Some Thoughts On The SF Canons

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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.”

John Scalzi

As time goes by, as more and more writers make their mark in the world of science-fiction and fantasy, it is perhaps inevitable that those who founded the canons, who greatly influenced the early development of science-fiction and fantasy, would come under increased scrutiny and criticism. This is both unsurprising and irritating. It is easy to forget that many of the early writers lived and worked in a very different world, in which the planet was a great deal larger, where social attitudes were different and there were limits to just what they could get away with. Indeed, Heinlein’s works – early or late – are almost absurdly clean by modern-day standards. Podkayne of Mars was once given a blurb that made it sound like a racy novel, but there’s nothing more than a handful of chaste kisses in the text itself.

Some of this criticism is quite valid, although pointless. Some of this criticism is just absurd, when it isn’t divisive. And some of it comes across as an assault on people who enjoyed the canon when they were young and/or people who are mature enough to separate the author as a person from his work.

Now, there is no one who insists you have to read [long list of old SF works] to be considered a fan. There’s no obligation to join people in ritual chants of canonical works if you want to be considered a fan. You do not have to read anything published earlier than 2000 to be a fan, although I would advise you to refrain from offering opinions on books you haven’t read. If you feel that Heinlein, Asimov, Smith or anyone else who lived and died before you were born does not speak to you, you do not have to read their works. And if anyone suggests otherwise, feel free to ignore them.

That said, it cannot be denied that the early writers shaped the genre and inspired, directly or indirectly, their successors. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers inspired works such as Bill the Galactic Hero (Harry Harrison) and Old Man’s War (John Scalzi). Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold inspired The Power (Naomi Alderman); it is certainly possible that Heinlein’s Revolt in 2100 played a role in influencing The Handmaid’s Tale. Asimov’s Foundation inspired a great many other ‘fall of the galactic empire’ storylines, including some written by yours truly. The Cold Equations provoked an answer in the form of The Cold Solutions (Don Sakers). NK Jemsin’s Great Cities books are a response to Lovecraft.  Like it or not, we owe a great deal to those early writers.

And there are several points we should bear in mind before we start levelling charges of [whatever] at them.,

First, the early writers did not have a canon to draw on. They didn’t have many opportunities to learn from other writers, from their successors or failures. They were groping blindly, trying to hit gold without having even a rough idea of where that gold might be found. When they drew ideas from earlier works, they were not mainline SF works. Science-fiction itself did not exist, not in its modern sense.

Second, the average writer in the early era worked under a set of very harsh restrictions. There were lots of issues that were taboo, from sex and mating to race and racism; there were morality clauses in contracts that could and would be enforced if the writer stepped too far out of line. Heinlein, for example, wrote coloured characters … but he had to give himself plausible deniability He did this so well in one book – Tunnel in the Sky – that he managed to raise suspicions of miscegenation instead. By modern standards, this is insane as well as stupid. But we’re talking about an era that was worried about Mr. Spock’s ears!

Third, the average writer did not know where technology was going. They made a lot of guesses and got some things right, but they also got a lot of things wrong. Heinlein’s predictions regarding computer development, for example, were absurd. He assumed a lot of easy things would be very hard, if not impossible, and vice versa. Asimov’s predictions were even worse, to the point he has wood-burning stoves co-existing with atomic power plants and FTL drives.

Fourth, the average writer lived in a far more limited world. There was both relatively little awareness of other cultures and a certain sense that the Anglo-American way was the best. It isn’t until fairly recently, thanks to the internet, that we have really become aware of alternatives. They drew on their awareness of the world to shape their future worlds, hence the number of very traditional societies in fantastic worlds.

Fifth, for better or worse, editors enjoyed tremendous power. Some of them used this power for good. Others were much more of a mixed bag. Campbell, for example, did a great deal of good for the science-fiction universe. The Cold Equations would not be remembered so well if it, like many other stories of its time, ended with the girl being saved, marrying the hero and babies ever after. The shock ending secured the story its place in history. It would not have happened without Campbell. He was also charged with making money – without which the magazine would have crashed and burnt – and he promoted authors he believed would make money. He also liked controversy, to the point he would deliberately write provocative articles to see how people would react. And he was, even by the standards of the time, not a very nice man.

Six, we lack a lot of context for the life and times of the early authors. It’s never easy to see what they might have meant (Asimov wrote a story about Shakespeare attending a Shakespeare class and being failed) and, as time moves on, some of their work becomes harder to follow. Is Glory Road a lacklustre fantasy novel or a brilliant deconstruction of the genre? Is Podkayne of Mars a tedious book with a weak-willed heroine or a cautionary tale about the dangers of poor parenting? It is hard to know.

Seventh, for every author who made it into fandom’s collective memory, there are hundreds who have been forgotten. This isn’t a new thing. It may surprise some readers to learn that Sherlock Holmes had rivals, stories featuring detectives who adventured in Gaslight London and did everything Holmes did … but never enjoyed even a small fragment of his popularity.

Eighth, and perhaps most importantly of all, the early and middle-age authors wrote in a world where it was possible for a committed fan to read nearly everything published within the genre. The sum total of fandom, as it was in those days, was relatively small. It was a time, I have been told, when it was possible to read the vast majority of Hugo-nominated books and say, with a degree of certainty, that the winners truly were the best and/or the most innovative. It is only recently, as we measure time, that science-fiction has become relatively mainstream. It is true that Star Trek and Star Wars had an appeal that reached beyond the typical audience for such fare, and that there were a number of entry books like The War of the Worlds and The Lord of the Rings, but the vast majority of SF/FAN productions only really appealed to fans like myself.

Now, there are so many works each year that each Hugo Winner gets only a small fraction of the overall votes – and readership.

There are, I think, two major points that can be drawn from the whole affair. First, the early writers were not saints or demons. They were people, with all the strengths and weaknesses of people … with all the blindspots and pretty foolishnesses and, of course, the desire to earn a respectable living. It is foolish to place them on pedestals, but it is equally absurd to throw the baby out with the bathwater and reject them because they don’t come up to modern-day standards.

Second, you do not have to read anything ‘canonical,’ insofar as the ‘canon’ really exists, to be a fan. If Heinlein does not speak to you, don’t read him; if Asimov does not excite you, don’t read him; if you feel Lovecraft was a horrible person, you do not have to read him. No one is forcing you to read anything! But you might gain an appreciation for the history of the genre by reading the people who founded it, as well as an understanding of just how far our society has advanced over the years.

And who knows? You might gain some inspiration yourself.

I certainly have.

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