Wednesday’s Heroes: John Clute




It has heft, this work, and its like may not be seen again in printed form. The author himself has moved beyond the book, vowing that future iterations will exist only in our new shared online ether. And iteration is the right term: “We can finish a version,” the author says, “but we can’t complete the enterprise.” It’s a journey of lightyears.

John Clute’s Encyclopedia of Science Fiction already existed in two forms before it reached this point of transubstantiation: as the book of that title, with Peter Nicholls (first edition 1979); and as Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia (1995). I own the latter, and its only defect is that it can’t look forward in time to encompass the SF that’s passed our way since then. It’s a marvel, and it helped make John Clute a go-to explicator of SF’s subtle wonders. Find him here about 2:40 into this installment of the great, lamented Prisoners of Gravity.

“As far as I’m concerned, all the literatures of the fantastic are related — perhaps in a parodic, perhaps in a dancing-dervish fashion — to the planet itself. They are planetary fictions. When I think of horror over the last 60 years since the end of World War II, it strikes me that the central function is not the traditional recovery that fantasy is involved in exemplifying and that so much literature necessarily gives us to believe is possible, but that the central function of horror is coping with amnesia. That the world we have been moving into is a world that has progressively evacuated most of the meanings that allow people to make sense of their lives. That the dissolution of the boundaries between privacy and the rest of the world is part of the same reduction of the capacity of memory to make sense, the capacity of our cultures not to create what I’ve called in a couple of pieces ‘cenotaphic fiction.’ Much of the world that has been created since World War II is a set of cenotaphs, monuments to that which is not there: vacancies, absences.” — “John Clute: Fantastika,” Locus Online, September 27, 2009

Speaking of gravity, that is what I crave in any assessment of “low” culture, whether it be pop music or bad TV or just much-abused science fiction. Weight. Contemplation. I want to hear people talk about our pulp trifles the way astrophysicists talk about, yes, gravity. In a world increasingly designed to disconnect us as quickly as we can make contact, these are things that bind us no less than the unified field.

John Clute understands.

Familiar strangers: H.G. Wells’s 1898 novel, War of the Worlds, was the first SF novel to make aliens seem plausible, and to give them a reasonable motive for leaving their planet: they need the green fields of Earth, and will wipe us out to gain them. The difference between a UFO and a Wellsian Martian is that the UFO is unknown (but probably uninteresting), and that the Martian is all too familiar. We know its planet, we know its lust for territory, and we recognize its methods. Like the British that Wells knew, his Martians are born imperialists. It is appropriate that Wells’s Martians landed in Britain, but those in the 1953 film take on America.” — “The 1950s: Flying Saucers,” from Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia

The flight from print to XML is a considered one. It makes sense that in a distributed cloud of information, the definitive study of futurist fiction would find a home. But there’s also not much home for John Clute and his ilk in the legacy publishing realm. Deep thoughts about pulp are a midlist luxury, and there’s no such thing as a midlist anymore. Like an engineer-survivor on a doomed Planet Earth, he’s looking up toward the heavens and plotting his escape. Godspeed.

Brownsville Station — The Martian Boogie

Yes — Starship Trooper

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One Response to Wednesday’s Heroes: John Clute

  1. I picked up the 1995 edition of Clute’s Encyclopedia while on vacation in Oregon this week. Yes, reading Soulsmithy directly lead to the purchase of a book. Feel the power!


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