Why John Clute Cracks Me Up…

Why John Clute Cracks Me Up…

sh_headThe June 20th edition of John Clute’s Scores column is a case study in vocabulary intensive prose that, albeit sometimes with a little bit of work on the reader’s part, is as evocative of strange worlds as the material he is reviewing. Here’s the set up for a piece ostensibly about the Jonathan Strahan edited Engineering Infinity anthology:

A few weeks ago I left London and entered the future again. I was about to fly in an oldish plane from one old airport in England to another old airport in Norway, in order to give a talk about the world city in the twenty-first century. I felt I was as entitled to talk about the world I lived in as any of the rest of us: that larger half of the world’s sum of homo sapiens who have become treeless in this century, veldtless, farmless, parkless, legless; but who have become, necessarily, just streetwise enough to know where the nearest just-in-time cloaca disgorges pellets of the fungibles we ingest like battery hens; and who breathe the poison gas of Pax Aeronautica when we travel. So I left London on the Gatwick Express and began the process of becoming “John Clute”: which is to say becoming a readable portion of the original entity indistinguishable (to all purposes) from the barcode that tracked its transit to come. And so the “John Clute” packet arrived at Oslo Airport, and began to breathe life into itself again. I felt repurposed. It crossed my mind that transiting the aeropolis worldnet was a bit like experiencing matter transmission in SF; and I had a quick flash memory of A J Budrys’s blackly proleptic Rogue Moon (1960), a book which in retrospect seemed like a description of the way we lose ourselves in travel in 2011. I walked with my fellow recovering barcodes to luggage reclaim, where the system had jammed, leaving most of our worldly gear stuck somewhere in the bowels. There was dead silence in the vast space. Two things came to mind. One: that when a zero-redundancy just-in-time system seizes up, the part of the world machine that has been affected by the dysfunction ages instantly, like an abandoned shopping mall, or some matrix-world when the electricity is turned off. Mourning becomes entropy. Two: that the emotion felt by passenger units, when their codings have been defaced by a failure of the world-machine, is shame.

It takes a few readings to figure out exactly what the hell he’s talking about, but eventually it occurs to you that there is something genuinely profound about this.  As to what he thinks about the Strahan book, well, that’s largely besides the point. And I still don’t get why missing luggage in the machine should evoke shame.  Anger or frustration or resignation, I get.  But shame?  What am I missing here?

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Maybe you don’t have to “get it”. Maybe just enjoy the roll of the words and the picture they paint as all the barcodes and passenger packets stand around trying not to be all smelly and wrinkled and cranky from traveling.


Having spent a short, rapid-fire portion of my high tech life in the Pax Aeronautica, I think I get it. The shame comes from a shattering of the illusion, the sudden realization of the griminess and relentlessness of the traveling life, which until now seemed so important and purposeful. You are caught without a chair when the music stops, your meager belongings God-knows-where and you are naked and alone far from home. No one cares. No one will help you. The absurdity and frustration gather. Shame-inducing, yes. But at the same time, a fast track to glimpsing your humanity between the smudged lines of a drop shipped barcode.

Go Clute!

Sarah Avery

Or it may be that British culture trains people to respond to a wider array of situations with shame than American culture does? If he’d used the word embarrassment, I’d be pretty sure it was a cultural difference, but shame also got my attention as a weird word to find in that spot.

My brain wanted to put anger in that spot in the sentence as I was reading, which (I hope) says more about my American assumptions than about my personality.

Growing up as an army brat, I got used to things going wrong in transit. If we had all the members of our family, all our ID, and enough cash for the next meal, we were okay, and everything else could be worked around. My father’s saying, when confronted with bizarre foodstuffs all over the world, was “Breakfast is whatever you happen to eat first.”

I really enjoyed Clute’s imagery, and the way he connected it to seminal texts and ideas from SF. Not sure I’d want to make a long, strenuous international trip with the persona he adopts in this passage, though.

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