Tag Archives: John Clute

The Book of End Times, John Clute

<em class="BookTitle">The Book of End Times</em>, 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.

The Darkening Garden, John Clute

Payseur & Schmidt, 2006, 162 pages, C$40.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-9789114-0-9

In the world of SF criticism, John Clute is the alpha dog: Few others have been able to re-shape the language by which we’re able to discuss genre fiction. For that matter, few people have their names on two genre-defining encyclopedias and three volumes of collected reviews. Clute has introduced a number of genre-specific critical concepts (“real year”, “thinning”, “polder”, etc.) and established a solid framework through which we can consider genre fiction. His work has become an essential part of how we discuss speculative fiction.

Having settled the matter of science-fiction and fantasy, Clute has now turned his cool intellect to the issue of horror. The Darkening Garden is the first articulation of this interest. It’s not an “Encyclopedia of Horror”, though that may follow eventually, nor is it a definitive statement on the subject. It’s a bunch of notes in progress, a first attempt at articulating the nature of the genre put out there for discussion. Typically for Clute, some entries are brilliant, some entries are baffling, and most entries are both at the same time.

It’s also as much an object than it is a book. Published by a small press with a first print run of only 500 signed and numbered copies (I’ve got 190), The Darkening Garden is the kind of cute book that is to be admired as much for its design than for its content. Indeed, each of the thirty entries in this very short lexicon is illustrated, with a variety of artists each showing up once. The outside design is simple: a small, self-effacing black hardcover with a band announcing the title. Inside, the text is laid out with a judicious choice of font and margins, all reinforcing the impression of a small jewel-book carefully set to highlight the content. This is not a mass-market book (it even lacks those ubiquitous bar-codes for easy retail scanning), which is fitting for content that is not for mass consumption either.

Let’s open the book at a random entry and transcribe just one sentence, shall we? Here it is, from “Strange Stories”: “The examples given are not entirely heterogeneous, for the inner creative bent of most of those who have used the term is toward the writing of tales of estrangement rather than AFFECT HORROR as such.” [P.138] Well, actually, that’s not too bad. Clute has often been derided for the complexity of his language and The Darkening Garden is no exception. This is not a book for easy reading; it’s meant to build arguments, map out new territories and stretch minds in new critical directions.

The overarching thesis of the book is a model for horror fiction as a whole. It’s an inversion of Clute’s well-established pattern for fantasy: Whereas that goes from WRONGNESS to THINNING to RECOGNITION to RETURN, Horror (argues Clute) goes from SIGHTING to THICKENING to REVEL to AFTERMATH. (With a side order of VASTATION.) This argument forms the the backbone of the book, and what remains from a first read.

I may lack the critical tools and depth of knowledge required to make sense of it, but at first glance it does seem to make sense. The stereotypical horror film, for instance, signals something wrong with the world during an initial SIGHTING, gets more unnerving as the presence of the supernatural THICKENS, attains a paroxysm of sorts during the REVEL when characters are plunged deep into the new logic of the wrong world, and finally ends with an AFTERMATH where bodies are counted and the evil may or may not return. It’s not a bad model (albeit one would be careful to hammer an entire genre in it), and the best thing about The Darkening Garden is how it offers the theory for evaluation, daring other reviewers to make use of it if it pleases them. (Or criticize it if it makes them even happier.)

I’m not so sure about the other, more tangential elements of the lexicon. (Did we really need an entry on “Picture books”?) Another of Clute’s developing theories is the sense that genre fiction exists at a particular point in human history, that it only became possible as we started making sense of humanity as a story to be told (or understood? I’m not sure about that myself.) That’s where the lexicon brings in the Holocaust and tremendous vastation. I’ll refrain from judgement, except for noting that Clute is growing older, and that as with many people on the wrong side of fifty, he’s more and more apt to say that some things will not outlive him —such as Science Fiction, said to have died years ago.

Casual readers won’t get much out of The Darkening Garden except for a headache and the sense of an unfinished argument. But serious students of genre (and there are more than enough hooks here to link Clute’s arguments about horror to SF and fantasy) will enjoy a new theory of horror. Clute fans owe it to themselves to get a copy of this book, but other shouldn’t worry if they let all 500 copies sell out: I’m sure that this material will pop up again, revised and expanded, in some future Clute encyclopedia or another.

[October 2007: My web server tools detect a vast and cold wind blowing over this site. What could it be? Yes, John Clute sees this review and mentions it on his blog. There are no comments, but my embarassment is considerable. I resist the urge to change the review or replace it with a series of apologies.]

Scores, John Clute

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.

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.

Appleseed, John Clute

Orbit, 2001, 337 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 1-85723-758-7

After suffering through John Clute’s Appleseed, I’m ready to propose a law that will require mandatory knee-breaking for every critic who has the gall to unleash a fiction borefest on an unsuspecting public.

An explanation is in order: John Clute stands supreme as the world’s best science-fiction critic. His incisive commentary is compelling even if you haven’t read the book he’s talking about, and his views on the state of the genre deservedly provoke controversy. Read his reviews, and you’ll pick up vocabulary. His essay collection Look at the Evidence is in my library; I still refer to it from time to time as a demonstration of my complete lack of talent as a critic. In short, he’s the man, and I’m the weasel.

So, naturally, the release of his first science-fiction novel, Appleseed, should be an event in itself. Who better than a critic to show a lesson to the rest of the SF world?

Hey, stop laughing. It’s hard to lose one’s illusions.

The problems begin even before the first page of the narrative, as Clute thoughtfully includes an Author’s Note explaining the meaning of “Azulejaria” and “Mappemonde”. Sound the warning bells; we’re in for a bumpy ride.

How bumpy? How about a randomly-chosen prose excerpt for your perusal? Ready? Here goes: “Opsophagos consulted the crippled captive AI in its iron mask. They agreed that the Johnny Appleseed face of Klavier was artefactual, a play of light visible only from the command skiff. But the other face was no decal, no trick played on the instrument of the Harpe. The other face was the face of a planet.” [P.166]

That might have been a bad random selection; it’s actually almost vulgarly accessible compared to the rest of the novel. The word “unreadable” generally comes to mind.

But “boring” quickly follows it. Because not only is reading Appleseed a lot like wrestling in a mud pit with an octopus, when you manage to shine a light through the clouds of obfuscation and uselessly fancy prose, you end up with… not much. A standard mercenary trader story. A space opera that could have been written in the fifties if it wasn’t for the bad language and the sex.

Oh yeah, the sex. And the bad language. Having lived only five years in the seventies and having never indulged in recreational drug-taking, I don’t have LSD flashbacks. But I can certainly have bad literary flashbacks, and reading Appleseed took me back to my least favourite SF period, the brain-damaged late-sixties/early-seventies when “experimental” authors like Moorcock, Delany or Russ urinated in the common pool by stuffing as much gratuitous sex and language in otherwise insipid stories. Appleseed is not only an atrocious book; it’s an atrocious book from the seventies.


I seriously thought about stopping to read, an exceedingly rare event for me. I kept slogging on, against my better judgement. Maybe it would get better. It sort of did, for a while, but that ultimately proved to be a cruel illusion. I might have read the last third of the book. I certainly don’t remember any of it.

My point ultimately being that Appleseed is one of the worst SF books I’ve read in a while. Give me Star Trek novelizations or even another book by William Shatner; I might hate it as much as I do hate Appleseed, but at least I’ll have much more fun doing so.

[July 2006: Years later, not necessarily any wiser, I have come to regard my impression of the book as a personal failure of comprehension. Clute rocks and we’re just hicks trying to catch up. There’s a telling passage by Neil Gaiman in the Clute-hommage anthology Polder that goes like this…

[During the Milford writer’s workshop] we questionned his metaphors and similes. We would say: “John. You say here that ‘it was as if an entablature of salamanders performed a [myoclonic] can-can.’ Isn’t that a rather laboured, not to mention utterly opaque simile?”

And he would brush off such foolishness with an airy gesture. “You may think that,” he said, “but later in the story an entablature of salamanders will actually perform a myoclonic can-can. And then it will resonate.” [P.158]

…and so I am humbled. I will try this book again.]

Tesseracts 8, Ed. John Clute and Candas Jane Dorsey

Tesseracts, 1999, 312 pages, C$9.95 tpb, ISBN 1-895836-61-1

The Tesseracts series is now a flagship of Canadian Science-Fiction literature. Originally conceived as a one-shot Canadian SF anthology by Judith Merill, is has mutated into an annual series of original anthologies with a different team of editors each successive year. Even allowing for the different editorship, the series tends to keep an even character, perhaps allowing for the fact that the roster of contributors is composed of either the same names, or newcomers to the publishing field.

The last few volumes of the series have seen a stabilisation in the physical presentation of the books, which has varied from regular, unremarkable paperback (Tesseracts 3) to high-quality paperback with unreadable content (Tesseracts 5) to, finally, trade paperbacks with good interior presentation (Tesseracts 7). Tesseracts 8 finally improves the interior layout to an optimal form.

As a mild Canadian SF nationalist, I can’t help but be enthusiastic about the Tesseracts series. It’s a wonderful showcase for Canadian authors in both languages (French stories are translated) and the more markets there are, the best it is for everyone, especially readers.

And yet… As a very basic reader (“me want SF stories, no pretty words”), the content of most Tesseracts anthologies usually leave me wishing for something else. Not only do Tesseract editors often express a preference for longer stories, but they also usually select a disproportionate amount of virtually unreadable material. Not unreadable in the sense of ill-conceived, badly-written trash, but in the sense of obscure experimental texts that are either incomprehensible or yawningly boring.

Tesseracts 7 and Tesseracts 8 also fall prey to this unfortunate tendency, with the result that I often found myself skimming through a story in order to get to the next. Which is why I couldn’t find enough to say about either one of the books individually, hence this joint review.

The oddest, yet most enjoyable entry in Tesseracts 7 is M.A.C. Farrant’s “Altered statements” fragments, which are inserted throughout the book. As a long-time fan of Adbusters magazine (for which Farrant is a contributor), these social satires were weirdly spot-on and worth the short read. Other good but odd tales in this volume include the Twilight-Zoneish “The Slow” (by the ever-dependable Andrew Weiner,) and Carl Sieber’s unexplainably fun “The Innocents”.

Tesseracts 8 starts out with a bang: “Strategic Dog Patterning” is military SF against a background of decaying humanity and ascending caninity. The anthology ends off with another strong story with David Nickle’s “Extispicy”, a pretty good contemporary dark fantasy.

“Moscow”, by Jan-Lars Jensen, (Tesseracts 7) reads like something straight out of a Bruce Sterling anthology: a good short story of modern SF. Pretty much like Karl Schroeder’s “The Dragon of Pripyat”, (Tesseracts 8) another post-cyberpunk romp through radioactive Russia.

Michael Skeet’s “Shelf Life” opens Tesseracts 7 with a suitably unsettling note of distorted identity, a theme that reappears often in this anthology series. Tesseracts 8 also contains an inordinate amount of water-related stories, often back-to-back-to-back.

Other standout stories include “Oh won’t you wear my teddybear” (Judy McCrosky), “The Solomon Cheats” (Allan Weiss) and Scott Ellis’ “System Crash” in Tesseracts 7. “Umprey’s Head” (Daniel Sernine), Sally McBride’s “Speaking Sea” and Cory Doctorow’s “Home Again, Home Again” are also good choices from Tesseracts 8.

Overall, I was disappointed with the sum of both anthologies, though I would give an edge to Tesseracts 7 for readability value. Then again, John “obfuscation-master” Clute and Candas Jane “likes experiments” Dorsey edited volume 8, so next year should be better…

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!

The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Science-Fiction, John Clute

Dorling Kindersley, 1995, 312 pages, C$50.00 hc, ISBN 0-7894-0185-1

Chance helps those who help themselves, they say. Or whatever. In this case, patience reward the deserving… or so I like to think.

Explanations: When the SFBC came out with their own edition of the quasi-legendary Encyclopedia of SF at better than half the price of the 90$ volume, I was ecstatic: Having borrowed my university’s copy of the encyclopedia more time than I like to think about, I salivated over the prospect of owning my very own copy of the bible… er… encyclopedia.

Same thing when the Illustrated encyclopedia came out. I spent many minutes in the bookstores, trying more or less spectacularly to keep my drool from dropping on the copies I was shamelessly studying. But the price tag of 50$ had a certain effect on my spending urge. Nevertheless! I vowed to myself: Once upon a time, this book WILL BE MINE! (I’m rotten at verb tense, but the store security people were really impressed by my delivery. They even asked to do an encore performance outside the store. No, really.)

But time dragged on, the effect of Pepsi wore off, the summer job kicked in and the idea faded. Until a certain day when an SFBC notice arrived in the mail, saying something like “Oh, you haven’t bought anything from us in six months. Awww… Here’s a coupon: Buy one of this month’s book and get another free.” Surprise, surprise: The month’s letter contained a flyer hawking the charms of both encyclopedias at 37,95 each. I decided… to sleep on it.

The morning after, it STILL seemed like a good idea. Off went the coupon. Final price? 47,02$ Can. for both books. Tee-hee-hee. That’s right. Both volumes for a bit more that half the cover price of the 1,300 pages encyclopedia. Ahem. Well, I did have to gloat somewhere, didn’t I? Fear nothing; Here’s the reviews:

The 1,300 pages Encyclopedia of Science-Fiction belongs on every serious fan’s reference bookshelf. More than a list of SF authors and bibliographies, it includes critical commentary, movie reviews, coverage of most medias, general themes essays and a lot of non-US material.

It is immensely useful: Even a few months after I’ve received it, I’m still using it regularly to check facts, dates or just for general entertainment.

The biggest flaw is inevitable: Obsolescence. Published in 1992, it’s beginning to (!) show its age. Some major writers of nowadays (Egan, Sawyer, Stephenson, even Straczynski) are absent, or casually dismissed on the basis of a single book.

(The book also contains quite a few errors, I’m told. My edition contains a 16-pages errata appendix, and some of the errors contained there are glaring. Researchers are advised to check there in every case after reading any article: Most major writers have an errata.)

Anyway, this is a bible, and should be treated as such.

The Illustrated encyclopedia of SF is an entirely different book. Do not be fooled by the author’s name (John Clute) because the IEoSF isn’t a subset of the EoSF.

For one thing, this book would have been better titled An Illustrated History of Science-Fiction or somesuch. In addition of settling the confusion between the IEoSF and the EoSF, it would also better describe the scope of the book.

Most of the IEoSF‘s bulk is composed of several retrospectives through SF’s history: Once by decade for themes, once by decade for historical context, once by four “eras” for magazines, one by half-decade for authors, once by decades for major titles and another time by decade for movies. Graphic works and television series are also covered historically, but in a less formal manner.

This book works at several levels. At the lowest, “gee-whiz-what-nice-pictures,” it succeeds pretty well, reproducing great book covers and pictures of the authors. It makes a great coffee-table book for the SF fans in the family. (It also makes a great source for scanning material, but… ahem… I digress…) On another level, it offers many pleasant surprises for the knowledgeable SF fan: Classic books covers, oft-needed author’s portraits (“Hey, that’s Nancy Kress? She’s kinda cute!”), fun 50’s magazine covers. Finally, the commentary that “surrounds” the pictures is worthwhile in itself.

Of course there are flaws. Not every author has a favorable picture of him/her; the covers offered are not always the most aesthetically pleasing. The definitely British origin of the book will jar a few readers’ perceptions. The critical content will probably please no one completely, and we often get an exasperating impression of superficiality from the bite-sized comments. Finally, like the EoSF, this book is firmly fixed in time, which is to say 1994. Although not a big problem yet, it will come…

Purely subjective fannish nit-pick: The mention of “Babylon-5” as being a derivative of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” is indicative of sloppy research and perception from John Clute, but this particular judgment is colored by my intense devotion to the TV series… [In a recent interview with the Webzine Science-Fiction Weekly (www.scifi.com), Clute basically admitted that his opinion has changed since.]

Nevertheless, this is a magnificent book. Even my uncle (far from being an SF fan) spent a good ten minutes just poring through the illustrations in the encyclopedia. Impressive to fans and non-fans alike, it offers what very well may be the most comprehensive historical view of the genre, and thus deserves a place on the bookshelf of even the most casual reader.

Just be sure to get it back once you’ve loaned it.