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Each Impression Makes a Chain Reaction

Breaking from NaNoWriMo for a second.

Some of you must have been to the Vast Room in Anticipation in order to see Gaiman and Wolfe discuss reviews, SFF, and another Wolfe.

One thing I like about Gene Wolfe is how comprehensible he is.

What you say? Mr. Obfuscation himself, comprehensible?

Yes.

Consistent. Mind-bendingly terrifyingly believable fantasy wrapped in the language of an autodidact sealed in a foursquare room with naught but a lightbulb and an edition of the Unabridged Oxford Dictionary to keep him sane. And scientifically rigorous. And at the same time, catechismically sound.

That last two elements come as a surprise to a casual reader. Quite often. Until you stop being casual and start to dig. Then you have Gene Wolfe the puzzle-maker, the party salad, the Dungeon Master of the Mind.

I never read his work that way, so I have some works I can't get through to spare my life. Free Live Free for one.

So it was refreshing to have Gene Wolfe presented in unfamiliar form and discover that form is the known form.

Like I say, I've never understood the SF short story form. It leaves me feeling like I've been between turnings-over in bed and taken a slice of dream without meaning or measure. I am understanding just how little I understand about the genre.

So, enter John Clute. I find a small book in my library devoted to his first years of writing reviews. It begins with the late sixties and ends with the mid-eighties. On one end is Campbell, on the other Wolfe.

I read Wolfe first because of what Mr. Gaiman describes at his 09 talk with Mr. Gary Wolfe, which is a three-part essay on Mr. Gene Wolfe's early M.O., the Book of the New Sun. First there is reaction. Then there is decipherment. Then there is Mapping. It then becomes recursive, noting that decipherment must follow mapping, must follow the pun-as-high-art deconstruction of the work. If Enigma is wolfe, then the essay is the joy of Turing's bombes.

Interesting, yes. And the search for the identity of Severian's mother is the fruit of the essay. Go read. It is good.

HOWEVER!

The beginning of an understanding of the SF form begins when you turn back to the first essays.

Clute's style is idiosyncratic, and purposefully so, bordering on the pretentious, and filled with a sort of expository of his erudition though the careful turning of phrases, the deliberate Rococo of language. I am not very impressed. When is he writing? 1972. The light turns on when I start to read contemporary essays, the latest of which was a respective on the life of Charles Brown, MHRIP. 1972 is the era of "the male's emergence from his drab camouflage into the gaudy plumage that is the birthright of the sex." Rococo. The oughts are decidedly minimalist. It takes him a while in the 80's to don the narrow black tie, but don it he does.

This is what I realize: Mr. Clute is the father-confessor of SFF. His role has been to be by the side of the Genre, to walk with it and give it guidance, penance, and to tell it what it is, to relate it to the world at the time. The excessive, showy artfulness of the early-70s reviews are entirely in keeping with the spirit of the times, which is a thing of no man, but is made by the endless loop of the global communication that is media.

Now in the first decade of the new Millennium, he is stark, straightforward, pared down to a minimum of words. One gets the feeling that he is capturing in language a space by I.M. Pei. with the minimal pieces of angle and light to bring show the work in museum-fashion to the world.

He is witness and institutional memory. Who, then, will take his place?