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Canons to the Left, Canons to the Right

by James Gunn

Last summer I was contacted by the editor of Leading Edge, a 35-year-old student-run magazine at Brigham Young University specializing in science fiction and fantasy, about a series it was publishing on the creation of science-fiction canons. It reminded me of a conversation I had 45 years ago in Toronto. It was 1971 and the first full meeting of the newly formed Science Fiction Research Association, and Phil Klass (an English professor at Penn State University but William Tenn to his SF readers) was standing next to me in a York Hotel late evening gathering and said, “Jim, we need to establish a canon. If we don’t, someone else will.”

The establishing of canons is a tricky business, as much for the works and authors you leave out as the ones you include. But some of us took up the challenge in the years that followed. Robert Silverberg edited the Science Fiction Hall of Fame volume of short stories from selections voted upon by the Science Fiction Writers of America, and Ben Bova followed with two volumes of novelettes. The Hugo Awards of the World Science Fiction Convention, created in 1953 in Philadelphia and made permanent at the Cleveland convention in 1955, turned its annual selections into a part of a lasting tribute. SFWA’s Nebula Awards and its annual volumes followed, then the Campbell Award, the Sturgeon Award, and others, plus a variety of best-of-the-year volumes. The National Book Award has even honored a few science fiction and fantasy works and authors. The Library of America, and other publishers, has added to the canon by including science-fiction and fantasy writers such as Lovecraft, Gary Wolfe’s compendium of 1960s works (and upcoming volume of 1970s novels), and the forthcoming volume of Le Guin.

All of these helped establish in the science-fiction culture the belief that there were standards in its limited field that were more than reader preferences, although, to be sure, the qualifications of the various individuals or groups who made these decisions, as well as the process by which they were made, had to be evaluated for credibility. Eventually, the Science Fiction Research Association got into the business with its teaching anthologies, and other teachers, including me, put together anthologies for their classrooms that sometimes spilled into the larger community of readers. Out of this medley of inputs came a kind of consensus, mixed though it was. Charlie Brown reviewed one of the volumes of my six-volume teaching anthology, The Road to Science Fiction, with the comment, “It pushes all my buttons.” Pushing the buttons is a kind of canonwork.

But what does one do about including novels in the canon? At the first Intensive English Institute on the Teaching of Science Fiction that I organized in 1974 as a response to the letters I received as president of the Science Fiction Writers of America, “I’ve been assigned to teach a course in science fiction. What do I teach?” one participant asked me “how many novels should a teacher have read before she feels qualified to teach a science-fiction course?” Off-hand, I said “twenty-five.” Certainly, it was not enough to provide anything close to a working familiarity with the genre, but it was a beginning. And in following years, and in the regular-semester classes I taught in the science-fiction novel, I assigned twenty-five novels. That was a staggering reading list compared to most English literature classes, but it presented an opportunity for teacher and students to cover a broad range of reading experiences and discuss others—as well as a test for student commitment to the course (enrollees had to start their preparation a month or two before the class began).

But what novels to select? That provides an additional sorting process that applies as well to the short fiction in the anthologies. As I wrote in my articles on “Teaching Science Fiction,” a science-fiction class can be focused in a variety of ways of looking at the subject matter. It can be a great book (or great story) class in which the texts are studied for their exceptional qualities and the best way in which to read and understand them. Or they can be mined for their ideas—of which the science-fiction genre is replete (it is, after all, a literature of ideas)—in a class about issues present and future. Or they can be used to teach other disciplines, history for instance, or physics, psychology, sociology, or other physical, biological, and social sciences (science fiction is the great interdisciplinary medium, and all fields of human endeavor are part of its subject matter, including philosophy and education itself).

But I wanted to teach science fiction, that is, the genre itself, what it was, how it got to be that way, and where it might be going. To teach the canon, so to speak—those works that reside in the heart of the genre, that inform everything else, around which the rest of the genre is clustered and draw meaning, ideas, and inspiration. So my canon consisted of those texts that had contributed to the evolution of science fiction, not necessarily the great novels, though some of them were, because the great novels are often great because they are unique and unrepeatable. They may illuminate the genre because they shine so brightly from their place above the genre rather than enlightening from within. For my purposes the canon should consist of those texts that showed the way for future writers and from whose works students of the genre (including readers who want to enjoy contemporary stories and novels with greater understanding of their place in the literature and what they contribute to the great dialogue that engages the writers of science fiction) may gain a sense of the treasure house of living documents a genre provides and the protocols for how to read them.

So, what are the essential works—the canon, as I worked it out for my classes? H. G. Wells’s entire body of work, but particularly those published between 1895 and 1901, and of these his most seminal works, The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds. Modern science fiction begins with Wells, and nobody can really understand science fiction without him. Other great names preceded Wells: Poe, Hawthorne, Shelley, Verne, even Twain to name a few, but their efforts were tentative or overwhelmed in the brilliance of Wells’s exploration of concepts that provided the foundation on which most later science fiction was built.

After Wells the major figures in the evolution of science fiction for the next four decades were editors: Hugo Gernsback in establishing science fiction as a genre when he created the first science-fiction magazine and John W. Campbell in transforming Gernsback’s creation and presiding over the “golden age.” There were, to be sure, significant authors during those forty post-Wellsian years, Edgar Rice Burroughs, for instance, A. Merritt (although his greatness was in romantic fantasy), and Edward Elmer “Doc” Smith, who created the space epic, but their contribution was in popularizing the genre rather than transforming it. What transformed it was Campbell and his introduction of four major writers in the summer of 1939: Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, and A. E. van Vogt.

To begin at the end of the alphabet, van Vogt unveiled the magic of science and the quest for transcendence. He wrote many mesmerizing stories and novels in which the science is out of this world, but I’ve always preferred The World of Null-A. That belongs in my canon. Sturgeon was best at the short story, where he shifted the focus away from the inventor and the problem solver to the social outcast. He did write a few fine novels, but one was most influential (though it was characteristically made up of three novellas), More Than Human. Heinlein brought new techniques into science fiction that introduced background information seamlessly into the narrative and political issues as suitable material for science fiction. I would not argue against any of the novels published in his second creative decade, but I have a personal preference for The Puppet Masters, in which his artistry and his message seem to be blended in greatest harmony. Asimov brought the voice of calm reason and careful rationality that I most identify with science fiction. Although his The Foundation Trilogy is fundamental, I prefer the later maturity and artistry of his Darwinian The Caves of Steel.

The early 1950s to which The Caves of Steel belongs was a period of special significance for science fiction. It began with the creation of two great new magazines, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Galaxy Science Fiction. The first of these was influential in bringing fantasy and science fiction together in the same magazine and documenting its literary value, but Tony Boucher and Mick McComas’s tastes were more eclectic, and they published few serialized novels (Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz is one exception). Horace Gold, on the other hand, had a mission: to create a slick magazine with a focus on social issues, and he badgered his authors into creativity or rejection. Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth led the way into social science fiction and naturalized satire into the mainstream of science fiction with The Space Merchants and other innovative texts. But I prefer to teach Pohl’s Gateway, which is a singular accomplishment in combining a novel of character with a concept novel based on speculative science. A few months after The Space Merchants (Gravy Planet) in the pages of Galaxy came Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, which described murder detection in a telepathic society, and with literary skill. Some teachers prefer Bester’s The Stars My Destination, but I think The Demolished Man has more generic relevance.

Meanwhile, over in Astounding, Campbell was publishing Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity, an early and pure example of hard science fiction in which we are led to understand and sympathize with caterpillar-like aliens conditioned by a unique physical environment. One of his heirs, like Larry Niven, would be Gregory Benford, who brought his expertise in physics and literary skills to the service of Timescape. And, a few years after Mission of Gravity, Campbell would publish Frank Herbert’s Dune, an epic response to Asimov’s Foundation universe and the beginning of the science-fiction novel as bestseller—although Dune had difficulty finding a hardcover publisher and only became a bestseller in paperback, along with its sequels. Also in the early ’50s Arthur C. Clarke would publish his Stapledonian Childhood’s End, with its vision of humanity’s place in the universe, and Robert Silverberg would venture into the mainstream with Dying Inside, which considered telepathy as personal burden. I usually paired it with Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan, which illustrated how the mainstream (or, at least, an author who later became a mainstream concern) was approaching a courtship with science fiction from the other direction.

By the late 1960s the influence of the magazines had faded before the implosion of the field from the failure of the distribution system, competition with television, and the onslaught of book publishing (take your pick). Ursula K. Le Guin produced The Left Hand of Darkness and John Brunner began his inspection of a dystopian future with Stand on Zanzibar. The Left Hand of Darkness was one of the early triumphs of anthropological science fiction as well as one of the pioneer explorations of feminist issues in science fiction, while Stand on Zanzibar brought the literary dystopia into the field (the first of four by Brunner) in the form of a mosaic novel about overpopulation modeled after John Dos Passos’s USA. Another novel of the period was Jack Vance’s The Languages of Pao, which took as its unusual subject the influence of language on psychology and behavior, a novel that for a time I paired in discussion with Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17, another language-focused novel. I wanted to include an alternate-history example and chose, for a number of virtues including Dick’s concern with the nature of reality, Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.

My original list concluded with William Gibson’s Neuromancer, which ushered the science-fiction world into the digital century that loomed ahead, with literary pyrotechiques to match, and in the process inspired cyberpunk.

In later sessions I updated my assigned texts with five more-contemporary novels, Ian Banks’s Consider Phlebus, Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Radio, Charles Stross’s Accelerando, China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, and Octavia Butler’s Dawn.

While these texts may not be a canon in the traditional sense—they have, as their reason for existence on this list, a starting point for classroom discussion—I offer them as a place to start. Some texts, particularly Silverberg’s Dying Inside and Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan, are included to provide examples of texts that are not generically influential (though Dying Inside contributes to the dialogue about telepathy). They belong to that group of unique novels that stand alone, like the works of a few other authors, Ray Bradbury, for instance, or J. G. Ballard, or Gene Wolfe, or Brian Aldiss , whose works are so individual that they speak only for themselves. There is, after all, a place for a “great books” approach, and few authors, including me, would not like to have a novel among them.

Ultimately, though, the canon must be far broader than those meeting the needs of any one purpose. Many years ago Alexei Panshin headed a committee of Science Fiction Writers of America members to come up with such a list, and I updated and adapted the list into what I called “The Basic Science Fiction Library,” later published in Library Journal, with the names of more than 100 authors and the titles of their best-known works. It is available on the website of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction. Somewhere in there, with authors and texts still to be added, is the beginning of a canon, Phil. Let the debate continue.

James Gunn, emeritus professor of English at the University of Kansas, has enjoyed careers in both writing and teaching science fiction. Former president of both SFWA and SFRA, he has received the top awards of both associations. His latest novel is Transgalactic. He taught his first science fiction class in 1969.

Copyright © 2016 James Gunn

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