John Clute Click here to read more or purchase the book John Clute
conducted March 27, 1997

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Jim Freund: Tonight our guest is writer/editor/critic/encyclopedist John Clute, whose Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction is (literally) definitive. That tome is now joined by "The Encyclopedia of Fantasy".

John Clute: Ready when you are. :)

JF: John, where are you today? You're one of the most frequent globetrotters I know.

JC: Right now I'm in Port Charlotte, Florida. I was just in Fort Lauderdale, Florida at The International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts. One of the surprise guests was Daniel Keyes who has not shown himself in science fiction or fantasy circles for about 30 years.

JF: Good Lord--There's a name I haven't heard in years. Was this conference online at all?

JC: Daniel Keyes, who likes to be called Dan, has been active as a writer all these years, sells millions of copies in Japan; but is only now, this year, beginning to work on a new science fiction novel.

JF: That's good. I do hope/trust it isn't Flowers For Algernon II: The Happy Ending.

JC: I think not. He gave the impression that Flowers For Algernon, of which he was very proud, was very much a thing of the deep past for him. He seemed to be an extremely healthy man, in other words.

JF: Down to brass tacks: I think the best kickoff question is the same I posed to you two weeks ago on the radio: Since you now have two encyclopedias, one for F and one for SF, what is your working definition for what entries/stories/writers, etc belong in which category?

JC: To begin with, let's call the two books the SFE and the FE and also, to begin with, I did the SFE with Peter Nicholls and have done the FE with John Grant. Whenever I say "I," when I'm talking about these books, I mean "us." Okay.

Many of the authors in the SFE also have entries in the FE. I think it is very difficult to say, for instance, that Poul Anderson belongs in one book and not the other. Some authors, of course, like Peter S. Beagle or Terry Brooks, appear only in the FE. When I was thinking about who was in only one book, I automatically assumed that Stephen R. Donaldson was only in the FE, then remembered that The Gap Sequence did begin in 1990, so indeed he is in both books. The ultimate problem is definition. We defined fantasy as a coherent story set either in an other world that is impossible, or in this world within a context which is impossible. Science fiction stories are stories which it is possible to argue might be, at some point, the case.

JF: Now that you have the luxury of hindsight on both books, is there anything you would want to change to the first to create a better synergy between the two?

click here to purchase this titleJC: Yes. I would. There are quite a few author entries in the SFE which, I would, in a perfect world, take out of the SFE and rewrite according to the entry structure of the FE and include in the latter volume. The fact is, of course, the SFE was begun in 1975 by Peter Nicholls and the first edition was 1979. This was long, long before anybody had any hint of the contract for writing the FE. Even in 1990, when we got the contract for the current edition of the SFE, which is twice the length of the previous, we had no contract for the FE. So I tended, myself, to put in every author I had any excuse whatsoever to include.

JF: Do you think there may be a 3rd Edition of the SFE in the foreseeable future?

JC: I certainly hope so. The SFE is Peter's baby and my baby. We don't want to see it age into irrelevance. Every year a great deal happens and I'm keeping notes on what is happening as much as is possible. There is a larger point, too: I think science fiction as a genre is 1) going through a seachange at the end of the century, and 2) has become part of the history of the 20th century. Some of that history is imbedded in the 1993 SFE, but in the intervening years, my sense -- our sense -- of the story of science fiction has matured.

JF: With the SF: Illustrated Encyclopedia (SFIE?) you created a cottage industry for yourself. What other volumes might we see from you in the future along these lines. Also, do you have any plans for a Fantasy Illustrated Encyclopedia, or a CD-ROM edition? (I must say that despite the poor marketing of the CD-ROM, I find it most invaluable in addition to the book.)

JC: The two questions are one question. The first question will answer the second question. The logical successor in our cottage industry is Fantasy: The Illustrated Encyclopedia. The problem with fantasy in a marketing sense is that publishers really don't know what it is beyond Tolkienesque elf frolics. They feel insecure about who reads it, how it is defined, who will buy an encyclopedia devoted to it. At this point, our publishers in the UK and the USA, for the FE, are finding advance subscriptions very healthy. Which is a good sign for the cottage industry.

In 1997 I've been asked a few times about the nature of fantasy and about the market. I usually answer with a reference to the Water Stones -- the UK bookshop chain -- poll of 25,000 customers asking them early in 1997 for their list of the 100 most important books of the 20th Century. Number one in the poll, by a huge margin, was Tolkien's Lord Of The Rings, number two was George Orwell's 1984, number three was George Orwell's Animal Farm and so the list continued. Of the first 50 titles, 39, I think, were by authors given entry in the FE.

JF: That is fascinating. Do you think there's a preference for fantasy in the 'mainstream' public, and assuming so, why?

JC: The short answer is "Yes." If we define fantasy widely enough, as I already explained. And I think there is one central reason. It is that the inherent structure of fantasy tends to be story-shaped. The tale of the impossible, of fantasy, is told in the form of a significant story. The shape of the story is traditionally, and in 20th Century fantasy, designed to be told again. One of our entries is Twice Told and in that entry, it points toward this told-again nature of fantasy. Stories are vitally important to people in this century as in previous and intelligent readers recognize this.

JF: If the inherent structure of fantasy is story shaped, how would you characterize SF, and why is that not as popular in the mainstream?

JC: One, some SF does appear in the Water Stones list. Two, this is stretching the point a bit, but let's stretch it: It is possible with much of science fiction to think that it can be broken down into arguments, themes, extrapolations, and that this operation of breaking down leads us into remembering science fiction stories in terms of argument, theme, etc. I'd suggest that when one remembers a fantasy novel, one is far more likely to remember how it is told and who acted out the drama it tells, etc.

JF: I think that may be an interesting postscript to LeGuin's essay, "SF and Mrs. Brown", in which she uses the Virginia Wolfe premise that (to simplify unfairly) story is the essence of a novel, and that sf doesn't tend to sustain them. Any thoughts?

JC: Virginia Wolfe was arguing counter to 20th century critical orthodoxy when she said that. Oddly, however, critics who are not critics of SF rather miss the boat. SF is indeed a genre whose examples are paraphrasable into themes. But establishment critics only see the garish trappings which they have more often than not manufactured out of their own fears of "popular" literature. So they bugger up SF; they ignore story as essential element; and they miss the boat.

JC: Added Note: I first wanted to define fantasy as a story about the impossible which is twice told, but wiser heads persuaded me this was going too far.

JF: Why is that going too far? I like it.

JC: I like it too, but it is narrow for an encyclopedia. If I were simply writing a review essay I would use that phrase as a kind of strobe light -- to illuminate whatever it catches -- but encyclopedias must be more broad-church.

JF: I'll use that as a segue. Where are your essays currently appearing, and what other books do you currently have in print?

click here to purchase this titleJC: In print at the moment is Look At the Evidence: Essays and Reviews, a 1996 book published in this country by Serconia Press and available through John Berry, who has advertised. I give this much detail because distribution was a problem for much of 1996. In the UK it is published by Liverpool University Press. Other books in print, the SFE is in print, the FE is in print, and so is SF: The Illustrated Encyclopedia. After an encyclopedia break, I'm doing reviews again for Interzone. I also write these days for the Washington Post, the Mail (a London Paper), SF Weekly (which is on the net), and Locus pretty soon now. I think that's it.

JF: And of course, the SFE is still available in some bookstores and software emporiums in CD-ROM format.

I've caught you frequently in electronic media of late--particularly a fine series (on The Learning Channel) called "Future Fantastic", which is one of the better televised efforts about SF I've ever seen. Have you been 'discovered'?

JC: I suppose I've been discovered; I was certainly made use of. The benign programs that made up "Future Fantastic" were -- some of them at least -- very ad hoc indeed. I was doing interviews for the last ones after the first had already been broadcast in England. The beloved Gillian Anderson did a scripted appearance which was inserted into the programs. She was shot in a warehouse.

JF: Sadly, only 5 were broadcast in the States. I understand there were 9.

Have you had any hankerings to write fiction of late?

JC: Yes. I have a space opera in mind entitled Appleseed which is on offer in the UK and which I will write if I have a contract to do. Which sounds arrogant, but is not. The idea is a commercial one. There is a serious novel, as well, which I published a bit of and which I plan to continue with regardless of contract.

JF: I like the way you distinguish a commercial venture from one which has to be written. If only more writers would do the same...

Have you ever written short fiction?

JC: Yes. Intermittently. I only write short fiction when compelled to by internal arguments, nothing commercial. But they've all been published.

JC: In Fort Lauderdale, Gary K. Wolfe and DeDe Weil had a ceremony celebrating their recent marriage. Daniel Keyes strew flowers, Brian Aldiss read an extremely brief epic, Charles Brown of Locus, who owns a captain's hat, performed the ceremony, and along with three other gentlemen, I gave away the bride.

Ellen Datlow: I was at the wedding too and it was lovely. Informal and fun.

John, where have the pieces been published? Over a period of time?

JC: Ellen: Yes. A couple in Toronto in the 1960's, three or four in New Worlds from 1966 on, and the best of them, I think, is "Death of a Sacred Monster" which was published in More Tales From The Forbidden Planet, the 1990 anthology. "Eden Sounding" which is the first part of my very much uncompleted novel The Widow Gloss, appeared in Other Edens II.

JF: Just what is the process of putting together an encyclopedia of this breadth? What are your responsibilities, etc.?

JC: Encyclopedias are very various creatures. In both the SFE and the FE, either with Peter Nicholls or with John Grant, it was decided that the names signatures would not only edit the book with all that entails, but would also individually write as many entries as possible. In the FE, my editorial functions concentrated on initially shaping the book and on selecting other contributors for specific entries and doing rough editing work on the entries.

John Grant edited individual entries intensely and shaped the final book. I wrote about 400,000 words. He wrote about 250,000. Mike Ashley, one of the contributing editors, wrote about 20,000 words and the other contributing editors were Roz Kaveney, David Langford, Ron Tiner. Their individual contributions were once again, extremely various in nature. The consulting editors, David Hartwell and Gary Westfall, kibitzed as they had been asked to.

JF: That sounds like a gargantuan task. How long was the process for the SFE vs. the FE?

JC: The second edition of the SFE took two and a half years from contract to final delivery. The FE took a little over three years from contract to final delivery. But of course, it was created out of whole cloth and the SFE was a second edition.

I am beginning to fall asleep in the tropical night while the Internet dies around me like meteors falling. I think it is time for a long winter's nap. Thank you Jim and others.

JF: In that event, let's all say Good Night, thank John for being here, and remind everyone to pick up a copy of the Encyclopedia Of Fantasy to add to the Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction. No serious reader or fan should do without.

JC: Good night!

JF: Good night, and thanks again!

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