A few days ago, I had a discussion with my father about SFF and I ended up posting a little thread on Twitter about it. My father has been reading science fiction for decades and he has a particular fondness for older SF books. He loves Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein and Philip K. Dick. He’s a computer science engineer and he’s not afraid of dry and very technical stuff (he sometimes read physics books for fun…). I can’t really say we have the same reading tastes even if we both consider ourselves science fiction fans.
During most of my teenage years, I avoided SF books like the plague and I’m pretty sure it’s because the dusty-looking books on my father’s bookshelves didn’t look that interesting. At the time, I mostly read fantasy books (funny enough, my dad isn’t into this genre at all!) and, even if I attempted to read a few of my father’s books behind his back when I ran out of library books, I always had to put them down because I found them way too dry.
Thanks to my library, I managed to find a few science books that I actually enjoyed and now science fiction is my favorite genre. However, I have never really been intrigued by the “SF canon” that I disregarded as “boring books written by frustrated white old/dead dudes who never managed to go to space”. Nonetheless, now that I consider myself a fan of science fiction, I sometimes ask myself if I should read the classics that I first put aside as “boring stuff”.
I don’t think people should or shouldn’t read the canon of any genre. Not reading Clarke, Heinlein or Asimov is not going to lessen your enjoyment of science fiction. However, I can’t deny that those authors have written books that have influenced the genre and the stories we read now.
However, looking at the books that make the SF canon, I can’t help but to notice that isn’t far off from my initial impression that most of those books were written by “old/dead white dudes”. Of course, some people might say that it is because the publishing industry wasn’t really interested by anything else. To be published, several women had to use pen names like James Tiptree Jr. or Andre Norton. Except from Samuel R. Delany, I can’t say that I know of any other black author that managed to be widely published in the 60’s/70’s. But still, at this point in my life, I don’t really care about the opinions of old straight white men on subjects such as race, gender equality and sexuality. I already hear them way too much in my everyday life.
One solution to this lack of representation would be to expand the canon and give more importance to new voices. Personally, I think Jemisin, Okorafor, Leckie and Yoon Ha Lee are more relevant to the on-going genre conversation than a lot of authors that are part of the canon. Sure, those new authors are likely to have been inspired by them (or by authors that were themselves inspired by it) but you don’t need to read Asimov to understand or enjoy Ancillary Justice.
However, if one decides to read the classics of the genre, who am I to say “no, you should read X instead”? I don’t want anyone to tell me what I can or cannot read so I’m not going to do the same. Still, I think it’s important to read the canon with a critical eye and to put the stories in their context. It’s not because an author or a specific book is famous that it means that it holds all the answers. Reading the canon – in any genre – should be a conversation, a discussion.
So, do I want to read the canon?
Well, yes and no. I have read a few older SF and for the most part, I enjoyed the experience. The Dispossessed was my favorite read of 2020. I, Robot and 1984 are two of my favorite books. I enjoyed 2001: A Space Odyssey quite a bit when I read it last year. However, all those books have imperfections (well, maybe not The Dispossessed #QueenLeGuin) and it’s important to think about them. I have also had not-so good experiences with older titles like Tau Zero by Poul Anderson that I found particularly awful. I’m pretty sure I will always prefer reading newer releases but I still want to keep an open-mind and I am intrigued by several older books.
I want to read Le Guin’s entire backlist, I’m curious about several titles like The Forever War, A Canticle for Leibowitz, The Female Man, the Foundation trilogy, Babel-17 and Dune for example. I also want to read books by C.J. Cherryh and Octavia E. Butler. I’m not against reading the classics of the genre, I just think that they shouldn’t be seen as required reading and that they should always be read critically.
What’s your take on the subject?
Vintage Science Fiction Month is a month-long event celebrating science fiction works published/produced before 1979. The event is hosted by the wonderful Andrea from the blog The Little Red Reviewer.