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Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With John Clute
    by Darrell Schweitzer

John Clute has written science fiction, most notably the novel Appleseed (1999), but he is best known as the field's pre-eminent critic. His work as co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (with Peter Nichols) and The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (with John Grant) has been particularly influential in influencing how we think about and describe fantastic literature. He has coined a good deal of what is now becoming the standard critical vocabulary. Books of his reviews and essays include Strokes, Look at the Evidence, Scores, Canary Fever and Pardon This Intrusion: Fantastika in the World Storm, the latter containing essays. He is currently working on a revision of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, a deliberately incomplete beta version of which was launched in early October in conjunction with Orion/Gollancz.

SCHWEITZER: Let's start with your general background, how you got into the science fiction field and how you became a professional critic.

CLUTE: By accident. In 1960 or so I began reviewing semi-professionally, and in the '60s when I was reviewing amateurishly and professionally - both at the same time. So there was no beginning point for me. And it never became a day job, even though it took all day . . .

SCHWEITZER: So what were you doing before that?

CLUTE: I was too young to be doing anything of interest to anybody except myself. I was nineteen when I wrote my first review, early twenties when I wrote my first SF review. I did the usual various odd jobs that most people did back in the '50s and '60s. I worked for six months on a coast freighter. I was a fork-truck driver, supply teacher, research associate for Professor Taduesz Grygier, whom I disappointed grievously I think . . . things of that sort. Really fascinating to recount. [He speaks with obvious irony.]

SCHWEITZER: Was it always your ambition to be a critic, or were you one of those people who started out writing stories and then found yourself writing more and more about fiction?

CLUTE: Yes, I was first a short-story writer and an exceedingly bad poet. I wrote a few stories that were published here and there. Not very many of them. I am not a fiction writer by instinct or compulsive drive. I did publish two stories, or three, in New Worlds in the mid-'60s. A few others since. And I wrote a very inevitable first novel that was completed in 1964 and which Michael Moorcock purchased in 1965 for Compact Books. It was an astonishingly fortunate fall for me that Compact Books went immediately bankrupt, because it was not a good novel. Michael was doing what Mike always did, but he didn't say what he was doing then and I didn't quite catch on. Mike's publishing policy embodied, as it were, the dictate "Do what thou wilt. And pay for it." Later on this became extremely useful as I began to write seriously explorative non-fiction pieces for New Worlds, which any traditional editor would have blue-penciled into oblivion. (Maybe rightly.) But the only other novels I've written are The Disinheriting Party, which was published in 1977, although it had been finished quite a while earlier, and Appleseed which was published in 2001, a genuine SF novel. That's basically it. So in reality I've been a non-fiction writer from the beginning.

SCHWEITZER: It is a complete different talent, isn't it? In non-fiction you're writing about ideas, and in fiction you are writing about experiences. There is a kind of narrative in non-fiction, but it's not the same, is it?

CLUTE: No, the narratives are different but I find they're closer together for me than for a lot of people. I think, to be honest, there is a lot of moat-defensive nonsense talked about the distinction between creative and non-creative writing.

SCHWEITZER: Then again, I heard from any number of professors when I was in college that the essay is a creative form too. They felt they were just as creative as the fiction writers.

CLUTE: Frankly I think that writing a novel at the peak of one's skill, which is certainly what Appleseed took, which is every jot and tittle of my skill, and writing a book like The Darkening Garden, which is subtitled A Short Lexicon of Horror, which came out in 2006, are both books that required very similar intensity from me. It felt to me like a creative intensity.

SCHWEITZER: When you wrote Appleseed after so many years of writing criticism, did this give you a different perspective on writing fiction? Surely you have thought more about what fiction is and how it works than most regular practitioners of fiction.

CLUTE: Maybe 'thought,' maybe mused in a corner: but certainly listened. I think Appleseed shows the non-fiction writer, the writer about SF, shows us not so much cognitions about the field (although obviously I have thought about things). It shows a sensitized ear to the sound of SF being told, what other stories underlie it, what kind of echoes can be heard in the aisles of the story. It is in that way that Appleseed is multiplex, multi-layered. It is full of echoes. We know something is happening, and at its deeply epigonal level, Appleseed is a novel where you should feel more comfortable with things not clear at a glance than you can quite work out why.

SCHWEITZER: I should think this would give you a great sense of deliberation. You've thought so much about theory that nothing would happen in that book by accident.

CLUTE: In my non-fiction, there is a deliberate refusal of monadic theme criticism, and in fiction that refusal is inherent to the way fiction should be written. You close as many doors as you can, or you can never start. But then you start and those closed doors or those half-opened doors turn out to be your material. They're not the locks. They're your material. They are the lock, you are the key. They're how you begin to tell, as Stravinsky said in the early 20th century that, within limits, every constraint is a freedom. He was most free to do exactly what he wanted to when he was following rules.

SCHWEITZER: If you are saying how science fiction should be written according to your theory, then surely some creative type will come along and ignore you completely.

CLUTE: Oh yeah, if it were the case that I was in a position of saying that I think SF should be written in a particular way. But I don't think I have ever suggested that X is the way to do Y, as though any formal description of SF were a haiku that would cover the whole of the reality of the thing examined. I have certainly made suggestions, of course, like anyone. I was on a panel about urban fantasy, and my way of understanding of urban fantasy proved quite different than that of most relatively young writers. But when I said urban fantasy was a way of narrating a modal understanding of how we live immersed in the world cities of our time, I wasn't suggesting that the only way to write it was in conscious adherence to that. Urban fantasy in the hands of 2011 is a narrative vaguer and far more profound [Clute says in an ironic tone] than that.

SCHWEITZER: What I have in mind is the relationship between the definition and the actual creative act. If you set out to write sword & sorcery, for example, and you're writing to the definition, then you are probably defining the story form by its clichés. It's defined as having these elements, and if you take them away it's not sword & sorcery. I should think that the thing for the writer to do is ignore theory and ignore the prescribed model, and just write.

CLUTE: You sound like a fish that has managed to escape the aquarium and thinks it can continue to breathe without some really good advice about oxygen. I don't see anybody can write as someone who doesn't know or pays no attention to any of the rules. I think we are always paying attention to the rules. I think this does not mean that we are rigidly adhering to a written down set of maxims. But we're paying attention to the rules all the time, especially in the fields that we work in.

SCHWEITZER: Do you think that there are simply certain universal traits of narrative which work and really don't change? I think so myself. If you read, say, Apuleius's The Golden Ass, which is almost two thousand years old, it reads remarkably like a modern fantasy novel, a Terry Pratchett novel, at least until the last chapter.

CLUTE: This seems to be absolutely clear, when you see it at that level and it's hugely difficult to put into words. I keep on trying, myself, to work out ways to lay down a few things. I have certainly laid down for my own satisfaction a variety of ways of trying to get at - to use a term that apparently I invented, though I was not aware of inventing it because it just seemed to be a word - what makes material storyable. To discover what is storyable and how it becomes storyable out of discourse and what is the particular, intense, magical affinity between a story and the way the human psyche works, that's sort of beyond me to capture, but I don't know if it isn't beyond a lot of people. All we know is that it's there. We begin to intuit that the more purely visible the story is when you're telling it, the more the story is like magic. We are story creatures. We live in story-shaped worlds. We tell story-shaped stories. "And then, and then, and then." Then is miraculous.

SCHWEITZER: What do you make of various writers who attempt to dispense with narrative? How far can you cut away narrative forms and still have something of interest?

CLUTE: For me, not very far. I am very glad to know that certain extremisms do exist. It's like knowing that there is a lighthouse, warning you not to go in a particular direction. The light shines brightly. It's a benefice, but it's also a warning. But I find most forms of that kind of experimental writing - and in music too, experimental music that has pushed the various acoustic and mathematical non-narrative potentials to the uttermost - seem to be a kind of cultural moment: not a discovery that is the road forward but a marker of our extremity and confession of nearly fatal self-consciousness; but also a clearing of the communal throat. The adventurers of the twentieth century didn't like to think of themselves as clearing the throat, but although we write now with greater knowledge of all of the discoveries made, we do not adhere to those discoveries.

SCHWEITZER: This suggests an idea which has caused some controversy at times, which is that experimental fiction is actually a very familiar path. That is, once in a generation someone says, "We will get rid of all that narrative stuff." Then they try, and the audience goes away, and the writers who survive are the ones who learn to write narrative. Then another twenty years or so goes by, and it happens again.

CLUTE: I think this had been legitimately been going on since the end of the 19th century, in waves, but not exactly repetitive. The twentieth century required, I think, that we recognize that to describe things had become suddenly more difficult. Our world is difficult. So therefore there are all sorts of modernist redoubts, fictional redoubts, like Finnegans Wake, or many other difficult books which are meant to be difficult, because difficulty is the nature of the Thing Itself, once exposed. That I find interesting, but obviously SF (this is another topic) is anything but modernist. I do think that the greater texts of fantastika, from Franz Kafta to Gene Wolfe, are intrinsicate with a modernist understanding that the world is shite, and the world cannot be understood, and that we lack a matter and we lack a history and that we are in the badlands. But the difficulty they force upon us is making us see.

SCHWEITZER: I think we can safely say that any serious story comes out of the writer's vision and the writer's life, not a matter of being self-consciously experimental, but more of "I'm going to write this story and this is what this particular story requires. To hell with the rules."

CLUTE: Yeah. Okay. I did think for a second there that you were moving toward a critical fallacy, conspicuous over the past 100 years or so, which basically states that the writer cannot write about what the writer does not know or has not experienced. This weird presumption drives most of the idiot theories about Shakespeare not being Shakespeare, and is enabled through a deep misapprehension of what it is a writer does: because although a writer can theoretically reflect direct knowledge in some direct way, most writers never really try to climb that asymptote: the closer you get to a recovered truth, the more abyssal the gap between you and telling it. Shakespeare did not have to see the seacoast of Bohemia to write about the seacoast of Bohemia.

SCHWEITZER: I suspect that the reason the nut-cases go after Shakespeare is the same reason the science cranks go after Einstein. They always pick the biggest target. If you debunk an obscure figure, no one will care.

CLUTE: It reminds you of people with recovered memories. Always Cleopatra or Caesar.

SCHWEITZER: Yes, it is never the kitchen maid. Well . . . so, how do you think they'll misunderstand science fiction in a couple of centuries?

CLUTE: I think SF will be misunderstood, certainly American science fiction of the pomp years from '25 to '75 will be misunderstood if it is thought to be a fair representation of - how to put it politely? - if it is thought that somehow the people who wrote engineering science fiction in the 20th century were doing so in entirely good faith. I think almost all of them are denying something. I think their works whiff of denial. I think they know damn well that the futures they were advocating were not only pretty monstrous, but also impossible to achieve. In the real world, engineering solutions are drowned by side effects. You can't create utopia by pre-planning. You can't prophesy the field of the future very well if you're an engineering mind, because engineers solve problems. They don't anticipate side effects, which is to say they don't get the world. That's not their job.

I think SF will be properly understood in its great years as the most astonishingly incompetent attempt to understand its subject-matter that any self-articulated genre has ever managed to present. Science fiction writers did an astonishingly bad job of prophesying the field of the future. I brought this up in a talk I gave a few weeks ago in Norway about Clifford D. Simak. The "City" stories that were published in the mid-'40s in Astounding, in which it was made clear that Simak thought and that Campbell thought and that his readers thought and that the episteme thought that it was fair to say that cars would start dwindling away about 1960 because they were no longer necessary and people became bored with them; that human beings would begin to abandon the great cities of the world - the "huddling places," which is what Simak had the effrontery to call them from - into what seem to later readers to be nothing more than McMansions with trout streams, decorously spread across rural regions, dislocating the farmers who aren't needed anymore because we had yummy hydroponics now; that loyal robots would replace the nine tenths of the world population who still (even in 2011) starve so that our golf courses can be irrigated; and that this was not only a plausible representation of the changing world from 1944 on, but one that any rational American properly longed for. In 1944 Americans in particular were demented. They thought that their future was going to work without side-effects. Science fiction, the genre that was going to shape our dreams so that we could shape the future did not notice the interstate system. It did not notice Walmart. It didn't notice. Didn't notice.

SCHWEITZER: It didn't notice the internet either. Not even ten years out. Did anybody write about the internet in 1980?

CLUTE: By then they were beginning to write about something like it, but they should have been writing about information in terms of miniaturization through the transistor long before that. John Brunner did a little bit, but having a John Brunner around is a bit like Chinese civilization. How many times do you have to invent gunpowder before gunpowder actually starts to actually blow up the enemy's forts? It took several times in Chinese civilization. It doesn't matter if there's an occasional example, touted by a contrarian. What never happened was that Brunner etc. made any real difference to the way stories were being written. You may get hints of an information explosion, but pretty tentative. To return to my own idee fixe: there is no hint of the transportation explosion, the catalytic explosion that occurred between 1900 and 2000 that we are still busy normalizing ourselves to, just in time for the oil to run out.

SCHWEITZER: I must have missed most of this on Fictionmags, because the most bizarre example I would have brought up would have been David H. Keller's "The Revolt of the Pedestrians," which, if you read it very carefully, comes off as a Gernsbackian technological story as written by Poppy Z. Brite. Do you know it?

CLUTE: I don't know the story.

SCHWEITZER: It's one of those great ex-classics. It used to be regarded as a major story in the field. It was published in 1928, and is set in a future in which the automobile has totally revolutionized everything, so that no one ever gets out of their cars. They spend their entire lives in little personal go-carts. Cities are transformed. There are no stairs anymore, only ramps. It's as if everybody was in handicapped carts, all the time. Their legs whither away. But there is one tribe of Pedestrians in the Ozarks somewhere, and they are the last walking people on Earth. It also turns out that all this civilization runs on broadcast power from one source. There are no backups. No one has any batteries. As the Pedestrians feel threatened, they ultimately shut off all the power and leave everyone to starve to death in the dark. It's one of those feel-good-about-genocide stories that you get in the early pulps. But it's even more bizarre than that. There is a young man of the Pedestrians who infiltrates the Automobilists. How he gets into one of those carts and hides his legs is difficult to imagine. How he goes to the bathroom, we won't ask.

CLUTE: Perhaps he would have told us if his editors had allowed him to. Keller was a piece of work. How long is this story?

SCHWEITZER: A longish short story. But the really bizarre part - this is the Poppy Brite part - is that when the lights go out and about 99% of the human race is doomed to die - that's seen as okay - the other secretary's erotic passion bursts out. The spy reveals himself to be male. That she could be a lesbian is not thinkable. Before she dies, she wants one last romantic embrace, which she gets, whereupon she ecstatically rips out his jugular with her teeth and wallows in his blood. This is a Gernsback story. I don't think anybody read it carefully at the time or understood it, but it is all about the transformative power of mass transportation.

CLUTE: No. I doubt that story was really well understood at the time. I am hearing it in retrospect clearly as a transportation story, but within the context of 1928 it is also very much a rather imaginative dystopian story, because a lot of the imagery seems to dramatise how you become robotic in a dystopia, with one power source, one voice telling you what to do, et cetera, et cetera, and rigid role divisions. So it looks to me, in listening to it, what you're saying, is that David Keller - who was a bad writer most of the time, but occasionally a very interesting writer - did some really interesting things there. But it would not have been read at that time as a transportation story - all the transportation things would be seen as exemplifications of totalitarian dystopianism, in a pulp way. He might have meant both, but he would not have been read as having much to do with transportation.

SCHWEITZER: Why do you think science fiction does such a bad job of understanding its own subject matter, or understanding the future? It can't be because the writers are lazy. Some of them are, but many are not.

CLUTE: No, as I said, I think it's because a lot of them are deniers. I think that over the last fifty years a lot of professional science fiction has been written by people who knew better in terms of the simplicities of outcome, in terms of the ability for technological fixes to work, in terms of the understanding of the forms of SF as actually useful and clever ways of not only entertaining folk - which is not a lie to do - but of telling the truth. I think a lot of them knew and know better. That doesn't cover the whole of the genre though history, because a lot of people believe what they say, and a lot of people don't write that kind of stuff anyway. As regards earlier decades, it's simplistic just to say we were all demented in 1940, but it's not simplistic to say that some SF writers, for historical or accidental reasons, in the States, got hitched to the engineering wheel.

SCHWEITZER: Was it that these writers were deniers, or that they were not allowed to tell the truth for marketing reasons? That is, if they told the truth, no one would buy their stories.

CLUTE: One needs to be kinder than that. That was an inflammatory thing to say.

SCHWEITZER: I mean that they were not allowed to be honest with their material, for marketing reasons.

CLUTE: I don't know, and I don't know whether they're deniers as we've come to know the term, but I do think that a lot of people over the last fifty years were persuaded to write stories they knew better than to believe in. Maybe they wanted to believe. It is like this gambler's refusal to give up on some scheme, even though the house always wins. SF gambled against the house in those years of its pomp, gambling that planning could fix things, at certain kinds of utopian thinking actually worked well enough to be followed, even though it kept on not working in reality (even though the cars did not dwindle away), and even though you had to ignore the world transforming under your feet like snakes and becoming more and more irreducibly complex to the perception. These stories, Analog still publishes them, these stories are still happening. There are still writers who do them. But they are shadow people. They are at the end of a particular era.

SCHWEITZER: In the tone of what you're saying, you're describing science fiction in the past tense, as if its glory years are over.

CLUTE: It has been addressed to me before that I have called SF dead. I don't think the real literature of the fantastic is dead. I think SF as a genre has been, as it were, colonized, overgrown, made irrelevant, made smaller, bigger, and become so complex and diffuse as a series of texts, not as a series of release-points. I have felt, while doing The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, that basically there are two encyclopedias. There is the one I am focusing on very hard right now to finish off, which is the intention to anatomize and deeply to honor the American SF, in particular, of the 20th century and to maintain and to rehabilitate where necessary not only the entries on the authors, but also the theme entries that attempt to map that twentieth century enterprise. The second Encyclopedia of SF is the encyclopedia that attempts to create a series of models of theme entries and author entries and entry structures in general that will serve as a series of lattice-works over the complexities of the badlands that we inhabit now. Though the new pattern of entries will meld imperceptibly, I hope, into the old, it is the new which will try to give openings into the kind of SF someone like China Mieville or Elizabeth Hand writes. For you cannot really retrofit them comfortably into the twentieth century. Not that SF was ever exactly fixed. Do you know the five-finger exploding palm device in Kill Bill?


CLUTE: You don't know the five-finger exploding palm device in Kill Bill!? Ah. It's this ultimate move in martial arts. You go . . . like that [makes a motion] . . . in a particular way and your assailant does not know what has happened, but after five full steps, he or she drops dead. I think science fiction as a coherent enterprise suffered that particular move in 1957 with Sputnik.

SCHWEITZER: It doesn't know it's dead yet?

CLUTE: It is hard to define what a step is in the genre, but maybe the five steps have already been walked through and that particular thing is dead, and maybe we have another step to go, but basically the dragging of the space race, the dragging of the engineering dream of linear expansion back into the real world and dirtying it up with laundry, with all sorts of debris and real-life politics well, meant that that was the point where the blow had been struck. That was when it was killed.

SCHWEITZER: What does a young science fiction writer today - someone who is about twenty and just starting out - have to face? Do they try to reanimate a corpse?

CLUTE: If they are trying to write YA novels based on Heinlein, they are trying to revive corpses, yes. They may be great young adult novels, and Heinlein had elements of greatness as a writer, but I think there is something zombie about Heinlein YA Redivivus. But if you are a young writer and you are actually trying to write a serious story, you should just think of yourself as going out into the world and trying real hard to recognize something, and if we recognize something really well, some tiny evanescent flash of now we can make work as a meme, we'll be writing SF, as we understand it now, which no longer focuses on the particular half-century of pomp we love and mourn and bury.

SCHWEITZER: Thanks, John.

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