Polder, Ed. Farah Mendlesohn

Old Earth Books, 2006, 308 pages, US$40.00 hc, ISBN 978-1-882968-34-4

It’s impossible to pick a name and say “there’s the best science-fiction writer of our generation”: there are too many good ones, too many styles, too many different approaches. But it is possible to say “John Clute is the best science-fiction critic of our generation”, because it’s true: no one else comes close. No one else has co-written a standard reference encyclopedia (twice!), churned out enough critical essays to fill three books, even redefined the common language of genre criticism. He is a literary singularity; I feel blessed for having met him a few times at conventions over the years. And there’s another measure of success for you: How many other critics have their own fans?

With Polder, the time has come for the biggest fans of the Clutes (John and Judith) to come together and pay homage to the couple and their flat.

I’m not terribly familiar with Judith Clute’s work, but I suspect that text-heavy Polder isn’t the best way to do so: a coffee-table book may be the best way to discuss a visual artist’s work. In my case, I even lack to vocabulary, so I won’t even try.

Similarly, I’ve never been near 221B Camden High Street in London, so I can only shrug amiably at the reverent description of a flat crammed with bookshelves, art, a cat named Pepys and the Clutes themselves. Interestingly enough, Polder ends up presenting a number of stories and segments of SF novels where the flat figures prominently. Snippets of published works by M. John Harrison, Elizabeth Hand, Geoff Ryman or Kim Stanley Robinson are a testimony to the central location 221B Camden occupies for SF professionals passing by London.

A few stories were written specially for this volume, all of them taking the form of light-hearted pieces with good roles for the Clutes. Brian Aldiss’ “An Audible Anagnorisis” is a fun mainstream piece that reminded me of Wodehouse, whereas Ian Watson’s “What actually Happened in Docklands” enlists John Clute in a fight against evil. But the award for the most amusing story surely goes to Sean McMullen’s “Electrisarian”, an anecdote that tells what happened when a certain Sean McMullen started repairing 221B’s telephone system…

For those who want to learn more about the Clutes, a dozen of their friends got together to write warm and effusive portraits of the couple. Candas Jane Dorsey, Scott Bradfield, Neil Gaiman, Jack Womack, Ellen Datlow and Roz Kaveney offering fascinating recollections of their times with the Clutes. Kaveney’s piece is particularly interesting insofar as she describes the process of working on The Encyclopedia of Fantasy and even offers a version of how the word polder entered SF’s critical vocabulary.

This of course, leads us to Polder‘s considerable value as one of the best work of SF criticism (even meta-criticism) published lately. This is, after all, a book at least a third concerned about a critic. It goes without saying that many other big-name SF critics grabbed Farah Mendlesohn’s invitation as an excuse to discuss their fine art. Clute’s own critical work often inspires them directly: Graham Sleight talks about First and last SF while Edward James muses on Thinning. At other times, it’s Clute himself who’s the subject of attention: Rob Latham double-tracks on his assessment of Clute’s New Worlds criticism, Damien Roderick does a bit of historical contextualizing, Javier A. Martinez shares his love of the first edition of The Encyclopedia of Sciecne Fiction (I could tell a similar tale about the Second Edition), Andrew M. Butler and Gary K Wolfe separately muse about Clute’s influence on the genre. And yet it’s Bruce Sterling who burns up the barn with his review of Clute’s Scores, a review that ends up as a springboard to a wider discussion of genre deficiencies. Just try to find a better all-star roster of SF critics in any other book this year.

Alas, it’s a bit of a let-down to see so many problems with this labour of love: Despite Old Earth Books’ best intentions, the finished product is peppered with typos, missing punctuations and other problems. The endnotes present a particular issue: Not only are they all relegated at the end of the book when footnotes would have been far more accessible (or even, at a minimum, chapter-by-chapter endnotes), but an error at endnote 110 makes it so that the remaining 60 footnotes are two digits out-of-sequence. Knowing John Clute’s impeccably-organized mind, I suspect that this mistake will bother him far more than the content of the book.

But content-wise, Polder achieves what it sets out to do: recognize people who deserve the acclaim. I’m a regular fanboy when it comes to Clute’s work, so there is no doubt that I will nominate this book for the Non-Fiction Hugo Awards next year: Polder may be for a very specific readership, but it hits all the right notes.

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