Arthur C Clarke, Dave Garnett, David Langford, Edward James, Farah Mendlesohn, Garry Kilworth, Gene Wolfe, George Hay, Iain Banks, John Clute, John Grant, John Radford, Judith Clute, Ken MacLeod, Lisa Tuttle, m john harrison, Mary Gentle, Maurice Goldsmith, Mike Moir, Neil Gaiman, Northrop Frye, Pamela Zoline, Pat Cadigan, Peter Nicholls, Scott Bradfield, Thomas M. Disch, William Gibson
This Appreciation of John Clute was published in the Loncon 3 Programme Book, where he was, of course, Guest of Honour:
John Clute is the air that we breathe. His influence reaches into every aspect of our appreciation and understanding of science fiction.
At a 2013 conference on Iain M. Banks, Ken MacLeod revealed how, when they were at school together, he and Banks would devour every issue of New Worlds. This was not so much for the stories, as for the reviews, by Clute and by M. John Harrison. As aspiring writers, they saw these reviews as a template for the science fiction they wanted to write and, more importantly, as a guide to what they should avoid. Clute’s influence was formative on the work of both men, and it is possible to read both the Culture and the Fall Revolution as expressions of a Clutean universe.
Banks and MacLeod are far from being the only writers so influenced.
In my own case, I recall devouring the reviews in his first collection, Strokes (1988). This wasn’t because he was always right, or because I agreed with him (he wasn’t and I don’t, but I’ll come back to that later), but because nobody wrote reviews better. I was reviewing the book for Vector, and I was, of course, familiar with his work, but reading the pieces together, as closely as this required, changed the way I wrote. He shows the way that reviewing should be done (if you have written reviews yourself, you will know exactly what I mean by that), and if none of us quite match up to that, he at least provides something we can aspire to.
And I know I am far from being the only critic so influenced.
All of which ignores The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, which is probably how most of us most often encounter Clute’s work. The first edition, edited by Peter Nicholls with John Clute listed as Associate Editor, came out in 1979; the second edition, co-edited by John Clute and Peter Nicholls and expanded by some 1,500 more entries and over half a million more words, came out in 1993; the third edition, co-edited by John Clute and David Langford, went online in 2013 and continues to grow at an alarming rate. Each edition immediately superseded every other reference source as the go-to work for accurate and accessible information on science fiction, and if you look at the end of most of the theme entries and an unconscionable number of the author entries you’ll see the initials JC.
(While we’re on the subject of the Encyclopedia, let us not forget The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, co-edited by John Clute and John Grant, which came out in 1997. If it didn’t quite encompass its subject the way the successive editions of the SF Encyclopedia have done, it is because it is a much broader and inchoate subject. But much of the shape we now have for discussing fantasy can be traced back to Clute’s work in that Encyclopedia, which is why I believe this work, perhaps even more than the SF Encyclopedia, deserves to be sublimed to the digital sphere.)
Now take a moment to consider the extent of Clute’s influence (and it is always and universally just ‘Clute’, even Thomas M. Disch’s introduction to Strokes is titled ‘An Introduction to Clute’). He has shaped the work of some of the most influential writers in the genre; he has shaped the work of the reviewers and critics and essayists and academics who discuss the genre; he has even shaped the way we all access information about the genre. No-one else alive, not an author or a publisher or a film maker, has had such a far reaching and wide ranging effect on the genre. And he has done this primarily as a reviewer.
Now let’s be careful here: Clute has, of course, done many things. All of them have had an impact on the genre, all of them are worthy of praise. But taken individually they are not the reason we are honouring Clute, and their cumulative effect is still less than his overwhelming importance as a critic. Nevertheless, to get the measure of the man, it is worth taking a look at some of these other things.
He has written fiction, though to the best of my knowledge he has produced only two novels and a bare handful of short stories. As he has said, he is ‘not a fiction writer by instinct or compulsive drive’. The first novel, The Disinheriting Party, originally appeared in New Worlds Quarterly, before it was expanded for volume publication in 1977, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it was science fiction. It was experimental, in that sort of belated avant garde style that would regularly crop up in the Moorcockian new wave, a story of disturbed characters losing their grip on reality, but there was nothing necessarily fantastic about it. The second novel, Appleseed (2001), is a much more overt, indeed bravura, genre performance, a big, brash, baroque space opera that attracted a great deal of favourable attention. But you have to admit, it comes pretty late in the career.
As for the short fiction; I happened to attend the UK Milford Writers’ Workshop in the early 1990s when John Clute showed up with a short story. There were some pretty sharp people attending that Milford, I’m pretty sure it included Neil Gaiman, Mary Gentle, Lisa Tuttle and Garry Kilworth among others, but I remember as we sat around in the hotel lounge, reading the stories and preparing our critiques, there came a point in one story where everyone would reach for the dictionary. In fact, before too long the dictionary would automatically fall open at that page. It was, inevitably, a line in Clute’s story; as I remember, it concerned an entablature of salamanders performing a myoclonic can-can (I suspect that still, all these years later, the line is seared on the memories of all of us who were at that Milford). Once you’ve disentangled it, the image is precise and powerful, but there is something wilful and ineffably Clutean about the phraseology. This was, after all, the man who gave his early New Worlds columns titles like ‘Scholia, Seasoned with Crabs, Blish Is’ and ‘I Say Begone! Apotropaic Narcosis, I’m Going to Read the Damned Thing, Ha Ha’. There was a time when Clute was probably better known for such linguistic efflorescence than for anything else, which at least had the advantage of making him distinctive.
That story, by the way, was eventually published in, I believe, one of Dave Garnett’s anthologies. The salamanders are still in there. You can check them out for yourself.
Anyway, to get back to my point, even allowing for the belated delights of Appleseed, John Clute has hardly set the science fiction world afire as a fiction writer. Most of the people we automatically think of as shaping the genre are, perhaps inevitably, novelists, it is, after all, the most visible way of making an impact. But it is certainly not as a novelist that Clute has shaped the field.
We also need to think of Clute the host. A few years ago he received the singular honour of a festschrift, something that reviewers mostly cannot aspire to. But if you look again at Polder, edited by Farah Mendlesohn (2006), you realise that the honour is directed three ways: to John Clute, to his wife, the wonderful artist Judith Clute, and to the home they have shared since arriving in London in the late 1960s. 221B (I honestly have no idea why no one seems to have perpetrated a Clute/Sherlock mash-up) has, throughout the decades, been a hub of London’s science fiction world. Here the Clutes have provided accommodation for writers as varied as Scott Bradfield, Pat Cadigan, William Gibson and Pamela Zoline, more importantly they have provided a centre that just about every major writer of science fiction has visited at some point. The number of sf works in which the flat has appeared, in one guise or another, is probably incalculable. Just one example: M. John Harrison’s Climbers (1989) features a character who ‘lived in an untidy flat above the fruit market in Camden’. Time and again, stories such as this take us back to the Clutes, even if it is not immediately obvious. It is just one more understated way in which they have shaped the field.
But you don’t get to be one of the most highly acclaimed figures in the genre simply by providing a location for other people’s fiction, so we move on.
We should not forget that John Clute was also one of the founders of the Arthur C. Clarke Award. An outfit that seemed shadowy to us then, and remained shadowy for as long as we had any association with it, called the International Science Policy Foundation, had approached Arthur C. Clarke suggesting that he might fund a science fiction magazine. Exactly why the ISPF, which was primarily a lobbying organisation, might want to publish an sf magazine was never exactly clear, but Clarke immediately put a stop to it anyway. There was, he said, already Interzone, and there seemed no point in producing another. So the idea of an award came up. The ISPF approached the Science Fiction Foundation, the Foundation approached the British Science Fiction Association who already ran the BSFA Awards, and so we met up. Under the chairmanship of John Radford of the East London Polytechnic, which then housed the Foundation, we were myself and Mike Moir representing the BSFA, Maurice Goldsmith and George Hay representing the ISPF (later events suggested that they were the entirety of the ISPF), and Edward James and John Clute representing the Foundation.
My memory of Clute at meetings such as that is that he isn’t always the person who speaks the most, but he is usually the person who speaks the most sense. I also remember taking care not to catch his eye when Goldsmith was saying something particularly outré or clueless (which was quite often) because his expression, sober yet somehow pained, would have left me in helpless fits of giggles. Clute has a very good bullshit detector, and it shows in his face. Anyway, somehow at that meeting we managed to thrash out the shape of the Clarke Award, which remains pretty much unchanged all these years later.
Speaking of Clute as a Founding Father, we must also remember that he was a part of the eight-person collective that launched Interzone in 1982. Of course, the very existence of Interzone is a major achievement; it is quite astounding to have a British science fiction magazine that was strong enough only three years later to put paid to the ISPF’s magazine ambitions, and that is still going strong 32 years later, and, moreover, one that has gained international recognition as one of the major short fiction venues in the world. For that, all eight are to be lauded, but by 1984 editorial duties had devolved upon first three then two of the collective, and Clute himself had settled into the presumably less arduous role of Advisory Editor, in which position he remained until 2004. After that, he took on what was clearly a more congenial position writing a regular review column for the magazine.
Nevertheless, Clute as editor is yet another distinguished aspect of his multifarious career, though hardly one that has made him the new John W. Campbell. All the anthologies that carry his name, five Interzone anthologies and one iteration of Tesseracts, include him as part of an editorial team. Speaking personally, I’d say he has been far more important as an editor of non-fiction. Ten years as Reviews Editor of Foundation, for a start, helped to nurture a whole generation of sf critics, and established Foundation as one of the most readable and important journals in the field. Not to mention editing the Encyclopedia, which I’ve already mentioned.
What we have, therefore, is really a whole series of achievements: Clute as one of the founders of Interzone; Clute as one of the founders of the Arthur C. Clarke Award; Clute as one of the instigators of, and prolific contributor to, the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction; Clute as editor; Clute as host; Clute as author. They are all major contributions to science fiction, they are all worthy of honour, cumulatively they have had an astonishing impact upon our genre. But they all rest on the very solid basis of Clute as reviewer.
It is, perhaps surprisingly, a view that Clute himself seems to endorse. Recently on Twitter he complained that writing encyclopedia entries kept ‘blocking lifework ie reviews’. The Encyclopedia may have been responsible for the numerous awards that grace his shelves, but it was with reviews that he first made his name, it is in reviews that his ideas are best expressed, and it is reviews that underpin everything else he has done.
Naturally, this pleases me. It is good to recognise that reviews lie at the beating heart of the genre.
Notice that I keep using the word ‘review’. There are critical essays. His first collection, Strokes, concludes with a series of mostly short reviews of Gene Wolfe, but the last of them expands into an essay in which he examines an oblique question arising from The Book of the New Sun, but a question that proves crucial in exploring the whole tetralogy: who was Severian’s mother? His most recent collection, Pardon This Intrusion (2011), is largely made up of essays. But his metier is writing reviews, immediate critical responses to one or two new books, what he describes as trying ‘to hijack the guts out of the page read and make it right’, rather than the more leisured reassessment of an individual author’s entire output, or the drawing out of themes, or what have you.
He is not, it has to be said, a theorist. In his introduction to Strokes, Thomas M. Disch recalls meeting Clute in 1961 when they were both at New York University Washington Square College taking courses on ‘The Quest for Utopia’ and ‘Western Intellectual History’, courses whose after effects can still be traced in Clute’s work today. Disch describes himself as ‘a pure autodidact, for whom schooling was no more than a rite of passage that had to be performed with ceremonious correctness while the essential process of education was carried on at home and at the library’, and he identifies Clute as ‘much the same sort of conceited know-it-all’. Certainly, after finishing his own education, Clute did not remain in academia. Of late, he has given the odd keynote speech at an academic conference or taught at the Science Fiction Foundation Criticism Masterclass, but in general he has kept himself apart from the academic world.
In that period, therefore, he has kept himself away from the theory wars, the emergence of structuralism and post-structuralism and deconstruction and feminist criticism and queer theory and post-colonialism and all the other approaches to literature that have flared and (often) faded within the groves of academe in the 50 or so years since he departed NYU. Those theories have, belatedly, been applied to science fiction, often to very telling effect. Clute will certainly have been aware of these theories, to some extent at least (in all the hundreds of books reviewed in the three massive collections, Look at the Evidence (1995), Scores (2003), and Canary Fever (2009), you can probably count on one hand the number of non-fiction works covered), but they have not shaped his own work.
When Clute was a student at the end of the 50s and into the early 60s, the cutting edge of literary criticism was found in the work of his fellow Canadian, Northrop Frye. In an interview with Darrell Schweitzer in 2011, Clute described Frye as ‘trying to create a four-part model of the various forms of prose fiction, a model that encompasses and predicts and shapes everything it touches … I’m way on the Northrop Frye side.’ If there is, therefore, one academic who has shaped, and continues to shape, Clute’s work, then it is Frye. For instance, we see Frye’s love of tabulating types of literature, which we find all the way through his classic Anatomy of Criticism (1957), echoed in Clute’s four-fold division of fantasy, which he essayed in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, and which is in turn replicated in the four-fold division of horror in The Darkening Garden (2006).
The two quadripartite divisions of the literature clearly and easily map onto each other thus:
Season Fantasy Horror
Spring Recognition Sighting
Summer Return Thickening
I don’t think there is anywhere where Clute has actually put the two systems together like this, but when you do it is easy to see how the schemas reflect each other. The fact that fantasy takes us from the darkening days of Autumn to the brightness of high Summer, while horror begins with the rebirth of the year in Spring but then takes us to the gloom of deepest Winter, highlights the fact that horror works as a drear cousin of fantasy. It is an astute analysis, and illustrates the value of Frye’s system, or at least of Clute’s adaptation of that system. Though it is also noticeable that Clute has never attempted a similar classification of science fiction, because I don’t think that would be possible. This would have been no problem, of course, when Clute tended to agree with Peter Nicholls that science fiction was a branch of realist literature, and therefore shared no characteristics with fantasy or horror. But, ironically around the same time that he was writing The Darkening Garden, he also began to talk about ‘fantastika’, a term he coined ‘as a kitchen-sink shorthand for phrases like “the literature of the fantastic” or “science fiction and fantasy and horror and what-not”’. In their own ways, both the patterns of fantasy and horror and the notion of fantastika are Clute’s first real excursions into a theory of the fantastic, so it is interesting that there may be an incompatibility between the two notions, though whether such incompatibility would be problematic for either system is open to question.
What is immediately obvious, as you read through The Darkening Garden which lays out the quadripartite pattern of horror, and Pardon this Intrusion: Fantastika in the World Storm which introduces the notion of fantastika, is that neither of these theoretical systems is an intellectual construct imposed upon the literature. Rather, they both grow out of a deep and intimate knowledge of the genre. It is because he knows the literature so well, because he has read so widely and so thoroughly, that he is able to draw out these patterns.
When I first met him in the late 1970s he was already renowned for knowing just about everything there was to know about science fiction. His baroque phraseology may have been laughed at and repeatedly parodied, but what lay behind this linguistic bling was never ridiculed, there was never any disrespect for the man or for his knowledge. He was, when it came down to it, our polymath, our fount of all knowledge, and British fandom was mystified by him and proud of him at the same time. ‘No one argues with Clute,’ I was told, in no uncertain terms, ‘he’s always right.’ Well, I did argue with him. I have, for instance, never been comfortable with the idea that science fiction is a form of realist literature, and given the appearance of fantastika in recent years, that is one argument I may have won. But in the main, I didn’t win. He really does know everything, and he has a tremendous arsenal to call upon in any dispute about the genre. The thing I recall, though, is the light of battle that came into his eyes whenever anyone did disagree with him. He enjoyed the challenge.
And that incredible knowledge is at the basis of everything he writes. You know that when he praises a book, or when he criticizes it, his opinion is backed up by practically the entire history of science fiction. You can still disagree with him, but you’ll have to marshal your facts very carefully if you do. Basically, a Clute review is a review that you know you can trust. It is still, of course, dressed in some of the most outré language imaginable. I don’t think he could write otherwise now, but sometimes, I’m sure, it is done for effect, to make us laugh. Clute can be very funny. He is also, of course, very very good at what he does. I have stolen from him unrepentantly over the years. His notion that there are three dates associated with any work of science fiction – the date at which it was written, the date at which it is notionally set, and the date that it is actually about – is one I have found particularly useful when writing about Philip K. Dick, for instance. And his ongoing investigation of the storyable, ‘the particular, intense, magical affinity between a story and the way the human psyche works’ as he put it to Darrell Schweitzer, makes for a keen appreciation of the pleasures to be had from well-constructed science fiction.
Over the years, his reviews have appeared in F&SF and New Worlds, the Washington Post and the Times Literary Supplement, Interzone and Strange Horizons, and god knows where else besides. They are always there when we need them. They provide the Greek Chorus of science fiction, the running commentary that helps us make sense of our genre, the one consistent voice that provides the coherent overall shape that makes contemporary science fiction make sense. This is what I mean when I say that he is the air that we breathe. This is what I mean when I say we honour John Clute.