Towards a literary canon of science fiction

Introduction and explanation

I've been a science fiction reader for more then twenty years and not only been interested in reading science fiction, but also in the genre itself, its history, its movements and its pecularities. For some years now I've wondered about whether or not there could be constructed a canon of science fiction, analogue to the canon of literature most of us are familiar with from our school days. Is there a body of seminal sf works, of whom anybody interested in the field should be aware?

This is of course a project which, if done properly, will take some time. Every yokel can throw together a slap dash list of favourite authors, to make it more then that one needs to establish reasons to nominate those authors and their books.

Personally, I think a reasonable corpus can indeed be established. To be sure, no two people will entireley agree on which books belong and which don't, or whether it's even worthwhile to try and establish such a canon. Many will probably scoff at the notion, declaring that they know what they like and they'll read what they like, whether or not it's worthy of inclusion in any hypothetical canon.

To which I say: more power to them. I am not going to establish an sf canon to use it as a stick to beat up anybody whose tastes in books does not run parallel to mine; I'm not going to say that those books I choose are the only worthwhile sf books, any other being worthless thrash.

The canon I'm going to try and establish is intended as a tool of enlightment, not a tool of oppression. It's going to be personal, because any such undertaking is, yet at the same time I hope it will be useful to others, perhaps as a guide to the worlds of sf.

Some guidelines

I'm going to concern me with science fiction (sf) as it developed as a genre, from its birth in 1926 in Hugo Gernsback's _Amazing Stories_. I'm not going to concern me with fantasy, that closely related genre, or with socalled "literary" science fiction, sf written by mainstream authors.

Of course, sf stories were written before 1926, by writers such as H. G. Wells, Jules Venre, Mary Shelley and Arthur Conan Doyle. However, before its inception as a genre, as something a writer could specialise just like a writer could specialise in writing detectives, there were no sf writers; just writers who wrote sf, amongst other genres. Only when sf was recognised as a separate genre, you got writers who could write nothing but sf and--just as important-- find an audience big enough to live from writing sf. And those are who interests me.

I want to write down what I think the important sf genre writers are, what their best or most important books are, how they contributed to the development of the genre. I also want to limit myself to genre sf as to make my task easier, also because I'm more knowledgeable about genre sf as opposed to "literary sf".

In the years since Hugo Gernsback started publishing Amazing Stories science fiction has evolved and changed beyond all recognition. From a not very promising start as a pulp genre stuffed with the odds and ends of half a dozen older traditions, it has emerged as a form of literature second t o none. It has become broad enough, distinctive enough, diverse enough to make it almost impossible anymore to find common ground with your fellow sf readers/fans. This is an attempt to re-establish some common ground.

How to establish the canon

It's easy to print out a list of titles and pronounce it the canon. Easy, but not very useful or interesting. In order to be presented as a canon, there should be a good solid, reasoning behind it, other then "Martin thinks these are good books". So how do we decide which books and which others belong in the canon? My method will be to start with the author first:

Who are the most important sf authors and why?

This is an easier and less controversial question to answer then to ask which sf books should be part of the canon. To determine which authors can be considered canon there are several indicators available.

  1. The first is crude, but essential: popularity.
  2. The second is a modifier of the first: longevity.
  3. The third is the measure of critical succes.
  4. The fourth indicator is the influence of an author on others.
  5. Last is what I think of this author. After all, this is _my_ project

Establishing a canon is not an exact science; it starts with your own prejudices, tastes and biases. It is foolish to argue for inclusion in the canon books you haven't read yet; you'd be arguing the opinions of others, not from a solid knowledge of the book itself.

For these reasons I've started by drawing of a list of seminal authors from my own library, explaining for each selection why I think they belong. To support my choices, I'll look at the other three indicators as well.


An authors popularity can be measured by how well his books sell and by whether or not his books are in print. It can also be found by looking at various fan polls.

Critical success

The easiest way to measure critical succes is by looking at the major awards. Science fiction has four major awards: the Hugo, the Nebula, the John W. Campbell award and the Arthur C. Clarke award. The latter two are only awarded for novels, the former have multiple categories; for now, I'll concentrate on the novel categories. The Hugo is voted upon by fans, the Nebula by writers and the Campbell and Clarke award are jury voted awards; they all have slightly different perspectives on what's a good sf novel.

Any author who has won one of the awards should be considered for inclusion in the canon; for writers who have won more awards, especially those who have won different awards this goes more so. When a book wins multiple awards it's also a good sign for inclusion of that particular work in the canon. However, none of the awards is infallible. Sometimes minor or undeserving novels will win, for whatever reason. Certainly the Hugo Awards have a tradition of sometimes rewarding a popular author instead of a worthwhile book.

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Webpage created 27-08-2001, last updated 22-03-2004
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