On the SF “Canon” and the Development of Art

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.

PEACE, AGYAR, Neil, and Me

Warning: This post contains major spoilers for Peace by Gene Wolfe, Agyar, and how to make me swear loudly.

I came to Gene Wolfe late, and at first didn’t like him; I stopped reading Shadow of the Torturer about a quarter of the way through because I wasn’t enjoying it. Then, when everyone I respected kept raving about it, I tried again, this time forcing myself to read slowly and think about each word, each sentence, and, well, you know what happened.   There aren’t enough o’s in wow.  So then I went out and grabbed everything of his I could find, like you do.  And all went well until I came across Peace.

I read it.  All the way to the end.  Then I scratched my head, and did what everyone does when confused by a Gene Wolfe novel: I called Neil Gaiman.  “Neeeeeillll?” I said.  “Help meeeeee?  I just read Peace and I don’t get it.  An old guy wanders around his house.  Wolfe would never write a book that’s just an old guy wandering around his house.  What am I missing?”

“Right,” he said in that delightful accent I used to be able to imitate perfectly but no longer can which is probably for the best.   “You know that tree that falls over on the first page?  Halfway through the book he plants it.”


“He’s a ghost.”


“And, during the course of the book, he commits between four and six cold-blooded murders, but he doesn’t tell you.  Well, he tells you, but he doesn’t tell you.”


“Remember when he goes prospecting with his partner, and then after that he’s rich and you never hear from the partner again?”


So I read it again, and, like, there aren’t enough o’s in wow.  It set off almost every one of my Cool detectors, which is hard to do, because some of them are set up to only be on when another is off.  But let’s not get into that.

A year or two went by, and one night a chance remark during a conversation with my brother-in-law on an entirely different topic closed the final switch in the “I know what let’s do!” circuit.  I stood up, mumbled something at said brother-in-law, dashed upstairs to my study, and wrote all night.  Because what had clicked was this: What if I wrote a vampire novel, but never said he was a vampire?  Just, you know, this sociopath wandering around doing terrible things, and maybe I could plant a few clues so some people would get it, but never actually say what’s going on.  Wouldn’t that be fun?  I mean, I’d decided years before that I’d never write a vampire novel, because Chelsea Quinn Yarbro had already done everything I’d have wanted to do in Hotel Transylvania.  But then this happened, and I stayed up all night writing the first chapter.

I showed it to my writers group, wondering if I should tell them right away what was going on, or if I ought to wait and see how well it worked when they didn’t know.  They said, “Oh, you’re writing a vampire novel.”

I showed it my agent, who said, “Oh, you’re writing a vampire novel.”

I showed it to my editor, who said, “Oh, you’re writing a vampire novel.”


Anyway, I wrote it, it’s one of my books I’m most happy with, and I’m also happy that, many years later, I got to tell that story on a panel when Gene was in the audience, and he laughed a lot.

A Reading For You

Skyler White and I recently finished a book called The Sword of Happenstance, which, we hope, someone will want to buy.  Just for fun, we then took a chunk of it and turned it into a short story, and then, for even more fun, we turned the short story into a performance piece.  So for those interested, the reading can be found here.

(Also, thanks to Chris Olson who sort of started this project, and Jeff Printy for doing the audio-video work.)