September 2008

Paul Kincaid

Science Fiction Skeptic

How to Build a Canon

Two awards-related things happened while I was at the Science Fiction Research Association Conference in Lawrence, Kansas. One was that I got to present the John W. Campbell Memorial Award (I’ve just joined the jury; this, I think, was the perk). The second was that I took part in a round table discussion on awards.

The round table consisted of Karen Joy Fowler (one of the founders of the Tiptree Award), James Gunn (of the Campbell Award and the Sturgeon Award), Maureen Speller (former Clarke Award judge, former chair of the Tiptree jury) and myself (former Clarke administrator, former Hugo administrator, and currently Campbell judge ­- I am clearly collecting awards). The discussion touched all the expected bases: what the different awards are honouring, how the juries are constructed, juried versus popular vote awards, should the jury discussions be made public (no, no and thrice no to this last). But it was a contribution from the audience that set me thinking. Awards, James Van Pelt said from the back of the room, provide a rolling canon.

You know when you get a hole in a tooth and you can’t stop probing it, even though it’s wrong, it’s painful and it’s scary? Well that’s me with the canon. Every so often someone is bound to raise the idea of an sf canon, and every time they do I start playing with the idea, even though I know it’s stupid. I just can’t help myself.

The canon is around 100 years old. Okay, humankind is a list-making species, so there have probably been lists of great books for as long as there have been books. But the canon, per se, arose out of that problematic new university subject, English Literature. Practically, teachers needed to know what to teach; more seriously, they needed to know which great works any civilised (Western, male) person should be familiar with. So you got things like Dr Eliot’s Five Foot Shelf (1909) which became the Harvard Classics.

Of course, the only good thing you can do with a list is argue with it. I’m sure the good Dr Eliot got people telling him that the inclusion of Darwin’s The Origin of Species was evil incarnate, while excluding, say, Tristram Shandy was pure folly. And the more restrictive the idea of the canon became (Leavis, for example, seems to have thought that the only good literature is realist literature), the more people argued. Or else they came up with their own alternative list.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that since science fiction was excluded from the official canon (whatever that was), someone was going to come up with their own sf canon. The first such list probably dates back to the early days of sf fandom; certainly ever since I’ve been involved with science fiction they’ve been cropping up with monotonous regularity. And they’ve been dismissed with equal regularity. Let’s face it, no one other than me is going to come up with a list that includes all my favourites and that doesn’t include any book I don’t rate, so every list is automatically going to be wrong, isn’t it? Anyway, if we can’t agree what science fiction is, how on earth are we going to agree which books are its key archetypal representatives?

But a rolling canon? Now that’s something different.

A rolling canon takes us back to the simple, practical purpose of a canon: to provide a tool for teachers and recommendations for readers (which is one of the things awards are supposed to be for, after all). Particularly with juried awards, a body of (supposed) experts in the genre have already selected these as significant works. And they provide a way for people to keep up with what is happening in what is, when all is said and done, an ever-changing branch of literature.

Of course, any teacher trying to use the rolling canon this way is going to find themselves having to teach a completely new version of the genre every year. And I imagine university libraries not being too happy with the demands this might make on their stocking policy (especially if you use the same principle in other genres). Even so, this seems like such a simple and obvious way of looking at what awards are actually doing.

But what sort of canon does this provide? The award I presented in Lawrence went to In War Times by Kathleen Ann Goonan, a very good book and a popular winner of the Campbell Award. Yet In War Times didn’t even make the shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Which is fair enough, since the winner of the Clarke Award, Black Man by Richard Morgan, didn’t make the shortlist for the Campbell Award. (And neither has been shortlisted for either the Hugo or the Nebula Awards.) So our various bodies of experts aren’t exactly in agreement about what constitutes good science fiction. Or possibly even about what constitutes science fiction; the jury for the World Fantasy Award once named The Prestige by Christopher Priest the best fantasy novel of the year, yet it is a novel which contains not one word of fantasy.

What’s more, you don’t have to go too far back into the past to discover winners of both the Campbell and the Clarke Awards that have provoked howls of derision or outrage. How can you build a canon on the opinions of jurors who are popularly believed to be off their rockers? Though teachers might take some heart from the fact that the Clarke Award winners that provoked the most outrage also seem to have provoked the most academic attention, and that volume of secondary material is always valuable.

Taking any one particular year, therefore, the awards are probably a dodgy basis on which to build a canon. But this is a rolling canon, remember. No award could possibly have a 100% record in choosing the most significant books in the genre. But cumulatively, if you take all the winners and shortlisted titles over time, I suspect there would be very few works that anyone is likely to consider canonical that don’t appear somewhere on the list.

Of course, it’s a bloody big list and it contains a lot of titles that no-one would call canonical. But then, it’s a bloody big genre, and the awards at least cream off those books which are likely to be most worth looking at.

There is one other problem, however. We’ve only really had juried awards in science fiction for twenty-odd years. Popular vote awards are older, the first Hugo Award was presented in 1953 (to Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, there was no shortlist), the first Nebula Award was in 1965 (for Dune by Frank Herbert, 11 other books were shortlisted). I suspect that both The Demolished Man and Dune would appear on most people’s canon of the works that have shaped the genre, though neither the Hugo nor the Nebula has been all that consistent in recognising groundbreaking work. Nevertheless, if a canon really is about the books that should be read for a full understanding of the genre, then half a century isn’t really long enough for a full historical grounding in science fiction. A rolling canon is a wonderful snapshot of where the genre is now, it’s not really that much use for seeing how it got that way.

Which is why, next time around, as a hostage to fortune, I’ll offer my own suggestions for an sf canon up to 1953.