The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Four books remind us that a bookish life can be so fulfilling

An appreciation of works by Peter Nicholls, John Clute, R.B. Russell and G. Thomas Tanselle

Science fiction has long been a moral literature, using extrapolation to probe the impact on humankind of technology, politics, religion, gender, race and the environment. That it has come to be seen as a genre worthy of respect — indeed as a major current in the mainstream of modern fiction — can be attributed to several causes, and one of them is 1979’s “The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction,” edited 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, wide and deep reading in all branches of literature, and scrupulous bibliographical scholarship to the elucidation of a then-oft-despised genre. The encyclopedia — later expanded in its 1993 second edition and now continuously updated and freely available online — energized a slow-moving paradigm shift: Henceforth, science fiction could no longer be regarded as simply kids’ stuff.

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 at age 78 at his home in Melbourne. This year, however, David Langford has assembled much of his friend’s literary journalism — some of it written originally for The Washington Post Book World during the 1980s — inGenre Fiction: The Roaring Years” (Ansible Editions). It makes for irresistible reading and a reminder of the sheer zest that Nicholls brought to everything he wrote.

From the get-go, this onetime academic insisted that sf was a branch of literature, repeatedly emphasizing that “there is no single point between realistic fiction and science fiction where we can confidently draw a boundary line.” In a long piece devoted to the genre’s forerunners, he boldly includes “Gilgamesh,” Plato’s “Republic,” Dante’s “Commedia,” Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and even Melville’s “Moby Dick.” In these canonical classics, Nicholls underscores a reliance on techniques and motifs later central to modern science fiction, such as the defamiliarizing of the familiar, the creation of a sense of wonder, and a preoccupation with theological and philosophical speculation, as well as their use of such tropes as the marvelous voyage, utopias and dystopias, and encounters with the alien. Of “Beowulf,” he notes, “The story of the hero discovering his own capacity for kingship after a series of arduous tests … returns new-minted many times every year. It is, for instance, Robert Heinlein’s basic plot, and he has used it at least a dozen times.”

Science fiction — please, let’s not call it ‘sci-fi’ — is more than just a reaction to the present

Nicholls’s literary journalism is often hilarious, with Hunter S. Thompson-like reports about drunken weekends at science fiction conventions, but it also features meticulous analyses of Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Farthest Shore” and Gene Wolfe’s “The Urth of the New Sun.” Befitting an admirer of the ultraserious F.R. Leavis, he holds the genre to high standards. At an exhibition of science fiction art, Nicholls observes “serried ranks of fantasy pictures, nearly unbelievably imaginative in exactly the same kitschy way as each other.” Criticizing Larry Niven’s “Ringworld,” he rightly insists that “if a technical concept is not given meaning in a human context it simply does not matter.” Literature, after all, is about why it matters to be alive.

As editor of the journal Foundation in the 1970s, Nicholls recalls that he encouraged “analytical reviewing that goes beyond synopsis to make critical judgments and give readings of subtexts.” However, he does take an affectionate swipe at his friend John Clute, “perhaps our finest reviewer,” who “writes so vividly of subtext that he occasionally forgets, as he inhales the electrifying pure oxygen of his inbuilt aqualung, that there is an ordinary text up there on the surface, a position he visits only occasionally with a magisterial gruffle and spout before he sounds again into our sf deeps.”

That cetaceous simile deliberately mirrors Clute’s own baroque style and might also be the best description of his critical persona that anyone has ever given. As evidence, consider “Sticking to the End” (Beccon), the seventh and most recent collection of Clute’s reviews and essays. Throughout, the syntax is punchy and slangy, while the diction often grows brazenly recondite. To paraphrase a line from “Jaws”: When you start reading Clute, you’re going to need a bigger dictionary. In just one review I had to look up the words “aliquot,” “sophont” and “prelusive.” That said, some of the critical terms he draws on, such as “Godgame,” “Mysterious Stranger” and “Slingshot Ending,” have passed into wide use and are crisply defined in the “Encyclopedia of Science Fiction,” where, it should also be noted, his entries — hundreds, perhaps thousands of them — are not only authoritative but plainly 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, albeit one who can draw on an unrivaled familiarity with the field’s entire history. Begin, for example, his essay on David Mitchell — or those on Jonathan Lethem and Nalo Hopkinson — and you may initially feel gobsmacked or slow-witted, but if you pay attention you will be rewarded by seeing more deeply into the work under review than you thought possible. Clute’s analytic 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’s nobody more respected or admired.

Paper, books and the art of collecting

Let me briefly mention two additional collections of essays. I won’t say a lot about R.B. Russell’s Fifty Forgotten Books” (And Other Stories) because I liked it so much I contributed a blurb to its back cover. But when this novelist, short-story writer and publisher (of Tartarus Press) discusses Roland Topor’s “The Tenant,” Denton Welch’s “In Youth Is Pleasure,” Pamela Hansford Johnson’s “The Unspeakable Skipton” or Rachel Ferguson’s “The Brontës Went to Woolworth’s,” he recalls where each title was bought and what it meant to him at the time and what he thinks of it now. As a result, these engaging, personal essays form a partial autobiography, reminding us that a bookish life can be an enviably fulfilling one.

That’s certainly a sentiment G. Thomas Tanselle would agree with. As our leading authority on all aspects of bibliography and textual criticism, he often writes highly specialized articles, but that’s not true in the case of Books in My Life” (Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia). Its centerpiece is “The Living Room: A Memoir,” in which the novels, scholarly nonfiction and journals in Tanselle’s Manhattan apartment, as well as various decorative objects, elicit memories of a happy childhood in Indiana, years as a teacher at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, his long tenure as vice president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and, above all, the many friends he has made during his career as a “scholar-collector.” Much of his library, he tells us, is kept in handsome, glass-faced barrister bookcases, totaling more than 100 stackable shelf units. May I express my quite serious envy?

Two of this volume’s other essays closely consider the value of association copies — that is, copies with a noteworthy provenance — 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 any book’s history and influence. Because first editions are so prized, not to say fetishized, few dealers bother to catalogue or even note a publisher’s subsequent reprintings of a popular title. As Tanselle recalls, “When I once purchased a copy of the twenty-first printing of ‘Main Street’ from a Chicago dealer (having checked my list to see that I did not own it), he remarked that I was probably the only person who would have bought it because it was the twenty-first printing.”

As excellent as they are, none of the four books noted here are likely to go into a 21st printing. Still, that only means their lucky readers will just need to be content, as they doubtless will be, with a nice, crisp first edition.

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