Oh, Christ, Not the Science Fiction Canon Again
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.