Reading the Sci Fi “Canon”

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, Taken from his essay Oh, Christ, Not the Science Fiction Canon Again, August 2020

Selections from the recent Penguin Science Fiction collection

Maryam, over at The Curious SFF Reader, wrote a great post about the science fiction canon, asking if we should read it or not. Her essay and all of the comments made for a fascinating read and got me thinking about what this “canon” is. Is there a canon for science fiction like there is for literature? If so, who decided which books make up this canon?

After a quick google, the first result that came up was a link to a Goodreads list of “Sci Fi Canon Books”. (A Goodreads list equals canon, eh? No, I don’t take it seriously, either 😆) It isn’t clear who made this list of only 39 books. It’s a very mixed selection which ranges from Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” (1896) to Pierce Brown’s “Morning Star, Red Rising Saga #3” (2016). No, really. I kid you not. (No offence to Pierce intended!) The list also contains some of the more traditional SF “classics” such as “I, Robot”, “Rendezvous With Rama”, “Dune”, “1984”, “The Left Hand of Darkness”, “Foundation”, “Starship Troopers”, and so on. If you have a look at it, please let me know what you think.

Another list I used to refer to when deciding what to read is the Science Fiction Masterworks list of books. The excellent website Worlds Without End has a full list of the Masterworks, as well as a rich variety of “Awards” lists and “Best of” lists. Please check it out if you haven’t before. The whole site is a treasure trove of reviews, lists, and some great Reading Challenges.

A selection of some of the SF Masterworks published by the Orion Publishing Group

This SF Masterworks list was started in 1999 and is made up of “select science-fiction books from as far back as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Malcolm Edwards, managing director with Orion Publishing Group, created the list with the goal of bringing important books back into print. The books are numbered in series publication order, not original publication date, and are highly prized and collected.” The first book on the list is Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War (1974). The Masterworks list is now up to book 180, Castles in the Sand (2002) by Gwyneth Jones. It was published on January 21st, 2021. I believe Andreas over at Reiszwolf is on a journey to read them all.

So, I had found a name: Malcolm Edwards. A quick google led me to his brief Wikipedia page. Edwards has been involved in book editing as well as “science fiction fandom” since the late 1970s. Here is a quote from an interview he did with Locus Magazine in 2005:

“Entering a new job, it’s the only time in your working life when you actually have any time: your desk is empty, and there you are! That’s when I decided to do the SF Masterworks list. I looked around and realized, far more than I had before, how much had gone out of print in the UK. The day I discovered both Bester’s The Stars My Destination and Haldeman’s The Forever War were out of print, I thought, ‘There’s a list here.’ And when we bought Gollancz, we immediately put the SF lists (both fairly small at that time) together.”

–Malcolm Edwards, Locus Magazine, 2005

The Masterworks is an impressive list. Its launch was no doubt helped by a quote from the writer Iain M. Banks, who called the original list: “genuinely the best novels from sixty years of SF”. I appreciate Edwards’ desire to bring back into print some of the older or less well-known science fiction books. But that’s still only one person’s selections.

When I got back into reading science fiction over twenty years ago, I started to work my way through some of the titles from the original Masterworks list of 73 novels. I’m going to write about my experience with these books in a future post. 😀

One more list I want to mention is David Pringle’s100 Best Sci Fi Novels(link to the list on Worlds Without End). Pringle is a Scottish editor who worked on the science fiction journals Foundation and later Interzone. “His book Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels has been widely read and is still highly regarded today. In the book, Pringle lists his picks for the best SF novels written between 1949 and 1984 with a decided lean towards British SF.” [source]

Final Thoughts

Personally, I don’t believe there is any need to read a particular list or “canon” of any genre of books. But I appreciate having these lists available online to refer to. I have really enjoyed browsing through both the SF Masterworks list and David Pringle’s list–who doesn’t enjoy going through such lists of books? If only I spent as much time reading the books as I do looking at these lists. Ah well. 😂 It’s interesting to see which books appear on both lists, as well as which authors. I’ve also referred to the lists of the Hugo and Nebula Award Winners, both of which you can find on Worlds Without End. (I’m not trying to promote this site by the way, it’s just really well put together and deserves to be used 😀.)

Yes, it seems that the majority of these authors are “mostly male, mostly white, mostly straight“, to quote John Scalzi from the essay referred to at the beginning of this post. If that bothers you, then how about making your own list and posting it on your blog? I think it would be great if we all put together our own “canon” or list of “essential” science fiction books. I mentioned this idea in a comment on Maryam’s Curious SFF Reader blog. What do you think?

Further Reading

The Wikipedia page on History of Science Fiction is worth a read if you have some time to spare. It’s a long article but makes for some fascinating reading.

Another essay worth reading that addresses the issue of the science fiction canon is this one by Steve Davidson on the Amazing Stories website:

I’m going to stretch my legs now and brew up a nice pot of tea in the Wakizashi Teahouse.

Thanks for reading!

39 thoughts on “Reading the Sci Fi “Canon”

  1. I think we almost HAVE to come up with a list of our own since no one list will ever satisfy everyone, or even a large enough percentage of “everyone.” Like you I do enjoy looking through these lists. It’s a great way to see what books other folks think are good enough, or influential enough, or whatever the criteria are. It helps me decide which I might like to try. I feel no need to completely read any list of canon, but I do want to read many of the books on many of the lists, regardless of whether many of the authors were primarily white straight guys. It’s great that we have more diversity now and I love the extra range of stories we get because of that, but that doesn’t mean what’s come before isn’t also worth reading. I try to read some of the classics of SFF for the same reasons I try to read some of the classics of non-SFF literature, to get a feel for what’s come before, to see how some people of different eras imagined the world or future, and because sometimes they wrote some really great stories. Of course I’ve also found sometimes I really don’t care for their stories. But I’ll never know unless I try them. 🙂

    What’s your tea of choice these days? I received a sampler pack of about a dozen different loose leaf green teas and I enjoy going through those tasting the differences between them. And I do love a small cup of matcha every so often.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Todd. Thanks for your thoughtful reply. You make some great points. 😀 Yes, there is a lot more diversity these days. This is a good thing. Yet there are some who would use this as an excuse to ignore or defame what has come before. Like you, I try to vary my reading choices, reading some older books as well as more recent ones. I’ve dipped in and out of what are considered “classic” or “essential” science fiction stories. Some I’ve really enjoyed, others not so much. To be honest, I’m just delighted to have so much choice. 🤩

      I think much depends on the age we are when we read some of these books. For example, I used to love reading Arthur C. Clarke when I was a teenager. Then, a couple of years ago, I re-read “Childhood’s End” and found it wasn’t quite the wonderful story I remembered it as being. It was still a good story. It’s just that I was a different reader. I am happy I read those books at that time in my life. But I’m in no hurry to dive back into Clarke and read the ones I haven’t of his.

      Regarding tea, I’ve been enjoying some Darjeeling 1st and 2nd flush. But my supply has almost run out. I just made a lovely cup of Irish Breakfast, a strong, malty Assam blend. I also like matcha and sencha.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Let’s get the strong opinions out of the way first, then I’ll think/write rationally.

    Scalzi is an emasculated wokescold with the backbone of an octopus, the brain of a rat and morals and ethics of a communist rapist. And that is the nice version. I consider anything coming out of his mouth to be either self-serving lies or just plain shit. Plus, his own very woke prejudices are indicated beyond a shadow of a doubt with the very quote you posted. He can go suck on a hot poker!
    /end strong opinion

    Now. Canon for any literary genre is pretty debatable. The longer the printed word can stick around the greater the amount of books in any given genre. Considering that we are also seeing an absolute nuclear proliferation of writers who actually can’t, spewing out their pwecious wittle babies faster than we could even die, I think canon gets even harder to define because of sheer numbers. Add in people like Scalzi who want to censor The Past based on whatever irrational determination they currently think is “Korrekt” and suddenly “canon” becomes not only a moving target, but an irrationally moving target!

    I don’t hold with a “canon” myself but I acknowledge that if I want to take SF beyond mere escapist lit that I need to be at least familiar with authors and books from the past. And I damn well expect a real “author”, not just hack writers like Scalzi, to take the subject seriously. If canon really was an unnecessary as Scalzi claims, then he wouldn’t be so up in arms about it.

    And that is long and ranty enough from me. Great post. Got me to leave a comment like this anyway 😀

    Liked by 4 people

    • Yes! I managed to provoke a rant from Bookstooge. 😂 I enjoy a good rant, so don’t worry. I don’t know that much about Scalzi. I’ve only read one book by him: “Lock In” (2014). I thought it was okay but it didn’t inspire me to read any more by him. I’m aware of his Old Man’s War series, and didn’t he win a Hugo for one of his books? Not that that means much to me.

      Did you read the essay I linked in that quote of his? I get the slight feeling that you are not a fan?.. 🙄 He basically sums up with, read old stuff if you want to, but you shouldn’t feel obliged to. He also wrote that he doesn’t think it should be tossed aside. I think that’s fair.

      I’m the same with you on “canon”. I think it’s useful to be aware of some of it, but there’s no need to read it if you don’t want to. Thanks to some of these “lists” I wrote about, I’ve found some good stories which I may never have read otherwise. I’m going to write more about this in a future post.

      So, shall I send you a signed copy of “Old Man’s War” for your next birthday?

      Liked by 2 people

      • I learned more than I wanted to about Scalzi during the Sad Puppy times.

        I did not read the essay, as I don’t waste my time on anything he says now. He’s lost his chance with me to be rational and so now I just treat him like a telephone ringing. From your description it sounds like he’s trying to have his cake and eat it too. AND he’s speaking as a writer, and what you need as a writer is very different that what you need as a reader.

        I think a reader is a better reader for having read older works. It gives them a foundation and shows them that everything “new” actually isn’t. Perspective, it gives perspective.

        Please do. My brother’s furnace is always in need of fuel 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post, Wakizashi! Maryam’s post also inspired me to make my own list of SF classics – we’ll publish it on the blog sometime soon 😉 I think lists like these are needed – with the caveat that none of them is ever complete and all are subjective. The test of time is the best one we have, unfortunately. But I’m also of the opinion that there exist classics to which we go back time and again – we may not agree with them, but they remain a source of inspiration and discussion for generations upon generations. We do stand on the backs of giants, whether we like it or not.

    As for Scalzi, he seems to have an unusually short memory – I’ve read his Old Man’s War and distinctly remember that it heavily borrowed from both Haldeman and Heinlein, and a few other classicss along the way 😜

    Liked by 4 people

    • Great points, Ola, and thank you. I will certainly look forward to reading your list of SF Classics. It’ll probably take some time but I will be doing mine, too. My only worry is that I read some of these books a while ago, so I might feel a bit different about them today. What can you do? 😅

      As you say, no list is ever complete nor objective. The test of time requires re-reading, and we only have so much reading time. Is that a catch 22?

      One thing that worries me about this whole “canon” debate is that some critics are looking at it through a modern lens and pretty much dismissing it due to “outdated ideas and values”. I’m paraphrasing, but I think you know what I mean. If you start down that path, where does it end? I feel like some people are actively looking for something that will offend them. Is it just me?

      Liked by 3 people

      • Oh, absolutely! The increasing tribalism of our age and its unholy union with cancel culture produces a very toxic environment. We’re getting dumber by day, refusing to accept the lessons of the past. Yes, people in the past were wrong about so many things about as much as we are today – but it doesn’t mean they didn’t have valuable insights or lessons to impart to the future generations. If we stop paying attention to the last, we’re going blind into the future, doomed to discover again and again knowledge known to – and paid dearly by – our predecessors.
        / End of rant 😁

        Liked by 3 people

        • Trying to find a bowing emoji. Claps will have to do. 👏👏👏 I couldn’t have said it better myself. I am sick and tired of cancel culture and the rising toxicity of social media. It’s supposed to be bringing us all closer together but instead it’s creating wider, sharper divisions.
          / Brief rant over 🤬

          Liked by 1 person

          • Thank you, Wakizashi! 😊

            Fortunately, we have one another in the blogosphere, and even if our global influence is negligible, the feeling of comradeship and understanding is enough to give me some hope for the future. I believe the cancel culture, the hatred and xenophobia are a temporary sickness, an irrational response to irrational confluence of events, from economic crises, wars, refugee crises, to pandemic and political crises, to global hunger and poverty… And let’s not forget about the biggest skeleton in our closet, the global warming… So I say we need as much hope and understanding and feeling of comradeship as we can get 😉

            Liked by 2 people

  4. Great blog post Wakizashi! This is a very interesting topic to me. I do want to read many classics because there is often something very enjoyable about them and I want to see how ideas change over time.

    The discussion also brings to mind what writer Ada Palmer said: she is writing her books because she wants to be part of “The Conversation”, and with that she means the on going exploration of humanity through science fiction in which older books like Dune play important earlier roles. The Conversation acknowledges that there have been writers who have created visions that inform what is being written today. A very scientific way of looking at a genre that develops over time.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Excellent followup to Maryam‘s post, thanks for keeping the thoughts flowing!
    While there is the bias of male white writers in SF, the SF masterworks contain at least a couple of stunning female authors‘ works. Like Le Guin, Tepper, Tiptree, to name just three. It’s certainly under-representative, and not only in one way: People of Color are heavily missed, e.g no Octavia Butler (though it has at least Chip Delaney), not to speak of queer authors.
    It’s different in Fantasy which has far more female authors. Maybe that’s also caused by the technicity of the genre. Universities have the same problem in MINT sciences. It seems difficult especially in these subjects to change our culture.
    Please, let me point out the excellent SF Mistressworks list:

    Another topic I‘d like to raise is the question: Up to what year do I consider a work as classic? Because something that has been the newest shit around a short while ago (for me it was Cyberpunk) is „Old Geezers‘ stuff“ right now. It’s a moving date of course.
    I‘d also like to see a retrospective list of this millennium – because that’s already 20 years old (fun question: when does this millennium start? 2001 of course, because there is no year 0).

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, fair representation has always been a problem in the genre, especially up to the early 1980s. I’ve just had a look at David Pringle’s Top 100 and there are only eight titles by female authors. His list is limited to books published between 1949 and 1984. Saying that, it was thanks to his list that I read “Woman on the Edge of Time” (1976) by Marge Piercy–a cool time travel tale. This list also introduced me to the names Joanna Russ and Suzy McKee Charnas, names I wasn’t familiar with before. Octavia Butler’s “Wild Seed” (1980) appears on this list.

      Yes, I was aware of the SF Mistressworks list, but not in detail. Thanks for posting the link. It introduces 100 genre books written by women between 1818(!) and 2000. A great resource worth investigating!

      It’s crazy, isn’t it? Cyberpunk doesn’t feel that old to me but we’re talking 40-plus years ago. I don’t know how to approach the dating issue. Maybe we can make our own definition of what a “classic” is. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I think a problem is the misconception that this is the only canon a well-read modern SF writer should be familiar with. That would indeed give a rather limited perspective. The SF canon is relevant because it shaped our view of the future, but to remain relevant SF authors should take in other influences too. A writer interested in gender in a SF setting should probably explore both SF classics and queer classics, SF horror authors may take inspiration from the general horror canon etc. Taking interesting ideas from other traditions and test what they would look like if set in a future setting is usually a good starting point for interesting SF.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comment. 🙂 All good points. What I found interesting is that I couldn’t find an “official canon list”. There seem to be a number of “classic” authors who are considered to be essential reads. Famous names including Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, and so on. But reading these author’s books should always be a choice, not a necessity. So, I’d love to see some more modern lists, especially covering the last 20 to 40 years. 🤓

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think that if you want to really get into SF, because you want to write it, or write about it, or just because you are really interested in it, then you ought to read the classics too. I don’t see how you could get to the depth of a genre without knowing something of its history. On the other hand, if you read for entertainment, and SF is great for that, then I see no reason to read books you have no interest in.

        I should add here that I’m definitely in the “reading for entertainment group” myself, I have read some SF classics but have major gaps both when it comes to the canon and the more modern works. I have noticed though, in SF and in other genres, that knowing something of the evolution of a genre adds depth to the reading experience, and I think you need that if you want to become an expert. I wouldn’t judge a reader for ignoring the classics but I would be sceptical of an author who had no interest in those whose work formed the genre.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. The best list out there imo is The Classics of Science Fiction list compiled by James Harris. It’s a cumulative list that uses other lists, and the current one is version 5. You can get there via, but it’s not well advertised on that site, so here is the direct link:
    It’s also on WWE if I’m not mistaken.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. As for the basic question: should we read them?

    Depends on your goal. If you just want entertainment, obviously no. If you also read to get an understanding of the genre, and to be able to judge a book as part of the genre, you simply have to read a fair amount of the classics – but obviously also older stuff that didn’t get into the lists.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Awesome post, thanks for writing it and continuing the conversation! 😀
    I second Jeroen’s opinions of Palmer’s Terra Ignota, it’s a truly fantastic series. The last book of the quartet is coming out later this year and I am gladly going to re-read (again) the first three books! 😀
    Seeing the Red Rising books mentioned along Le Guin and Clarke is kind of crazy to me, I enjoyed the books I read in the series but, they were published way to recently to be included in any reasonable “canon” list.
    I didn’t know much about the reasoning behind the S.F. Masterworks line but your post was very informative! I am going to check the links you provided, I do also enjoy looking at lists! 😉
    Speaking of lists, I’m looking forward to Ola’s and your own list of favorite SF classics! I will try to compile my own as well even if I haven’t read that many older science fiction books (yet).

    Liked by 2 people

    • 🤓 It was thanks to your post that inspired me to write mine. So thank you. Two recommendations for Ada Palmer now. I will have to check the first book out.

      Yeah, that Goodreads list was a strange one. I was just surprised that it came up first when I googled “sci fi canon” 😲. Andreas linked the SF Mistressworks unofficial list which looks very interesting.

      I will look forward to seeing your list, too. But there’s no rush. I need to read some more of the older works before I come up with mine. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Scalzi has a vested interest in people not reading the canon since he has a habit of rewriting classic works.

    I haven’t read Old Man’s War, but I have read The Forever War, and Scalzi’s competition among Starship Trooper reactions is very stiff.

    There are a lot of writers today that spend a lot of time shouting that you couldn’t read the canon for two simple reasons: they want people reading their books, not the classics; and politics. Neither means much to me, and I discount their admonitions accordingly. Of course their denigration of the canon often accuses it of being low-quality. I’ve read enough of the classics and enough contemporary speculative fiction to know where quality is more reliably found, so I discount that too. And I care not at all about the color or type of genitalia on writers or their partners.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a good point that I hadn’t considered. Why read some old, outdated story when you can read a more modern rewrite? 😂 Scalzi admits he was/is a big fan of Heinlein, at least. He seems to be a very divisive author. But I’m in no hurry to read his books. Thanks H.P!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have long wanted to do a series on Starship Troopers and the major reactions to it (The Forever War, Bill the Galactic Hero, and Old Man’s War along with at least the first movie). Which would finally get me to read Scalzi.

        Liked by 1 person

        • That’s a great idea. I’ve only read Troopers and The Forever War so far. From what I’ve heard about Old Man’s War, it doesn’t really interest me. It appears to be very popular on Goodreads, though.

          Liked by 1 person

  11. SF Masterworks series is great, but somehow I missed this series from Penguin, covers look great! And “Cyberiad” is among them, that’s something I really liked, when I read it years and years ago, I wonder if the translation is good 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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