The Book of End Times, John Clute

Harper Prism, 1999, 240 pages, C$44.95 hc, ISBN 0-06-105033-4

This is a very strange book.

Unless you haunt the dealer’s tables at specialized conventions, you’re unlikely to ever see a copy: It was published in millennium-feverish 1999 and disappeared almost completely from view shortly afterward, just as fast as most other Y2K-themed books did. It’s not rare (abebooks has 37 copies, only one of them priced higher than list), but it’s not something that’s ever likely to see print again.

I myself had to travel to Florida to an academic conference, spot one of the last remaining copies in the dealers’ room and get it autographed by the author, who commented that This is a very strange book.

Indeed. Commissioned to mark the big Y2K, it wrestles with millennial fever in a skeptical but not entirely dismissive tone. (Clute recognizes Y2K fever as unreasonable hysteria, but is concerned that the hysteria is keeping people from seeing more serious problems.) A large-format coffee-table book, it was designed with the best early-Wired visual aesthetics, a style that seems irremediably dated not even ten years later. And it also marks John Clute’s foray into social criticism, using the same tools that serve him so well in literary criticism.

Clute is best known, of course, for his genre criticism: he is widely acknowledged as one of the top reviewers in his field, has shaped the language of SF criticism and has even co-written landmark encyclopedias. To see him grapple with social commentary is an interesting side-step into a slightly different, but not unrelated field: Criticism is about making connections, and here Clute is free to link just about anything he wants into this study of “The End Times”, imagined or possible.

Not that he can stay away from literary commentary for long. I had to smile when Clute uses almost an entire chapter to riff on the Fall 1997 issue of Life magazine: the critic is never bereft of material. Later, Clute goes back to Science Fiction and studies its place in creating the hysterias of the end times. Through the book, there are quotes and nods to SF authors from H.G. Wells to Ken MacLeod. At the end of the book, the bibliography takes two pages; the Sources, five, with another page-and-a-half of copyright acknowledgments.

Clute has become famous, or infamous, for his unabridged vocabulary and the complexity of his prose, and this book is up to his usual high standards. The content of the book also holds its own as a piece of social commentary. If some of the structure can be suspect, such as the overuse of the Life magazine commentary, the book is well-informed from a variety of literate sources. Clute has intriguing ideas (just wait to see what he does with the notion of a Tamaguchi), and reading the book today is an interesting experience given everything that has happened since 1999: Without too much effort, we’re left to wonder whether the state-encouraged mad responses to 9/11 became an outlet for all of this untapped hysteric energy. 2008’s developing crises only bolster Clute’s notions of unstoryable end times: death by oil price shock, mortgage foreclosures, food riots and global warming.

Since this is a coffee-table book, the visual aspect of The Book of End Times is an integral part of the experience. A disjointed, exploding mess of colors, words, pictures, indenting and graphic elements, it’s a strange showcase for Clute’s words, which are usually seen in far more sedate company. It looks like a long Clute essay laid out over a twentieth century retrospective tossed in a blender. The first fifty pages are mystifying and the last fifty are repetitive, but the strident chaos of it lends to Clute’s words an uncanny urgency. It is not, however, a transparent design job: sometimes, thanks to poor contrast choices and ever-varying font sizes, it’s a struggle to read. The relationship between all elements of the design can often be a mystery, the kind of enigma that can only be put together by over-caffeinated designers with a shaky understanding of the text and tight deadlines to meet.

For Clute fans, The Book of End Times proves to be an essential puzzle piece in an understanding of his critical framework: It clearly outlines a notion that would later seep into Clute’s literary criticism: the idea of the world as Story, and the problems we face in dealing with times that cannot be told as stories. (The obvious case here is environmental issues: Many of them can only be solved by routine, unexciting actions by many -carbon taxes, say, or lifestyle changes- rather than flashy and spectacular acts of heroism by one or a few heroes.) Clute’s work is a mosaic of recurring themes, and so The Book of End Times leads directly to essays in The Darkening Garden, and most likely to the content of the reviews to be published in the upcoming collection Houston do you read. (I wonder if it’s possible to get a copy of the Little Book of Aphorisms of the End…)

From a brief chat with the author, I understand that the making of the book was chaotic and punctuated by radical changes in editorial directions. The result may not strike anyone as a must-read classic, but fans of Clute’s work, or sociological studies, will find fascinating material here. It’s dating itself fast, but not in the ways you’d expect. Perhaps, one day, we’ll get an updated plain-text version.

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