Look at the Evidence, John Clute

Serconia Press, 1995, 465 pages, C$29.00 hc, ISBN 0-934933-06-5

So there I was, in the dealer’s room of Montreal’s Con*Cept’97 convention, blowing most of a week’s salary on books I didn’t really need but wanted anyway. So I hand my stack to the dealer, who promptly gives me back John Clute’s Hugo-winning Look at the Evidence.

You can imagine what kind of thoughts passed through my mind: What? Is he refusing my right to buy the book? What’s going on? Then the dealer points at the other end of the table: “You might want to get this autographed right now.”

Now, John Clute is physically impressive: Close-cropped blonde hair at the top of a frame that’s well-over six feet and a width that would make him a serious contender for a part as a wrestler in any TV production. We chatted about CD-ROM encyclopedias (Clute is one of the authors of both the Encyclopedia of Science-Fiction and the Encyclopedia of Fantasy) and I escaped with nothing more serious than a dedication. (“for Christian,” etc… sure is better than a dislocation) (Then there’s when I asked Lois McMaster Bujold to autograph my copy of Mirror Dance, but I’m already name-dropping way too much.)

In the field of SF, there is no better critic than John Clute. Co-Author of the definitive encyclopedias in two genres, not including the Visual and Multimedia encyclopedias of SF, Clute is one of the field’s watchmen. So it’s quite a treat to find five years of critical essays reunited between the same cover. Look at the Evidence is the compilation of all reviews Clute wrote during the years 1987-1992. SF has changed dramatically during those five years, and this book is like a report from the frontlines of this change.

It is during these five years that Clute developed his theory of First SF (roughly; SF-written-as-SF, not really as separate future extrapolation). Also included is a Protocol of Excessive Candour and a too-brief passage about the Real Year of a given SF book. And, of course, a heap of book reviews, sometime favorable, sometime scathing but almost always interesting.

Naturally, Look at the Evidence will be most revealing to those who already have a deep knowledge of the field. I’m always fond of saying that reviews have to answer to those who already read the book in addition to those who wonder if they should. Clute is a critic more than a reviewer, and this means that he’s often speaking to readers In The Know. (There’s one memorable pun about Connie Willis’ Lincoln Dreams… but never mind that.)

Of course, not all reviews are equal, and Look at the Evidence is obviously best consumed in small doses: Reading review after review is not a good way of distillating Clute’s sagacious opinions. Clute’s style is dense and heavy with wordplay: Don’t take this book to the beach.

Unfortunately, the physical format of this collection isn’t very appealing. I disliked the cover illustration (attributed to Judith Clute), and the overall typographical tone of the book is traditional British-drab. The black cover of the trade paperback edition is easily damaged, with unsightly white spots appearing after even the most careful handling. But this shouldn’t detract the readers from the exceptional content.

For a would-be reviewer, reading Clute is a humbling experience. His column at Sci-Fi Weekly (http://www.scifiweekly.com/) offers a shocking contract with the remainder of SFW’s regular reviewers, and Look at the Evidence should be considered as an ideal to attain. I, for one, am in awe of Clute: Even my best reviews are only scribbling compared to what’s in his collection.

Clute as an (intellectual) wrestler? I’m down and out!

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