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A Conversation With John Clute
An interview with Ernest Lilley
May 2001

© Paul Brazier
John Clute
John Clute
John Clute was born in Toronto in 1940. He was raised there, and in Vancouver, Winnipeg and Montreal. He first left Canada in 1956, and returned to Toronto in 1964, where he wrote for the Varsity, did the New Fiction weekly column for the Toronto Star (1966-1967), and wrote reviews for the Globe and Mail and other papers before 1968, when he moved to London, England.

John Clute's work as an author and editor include his first novel, The Disinheriting Party (Allison and Busby, 1977), the 5 volume Interzone: the Anthology series and his key role in putting together The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. His awards include 3 Hugos and a World Fantasy Award.

John Clute Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Appleseed


I've always been a fan of John Clute. Not only does he seem to know every Science Fiction work written in the 20th century, he knows how it all fits together. His command of the English language is uncompromising. He says what he means, uses the words he chooses and expects you to step up and read English... rather than having it dumbed down for you. Of course, coming from the UK, he has a home court advantage. Considering the amount of time he spends on our side of the pond, however, I'm glad we haven't contaminated him too badly.

Clute is a bit daunting from a distance, but up close I've found him to be easy to talk to and even personable. If SFWA ever throws a costume party and you want to go as JC, that's easy. Cut your hair short, stand up straight, and wear nothing but black. Of course, you might be mistaken for Sean McMullen or the average New Yorker, but much to my horror and amusement several people thought I was Clute at a recent Worldcon. I went right back to my room and added color to my ensemble. I considered putting on a wild tie, but then they'd just mistake me for Editor David Hartwell.

I think of John Clute as a Science Fiction pedagogue, and reading his new novel Appleseed (now available in the UK and Canada, Feb 2002 for the US)  was a treat as it introduced me to him as a novelist. Unsurprisingly, his work is tremendously rich, built upon layers and layers of that which has come before, but synthesized by a writer and thinker of considerable talent and vision into a narrative both though provoking and enjoyable.

After chasing each other around on two continents for about a month, we were finally able to connect up for the following interview.

What's Appleseed about? Or rather, what's it about from your point of view, unless you want us to just figure it out from reading the book.

In the final analysis, if a story is not more than can be said about it, then there's something wrong with the story. But certainly I can say this: Appleseed is 1) an adventure story set in the space opera arena, 2) a stab at representing a universe so complex that everywhere you look it only gets bigger, and 3) hopefully an engine which generates a sense of wonder.

When will it come out in the US? (Or did I miss something?)
You didn't miss anything. When we first spoke, Appleseed had not sold in the States, one reason for this being the fact we'd only begun to market it seriously when we had a final version of the UK text to distribute. Since we first spoke, Tor has offered for the book, and expect to release a US edition in February 2002.

What's next for you? Do you have a book in the works?
I'd love to have two books in the works, some kind of encyclopedia and some kind of novel. At the moment, though, my publishers are still trying to cost a new edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction , and we're still trying to recover from the nearly terminal downsizing of Dorling Kindersley, who did  Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia in 1995. I'm still hoping to get the ball rolling on an illustrated "encyclopedia" (I prefer the term "companion" for this sort of book, but was overruled last time) of fantasy. It could be a handsome book. So, in the meanwhile, and quite happy about it, I've been contracted by Orbit/Little Brown in the UK for a second novel, to be called Earth Bound, and am working on it now.

Do you remember the first Science Fiction your read? How did it affect you?
Unlike kids who knew kids who knew fans who read magazines, I didn't know at first I was reading something called science fiction. I just read whatever I found, and when I was eight or nine, in the late 40s, I found a stack of Blue Book, and read, and loved, Nelson S. Bond. I didn't know his stories were called anything but great stories. The first science fiction story I read that I knew was a science fiction story when I read it was "The Variable Man" by Philip K Dick, in (I think) Space Science Fiction, in 1953. Like Proust's Madeleine, the smell of the books and magazines of the early 50s yanks me backwards, face burning with the speed of time, to that better world.

Are there any new authors that you're excited about? SF Masters that are still creating "something wonderful"?
I'm about to read Jeffrey Ford, who seems very very alive. I love China Miéville's work -- King Rat and Perdido Street Station. Jonathan Lethem is already halfway to the sere and yellow, but I still love his work. Most of the space opera writers who've begun over the last ten years or so, I find deeply congenial. As for older writers, Gene Wolfe remains my magic talisman; his Book of the Short Sun is like a white hole which drinks you and gives you forth transformed. John Crowley continues to make a new story out of the tragic occlusion of our mortal state, here in the darkness of being. Stan Robinson has launched himself into another deep discourse by virtue of which we will learn more about what it is possible to say in science fiction. And on, and on. Will stop now. There are dozens more. Swanwick. Jonathan Carroll. Stop!

How do you write? Are you one of those people who get up every morning at 5am and bang away for 4 or 5 hours religiously, or do you go into a trance and emerge days later with a book completed?
Somewhere in between. Each day I'm writing, I think I'm creating the final word on the words I'm laying down, and I'm always wrong. Towards the end of a large project like a novel, there is a kind of elation that makes the day's work marginally closer to that dream of completion: sometimes there are paragraphs that hardly need redrafting. And then you're clutching at the end, and the stallions are steaming and radiant, and then you find you're there.

Do you know what your characters are supposed to do next or do you take it one page at a time?
I always think I know, but generally find that the grammar of the "beingness" of "my" characters, just like the grammar of any discourse this human species undertakes, takes on a life of its own. Hence characters you didn't think of at first. Hence wars and loss of faith, and gains too, out there in the world.

You wrote the definitive work on SF when you published The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction with Peter Nicholls. How many updates has it had? Is it still selling well?
The first edition of the SFE came out in 1979. Copyright remained in the hands of its packager (Peter and I were in effect working for hire). Consequently, the book remained unchanged until I was able (Peter being then in Australia) to buy copyright from the packagers, after which point, John Jarrold of Macdonalds (now Little Brown UK) contracted us for a second edition. This 1993 edition is the default version of anything which has succeeded it -- a CD-ROM for Grolier, various paperback editions with corrigenda at the rear, David Langford's neat SFE Viewer, which incorporates further corrections. As I said a bit earlier, what we're waiting for now is the go ahead for a genuine Third Edition. It would, unfortunately, weigh a lot.

How did you get involved in writing it, and what went into the process?
Peter Nicholls, who had the original idea, and who was General Editor of the 1979 edition, asked me in 1975 if I'd like to be Associate Editor, with primary responsibility for authors. Said yes immediately. We laid down a remit -- which now seems kind of absurd, but then seemed readily attainable -- that ordained the following: every writer who had published, in English, as much as one book of SF would be given an entry, no matter how short. 

Over the next few years we began to discover just how many writers did in fact qualify -- quite a few of our discoveries were of writers nobody had connected with SF, books that had been completely forgotten -- and we never of course reached the end of searching. Nor have I, in particular, as the editor responsible for this aspect of the ongoing project, ever stopped since in the process of gathering data, correcting mistakes, adding previously unknown authors to my lists. Hence, in part, the hugely increased size of the Second Edition, for which I wrote about 500,000 words covering 2,300 separate writers. 

Since 1993 the process has continued, of course, though nowadays I'm finding fewer forgotten writers, while having to notate the arrival of hundreds of new ones upon the scene. More generally -- it is a subject which I could expatiate upon for pages, and have. I think 1) SF is a 20th century literature, the only genre of literature, moreover, actually to be about the 20th century; and 2) any new edition of the SFE will necessarily focus more and more urgently upon a sense that SF is not so much a done thing but an accomplished thing: an engine of explanation, of advocacy, of pleasure of the text. That even if SF dies as a genre by 2010 (which it shouldn't), it has already become a thing of joy.

What do you think about E-Books? Have you read any?
I think the future may be in them, but certainly not the present as we live it yet. There is a kind of geekery about innovations of this sort: if it can be done, no matter how complicatedly for the end-user, then it automatically supplants any earlier "technology." Which is bullshit, of course: the physical book is a brilliant, and utterly simple, invention; astonishingly easy to access; tactile and smelly and homelike and mine. When E-Books access the mid-brain, then they'll have their place, maybe a dominant place. But don't forget -- in the real world, as opposed to the mission statement world of start-ups, it is very rare for that which is supplanted to disappear. What happens, certainly what should happen, is that the world gets more complex. This is not always true in the event, of course. Wal-Marts, for instance, and what Wal-Marts represent, manifestly enact a radical simplification and sensory impoverishment over any community they leach the heart out of. So it goes.

When the Australian Encyclopedia of Science Fiction came out, you gave it a rather hard time. Granted that it's not your Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, but wasn't it a worthwhile effort?
I talked at very considerable length about that book. There were lots of facts in it -- though a  lot less than were properly includable in such a project -- but the book failed for two overriding reasons: 1) crazy criteria for inclusion or exclusion of data (like leaving out any pre-1950 material), and 2) crazy principles of organization of what material did survive the cookie-cutters of exclusion: like copying questionnaires holus-bolus, so those who filled them out looked ridiculous; like commissioning the text of author entries and the checklists for those authors from different sources, and never bothering to see if the two matched up; etc. Why I go hard on a book like this is not to diss the competition -- a local book like that one should not try to be comprehensive, as we were, but should try to incorporate far more "local" information than we could dream of finding -- but out of a genuine pain at the damage a bad book does. The information in this one was difficult or impossible to extract. It left out dozens of writers, etc. And the fact that the book exists almost certainly precludes the commissioning of a good encyclopedia of Australian literature of the fantastic.

In 1998, you did the forward for the SFBC edition of Chronicles of the Lensman. Did they approach you? What do you think of E.E. "Doc" Smith from both the historical and contemporary viewpoints? Should anyone still be reading Lensman books?
Michael Walsh approached me, maybe because my entry on E.E. Smith in the SFE was so positive. And we knew each other. About Smith, very briefly, as I said pretty much everything I wanted to in the two introductions: he created the full-sized arena for space opera to take place in; he wrote a marvelously structured (though occasional risible) multi-volume space opera that we should all read if we want to know where (say) Dan Simmons or Vernor Vinge came from.

Appleseed seemed to take a number of classic themes and give them new life for the future. Should we look backwards or forwards for our inspirations?
I think (see above, too) that as an SF writer in 2001, I am the heir of a lot that has gone before, both in terms of subjects and icons introduced, and in terms of the way SF works, what kind of an engine of understanding it has turned out to be. That said, I hope to use that language -- any language is as fresh as the day you write it -- to make it new: to look new at the new and say it is new so nobody can ever forget that the world we live in is also new, new, new.

Is Science Fiction dead? Is it something else now? Will it survive the death of its original 50s and 60s readers?
The Big Story SF that Sputnik put the kibosh on has become sci-fi, and will never die, it is non-biodegradable. SF (see above) as an engine of words has become an essential and inevitable tool for understanding the world. That is why Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon is absolute pure-quill SF: because it treats the world in terms of the propositions, the manipulations of data, which now define the world we live in.

On television we see a lot of "reality shows," and I've heard that "traditional narrative" is dead. Is it true? What does that hold for books?
Very briefly again: in SF, "traditional narrative," which I take to mean storytelling, is only dead if we are. The meta-narratives, the hypertext dances on the screen, only work in the end if a felt narration is narrated by a felt (though maybe invisible) narrator. That is the contract readers make with writers, and except for certain moments of the late lamented 20th century, that contract has been honoured.

How do you feel about Science Fiction media style? Do you have any favourite movies or TV shows?
Under the glamour of SFX, SF on TV or the film tends to sci-fi (see above). I love to watch it, but it is a genre that is impossible to think with.

What about the big picture? Is mankind going up, down, or sideways... or are all directions the same?
It is either a tightrope or a plank. We will either get to the other side of the abyss we're tap-dancing across right now, or we won't. We are a species taught to think of the gaining of territory as somehow an action that lacks side-effects. So everything we do to the world, in order to empower ourselves and our machines, is done without any inbuilt wariness about side-effects. It may now be too late for us. 

About Americans, who are the Mexican wave of the future, one feels a kind of despair at times, as one watches them continue to gain power for themselves (and their SUVs) as though there were no tomorrow, which indeed there may not be. For Americans, owning territory has become a way of charging others for the huge costs to the world of being an American.

What drives you? What kind of world would you like to see?
I would like to see a different kind of world. I would like to see the Eden mentioned in Appleseed, where it is described as "the Garden of Uttered Names," which will be the title of my third SF novel. In the Garden of Uttered Names, words are true and we can speak them, and we can hear them when they are spoken. No longer, in Eden, is it necessary to pretend to misunderstand the human condition: for we have always secretly thought that the secret of success as a human being was to deny the humanness of those we compete with. In Eden, this turns out not to be the case! The human condition for human beings, in Eden, is to understand the human condition of other human beings. Hey.

Copyright © 2001 Ernest Lilley

Ernest Lilley is the Editor and Publisher of SFRevu, a monthly 'zine for science fiction reviews, news and interviews. It can be found at

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