“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
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.
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’s “100 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]
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?
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!