subgenres, two of his most expansive ruminations are on steampunk books, Tim Powers's Anubis Gates and Gibson-Sterling's Difference Engine, which become occasions for passionate lectures on Dickens's contribution to urban fantasy. A review of Gill Alderman's The Archivist becomes a rich, weird meditation on women's language in sf. A long appreciation of Simmons's Carrion Comfort and Hyperion Cantos is perhaps unsurprising, but Clute also writes a pained but heartfelt appreciation of Orson Scott Card. Red Mars is treated as a model of intelligent, sane sf; but Wolfe's trifle, Castleview, gets more print than The Urth of the New Sun. Clute devotes careful attention to folks we would expect--Bear, Card, Holdstock, Simmons, Butler, Vinge, Swanwick, Fowler, Crowley. But LAE also includes dozens of reviews of worthy books, mainly British, that US audiences are likely to know nothing about. Nor are the reviews limited to works of sf per se. Clute also writes about William Wharton, Iris Murdoch, Louise Erdrich, Steve Erickson, Jonathan Carroll, Terry Pratchett (on half a dozen occasions), Christine Brooke-Rose, A.S. Byatt, Alasdair Gray; and one of the best pieces is occasioned by the republication of the Walter de la Mare's volume of children's verse, Peacock Pie. Two of the most important articles are not about fiction at all. One is a meticulous vivisection of Alexei and Cory Panshin's The World Beyond the Hill. The other is not even a review, but rather a protest against the choice of Marge Piercy's He, She, It (Body of Glass in the UK) for the Arthur C. Clarke Award of 1993, from a field that included Red Mars, Stations of the Tide, Willis's Doomsday Book, Russo's Destroying Angel, Lisa Tuttle's Lost Futures, and Sue Thomas's Correspondences. With cool fury, Clute analyzes the pretentiousness of the panel choosing a book that essentially imitates sf, in a bid for crossover approval from a publishing industry that will never grant it, thereby ignoring the works that aspire to actually develop the genre from within.

The hundred and fifty-odd reviews in LAE were written concurrently with Clute's work on the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction's second edition, which saw print in 1993. The appearance of that edition was a significant moment in the history of the whole genre, not only sf criticism. If, as Clute writes in LAE, sf's evolution was punctuated by Sputnik's diminution of space and the future, the Encyclopedia may be the epitaph and eulogy of that period--thus Clute may have helped propitiate whatever ironic god messed up his youthful expectations of sublime romance. The Encyclopedia is the Aleph of sf's enclosure--not only the enclosure of the world in the real planet Earth, but the genre's containment by the Library. The Encyclopedia--for which Clute, Peter Nicholls, and Brian Stableford were the Dr. Johnsons--displays the historical richness of this literary wild zone, with its eccentricities and nostalgias, gathered into a universal compendium useful to scholars and historians, respectability in a jar for the writers of sf. The Encyclopedia seals sf's fate as part of literature, for there is a decidedly literary-historical bias to the Encyclopedia. Films and television (and to a lesser degree comics) are routinely found wanting. The elements of "science-fictionality" in the everyday life of mass culture are largely ignored (for example, Stableford's entry on UFOs utterly ignores the role of UFOs in popular film, and restricts its sociological analysis to sarcastic comments). The Encyclopedia is the register that permits sf to join the club of respectable families. No one is more responsible for this than Clute.

Literature has been taking hard knocks for the past quarter century. Attention has moved in the arts and in the real world toward popular arts. As the early deconstructionists never tired of demonstrating, literature has come to be viewed as a political institution established by an intellectual elite to regulate norms of taste and consciousness, rather than the utopia of free imaginings it was advertised to be. Sf ascended to prominence in this period of approval of mass culture, and the genre has benefitted from critics' and the postmodern public's taste for arts of concept, myth, and spectacle. Clute stands out in this milieu because of his joyous love for--let's face it--for literature. Having only tangential contact with the academe, Clute approaches literature not as an institution, but a natural reservoir of good writing. It is the place good writing should be found. Like a good romantic also, Clute reverts to certain quasi-religious, agonistic value-terms to characterize the work of writing: saving, blessing, freeing, purifying. Sf is not necessarily associated with such sublime tasks; and it does get tiresome as Clute trots out his umpteenth metaphor for spiritual struggle. When "to read The Gold Coast is not just to go through fire; it is to emerge from fire" (115), reading Clute is not just to go through rhetoric, but to get stuck in it.

Rhetorical excess is often perilously nearby in Clute's writing; his arguments sometimes spiral out into a wonderful ironic delirium, words and metaphors taking on lives of their own, generating new ideas, linking back to metaphors rather than concepts, misprizing with abandon. For some readers, it is doubtless too much, too precious. If it's just the facts you want, Clute's the last critic to consult. What makes Clute so distinctive a critic is his combination of verbal playfulness and seriousness of purpose. He knows sf as well as anyone. He knows and reads literary fiction with the same zeal as sf, and sees no essential difference between them. He expects his readers to have glorious vocabularies, to ride with subtle allusions to literature, philosophy, and history, to recall their Nabokov, Joyce, Yeats and Dickens with delight. He reads to write. That is the sum of his misprision. He criticizes in order to inspire good writing. There is no more poetic, speculative, erudite, playful and generous critic. Despite his claims to be a practical critic, he is nothing of the sort. He is an impractical critic, critic-as-writing-fool, he likes nonsense just fine. And behind all the play is the sense of depth that comes from the stitching of world-transformations to the growth of his own mind, the melancholy presence of history in dreams.

Possibly Clute's writing would have developed into the exuberant instrument it is even without sf. But it's evident Clute responds to, and accentuates, sf's unparalleled potential for synthesizing metaphors and professional dialects. Nothing is alien to sf, not Biblical oracle, not sublime romantic vision, not technology and strings of scientific Greco-Latin syllables, not street slang, not political economy, not gender politics. A sense of the genre as a field this rich requires a sensibility capable of perceiving it, and a language appropriate for it. Oxymoron, irony, and lightness prevail in Clute's prose style as they do in the best sf.

While there are some flashes of Clutean whimsy and irony in the author entries of the Encyclopedia, those are on the whole very tame. LAE displays Clute unconstrained. The sprawling, labyrinthine, poetic mess of a book is Clute's wild encyclopedia, and the author is the Encyclopedist in his fragments. One does not read Clute for information, but for intellectual poetry. His language generates surprise relentlessly: in words, tropes, brilliant pacing of the sentences and paragraphs, where incongruities are as often linked by the sounds of words or the rhythm of the riff as by some measly principle, extended analogies, barrages of wit. The word and phrase are so central to Clute's criticism, it feels as if they arrive first, and Clute himself is surprised that they fit into his discursive line. It is the language of delight in creativity-- unfinished thought, opinion, metaphor--restless, self-surprising, giddy in apparently methodless use of any language that comes to the pen. Sf seems at times merely the pretext, the backdrop for lush, playful, extravagant displays of language, of syntactical rhythm, paragraphs, figures, exciting plays of contrast, from syllables up to tirades. In this exuberance, argument and word-play carry equal value.

This verbal energy is controlled (when it is controlled) by Clute's wit and benevolence, and characteristic self-mockery. He knows what he is doing, but he can't help himself. Even so, Clute rarely usurps the texts he has chosen to review. His care for his own writing is tempered by his love for writing in general. Thus his sharpest insights are in the form of metaphorical recastings of his subjects' language--John Shirley's "calcined cloacal rasp," the "glassene pompadour dermis" of Silverberg's fiction, the "sweet acid" and "icy clarity" of Orson Scott Card, who "has no passive voice," the "spineless, sensorium-driven, waterlogged, ambergris" prose of Gill Ackerman, or the "greyish dignity" of Gregory Benford. In The Difference Engine, "there is a storyline, told in the def ex cathedra boom of the bull [Sterling], but out of the side, as it were, of the dodger [Gibson], so that much of the plot takes place covertly but underlined, as though shouted from around a corner" (235). The narrator of David Zindell's Neverness, "evenly and calmly, and with chill assurance,... speaks to his readers as though they were children of his loins whom he never expected to meet" (102).

The manufacture of striking metaphors and images is not restricted to insights on style. Every aspect of writing--story, plot, tradition, allusion, literary history--Clute ultimately translates into his own witty, ironic, sensuous images. Some examples: On Paul J. McCauley's subtle subversion of space-opera conventions in Eternal Night: "Eternal Night is a mother bird: flapping its genre trappings like a fake broken wing to draw out ironies into the sand, while the true tale hatches unharmed" (299). Reading Womack's Heathern: "as though one were eavesdropping on a pair of butterflies just as they were beginning" (231). Asimov's Destination Brain "closes with the sense of a task well done, of a gaffe redeemed, a lesson taught, another fruitful shudder of the writing machine." The story of Pynchon's Vineland "teetered on the edge of the Reagan Years, but refused to carry its protagonists into the new world, like a lungfish spying out the terrain and seeing it was the beach at Bikini" (198-99).

Clute's most sustained extended metaphor casts the evolution of post-Sputnik sf in mockingly bio-evolutionary terms. Year after year he checks back to see how the dinosaurs are hanging on, and how the "snippy wee mammals of the new age" are doing in the new dry land of the mass market.

Looking into 1992 was like looking into the tidal pool as the waters begin to ebb, exposing more fragile niche species to the dry death. Singletons were particularly vulnerable; and melancholy, overspecialized, midlist creatures could be seen finning the air, brokenly. More durable were series--or shoal-species, impossible to tell apart, each individual specimen replaceable if losses were incurred. Overall, there was a sense of considerable activity, without action. There was, in other words, a sense that the churned and fecund tidal pool of sf was waiting for something to happen, some direction home.... It might be a new style of saving sf, like cyberpunk a decade earlier: to which the packagers would cling like remora, till it sank. (357)

On a smaller scale, such extended riffs abound in LAE, each one original and dazzling.

"In one hand, take a sf trilogy, and in the other, take a Church. Note how similar they seem; how long they go on; how remarkable that each tells the same story" (90).

The sharecrop-writer is

a tenant farmer, he sows what Bwana tells him to sow, and he does not reap. Nor does he make things up. For the franchise owners who have hired him, any attempt by the sharecropper to look upon the world and make it new would be to violate their property rights. Originality is theft. (7)

Western Civilization's perception of Time's Arrow has changed almost totally. What we once saw as a River flowing futurewards through a stepped landscape, we now see as a Delta, where salt and fresh streams exchange their juices in the night, islands of repose appear and disappear, creole banter mocks our tongue, and we do not know where to stand on Now, or how to live on the steel beach Tomorrow. (399-400)

Clute's writing is saturated with imagery, indeed any innocent word may explode into a metaphor embedded in it or a metonymy invited by it. It is also unapologetically urbane. It expects that its audience is alert to everything, not excepting to Clute's own writing. As if he had somehow missed out on the dissociation of sensibility, Clute's prose exemplifies the fusion of intellection and sensuous image that the moderns admired so much in the metaphysical poets. Sometimes, as might be expected, it all gets out of hand, forcing the effect when it doesn't come naturally, landing in vacuously exaggerated paradox and purple self-parody--so that in one case "the body of the book burns remorselessly, like dry ice" (24); another "gives off the timbre of a half-heard song by the early R.E.M." but turns out to be "full of blood and death and severing and it is as clear as air, and seemly" (109). The city in Gill Alderman's The Archivist (which Clute uses ironically as an example of "waterlogged" prose in an otherwise laudatory review) is "ouroboral and shafted, subaqueous and galleried and overarching and abyssal. It peels like a great onion as the book progresses, and the layers never end. It cries tiers" (254). Ouch.

We need critics for different things: to help select texts, since life is cluttered and distracting, from the piles of available ones; to get started interpreting puzzling ones; to hear the assessment of a different voice than our own; to hear hypotheses about the relations of texts to each other, or to the rest of culture; even just to be comforted by the knowledge that someone considers culture worth describing. Often we simply seek the pleasure of listening to an intelligent, literate voice talking about reading and writing, the pleasures of not being responsible, gossiping, meandering, representing the reader's point of view, and not the writer's interests--let alone the publishers and bookseller's. A good critic not only advises us about how to read; s/he also gives serious pleasure, supplying the pleasure in language that our not reading the fiction allows.

There is plenty of good stuff in LAE on genre and subgenre, on the historical realities of the 20th century, on the moral requirements of criticism, on what's good and bad in sf. But LAE's main subject--pervading every phrase so thoroughly it doesn't have to rise to consciousness, and so doesn't even have to be described--is writing. Sf as one writing-path, criticism as another one, paths of creativity, imagination, love of language as a version of love of one's own life. Anything goes, as long as it's honest and fosters the imagination.

LAE can be read as a wild encyclopedia of reviews on contemporary sf. It can also be read as a large franginated gloss on this historical moment of the genre--significant because this is the moment it has become aware of itself as a player, something read with profound interest even by non-fans, something newly discovered by the world at large. It can also be read as the writing of John Clute, who continues to pay back his debt to sf, the genre that made him a writer.

NOTES

1. See Gary K. Wolfe's column in Locus, 148:27, Nov 1995, and Eleanor Arnason's letter published in The New York Review of Science Fiction, Dec 1996, p. 22.

2. Clute's view places him, in this respect, firmly among postmodern theorists. For complementary views about the implosion of sf after the Space program and the emergence of Fables of the Third World, see Gwyneth Jones's "Metempsychosis of the Machine: Science Fiction in the Halls of Karma" in this issue; Jean Baudrillard's "Precession of Simulacra," Simulations (NY: Semiotext[e], 1983); Scott Bukatman, Terminal Identity (Duke UP, 1993); Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., "Futuristic Flu, or The Revenge of the Future," Fiction 2000, ed. Slusser & Shippey, U. of Georgia P, 1992; and most of the oeuvre of J.G. Ballard.


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