The First SF & F Canons?


I wish. Despite there being plenty of recommended reading lists from organizations, authors, and fans, there has yet to be an actual SF & F Canon. This is of course from my understanding. Perhaps someone has written their own canon, but from what I can tell and from what I know there is no official canon of SF & F works.
Well, I wonder if this is because people don’t care or because nobody has taken the time to make their ideas reality. I cannot no more say that I am qualified to create a legitimate canon, but I certainly know that I can be objective enough to be involved in deciding what novels make it into such a list. There are plenty of novels I have read that were fantastic, but I know do not deserve to be in a literary canon because they are not, generally speaking, a work of literary merit, or at least not necessarily a work that will greatly influence the genre. There’s nothing wrong with such books at all. You can read a book that you really enjoy and it is still literature, but you can see immediately that such a book just isn’t a book you would put on a list with some of the greatest works in the field. The same thing happens with regular and literary fiction too of course.
So, I was thinking hard on this subject while trying to find some sort of personal canon that someone had put up. Alas, I could find none. There were a few discussions on the subject, but it seems as if no real list has been made, or at least no list that could be considered to represent a significant portion of speculative literature. Why has an organization like SFWA not set out to make an official list? Certainly they have the authority, or at least seem to have the authority to do such a thing, and with an enormous list of members–all published authors–they should easily be able to get input. But from what I can tell they haven’t worked on creating a canon. Maybe they don’t see a point in it.

Well, I do! We need a legit canon–desperately. I propose creating one, but there have to be specific guidelines to how books are selected. Perhaps this will all flop, but there is a desperate need for a collaborative effort to create a literary canon of science fiction and fantasy. The guidelines might be as follows:

  1. Popularity
    This is not what it sounds like. No books should be chosen purely on the fact that everyone out there bought it, read it, and loved. At the same time, though, the book has to have had a mark on the public to even be recognized and have influence. A book that is read by five people has just about no influence on the genre. But popularity should be taken with a grain of salt. There are plenty of books that are popular, but are at the same rather lax in literary merit (perhaps the Da Vinci Code would be an example).
  2. Longevity
    The novel or even novella, since we should not exclude works that today would not be considered novels, should have stood the test of time. It has to have had a lasting influence.
  3. Critical Success
    It has to be recognized in some way for its importance. This could mean it has won awards or simply has been analyzed or referenced. There may be many novels, particularly older novels, that would not have won awards but still have influence.
  4. Influence
    Pretty obvious since I’ve mentioned it already. It has to influence other writing. That influence has to be genre defining, powerful. Not simply that it made people buy books in that genre, but that it actually changed the direction of SF & F literature in some way.

Perhaps there is need for more criteria, but perhaps those four are good enough. In any case, i think it’s time to begin paving a way towards a literary canon for science fiction and fantasy.

So, who’s with me? Leave a comment! Add new criteria, edit my criteria and explain why, and let’s get this thing started!

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

10 thoughts on “The First SF & F Canons?

  1. LOTR, obviously, should be in the list. It matches all your criteria, without a doubt.

    Harry Potter, I’m not sure about. It’s great in a lot of ways, and definitely is popular and has influenced authors, but it’s poor in other aspects – such as the fact that there’s no history regarding magic which does not relate directly to the events in HP. Like where magic comes from, etc. There are also several inconsistencies.

    Same goes for Narnia. Good in many aspects, poor in others.

    I haven’t really read any sci-fi/fantasy books that weren’t made in the last 10 years, so I can’t really suggest any books that have stood the test of time. Harry Potter and Artemis Fowl are good, but fairly new. They might be forgotten in time, they might now.

    This is going to be hard. 🙂

  2. That’s just it. Books like Harry Potter, while clearly popular and certainly influential right now, are not applicable to a canon. It’s just too soon. In 15 years after all the movies have come out on DVD and the encyclopedia that Rowling is making has run its course, it might be a consideration depending on where things are going. The thing about Harry Potter that sets it aside from a lot of other YA fiction is that it is just as applicable to adults, and in a lot of ways feels as though it is written for adults. It’s not a book for young kids, even though it is marketed for that 10-16 age range. It’s sort of a book for everyone.

    And you sir need to read the foundations of your genre. Read a lot of the old classic YA stuff–L’engle, Alexander, etc.–and read beyond Tolkien. Read Brooks–dare I say it–Eddings, etc.

    There are a lot of ‘classics’ I haven’t read in SF that I know would be considered in a canon. Dune by Frank Herbert is a shoe-in.

    As for books I have read that I know belong in a canon: Neuromancer by William Gibson, 1984 by George Orwell, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, maybe even Foundation by Isaac Asimov.

    I think the thing with SF is that there can’t be a canon just for books, there has to be one for short stories since some of the greatest stories in that genre are short stories.

    There’s a lot to think about on this, which is why I was hoping to get a bunch of people who are readers of the genre to put in considerations and discuss the idea.

  3. I’ll jump in, even though I’ve been simply lurking for a while.

    I look for great books that changed the direction of the genre, or spun a branch of literature lasting years and/or inspiring dozens of other books. Neuromancer was one of the first books to pioneer cyberpunk.

    Frankenstein started it all, so it needs to be included. The Man in the High Castle was instrumental in the alternate history genre. Dune really broke ground in world building (of course, then Herbert and his son couldn’t let it end so it went on and on and on and on – someone should have put a fork in that series).

    I’d put Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series there just for it’s impressive scope and his complete blueprint for the possible – terraforming a world. It might not have met the criteria for length of time, but it’s going to make it.

    I like your mention of L’Engle. A Wrinkle in Time pioneered dimensional theories of Science in children’s literature.

    So, for me the canon must include originality – and such originality that the book spawned successful imitators.

  4. Thanks for jumping in. And stop lurking! I like comments, especially when they add to the discussion.

    I regret to say that most of the books you mentioned I haven’t actually read. That actually worries me.

    I wonder though, if it would be possible to put together a group of people who are all readers of SF & F and try to collectively work on a literary canon. Would such a thing be possible and could such a canon be accepted?

    And yes, Dune has to be in there, and even Frakenstein (despite my not liking it) because it was pretty much the first science fiction novel ever written.

    And a new criteria certainly should be originality. That puts a big dent in the books eligible for fantasy though.

  5. Since so much fantasy sprouts from a single acorn – LOTR – it’s derivative. A few forge into new territory, but most just rely on the UFL (ubiquitous fantasy land) and standard stock of creatures with few additions. It’s brain candy and while there are books I love within the genre (George R. R. Martin’s Fire and Ice, Terry Brook’s original Shannara books for example) they just don’t meet the earth-shattering, moral-changing, thought-provoking criteria I’d set out for canon inclusion.

    I don’t know about the prospects for assembling a canon committee of readers. It’s possible, I suppose, especially in the ‘blogger’ era, but it’d have to be a movement. Unfortunately so many of us SF-F readers are also independent *and* socially challenged, which doesn’t make for good coalition chemistry. It’d certainly be worth some attention here in the blogosphere. It would have to be spear-headed by people with some name recognition like yourself in order to attract the participation necessary. I’d publicize it on my blog and while I write sf-f I’m as yet unpublished in the genre. I’m more successful as an essayist and memoir writer, albeit I came by that path reluctantly. My first love is Sci-Fi and I even wrote about the impact Madeleine L’Engle had on the eight-year old me here. As a result only a handful of my readers also read genre literature.

    I was thinking about the canon last night and found myself in a quandary about how many books to include. For instance, I had trouble narrowing Heinlein down to just two or three. How many Aasimov books do you include? What about Saberhagen?

    Then there’s Theodore Sturgeon who pioneered gender bending in the genre and paved the way for everyone from Ursula LeGuin on down. But Sturgeon’s best work was in short fiction, so that’s the second list you mentioned.

    Yeah, I read a lot. I’m blessed in that I created my own little contracting business and I get to free my mind while I work. Eight hours a day (give or take) of audiobooks gets me through a lot of reading these days.

  6. Yeah, I agree that fantasy will be incredibly difficult to do. You’d have to base a lot of the criteria more on influence than on originality, since much of fantasy, even Tolkien, isn’t really original at all. That would be something we’d have to make an exception on really. Perhaps fantasy criteria would place more importance on originality in the sense that ideas that have already been used are presented in a new light, or that the book at least is obviously influential in the genre.

    I would like to start such a movement. I think perhaps the socially challenged aspect of true science fiction readers (who read non-Star Wars/Star Trek/Shared World stuff) is rather different than the stereotype, at least on average. I certainly am welcome to interaction with other readers. So I would love to see this work some how. Perhaps we should campaign? Put something on our blogs looking for help on it? It would be interesting to get many people, including published and currently influential authors, in on the thing. We could hold votes, so the final list would be chosen by readers rather than by a committee. One thing that the western canon has a problem with is that it is chosen by a very narrow cast of people, and not chosen by the audience. Granted we couldn’t ask for input from millions of readers, but we could certainly ask for involvement.

    Well the literary canon, depending where you look, is usually around 100 books. So given that we should consider that science fiction and fantasy have no been around nearly as long as literary fiction. So perhaps a canon of 50 of the most influential books would be fine for science fiction, and perhaps 25-50 for fantasy. Short stories could easily be 50 as well. I think given the criteria, it wouldn’t matter if authors were in the list more than once. If the book is influential, then so be it.

  7. Well count me in for the canon. If you can organize something by December that’d work out really well for me (my busy season comes to an end around Thanksgiving and I have more time for other things, like writing and projects). I’ll use my blog for what it’s worth to attract some attention.

    Also, several years ago I started assembling a canon of Science Fiction short stories. I have a list of 100 and the text versions of 82 of them (although it’s a copyright violation to share some of them . . . something could be worked out, I’m sure).

    If you want the list in spreadsheet format I can email it to you.

  8. I think a lot of the shorts can be found on Infinity (a website with an amazing amount of shorts). And I do have a lot of anthologies of classic shorts too. Not to mention I have about 20 years worth of Analog Mag :). Do send me a list though.
    I think developing a canon would be a very long process though. But we should certainly start. There are a lot of books I haven’t read that will likely be considered. Maybe we need a banner or something to put on our pages to attract attention. We need a few people in on this.

  9. I agree that we need a few people in on it. Getting this on the SF Signal blog and perhaps getting a few well-known blogger/writer/readers to discuss it would go a long way toward it.

    Next time I talk to Lyda Morehouse, I’ll see if she’ll mention it on Wyrdsmiths blog.

    I sent you the list.

  10. I thought maybe they would have put me up on SF Signal for this one. They’ve been linking me recently, which I really appreciate, but I guess maybe it’s not a post of true interest. I do think I’m going to start a new post making a more official announcement which might turn out well.
    Do you think using my current blog for this would be okay? I thought of starting up a new blog specifically for developing a canon.
    And yes, I would like to get some actual names in the field to throw their heads into it. I’m not asking that they devote entirely, but maybe poke in and say “yeah I agree, no I don’t agree”.
    That would be great if you would mention this to Wyrdsmiths. This will be a long process. And I got your email with the stories. I’ll take a look hopefully this weekend.

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