Beccon, 2003, 428 pages, C$33.00 tpb, ISBN 1-870824-48-2
Regular readers of these already know all about my steadfast admiration of SF critic John Clute. His work, after all, is essential reference for serious SF readers. Past mentions of Clute’s work (Strokes and Look at the Evidence) have made it clear that I worship the ground he walks upon. Reading his criticism sometimes makes me feel so inadequate as to jokingly contemplate quitting reviewing altogether. But a different feeling dawned on me as I was reading his latest Scores: Inspiration.
From the onset, it’s obvious that Scores is meant to be a meaty collection. Some four hundred small-point pages of reviews spanning a decade from 1993 to 2003, Scores is a snapshot of the millennial turnover as seen from SF’s perspective. Clute doesn’t review every major work of the period, but he comes close and hits a lot of the essential points from Brin’s Glory Season to Gibson’s Pattern Recognition. Additionally, many reviews have been edited and commented from a 2003 perspective… sometimes with amusing results.
The reviews, of course, are the reason to buy the book: They’re packed with ideas, well-reasoned, well-structured, often hilarious, sometimes infuriating and far, far beyond the simple “buy it/forget it” reader’s guide. Clute doesn’t like or dislike as much as he appreciates and dissects. But sometimes, even his famous erudition gets the better of him: There are a few instances where the 2003 notes candidly explain obscure references, admit to rewriting passages for clarity and even, once, points out a deletion because Clute himself couldn’t even understand what he had written. Now that’s the kind of note fit to reassure every Clute reader occasionally wondering about their reading skills.
For readers of such collections of critical material, there is a temptation to focus on comments about familiar works and skip the others. While I haven’t always resisted that particular impulse myself, there’s a lot of interesting material here and there, from general comments about particular sub-fields to enthusiastic recommendations about works that may have slipped through the cracks. Scores features, for instance, an absolutely fascinating explanation about “variorum text” studies (the delicate academic field in which revisions to the text are examined to understand the author’s true intentions) that is mentioned as part of a review of an academic text most of us will never read. There’s also a rave about Mary Gentle’s Ash fit to make anyone rush out to get a copy.
All of which feeds into a sense of deep satisfaction as the book is read, review per review. One thing John Clute wants you to know is that he’s building a cohesive argument with his work. He’s already acknowledged as the field’s most perceptive critic, but this book brings it all together, ties links between elements of his overarching thesis (of which the famous “Real Year” is only a small section) and clearly establishes inroads into further dissections of the field. Throughout Scores, he not only makes numerous references to his previous collections, but peers ahead at an essay collection called The Darkening Garden. Further references are made to the three encyclopedias he co-edited as if to remind us that, yes, he’s the kind of guy who has co-edited three encyclopedias.
The only sad part about Scores is that it makes so many references to The Darkening Garden that we want to read that upcoming book right now. (It will feature several general essays, which should be a welcome wide-scope view of the field rather than a series of ultra-focused texts.)
But the most surprising thing about Scores is how, after closing the covers, I didn’t entertain any of my usual thoughts about quitting the SF criticism field forever. I felt, rather, empowered. Motivated to perfect my art, highlight the best examples of the field and dismiss the lesser ones. Sure, Clute wrote better at my age than I ever will: But once you strip away Clute’s vocabulary and his formidable critical insight, his exemplary passion for the genre remains red-hot. If nothing else, that should be enough to make me improve my craft past typos and lazy consumer’s-guide reviews. We all want better Science Fiction, and we’ll be better off if more of us stand up to say what works and what doesn’t.