Friday, August 12, 2011

Book reviews from Hell!

I've written about John Clute here B4. He is, I think, the best critic/reviewer science fiction has had since the late Algis Budrys hung-up his critic's hat in the early-'90s. U can find Clute's work in sevral places on the Net, most recently an occasional review at
I started reading Clute in the mid-'70s in THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION, where he came across as a cranky smart-ass poking fun at summa the weaknesses of Olde SF. At 1st I didn't know quite what 2 think. I'd never B4 read a reviewer who so obviously pointed-out when he thot writers were Bing lazy or were falling asleep at the keyboard. 1nce I adjusted, I thot his crankiness was pretty funny.
He's still funny, but he's mellowed a lot. Since the mid-'70s Clute's worked on bigger projects like the huge & marvelous ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SCIENCE FICTION, an equally huge ENCYCLOPEDIA OF FANTASY, a coupla novels, & some other things here & there. There's also a new, bigger, on-line version of the SF ENCYCLOPEDIA due 2 B unveiled SOON.
Oh, & he's put 2gether at least 4 books of critical essays. Over the past few months I've bn reading them, & they get pretty intense at times. Clute is the only reviewer I know of who is convinced that EVERY story Means Something, even the unsuccessful, lame, stupid 1's; that fiction in the new millennium is of deadly earnest importance; that stories R the way we all make sense of The Real World; & that writers in the SF/Fantasy/Horror world otta damn well B doing their best 2 find us some workable future worlds we can live in. Cos things in The Real World ain't lookin that cheery.
Sounds pretty serious, huh?
STROKES assembles those cranky early columns from F&SF, NEW WORLDS & other places. They're still cranky & funny, but after completing them Clute apparently threw crankiness over the side & focused on the deadly serious question of What It All Means. LOOK AT THE EVIDENCE, SCORES & CANARY FEVER (the most recent collection, 2009), all circle around how SF/Fantasy/Horror fiction Xpresses unease with The Real World -- what huge worries R people all over the planet sharing, & how is it Xpressed thru fiction?
U might B suprised how intense summa this gets. In Clute's view, "entertainment" is just 1 of the things that fiction does. & all of it has some kinda connection 2 the lives we live, no matter how futuristic or dark or weird. Writers Xpress their concerns, & often those concerns R on the minds of thousands -- often the underlying issues addressed could intrest the whole world.
& Clute's point is that -- in light of events like 9/11, global warming, current brutal economic realities, the desire of millions 2 escape this little puddle of paradise called The Real World -- writers of fantastic literature better write their stuff as if millions were reading every word. That's their duty.
Thank Ghod he's not pompous about it. But he's not joking when he sez a lot hangs in the balance 4 the folks who imagine what 2morrow's gonna B like.
The later collections seem 2 show that today's best writers seem 2 need more&more room 2 work out their concepts (& I thot it was just lazy editing....). Clute tackles multi-volume epics like Gene Wolfe's BOOK OF THE NEW SUN & its sequels, Dan Simmons' HYPERION novels, Neal Stephenson's CRYPTONOMICON & its sequels, huge books or novel-series by China Mieville, William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, John Varley, Michael Swanwick & many others -- & finds great, earth-shaking things in all of them. Good reasons 2 read, with an eye on the future.
The collections R usually assembled in chronological order, but almost all of them hava big finish. SCORES closes with a piece about the significance of fantastic literature in the shadow of 9/11. LOOK AT THE EVIDENCE closes with an overview of the brilliant career of the mysterious & tragic James Tiptree Jr. & CANARY FEVER closes with an obituary 4 1 of Clute's oldest friends, Thomas M. Disch (who suicided in 2008).
This all may sound pretty heavy -- it's not, always. Clute still cracks jokes. He still doesn't hold back when he thinks a writer is trying 2 sell readers some BS (there's a great negative review of Margaret Atwood's ORYX AND CRAKE in CANARY FEVER). & when he really doesn't like something -- look out.
Even when he admires a work, things can get kinda intense -- as when Clute compares the Xperience of reading Peter Straub's IN THE NIGHT ROOM 2 torture.
If you're an SF fan, U might want 2 check out this guy. I think he's great, even (as in some of his more-recent on-line reviews) when it seems like he MAKES UP words, even when he sometimes goes off-track & only he can figure out what he's saying, even when it seems like his more complex arguments circle around & disappear up his own ass. If U can imagine a young Robert Christgau reviewing science fiction novels, that's something of the effect.
Good Luck....

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