Canon Making and the ABC’s of Science Fiction

Dante, Homer and Virgil from Raphael’s fresco visualizing the Western Canon

While the word canon brings to mind a pile of dusty old books deemed classics that no one reads unless a college professor assigns them, I think of it more as a fancy word for a “Best Of” list. We’ve always loved lists. Just try surfing the web for ten minutes without hitting a listicle. I think list making might be one of our defining qualities as human beings: self aware, tool users, list makers. Even that’s a tiny list. See? I can’t help myself!

James Tiptree Jr.

The biggest problem with canon in literature is that it reflects the views and prejudices of the canon-makers, who so far have been predominantly Western and white and male. At best it reflects a cultural and religious homogeneity that never actually existed, at worst it is a tool for suppressing or erasing voices that fall outside the dominant culture or outside the ivory towers of the institutions of higher learning.

The real use of canon is in the conversation it engenders. It’s in the debate that is part of the creation of any “Best Of” list where we as a community can begin to assess great piece of writing. This is how, together, we reach for an understanding of great art. The more voices that join in that debate, the more books and authors that get on the list, the better the canon becomes. I’m inclusionary when it comes to canon, because time is the ultimate arbiter. Only the works that can cross the ever widening gulf of time to continue to touch our hearts with the universal truth of human experience will remain. So, used well, establishing a canon can be good way to find and to define great writing.

For a deeper discussion regarding canon and what it means in regards to genre literature, check out the Coode Street Podcast’s excellent episode: On the Toxicity of Literary Canon. Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe discuss the ways that canon can benefit the genre, but also how the exclusionary nature of canon-making can inhibit the broader discussion. What I liked best about this talk was the idea that everyone is free to create their own canon. While that in some ways defies the very definition of canon, I think it is a useful idea – especially for writers. 

I see thinking about my own personal canon is a way to better understand myself as a writer. Making the case for a particular book I think worthy of inclusion, helps define what is exemplary both in terms of writing in general and the genre in particular. So, even if true literary canon is created through consensus and winnowed over time, don’t let that stop you from creating your own a list. I’ve dubbed my own personal list Canon Fodder!


When people talk canon in science fiction, they often start with the ABC’s: Asimov, Bradbury, and Clark (and of course Heinlein a little further down the line). Good writers all, foundational to the genre and deservedly so. That said, just like the great Western canon, the SciFi/Fantasy canon is a little plain vanilla culturally, and frankly, neither of them offer enough meat and potatoes for me as a woman. Some of the writers below have already established themselves on “Best Of” lists and claimed a spot in the accepted canon, others are younger writers, but for me, everyone on this list has done or is doing work that is worth being discussed in terms of canon.

REBECCA’S CANON FODDER:

A – Margaret Atwood
B – Octavia Butler, J.G. Ballard, Leigh Brackett
C – Angelica Carter, Ted Chiang
D – Samuel Delany, Philip K. Dick
G – Neil Gaiman, William Gibson
H – Nalo Hopkinson, M. John Harrison
J – N. K. Jemisin, Kij Johnson, Shirley Jackson
K – Caitlan Kiernan, Nancy Kress
L – Ursula K. LeGuin, Stanislaw Lem, Kelly Link
M – David Mitchell, Haruki Murakami
N – Andre Norton
O – Nnedi Okorafor, Flann O’Brien
R – Joanna Russ, J.K. Rowling
S – Michael Swanwick, Mary Shelly
T – James Tiptree, Karen Tidbeck
V – Jack Vance, Genevieve Valentine
W – Gene Wolfe, Peter Watts
Y – Jane Yolen

The list is ideosynchratic and personal and no more than my favorites, but it’s my own ever-evolving canon. If you don’t like it, as they say in Texas:

Let the conversation begin!


Science Fiction and fantasy is all about exploration. A million worlds await you, throw that door open and find the ones you want to plant your flag on and claim for your own personal canon!

RESOURCES:

  • Brit publishers Gollancz have been publishing SF Masterworks for a while now. If you’re looking for a less idiosyncratic, more comprehensive – more canon-like – list, this is an excellent place to start.
  • Check out the James Tiptree Jr. Award site for books, written by both men and women, that fearlessly explore gender issues.
  • Open Culture has a list of 100 Great Sci-Fi Stories by Women Writers, complete with links to free stories!
  • Worlds Without End is a great genre site and community where you can explore and discuss science fiction, fantasy and horror books and their authors. 
  • For more general genre information about authors and their books check out the Internet Speculative Database.

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