Ever since I read S. L. Huang’ post on who chooses sf classics I’ve been thinking about this:
I don’t understand how we can have a genre where “You haven’t read HEINLEIN (/Asimov/Clarke/Bradbury/Dick/etc.)??” are common and accepted refrains, and “You haven’t read BUTLER??” is almost unheard. Why aren’t we saying it? Why isn’t Octavia Butler considered “required reading” of the classics in order to consider oneself a True SF Fan? Why don’t people feel left out and incomplete if they haven’t read her?
I don’t really know what defines a classic, or who should get to say what one is. But I do know I find myself feeling deeply uncomfortable with any popular mentality that shames people for not reading influential white men while giving a pass to those who skip the influential black women.
Now ideally, as Damon Knight put it, “science fiction is that what we say it is when we point at it”, meaning that it’s an ongoing debate between writers, editors, publishers, critics, readers and fans that determines what the core of the genre is. Put simply, books that are written as science fiction, accepted by publishers as part of a science fiction line, reviewed as such and talked about as science fiction, are science fiction. And vice versa; The Handmaid’s Tale clearly is science fiction, but because Margaret Atwood has taken pains to deny this, it was published by a mainstream publisher and treated by critics as literature rather than sci-fi, it’s not part of science fiction in the same way “If This Goes On…” is.
Clearly if there is such a thing as a science fiction canon, a core group of novels, stories and writers that you should’ve read to be knowledgeable about science fiction, it should be determined in the same way, ever changing and evolving as science fiction changes and evolves, and yet it hasn’t much evolved beyond the holy “Heinlein/Clarke/Asimov” trinity and their fellow mostly male, mostly white, mostly dead Golden Age collegues. Why?
I blame it on the seventies.
The seventies was a watershed moment for (English language) science fiction. The genre as a genre was roughly half a century old and those who had grown up with it in the thirties, forties and fifties were now old enough to be nostalgic about it. Science fiction had grown up from paraliterature only found in cheap pulps into something halfway into respectability, for the first time getting sustained critical attention from outside of fandom. It was popular, but would only truly become mainstream in the wake of Star Wars and it was still barely possible in the early to mid seventies to read every science fiction book published in a given year. The seventies were also the decade where the centre of the genre switched from the magazines to the novel, with novels getting longer as they no longer needed to take into account serialisation.
Finally, there was also the backlash against the upheavals science fiction went through in the sixties and seventies. First there was the British New Wave, where writers like Aldiss, Ballard and Moorcock imported literary techniques into science fiction, which was exported by Judith Merril to the US leading to the American version, more explicitly taboo breaking and political, through Delany, Dick, Russ and LeGuin, to name but a few, which resulted in a new revelance in science fiction, a willingness to engage with the political, sociological and ecological issues of the day. For a lot of science fiction professionals and fans alike, these were not welcome developments and there was a strong, nostalgic backlash against it.
It’s in this climate that the science fiction “canon” got established, through a flood of popular histories and coffee table books, like Brian Ash’ The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction or David Kyle’s A Pictoral History of Science Fiction, as well as through publishing programmes like Ballantines/Del Rey’s The Best of… series, reprinting short stories by the best science fiction writers of the Golden Age. The rough consensus therefore that emerged was conservative and nostalgic in nature, created by people who’d themselves been around science fiction for decades, well read and knowledgeable about it, but perhaps somewhat blinkered to everything that falls outside it.
We’re still living with that consensus, that canon, forty years later; it’s high time we re-evaluate it.