Types of canon/key texts

In yesterday’s post I suggested two roles for “canonical” books within SFF.

  1. They can act as kind of metonyms for time periods, literary movements or sub-genres.
  2. They make it easier to talk about current works by providing common points of comparison.

Are there other roles? I think within discussions of canon there is a sense of books whose role it is to edify the reader, the books that will make you (somehow) a better reader. I’m sceptical that any books really fit that criteria and even more sceptical that we can find a common set of such books. However, there are clearly books that themselves provoke further books and as such books that get referenced in later works and later works that can be seen as response to earlier works. Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers being an obvious example of such a work. This is canon as a kind of feedback loop of significance — the books that are themselves critiques of Troopers lend significance to Troopers as a book. You don’t have to have read Starship Troopers to enjoy Kameron Hurley’s Light Brigade but having some familiarity with Heinlein’s book adds an element to Hurley’s book.

Stories in dialogue with past works does not need to be with works that are within SFF’s canon or even familiar work. To pull an example from this year’s Hugo Awards, Siobhan Carroll’s For He Can Creep made great use of the work of 18th century poet and critic Christopher Smart — a figure not well known among SFF readers (or at least not well known to me). However, even as an exception the story shows how familiarity with past works can enhance the appreciation of current works — discovering the additional layers in the story after reading more about Smart added more enjoyment to the story for me,

This use of past works (famous or obscure) as points of reference within current works has a lot of similarities with the two points I raised above (a way of pointing to time periods & sub genres and as a way of making points of comparisons). However, it’s not quite the same thing as either of them. So I’ll expand my list to three roles for “canon”:

  1. They can act as kind of metonyms for time periods, literary movements or sub-genres.
  2. They make it easier to talk about current works by providing common points of comparison.
  3. They provide points of dialogue for current works with the past.

If the first two are ways that canonical works (in a very broad and often populist sense) are ways of talking about the genre external to the texts (in reviews or looking at the history of the genre or trying to point at an aesthetic), the third is a similar kind of discussion that can occur within the text of a novel. Point 3 also implies a discussion between author and reader about other works that both may be familiar with. However, point 3 by itself is a poor way of establishing canonical SFF works because many of the most interesting points of comparison go beyond the genre. George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones) points to the historical events of England’s War of the Roses as well as the Shakespearean historical plays that cover the same events. George Lucas took a magpie like approach with the first Star Wars film and littered it with references not just to SF cinema serials of the 1940s but also Japanese historical movies (Hidden Fortress) and World War 2 movies (Dambusters, 633 Squadron). Are then Shakespeare’s Richard III and Walter Grauman‘s 1964 633 Squadron sci-fi canon as a consequence? [And for added circularity, Richard III ends with Henry Tudor taking the throne, who himself exploited references to fantastical stories by linking himself and his family with British legends].

But you still really don’t need to watch Hidden Fortress or any film by Akira Kurosawa to enjoy Star Wars. There still really is no required reading (or watching). Indeed, a work that really requires advanced homework is unlikely to be a success. Consider flipping that though. You don’t need to watch Hidden Fortress to enjoy Star Wars but did George Lucas need to watch Hidden Fortress to MAKE Star Wars? There’s a fourth role here, canonical works as type-examples of craft.

Older works provide material for newer works and also provide examples of how to construct stories. Such examples can be copied, subverted or purposefully opposed. This is very similar to my point 3 above but the difference here is that I’m pointing at the relationship between the author and their work rather than the relationship between the author, the work and the reader. I think this is sufficient to add a fourth role for canon:

  1. They can act as kind of metonyms for time periods, literary movements or sub-genres.
  2. They make it easier to talk about current works by providing common points of comparison.
  3. They provide points of dialogue for current works with the past.
  4. They provide type examples of “how to” (or “how not to”) create current works.

These four points all have a lot of overlap and each one implies the other. What they don’t do is imply a clear set of canonical works. Points 1 and 2 really do require overt general familiarity with SFF works from the past…but not in detail. Point 3 can be in connection with famous works or obscure works or works from whole other genres or media. Point 4 can be overt and public or it can be more private or even unconscious (I don’t know but maybe if you read a lot of Jane Austen in your teens maybe it influences your writing as an adult even if your chosen genre is cyberpunk vampire stories[1]).

I really don’t see those four roles resulting in a definitive list of canonical books but maybe there is a core set of works that are firstly within the broad SFF genre and which tick each of those boxes? If so, I wouldn’t know where to start. I was struck, for example, when doing my homework for the Hugosauriad that Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” is not a great example of Bradbury’s writing. It’s fine as a story and it is massively influential and of course sparked it’s own dialogue with future stories almost immediately. However, a current writer looking for how to bottle some of Bradbury’s prose magic would gain more from a different story of his.


[1]”It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a lone vampire in possession of a large number of block-chained credits, must be in want of an AI Renfield avatar-bot net. However, little known the feelings or views of such a vampire may be on their first entering a node-cluster, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding clans, that they are considered the rightful property of some one or other of their blood-hackers.”

22 thoughts on “Types of canon/key texts

  1. It’s obvious that publishers should sell modern SFF works bundled with the canon in such a way that the modern works can only be unlocked after the reader has finished with the relevant books in the canon. It goes without saying that selling modern SFF by itself should be forbidden.

    For instance, in order to read Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade, readers would have to first read Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. In order to read one of Charles Stross’s Laundry novels, readers would first have to read all of the Cthulhu mythos stories Lovecraft published in his lifetime.

    This way every reader will have to engage with the canon. Not only will it enrich their reading of modern works, but it would enrich the estates of those writers whose works are not already in the public domain.

    I see no way in which this plan could go wrong. Also, I am not a crank.

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  2. “You don’t need to watch Hidden Fortress to enjoy Star Wars ”

    You don’t need, too, but you should, if only because of all the things which supposedly influenced Star Wars, The Hidden Fortress is by far the best. I watched it because of the Star Wars connection and it made me a Kurosawa fan.

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  3. It’s very interesting to revert the usual idea of canon, and start by the uses instead of the usual social value based approach in a Baudrillard/Bourdieu kind of sense.

    I guess it would be hard to get to a list this way without consulting the usual canon lists, the best of which I think is the accumulated list by Harris and Jorgensen https://classicsofsciencefiction.com/classics-of-science-fiction-list/by-rank/

    Anyother method would need to start from anekdotes like you do in your posts, or surveys of readers/authors.

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  4. I’d say that canon works are also those that live on in public consciousness in figures of speech and expressions.

    As an example, we have “I have created a monster” so deeply connected to Frankenstein. We have Utopian connected to the story of the same name. Cyberpunk or really Whateverpunk connected to Neuromancer after which it became fashionable to add “punk” to every genre. And so on.

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    1. There’s a case for that I think. However, Utopia isn’t widely read for example which makes its position as canon incongruous. Čapek’s R.U.R. is another interesting example as well.

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      1. I do not really agree that a work has to be widely read to be canon. I think it is enough to be well-known, deemed as important and brought up in discussions, even if only in academia.

        Canon is a fake concept only of relevance to academia. What people enjoy reading is something different.

        As an example, I would put I, Robot on the canon for defining the three robot laws, the discussions around that entered into mainstream. I would not add The Foundation to it as it’s more an insular concept that hasn’t aged well. Even if I enjoyed the latter more.

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      2. After all, several of the “well-read books” wouldn’t be well-read at all anymore if people weren’t forced to read them in school because those were the books the teachers were forced to read in school.

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      3. I’m reminded of one of the “—upmanship” books on the topic of the readings. A student laments that she’s worked it all out, and there isn’t enough time for her to read all the books, and the response is, “Don’t forget you also have to read the sources, and the sources of the sources!”

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  5. Another motivation for generating “canons” is so that readers can produce other readers to discuss works with. If I like Bujold (which, of course, I do), I gain potential discussion partners if I recommend those books to others – but those books are relatively recent, and easy to find. If I love Canticle For Leibowitz (which again, I do), promoting that book as a part of SF canon generates potential discussion partners for a book that might otherwise be out of print. This view of why people like to define “canons” is the inverse of the “gatekeeping” role of a canon, I suppose.

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  6. There’s a whole subgenre of Lovecraftian stories that are much easier to appreciate if you read Lovecraft’s work. Since his entire ouvre is only half a million words, this is only a slightly bigger commitment than reading Seveneves.

    I did this myself five years ago so I could do a better job of reviewing the dozens or more of stories that come out every year with significant Lovecraftian elements, and I do think it helped.

    However, it’s not exactly fun to do. Lovecraft had lots of cool ideas, but he really couldn’t write worth a damn. Nevermind the racism and sexism, the writing itself is a burden, although he did get better over time.

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    1. Yes, with stories that refer to other works, it really helps to know the work the stories are referring to. For example, my mother had problems with the two Hugo finalist novellas a few years back that were direct responses to Lovecraft, because she’s never read Lovecraft. She did try to read “Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath”, when it was up for a Retro Hugo last year and her reaction was basically, “What the hell is this and why is this guy famous?”

      I frequently have issues with stories that are direct or indirect responses to Narnia, because I’ve never read Narnia. I recall being very confused by a Neil Gaiman story in which some woman named Susan railed against someone named Aslan, because her siblings had died in a train crash and thought, “What is the point of this?”, because I didn’t recognise the reference, since the Narnia books are little known in Germany. Though I can report that Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is perfectly understandable and enjoyable, even if you haven’t read Narnia.

      That said, I’m not going to read the Narnia novels now, unless I was planning to write a scholarly paper on Narnia and the stories it influences (which I’m not going to do). Because i’m way out of the target audience and the window during which I might have enjoyed the Narnia books passed long ago. Besides, given my bad experiences with Perelandra and Out of the Silent Planet during the Retro Hugos, I’ve come to the conclusion that Lewis’ fiction isn’t for me, even though I like some of his criticism. .

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      1. I cannot in conscience recommend anyone read anything by C.S. Lewis, but I will say that the Narnia books are more fun than the Space Trilogy books. They aren’t all that much better, but they mostly avoid things like the ponderous preachy passages in Perelandra. They are also really quite short. I went back and reread a couple when my now college-age kids were preteens, and it didn’t take more than an hour or two to get through each book.

        For anyone who does read them, I recommend reading them in publication order, not the later released versions that are in “chronological” order. They are better that way, because the handful of “reveals” are unspoiled.

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  7. Aaron:
    “For anyone who does read them, I recommend reading them in publication order, not the later released versions that are in “chronological” order. They are better that way, because the handful of “reveals” are unspoiled.”

    Definitely. The internal chronological order is based on a misunderstanding of Lewis’ response to a young fan who _after_ he had read all the books in publication order, had chosen to reread them in internal chronological order. That’s fine – but one’s first experience should be in publication order (that’s the way Lewis wrote them after all) so that reveals are unspoiled.

    P.S. That young fan was John W. Campbell, Jr’s nephew! Small world…

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