Science Fiction Studies

#95 = Volume 32, Part 1 = March 2005

Gregory Feeley

When World-views Collide: Philip Wylie in the Twenty-first Century

Philip Wylie. Gladiator. Intro. Jenny Wurts. bison frontiers of imagination. Lincoln, NE: U Nebraska P, 2004. viii + 332 pp. $15.95 pbk.

Philip Wylie. The Disappearance. Intro. Robert Silverberg. bison frontiers of imagination. Lincoln, NE: U Nebraska P, 2004. xiv + 405 pp. $14.95 pbk.

The cultural celebrity that Philip Wylie enjoyed for decades had faded by the time of his death in 1971, and despite a brief afterglow (a last novel published the following year; three short books about him over the next decade), his reputation quickly diminished into the strange literary half-life of the not-quite-forgotten. The angry iconoclast of the nineteen-forties and early fifties—who coined the term “Momism” and later lambasted a generation for its foolishness in neglecting Civil Defense—aged badly in later life, and the middle-brow social critic lauded in the immediate post-war period for his willingness to “take on” such issues as the relationship between the sexes and the horrors of nuclear apocalypse seemed increasingly sour and reactionary twenty years later. While the science fiction Wylie wrote in his youth remained in print through the end of his life, it is most likely remembered today by science-fiction scholars. His novels include an early work that is generally assumed to have inspired the comic-book character “Superman,” and When Worlds Collide (1933), probably the first novel about refugees fleeing a dying Earth. This, plus the fact that Generation of Vipers (1942) and When Worlds Collide have memorable titles, seems to be his legacy.

Gladiator . Gladiator, Wylie’s third novel, is the superman tale, and Wylie’s first work of science fiction. It was published in 1930 (a fact that appears nowhere in the present edition), when its author was twenty-eight. Reprint editions followed for decades, although they came from publishers of steadily decreasing prominence after his heyday—“the Lower Kinsey epoch of the atomic age,” as Wylie wittily put it in the subtitle of his Opus 21 (1942)—ended. Today the book seems best known for the claim, cited in most encyclopedia entries on the subject, that the character of Superman (Action Comics, 1938) was largely drawn from it.

The University of Nebraska edition of Gladiator, part of its Bison Frontiers of the Imagination series, does not address this issue (save in a brief mention on its back-cover copy), nor any other. It reproduces the text of the Knopf first edition, although the copyright page does not tell us this, either. In addition to the datum that Philip Wylie lived between 1902 and 1971, we are given a two-page introduction by Jenny Wurts, and that is all.

Wurts’s is not a critical introduction, and she does not pretend that her knowledge of Wylie extends beyond a recent reading of Gladiator. Her piece is a quick response to the novel, and if some of what she says makes no sense— “Philip Wylie was a storyteller with strong views concerning women, and ... the values of the society in which he lived influenced the way he viewed and interpreted his world” (vii)—it must be attributed to the sorry fact that these two pages, the only material original to this edition, did not receive the attention of a copyeditor.

The novel itself—which describes the upshot of a henpecked scientist who injects his pregnant wife with a serum that gives their son superhuman strength—proves a mild surprise. Wylie’s narrative of the life of Hugo Danner, who grows up with abilities that he long tries to keep secret, focuses on character rather than plot, and significantly more scenes are devoted to dramatizations of Danner’s anguished soul-searching than to demonstrations of his prowess. (Wylie, aware of his protagonist’s occasional bathos, employs the term Weltschmertz more than once.) Danner goes to college, where his confused desire to do great deeds results in the accidental death of a football player, and he later wanders the world as a laborer, wondering how to achieve greatness and happy to be employing his strength for good rather than harm, before fetching up in Europe on the eve of World War I. Danner is witness to the horrors of the trenches, where he discovers himself to be seemingly invulnerable as well as super-strong. He thus lives to experience the war in its entirety, offering the novel’s only extended action sequences. After a few further adventures, Danner fixes upon a course of action, but that evening he climbs a mountain as a storm approaches and challenges God, whereupon a bolt of lightning destroys him. Mischance—or divine retribution?

In his brooding isolation and sense of unbridgeable disaffection from the rest of humanity, Wylie’s protagonist bears some resemblance to Mary Shelley’s monster, another creation of a shortsighted human Prometheus. What he does not resemble is Superman, and while Gladiator will prove an intriguing early text for anyone still interested in Wylie (several of his abiding themes—the malignity of assertive women, the ignorant stupidity of “the masses”— make early appearances here), its interest today is probably restricted to its presumed influence upon Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s mythic American hero, which most reference works confidently assert. According to The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, for example, the novel is “directly responsible” for the comic-book character (Clute and Nicholls 1352).

Since Wylie’s novel contains none of what seem to be Superman’s salient characteristics—the powers explained by extraterrestrial origin, the secret identity, adoption of costume and cognomen, and career of battling evil-doers—it is difficult for a modern-day reader of Gladiator to account for the almost universal ascription of influence, especially since most of these seem to rely on the authority of earlier ascriptions. Either a critical edition of Wylie’s novel or one aimed at a popular audience—for whom this influence would presumably constitute a good part of its appeal—should address this issue. Since no one involved with Bison troubled to do so, it will have to be done here.

The claim that Gladiator was the inspiration for Superman seems to have first appeared in print in Sam Moskowitz’s Explorers of the Infinite (1963), where Moskowitz asserts that a few years after the appearance of Wylie’s novel, “Cleveland cartoonist Joe Schuster [sic] and his author associate Jerome Siegel would borrow the central theme from Gladiator, even paraphrase some of its dialogue” (278) to create their comic strip. The claim of paraphrased dialogue would seem decisive, but a comparison of the two texts shows no such similarities.

It seems unlikely that Moskowitz examined either the original 1938 Action Comics—not readily available in the early 1960s—or went back to check newspaper archives for the 1939 syndicated strip from which the earlier version was abridged. Moskowitz, who gives no source for his contention, is notorious for uncritically accepting what the writers he takes as his subjects tell him, and the biographical sketches in Explorers of the Infinite and Seekers of Tomorrow (1966) are largely hagiographic.

Truman Frederick Keefer’s Philip Wylie (1977) sheds some light on this. Keefer interviewed Wylie extensively over a period of years, and he provides as much scholarly information as his subject is likely ever to get. He notes that Wylie strongly believed that Superman was largely based on Gladiator. Keefer, a competent scholar, cites Moskowitz’s claim, but notes that Moskowitz’s source was a telephone interview with Wylie. Moskowitz’s assertion thus has no independent basis, and Keefer offers no argument to support it, although he does cite a private correspondence from a third party as supporting Moskowitz.

Wylie was rich and famous—and, as the admiring Keefer shows, very combative—in the late 1930s, but he seems never to have brought suit for copyright infringement. (The early litigation surrounding the copyright of Superman, in which its publisher figured as both plaintiff and defendant, has been widely discussed by comics historians.) By the time he spoke to the credulous Moskowitz in the early sixties, Wylie was an embittered alcoholic, with a long history—evident in his non-fiction, and acknowledged by Keefer— of exaggerating to make his points. The claim of paraphrased dialogue seems to have its origin there, and has been repeated (unchecked) ever since.
Siegel and Shuster discuss the origins of Superman in various late interviews, and while they readily cite various influences for Superman—including some then under copyright, such as Doc Savage—they never mention Gladiator. Numerous comic historians assume a degree of reliance upon Gladiator—including, most recently, Gerard Jones’s Men of Tomorrow (2004). Some make claims—that Siegel had once reviewed Gladiator; that Wylie had indeed sued or threatened to—that have gone unsubstantiated; others claim that a 1933 story by Siegel, “The Reign of the Superman,” possesses similarities to Wylie’s fiction.

After carefully comparing all the various versions, I have concluded that Siegel and Shuster’s Superman is more likely indebted to such costumed and fancifully-named crusaders as Zorro and the Scarlet Pimpernel than to Philip Wylie’s melancholy and aimless figure, and that Gladiator—which, far from being the commercial success Moskowitz assumes, sold only 2,568 copies (Keefer 46) upon publication and was not widely read until an Avon paperback appeared in 1949—may not have been an influence at all. What points of similarity do exist—both Wylie and Siegel explain their protagonists’ super-powers by citing the abilities of ants and grasshoppers to perform great feats relative to their body size; both characters tear the door off a bank vault—do not require direct influence to account for them. Neither is the idea of a man with super-strength—“a character like Samson, Hercules and all the strong men I ever heard of rolled into one,” as Siegel put it (qtd. in Petrou)—so striking that Wylie’s influence alone could explain it. The belief that Gladiator represents the sole source, rather than one possible source, for Superman seems to derive from Sam Moskowitz’s uncritical acceptance of a claim about paraphrased dialogue.

The Disappearance . I do not know how interesting Wylie is today to the ordinary reader concerned less over critical histories than with what the open book can offer as a reading experience. Bison has also just reissued Wylie’s 1951 novel The Disappearance, and Robert Silverberg’s crisply professional introduction, which contains more information about Gladiator than can be found in the Bison Gladiator, unfortunately repeats some of the errors contained in Moskowitz. (Silverberg’s basic reference library on the history of science fiction was largely built up in the 1950s and 1960s, and seems to have been only fitfully supplemented since.)

Moskowitz claimed that while Gladiator was Wylie’s third published novel, it was the first to be written, for “when it was accepted by Alfred A. Knopf, the publisher agreed to hold it back for a few years until Wylie established a reputation with more general works of fiction” (Explorers 279). The account given by Keefer is more interesting: “Titan,” an early version of Gladiator, was his first book accepted by Knopf, and it was initially held back “because the author wanted his first published novel to be a serious realistic work so that he could make a good impression on the critics” (36); but in the end Knopf declined to publish the book until Wylie thoroughly rewrote it. In his first years out of Princeton, Wylie considered himself a literary stylist in the manner of Swift and Sterne, and after leaving The New Yorker—he was among its founding staff members, a fact (unmentioned in Moskowitz) that would raise the eyebrows of anyone familiar with his later career as a high-output producer of serials for the slicks—he produced an allegorical fable of highly mannered artifice.

I had a little preface to each chapter—there were twenty chapters, and each chapter began with a different letter of the alphabet. I was having a little fun like that, playing with anagrams and things, but Knopf made me re-write it as a straight unobstructed narrative. That’s all, and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to be an eighteenth-century kind of writer. (qtd. in Keefer 46)

Finnley Wren, published in 1934 and generally considered Wylie’s finest work by those familiar with the body of his writing, is the fulfillment of this early ambition, as sumptuously Sternian as Wylie’s later polemics were furiously Swiftian. Subtitled His Notions and Opinions together with a Haphazard History of His Career and Amours in these Moody Years, as well as Sundry Rhymes, Fables, Diatribes and Literary Misdemeanors. A novel in a new manner (much irony in that last line), Finnley Wren represented a literary apotheosis from which Wylie promptly retreated. Keefer speculates that its failure to impress the literary world caused Wylie to veer bitterly in another direction.

This is interesting because The Disappearance, published in Wylie’s confident middle years—and one of his last critical and popular successes— marks a partial return to this mode. Wylie’s 1951 novel, in which all men and women abruptly disappear from each other, leaving two parallel worlds populated each by a single sex, is generally described as a scrupulous working-out of the implications of a single fantastic event, which it indeed is. But the narrative’s careful realism is offset by its chapter titles—“A gentleman of eminence is introduced and a curious event takes place by which he, and others, are baffled”; “A world of women—O tempora! O mores!”—which overtly invoke the tradition of Smollett and Sterne. This tension between the hectoring, increasingly intemperate Wylie of the 1940s onward and the literarily ornate, ironic, and coolly mannered (perhaps Cabell-influenced?) Wylie of the late 1920s and early 1930s, remains intriguing, while his urgency about the certainty of nuclear attack or his fury at the behavior of the leisured female mid-century bourgeoisie—which Wylie seems to mistake for American women generally—retains merely historical and/or psychological interest.

The older Wylie was a village explainer, dogmatic and cranky, whose ineradicable streak of artistry can startle the reader when an unlovely diatribe is abruptly succeeded by a sharp moment of imaginative sympathy, often beautifully rendered, for a specific woman in a discrete situation. The Disappearance is not really readable today—the alternation of these two modes does not manage to produce the “something approaching a feminist tract” (x) that Silverberg generously suggests—but a reviewer (or Wylie scholar, if any such beast exists) who marches through its pages can trace the complex textual riptide of an angry man who allowed the pleasures of intemperance to wash away much of his considerable gift.

Bison seems to have taken an interest in reprinting Wylie’s fiction; it earlier brought out an omnibus edition of When Worlds Collide and After Worlds Collide (1934)—although the title page mentions only the first volume—and we may eventually see new editions of his sensational post-holocaust thrillers Tomorrow! (1954) and Triumph (1963), or perhaps his posthumous The End of the Dream (1972), which Silverberg very surprisingly calls a collaboration with John Brunner. I would suggest they consider Finnley Wren, which, though never published as science fiction, offers a series of nested narratives that could be likened to either an eighteenth-century gallimaufry or a modernist text (Wylie would certainly have plumped for the former) and which manages to be both a contemporary novel of the collapsing Jazz Age and a science-fiction text. One hopes that whoever writes the introduction looks further afield for secondary sources than Sam Moskowitz, and that future Bison volumes of Wylie’s fiction—assembled without need to pay royalties to the Wylie estate, but still expensive—are undertaken with more care.

Andrae, Tom, et al. “Of Superman and Kids with Dreams. A Rare Interview with the Creators of Superman: Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.” Dec. 1, 2004. <>.
Clute, John and Nicholls, Peter. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. New York: St. Martin’s, 1993.
Jones, Gerard. Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book. New York: Basic, 2004.
Keefer, Truman Frederick. Philip Wylie. Boston: Twayne, 1977.
Moskowitz, Sam. Explorers of the Infinite: Shapers of Science Fiction. 1963. Rpt. Westport, CT: Hyperion, 1974.
─────. Seekers of Tomorrow: Masters of Modern Science Fiction. 1966. Rpt. Westport, CT: Hyperion, 1974.
. Petrou, David Michael. “Superman, the Legend.” 1978. Rpt. Superman—The Dec. 1, 2004 <>.
Pine, Herbert S. [Jerry Siegel]. “The Reign of the Superman.” Illus. Joe Shuster. Science Fiction #3 (1933). Dec. 1, 2004. <>.
Siegel, Jerry and Joe Shuster. “Superman.” Action Comics #1 (June 1938). Dec. 1, 2004. <>.

David Hartwell

Clute Speaking

John Clute. Scores: Reviews, 1993-2003. Harold Wood, UK: Beccon, 2003 (<>). x + 428 pp. £14.00; US$27.00; CAD$33.00 pbk.

There is a fan cartoon by D. West, I recall, in the UK that shows a figure speaking on a convention platform, accompanied by a fan holding signs saying “He likes it” and “He doesn’t like it.” The caption is “Oh, there’s Clute speaking.” Marion Zimmer Bradley once rose to speak (after I had been asked to introduce her) at a writer’s conference and began her remarks ironically with: “If you can’t bedazzle them with your brilliance, baffle them with your bullshit.” Clute is a frequent dazzler.

This is John Clute’s third collection of book reviews, after Strokes: Essays and Reviews, 1966-1986 (Cosmos, 1988) and Look at the Evidence: Essays and Reviews (Serconia, 1995), which was perhaps an even more satisfying collection than this one. John Clute is knowledgeable, well-read, and entertaining, formidable and aggressive, and given to synthesis and off-handed, in-your-face pronouncements. He careens through some of his reviews like a race car driver on a country road, mostly (but not always) avoiding the potholes. He is a passionate reader, and in the tradition of critics in and out of genre not trained in or captive to the academy, he hews to few theories or party lines not his own. His own positions are preset—he abhors the politics of almost all popular American sf; he does not respond to the pure and isolated wonder generated by a scientific idea; he regards the audience that does as not his; otherwise, he makes them up as he goes along.

As with other lovers of words not subject to the strictures of academic rules, he often redefines critical terminology to suit his own preferred usages—sometimes he hits them all the way out of the ballpark. There is, for instance, no useful definition of space opera other than his own that would allow him to hold up Gene Wolfe as a paragon of space opera, as he does. He also likes to coin critical terms, such as “instauration fantasy,” “polder,” “wainscot,” “slingshot ending” (this one borrowed from a Kim Stanley Robinson blurb), “crosshatch,” and “thinning”; he assumes that his encyclopedias exist as the glossary for his reviews. And he is charmingly unashamed to revise and even reverse himself later. Another essential part of his charm is his wildness and unpredictability, without which his frequent arrogance would be unbearable. He is the Walt Whitman of contemporary sf reviewing, containing multitudes.

I find his reviews, which fill 400 pages of very small type in this self-published volume, fascinating and occasionally infuriating. This particular volume is nearly The Whole Clute Catalog, 1993-2003: it would have benefited from an editor who would have forced the author to be more selective. Perhaps a quarter of it should have been left unreprinted, but it does benefit from the parenthetical intrusions of the later Clute, in his witty persona as self-commentator.

Clute understands that the vast conversation that is the sf genre—the broad church genre that now embraces the associated fantasy and horror genres and many marginal literary relatives—needs strong voices and constant challenges and disagreements to persist, as the sf enterprise now has for more than 75 years. Clute’s voice, raised in advocacy or condemnation, is forceful and attempts to rivet your attention.

His ornate style, digressions, and often gymnastic leaps to conclusion do sometimes leave one wondering how he actually feels about the book under review. In such reviews the book is often a springboard for a Clutean theory, or a rocketing digression that lands on the book again only in the last paragraph. There is no telling what Clute will like or not like next, though he is fairly consistent within a writer’s body of work. He likes M. John Harrison, Gene Wolfe, John Crowley. He is most generous to those writers and to works that are trying to bring about changes in the literature. He is much more skeptical about changing the world. And he seems completely unsympathetic to prediction or the proleptic aspect of sf. Perhaps this is bound up with his seeming lack of interest in science.

I was on a panel in about 1989 with four important sf book reviewers, all of whom admitted that one of the guilty pleasures of book reviewing is that you can submit your first drafts and they will almost always be published. Clute’s habit is to read the book, or as much of it as he can, or as much as he feels necessary, and then compose the review within a day or so of the final deadline for publication, sometimes within hours of the absolute last minute, in a state of passionate intensity. This helps to explain those reviews that are essentially all digression. Some of them ought to have been left out of this collection, and the ideas and arguments incorporated into essays. Such essays were a particular strength of Look at the Evidence. The decade or so covered in this collection was not, however, a time during which Clute wrote essays, so he leaves everything in, still promising a forthcoming book of essays, The Darkening Garden. That will be a book to read immediately when it appears.

One of the difficulties of Scores is that Clute had already decided, as of 1992, that American sf (renamed “First SF” throughout this collection) had reached a dead end and that this body of sf under consideration is the sf of the End Times. As a result, works continuing that earlier tradition are either dismissed as already on the way out the door of the present into literary history or are treasured respectfully as deconstructions of our genre forefathers. This can be infuriating when it appears to me that the book in question attempts to build on the past, not deconstruct it. But it is the past, which he knows so richly and deeply, that Clute is determined to escape, as if from a prison. Clute’s quest is to discover the harbingers of the future literature as yet unformed. He is a haruspicer. He often mistakes the present for the past, though I regard this as a minor flaw.

Clute’s claim for the death of sf informs all the reviews in this latest collection. This is more than simple hyperbole, and it needs a good bit of explanation because it is treated as a simple fact requiring neither reason nor argument. Taken at face value, it calls into question why an otherwise sensitive and sensible reviewer would spend so much time talking about sf if it is, as implied, only an animate corpse.

John Clute was born in Canada, educated in the USA—he was a classmate of Thomas M. Disch at NYU—and has lived in England since the end of the 1960s. He is a British writer. British and American sf began the work of differentiation within the sf genre in the 1960s, and the goals of the two national movements were radically, though not clearly and publically, oppositional. Boiled down to the simplest terms, what came to be called the New Wave in Britain declared all science fiction, and in particular American sf, prior to 1962 to be literary history, entirely replaced by the new speculative fiction of the inner life and inner space. In contrast, the progressive forces in American sf wished to improve the literary techniques and standards of sf (also under the banner of the term speculative fiction) without either replacing or abandoning traditional science fiction, technological optimism and all.

At about the same time, modernism had lost its force as a literary movement (one recalls the widespread discussions of the death of the novel and of the literature of exhaustion in literary venues of the 1960s and early 1970s), and sf writers, both in the UK and in the USA, began aggressively to mine the modernist writers for techniques to import piecemeal into sf. Alfred Bester and Theodore Sturgeon became the technical models of literary ambition for that sf generation.

By the early 1970s the British New Wave stance had been examined and rejected, on the whole, by American writers. The new generation of British writers were published infrequently or not at all in the USA. And the British sf community accepted without question that contemporary sf started about 1962. In the USA, Lester (critic and editor) and Judy Lynn (editor and publisher) Del Rey rose to prominence on a polemic of “back to the Golden Age,” by which they meant “before the 1960s.” Their conservative agenda sought to deny the value of the literary ambitions of the 1960s on both sides of the water, as Lester Del Rey wrote in The World of Science Fiction, 1926-1976 (Ballantine, 1978). It was into that environment of the 1970s, when Del Rey held the bully pulpit of the Analog book-review column as well as a prominent editorial position, that Clute introduced his own sf reviews. As opposed to the fiercely partisan M. John Harrison, who always seemed to wish to burn American sf to the ground, Clute appeared as a voice of reason and comparative objectivity, able to appreciate and advocate the virtues of some American sf as well as of the British. One of the legacies of that formative period is that Clute continues to see sf as falling into literary periods like a pile of building blocks. But he was not, in the 1970s, a major voice. He didn’t have a regular forum or column then.

His voice became stronger in the 1980s, and he began to move into the center of the discourse with his collaborative work on Peter Nicholls’s Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1979; US title: The Science Fiction Encyclopedia), which established his credentials as a deeply knowledgeable sf scholar and critic. One memorable evening in London, Nicholls told me that he would have to wrest Clute away from a prior commitment to do the book at all. That encyclopedia was immediately recognized as an important work that made both Clute and Nicholls more prominent in the sf world. Clute still reviewed mostly British sf and published for the most part in the UK, but he also began to publish more frequently in the US, particularly in the Washington Post Book World starting in 1983, where he formed a friendship with editor Michael Dirda. Clute also, for the first time, made a significant amount of his income from reviewing during this time.

And toward the end of the decade, Clute and Nicholls, now full co-editors, produced the wholly revised and expanded 1993 Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (this time with the significant help of Brian Stableford, who contributed nearly a third of the vast book), a masterpiece of scholarship that emphasized the rich traditions of British sf, about which Clute and Nicholls knew much, and gave less attention to the pre-genre literary background of American sf, about which they knew less.

A particular example of Clute’s British bias is his continued promulgation in Scores of the pejorative UK term “fix-up,” which generally means a collection of stories masquerading as—and perhaps marketed in paperback as—a novel, a lesser, cobbled-together book, a fake novel. Though Clute redefines it more positively here, that doesn’t help much. “Fix-up” refers to the kind of book modeled on Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (and William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses), one that is neither a novel nor merely a short-story collection, but an aesthetic object all its own. Sf examples include Clifford D. Simak’s City (1952) and Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950). There is no tradition of short story or novella cycles in British literature. The idea of a group of stories (at least three), with a common setting and perhaps linked characters, that at least attempts to add up to something richer than a collection of good, though unrelated, stories has indeed also generated marketing constructs that deserve no better name than fix-up. Sometimes they are even designed by publishers, not by the writers themselves. There are many failed attempts to create similar successes out of linked stories in sf, but a knowledgeable critic would not accept the failures as the aesthetic standard. “Fix-up,” as Clute uses it, is a term generally used by Brits to beat up American sf.

The first section of Scores contains Clute’s reviews from around the time of the publication of the revised Encyclopedia. Then there is a significant gap, and the reviews resume after the completion of Clute’s Fantasy Encyclopedia. Scores is, then, mostly Clute’s work in the 1990s and beyond. I must state my intuition that Clute’s strong feelings about the death of traditional or First SF coincide with the completion of the Science Fiction Encyclopedia, and that if sf is over, then the Encyclopedia is for all practical purposes complete. Further revision, then, is merely a matter of corrigenda and possible expansion of the already established structures. Clute started announcing the death of First SF just around that time, as if he’d had an epiphany, and he’s been trying to defend it ever since, but few other critics have adopted it. That’s just Clute.

It seems to me extraneous and unnecessary to the real project of his reviews, which is to experience and articulate the new, to read and respond, to celebrate the strengths and deplore the weaknesses of new books, in the context of the genres into which they are written and (most often) published, and which they often argue with and trangress, because Clute specializes in reviewing the writers on the edges of genre. He is the best reviewer we have of this material in recent decades.

Clute has a keen perception of his audience, which is primarily the knowledgeable and thoughtful sf reader. Even in the Washington Post, but certainly in Interzone, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and his “Excessive Candour” column on the SF Weekly website, he writes for sf people foremost, assuming context and invoking it with quick allusions. I cannot imagine a contemporary reader who does not read sf managing to get through Scores. I cannot even imagine one reading a hundred pages of it. How would such a reader know what to disagree with? And how can there be discourse without disagreement? Clute inspires disagreement. “C’mon,” he seems to be saying in his flights of off-the-cuff theorizing or rash generalization, “tell me I’m wrong and prove it.” This is the stance of the street intellectuals and extra-literary writers and editors who created and advanced the sf movement from Wells and Gernsback to the present.

And as to the style, which is only occasionally incomprehensible (and when he can’t figure himself out later, he has cut it from the book), it is the chief of the entertainments of reading Clute. It is the coruscating play of the creative critical mind at work, more overtly so than in any but the greatest reviewers in his generation, Thomas M. Disch, Joanna Russ, and Samuel R. Delany (all sadly long since gone from regular sf reviewing). I have been searching for just the right image to end on, since Clute always proceeds by image and analogy, and I have it: he is the Bob Dylan of sf book reviewing.

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