Oh, Christ, Not the Science Fiction Canon Again
Posted on August 7, 2020 Posted by John Scalzi 159 Comments
Ugh, we’re talking about the “canon” of science fiction literature, again, for reasons (most imminently the recent Hugo award ceremony and its fallout), and whether, basically, newer writers and readers should and must slog through a bunch of books in the genre that are now half a century old at least, from a bunch of mostly male, mostly white, mostly straight writers who are, shall we say, not necessarily speaking to the moment.
I’ve essayed this before, because I’m me, but here’s my newest set of thoughts on the matter, also because I’m me. Ready? Here we go:
As a practical matter, the science fiction “canon” is already dead.
There are at least two generations of adults now, and two generations of genre writers, who didn’t grow up on it and fundamentally don’t care about it. Long gone are the days where a kid’s first introduction to the genre was a Heinlein or Asimov novel, smuggled out of the adult fiction section of the library or bookstore like samizdat. The Kids These Days got their start reading genre through the YA section and grew up on Rowling and Collins and Westerfeld and Black and Pierce and Snicket, and got their science fiction through film and TV and video games and animation and comics as much as if not more than from books.
I repeat: They don’t care about “the canon.” Why should they? What they grew up with was sufficient for what they needed — to be entertained when they became readers and fans, and to be inspired if they became creators and writers. The writers they read spoke to them directly, because the art was new and it was theirs, not their parents’ or grandparents’. And while one might sniffily declare that what those YA authors were doing had been done before, by [insert spreadsheet of who who did what first in genre, which in itself is probably incomplete and therefore incorrect], no one cares. For readers and developing writers, it doesn’t matter who got there first, it matters who is there now, when those readers (and writers) are developing their own tastes and preferences, and claiming their own heroes and inspirations, both in fiction and in terms of the people writing it.
Also, here’s a news flash: even those of us who are old enough that the “canon” might have some actual relevance to our development as writers didn’t necessarily have that much reverence for it back then. Look, I’m fifty fucking one, and when I was younger, the “canonical” writers and works were already old. I liked some of them — Heinlein is an obvious one for me, Bradbury a less obvious one, and I enjoyed Piper in parts and Herbert for the length of Dune — but a lot of the rest of them were just not that interesting to me, nor would I consider them significant influences on me as a writer.
There are writers outside the field who are much more influential on how I write — Gregory Mcdonald and William Goldman and Nora Ephron, to name three — than pretty much any “canonical” SF writer other than Heinlein. What’s more, you could fill a library with all the “foundational” science fiction authors and books I haven’t read, and an even larger one with the writers that I read a couple things by, and went “meh,” and never read them again.
Who in genre was influential to me as a writer? Well, in high school and college, and in no particular order:
(sucks in a breath)
Varley and Brust and Adams and Gibson and Butler and Le Guin and Card and Gaiman and Stephenson. Alan Dean Foster, who seemingly put out a novel every month, was my go to sci-fi candy as a teenager. Ariel, by Steven Boyett, was hugely inspirational to me because it was fun and also written by someone who was still a teenager at the time. At the very end of my formative period came Tepper and Simmons.
None of these writers were “canonical” at the time, either (well, Le Guin was) — they were just who was writing then, putting out the new stuff that I would snap up and enjoy. I wasn’t spending much time going into the classics of the genre; I wasn’t shunning it, but these contemporary writers were just more interesting to me, and felt more relevant to my own life.
And yes, I knew a few science fiction nerds at the time who would try to shame me for not liking some classic writer (or at least someone who they considered a classic). My usual reaction would be to shrug, because I liked what I liked and that was fine (I was, however, more receptive to the enthusiastic SF nerd who instead of shaming said “Oooh! If you like that then you’ll like this!” Which is how I met Stephenson and Simmons, as two examples).
The point here is that even for me, who is a straight white dude in his fifties and who is deeply into the middle of a long and unquestionably successful career as a science fiction author — who is indeed in many respects the very model of a popular, mainstream genre writer — the canon of science fiction, the “golden age” of science fiction, was not (and is not!) essential, either as a reader, or later as a writer. I don’t feel bad about skipping a lot of that stuff back then, and at this point, the chance I’ll go back to read a lot of it now is pretty damn slim, because I’d rather keep up with what my contemporaries are writing, and be influenced by them.
That being the case, what is the argument for saying writers in their forties, or thirties, or twenties, need to offer fealty to a “canon” of genre work? It’s not necessary, practically, commercially or artistically, and at this point maintaining that it is only serves the function of being an increasingly inefficient method of gatekeeping by an ever-shrinking group. The moment of the canon as (effective) social cudgel has passed, because, again, younger writers and readers simply, and correctly, don’t care.
Now, is it useful to have a knowledge of the works and writers that have been influential over the length and breadth of the genre? Sure, if your interests run in that direction, and you want to grasp the history of the genre for your own purposes. Do these “canonical” works and writers still have value and interest to modern writers and readers? Indeed they may! We all get to choose our influences, and some of them might be from this group.
Should these canonical writers and works be tossed aside merely because they are old? Well, no; if they are to be tossed aside, it should be because they are not relevant to the particular reader. But: that also does not oblige the reader to pick up those works for any purpose but their own; if they don’t have such a purpose, down to and including mere idle interest, then it’s all right to let that book sit. “Not picked up” is existentially different than “tossed aside.”
Moreover, the days of certain works and writers being accepted more or less uncritically as “the canon” are well and truly gone. I mean, let’s face it, these “canonical” writers and works were always being called on their bullshit — see the New Wave of Science Fiction for that, which these days has its own bullshit to be called on as well — but the last few crops of writers, with no fealty to the canon or its makers, are especially not here for it. This is deeply uncomfortable for a lot of people! The whole point of having a canon is that it’s supposed to be more or less settled!
The question then, however, is: Settled by whom? And for what purpose? “The canon” didn’t just somehow happen. It is a result of choices — choices made by editors to favor some writers and viewpoints, and by readers and self-selected fans, to choose some of these previously-selected works and writers for canonization. The writers and readers today gave no assent or consent to these choices, and their choices may well be different: They may choose different writers and works to canonize, point out the problematic aspects of “canonized” creators and works and the gatekeepers who chose them — and, importantly, may reject the idea of the canonization of works and writers at all, because intentionally or otherwise, it’s an attempted system of control and a process of putting some people and works “in” and some “out.”
Which is not a bad idea! Maybe — here’s a thought, not at all original to me but one I’m happy to amplify now — we should just abandon the idea that science fiction requires a canon. Because, again, as a practical matter for current readers and writers, it doesn’t have one, and doesn’t need one. Moreover, pinning a fandom identity to works and writers that as a group have little relevance to contemporary readers and writers seems to be resulting mostly in annoyance, schism and, so as to not paper over the issue with too-mild words, an unexamined acceptance of a shitload of bigotry and exclusion that shaped that “canon” in the first place.
So, yeah: Drop it. Make the work and writers stand or fall on their own merits, to the modern writers and readers comprising who the science fiction field is today.
You know what will happen? Some works and writers will rise, some will fall, some will be rediscovered and some will be consigned to the archives, possibly forever. No canon, just a field forever in conversation with itself, choosing its conversational partners from its past rather than having them assigned from a list.
Because, again: that’s what’s actually happening. We might as well own up to it.
While the recent Hugo award ceremony was a precipitating event for the current conversation about the science fiction canon, I’m fine with not rehashing it here; it’s not in itself hugely on point and it’s been commented on elsewhere to great length. Those places are probably better places to comment about it. Let’s keep to discussion of “canon” or lack thereof, please.
I feel the canon moves through time- those old white contributors will wax and wane as the delicious soup of world wide authors becomes more diverse in ethnicity and culture- we just have to keep buying their stuff so they can eat and- maybe redefine canon?
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As a straight, cis- white guy who’s about your age and grew up reading many of the same works, I agree wholeheartedly. And I’d add: a lot of what some people might think of as canon, or at least works by canonical authors, is absolute crap. After the (deserved) excoriation of Campbell at last year’s Hugos, I picked up one of his stories, more out of curiosity than anything else, and it was just dreck: clichéd story lines, hackneyed dialog, you name it. I didn’t even bother to finish it. Why should anyone be required to subject themselves to that kind of writing if they don’t enjoy it? I confess a soft spot for Heinlein, and have read (and re-read) any number of his books over the years, because I enjoyed his writing style even when he wrote about things that made my skin crawl (and not in a good way–the man clearly had an unresolved Oedipal complex that he explored in depth). But I would never try to tell anyone that they HAVE to read Heinlein to understand or appreciate science fiction today.
This essay explains how I have felt about every single book and story and movie that I was FORCED to read or watch, because the “keepers of orthodoxy” decreed that I was a philistine if I had not absorb and paid them homage.
I am done with that.
You did point out the “Oooh! If you like that then you’ll like this!” Recommenders.
These people are worth their weight in unobtanium. (If you have not read, Stumbling on Happiness, Dan Gilbert; he presents the science behind “happiness” and why good recommenders are great, and why the bad ones are terrible.)
Random take on this, value at what it cost you.
People who worry about the ‘canon’ tend to be the same people who worry that their kids won’t take *their* kids to the same church, or any church. Or stop cooking some artery-clogging traditional meal. (There are also those who have more calculating, larger scale social-engineering plans and such, and you can normally ignore these people unless they are allowed to metastasize in to Ted Cruz.)
That is to say, it is mostly a vastly overcomplicated form of nostalgia and fear of death and oblivion. And it is a natural feeling, and is OK. Until you start beating others over the head with your own issues. Then it is a problem.
Because I’m around the same age, my influence list is very similar to yours (Vinge and Baxter on one hand, and Ballard and Will Burroughs, on the other, were more my ratholes). But I did read a lot of Asimov and Heinlein, because that was what was available in my library when I was kid. And sure, it must have influenced my tastes. But I have no real attachment to them; I re-read _Moon is a Harsh Mistress_ a few years ago and had to mentally shift to more of an anthropological mode of reading in order to finish it.
Frankly, if science fiction were still nothing but colonization fantasy and Capitalist Victory over Communist Bugs Episode #691, I wouldn’t read it any more than I read the endless stream of Gulf War military fiction.
Screw the ‘canon’, write and read what is relevant and interesting and good.
I’ve read most of the “canon”. Some I like, some I didn’t. I don’t consider any of it “essential” to read. Read what you enjoy. I freely admit that some of what I like isn’t especially well-written.
I have an ingrained negative response to anyone who tells anyone else what they ‘should’ read. Fair enough make recommendations, but if someone chooses not to act on them, that’s completely up to them.
My own tastes as a reader are very niche, and I don’t mean just in that I read genre. There are tons of widely acclaimed SF&F works, both classic and current, that I have no interest in; and other works that are largely unknown or even widely derided that I enjoy. Sometimes I’ll love one book by an author and not bother with their other works because the blurbs don’t interest me. Sometimes I’ll read a book I can tell isn’t written that well because the story appeals. And since I’m not getting paid to read, I’m doing it purely to entertain myself, noone else’s opinion really matters.
I write consciously old-fashioned space opera and fantasy, and I’m a seventy-fucking-one-year-old straight white male who read Asimov, and Heinlein, and Clarke (and a slew of others) back in the Golden Age (which was, of course, when I was a teenager).
My major influence is Jack Vance, who was always too much of an outlier to be canonical. Also Freitz Leiber and Sprague de Camp, ranking much the same.
So my credentials as an old fud are impeccable — peck ’em if you dare — and from that vantage I say, “The so-called debate over the canon has nothing to do with the intrinsic value of those old books. It’s about an in-group of people who used to be the majority within a larger group — fandom — and who, by the normal processes of life-goes-on, have become a minority. The culture that they long reveled in has ceased to be the dominant culture, and they damn well don’t like it.”
To which I will add, “Tough shit. That’s the way it goes.”
If it’s any consolation to them, twenty years from now, though they may not live to see it, today’s iconic darlings of the genre will be passe, because new ones will have sprouted, grown, and spread shade over their predecessors.
So, as another old SF writer used to say, it goes.
This insistence on reading canon reminds me of required reading in schools (or, even worse, summer reading lists). It is the books we choose ourselves that transform us into lifelong readers. I do not choose to read books by dead dudes in which women have no real agency. I choose the books that speak to me, and, in the process, reading makes me a better writer.
Sacrilege! You can’t write modern mystery novels without a deep understanding of Beowulf. In the original Old English. Back in my day, I physically trudged my way to library to read this stuff. Uphill. Both ways.
More seriously, I agree pretty much entirely with your points. My intro to sci-fi was taking old books from father’s shelf who had been collection that stuff since he was a teenager in late 40s. And he’d bought things going backwards. There was a lot of it that I simply couldn’t get through. He had a lot of de Camp and Assimov that I couldn’t connect with and a lot of Heinlein that I could, for instance.
As a reader in my 30s, I’ve mostly concluded that if I’ve read and enjoyed lots of SF without reading “The Canon”, then reading The Canon clearly isn’t that important. Some of the Canon I’ve read and enjoyed, other books I’ve read and been left baffled why people insisted they were still worth reading.
Incidentally I feel the same way about *all* of literature: Moby Dick is in my TBR pile, but most of the western canon isn’t. There are new books every week! If I had to read the whole canon there’d be no time for anything else!
@Jamie – all good points but this almost made me snort my coffee out my nose:
“unless they are allowed to metastasize in to Ted Cruz”
May I play “25 Books Published More Than Ten Years Ago Not So Much Especially That I Like But That I Think Are the Best 25 Books to Read to Grok Where Someone You Run into Who Identifies as an English-Language SF&F Fan Might Be Coming From”?
1. Shelley: Frankenstein
2. Stoker: Dracula
3. Wells: The Time Machine
4. Beagle: The Last Unicorn
5. Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings
6. Heinlein: Double Star
7. Clarke: Childhood’s End
8. Heinlein: Stranger in a Strange Land
9. Herbert: Dune
10. Niven: Ringworld
11. Stewart: The Crystal Cave
12. McCaffrey: Dragonflight
13. LeGuin: The Left Hand of Darkness
14. Vinge: Snow Queen
15. Drake: Hammer’s Slammers
16. Delaney: Aye, & Gomorrah and Other Stories
17. Gibson: Neuromancer
18. Vinge: A Deepness in the Sky
19. King: The Stand
20. Willis: Doomsday Book
21. Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale
22. Dick: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
23. Butler: The Parable of the Sower
24. Banks: The Player of Games
25. Jemison: The Hundred-Thousand Kingdoms
As a 58 year old Englishwoman I agree wholeheartedly. I read a lot of old stuff and liked it, but it sits unread on.my shelves now.
I read and reread Le Guin, Russ, Tiptree, Delaney, Adams, Banks and McCleod.
What is canon now would be my question, and am I already reading it?
Science fiction cannon . . .
How is this even a controversy? I’m a little older than you, and I started reading SF as kid, but I just read what I liked. The canon came to be because a lot of people happened to like the same works. It doesn’t impose any requirements on people now, unless, I suppose, they’re academics studying SF.
If you’re going to write SF, though, you need to be well-read in SF so that you don’t make silly mistakes and use tedious tropes, commonly done by authors who don’t know the genre but are trying to step into it. (“They become Adam and Eve!”).
I’m a decade older than you and female, was introduced to Heinlein and Asimov and Van Vogt and C.S. Lewis (Perelandra, not LotR) by my elementary school music teacher who knew I loved science and loved to read. I don’t see any need for canon. I am bemused to see that those of my childhood SFF books that have had the most lasting presence, still being loved today, were written by women – in particular, A Wrinkle in Time and Ursula K. LeGuin’s books. To me, that’s what a canon-type of list should be – the books that continue to speak to new readers generations after they were written.
Only canon I accept is Adams. HHGTTG is the reality we are all figments in the imagination of Zaphod Beeblebrox after a long Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster binge.
Matthew Hughes – I’m interested in your ideas and would like to subscribe to your newsletter.
Wait! I already do!
Anyway, you nailed it on the head for the canon and maybe we can nail it in this box and throw it in a hole.
BTW, a God in Chains is interesting – much more of a slow burn than the usual Dying Earth and not heavy on the absurd, but weird enough. Hope to finish next week.
I like the bit about Alan Dean Foster. While I didn’t get into his original works too far, his script adaptations of Star Trek/Star Wars stuff were pretty great, and was my first introduction to the animated star trek series.
The idea of canon as a static thing has always been weird, just the like the idea of language as a static thing is weird. The world is not static. The lens we use to view the world cannot be static, either.
We’re seeing this replayed, in miniature, with the new Star Trek shows. They are being judged by some of the old guard as insufficiently like Classic Trek (classic being TNG). And of course 30 years ago, TNG was dismissed by a many of the fans of the The Original Series.
I watched “Lower Decks” last night, and I found it amusing and entertaining. But ohhhhh, it’s driving some into apoplexy.
To whom I say my standard mantra: You’ll get over it.
John Varley wrote one of my favorite short stories ever, Manikins. Just as a little aside, because he was mentioned.
“The Canon” seems such an odd concept for Science Fiction. It’s one thing to appreciate what came before, but for a genre that is so often about looking into the future, imagining what may be, and critiquing the present, the idea of a sacrosanct set of books is just weird. And not in the good, “Manikins” sort of way.
I read the “Cannon” because that’s what was on my parent’s shelves. They were ardent Sci-Fi fans, so they bought what they liked. Heinlein’s Juvie “Have Spacesuit, Will Travel” was formative for me as I read it in 3rd grade. Then I moved on…
Our idea of what constitutes Sci-Fi is so dependent on the NOW that, to me, reading old sci-fi is almost painful. I recall reading a short story about a spaceship getting lost because it lost it’s “tapes” which kept a dead-reckoning track of where it was, like a submarine. How can you read and get excited about a book which depicts a “future” society which doesn’t have the basics like cell-phones or the internet? I often joke that we’re living in the world of the future already – everything that I thought was cool about my sci-fi growing up is practically already HERE. I don’t need to read a past book about today which is wrong, I want to see what happens when someone extrapolates on today’s tech!
My other issue with “the Cannon” is that, frankly, some of it it wasn’t that well written. Heinlein is amazingly uneven. I think that everyone agrees that only about half of his stuff is good, but no two people agree on which half. Asimov’s “Foundation” trilogy was ok, but it has been done since and been done better. So many of these “golden age” writers were pulp hacks, banging out fiction for pennies a word. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good pulp novel, but to “cannonize” these guys as saints is just silly.
I think another problem the SF canon has is that there’s too much that too many people declare as “essential.” I’ve read some of the work of some of the big names over the years, mostly short stories, and I feel I’m good. But that’s not good enough for certain people.
If I tried reading everything on some lists, I wouldn’t have time to read anything new.
Fantasy, otoh, if you’ve read Lord of the Rings, most people, in my experience, declare that adequate and leave you alone. (Note: I don’t think you have to read LotR.)
I once read an academic forward, saying that a certain writer was relevant, because she just might be starting a new movement that you might call “sword and sorcery.”
Her name was Andre Norton, and I devoured her books by the crate-load. No one mentions her today as part of their personal “big three” or “big five” but she was sure big to me.
What’s running through my mind is that I’m about to go through my bookshelves and clear out all the books I have no interest in reading again. Which I’m willing to bet is about half of them, and about half of those are by “canonical” authors. I tried to reread Asimov’s robot short stories last Spring and, my God, the Suck Fairy went berserk on them. They were so awesome when I was 13. Most of his other short stories are probably unreadable as well.
I hope “Nightfall” is still readable.
Ray Bradbury, OTOH, has gotten so much better as I’ve gotten older. And Clarke mostly holds up.
The thing I hate about canon is the idea of a definitive and essential list of works. I am entirely good with the idea of a classic- A work that is a person or group finds to be an exemplary example of a particular form either through excellent use of the form, or through inspired changes, or even creation of new forms. One shuts down discussion the other can open it up.
To me what makes a classic can be discussed and not agreed upon. It doesn’t need to be. What is a classic to you ,might not be for me. But an interesting discussion on why can be had. To say I value it greatly for these reasons is valuable. To know if many people, or which people, share that evaluation is a valuable thing. But it isn’t essential, and it says as much about people doing the valuation as the creator.
There can also be an infinite and indefinite number of classics that I may, or may not, be aware. Because of its relation to people works of the past can come into and leave based on people and time. Again that is interesting information.
The reductionist aspect of canon takes away from that. It tries to impose something grotesquely inhuman upon art and its appreciation. It is putting one’s evaluations in quasi-religious sacred terms that end up relying on sanctification not argument. It mistakes the awe we might feel towards a work as definitive of the work instead of an experience the art helped bring into the world.
Who decides canon should be showing the bullshit artist that tries to sell you that bridge. It is someone who mistakes their awe for revelation.
Can societies have certain works that are generally agreed upon as being classics? Yes, but this isn’t canon, and to mistake it or teach it as such is a travesty to the appreciation of how we make and appreciate art.
Is it essential that I read “Pride and Prejudice” or “Fahrenheit 451”? Nope. Are they generally agreed upon as classics? Yes, but not by everyone.
I slogged through ‘the sacred canon’ closer to the time (started reading SF in the late 60s at a precocious age (I was born in 1958), and if it had a yellow Gollancz cover the librarians at the two libraries I haunted would let me take it out of the adult section (what could possibly go wrong?).
Some of it I enjoyed, but didn’t want to read again because either meh or there was still so much unread; some of it the suck fairy visited while I wasn’t looking (sorry, Zelazny); some of it set my skeeve alarm off even at a young age (Heinlein, you know where I’m looking); some of it went right over my head but I’ve revisited since and loved (Delany, take a bow); and some of it proved what my mother always told me: you need to read rubbish to recognise it (Vance, you’re in the spotlight.)
When I was old enough to have money to spend in bookshops AND could leave school early enough to get to the good bookshop on my way home, I realised there were actual women writers. If I had to name my ‘real canon’ CJ Cherryh is at the head, with Bujold and LeGuin and other women close behind…
And then in the 80s I had two good and very different friends who loaned me books. Loads of books. We passed carrier bags stuffed full of books back and forth every week. One bought exclusively SFF by women (and wow, there were some stinkers, and some that made me thoughtful but not about to reread, and some I went out and bought my own copy); and the other bought mainstream ‘then’ SF (and lo and behold, the same comments apply.) And both sets of books will feature in the ‘sacred canon’ of people who started reading SFF back then… And none of them would I necessarily recommend to a newcomer to SFF right now!
Which is a long-winded way of saying: the world changes, and you might think the authors you cut your teeth on are forever the bees knees. But they aren’t and they shouldn’t be. My formative authors will never be identical to the authors that today’s newcomers should read. I might regret that I don’t get to insist they read Cherryh or Duane or [fill in your own blank] but we’re such a diverse community now it’s inevitable and wholly proper that the canon is what was written in the last few years.
“…just a field forever in conversation with itself, choosing its conversational partners from its past…” Amazing line. That’s what storytelling is all about—the writer/reader conversation, independent of time, that happens with the writing/reading of a book. Excellent essay!
CIS white middle class 51 year old guy who grew up on all the classic sci-fi and fantasy (I shared a room with my brother, 10 years older, who was as voracious a reader as I, and had an uncle who had every issue of Dragon magazine ever along with many others, for some context. If it came out in the 60’s or 70’s or early 80’s and fit into SFF I read it). I eventually got bored with genre work because so much of it was very pedestrian. Fun and engaging as a teen but little depth for a college kid wanting to be challenged and enlightened. After having kids and settling down and having more time to read (as I was too tired to do anything else) I pulled out a lot of the classics and found them no longer of any interest. Heinlein and Asimov included (who were my absolute favorite authors for a decade or so). Obviously they hadn’t changed, but I had and the stories no longer spoke to me about possible futures or alternative realities. They just seemed like masks on essentially the social standards and morals of church bureaucracy and hierarchy, of middle class midwestern white America, even when they were on the surface railing against those. A product of their time, sure they can still be considered great literature (though I’d argue far fewer of them than the fandom think) but just as something like Last of the Mohicans was for it’s time a Great Book, that doesn’t mean it remains so for eternity.
All that said, this is how I now view many of those books and authors because that’s how their works now impact me (or fail to do so). Other people may still find them deeply meaningful and relevant and that’s cool too.
Reply to Kevin:
“I picked up one of (Campbell’s) stories, more out of curiosity than anything else, and it was just dreck: clichéd story lines, hackneyed dialog, you name it. I didn’t even bother to finish it.”
Not as argument, but as the presentation of additional data, I pass along that Campbell under his own name was exactly what you say, to today’s eyes. Nevertheless, two stories he wrote as “Don A. Stuart” were VERY important to the development of sf as a grown-up literature. I am referring to “Twilight” and “Night,” two moody apocalyptic tales that would have been perfectly at home published forty years later. They steered the conversation. I do not say that you need to investigate them. I only say that they might produce a more nuanced verdict about his contribution in particular. They’re history.
More generally, I agree.
The names cited as “canon” used to be synonymous as the names that served as “gateway,” but they are now separated, and you do science fiction no favors by presenting names like Asimov and Clarke and Heinlein as the only entranceway available to younger folk who have mostly entered the field via other portals. This does NOT mean that those older names need to be put aside or shelved or canceled, an occasional demand that I reject with all my heart; certainly, they will always be available, and I will occasionally venture that older names like Henry Kuttner or, recently, Fredric Brown, will reward the investigation. (Nor will I ever stop citing Harlan Ellison or Richard Matheson as names pivotal to the development my own imagination.) But the old names, grimly dictated as homework? Way to turn people off. Let people do the vintage investigation when they are ready for it.
Given that science fictions deals with the infinite possibilities of the future, the terms “canon” and “science fiction” seem to be oxymorons.
Thanks for mentioning H. Beam Piper, Mr. Scalzi. You and several other authors have helped to bring his brilliance to the masses.
My favorite in the “ancient times” might not be known by many – Jack L. Chalker. He was a god when it came to writing novels from alien perspectives.
I think the genre’s been around long enough, with enough variations and enough growth and changes, that everybody gets to pick their own canon. As evidenced from the comments above, that seems to be what’s happening. We all have books we read once and never again, and we all have books we’ve worn through and had to replace, and every list is different I call this an Extremely Good Thing; there’s excellent stuff for everybody! I’ll be 70-fracking-2 next week (how in Hell did that happen so fast?) and I’ll love Zelazny and LeGuin and Vance forever, and Banks and Pratchett and Bujold, and now we’ve got Jemison and Scalzi, and writers on the Hugo ballot that I’d never even heard of before, and new books and stories coming out daily — wheeee!
I re-read Bradbury. I’ve re-read Dandelion Wine so many times I can’t even begin to count them. But Asimov, Heinlein, nope. LoTR — once was enough for me. In grad school, I went totally Old School canon: Sagas, Beowulf, Niebelungenlied. Connie Willis was a favorite after grad school. These days, I just read what I like. And I like Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. And Mr. Scalzi, of course! ;)
As a musician, I feel that whatever was the rebellious, hep, “in” sound genre for whichever teen/underground demographic was prevalent in a given decade kind of defined the sound of that decade in a typically short-hand manner. To me this is also true of the history of any popular media like speculative or science fiction, or romance lit, or spy novels. As a dedicated listener (as a musician) and as a composer and public performer, I made an effort to learn about as many eras of music extant as I could: from Gregorian Chant to contemporary new Classical, because I felt a responsibility to KNOW WHAT I WAS TALKING ABOUT when making what I considered either “fact-driven” statements or subjective musical opinions. As a composer and performer, there are very real legal consequences if one knowingly or unknowingly “steals” (borrows!?!) from another artist’s existing works without credit or compensation, and yet, as a composer and performer one is expected to be able to handily play pieces “in the style of” capably. Having said this, a valid criticism can be made for much of the modern pop offerings being nothing more than vi-ii-V-I, and a homogeneity within the art form which Norman Mailer described (and I paraphrase) “every car looks alike, every Ford and Chevy look exactly alike.” So for me, as a reader, as a viewer who pays money to be a member of an audience for an artist or group, when I see the exact same idea presented over and over again, I get immediately bored. If the trope, the conceit, is presented well-even if regurgitated- it doesn’t matter if it’s supposedly “cis” or “trans” or even written by a middle aged white man who plays ukelele: if it was done well, then excellent. However, over time (meaning decades and centuries) some works stand that test for excellence. I feel that this will be the case with the bottom grabber known as Isaac Asimov. I don’t think he should be forced on modern writers who get published in the sci-fi genre as “required reading,” but maybe Asimov might be compared to music’s Wes Montgomery: it’s to the listener’s (reader’s) benefit to be exposed to that artist who will stand the test of time. Finally, though I am a proponent of inclusion, I feel that there is now a dedicated effort on the part of writers wanting to be inclusive for a better chance at getting published, and doing it BADLY, primarily because they don’t have the life experience (at all) to write the “included” characters believably. And from my perspective as a distant middle aged, white, male reader, it literally takes a Woman of Color (an actual American Black Woman) to be allowed to “call out” an author on bad writing within the sphere of “inclusive” novel: no one else is deemed to be ethically and socially conscious enough to call out bad writing. That’s my comment, and now I will wait patiently by the interwebs to be “Cancelled.”
What >>I<< miss is a certain (and this is gonna be vague) type of "voice" — I find most contemporary writers to be rather flat-footed in that respect. Specifically, Vance and Moorcock. A kind of arch delivery.
Possibly I'm just not widely enough read in the contemporary work. Also, the big award winners lately have left me cold.
Agreed. I am perfectly fine with having started in 1970 (at 8 years old) with “Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint.”
I also like the idea of some works being identified as Classic. This happens in other genres, most notably in mainstream fiction. As a definition, it can include Minor Classics, and also Modern Classics, so it’s flexible. And it’s entirely up to the reader whether or not they read any, all or none of them.
42 year old SF reader here. I got Asimov out of the library as a kid, and it was… OK. But what I remember completely blowing my mind was William Gibson’s “Burning Chrome” collection.
Today I read, say, Ted Chiang, and it’s great. Really great. Not mind-blowing, because I’m largely past the formative years of having my mind blown. But some 12 year old kid is having their mind blown by it, and that’s fantastic. That kid doesn’t care about Gibson’s early work, and would probably find it weirdly clunky and retro if exposed to it; that’s fine too.
Given that SF is meant to be literature of change and the future, it’s particualrly ironic to try and set a fixed canon of SF works from long in the past.
You know, part of the “canon” problem may be that when I was growing up, the writers of the 1930s and 1940s and 1950s were still being repackaged, endlessly, for further generations, and publishers were forever coming out with books like A TREASURY OF GREAT SCIENCE FICTION and THE SCIENCE FICTION HALL OF FAME that collected the breakthrough works of the best names. Hell, Ace and others were forever publishing volumes of THE BEST OF (some old name), and through them I was capable of falling in love with names like Henry Kuttner, C.L. Moore, Fredric Brown, Lester del Rey, and even the now-dusty Stanley G. Weinbaum.
I had no problem with this, and I may bemoan the circumstance that such retrospective collections are now rare. (NESFA publishing will still do that for massive collections of writers like Cordwainer Smith and Robert Sheckley, and I applaud these efforts.)
But that was my science fiction education back then, and the science fiction education that new readers are now getting is entirely via new writers, and so it is harder for them to process the old, and this is natural, even it makes old-timers like me (currently 60), grumble.
IT ALSO MEANS THAT THE FIELD IS HEALTHY, DAMN IT.
What I think is interesting, in this conversation about ‘the canon,’ is that it apparently means something wholly different as a concept to Gen Z. My kid is eyeball deep in various fandoms and when “the canon” is brought up in that context, it means something more like “what is accepted as foundational and essential to that particular fandom and its characters.” The classic idea of the canon (that there must be one fandom everyone is glancingly familiar with and will admit is important) appears nowhere to be found.
So, for example, since Rowling confirmed it, Dumblore is gay and that’s “canon,” but Rowling and her works *in general* being “canon” because of their dominance or popularity would be a headscratcher. They get super excited about the former conversation–“xyz is *canon*!” meaning that a fan theory has been confirmed by an author or creator and is now no longer a fan theory, but accepted fact within the fandom–but the latter, not whatsoever. It’s about developing the universe within the story, rather than having some kind of pissing match between stories or universes.
I don’t really know that a ‘canon’ makes sense when it’s reasonable to assume that everyone’s going to bounce off at least some of the beloved works in the genre. I gather the whole idea of a ‘canon’ is to define a list of works that can be a shared reference pool and a way for individual people to say that they’re across everything of importance in a genre or form. For example, you could probably define a canon of video games, and it would absolutely include Dark Souls. Enough people are going to bounce off Dark Souls for extremely understandable reasons (it’s very hard, intentionally frustrating and doesn’t explain itself), but it also cast a very long shadow across the medium to the point where there were multiple different jokes about people using Dark Souls as a reference*. If enough people are never going to experience the work that you have to explain the reference every time, what’s the point of declaring it canonical?
In science fiction, I’d also quibble with what gets included as part of the ‘canon’. More people are going to be across Star Wars and certain episodes of Doctor Who than Heinlein, enough that if you lift a plot from Heinlein fewer people are going to notice. Certainly anyone who builds an alliance of alien races, of whom humanity is a barely irrelevant addition, is going to cop a lot of comparisons to Mass Effect. And yet Mass Effect is usually not part of the canon because no-one’s putting video games in literary canons. (Good luck working out when the fantasy genre got so obsessed with airships and tall cities.) So what is the canon really for, other than trying to keep the hoary old progenitors of the literary movement relevant by declaring all required reading to stop in the 70s?
The ‘canon’ seems to be proposed to fill a need to give an entry point into a genre, and by giving genre completionists some idea of the landscape, but realistically it doesn’t do either of those things as well as more focused efforts might.
* to wit, referring to ‘the Dark Souls of x’ to mean ‘difficult, deep, surprising, borderline incomprehensible’, and also a recurring joke about AAA game designers trying to work through design issues by suggesting they solve it like Dark Souls did
So, John and others:
Do you feel that we reviewers and critics are exempt from reading the purported canon? Or is it our duty to acquaint ourselves properly with what has gone before, if only to avoid appearing in Langford’s “As Others See Us” section?
Wow. Could not disagree more,, from a mystery reader’s POV. If you haven’t read Christie or Hammett or Chandler, then yes, you damn well should. I’m not saying you need to love them or even like them all, but if you don’t try them and have no knowledge of the history of the field, then…well, it’s your loss I guess. And you are losing a lot if you don’t know them.
But that is just the opinion of a geezer. Your mileage may well vary.
And keep off my damn lawn!
Yup. I’m 54 and grew up with John W. Campbell’s step-grandson, heard all kinds of cool stories, and was introduced to much of the ‘canon’ that way. And I agree totally — the beautiful thing about SF is that it’s malleable; if you’re trying to extrapolate a future from the current moment, the past is the wrong direction to look. Unlike the dusty, academic Western Lit Canon (from whence I think this argument wrongmindedly springs), SF inherently lives in the present day. [While we’re at it, can we retire the unhelpful phrasings “golden age,” “new age” yadda yadda? — I nominate the much cleaner “Primary Phase” &c.]
To what extent does “canon” mean economic privilege, and therefore, class? After all, it might well turn out that locating a long-out-of-print book to understand the “canon” may speak more to a reader’s ability to afford that book, so that “canon” might have more than a grain of classism associated with it.
“Do you feel that we reviewers and critics are exempt from reading the purported canon?”
It depends? If you’re writing a review that is primarily of this “is this piece of entertainment worth your reading dollar,” then I think you can write that up on that criteria without a deep historical plunge into where it fits in the genre. If you’re writing criticism that inherently discusses the book in context of the field and other works (or the author’s previous work) then obviously a knowledge of context is important.
(Also, if the publicity sheet declares the book to be “in the tradition of [golden age author], [slightly more recent author] and [author who was on the NYT list last week]” then it’s useful to know just how much you’re being wound up.)
More generally with reference to reviewers/critic/commentators I personally think it’s useful to know the field and its major players over the years, because I am one of those people who likes seeing the whole landscape, and when I was a professional critic (largely of film), I felt more comfortable opining on film knowing I had a broad (if not always deep) knowledge of the subject. But one can narrowly craft a useful review that has value as consumer reporting without a broad base of knowledge of the field.
Note also when one does that, it’s useful not to pretend you know more than you do; someone will catch you out if you try.
You could justify throwing any number of books into the science fiction canon if you’d just put a tilde above the n.
I’m confused here by the use of “canon”. I think I first heard this term in relation to Star Wars and Star Trek novels, in how a book, or show or movie, etc fit in with the official “canon” of that particular source. The SW novels in particular, with the Zahn books made a concerted effort to have their novels all tie together (or at least not contradict each other). This of course ended with the NuDIsney movies, and the old novels became “Classic Star Wars” or some such thing. But that’s my reference for canon. A further example is Babylon 5-only things approved by JMS are “canon” for that universe. But as it’s used in this article and the comments-it seems that it’s more the “classic” works of SF, and that you need to have read and appreciate them? If that’s the case, then I agree that there’s no need for canon-let people read and appreciate or not what they want to, without owing anything to anyone. Do I understand it? Thanks.
I have to say, the people who create and adhere to canons tend to be just fucking insufferable. It always feels like they’re doing their damnedest just to prove that they’re a bigger fan and that after they do so, you should bow, present them with a ribbon, and then shuffle away shamed. They are the dark flip side of my favorite kind of enthusiast who just genuinely loves something and really wants you to enjoy it and hey, isn’t it cool that this thing you like was influenced by this other thing that you like and OMG, did you know that this thing was the FIRST TIME ANYONE WROTE ABOUT THAT!? It’s the difference between that asshole who scoffed at me for enjoying the Led Zeppelin version of When the Levee Breaks and not understanding that the *real* version was the one from the ’20s and the guy who told me how much he loves both, pulled out a fucking banjo at a bus stop and then took me on a musical journey that went beyond the ’20s and suddenly I’m on a merchant ship in the 18th Century blending Tamil chants with Beninese millet planting songs (I honestly don’t remember what he told me, only that he was as enthusiastic as a parent over their first born and there were ships involved and people from all over mixing music on ships and somehow that resulted in Robert Plant having a career).
I like to think I’m the latter, though not as well versed, but yeah, if you mention wizard school, I’m taking you way past Harry Potter.
Matt Cramp mentions “reference pool” and “entry point” as being a good use of canon. Sounds right. It occurs to me that while genre, by definition, is “popular culture,” some fans would like to stretch sf to an extreme which only those with a devoted palate will enjoy reading—not my 12 year old self!
After all, some fans would value the Nebula award over the Hugo, and sf X over the sf canon… just as some folks prefer art-house movies to mainstream, and go to government art galleries, not just commercial galleries with pretty take-home stuff.
I won’t try here to define X; I only want to suggest that in some future there may be another category besides canon.
I think if you become a regular reader of SF you’ll probably “find” these books. If you’re a creator you might find some inspiration in the earlier stuff. But I don’t know what putting together a cannon would mean if anything. My own personal cannon tends to be Hugo winners.
Personal note: If you are a younger reader and generally don’t go back before say 2000, you are missing some good stuff! If nothing else sample the Hugo winners.
Why, please please WHY should science fiction, or current fantasy, need to be modeled after the “classics” of the Medieval or Early Modern era? Yes, Homer is interesting reading. The Jewish and Christian scriptures are more or less necessary if only because so many references to them are scattered about the world we live in. Greek plays likewise and so forth.
But they were the “canon” of old because either the Established Church enforced them as Totally Official or (like Homer) had been popular enough two millennia previously to have survived in an era when books were handwritten page by page. And now they’re the fond memories of old fogies like me who once chanted about ending Western Civ. It’s quite possible now to be a literate person without being able to read Homer in the not-so-original Greek of a millennium after Homer’s death and never mind the Great Ones who were fogies when I was young.
And the same goes for the ‘trash’ our parents didn’t want us to read then, like “Doc” Smith, Asimov, and on and on. Which, by the way, I still have and read. Not because it was great literature and not because John Campbell was the Prophet of Science Fiction (stop laughing) but because it was what I had at a time in my life that I remember fondly. At about the time that Our Gracious Host Mr. Scalzi was kicking his diaper dependency, I discovered that the Special Collections Department of the University of Arizona had a complete set of Astounding (and then Analog from 1938 through when my collection began in 1962. And I wasted far too much time that I should have spent studying or at least socializing by reading them in order surrounded by the sacred smell of the books in that old library (which is, as it happens, still standing but no longer a library.)-
I enjoyed that period in my life. I enjoyed reading those old pulp magazines. That’s a sufficient reason for me, in my old age, to occasionally revisit them (my Analog collection now goes back to the year I was born.)
It is not remotely a reason for anyone else to. Even my children or their children. If some other old fogies want to enshrine the treasures of their youths as some sort of eternal ‘canon’ itdamned well is not a reason for anyone today to pay them any mind at all.
Create your own treasured memories. Some of you by all means create your own literature. If you give any thought at all to the stuff written when my parents were young, remember: science fiction is always, always, about now. Don’t kid yourself. Heinlein’s worlds are as dead as Barsoom; let them rest.
Where is this discussion taking place (besides here)? I’d like to follow it.
62 year old white cishet female here. I devoured all the SF and fantasy I could find when I was growing up, including those by what were, even then, Old White Dudes, and I still own a lot of those old books. Every once in a while, when I’ve run out of new work to read, I’ll go back and re-read some of that old stuff. With few exceptions, when I’m done it goes in the “get rid of it” pile. Sometimes it’s good but I know I will never feel the desire to read again. Sometimes the Suck Fairy has visited and I see things that offend or annoy me that I never noticed in my youth. SF is not alone in this, either. I’ve been rereading old mysteries and children’s adventure books, and the same results apply.
I do believe there are true classics in all genres, but there’s so much WONDERFUL new work – I can’t keep up, and I am a fast, voracious reader with access to a great library system, plus I can afford to buy books if I really want them. I think it’s better for new readers to start where they are and move forward. Back is always an option if one has the time and inclination, but it’s not required to enjoy the now and the future.
I really don’t think that “canon” applies to what many people think it does. There’s a good body of older work that I wish all science fiction readers would pay attention to, and it comes from the fact that many older greats are almost totally ignored today. I’m happy to see the efforts on Kindle to bring out the works of Simak, for example, or the Heinlein reissues. Suggested reading lists are fine, but I usually find myself wondering why major authors or works are left out and lesser included. My prejudices are my prejudices, after all.
And as for canon within an author’s body of work, meh. Some authors are strict within series of books they’ve written, but authors have the right to mix it up and vary as they see fit. Internal consistency is great, but between different series or sets of books, no. Then again, some people just love to argue with other fans long past any point of reason. Let ’em.
I am old, i will freely confess. i have read a lot of science fiction and fantasy. When i was old enough to realize there was old stuff as well as newer stuff i read it all. There is no such thing as canon when you actually read the breadth of the works from 1900 onward. Haggard and wells and Verne and Burroughs, yielded to Campbell and Asimov and smith. authors like simak and van vogt and cornbluth were contemporaries with heinlein and clarke. Norton and zelazny and ellison, delany and silverberg and herbert. all took slices of the sixities. ARE they canon? No, they just told stories based on their experiences and world that molded them. Some wanted to be DIFFERENT on a deliberate basis. Some just wanted to tell what ever story was lurking their head.
Modern stories are shaped by modern experiences and thank god they all have different voices. Mr. Scalzi has a different attitude than Mr. Stross, Mr. Butcher is different than Ms Hodgell or Ms Cogman – i read all of them. Yes reading a maxwell grant shadow book has more than a little stereotyping of asians and blacks but the stories are still fun. Those same books yielded Batman and captain america and the moon knight.
My point – if there is one – is this, Science fiction and fantasy have a leg in the society and times they were written in . In many ways they are more self reflective now then they were 40 or 120 years ago, But if you read all the authors, not just the ones people tend to call canon, you will find that each era has a much wider view point than is expressed by people with limited experience of the field.
i prefer to read to enjoy story. Some are better than others, thats the way the world works. I wish more of the critics would get their head out of their asses and read books in the spirits they were intended, and read a lot more the just the ones that get talked about.
Born most of the way through the 1980s, and yep, every stage was full of SFF.
Childhood: books of fairy tales, Gargoyles, Animorphs, Sailor Moon, Sonic the Hedgehog (two cartoons, one of them pretty hardcore; also comics), Warcraft III, Disney stuff, Star Wars and a bunch of the spin-off middle-grade novelizations. Ken Follett’s juvenile SF novels.
Middle school: More Star Wars (films, spinoff books, video games). J. K. Rowling, Neal Shusterman, William Sleator, Bruce Coville, Vivian Vande Velde. A bit of tabletop RPG-ing. Final Fantasy VII.
High school: Got to Star Trek TNG only after the fact but became obsessed. Also read my way through a huge pile of pocket SF paperbacks (Douglas Adams, Robert J. Sawyer, Gregory Benford, Amy Thomson, Robert Silverberg, Alison Goodman, Alan Lightman, Orson Scott Card, and a whole lot of obscure one-offs). The Matrix, Donnie Darko, Primer.
College: Discovered Neil Gaiman and Charles de Lint. Suddenly realized I actually did like fantasy, and started scrambling to catch up with that – which also meant I suddenly dropped the ball on keeping up with new SF for a while (immediately before Old Man’s War appeared, which was bad timing). Thought I’d fallen way behind on getting through Harry Potter, but now that I work out the timing, I read the last one only about a year after it was published.
Somewhere in the middle of all that, I read one Heinlein juvenile, when I was about 13 (Time for the Stars), and I note now with a smile that my father was very pleased I’d heard of him. A few of the really big names from before my time are still on my list, but so are a bunch of newer ones who wouldn’t have had access to the genre when it was first coming together. And that’s okay. Meeting an author when they’re new (and more likely to have cutting-edge ideas) is never going to be the same as meeting them when they and their ideas have been thought about and built upon for years and years. What counts as a classic depends so much on how it’s positioned relative to the individual. A lot of my own curiosity about people I didn’t encounter in my own upbringing (Asimov, etc.) is now fuelled by wanting to learn more about the history of SFF. Just as someday, the only people who are going to be watching early-2000s Pixar movies are film historians. That’s okay too.
I got into reading SF entirely backwards from the ‘usual narrative’. When I was very young, I bounced hard off the end credits of Star Trek. This guy: https://i.pinimg.com/originals/2c/05/d0/2c05d0a83a76713ea4700ceca3758051.png
In my 6 year old mind, That Scary Dude was ‘science fiction’ and I didn’t want to have anything to do with That Scary Dude.
But what I hadn’t reckoned on was that the Canadian school system was secretly feeding me SF in English class through the selected stories contained in our reading textbooks all the way through Elementary School. Since it was in textbooks, I didn’t really pay much attention to the bylines of the stories, just the stories themselves. And they couldn’t really be Science Fiction because of a notable absence of That Scary Dude, could they?
Then a bit later Star Wars happened, and I began to think that this Science Fiction stuff might just be interesting after all and I started actively looking for it.
I noticed even back then that there was a strong thread of nostalgia for the ‘greats’ so I went looking for them. And bounced hard off some of them. Some have been visited by the suck fairy since I first sought them out, and for others she beat me to them. The Cold Equations was one such. I could never see what was supposed to be so great about living in such a craptastic world that failsafe design choices didn’t exist. Lord of the RIngs? I tried. Bog knows I’ve tried, but I still can’t get past the middle of Book 2. For a long time I thought that there was something wrong with me, until I realised that what was wrong is that I’ve read so much fantasy which has been written more recently which was just simply better than LOTR.
Do I think that I’m a better person for having forced myself to read the ‘greats’? No. But Andre Norton, Ursula Le Guin, Anne McCaffrey, Christopher Stasheff, Alan Dean Foster, Raymond Feist, Pratchett and so many other authors’ work is just that much better than the old stuff. I don’t need it to be a Fan. And that’s only counting what I read when I first got into SF. The past 20 years has seen an explosion of so much which will be looked back on as ‘great’ (or is already getting called that).
Golden age? It’s now.
An interesting discussion. As the current president of the Heinlein Society, I can tell you that we are trying to keep the idea of a legacy of Robert Heinlein ‘alive’. Meaning–available to be discussed and to reach those that want to take the time to read in context. Things like Farah Mendlesohn’s recent book are a great way to do that and bring out relevant bits for our time. Is reading Heinlein NECESSARY to read to enjoy current SF? No, of course not–but when you look at history and contributions you can’t ignore it if you want to study the history of the genre. I believe there are still quite a few novels and short stories of Heinlein’s that hold up really well even after all this time. but I wouldn’t want to force an opinion on anyone. Thanks for reading along.
Richard @ August 7, 2020, 1:58 pm:
But as it’s used in this article and the comments-it seems that it’s more the “classic” works of SF, and that you need to have read and appreciate them? If that’s the case, then I agree that there’s no need for canon-let people read and appreciate or not what they want to, without owing anything to anyone. Do I understand it? Thanks.
Yes, it is the latter meaning we are discussing here, rather than the internal consistency usage of “canon” you described first.
@Jeff M: Hard disagree on the idea of “essential” mystery writers. Christie and Chandler and Hammett were very good at what they did. But they were of their time, and that time was close to 100 years ago — The Maltese Falcon was published in 1930!
Modern mystery writers are doing very different things, and also doing these things well. It is perfectly possible for people to enjoy Jo Nesbø or Ann Cleeves without enjoying their illustrious predecessors. That does not mean they are “missing out”, bad readers, or bad people.
Andrea McDowell and Richard (rtackabery):
We have two disparate meanings of “canon” clashing here. As somebody has already addressed, the original meaning of “canon” is those works declared by a suitable religious body to be part of the Holy Writ: the books accepted as part of the Christian Bible, for example, when other less acceptable works were not accepted as Sacred Word in the same way.
“Canon” came to be used as shorthand for “these are the Core Essential Works of [this field] which everybody should know if they want to consider themselves knowledgeable in [this field].” The Canon for mystery novels was generally considered to include Christie, Carr, Hammett, early Queen, and Chandler, for example.
In media fandom, “canon” is used as a shortening for “canonical”: the generally accepted truth on a topic as verified by the works in that topic’s Canon. So: “Darth is Luke’s father” became canonical the day a certain film’s Big Revelation came public, and that gets shortened in common use to “it’s canon.” With a media franchise, what is or is not part of the Canon is determined by the owner of that franchise. I understand that certain media content has been declared Not Part of the Star Wars Canon by Disney, for example. Then there’s “headcanon”, “fanon”, etc. But again, different use of the term “canon” and one that might make a prescriptive grammarian grumpy.
I have an *entire shelf* of Pip and Flinx books that I am afraid to go back to in case the suck fairy has visited them. I’m especially afraid that the suck fairy has visited his comic novels that I really loved back in the day like Quozl…
My Gen-X self was taught that Brust’s Jhreg series was foundational, as much as like Weis and Hickman. (Though I didn’t like that series as much as Brust’s version of the 3 musketeers series… phoenix guards, which come to think of it, DC1 has so far refused to read, though he ate up the Rook and Android’s Dream and Sorcerer’s Crown and all the other great stuff suitable for pre-teen interests that we’ve gotten since attaining adulthood)
Do we consider Weis and Hickman to be foundational anymore?
Though when I’m thinking about my introduction to SPEC fic, it really is mostly foundational. The Oz books. E. Nesbitt. Edward Eager. Lewis Carroll. The color fairy tale books. Diana Wynne Jones (though she was new and prolific at the time). I only came to smuggled Azimov (with the distinct lack of any female characters, and thus uninteresting fiction) and Andre Norton and so on later.
While I agree that the cannon argument is mostly about gatekeeping I think there is another less negative impulse going on. And I think the similar argument about great works in college courses connects to the same thing.
When people are talking and they have a lump of art and history etc that they both know they get each other’s references in a way that people who don’t share that cultural knowledge do not. I accept that being 63 and having to check my conversation to see if a younger person knows what I’m talking about is just the way the world works but it can be frustrating.
It is what the various fan groups of specific tv shows etc are all about. They are biting off a manageable chunk of material from the gigantic field of cultural works to know intimately and to be able to talk about with people who have a similar knowledge.
“I wish you had read xxx, so I could make the joke that just occurred to me.” Is something that comes to my mind a lot. I know I just have to read and enjoy recent stuff and I do. Honestly it’s one of the great joys in life to get someone to try something that they turn out to really like and I know that that is mostly not going to work with older SF.”
If reading Asimov and/or Heinlein is necessary for understanding current SF, then why not “Edison’s Conquest of Mars?” Yes, it’s terrible, but he invented space suits!
I’m a teeny tiny bit older & moldier than some — turning 65 in less than 2 weeks. When I was 2, someone said “The golden age of science fiction is 12.” So true. The only “canon” is, I think, what people fixate on when they’re in their teen years beginning to read this stuff. In high school, my favorites were Disch, Ballard, Ellison, and R.A. Lafferty.
Not going to bore people with a long essay about that — I’ll just get to the points.
Love H.G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon. Grew up reading Pohl, Kornbluth, and all of the big 4. Clarke, Heinlein, Asimov & Bradbury. Not particularly fond of the big 4 now, because I’ve found others whose work I enjoy more.
At one time, maybe up to the time I was born, it was possible to read most or all of what was being published in SF. That hasn’t been true for a long time, but when I started in fandom, there were older fans who were amazed I hadn’t read ________ and _________, and told me I “had to” read them. That put me off and made me NOT want to read those books.
Final point: writers today stand on the shoulders of some flawed, human giants of the past. Perhaps it’s a good thing to be aware of them and their flaws. But it’s even better to be aware of their positive accomplishments. In 50-100 years, would you rather have future generations picking you apart for your flaws, or enjoying your work as it is? One day, like it or not, you too will be a flawed human giant of the past.
I am old enough to remember much of what some people are calling cannon as new. I started reading SF in the early 60’s. All thanks to the New York City Library. It was Asimov’s David Starr series that hooked me, but as much as I loved them then, I wouldn’t recommend them to anyone now. The children’s library had little Heinlein… and I didn’t care for what they had. They did have shelves full of Andre Norton books, and I read every one. In seventh grade,my family moved, and I discovered Heinlein novels I liked, and Tolkien, and Asimov for grown-ups.
All of this made me the reader and fan that I am today. But there are few books from then that I would recommend today. Most of the ones I would were written by women, and I’d recommend some that I loved just to show that yes, women were writing good science fiction and fantasy, even decades before I was born. It isn’t new.
But everyone gets to have their own reading journey. What made me a reader is not how other people should start. Read whatever interests you… that’s the secret. Go to the cons that interest you, if any do.
Robert E. Howard, of course.
“To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and see the lamentations of your comment section.”
The Science Fiction Conan.
There are dozens of flood myths throughout human history. If you are trying to understand the history and evolution of those myths, it makes sense to perhaps read some or all of them, and maybe put them in some sort of chronological order to see how the stories evolved, changed, and improved over time.
But sticking a post in the ground and saying the flood story of Genesis is “canonical”, meaning it is tbe best and most true, is putting blinders on.
The story of Robin Hood has evolved over time. Iirc, the original story was more a simple story of robbing the rich/evil to feed the poor/good. Early versions of the story basically challenged the divine right of kings. Later versions changed so that the king in power was “illegitimate” and Robin Hood fought to reinstate some “legitimate” king, propping up the divine right of kings for a while longer. Which one is the “right” Robin Hood story? Meh.
If evolution of story interests you, there is no such thing as “canonical”. There is version after version after version.
The thing about writing is the story almost always imbues the writers worldview into the fictional world.
We see this in simple cases where really old sci fi had space ships made with rivets. And we see this in more troublesome cases where the (sometimes unexamined) sexism of the writer and their world at the time, creeps in unchallenged into their works. At the time readers simply accept the fictional world as modeling their world. But decades later, the unexamined biases of the fictional world no longer match the real world, so young readers notice the biases and dont give it a pass as merely a reflection of the biases of the world; the unexamined biases become explicit, and often young readers reject it.
Heinlein wrote under the umbrella of ww2 and the cold war, ww2 saw an existential threat from a the nazis and the cold war saw the constant existential threat from nuclear annhilation from the soviet union, the paranoia, the fear, the will to power, the tribalism, the demand for obediance, that was water to fish in the US from the 40’s into the 60’s, informed his worldview and that worldview seeped into the worlds of his books.
At the time, a lot of people didnt challenge his biases because his biases matched the “real world”. A world where blacks couldnt vote, Japanese americans were interned without protest from white america, and mcCarthy witchhunte defined an era.
But that is not the world today, and Heinlein’s biases present in his fictional worlds are not the default biases of people today.
Obviously, some Americans today would gladly intern Muslim Americans and immigrants seeking asylum from central american countries. And they would gladly embrace the -disenfranchisement- that is inherent in so many Heinlein stories: the idea that you must “pay” in some way before you have rights. That it is good and moral to keep certain rights from some people until they jump through enough hoops and pass the initiation rite for the tribe.
That is the entire basis for removing birthrite citizenship: that it is not enough to be born here, but that you must first “prove your worth” before you will be treated as equal.
But today in America, thankfully, there are quite a few americans who are outraged, for example, at the current presidents attempts to attack Muslims, to disenfranchise blacks, to crack down on dissent and criticism. There is outrage at police racism that it no longer gets a free pass. And so, the fictional worlds that assume this sort of thing is water to fish turns into fire for fish and is actively repulsive.
The folks pushing “canon” are often pushing a sort of unexamined privilige that they wish would continue. The Puppies are abject examples of this: calling for a return to the militant paranoia of cold war fiction, wishing it to be embraced once again as the unexamined bias it once was.
But even less severe examples, the notion of “canon” fundamentally is an indulgence in u examined privileges. Maybe not calling for the biases of old to be reinstated, but at the very least expecting young readers to read horrendously biased worlds and accepting them without complaint.
I do read some of the older stuff to see the evolution of thought. But even the “science” is absurdly dated.
anyone who knows anything about, say, actual real world machine intelligence, knows that the Three Laws of Robotics is about as close to hard science as the flying carpet in Alladin’s tales.
John Tilden (JT) made an important distinction, I think, in saying “you can’t ignore it if you want to study the history of the genre.” Academics who are studying the history of the genre and how it evolved absolutely need to go back to “the canon” in order to do their research completely!
But how many readers of SF and F are in academia? How many of us are researching scholarly essays about the genre? I think it would be a bit of a stretch to assert that SF and F book sales are dependent solely on the occupants of ivory towers who are writing dissertations and need to read “the canon” for the sake of studying the history of the genre.
On the contrary, I think that by far the vast majority of SF and F readers are engaging in the genre out of pure enjoyment, out of exploring new ideas and new material. And I think that to suggest that all those readers must be required to somehow digest reams and reams of historical reference works in order to be officially admitted to the ranks of fandom is no more than straight-up gatekeeping, plain and simple.
This essay jagged an old memory of the indictment of the “Labor Day Group” of science fiction and fantasy writers by Theodore Disch (paladin of the then “New Wave” (and kind of close to being forgotten himself I suspect)) and the rebuttal by a young George R.R. Martin. Ah, those were the days! I mean I had mostly moved on beyond Campbellian SF roughly in my mid-teens.
I like the shared reference pool idea. For most people though that’s going to come about from whatever’s in current pop culture. And a lot of that stuff is going to be pulled from older stuff that many may have never heard of. For example, lots of kids probably got their Shining references from the Simpsons and never saw the actual movie.
With everyone watching different stuff on the million streaming sites the only real shared reference pools for many are Disney movies and shows. So there is some merit to having lists of what is generally considered popular or good. But again those lists will be more weighted toward current stuff with notable exceptions.
I think a creator should have some idea of what has come before. That’s why film theory classes are popular. Bringing an old idea forward and putting a new spin on it keeps things fresh. But it’s probably not required. You can write your own series of child wizards without knowing anything about Harry Potter. You’ll probably end up getting a lot of questions about it though like the Hunger Games author who keeps getting asked if she was inspired by Battle Royale.
…does it even make sense to consider the idea of a “canon” for a live genre?
I get–and tend to take the approach of–“these are a bunch of [media/genre] that had significant cultural influence/importance, at/during X time period” and am cool with that framing. Hell, I’m not even comfortable saying there’s a definitive John Scalzi novel, given that he keeps on writing and they keep being fun and interesting.
Great perspective, once again, John. Thanx for sharing.
Your observations prompted me to write something. But it’s too long for a comment so I did it as a blog post. Hope that’s okay.
No-one has to read anything. That said, I love Asimov – and I think his original thinking on many topics is to SciFi lit. what Star Trek is to Sci-Fi movies.
Good thoughts. I have two different opinions based on who’s doing the reading and writing. From the reader’s perspective, screw canon. Read what you want to read, follow your favorite authors down the rabbit holes of their own influences if you want, pick up a book because you like its cool cover. Read Scalzi because you shared an airport shuttle bus with him in Denver. S’all good.
But I think a professional writer or critic in a field should understand its history. Sometimes you see an interview with a young rock musician who’s doesn’t know The Beatles, and you (or at least I) roll your eyes. I’d want a science fiction writer to at least heard of H.G. Wells, Heinlein, Ellison, Your Favorite Name Here, have some familiarity with their work and themes and tone, and understand how they fit into the history of this literature they’re making a living in–if only to avoid repeating cliches. They’re professionals; I expect them to be experts and am surprised and disappointed when they aren’t. The writers whose work I enjoy the most understand literary context and where they fit within it or as a reaction against it.
Now, there may certainly arise some innocent prodigy who doesn’t know Heinlein but produces breathtaking work anyway, just as you’ll find 17-year-old musical geniuses who’ve never heard “Yesterday.” But I have to believe that familiarity with a canon can only help; it’s another really useful tool in the creator’s toolbox.
I have to wonder how much of this is being driven by the same spirit that ‘originally’ gave us the Puppies. People who like Rockets and Adventure and Scientific Puzzle SF and are unhappy it isn’t as prominent now. IOW, it’s not about specific works they want everyone to read/have read, it’s about a certain style of SF that they think isn’t getting the attention it should.
Y’know, I can at least parse that, as someone who likes Rockets and Adventure. But I’m also someone who had their mind blown by the first Dangerous Visions back in high school. (A book published the year I was born! And arguably with at least as much claim to the ‘canon’ as Heinlein, Asimov or Clarke.)
And also, someone who loved The Pride of Chanur when I found it around the same time – and saw it as the same flavor as the ‘classic’ Rockets and Adventure SF, but maybe updated a little. Years later, I’d understand it as a descendent of the classic Scientific Adventure story… with an infusion of DNA from the New Wave stories, which had mostly faded away by the late 70s. Then came cyberpunk in the 80s, recognizable as an heir to New Wave stylism but with its own twists back into a more tech-loving worldview.
So it goes. Tastes go in cycles, New Wave reacting to Golden Age but eventually replaced by a ‘refreshed’ Golden Age style – but each return to a particular style incorporating some of the good bits from the previous cycle.
‘Canon’ can be of interest if you have a historic interest in where some bits come from, but the good parts tend to get carried along from cycle to cycle – and if you don’t like the currently popular style, your preferred style will probably be back around in time, usually improved.
It seems to me that if you’re an aspiring writer, who you read is much less important than that you read, period. I’m comfortable saying that all writers should probably have their inspirations and models and influences to draw upon, and one’s writing will almost certainly be much poorer without any examples at all.
And of course, the flip side to this argument is that no one is obligated to read any contemporary sf/f authors either, and this doesn’t make one “out of touch” just as someone who only reads contemporary sf/f isn’t “ignorant” or whatever the line is. If Heinlein and Asimov and Campbell are the writers that most speak to you, read them instead, and skip Mieville and Jemisin and Scalzi. I’d recommend giving all three (indeed all six!) of those authors a shot, but if you don’t enjoy them or don’t find them useful, then move on. The Golden Age authors are perfectly capable of acting as adequate guides all by themselves, as are contemporary writers.
Cancel Culture = Fear of Dying. People determined that anyone declaring themselves part of SF/F who haven’t read all the books they have loved since they were kids 50+ years ago and admit they are infinitely superior to what those damned kids these days are writing and reading and declaring terrific are trying to write them out of history, out of fandom, out of what they made, by gum!
“Canon” is another way of saying “these works ought to be read (or viewed or listened to),” and any “ought” invites a “why?” if not a “sez who?” Nor is there necessarily a single “why,” even in socio-cultural settings that bother to construct and justify sets of oughts. “The best that has been thought and said.” The most influential. The first to successfully perform [technical task X]. Pretty soon you’re down to compilations of NYT bestsellers and Billboard Top Tens. It’s 50 Greatest Hits of the [insert decade] for only $9.95!
BTW, who’s saying that SF/F needs a canon? In the lit biz, a canon is what’s taught (rhymes with “ought”), and back when I was teaching (and SF was distinctly non-canonical in mainstream departments), there was a kind of SF-suited-to-the-classroom “canon,” which tended to mean “SF least unlike the fiction being taught in regular lit classes,” which for a while meant Le Guin, Dick, Bradbury, and a bit of Wells, unless you were all rebellious and went for Jack Vance, Phil Farmer, and John Varley, as I sometimes did. Practically speaking, the classroom-SF “canon” has always stabilized on works that are reliably available, and for while that meant anthologies such as The Hugo Winners and The Science Fiction Hall of Fame and Those Who Can. Eventually the big academic publishers put out giant, academically-compiled anthologies that enshrined a different set of texts, so that’s the current baseline canon of intro-to-SF courses.
On reviewers, critics, and plain old readers: I am the kind of reviewer I am because of the kind of reader I was as a kid (omniverous) and then the researcher/commentator I became in college and grad school. I can’t turn that off any more than I can stop hearing a jazz fiddler echoing Grappelli or Joe Venuiti or Stuff Smith. (As the fiddler probably can as well.) And because I’m not writing X-out-of-Y-stars or consumer-report reviews but reports on what I think of what I read, everything I’ve ever read is lurking in the background.
Even for me, who grew up in the 80s and read a lot of SF in the 90s, most of the “canon” was Stuff Other People Have Read, and there were already SF storylines falling off the radar. Lensman, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and some Warlord of Mars thing. Most of that I only heard of because I read Heinlein’s The Number Of The Beast, half of which was basically alter-ego-insertion fanfic for all those. Some stuff written at the time I only know through other media; Chtorr and Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon I know through GURPS sourcebooks.
Public librarians are constantly shelving and weeding their circulating collections. One reason for removal? It is not circulating. There’s only so much real estate, and something has to go. Preferably, to the Friends of the Library sale, where it will be adopted by someone, and the money goes back to buy more stuff for the library.
Canon… for some, it’s The March of Progress comic strip where the human leads an evolutionary parade up the beach in a straight line. But that comic is false… evolution is a phylogenetic tree with some dead branches. Canon is “phylogenric”… and some of those genres and categories have died out and petrified.
Canon can be foundational, but for most, we stand on the shoulders of giants. (Some pee off the shoulder of giants, but that’s another topic for discussion.) We all have our own personal giants who inspire us, and maybe we give the next person a leg up as we keep exceeding our grasping at heavens.
From a historical point of view, what are the best? I suspect the best metric is “What continues to sell? What gets reprinted in anthologies?” Not to be capitalistic, but judging based on interest from readers. (And academics and teachers to assign these works for reading, for a variety of reasons.)
From a theoretical POV, what would happen if the retro Hugo Awards redid a previous year, like 1971?
I tend to think that this mindset devalues science fiction as a whole. Take away “Dune” “Foundation” “Double Star” “Childhood’s End” “Ringworld” “The Martian Chronicles” et. al. and substitute “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” “Ulysses” “The Great Gatsby” “To Kill a Mockingbird” “Of Mice and Men” and “The Catcher In the Rye.” Is your argument still valid? Are we saying the that genre canons are less valuable or meaningful than the literary canon as a whole? I hope we are left with more than “Fahrenheit 451” and “1984” to represent the science fiction century.
I’m an old white guy who started reading science fiction in the early 60s. If there’s an afterlife I’d like to take advantage of the opportunity to thank an unknown and I’m certain long-dead elementary school librarian who stocked the shelves with Heinlein’s juveniles along with some Clark and Asimov and Tom Corbett Space Cadet, and the junior high librarian who added to the collection. I remember how exciting it was to read the first three of Doc Smith’s “Skylark” series, but realizing even as a kid in elementary school the science and life depicted in the books was something from the past–the world changed greatly between the early 20s and the early 60s. I can remember taking birthday and Christmas money and subscribing to Analog to get the monthly stories and serialized novels since no library ever stocked the magazine.
I prefer the term “classics” instead of “canon”. Can you read SF without reading the classics? Of course. There’s no necessity to read the novels English teachers call classics to enjoy contemporary fiction. You don’t have to go back and read detective stories from the 30s, Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, Agatha Christie or Sherlock Holmes to enjoy mysteries. You do you!
If you become really interested in the genre and want to do a deep dive into its past and understand how it has changed and developed over the decades, go for it–there are certainly great stories out there that will make the trip enjoyable as well. You’ll have to place the stories in the context of the time they were written, but that’s true of any literature from the past. If part of the point of SF is to explore human emotions, ethics, actions, and behavior in different circumstances and contexts there are lessons in books written in the 30s/40s/50s/60s by now-dead white males as there are in today’s literature. You can take a course that will expose you to the history and development of SF as a genre–even The Great Courses offers some. Some of us enjoy the additional background, others don’t, neither is better than the other for anyone who’s not an academic.
It’s no more necessary to read the SF classics to enjoy today’s writing than it is to read Twain, Hawthorne, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Melville, or any of the classic novels as defined by the English Department to enjoy contemporary literature.
Thinking something is important enough to be canon and wanting to discuss it is great. Using it as a stick to enforce your gatekeeping of the opinions or status of others is weak sauce. Getting hurtful and mean because someone disagrees with your opinion is even worse.
I tried reading the Lensman omnibus since it came highly recommended as foundational by someone who liked something else that I also liked, and could not manage 3 chapters before I dropped it and needed to decontaminate my brain. Times change, people should too.
Speaking as “ohmigod I’m 71” this likely got me started. Still worth reading.
Adventures In Time And Space – January 1, 1954
by Francis J. Healy, Raymond J; McComas
What if I LIKE reading the “canon”? Is that okay? I’m feeling a little shamed over actually wanting to read classic sf. One of my introductions to sf was HG Wells, and I loved reading him. Then Heinlein and Spider Robinson, then Vonnegut, Stephenson, and Card, and back to Asimov and Niven. I read current sf and enjoy it. I read older sf and enjoy it. Currently, I’m reading, and thoroughly enjoying, the Lensman books by EE “Doc” Smith, after reading and enjoying the Hugo nominees for this year. I agree you don’t HAVE to read the canon, but just like watching old movies, I think it’s pretty cool to see how things used to be portrayed. And I like knowing the history of sf.
The whole “canon” debate presupposes that there are certain books you HAVE to read to “appreciate where SF (or mystery or whatever) has been,” which is something that, quite frankly, only a few readers give a damn about. The rest of them just want a good story, some entertainment, and maybe something to think about. Reading shouldn’t be a chore.
Read what you want! Love what you read!
I finally stopped laughing at myself.
I just finished an excellent article today at vox.com explaining what has trashed postal service in the USA recently. Lots of long-standing problems, no question. The labor and revenue shortages from COVID-19, that too. A hostile President, oddly a problem only is vetoing a USPS bailout in the CARES Act.
But what really caused everything to back up and some of you may remember what had me ROTFLMAO was that the real problem was described almost 80 years ago by George O. Smith in QRM Interplanetary: a new chief executive with no knowledge of the business who comes in to show everyone how to do it better.
Even in science fiction, some things really are perennial.
My only use for a “universal” SFF canon is for finding things I might like. I’ve gone back and read all the Hugo winners (or at least, I had before I stopped having enough free time to read everything I wanted) because I figured that the stuff that was remembered was more likely to be good. And in some cases it was, and in others … well.
There are bunch of things that I loved as a kid to which I’m not likely to point my son. I notice the lack of foreground women characters in Bradbury, for example (and I wore out several copies of his books; Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes are powerful influences on me 40 years later), and it’s even worse with Asimov (especially after hearing stories about his … problematic … behavior around women). On the other hand, The Earthsea Trilogy will make that cut.
To the broader point, life is way too short to spend any of it apologizing for personal tastes. And anyone who tells me otherwise better have some heavy redeeming characteristics for me to keep listening.
Dating myself, as one does, just for personal peace of mind gotta raise a cuppa to the core Brunner run of Zanzibar / JaggedOrbit / Sheep; world view set for life.
I STILL want to know if Idiocracy was based on The Marching Morons (Kornbluth) Because if it wasn’t…
There’s good old stuff that was not “cannon.” Wolfe, Cordwainer Smith, Vance, Varley, Sterling, Tiptree, Lem, the Strugatskys, Russ, Wilhelm, Tepper, Walter Jon Williams. Go out and find the good stuff like a trail of clues to your personal Book of Gold. Don’t take anyone else’s check list, new or old, woke or wooden: just find your path.
re Ken’s Q -> wikipedia’s Idiocracy page has this under T)hemes..
The idea of a dystopian society based on dysgenics is not new. H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine postulates a devolved society of humans, as does the short story “The Marching Morons” by Cyril M. Kornbluth, akin to the “Epsilon-minus Semi-Morons” of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World
The “classical music canon” is a huge pile of Austro-German music written from 1700 to 1900, mostly chosen by German-speaking men and extremely exclusionary.
Speaking as a reader who started reading SF nearly 50 years ago, I loved Le Guin and Ellison mostly those first few years, then Clarke, Pohl, McIntyre, Herbert, Wilhelm, Martin, Effinger. I read some Heinlein and Asimov, never really a huge fan. Maybe readers now could read an occasional Hall of Fame athology to look back at some of the older works. But my focus for the ’70s and ’80s tended to be mostly current works of the time, and tended to be more “new” wave writers.
When I was young I read a lot of the canon (40s/50s books) since it is what the library had available. Mom took me every week, I would get a lot of books, Mom would tell them that yes he will read all of them in a week, I’d go home and read all of them.
I also read a lot of older authors. Verne. Burroughs. Smith. Haggard. Daniel Defoe. Those helped me see how things had changed over time. Smith from the 30s was a different world than Heinlein in the 50s. Heinlein from the 50s was still reasonably close to how the world was in the 60s. Verne and Haggard were a different world than what I lived in. Daniel Defoe was an even bigger difference.
As I got older I started buying books to read in addition to the ones from the library. But those were largely different authors or the latest book from an author. Though some of the older books I bought (Burroughs and Smith in particular)
On occasion I go back and reread one of those old books that I bought in the 60s and 70s as a child and then a teenager. Some of them are still favorites. And many of them I will pass over now for something new. Or something old that I haven’t read before.
I read an abridged version of Journey to the West about 15 years ago. It was a fun read and a completely different culture than other things I’ve read. I then read a new abridged translation of One Thousand and One Nights. Again a fun read and a very different culture.
Mostly I read new books from current authors. They are very different from what I read when younger. They are just as fun to read. Some of them are light entertainment for an evening. Some of them make me think about something in a different way.
We live in an amazing age for SF and Fantasy. More is available than ever before. I can remember showing up at the library and realizing I had read every SF book in the children’s section and a large fraction of what was in the adult SF section. I go to a book store now and there are multiple aisles of SF and Fantasy books. More than I can manage to read.
Which is a great problem to have.
“If you meet the canon on the road, kill it.”
I view the tired and tiresome notion of a must-read sf/f canon that way I view Julia Child’s cookery.
She was a huge influence on home cooking and food writing in her lifetime. I enjoyed her biography, MY LIFE IN FRANCE. But although I am an enthusiastic cook who enjoys experimenting, when I read Julia Child’s cookbooks or watch her TV program (available online)… I don’t see any recipes I want to try, and I often don’t even want to eat the food she prepares.
Child’s contributions to food culture were real and important. That doesn’t mean I need to cook my way through MASTERING THE ART OF FRENCH COOKING and THE WAY TO COOK in order to enjoy good food in 2020 or to cook good food in 2020. And, indeed, one of the surprises of watching her TV show is how many of the dishes she skillfully prepared back then wouldn’t be considered “good food” today (at least not by anyone I usually eat with).
A canon can serve as a shared well of references that readers will be familiar with and can draw from. This may be less important for works that can serve as introductions to the genre, works that are, say, written so that one’s mother-in-law — who is an avid reader but not necessarily someone whose first choice of what to read is SFF — can enjoy them. (On the other hand, these just draw on a canon that is old enough to have passed into the culture at large. I’d bet that Karel Čapek’s mother-in-law did not think of a robot in the same way that he did, nor that Gene Roddenberry’s mother-in-law had much of an idea of what warp drive was before Star Trek. That one’s readerly but not fannish mother-in-law would now have an idea of both of these shows a canon that has become background illumination.) But a canon of some sort is necessary for works that depend on some familiarity with the genre. Redshirts, for example, depends on canonical elements of science fiction, drawn from canonical works that readers can be expected to be familiar with.
Some canonical works loom so large that they effectively corner an aspect of the genre for a long time. Anyone who re-does “Nightfall” better have a good twist. Our Gracious Host has in the past opined that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was an extinction event for science fiction comedy. It’s a canonical work, anyone trying to bring the funny in science fiction has to reckon with it in some way, and many have broken their lances tilting against that improbability-driven windmill. Terry Pratchett didn’t eradicate funny fantasy quite as thoroughly as Douglas Adams, but Discworld is canonical; it neither can nor should be avoided in fantasy humor. And some of the humor in Discoworld depends on knowledge of other canonical work in heroic fantasy — why does Cohen the Barbarian have that name, and why is his Silver Horde funny?
Canonical works are the shared references that make it possible for the field to be in conversation with itself. Without The Moon is a Harsh Mistress there’s no Growing Up Weightless by John M. Ford and no Luna trilogy by Ian McDonald, to name just two. A story that begins “The sky was the color of…” is situating itself in a particular way in relation to science fiction and its history.
So yes, Virginia, there is a canon. It isn’t fixed (seriously, is there a more embarrassing Hugo than the 1966 award for best series of all time?) and it isn’t the same for all readers; it’s more like the probabilistic model of an atomic nucleus than a set of planets around which moons orbit; but like quantum nuclei it builds our shared universe.
I agree. The authors I loved of old (Heinlein, Asimov) I read in my 20s. Now at mid-70, I like newer authors. Last year, I bought Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky to give to my 16 year old grandson having LOVED it so much. I started reading it, and was appalled by how the women were treated! I had to throw it away. My world view is much wider and deeper not.
I have a different perspective to offer on “canon.” The golden age writers are the ones who inspired the generations that became the scientists, engineers, and others who advanced technology as part of the Space Race. My question now is, who of the more modern authors (other than Andy Weir and John Scalzi) offer similar inspiration to today’s young people? So much of the YA SFF of today is dystopian, reflecting not hope but dread. One reason many of Heinlein’s juveniles and short stoties are still relevant today is that he focused on character and plot, but built them on a foundation of science and love of learning that didn’t talk down to his young readers. They modeled intelligence, capability, and curiosity that encouraged the development of those same qualities in their readers. (It’s also fun to see what future technology he got right versus what seems hopelessly outdated.)
I guess my view is that “canon” is what inspired people to follow certain paths, that led to citizens who added to society, that influenced how people live, that created dialogue about the ideas presented. I look for new, contemporary authors who produce works like that, but find too few.
Another geezer here, who started reading SF in the early 60s and read forward and backward for years merely because I was rapacious and wanted everything. So I read everything that was canon or classic and reviewed most of what came out in the late 70s and early 80s and then I burned out entirely and quit reading SF for maybe 30 years. Now I’m playing catch-up and trying to read as much new fiction as I can (benefit of retirement). I am never going to tell anyone they *must* read anything and parts of my “you might like” list echoes Privateiron because those authors really spoke to me. But I would caution hard against the notion that anything written before 2000 is irrelevant and if you are curious about very good stories you’ve never heard of, track down copies of Damon Knight’s Orbit anthologies which ran through the heart of the 60s and 70s which published some of the finest original short fiction I’ve ever read. People really did write amazing work in the dim past, but no one ever beat your over the head with it.
I blame all those Mills and Boon readers for not first appreciating Chaucer. Kids these days.
I am 61 and can tell you my canon is the science fiction available in the Morton Junior High library circa early 70’s. I did not enjoy Clarke, or Dune or LOTR so I just didn’t read that stuff. I think that means I agree with you. Although the short stories I read in best of sf type anthologies from the public library probably were more of what is actually considered the “canon”. But I read primarily novels in science fiction, and I read what I like.
“The “classical music canon” is a huge pile of Austro-German music written from 1700 to 1900, mostly chosen by German-speaking men and extremely exclusionary.”
And, also, mostly really great!
sometimes, the ever recurring ancestory worship = canon in the field reminds me of certain sorts of politicians who roll out yet again the terror of Castro (despite him having been dead for a long time and not running things even longer) and Cuber and its commie terrorism, thinking Ha I got my opponent! while illustrating out of out of touch and out of ideas they are — yet, you know, voters do vote for these and these even often win. Even thought they’d be entirely stumped to give an answer of a single name as to who happens to be running the Cuban state now. ;)
The canon is only the SF you need to have read so that what you read now will make sense.
The problem is that these days there isn’t anything in that box. There is no core cultural literacy for reading SF novels.
Not really much of one for fandom either that is older than the last four years.
Another story by Campbell writing as “Don A. Stuart”: “Who Goes There?” is, in my opinion, the best sci-fi horror short story I’ve ever read. Maybe when he was writing as Stuart he wasn’t trying to maintain the “Campbell style” and was free to experiment and write good stories?
Oh, and as for the mystery story “canon”: I’ve read all those authors. Agatha Christie had the Suck Fairy move in as permanent roommate–I can’t unsee the vicious classism in her stories nowadays. Ellery Queen was always boring–the stories were always about the clever twist, and not the characters. Characters are what drive a story for me since I’ve gotten older.
Writers who’ve stuck with me over the years: J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, Leigh Brackett. H. P. Lovecraft and his wordcraft and his fascinating bundle of issues that are all over his stories. Louis L’Amour and Edgar Rice Burroughs as writers who were also epic storytellers. Andre Norton who I grew up reading. Perhaps some of the newer writers will stick with me like those have.
I read what I like but I’m also a completionist. That’s how I lost a decade of my life to catching up on all the Star Wars literature I missed. I finally quit after reading Legacy of the Jedi. Now I just read the ones I am interested in.
One author I discovered more recently (whenever the John Carter film came out) is Edgar Rice Burroughs. I was consumed by Barsoom. What an incredible imagination. Oh and I’m still waiting for my Woola plushie!
There are a lot of books on my virtual TBR pile. And then someone has a release day and boom! I’m sucked in.
Shakespeare is canon. Everyone/everything else is merely a passing fad.
Slightly less snide: “Canon” does not get Established by three to five cis white male gatekeeper-editors for the entire literature of the imagination. Sticking just to the twentieth century and in alphabetical order, these editors did not lovingly (or, if it makes you feel safer, curmudgeonly) discover or foster the careers of Atwood, Ellison, Garcia-Marquez, Grass, Huxley, Le Guin, Lem, Mann, Orwell, Rushdie, Tolkein, Wells, or Zamiatin. (I could easily name a hundred or so; do not get a refugee from the professorial track in literature started on these things…) Indeed, those three to five cis white male gatekeeper-editors actively harmed/suppressed the speculative fiction writing careers of several on that list. Nor does a collection of forty or fifty white male engineers without even undergraduate-level literary backgrounds — most employed in or associated with the defense industry and subject to horrific political-correctness screens to maintain their day jobs (n.b. “political correctness” in this country got its start as a reactionary movement, in the 1920s) — get to do so for books. Except maybe the canon of slide-rule manuals.
I did say “slightly.”
SF does not need a happy-go-lucky attitude and bright Disney colours to be inspiring.
Speaking for myself, I grew up on 1980s cyberpunk. It was “dystopian”, but full of bioengineers and computer hackers, solving problems by their wits and technological know-how. Now I have degrees in artificial intelligence and computational biology, and work on bioinformatics for cancer research. So as far as I’m concerned the inspiration pipeline is working just fine.
Anyway, there was plenty of gloom and dystopia in the old days (HG Wells’ The Time Machine, 1984, Brave New World, uncounted post-apocalypse stories, etc etc) and there’s plenty of can-do spirit now. I’d argue works like The Hunger Games are actually hopeful, because they carry the message that tyrants can be beaten and we can build a better world. Liu Cixin, Mary Robinette Kowal, and many others have heroic scientists and engineers.
What modern SF does not have is the naive faith of some (by no means all) Golden Age SF that technology was awesome and had no downsides. In a world wracked by global warming and surveilled by giant internet corporations, that faith is impossible to sustain. But it was only ever an illusion in the first place.
A canon is just what’s considered to be important and representative of a genre, and it isn’t meant to be taken as a recommended reading list. Works by H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and even Arthur Conan Doyle can be considered canon for 19th century science fiction for example. Whether or not the works have aged well isn’t the reason it’s canonical, because they aren’t being judged just by the popular tastes of the present. Given Robert A. Heinlein’s enormous influence on SF, some of his works are obviously canon to the genre. Ditto for Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and others. To have a deeper understanding of the genre and its history, these are authors who have works worth reading. There’s no requirement to be a scholar of SF though, so read whatever you like.
I mean… it’s certainly possible to consider oneself a “great lover of English Literature” while having not read any Shakespeare because it’s “not relevant”… but the concept does rather make me scratch my head and think “huh… curious…”, no, wait… “huh… not very curious”.
There isn’t a canon that anyone has the power to enforce on other people. No one can stop you or punish you for reading Jemisin instead of Heinlein. There is no proficiency test in Golden Age scifi that anyone has to pass in order to attend the World Con. But there is a large population of older fans who still like talking about the Golden Age authors and who orient their opinions about scifi using the Golden Age lit as their sign posts. I think that some of The Kids (people under 50) just feel oppressed by listening to us yammer on about it for all these years, especially when we’re still being selected to be presenters of Hugos and such. I think maybe they just need a clubhouse of their own. Or we do. One of those two.
On a tangent now, one of my all-time favorite performances is Richard Thompson’s show “1000 Years of Popular Music”, which literally is EXACTLY that. Thompson remarked that he wanted to give some old songs another chance to be heard because in popular music it’s always about the present and some of those old songs have good things about them that have been long forgotten. It’s a wonderful learning experience to hear what once was a popular song, although as Thompson quips, there’s only so much an audience can take of Saint Godric, who by the way was never canonized… ;-)
“What they grew up with was sufficient for what they needed — to be entertained when they became readers and fans, and to be inspired if they became creators and writers” – THIS.
I admit to the Asimovian robotics stories being part of my SF introduction. But honestly… they were what they were, and even back in the day I quickly grew “past” them Admittedly my reading was eclectic and often trilingual – I read novels in my mother tongue, in English, and then in French – and I didn’t grow up with a prescribed path to follow. I read EVERYTHING. In other words, every thing was sort of “canon” to me. The fact that I then gravitated more towards the specifc side of my reading mountain is kind of neither here nor there. A lot of steps led me up that hill. Not all of them AT ALL were “golden age SF canon”. I have to admit that I bounced off Heinlein rather hard the first time I picked him up so you might say I climbed AROUND that cannon.
Does it occur to anyone blindly defending the golden age “canon” as the ultimate foundational reading matter (without which, what, we aren’t science fiction fans?) is rapidly disappearing into history – and that in twenty years the then-current crop of readers and writers will be talking about quite a different “canon” altogether? History moves on. It’s ok to memorialise it, IMHO, but that doesn’t mean that you have to canonize, so to speak, it. Not everyone who happened to be famous in the 50s was a SF saint.
Technically, I believe the Science Fiction Conan is:
“To vaporize your enemies, see them driven before you through hyperspace, and hear the delamination of the Phylloids.”
As a kid, it was what was in the library, which was more often ‘classics’ than recent SF. And now, the type on my old mass-market paperbacks is too small to read at all!
I’m 61, closer to the “canon” than you. It was a lot of my entry to the genre, though not all. I’ve gone back and re-read some of it, and some others read for the first time. Some of it, I thump myself in the head for ever having liked that. It was from a time when the only other thing I actually read was straight up science, so literary qualities were not a big deal. I’ve read a great deal more widely, across history, and I now find that lack irritating. Frankly, everything Heinlein wrote from Time Enough for Love on is embarrassing. SF mad a major advance stylistically in the late 60’s through the 70’s which a lot of the “canon” was not able to follow.
I’ve also found that some of it lives in a distant culture, one that I once lived in but no longer do. So right now I’m finishing up Edgar Pangborn’s A Mirror for Observers. Never read it before. It is well written but reads very differently now than it did in the 1950’s. What was then a story of a lovable old Martian befriending two precocious children now has the inescapable air of a creepy old pedophile.
The Canon belongs to you and it is what you make it, not what someone with more arrogance than brains wants to force you to accept. My brother read every Perry Rhodan book ever written. That’s his canon. It definitely does not and cannot include Samuel Delaney but mine does.
Read what you like, don’t read what you don’t like, and stop worrying if people think you’re wrong. What do you care what other people think?
A great many English departments (and I speak as a member of one) are highly anti-canonical these days not only for ideological reasons but for practical ones: even if you stuck to the Deadest, Whitest, Male-est authors in the canon, you could only cover a fraction of those writers in the typical survey course (where the canon sausage gets made). So the smart money shifts to figuring out what story about literature you want to tell and then selecting texts that let you tell this story.
I’ve never taught my fantasy literature course to a strict canon. Sometimes I do pairs of contrasting authors (Wizard of Earthsea vs. Railsea, Hobbit vs. Hero and the Crown, King of Elfland’s Daughter vs. Winter Rose), sometimes I do a limited survey (Prisoner of Azkaban through Alif the Unseen for contemporary fantasy). But even when I’ve done a straight-up survey of Dunsany to the present day I’ll try to make off-beat choices (Le Guin’s Voices instead of any of the Earthsea books). And I always try to fit Pratchett in somewhere since comedy is one of the most dismissed subgenres.
I do think there’s a stricter canon of SF in academia, largely because it’s the more acceptable of the two modes to mainstream tastes. I have seen far too many university SF classes that focus on works by Wells, Orwell, Huxley, Le Guin, and Atwood (I once browbeat a colleague into doing Kate Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang instead of Oryx & Crake). And of course, this academic SF canon bears minimal resemblance to the fan canon under discussion in this comments thread.
This discussion has been a delight for me. I’ve just spent well over $150 on ebooks for things I’ve never heard of and things I read when I was 8 (I’m 70), and downloaded a lot more that are free. I will get to them; I’m a fast reader, and having hundreds of books on my phone is a blessing.
As for canon, I agree that the idea is useful for academics, as a starting point (but for academics, anything is just a starting point). I remember that when I was in 9th grade, Great Expectations was the assigned “classic” text. I told everyone who didn’t move away too fast to hear me that it was a WONDERFUL book (I’d “inherited” a set of Dickens when I was 9). Couldn’t convince any of them. Got a very good grade; the comment from the teacher began with, “Obviously, you have read this book”, which made me really sad. And I only liked about 50% of Dickens.
I’ve read SF/Fantasy since around 1957. Loved a lot as a child, and sometimes go back; since 1964 or so my most common reaction has been along the lines of: “Oh, crap that’s racist”, “Oh, crap that’s fascist:, or “Oh crap, that’s sexist.”
A lot of the Golden Age was just GARBAGE! Badly written, poorly plotted. And yet, I still like some of it. I will always have a soft spot in my brain, immune from literary analysis, for Jack Vance’s Demon Princes series (not actually “Golden Age,” but you get me).
Remember Sturgeon’s Law: “90% of everything is crap.” Including Sturgeon!
So, Canon for ordinary readers? Irrelevant! (though I have great sympathy with the earlier post about Beowulf, etc.)
I just have such gratitude to the new writers in the field (and in other genres that I read) for bringing me into a new, fresh future.
And to John, because without The Big Idea I would have missed authors I really love (Kat Howard, N.K Jemison among them).
The word canon means which of the following:
A. A list of seminal cultural works, indispensible to discussion of the genre in which they appear;
B. An event, relationship, occurrence, etc. in a fictional universe, accepted as true by that universe’s fandom;
C. [As cannon] A phallus-shaped device for hurling projectiles at high velocity (thanks strangefriend);
D. [As cañon] A geographical feature created by water erosion, convenient for disposal of cultural artifacts that have lost any appeal they once held (thanks fancycwabs).
I may be an old fuddy duddy myself, but age isn’t the only thing that comes into it. The science fiction stories I loved best were the ones in the back of the reader that we weren’t assigned to learn in class. “Flowers for Algernon,” for example. Also the library books I found while browsing the stacks on my own. I adored Heinlein’s “The Menace From Earth,” That was before I found out (on later reading) that once Holly Jones became Holly Hardesty, good ol’ Jeff would expect her to drop the engineering gig quick-smart and become a baby factory. Yeah nah.
I persevered through Asimov, Clark & Herbert. It puzzled me a bit that, for all the Mentat and Bene Gesserit mind discipline, the Dune characters had just as many dumb-headed misunderstandings and moments of stupidity as anybody I knew in real life.
I have fond memories of Zenna Henderson’s The People, Andre Norton, George O Smith’s Venus Equilateral stories (women, though “just secretaries,” were good funny characters), the Telzey Amberdon stories, Pauline Ashwell’s Lizzie Lee stories, and _A Wrinkle in Time_. Later on were books I came upon myself or had recommended by friends: FM Busby’s Rissa Kerguelen tales, Sally Miller Gearhart, Marge Piercy’s _Woman on the Edge of Time_, “Depressing” Lessing, Le Guin, McCaffrey, Zimmer Bradley, Tiptree, Tepper, Russ, Willis, Atwood and no doubt others I enjoyed at the time but don’t recall offhand any more.
I’ve given up trying to stay current. As well as the women I follow, I do read male authors occasionally. Varley’s Eight Worlds stories are good fun. Scalzi, of course. Miéville. Just about anything by Kim Stanley Robinson. Ditto William Gibson. Stephenson and Doctorow, yes and yes….
Any given canon reveals, on examination, everything you need to know about the one(s) who compiled it.
Everything in moderation. A canon is good, but a slavish devotion to defining canon shifts quite easily into cultural embalming.
I find that sucks the juice and the fun out of everything. So no embalming for me.
A bit of a surprising opinion from a guy whose breakout novel was a more-or-less direct response to Starship Troopers and The Forever War.
Yermakov, Strugatsky and Lem. It just struck me that the only German classic SF writers I know were writing in English (like Ley), while there are several Eastern European authors whose translations entered the ‘canon’ at least tangentially.
I guess there’s a joke somewhere in there about calibers, but I do wonder about that.
I am a Hungarian in my twenties, mostly reading recent SFF but with a soft spot for some classical Asimov and Bradbury. And when Americans talk about canon or classics, I can’t help but notice, they mostly mean American canon, or at least English-language canon. Not because they are exclusionary or anything, it makes sense that for them, English-language books come first, and anything else is an interesting curiosity. But I think it’s important to note the predominance of anglophone/American fiction at, say, the Hugos, which are supposed to be the *World* Science Fiction Society’s awards.
What I’m trying to say is, I don’t mind it when Americans create a list of American classics, I don’t even mind it when they call it canon. I am disconcerted that they don’t notice they wrote American canon, and that other classics exist. Many commenters above talked about how SFF changed over eras and generations, and how different people have different entry points into. But SFF changes not only over time, but also over space. Some commenters mentioned Lem and Strugatsky as good classic sci-fi that hasn’t achieved canon status – because you all read it in translation. There are a lot of people whose entry into sci-fi was Eastern European Sci-fi, because they *are* Eastern European. There is a wealth of Eastern Block classics that never made it over into the US mainstream, but here, movies like Solaris and Stalker (both directed by Tarkovsky), or Lem and Strugatsky short stories are much likelier entry point than say, Heinlein. My dad got into sci-fi via the German show Space Patrol Orion, long before he ever saw Star Trek. Not to mention the further generations, I mean Sapkowsky was a big deal in Poland for like a decade before it got picked up by the US, Lukyanenko is a huge deal here and a much smaller deal in the US, etc. For me personally, German YA fantasy like Michael Ende and then Cornelia Funke were the entry points – again, much more relevant here in Hungary than in the anglosphere. And like half my middle school class obsessively read Goldman Júlia, virtually unknown outside Hungary.
Anyway, long story short: a canon made by English-speakers will automatically be an English-speaking canon, and that’s ok. But if you want to make sure you don’t miss shelves full of cool stuff, read more books in translation.
Hope Griffin Diaz – I made a similar, maybe not quite as extreme, decision a few years back to read or reread every adult novel set after ROTJ, in order (with as many of the kids books, short stories and comics as I could easily lay my hands on too). I managed it but it took an entire year and I sometimes had to force myself to continue! (I got to the end literally as Disney announced that they were ending the EU and switching to a new canon, so the last book I read turned out to be THE last book – annoyingly as I had been looking forward to some that got cancelled.) It was an interesting project but not one I’m likely to ever repeat.
Generally speaking it’s pretty rare for me to reread long series, the time commitment is too much!
Fine post with many thoughtful comments, of which my favorite is “read what you want; love what you read”. I try to! Thanks.
Thanks Pappenheimer and Ilona for the reminder that there are F&SF creatives at work in many countries and languages all over the world. I mainly go for dead-tree English-language books, being old-fashioned and unilingual like that. Our much-loved genre also comes in a wide variety of formats – manga/bandes dessinés/comics, anime, live-action movies, games, movies based on games & vice-versa – and we do ourselves a disservice by forgetting that.
THANK YOU FOR SHARING THIS POST!!! My response to the Hugo Awards, Tom Shippey’s comments about “adult fantasy” from “The Wall Street Journal,” will be posted later today. I’ll be sharing a link to this page from my article because I believe it will help embellish the points I’m trying to make about the genre!
Wow, great discussion here.
This puts me in mind of a cautionary tale Neil Gaiman once related on his blog. His daughter was devouring the R.L. Stine “Goosebumps” series; with all the best intentions, Gaiman said, if you like scary stories, here, read a REAL horror novel … and put “Carrie” by Stephen King in her hands. She was apparently so traumatized by the book she never again read the genre.
As an English professor, I love it when these kind of arguments break out–for all the nerdy academic reasons you might imagine, it’s kind of fascinating to see how people’s understanding of “canon” informs their arguments, and the reasons why there’s always a very vocal, usually smallish, contingent of people who defend the canon with the kind of religious fervor the word suggests. When I started grad school in the mid-90s, these same arguments were being had, quite passionately, about the “Western Canon” between traditionalists and the “postmodern neo-Marxists” (and don’t get me started on everything wrong about THAT designation) that asshats like Jordan Peterson claim are destroying university curricula.
Well, TL;DR, we won. The “Western Canon” persists only insofar as everyone more or less agrees that Shakespeare’s pretty dope, and also that historical context is important to an English degree (which means that the further you go back in time the fewer women and POC found their way into print, so anything prior to the 20C is pretty white and predominantly male). I have two colleagues who regularly teach classes on comics and graphic novels, we’ve integrated film and media studies into our department, and I have myself taken the helm of our SF/F offerings–now twice having taught a class on The Lord of the Rings, the second-year SF/F survey, and two graduate seminars on contemporary fantasy; this fall I’m teaching a class on pandemic fiction, and a grad class in the winter of 21st-century post-apocalypse (really leaning into the spirit of 2020).
And a few years ago I taught a fourth-year seminar I called “Revenge of the Genres,” in which we did a selection of genre authors who had attained “literary” status (Neil Gaiman, Alison Bechdel), “literary” authors writing “genre” fiction (Colson Whitehead, “Zone One”), “literary” texts steeped in genre (“The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”), and “Hamilton.” Just ’cause.
I love my job. I suppose that goes without saying, but I really do.
“Cannons to the left of them, cannons to the right…”
To hell with all of that; just write. Right? Right!
Ironically, I hadn’t read The Forever War when I wrote Old Man’s War; I rather famously wrote about that fact in an introduction to a recent edition of TFW. So to call OMW a direct response to that book is a) incorrect; b) indicative of the (incorrect) assumption that writers in the genre have had to go down a canonical list of books with similar themes before writing their own books; c) and thereby are assumed to be a “response” to those books.
(It’s also not a response to Starship Troopers, if by that you mean that my book is meant to be direct commentary/criticism of that book. Certainly the book is an influence — I am open about that and feel no shame whatsoever in noting that the structure of the book is explicitly modeled off of Starship Troopers. I would better characterize it as being in conversation with that book, as it is with the movie version of that story, and with Half-Life and some other video games I was playing at the time.)
Also, I’m not sure why it’s an surprising opinion. Eschewing a “canon” does not mean certain books and authors cannot be important and influential to a writer, as Heinlein clearly is to me. One can assert the importance of a writer/work for one’s self, and have an idea of the impact they have had on a field, without needing to assert that writer/work has to be equally important to all, or requiring that everyone else agree with the ramifications of their impact.
@Matt Bruensteiner: And yet, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the Old Man’s War series (just finished Zoe’s Tale) without ever having previously read ST or TFW.
Thomas McCartney, “Yes reading a maxwell grant shadow book has more than a little stereotyping of asians and blacks but the stories are still fun.”
I wonder if they are still fun if the person reading them IS asian or black? And should that make a difference to others who do like them? I honestly don’t know the answer to that question.
Thanks a bunch for writing about this, because I desperately needed to read it and didn’t even realize it. I’m so worn out about my job I’ve actually quit it in order to find what I really want and get back into writing, which was about the only thing that made me happy (other than reading everything I could, of course). I’m not officially out from under their thumb yet, so I’ve been using the time to try and flex my muscles and get back into storytelling and ideas.
And one of the things that confused or irritated me in turns the most was not knowing or understanding how close you had to stick with a format or genre to have your work considered as part of it. I think I’ve read some of “the canon” to get a general idea what was considered ground-breaking or original, but I have many I still haven’t touched yet. There’s just so much out there to read.
Now I’m tempted to go read about the Hugo awards and what happened. I love what you said about the snobbery around “the canon.” Other genres seem to have shaken it off for the most part, it seems, but SciFi seems to keep clinging to its structure. I just find that funny since SciFi’s been about breaking barriers and seeking out new possibilities. Weird.
“A lot of the Golden Age was just GARBAGE! Badly written, poorly plotted.”
Bingo. Great stories, unforgettable characters and deep themes… for a reader in their early teens.
“it’s certainly possible to consider oneself a “great lover of English Literature” while having not read any Shakespeare because it’s “not relevant””
Not really equivalent. Shakespeare coined new words, modified old stories to make them accessible to a broad audience, and captured for posterity the human condition in the period he lived in. He’s relevant to the development of English literature, even if most of his work is derivative (where not plagiarized outright), overwritten and riddled with cliches. It has intrinsic value, even if from a purely academic perspective.
The “SF canon”, on the other hand, largely consists of forgettable pulp action stories which were already irrelevant 30-40 years after they were written. They don’t have any value as a time capsule either. There’s plenty of other material from the period to peruse. One loses absolutely nothing by skipping SF canon entirely and going directly to more modern works.
“A bit of a surprising opinion from a guy whose breakout novel was a more-or-less direct response to Starship Troopers and The Forever War.”
I haven’t read TFW, but the connection between OMW and Starship Troopers, alluded to by many, has always gone over my head. Other than they both have… scenes set on spaceships?
i really doubt you could fill a library with SF canon stuff you have not read.
I think you might be able to fill a couple of shelves with the foreign language SF canon stuff you have not read (ah, that means non-English).
Hat’s off to Ilona for saying the same things better, and to kurtbusiek for his really wicked witticism.
Given that Robert Heinlein’s corpus of work has been mentioned many times in the above comments, I wonder whether the 46-volume Virginia Edition of his works – produced with substantial effort, completed in 2012, and available at considerable expense (although often discounted in recent years) – would have been a failure even if the 2008 recession hadn’t occurred and even if its publisher the Heinlein Prize Trust hadn’t made a long series of bad decisions even before 2008. That is, even if everything had gone right in terms of production and marketing, the economy, etc., I believe sales would have been poor anyway, simply because the Prize Trust wrongly assumed that SF readers considered Heinlein so canonical that it would have been able to sell all 2000 sets of leather-bound hardcovers, and hence fund future Heinlein Prizes. (I’m reasonably sure that fewer than 1000 have been sold; if anyone has contrary info, please say so.)
One of the things I appreciated about reading for the 1941 Retro Hugos in 2016 was getting to reread and appreciate 1940 Heinlein in the context of a bunch of other stuff being published at the same time. So many of the other finalists had a “pulpy” feel to them in ways that the Heinlein didn’t. He really was a breath of fresh air back then, and it’s not surprising to me that he made such a mark on the field.
It can be annoying to a writer who does a fellow split into two emotionally different persons, and then is accused of ripping off the early Star Trek episode. Such accusers are unlikely to even know the episode was written by respected novelist Richard Matheson, let alone know enough canon to know that the idea comes from RLS in his strange case of Doctor J. and Mr. Hyde.
I understand JMS had to put up with lots of such ignorant accusations, by folks who didn’t read beyond Star Trek, during his run of Babylon-5.
Far upthread someone thought Heinlein believed in standards for the right to vote. Maybe yes as an eccentric (artsy) pet peeve based on various time/space locations, but definitely no for the practical present day. As documented in his nonfiction Expanded Universe collection, it was best for America to use “any warm body” (of age) as a criterion due to racists using standards to deny civil rights.
IMO, if America becomes non racist then there will still be no need for voting standards, as citizenship today is not nearly as demanding as grandfather imagined it was, and might be even easier in the future.
As for (nonHeinlein) earlier writers not featuring many women, the reasons would include (but not be limited to) that the writers were nerds, writing what they knew.
I think P.K. Dick tried to show marriages and interesting women characters, and I know he had the first person of colour spaceship captain. (mostly off stage, I forget which book)
Since I don’t read enough, I can’t comment on any suck fairy for my childhood stuff, but I expect sf writer Theodore Sturgeon’s law would apply.
As for childhood, I loved the 19th century War of the Worlds so much that when I grew up and first flew to Britain (alone) I went straight from the airport to the town where the first cylinder landed, walked to the sandpit, drank in the Well themed bar, and later in London I walked where the narrator walked, right to the highest part of London, Prim Rose Hill. (Half expecting to see a derelict fighting machine with crows)
@Scalzi, maybe you have a different definition of canon than I do. You’re using it as a shorthand for “required reading” and I’m just thinking of it as “important works in the genre”. Since you wrote the blog, you’re free to define your terms as you like.
I didn’t intend it negatively to say OMW was a response to Starship Troopers. Forever War was a response to Starship Troopers and also a fantastic novel that has entered the canon (if there is such a thing) itself. When you say OMW is “in conversation” with ST, that’s exactly what I mean by being a response. It might even lead the conversation to somewhere new, just like FW did. But it’s still making its statement in the context of what was said earlier in ST, and as a reader if you read both OMW and ST you’ll get a better understanding of both works.
I agree that nobody’s required to read the whole of the canon.
But if you’re going to write about ecology and politics on a desert planet or the dangers of religious fanaticism, you really ought to read Dune first.
Or if you’re going to write about a clone society on post-apocalyptic Earth, you really should read Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang first.
If nothing else, to make sure you don’t inadvertently write something repetitive. In the worst case scenario, to avoid looking like Margaret Atwood claiming to be a fully original voice writing from outside genre while making points that someone else very well known made within the genre decades ago.
They both are about the lives of soldiers.
They both comment on the responsibility of soldiers to the society they fight for and vice versa.
They both comment on how soldiers are taught to dehumanize the enemy (or rather, ST fails to comment on this and later works that respond to it like TFW, OMW and Ender’s Game point this out)
They both comment on how much soldiers can trust their command structure.
@Larsaf, and many people have read Starship Troopers without reading OMW and enjoyed that. But if you read both, you will, I promise, get a better understanding of both Starship Troopers and Old Man’s War.
“They both are about the lives of soldiers.”
Right… but the exact same things could be said about any number of other novels, both within and outside SF. These are extremely common, well-trod themes.
“But if you read both, you will, I promise, get a better understanding of both Starship Troopers and Old Man’s War.”
They are fun space romps with witty dialogue, and enjoyable to read. I don’t see that there’s any deeper understanding to be gleaned from further perusal. But to each their own.
My wife and I had a conversation about “canon” in regards to the Lord of the Rings movies vs book. She asked me which dwarf canon was. I learnt my lesson.
Yeah, Farnum’s Freehold and The Day After Tomorrow tank right up there in the canon alongside Birth of a Nation and Mein Kampf. 🙄
And I actually like Heinlen. He and Asimov and Clarke were distinctive in the sense that they included actual physics and math, as well as what was known or believed about nature, astronomy, and science in general.
They put the science in science fiction. But most of the rest of “the canon” barely paid lip service. And even for the genuine science writers most of the futures they proposed are now as quaint as Mary Shelly’s or Burroughs or Jules Verne
Tell you what. If any of the guys (it’s mostly guys) who brass on about “the canon” are willing to include Alice (Andre) Norton I’ll consider reassessing them as members of the old boys club. I loved her books as a kid in the early-mid 1960’s. Almost never hear her mentioned today. Likely because she too has “aged out” of relevance.
My daughter is now in her early 20’s. She’s been dutifully reading quite a bit of “the canon” lately. I when she’s in the middle of a “classic” because she texts me to say things like “So does *every* woman Louis Wu meets want to fall into bed with him?”
I’ve suggested she not read anything Heinlein wrote after 1969.
Born in 1968, I grew up loving the work of Asimov and Heinlein, then still popular because they, unlike most of their pulp peers, kept writing and growing, into advanced age. Their early peers, such as Kornbluth, Moore, Piper, not so much. When I did eventually read those lesser lights, eh, they hit some good licks from time to time (“The Marching Morons” remains a great story), but the language was archaic, most were kinda crap writers, and my, how they labored to establish a simple concept. Except that when they were writing those cliches for the first time, the concepts weren’t simple. The audience needed to have things explained.
And that’s what those authors, the great ones and the hacks, did for the field: they created ideas, situations, themes, that became part of the culture, on which later authors could build. Each generation’s subsumption into background noise feels sad. Heck, I’m sad that my kids feel exactly the same way about Asimov, Heinlein, and even about writers who were fresh new faces when I grew up–LeGuin, Niven, Zelazny. I am aghast to find out that even Tolkien and Conan Doyle are barely approachable to bright young people today. I wish my kids could love them. I want to have fannish squee conversations with my kids about the books I love.
But it’s just not going to happen, and that’s alright. Do I really imagine my kids won’t find an author who makes them think and feel as much as ‘my’ authors did for me? Which is what matters.
My strong guess, based on memoirs and interviews I’ve read, is that all (ok, most) of my beloved writers would much rather have inspired and created building blocks for great new authors–which they did–than be read in perpetuity themselves. Can you picture who horrified Asimov, say, or LeGuin would have been, if some prophet had told them that nobody would ever improve on what they began? They loved being part of a living, advancing field of literature. A genre literally about advancing into the future. And if advancing, then of course the older parts will become outmoded, and if outmoded, then of course forgotten.
The best honor we can do the ‘canon’ is to embrace its successors.
My only real addition to this already dense discussion, is that for a genre that likes to see itself as offering visions of the future and challenging the status quo, a lot of its most vocal gatekeepers are really obsessed with romanticizing its past. Like maybe if “the canon” was regularly discussed by acknowledging its limitations and shortcomings instead of literally revering the authors as secular saints it wouldn’t be so biting.
And it’s doubly perplexing because at least in other genres, authors were mostly writing about their times or the recent past and can usually be understood as products of and commentators on their time and place. But SF authors are usually building visions of future societies, and when the present renders their vision obsolete, it’s harder to make the case for their relevance, especially when a more recent work is exploring similar core ideas but with more up to date framing and style.
I once argued with someone who thought The Expanse series was derivative of 70s and 80s space opera, and I retorted that maybe it was, but with craft and values more in line with 2010s society, not the assumptions of late 20th century US culture (e.g. geo- (or exo-) politics built around the assumption of bi-polar Cold War-esque alliances, heteronormative patriarchy, Euroamerican sociopolitical dominance, etc.). However good those older space opera stories are, they’re not going to be as relatable to someone born after 1990 as The Expanse is. Neuromancer might still be an enjoyable read, but a future where new bodies can be grown in vats but people still communicate through payphones is no longer a cutting edge vision of the future; it’s become a retrofuturistic story like Wells and Verne before did.
I’m not sure the discussion of canon at the moment is real a discussion of cannon at all. It seems to me that it’s much more about protecting and preserving a particular narrative about the evolution of modern science fiction that centres the work and the experience of the people who are promoting it and have a particular investment in it..
A whole section of my brain lit up when you wrote “Nora Ephron.” That makes so. much. sense.
The early “sf pulp ghetto” writing reminds me of how my local sf and f convention had a short story contest, where the five winners got to be publicly commented on by writer guests. It only took a few years before stories that would have won back in the day would no longer make it to the top five.
We may forget that the pulps were written at the same time as the slicks, that have also mostly vanished, and for the same reason: People can get their fiction stories from television… I remember when you could buy magazine sized pulpy mags of just song lyrics. (and stay up late singing) The mags vanished because of the screen: of not TV but of the World Wide Web.
If this thread is still active, I’d like to agree with those commenters who’ve posted about how SF and F have changed. I gave Zelazny’s Lord of Light to a friend half my age. He liked it, but then said, “Where are the other books in the series?” Also, it was too short.
If I’summoned Roger’s ghost and asked him for HIS opinion, he’d probably just chuckle over his ectoplasmic pipe and explain editors and their ways, but part of the reason I got into the “Canon” to begin with was to avoid the turgid rhino-stunners that infested the classics of my teen years. Tell your story and ha’ done.
One of the reasons stories got longer (witness the tomes of fantasy trilogies) was the invention of the word processor. I heard a rumour at a convention that some writers, paid by the word, got greedy.
Contrary to the weighty interpretation of “Canon” above, I’ve always understood it as “stuff that’s been around long enough for a lot of people to decide it’s good.”