The SF Canon Does Not Exist

Here’s an interesting post: Why the SF Canon Doesn’t Exist

This post begins:

As is periodically the case in the SFF community, we’re once more in the midst of a conversation about “the classics.” If you’re reading this now, it doesn’t actually matter that I wrote this in 2022; this conversation happens so often that the context above could apply in any given year going back decades, albeit more frequently today than before social media. The conversation typically features the following claims:

  1. You DON’T need to read “the classics” for reasons (there are many)
  2. You DO need to read “the classics” for reasons (there are many)
  3. There are no “classics” for reasons (there are many)

I’m not going to list the various reasons offered for all of these. Instead, I’ll note that we usually see two common claims for the first two: 1) that you don’t need to read them because they do not represent where genre is now; and 2) that you do need to read them because they’re necessary to understand how we got where we are now. These are incredibly reductive versions of those common arguments, and both are technically correct but typically uttered in the wrong context.

Which is evocative, don’t you think? Evocative in the sense of immediately prompting me to read on in order to see if I agree or disagree with the author of this post. I can say at once that I like this author for going on, “In my view …” which is a lot less dogmatic than beginning the next sentence with, “The truth is …”

Okay, this is a long, interesting post — about the concept of a “canon” in mainstream literature versus SFF and what a canon actually is and how the books included are picked out of the greater mass of published works. It’s definitely worth reading; a good antidote to the plethora of quick and facile posts about everything in creation. That makes it hard to pull out tidbits, but here’s a paragraph from near the end that shows you the basic argument this post is making:

Whether we should have a canon is an important question to ask, and one that the SFF community hasn’t seriously engaged with in decades (in my view), but the fact remains: SF does not have a literary canon. It has many varying lists of important works with an expected high degree of similarity among certain cliques, but it has no actual, defined, argued-for canon. It probably never will because the institutions that would create that canon have not taken up the project and the people who might actually take it up don’t appear to have much interest in picking up the slack. Without that activity, an SF canon is probably a doomed prospect.

That instantly makes me want to define a central canon. It’s hopeless, of course; I would quickly be distracted into Rachel’s Favorite SFF Novels Everyone Should Read, and anyway, I don’t have a clear enough grasp of the history of the genres. I never much cared for Golden Age SF and didn’t even read that much fantasy until the eighties.

I still have the urge to take a stab at defining a canon. I bet you do too. It’s just kind of fun to kick around the notion of a central core of influential works that ought to stand as canonical. Dune for sure. But you see I just picked that out of the air. When was that first published? Oh, 1965, really? Can it have been that long?

I suppose it might be more sensible to try to list out a central canon of early SF and Fantasy, then a second canon of influential works published since, oh, 1980 or thereabouts, but before 2000 — long enough ago that we can see whether the work in question has in fact become influential or not. And then we could argue about what works published since 2000 ought to be canonical — endless fun there!

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3 thoughts on “The SF Canon Does Not Exist”

  1. The golden age stuff leaves me pretty cold, too, and I don’t enjoy Phillip K Dick, so I’m not a good pick for the job either, but I’d say Forever War, and that Asimov has to be on there?

  2. I’d go by what had influence. Early works must include EE Doc Smith, Lovecraft, probably, too. More recent but not at all new some of those Campbell authors, not just the Heinlein and Asimovs but those who pioneered the psi/sf stuff. Can’t dredge names up at the moment. The next generation had Norton, then McCaffrey and then Lackey. After that I’m not sure, except Bujold and Cherryh ought to be part of it.

  3. I agree the canon does not exist. But there are certain authors some of whose work should be read. (Tolkien, LeGuin, and Butler, to name the obvious.)

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