|The Anti-Canon of Science Fiction, Part 1.
||[Jan. 9th, 2008|10:05 pm]
|||||Hooverphonics - Others Delight||]|
Many of us have by following the request for suggestions for science fiction books and authors by avenray. We've all had a good time overwhelming her with suggestions and touting our favourite authors. The list that has emerged so far has got me to thinking about canons, those authors deemed largely essential to anyone who considers themselves interested in literature, how they are formed, and how useful they can be. The list, as it has congealed, seems to include novels by the authors listed below, who have been mentioned several times and praised, often justly, to their sci-fi heavens. They mostly represent the Science Fiction Canon, as is often represented in, for instance, the Cambridge Guide to Science Fiction, or other such illustrious tomes, whether they consider themselves encyclopedia, best of lists or critical books by SF authors like Brian Aldiss' Trillion Year Spree. Here is that list, as far as I can tell (I've left my own suggestions out for the moment, because they were, well, idiosyncratic to say the least):
Kim Stanley Robinson
Arthur C. Clarke
Philip K. Dick
Ursula K. Le Guin
There were some other votes for A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller, and Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes, and Margaret Atwood got in there, though strictly speaking she doesn't like to be considered a science fiction author, so I'll leave her out. Octavia Butler has not been received as Canon until recently; same goes for Samuel Delany, one of the beardiest, most tattoed, old homosexual black science fiction writers out there; they both end up seeming like the token black tacked on at the end....as I have done here. Oops. I'm not accusing the SF community of being racist, because, well, Neal Stephenson usually doesn't make the Canon lists either, but generally, they are often discussed within the context of race, gender or sexuality, rather then as SF authors in their own (which is partly a result of what they write about, I know!)
Quibbles aside, that leaves a pretty solid list of the best SF writers we could all come up with, and it's a pretty damn good list, we all agree. These authors, except for maybe Butler, Robinson and possibly Lem, have been pretty damned influential; they are names we associate almost automatically with science fiction. The ideas postulated in their works are often still be grappled with today, especially in Asimov's and Heinlein's case (Asimov for robots, Heinlein for politics) Gibson defined a whole genre. Le Guin produced some of the most intellectual works of their kind, and Dick and Clarke, well, we got Blade Runner from Dick, and 2001 from Clarke; for those movies alone, their names are secure.
Every canon has its detractors, and I would argue, from personal taste that Heinlein and Asimov are overrated in the sense that their shadow tends to eclipse other, less famous authors, and because their Canon status as A BIG DEAL has made it harder, in many cases, to question the weakness, as literature, or as speculative work about human society, of their body of works. I think Gibson was a one note wonder, essentially, and that Wyndham also tended to write very similar novels, often not very impressively. Clarke started writing sequels, and everything went down hill thereafter, but his classic novels (Childhood's End, Rendezvous with Rama) are still excellent. Huxley lectures in his novels, and we all know...ahem...how boring lectures can be in fiction.
The point remains, however, that Heinlein and Asimov deserve to be on the list (much, much less certain about Wyndham). I do, however, have two points to make about this list: that it is made up of authors from the last fifty or sixty years, and that almost all of them are white, male English-speaking and generally American or British in some way. There is one non-British European, two women, one of whom is black. Several major authors didn't make it, specifically Jules Vernes and H. G. Wells, to whom most of the writers on this list owe a great debt, as they are generally writing in response to these two authors initial works. The inclusion of Jules Verne, often considered the first major science fiction writer, is important, because he is usually the token European on any list of essential science fiction, or in a history of science fiction.
As I was discussing with gdh there is a deep chauvinism in much established science fiction criticism, from the Cambridge History of Science Fiction down to illustrated encyclopaedia's, pop histories and 'best of' lists that pop up on the internet. The assumption hasn't changed since the days of Kingsley Amis and his study of science fiction, New Maps of Hell, repeated, for instance, in Brian Aldiss' Trillion Year Spree, that science fiction is essentially an American and British enterprise, with a few European forefathers, true, but mostly, especially after 1950, something that only the English-speaking world could produce or produce the best, the Germans and Japanese being just pale imitators. The popularity of manga and anime has broken some of this cultural monopoly, but it still remains, the idea that the science fiction literature of the English-speaking world is the most essential, the best written, fully representative of the world at large. Of course it isn't, but this chauvinism, or perhaps ignorance, runs very deep, and extends to fiction of all sorts: the Random House/Modern Library list of the best books of the century includes NO book that wasn't composed in English, although a few books by non-Britons, Canadians, Australians or Americans found there way on (http://www.randomhouse.com/modernlibrary/100rivallist.html)
That, my friends, is not a good library.
My next post will include a list that I will explain further as we go,
One final proviso: THIS POST IS NOT MEANT AS AN INSULT OR ATTACK ON ANY OF MY FRIENDS TASTES! I treasure the fact that I have so many friends who are passionate about science fiction, who love it, who read it, who discuss it, and it isn't somehow a deep fault of yours that you, say, love Heilein, Asimov or anyone else on the Canon list above. As I said, they are all good authors....but I feel restless with such a list. All Canons tend to make me feel a little stifled, and I itch to suggest, to goad, to guide, whoever is interested toward books and authors that might be interesting to them! Also, I like making lists like this.