Contemplating canons

The idea of a science fiction canon is important to the larger fan community — but it's a canon that isn't always interrogated or reexamined

Contemplating canons

Happy Friday!

This week, I've been enjoying the sunny-but-not-sweltering weather that we've been enjoying the past week. I've been working to catch up on some reading, and this week, I came across two things that made me think of a perennial topic of discussion for science fiction and fantasy literature: canon.

Let's dig in.

There are two books that I've been reading that have gotten me thinking a bit about literary canon.

The first is Annalee Newitz's latest nonfiction book, Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age*, in which they talk at one point about some older archeological research into the city Çatalhöyük: British archeologist James Mellaart began examining the ruins of the city, and found a bunch of figures of naked women:

"Among many other artifacts, he found a few female figurines. He was especially impressed by one of them, who was seated in a chair with her hands on the heads of two leopards. He decided she must be on a throne, and that an abstract bulge between her ankles was a recently birthed child. Further excavation revealed the figuring had come from an elaborately decorated room that he dubbed a temple. Based on this scant evidence, Mellaart announced that the people of Çatalhöyük were a matriarchy that worshipped a fertility goddess."

[*usual disclaimer for purchases made through affiliate links: purchases may result in a commission to Transfer Orbit]

As it turns out, that doesn't appear to be the case. Newitz runs down some of the research that's taken place since the 1960s, which has largely found that Mellaart's assumptions were incorrect. That's understandable: further excavations provided considerable further context about the city, and academics have since revised their understanding about the city's inhabitants.

This is pretty normal within academic study: someone discovers something, writes about it, and subsequent scholars continue to examine that something — either digging up new artifacts, unearthing undiscovered documents, or chat with folks who might have experienced something firsthand. The fields of science and history are ever-evolving. For example: Newitz points out that Mellaart drew on a lot of assumptions that assumed that the folks living in Çatalhöyük had similar attitudes and motivations as people today.

That passage got me thinking a bit about how we approach literary canons, especially science fiction. This is a perpetual source of angst within the SF/F world: someone will come up with a "definitive" list of science fiction's most important works, and inevitably, everyone will raise their hand with a "well, what about this book?" It's largely an exercise in futility, because literature is so subjective.

That said, there tends to be a lot of consensus for which authors are vitally important to the field, which leads to the lionization of some of the best-known authors: ask anyone where to start in science fiction, and you'll typically get Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein as your first recommendations, often with Ursula K. Le Guin, Frank Herbert, or Larry Niven thrown in as followups.

Newitz's passage highlights the importance of continued scholarship that draws on better contextual information to bring about fuller picture of whatever it is we're studying. The same feels to be true with trying to recommend science fiction / fantasy literature to newcomers. In a lot of ways, the recommendations for newcomers entering the genre are often aimed at bringing someone up to speed, trying to shove an entire genre's history down their throat so that they can understand how the field's later works came about. We don't always take into consideration the changing context for when we study or recommend those older works.

In some ways, this is a good example of where a close-knit field and oppressive canon can be a detriment: plenty of authors are writing in response to one another, building off of the field's ideas. Herbert's Dune is perfectly enjoyable on its own, but was in part, somewhat of a response to Asimov's Foundation. Other books, like Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, explicitly uses the terminology coined by other authors — the word "Ansible", used by Ursula K. Le Guin in Rocannon's World comes to mind. Similarly, you have the general framework of broader genres like space opera or military science fiction that are closely drawn to some of those formative works.

But most of those individual works make incremental changes to those larger subgenres — John Scalzi's Old Man's War follows the rough structure and framework as that of Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers, but doesn't do much with the underlying ideas — as opposed to Joe Haldeman's The Forever War or Kameron Hurley's The Light Brigade. Both of those follow that similar structure, but inject a bit more ethical oomph to the action.

That's not to say that those books — or any of the older works — are inherently bad or good — they're all enjoyable. But do you really need to understand the deeper history of space opera to enjoy Leviathan Wakes or Children of Ruin? I don't think so.

But I think that this is a key reason for why we see so much angst when the legacies of some of the genre's biggest figures are reexamined as we a) better understand the past or b) put their work against some additional context. The handwringing over the critical eye cast towards H.P. Lovecraft or John W. Campbell Jr. is a good example of this, given their respective roles in shaping those larger canons.

Gerald K. O'Neill's The High Frontier
Image: Andrew Liptak

The other book that's got me thinking about canon is one that hit my desk last week: Americanon: An Unexpected U.S. History in Thirteen Bestselling Books by Jess McHugh. From the cover, I expected something along the lines of a look at the canon of US literature, but found something else entirely: a canon made up of The Old Farmer's Almanac, Webster's Speller and Dictionary, Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography, How to Win Friends and Influence People, and a bunch of others. Those books are all framed as central to creating the framework of America's central identity.

I haven't gotten more than a couple of pages into it, but the concept delights me to no end, because it's such an obvious thing to examine (that hasn't been), but which also has gotten me thinking: what are some of the central documents that help form the identity of science fiction culture? Not the novels that make up the field, but the supporting texts that influenced the authors and creators and fans responsible for the field — the ones that injected the genre's core ideals and culture into the field as a whole?

I've been mulling this over for a couple of days, and I've only come up with a couple of ideas:

  • Dangerous Visions, by Harlan Ellison. Not the stories themselves, but the introductions and commentaries that Ellison provided alongside the stories. They're interesting snippets that introduced readers to the major figures in the field, and are a big reason for why that anthology series is so popular.
  • The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space by Gerard K. O'Neill, an influential thought experiment about how we might be able to eventually life in space.
  • The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction by Samuel R. Delaney, a look at literary theory and how it applied to science fiction literature.  
  • The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, a blueprint of mythologies and heroic archetypes that has been adopted by plenty of authors and creators over the years.

I'm not sure what else I'd add to that: maybe Le Guin's The Language of the Night, or Kingsley Amis's New Maps of Hell? Maybe there are specific, keystone fanzines, pamphlets, or even conventions that would apply to something like this.

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Stack of books on a table.
Image: Andrew Liptak

Currently reading

This week's completed read was Charles Soule's Light of the Jedi, the first installment of The High Republic series. If you've been following this newsletter for a while, you'll have seen its name on this section quite a bit, and it turned out to be a bit of a slog to get through. I didn't hate it, but it also wasn't a story that really gripped me all that much: it felt a little too scattered, and had a lot of characters I just didn't connect with, even if I largely liked the story that they set up.

Maybe it was the writing, maybe the characters, but it just took a long time to get through. That said, I've liked some of the High Republic stuff that I've already picked up, and it's a series that I'm planning on continuing.

Other books on the list:

Further reading

  • Armor guide. For Cosplay Central, I wrote up a look at a new cosplay guide that 343 Industries released for its upcoming game Halo Infinite. It's a really excellent guide: 106 pages of detailed images for cosplayers to work off of.
  • Ensemble crews. I love a good story about the crew of a spaceship, and over on Den of Geek, Chris Farnell has a look at the appeal of the trope, with some quotes from Charlie Jane Anders, Becky Chambers, Laura Lam / Elizabeth May, and Yudhanjaya Wijeratne.
  • Faked Fans. Vanessa Armstrong writes about a fascinating project about a fake TV series, Ships of the Northern Fleet, a movement that started on TikTok and has gone on to become this big, collective, crowdsourced effort online.  
  • FringeFest. Over on Astrolabe, Aidan Moher has an excellent piece from Adri Joy about the creation of CoNZealand Fringe.
  • Legibility. Publishers Weekly brought news of a new reading platform called Legible. It's designed as a reading platform for folks to read books in their browser windows, and that they "aim to democratize, decolonize, decarbonize and decentralize the publishing industry." It's a noble goal, to be sure, but it'll be interesting to see if they can take on Amazon's dominance as an ebook platform. Books are pretty accessible as they are, even if you don't have a dedicated ebook reader.
  • Population drain. Kim Stanley Robinson, author of the excellent Ministry for the Future, writes in The Washington Post about how a decline in global population isn't necessarily a bad thing: it would put significantly less strain on the global biosphere.
  • Remembering Howard. Michael Dirda profiles Conan creator Robert E. Howard in The Washington Post, looking at his works beyond his most famous barbarian and some biographies to get a better sense of his worldview. "Howard consequently celebrates what one might call the positive virtues of barbarism — courage, physical strength, loyalty, ethical behavior — and contrasts these with the vices, soft luxuries and callous decadence of civilizations in eclipse."
  • Restarting the fire. Earlier this week, I published an in-depth look at Fireside Magazine and its efforts to overcome a scandal that erupted last November when it released a problematic audio version of a story. They've hired a new publisher and have implemented some changes to try and position themselves for a more sustainable future.
  • Save the library. A group of UK institutions are banding together to try and save a private "lost" library that's loaded with rare texts, before it's put up for auction.

That's all for this week. Next week, I've got an interview with Carrie Vaughn about her excellent book Questland. Stay tuned.

As always — thank you so much for reading, and let me know what you're reading / writing / enjoying, and if you have random tips about strange things going on in the genre scene, feel free to drop me a line.

Have a good weekend,