Michael Dirda on books about the glory of the bookish life


Science fiction has long been moral literature, using extrapolation to probe the impact on humanity of technology, politics, religion, gender, race, and the environment. That it has come to be considered a genre worthy of respect – in fact a major current in the mainstream of modern fiction – can be attributed to several causes, and one of them is “The Encyclopedia of Science Fictionedited and largely written by Peter Nicholls and John Clute.

The Australian Nicholls and the Canadian Clute, both then living in London, were first and foremost serious critics who applied their incisive intelligence, their wide and deep reading in all branches of literature, and their scrupulous bibliographical scholarship to the elucidation of a subject then often despised. gender. The encyclopedia – later expanded in its second edition of 1993 and now continuously updated and available free online — spurred a slow paradigm shift: science fiction could no longer be seen as just a thing for kids.

If you can’t handle 1.5 million words of Proust, try ‘Swann in Love’

Today, Clute remains the benevolent godfather of SF criticism, but Nicholls essentially stopped writing after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2000. He died in 2018 aged 78 at his home in Melbourne. This year, however, David Langford has collected much of his friend’s literary journalism – some of which was originally written for the Washington Post Book World in the 1980s – inGenre fiction: The Roaring Twenties(Ansible Editions). It’s an irresistible read and a reminder of the pure zest that Nicholls brought to everything he wrote.

From the outset, this former academic insisted that SF was a branch of literature, repeatedly stressing that “there is not a single point between realistic fiction and science fiction where we can confidently draw a line of demarcation”. In a long piece dedicated to the precursors of the genre, he boldly includes “Gilgamesh“of Plato”Republic“of Dante”Comedy“, from Shakespeare”Storm» and even that of Melville «Moby-Dick.” In these canonical classics, Nicholls emphasizes a reliance on later techniques and motifs central to modern science fiction, such as the defamiliarization of the familiar, the creation of a sense of wonder, and a preoccupation with theological and philosophical speculation, as well as their use of tropes such as the wonderful journey, utopias and dystopias, and extraterrestrial encounters. Of “Beowulfhe notes, “The story of the hero discovering his own capacity for kingship after a series of arduous trials…returns several times each year. It is, for example, the basic plot of Robert Heinlein, and he used it at least a dozen times.

Science fiction – please don’t call it science fiction – is more than just a reaction to the present

Nicholls’ literary journalism is often hilarious, with Hunter S. Thompson-esque reporting of drunken weekends at sci-fi conventions, but it also features meticulous detail analyzes by Ursula K. Le GuinThe furthest shore» and that of Gene Wolfe «The Urth of the New Sun.” An admirer of the ultra-serious FR Leavis, he maintains the genre at a high level. At a science fiction art exhibit, Nicholls observes “tight rows of fantastical, almost unbelievably imaginative images in exactly the same kitschy fashion as each other”. Criticizing Larry Niven”Ringworldhe rightly insists that “if a technical concept doesn’t make sense in a human context, it just doesn’t matter.” Literature, after all, explains why it is important to be alive.

As editor of Foundation magazine in the 1970s, Nicholls recalls that he encouraged “an analytical review that goes beyond the synopsis to make critical judgments and give readings of subtexts.” However, he does cast a fond glance at his friend John Clute, “perhaps our best critic”, who “writes so vividly the subtext that he sometimes forgets, as he inhales the oxygen pure electrifying of his built-in scuba, that there’s a text up there on the surface, a position he only visits occasionally with a masterful growl and spout before ringing out into our SF depths again.

This cetacean The simile deliberately reflects Clute’s own Baroque style and might also be the best description of his critical personality anyone has ever given. As proof, consider “Stick to the End” (Beccon), Clute’s seventh and most recent collection of reviews and essays. Throughout, the syntax is hard-hitting and slangy, while the diction often becomes brazenly abstruse. To paraphrase a line from “Jaws”: When you start reading Clute, you’ll need a bigger dictionary. In only one review, I had to search for the words “aliquot”, “sophont”, and “prelusive”. That said, some of the critical terms he relies on, such as “Godgame”, “Mysterious Stranger”, and “Slingshot Ending”, are widely used and are clearly defined in the “Encyclopedia of Science Fiction”, where, he It should also be noted that his entries – hundreds if not thousands of them – are not only authoritative but clearly written.

Above all, “Sticking to the End” demonstrates that Clute, after more than half a century in the salt mines, continues to approach new works of science fiction with the zeal of a 20-year-old, but who can draw on unparalleled knowledge of the entire history of the estate. Start, say, his essay on David Mitchell – or those on Jonathan Lethem and Nalo Hopkinson – and you might feel dazed or slow-witted at first, but if you’re careful you’ll be rewarded with seeing deeper into the work. to study than you thought possible. Clute’s analytical flair is no less impressive in the second half of his book, where he comments on dozens of films from “The Bride of Frankenstein” to “Wonder Woman.” Among science fiction critics, there is no one more respected or admired.

Paper, Books and Collecting

Let me briefly mention two additional collections of essays. I won’t say much about RB Russell Fifty Forgotten Books(And other stories) because I loved it so much, I contributed a blurb to its back cover. But when this novelist, short story writer and editor (of Tartarus Press) evokes the “The tenant“, by Denton Welch”In Youth is Pleasure“, by Pamela Hansford Johnson”The unspeakable Skipton“or Rachel Ferguson’s”The Brontes went to Woolworth’she recalls where each title was bought and what it meant to him then and what he thinks about it now. As a result, these engaging personal essays form a partial autobiography, reminding us that a bookish life can be fulfilling.

This is certainly a sentiment with which G. Thomas Tanselle would agree. As our leading authority on all aspects of bibliography and textual criticism, he often writes highly specialized articles, but this is not true in the case of The books of my life(University of Virginia Bibliographical Society). Its centerpiece is “The Living Room: A Memoir,” in which novels, scholarly nonfiction, and journals from Tanselle’s Manhattan apartment, along with various decorative objects, evoke memories of a happy childhood in Indiana, years as a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, his long tenure as Vice President of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and most importantly, the many friends he made over the his career as a “scholar-collector”. Much of his library, he tells us, is kept in beautiful glass-enclosed barrister bookcases, totaling more than 100 stackable shelves. May I express my very serious desire?

Two of the other essays in this volume examine the value of inscribed books and the principles that guide a bibliographer. Perhaps the most exhilarating article, however, argues for the vital importance of “non-firsts” in the study of the history and influence of any book. Because first editions are so prized, not to say fetishized, few dealers bother to catalog or even note a publisher’s later reprints of a popular title. As Tanselle recalls, “When I once bought a copy of the twenty-first printing of ‘Main Street‘ from a dealer in Chicago (after checking my listing to see that I didn’t own it) he pointed out that I was probably the only person who would have bought it because it was the twenty-first impression.

As excellent as they are, none of the four books rated here are likely to go into a 21st printing. Yet that only means that their lucky readers will simply have to make do, as they no doubt will, with a nice, crisp first edition.

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