John Scalzi has, as is his wont, produced a thought-provoking post. This one is about the SF “Canon” (I’m finding it difficult to type that without quotation marks, which may tell us something). You can find his remarks here. He was kind enough to mention me as an influence, for which I am duly flattered.
I’m writing about this for two reasons, neither of which have to do with the question, “Is there actually a science fiction canon, and, if so, should new writers study it?” The reasons are, first, with all that is going on in the world right now, with all the difficulties and challenges in both understanding it, and in communicating that understanding, it struck me as a relief to pull my brain away from that for a few minutes, and talk about art as if it existed apart from everything else—which, although clearly nonsense, can be treated as true for a short time. The second reason is that it struck a chord with some things I’ve been thinking about, and I want to see if my thoughts will come together coherently (the answer is either that they will, or you’ll never see this post).
Strictly speaking, I disagree with John to some extent (did I qualify that enough?), but for all practical purposes, my disagreements are trivial. I’m going to immediately move away from that, and talk about what all of this made me think of, and then pull it back.
Every form of art (art, in this case, being given the broadest possible definition), every sub-form, every genre and sub-genre, develops by contradiction, that is, in dialog with and (to a greater or lesser degree) in opposition to earlier forms. The breathtaking changes in the world around us (ha. I should have known I couldn’t stay away from that) strike artists as well as everyone else, because, you know, artists live here too. Our familiarity, whether deep or shallow, intense or casual, with the earlier works that made us want to create this stuff, is a huge part of what drives us, what gives us, consciously or unconsciously, our sense of, “this is good, this is bad, this is what I want to accomplish, this is what I want to stay away from.”
This means that every time something significantly new comes along—in painting, in music, or in science fiction—it involves a rejection of what went before. One can almost hear the earliest punk artists, or the realist painters, or the “new-wave” science fiction writers, screaming at the past, “How come you didn’t do this?” The rejection of what went before, of its assumptions, aesthetic, ways of addressing the viewer, are exactly what gives the new form or approach its dynamics, its energy. I think this is a good thing, but that’s beside the point too, because it is also inevitable.
But here’s where it gets interesting: As we reject the old in order to bring in the new, some will carry it deeper. The most serious and dedicated will inevitably, at a certain point in their development, find themselves going backward, looking to those who came before, studying them, learning, and sometimes rejecting them at a deeper level, and sometimes finding important elements that they can incorporate in their work. As before, that I consider this a good thing doesn’t matter, because it will happen in any case. As for what should and should not be considered “canon” within our sub-field, I think time spent arguing about it is time wasted. Those writers who, in their drive to create what is new and exciting, will find themselves exploring what is old, will determine that on their own, find what is valuable, reject what is not, and move forward.