Strokes, John Clute

Serconia Press, 1988, 178 pages, US$16.95 hc, ISBN 0-934933-03-0

Contemplating John Clute’s critical work usually makes me consider quitting SF reviewing altogether. The man is good, m’kay? His reviews transcend good/bad to attain a perfect mass of criticism, linking a studied work to the grand continuum of Science Fiction’s history, the author’s career and overarching trends in critical theory and current events. (In fact, you can sometime read an entire piece of his without even figuring out if he liked the book or not.) I jest, but barely. Clute is the best critic the field has seen and is likely to see for a while. All of us are mere scribblers in comparison.

Granted, he’s been at it since 1966, three decades before I even started posting reviews on the web. But thanks to a Worldcon dealers’ room, I had the unique good fortune to find a rare first edition of Strokes, a collection of his essays and reviews from 1966 to 1986. Along with Clute’s other collections Look at the Evidence (1987-1992) and Scores (1993-2003), this book offers a look at the state of late-twentieth-century Science Fiction and the evolution of John Clute as a critic.

Not that the young John Clute is any less impressive, verbose or perceptive than the latter one: Any critic who wishes to compare chops with the early Clute is in for a rude awakening. In essay after essay, review after review, he demolishes the SF establishment, mines the dictionary for inspiration and holds the genre to higher standards. Here’s what he has to say about William Gibson’s Neuromancer: “Gibson has gotten run away with by a very silly genre plot, and it’s rather a shame” [p.128] . Orson Scott Card: “I for one have never been able to tell if the innards he formaldehydes are gut or plasteel.” [P.67] Harlan Ellison: “Ellison’s high-pitched burning-bush prose is sometimes hard for an atheist to parse.” [P.80, and if you think that’s a zinger, you haven’t read the full paragraph for its maximum impact]. Oh, yes, everyone is slapped around in Strokes: Clute has no patience for anything less but excellence and he takes SF as seriously as any other form of literature (which doesn’t mean that he, himself is serious). You should see what he does with George Zebrowski’s Macrolife: Ouch.

Our younger Clute isn’t, at times, necessarily more intelligible than the more wizened one. The depth of his references can get the better of him (in fact, some of his 1986 annotations have to explain his allusions) and it’s not rare for readers to step back from the text and think “okay, I will assume he knows what he’s talking about.” Given this, it’s somewhat of a shock to read that even Clute can’t fully understand Gene Wolfe upon first reading (as he puts it, “Making sense of Gene Wolfe, it seems to me, is initially a job of decipherment” [P.163]) This, though, doesn’t translate in Clute’s disappointment as much as a challenge for him. (And crestfallen hopelessness for base readers like myself: If John Clute has to re-read Wolfe to make sense of it, what are my chances?)

Clute scholars will be pleased to find out that, even though Clute’s concept of a SF book’s Real Year has since been popularized, it makes its first appearance here as, significantly, a book’s Real Decade [P.31] (Logically enough, it serves as an introduction to John Varley’s The Ophiuchi Hotline) Other meaty critical thoughts in Strokes deal with tropes in SF cinema and SF as an enclave. As suggested above, the book ends with a substantial series of pieces about Gene Wolfe, pieces that actually do help in understanding what Wolfe is trying to achieve.

The stuff surrounding the reviews is similarly worthwhile and useful. The book begins with a revealing introduction by Thomas M. Disch (a classmate of Mr. Clute, we learn) and ends with a fabulous little index that does much to establish this book as a reference work.

All in all, quite a good compilation of reviews. There’s a lot in here for any serious student of the SF field, and plenty of excellent material to shame even journeymen reviewers. Even decades past publication date, Strokes remains a significant work of SF criticism and an essential part of Clute’s oeuvre. While the readership for this book may be small, it will be very pleased.

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