© Paul Brazier
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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