The Science Fiction Canon: Function, Limits, and Problems

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I have spent a lot of my time in graduate school thinking about how to talk about literary canons and ways to disrupt them. The literature classes I teach always include works that have otherwise been excluded from the Western Canon in a deliberate attempt to draw into question how canons are formed and the limited scope they present to us as readers. It’s a tightrope game. On the one hand, survey courses have to teach students about crucial works of literature in an effort to provide some kind useful and repeatable literary knowledge base. On the other hand, simply repeating the canon is sort of like reading the headlines in a newspaper without ever looking at the article itself; sure, you’ll have a firm understanding of a literary tradition, but you’re missing out on a wide range of compelling material that could make for an even deeper reading of a field.

In the realm of science fiction, that can be a bit tricky. Because science fiction is already a small bubble of a much larger literary world, text selections are often arbitrary or based on vague notions of what appears to be the “common core” of the field (we’ll come back to this in a bit). Worse, science fiction “people” too often assume they know what the canon “is” and push that perspective on others as if it has weight — which it does due to the power of cultural suggestion. I’ve heard too many stories of someone in the science fiction community telling someone else that they have to read X and Y if they want to be considered “educated” about the field; ironically, you’ll hear the same ten names repeated in these claims, suggesting such individuals have a less comprehensive knowledge of the field than they assume. There are two false assumptions in these claims:

  1. That they speak using the authority of an existing literary canon.
  2. That the purpose of a canon is to provide a reading list one must consume to be considered “knowledgeable” about a field.

I’ll return to the first of these later. The second assumption is remarkably easy to debunk. Let’s use Western Canon as an example.1

If you were to attempt to read the entirety of the Western Canon, you’d likely be in your 50s before you finished. For one, the Western Canon is long. Really really long. There are hundreds of works on the list. By the logic of this second assumption, there are very few people alive today who are remotely knowledgeable about Western Literature. Indeed, I’d wager that even the most learned scholar has at most read half of the list. If the purpose of the canon is to measure one’s knowledge, then the Western Canon fails on the spot — instead of failing for other more significant reasons. These sorts of claims are gatekeeping measures to delegitimize the points of view of others.2 More importantly, they’re used against younger generations, who have frequently turned away from “classic literature” for all sorts of complicated reasons.3 When it comes to science fiction, I’m not at all convinced you must read Heinlein or Clarke to “understand” the genre anymore than you must read Hemingway or Faulkner to understand American literature. You could just as easily read a literary history to understand their legacies and save yourself the time.4 Even if you were to read Heinlein or Clarke, doing so while ignoring L’Engle, Norton, and/or Moore would be akin to reading about the Second World War and ignoring the Pacific Theater.

Much of this comes down to a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of a literary canon. In the science fiction community, “canon” seems to fall under the category of “works I like” or “works I think are important.” Literary canons, however, are more complicated lists that shouldn’t rely so heavily on personal whims or desires. In fact, I’d argue that literary canons are the result of intense conversations between multiple sub-communities about literature. In common practice, literary canons are sort of like curated reading lists that indicate to an everyday reader which works are important. They are separated from general reading lists by institutional backing (loosely defined), whether in the form of the academy, organizations, and/or critics (or, possibly, some other body of individuals). Unsurprisingly, literary canons are enormously controversial because they are by definition exclusionary. Indeed, they must be to serve any kind of practical function.

As an academic, I view canons as largely educational tools. They help educators to provide a framework for understanding the development of a literary tradition through representative works, a process that necessitates a few key functions:

  1. The works in the canon should reflect influence rather than simple publication numbers.
  2. The works in a canon should reflect substantial contributions to the field.
  3. The works in the canon should reflect the continued development of a field, not simply the repetition of forms without variation.

Note that none of these functions includes “literary merit,” which I consider to be a far too subjective and altogether useless distinction. It’s also a distinction that, frankly, doesn’t adequately account for the development of a literary form, especially in genre. First, even if we could offer a concrete definition of “literary merit,” you’d be hard pressed to find scholars willing to say with seriousness that the most influential science fiction works of the 1920s and 1930s were all of high literary quality. After all, some of the most important early works of science fiction hardly stand up to the test of time. I would consider Smith’s The Skylark of Space a canonical science fiction text even though there are far better works of science fiction to be found elsewhere.

Second, I think “literary merit” tends to be a privileged position, since much of the canon in the West was carefully constructed by the intellectual elite; this meant that works which otherwise would have been forgotten, such as Melville’s Moby-Dick,5 could be reappraised and presented as “a great American novel.” This is all fine and good until you realize that a great number of perfectly wonderful works by women and people of color are excluded on the shaky (ahem, I mean “bullcrap”) basis of “merit” or ignored entirely. They’re not as likely to be given the opportunity for a reappraisal.

Once we toss literary merit out the door, we’re left with a complicated and problematic set of conditions, particularly in the world of science fiction. At the moment, I am unaware of any “official” science fiction canon. Because science fiction scholarship has only recently become an acceptable discipline, much of the attempts to form a science fiction canon have come from outside the academy. Websites such as the Guardian and NPR have offered lists that might serve as “canons,” but they are either wholly incomplete or driven entirely by public consensus, which is a great way to exclude the works of marginalized groups. The closest academia has come to establishing a science fiction canon is through histories of the genre, “introduction” books, and large “comprehensive” anthologies (which are just as likely to be non-academic), all of which can fill in for canons, but none of which seem to have the same weight as the more clearly established (and routinely scrutinized) Western Canon. Essentially, the science fiction canon appears to be a nebulous, wandering sea of tentacles, most of which share common threads even as they squirm out into the literary aether.6 It is certainly the case that we can identify a few dozen of the most influential works of science fiction and grandfather them into the canon, but if the canon is to serve the functions I’ve listed above, it raises some serious questions.

The Canon and Influence

How do we measure the influence of a work? One of the serious problems with “influence” is its non-linear development. Works that were influential in a certain decade might not be influential 30 years later. Indeed, Golden Age authors who have, in my opinion, been unfairly ignored are now cited more regularly as influences of contemporary science fiction writers.7 This is, of course, the problem with canons in the first place. We can focus solely on contemporaneous influence, but this will by definition exclude authors who might otherwise deserve attention, thereby creating a cycle of exclusion. There’s a reason the same 10 authors appear on so many “best of science fiction” lists:  the repeated exposure of the community to a select few names creates an echo chamber and perpetuates a mythic “core” of science fiction.

One possible solution to this is to simply take influence as a constantly shifting dynamic. After all, canons are meant to be contextual, meaning that history and culture play a crucial role in the reception and importance of a work. Looking at influence in a broad spectrum means we limit unnecessary exclusions, and it also means providing the cultural context that explains why two works released in the same period might be received quite differently decades or centuries later. The legacy of Heinlein, for example, is crucial to a comprehensive canon of science fiction, but the shadow he casts has begun to wane in recent years as everyday readers and scholars have begun to reappraise the earliest periods of science fiction.8

The Canon and Substantial Contributions

I think one of the major issues with contemporary conversations about science fiction is a massive disconnect between newer fandom and older fandom (i.e., “traditional” fandom). Older fandom largely holds the works of Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, etc. as foundational texts. They are thought of as science fiction’s Bible:  works that shaped much of the literature that followed. New fandom may recognize these works as historically important, but a significant portion of that fandom rejects these works on social and political grounds. I’m sympathetic to this perspective. Many of the most revered authors in science fiction have been men of less-than-suitable characters (blatant racists, sexists, etc.), and some of their works have reflected some of these views even if the authors themselves were not explicit subscribers (i.e., “a reflection of the times). This view also holds — correctly, I might add — that many women and people of color have been excluded from such considerations despite having written worthwhile works. There isn’t, as far as I can tell, a community-sized bridge between these perspectives.

The “foundational text” perspective is, in principle, valid; history, however, rarely holds up to principle. For one thing, the publishing establishment of the early 20th-century largely ignored women and people of color. Exceptions always exist, but for all the finger pointing at The Harlem Renaissance and notable female writers throughout early literary history, there’s an even bigger finger pointing to sexism, racism, etc. This is no less true of science fiction. Without an “even playing field,” relying on “substantial contributions” will always reproduce a mostly male, mostly white canon for the early years of science fiction. We can, of course, reappraise writers from the period and argue for their significance; if the literary establishment can do so for Melville, there’s no reason we cannot do so for others. To some degree, we already do that, though it is a long, arduous process.

Reappraisal also presents a new problem. How do we justify reappraising a text which did not have an impact on the field at the time of its publication? Setting aside works which have since had an impact, to reappraise is essentially to argue about the merits of a text. As I’ve said, this is a painfully subjective way to look at literature, and consensus will be difficult to find. It also leaves the door wide open to endless reappraisals, which could make for a canon that is too haphazard.

The Canon and the Development of a Field

Defining the development of a literary field is a daunting task, one which educators and scholars have mulled over for well over a century. Academia and the literary elite has never really controlled literature, despite efforts to do so. Because so many variables are involved — multiple discourses, multiple communities, variable politics, regions, and social landscapes — even “histories of X literature” are naturally surface-level interpretations. Well-researched surface-level interpretations.

Of the three “criteria” for the construction of a literary canon, I consider “the development of the field” to be the most compelling. While literature in the grand scheme may be linear, on the micro scale, it is always shifting back and forth on a historical axis. Pretty much all of the limits of the previous two functions become motivating factors in this final function. If literary critics can change how a literary work is received, they are by definition influencing how the literary field develops over time. This means there’s nothing stopping us from redefining a given literary “world” by simply arguing for the validity of works that have otherwise been ignored. Indeed, this is almost an expectation. My work as an educator is part of this process:  I present works which are the product of the first two functions of the canon and then challenge those selections by offering literary counterpoints. Of course, how successful my efforts are is up in the air, but I am hopeful because so many of my colleagues follow a similar path.

Science fiction and popular literature in general have the added benefit of being defined by a very vocal, very active literary community. True, literature in general has always been supported by an active literary community, but science fiction was practically built by fandom. The literary elite, after all, did not accept science fiction as a valid literary form, and so those who loved it had to design a community without the support of the traditional institutions; they had to build their own institutions. Of course, in doing so, science fiction fandom fell prey to many of the same problems as the very institutions which rejected science fiction at its inception, but I do think that the community of science fiction makes change a more practical expectation. For one, public discourse is a constantly evolving entity; by simply adding new voices to the fray, you can effectively change a conversation. It’s not an easily evolved entity, mind, but it does change. And just like “development,” that change isn’t linear. There are always ebbs and flows as new discourses enter a discussion and other discourses rise up to challenge it (or vice versa). The New Wave is a great example of this process in action; the rise of contemporary feminist criticism in public science fiction discourse is another.

Reflecting the development of science fiction, in other words, means we can both present the “classics” alongside newer assessments, particularly as movements within the genre are understood to overlap one another. Thus, we can talk about feminist science fiction by opening with conversations about Moore, Brackett, and Norton. These opening acts can lead into contemporary conversations about Le Guin, Hopkinson, Willis, Cherryh, Butler, Tiptree, Russ, Atwood, Okorafor, Jemisin, Leckie, Beukes, and so on and so forth.9 Hopefully, you can see why I consider “development” a much more useful function of a literary canon, especially in science fiction. Frankly, it makes for a much easier argument for a more inclusive canon, even though there will be endless arguments against each and every inclusion.

Lastly, I think it’s worth mentioning that “development” should exclude “repetition.” It’s for this reason that I think many of the authors today who concern themselves primarily with sales numbers and mere entertainment will likely not be included in future canon discussions (insofar as they exist):  they do not add anything new to the genre. Repetition is a perennial problem in science fiction. Genre has frequently been defined by a set of repeatable conditions, meaning that most everything within science fiction is compared to other works. This only becomes a problem if a work simply has nothing new to say about those conditions. One of the major criticisms of space opera before the New Wave, for example, was the fact that the subgenre had grown remarkably stale and formulaic; too many of its writers were just saying the same exact thing, which hadn’t been unique or compelling for a decade or more. There’s nothing inherently wrong with repetition, of course. If people like it, then it deserves to be written. But canons aren’t just lists of books that repeat what others have already said, especially when a canon is meant to reflect the development of a field. Simply saying the same things over and over isn’t taking a genre somewhere else; it’s keeping a genre in stasis. And stasis is an efficient way to kill something.

The Canon Will Probably Always Be a Disappointing Mess

While the final function of a canon may make for a much more inclusive vision, I think that no canon will be sufficiently satisfying to basically anyone. I think the problem with the science fiction community, whether the everyday fan or the critic or the academic, is its fractious nature. Few of us can agree on much of anything, let alone the works we think belong in a literary canon. Hell, in academia, we cannot even agree on what science fiction is.10 The closest we might come to a science fiction canon are those created by small groups and organizations. These likely won’t have the weight a canon deserves, though that may make them slightly less controversial. There’s also the problem of agreeing on the purpose of a literary canon. I view canons as exclusionary by nature; indeed, they must be exclusionary. Without narrow and sufficient guiding principles or functions, a canon would become a swirling chaotic mess without any real organization or value. It would be absurdly overwhelming, confusing, and, frankly, fairly useless. Not everyone agrees with this view, and I’m not sure I could convince anyone differently.11 Then again, perhaps the point of a canon is to be a mess that nobody likes. It’s the literary equivalent of a politician.

Lastly, I’m not convinced science fiction should even have a canon. But I’m also just one voice in a very big world, and if ever a serious effort is made to construct a science fiction canon, I would add my voice to that conversation. After all, there are authors I absolutely love that not enough people read, and literary canons are great places to shove a personal agenda, no?

  1. To be clear, I am not suggesting that the Western Canon is anywhere close to a perfect list. It has huge problems. It is, however, a useful starting point. Indeed, knowing something about the Western Canon is a great way to identify the gaps, which is one of my favorite things to do in my survey courses.
  2. There are, of course, perfectly kind ways to correct someone when they get a fact wrong. Saying “well, you need to read all this stuff so you know what you’re talking about” isn’t one of them.
  3. This isn’t exactly shocking. The only reason I spend a lot of time reading pro-slavery diatribes is for scholarly reasons; most people aren’t likely to read that material unless they’re curious. And as a scholar, it’s my job to make sure to fairly represent this material in my work so that people who haven’t read it know what the hell is going on.
  4. Don’t get me wrong. I really enjoy Hemingway and Faulkner, but I don’t see any point in trying to force anyone who isn’t in one of my classes to read their work.
  5. Melville’s most famous novel was a commercial failure and basically disappeared from public circulation. It would have stayed there if not for Carl Van Doren and D.H. Lawrence (and the literary underground in the U.S.), who reclaimed the novel as a pinnacle of American literary production. This occurred some 30+ years after the author’s death.
  6. The closest we might come to a “canon” might be via a statistical analysis of “top” and “best of” and other kinds of “important works” lists to find common threads. Even that would likely prove disappointing.
  7. C.L. Moore is one example. While Moore has not been completely ignored, her work has historically been overshadowed by the “big names” of the period, such as Asimov, Clarke, etc. However, I’ve seen her name appear much more frequently since the 1970s, which suggests that her work has gained considerable attention since its initial emergence.
  8. I say this while recognizing that we just recently saw the publication of a multi-volume biography of Heinlein, which I’m told is quite good.
  9. Seriously, I could keep naming names, but we’d be here all week…
  10. There are probably two dozen academic books that attempt to define science fiction. Many of them are quite compelling, but none of them could be said to have got the right answer. To be fair, “the right answer” isn’t really the point.
  11. The Western Canon avoids this problem by regionalizing the list. I’m not sure the same could be done for the science fiction, even if it should be done.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently a graduate student at the University of Florida studying science fiction, postcolonialism, posthumanism, and fantasy.

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