There is an on-going discussion about SFF canon amid general dissatisfaction with a couple of related aspects of this years Hugo Awards.
The short version of my take on all this is that canon is important but it is not THAT important. Put another way, there are books of great historical significance and there exactly zero books that you must read.
Canonical books and writers serve two roles:
- They can act as kind of metonyms for time periods, literary movements or sub-genres.
- They make it easier to talk about current works by providing common points of comparison.
The second point implies a populist conception of canon where it isn’t the critical acclaim of a work but its popular influence. For example, I think it is an easy argument to make that when looking at contemporary fantasy Avatar: The Last Air Bender is a key text, even though it was a kid’s cartoon (all be it one that was critically acclaimed as a kid’s cartoon).
On the first point I’d cite Chuck Tingle’s Space Raptor Butt Invasion, which has canonical qualities to it but which is also a shining example of something that is not required reading. Yet it’s existence is a simple way of pointing to a whole gaggle of aspects of SFF publishing in the second decade of the 21st century (social media, Amazon ebook niches, culture wars etc). You don’t need to have read it to make sense of a whole bunch of stuff that went on in that recently departed decade but it really helps to know about it if you are hoping to make sense of a whole pile of things.
Significance, impact and influence are more relevant factors when thinking about canonical works (IMHO) than literary merit or critical acclaim (or awards) but those factors aren’t wholly independent of each other either.
But canon is also political. Political in the sense of power and of privilege. This is true whether we think of canon in terms of edifying work of great literary merit or canon in the more populist sense that I am using. Not all works get the same chances and “significance” and “influence” can exist for good and bad reasons. That is an issue when considering history in general. The British Empire is of great historical significance but mainly because of all the damage it caused in multiple regions around the world. Historical significance includes disasters, wars and acts of malice and when we consider literary significance there are parallels. Works or influential figures can be significant not just in spite of negative aspects but because of them.
John W Campbell is manifestly a significant figure in science fiction. His role as an influential editor shaped popular perceptions of science fiction particularly in the US (and hence because of the political, cultural and economic power of the US, the world). So yes, if you want to understand science fiction in a historical context it is hard to ignore Campbell. But…it’s hard to ignore Campbell because Campbell was powerful and the how and why of “powerful” are necessarily political questions.
And so Campbell himself becomes a metonym not just for SFF in his time but also for debates about SFF and its future in our time.
Consider two propositions (one of which I believe to be false):
- John W Campbell was an influential figure in science fiction because his talent & skills as an editor, his imagination & skill as a creator of science fiction, and his vision/aesthetic for science fiction were better than his contemporaries. He gained that influence because of his own individual competence.
- John W Campbell was an influential figure in science fiction through a combination of chance, wider social forces, some genuine talent and skill, and personal ambition.
I don’t think I need to belabour that the first proposition is the one I think is false. What is significant about it is that proposition 1 is not just a ‘great man’ view of history but also neatly aligns with the pseudo-libertarian view of history which also neatly aligns with that section of science fiction fandom that also regards itself as Campbellian in outlook.
The compulsion to not just make some historical figures canonical but also to canonise them is even more obvious in one of Campbell’s proteges, L Ron Hubbard. Hubbard famously (and with Campbell’s initial assistance) first blurred the boundary between science fiction and pseudoscience with Dianetics and then went on to found his own toxic religion. Within Scientology Hubbard’s science fiction writing is consider the most significant of all and part of Hubbard’s visionary powers.
That Scientology is manifestly nonsense and that Hubbard’s role as a cult leader is largely undisputed outside of Scientology, makes Hubbard a simpler figure to talk about than Campbell. If I write Tweets about Hubbard’s many and well documented flaws, nobody (aside from Scientologists) is going to get upset or use such Tweets as an example of ‘cancel culture’. Put another way Hubbard arrives in a discussion about the history of US science fiction pre-cancelled. However, if you want to know about the history of the genre, Hubbard is definitely a figure you should know about but clearly NOT because he was a good person or because he was a particularly talented writer but because he was somebody who used the genre to gain power and influence far beyond his abilities.
What Scientologists do with Hubbard is to take the undeniable significance of Hubbard to their movement and then re-apply that significance as a moral virtue of Hubbard, which in turn establishes in their eyes the broader moral virtue of Hubbard as a person. For want of a better term, let’s call that process Hubbardisation — the process of canonising influential figures in science fiction. The flip-side of Hubbardisation’s confusion of significance with virtue is that when people cite facts about the painted-saints of SFF that cast them in a bad light (Campbell’s racism for example) it is perceived as an attack on their significance because of the confusion of significance with virtue. The more you think about it the weirder it is, after all there’s no shortage of historical figures in wider history who are significant precisely because THEY WERE BAD PEOPLE (Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler).
Not every notable SFF writer is equally Hubbardised. I guess on the left Le Guin gets somewhat Hubbardised and I get the defensiveness that arises when people point out the moral failings in writers you admire. Other writers not so much. Philip K Dick seems less prone to this process — his struggles with mental health are perhaps too integral to his work for him to be seen as saintly and hence he is romanticised into a tragic figure.
I’ve talked about two aspects of canon but there is a third aspect of looking at literary history which is that it is a buried treasure house. Not everybody is going to enjoy older works but plenty of people do. There is also a hidden history of people whose influence was minimised, under-played or erased from popular recounts. We can infer as well that there must be many people and works that in different circumstances would have been of great significance but through social and political circumstances or the malign influence of powerful figures, never had the opportunity. Exploring this other history is valuable and rewarding in itself but also helps us understand how interesting works and creators still end up being sidelined and marginalised today.