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.”