The Science Fiction Canon: Function, Limits, and Problems

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.[note]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.[/note] Read More