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Polder cover

Here are my John Clute stories, in chronological order:

My school gave out prizes at the end of each year, for general effort and achievement, and for specific subjects. The prizes came in the form of book tokens; the recipients would convert them to books, and then the books would be presented to the recipients at an annual ceremony. A local dignitary would use one hand to shake yours, and the other to give you your book. One year I won the Geography prize. I bought the second edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, in hardback. One-handed didn't cut it.

The 2004 Eastercon, Concourse, was held at the Winter Gardens in Blackpool. One of the abiding images of the con, enabled by thin walls and a nearby fan quiz using loud musical samples, was the sight of John Clute forcefully intoning to the strains of Also Sprach Zarathustra.

Last year, I helped plan the literary track for the Glasgow Worldcon. The first planning meeting I attended took place in a meeting room in a hotel in Camden; at the end of the day, Farah Mendlesohn invited us back to the Clutes' flat, where she was staying while its owners were away, for dinner. It was just around the corner. I watched the second episode of the revived Doctor Who with the Clutes' cat Pepys sitting on my lap, both of us sneezing violently.

There are a couple of others, but these make the point, which is that science fiction is small. It is all but impossible to have any kind of prolonged contact with the SF community without becoming aware of, or being affected by, the activities of John Clute. He is a touchstone: "Clutean" is a shorthand for the eccentric insightfulness SF readers like to ascribe to themselves. Further, the Camden flat he shares with his wife, the artist Judith Clute, is a key location on any SF map of London. I have just the one story about the flat, as mentioned above; I have no stories about Judith Clute except the experience of seeing her artwork appear on the BSFA Award list every few years, but she is a respected artist in her own right. Polder is a welcome book devoted to all three. As Farah Mendlesohn points out in her introduction—a thorough and helpful piece of scene-setting—they are a triptych; they go together.

Polder is a festschrift (and how fitting it is that the book's title may not be immediately transparent): a collection of tributes, anecdotes, poems, essays, and stories about the Clutean triptych. It is, in a word, eclectic. It is also accesible even to those with only glancing knowledge of its subjects. There are a few reprinted items, mostly novel extracts, but the majority of the contents are original, and you will not find a more star-studded roster of contributors this year. They are mostly authors (a sampling: Tom Disch, Candas Jane Dorsey, Neil Gaiman, William Gibson, Kim Stanley Robinson, Geoff Ryman, Bruce Sterling, Pamela Zoline) and critics (another sampling: Gary K. Wolfe, Graham Sleight, Rob Latham, Roz Kaveney, Edward James, Paul Kincaid, Andrew M. Butler), and almost universally they write with clarity, enthusiasm, and perceptiveness, whether they are fictionalising the triptych, or describing them plain, or analysing their works.

(I should note at this point that although I couldn't be said, in any meaningful sense, to know either Clute, I obviously know Mendlesohn, and a full handful of the contributers, on at least a passing basis. Science fiction, as I said, is small. There is of course a convenient and famous response to this problem by John Clute himself: "reviewers who will not tell the truth are like cholesterol ... Perhaps we should establish a Protocol of Excessive Candour, a convention within the community that excesses of intramural harshness are less damaging than the hypocrisies of stroke therapy, that telling the truth is a way of expressing love." Reviewers must be trusted; reviewers must earn that trust. I'm writing about this book because I have things to say about it.)

Where to begin?

In fair Camden we lay our scene. The Clutes arrived from Canada, to stay, at the tail-end of the '60s, initially sharing flat 221B with Pamela Zoline and Saleem Buckhari; they (and Judith's art, and John's books) later expanded to fill the whole of it. It quickly became a social nexus. The importance of the flat, and the strength of the memories attached to it, is clear in many of the biographical entries in Polder, and in much of the fiction. Michael, the protagonist of Geoff Ryman's Lust, buys the flat so that he can live there with his latest reincarnated lover, Pablo Picasso. (It works.) In Pamela Zoline's "Aulde Fleet" the flat has become a museum—but more of that later. Scott Bradfield's tribute describes the atmosphere as Parisian; for Elizabeth Hand, in an extract from Mortal Love, the reference point is New Orleans. Various contributors reminisce about everyday occasions and parties—the most memorable of these is Sean McMullen's subversive, brilliantly funny account of a visit that coincided with John Clute's 60th birthday party, and what happened when he tried to fix a broken telephone.

And all of it takes place right in the heart of Camden Town, right on the High Street, in the thick of a bohemian morass. The word 'polder' is appropriate. It is one of the critical terms coined by Roz Kaveney for The Encyclopedia of Fantasy Clute co-wrote with John Grant. They use it to mean "an enclave of toughened reality"; here it means 221B. A crucial characteristic of a polder is that it is subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune; it must be maintained. Mendlesohn calls Camden collage, and calls it apt. It may not be the location that nine out of ten people would immediately associate with the name Clute, but among other things Polder makes a convincing case for exactly how apt it is, and how thoroughly 221B has been maintained within it.

Exhibit A: Judith Clute, the artist. Although apprenticed to Francoise Andre and Charles Stegeman between 1961 and 1963, she herself notes (on her website) that she didn't feel she hit her stride until the 1970s—by which time the Clutes were living in Camden. Since then she has exhibited regularly, at London galleries, and at conventions and conferences, such as the International Conference of the Fantastic in the Arts. You may, as they say, know more of Judith Clute's work than you think you do: for instance, she has provided the covers for the two most recent volumes of her husband's reviews, Look at the Evidence and Scores. More of her work can be found on her website.

The A beach

Her art reflects Camden to the extent that it features an obvious element of collage. Images are chopped and fragmented and juxtaposed, often to disconcerting effect. Joe Haldeman describes the experience of contemplating them as "a walk through a strange zoo" (p.59); Farah Mendlesohn argues, quite convincingly, that although Judith Clute has been described as a fantasy artist, her work is not simple illustration but part of the fantastic itself. The aesthetic labels often associated with art—"beautiful," for instance—do not sit comfortably here. Judith Clute's work is more striking, more forceful than that. It's not all to my taste, but her pictures create landscapes, and open our eyes; you may not like what you see, exactly, but you probably won't forget it in a hurry. And yet they are often pictures composed of extremely simple elements. In one picture included in the book, "Footpads of Darwin: the A beach," the landscape is created from little more than a lower-case "a," repeated in different sizes and at different angles.

Somewhat regrettably, there is no sustained, in-depth consideration of Judith Clute's art in Polder; it is the book's one serious omission. What we get instead is a brisk personal appreciation from Mendlesohn, a short discussion of Judith Clute's working methods from Haldeman, and a number of anecdotes about Judith Clute the person, from Candas Jane Dorsey, Jack Womack, and others. All of these are welcome, and the picture that emerges is of a gracious, sociable, insightful woman; but we perhaps don't get as rounded a portrait as we might hope.

The same cannot be said of the contributions focusing on Exhibit B, John Clute, the critic. This is a good thing, and probably not surprising: as the opening of this review hopefully demonstrates, it is very hard to be a part of the discussion around SF without having encountered Clute's work, even if you haven't actually met the man himself. (I was riffing on Javier Martinez's contribution, "Baby's First Reference Work," in which he describes discovering the First Edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, and how it affected his appreciation and understanding of the genre. For me it was the Second Edition, followed by the reviews in Interzone.) And it is certainly not inappropriate: nobody would question Clute's importance to the community. The great Encyclopedias are without a doubt the benchmark for SF reference works, and do some heavy critical lifting to boot (particularly the Encyclopedia of Fantasy), while the continuing steady stream of reviews, from New Worlds to Interzone to SciFi Weekly, provides the field's most acute first-line response to new books. It is not too strong to say that Clute's reviews radically altered what SF criticism can and should be. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Clute the critic is, as Gary K. Wolfe observes, the path he negotiates between immediate responses to texts as a reviewer, and the broader work of taxonomy (what Bruce Sterling elsewhere calls "the big-city story about us," p.133) he does as an encyclopedist—without passing Go, without collecting two hundred bucks.

But we can come back to this, because we need a bit more context first, and Polder is good at sketching John Clute, the guy. Jack Womack describes him most succinctly:

John I meet first: he's at a party Unwin has for me the afternoon I arrive. He wears a sleeveless black shirt, black jeans, sportive footwear, aviation glasses and a convict buzz. I imagine this to be current hepcat London style, not realizing that Clute is as fashion-forward as Little Orphan Annie and that I will see dozens of variations of this particular look during the course of the next fourteen years. (p.175)

Womack's "Eleven Clutean Views" are some of the most entertaining anecdotes in the book; you feel that he has precisely captured the essence of John, Judith, 221B, and the Clute Basement O'Books. Inevitably, some of the stories in the book have the feel of being fictionalised equivalents of Womack's piece. The results are more good than not, but mixed. Brian Aldiss's "An Audible Anagnorisis Or, How The Swans Died" is a rather limp affair, but Ian Watson's "What Actually Happened in Docklands" is suffused with a certain manic glee. It's hard not to have at least some affection for a story in which "Jim Kruger," armed with his trusty Encyclopedia, saves the world—although at the same time, it's hard not to feel that Kruger's expostulations pale before the real thing. Neil Gaiman's account of Clute at Milford is rather good, for instance:

We questioned 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)

Which brings us, as promised, neatly back to the work of Clute, or at least the words of Clute. David Hartwell has called him "the Bob Dylan of SF reviewing," and by now the style that Damien Broderick so accurately describes as "anfractuous and deliriously sure-footed ... arcane, take-no-prisoners precision and pith" (pp. 20-21) has a reputation all its own. (It's also fiendishly infectious, even second-hand, as parts of this review demonstrate.) The most important word in the foregoing, however, is precision. Clute can take some decoding (no kidding), but ironically his first and foremost goal is clarity. He uses words specifically, and with great care; it just happens that half the time, the rest of us have to look them up.

As to what he is using that precision to do ... well, there is some debate on that point. Overlapping debate, but debate nonetheless. Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of Polder is that it contains a set of thoughtful essays that attempt to explain John Clute's position within SF, and to address the impact of his ideas, and that in so doing end up having things to say of broader relevance. For Broderick, Clute's prime task has been the construction of an adequate vocabulary with which to talk about science fiction and fantasy. In Sterling's frequently hilarious and extensively quotable polemic, Clute is many things—trendspotter, theorist, archaeologist, sheriff, activist—some of which amount to a sort of protectionism that Sterling clearly feels should not be necessary in this day and age. Rob Latham offers a lucid historical perspective, placing Clute in a tradition of in-genre critics dating back to Damon Knight, while Gary K. Wolfe tries to pin down exactly where Clute stands in the present shuffling ranks of fans, academics, reviewers, critics, blogosphere chatterers, and whatnot. He argues persuasively and wittily that Clute's most important achievement is the "reclamation of authority from the last theorist to the first reader" (p.189)—something to which, as someone who believes in the usefulness and importance of good reviews, I am obviously sympathetic—and reports that Clute himself has described the difference between his work and "normal" criticism as lying in the fact that he is concerned with sets of texts, rather than individual texts. He takes, in other words, an encyclopedist's view. Farah Mendlesohn notes that Clute has never written a sustained argument at length, but rather "in depth and dimension" (p.17). (Or as Rob Latham rather more dismissively put it, in an apparently infamous review of Clute's first collection, Strokes: "Perhaps this is fix-up at the level of criticism." [quoted by Andrew M. Butler, p.163])

There is no denying that Clute has coined many terms, not least in the preparation of The Encyclopaedia of Fantasy. Roz Kaveney helpfully explains how some of them came into being, including "polder" itself, while Edward James demonstrates how well-chosen at least one of them is, putting "Thinning" (a diminishment of the world) into a historical and cultural perspective. His characterisation of "Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells" as driven by a belief in the thinning of the world is brilliant, and has the ring of truth. In science fiction, too, Clute's contributions are patchwork, theoretical arguments emerging from his reviews in the aggregate. Famously, for instance, there is the concept of "First SF"—the expression of the outward urge, the sense that there used to be a Future History that made sense—and the charting of the death thereof, threaded through Look at the Evidence. Andrew M. Butler's essay, "Purloining of an Agenda: or, a Spectre is Haunting John Clute," describes a search for the Rosetta Stone of this argument (and then, having found it, Butler cheekily hides it in a footnote of his own). Graham Sleight's essay, "Last and First SF," examines the concept itself in more detail, chronicling "the growing awareness of First SF as an element of the genre's history that it [is] no longer useful to write." (p. 261) It includes a clear-sighted analysis of a relatively recent subcategory of SF, those stories whose subject is, in part, disappointment in the failure of SF to come true—think of William Gibson's "The Gernsback Continuum," or Ian R. Macleod's "New Light on the Drake Equation." Such concerns, Sleight argues, are central to much of Clute's recent criticism, and the root of his assertion that SF as a genre is dead or dying, replaced perhaps by books such as Pattern Recognition and Cryptonomicon that consider "the case of the world."

Of all Clute's recurring arguments, however, perhaps most central is his fascination with the concept of Story. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy contains what seems to be a fairly clear-cut definition of the term:

Any narrative which tells or implies a sequence of events, in any order which can be followed by hearers or readers, and which generatres a sense that its meaning is conveyed through the actual telling, may be called a Story. A Story, in short, is a narrative discourse which is told.

But anyone who has read more than a handful of Clute's reviews knows that he tends to use the word much more flexibly than that. Polder contains two particularly useful analyses of how Clute deploys Story. In a thoughtful and detailed discussion of Clute's novel Appleseed, as part of an attempt to disentangle some of the associations between realism, science fiction, and fantasy, Paul Kincaid gives us a clearer what:

When John Clute speaks of Story, it is the world. There is no world out there upon which we can temporarily impose the understandable pattern of story; rather there are stories, any number of them, and the way they overlap and intersect and feed off each other is all the world can be. (p.115)

Subsequently, Gary K. Wolfe pins down the why: because to engage with Story, to engage with the way texts try to represent the world, is a necessary part of criticism.

Story, in this sense, is both more and less than narrative, but mostly more, since it implies both a kind of ongoing moral dialogue with the world and with the reader, and since it must be engaged at both the tactical level (through reviews) and the strategic level (through theory). (p.191)

Put it this way, put it in context with the work of Judith Clute and the stories that 221B has hosted or inspired, and suddenly Polder seems like the only possible approach you could take to writing about any of its subjects. Pieces slot into place as you make your way through the book, but the collage's whole is most visible in the book's final piece, Pamela Zoline's previously mentioned "Aulde Fleet." It's a brief, brilliant story set in the late twenty-first century (and her first SF in how many years?) Two tourists visit "a small but much praised and frequently visited museum" (p.272): it is 221B, of course, inhabited by holograms of everyone the Clutes ever entertained, and several dozen John Clutes and Judith Clutes to boot, going about the minutiae of their lives "flaming with cosiness" (p.274). Their great final work, we are told, one of the major reasons for the existence of the museum, is of course a collaboration. The triptych, in this story, are one. You could go further. You could argue that there is a fourth player throughout Polder: science fiction—the fantastic—itself, informing and commenting on the other three. You could argue for a quartet, and that its richest expression is in this story.

Polder is a book by friends and about friends, but can be read and deserves to be read by a great many more people than that. It is worth reading for the humour and warmth of its anecdotes; for the high quality of much of its fiction; and for the insights provided by its essays. It does what a festschrift should do: explain why its subjects matter, and make us value them. And it packs a great deal into its relatively few pages—I haven't discussed, for example, the fiction by M. John Harrison (from Climbers), Kim Stanley Robinson ("A History of the Twentieth Century, With Illustrations") and Scott Bradfield ("The Anti-Santa," complete with illustrations by six-year-old Jack Bradfield), or the poems by Tom Disch ("Song of the Rooftops," a reprint) and William Gibson ("Cold War Water," an original composition), or, or, or. What Polder is not is comprehensive or systematic; but as I have said, I'm not sure it could be, and I'd certainly be prepared to argue that it should not be. It is what it is; it is collage; it is apt. It is Story. That's why I started this review the way I did, and why I'll end it in the same vein:

One of my friends has started naming her World of Warcraft characters using words that she doesn't know from John Clute's reviews. She has a regularly maintained file, clutewords.txt, for instant reference inspiration. I think my favourite so far is Equipoise the Night Elf.

Niall Harrison is senior reviews editor at Strange Horizons and co-editor of Vector. His reviews have also appeared in Interzone, Foundation, and The Internet Review of Science Fiction. He blogs at Torque Control, and still hates writing bios.

Niall Harrison is an independent critic based in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. He is a former editor of Strange Horizons, and his writing has also appeared in The New York Review of Science FictionFoundation: The International Review of Science Fiction, The Los Angeles Review of Books and others. He has been a judge for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and a Guest of Honor at the 2023 British National Science Fiction Convention. His collection All These Worlds: Reviews and Essays is available from Briardene Books.
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