Aphra Behn, Charles Dickens, Charles Eliot, Eugene Sue, F.R. Leavis, H.G. Wells, Harold Bloom, Iain Banks, Ian Sales, Margaret Cavendish, Matthew Arnold, Robert Heinlein, Tom Godwin, Walter Scott, William Shakespeare
Two things have struck me forcibly over the last week. One, at the Iain Banks conference, was the insistence that Banks would still be read 100 years from now. The other, on this blog, was Ian Sales insisting that the nature of hard sf has changed, and so a work like ‘The Cold Equations’ or, by implication, any of its contemporaries, is irrelevant to any current discussion of the form. These are two conflicting views of the same issue: canonisation.
Any formal view of the canon, so far as I can see, serves only one purpose: to start arguments. It wasn’t meant to be like that. The canon is actually a rather patrician implement that came into its own around the latter years of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century, roughly when Literature began to be seen as a valid subject for study at universities. It can be found, I suppose, in the uniform editions of Shakespeare and Scott and Dickens that were sold on subscription to aspirant lower middle class families during the 19th century and could still be found in many middle class homes well into the latter part of the 20th century. It began, also, with things like the Five Foot Shelf, which turned into the Harvard Classics, and echoes of which can still be found in things like the Norton Anthologies. It was, primarily, an attempt to identify what could be taught as part of a ‘liberal’ education, but the standards it implied were those of the day. That is, the canon was determined by ideas of moral or social or cultural ‘worth’, by standards that are indefinable, liable to change, and above all extraneous to any literary quality in the work. We get a flavour of this as late as the Lady Chatterley trial, when one barrister famously asked if we would be happy letting our wives or servants read the book.
That is not how we imagine the canon to be, of course, and it is probably not what people like Matthew Arnold and Charles Eliot and F.R. Leavis and Harold Bloom imagined they were doing when they formulated and re-formulated the canon. No, the canon is that set of literature that endures and deservedly so, that speaks to us down the ages, that anybody who imagines themselves cultured should be familiar with because they underpin the culture itself. Occasionally some work or other might slip out of the canon to be replaced by a marginally more recent book, but in the main the canon is immutable, it is the skeleton of our literary history and it cannot be changed too much without changing the whole nature of the creature. The canon embodies what we should understand by literary quality, or, to prefigure where this discussion will be going, the science fiction canon embodies what we should understand science fiction to be.
Except, of course, that the canon is not and cannot be immutable. Take a look at the works that constitute Dr Eliot’s Five Foot Shelf which pretty well encapsulates how the canon was seen a hundred years ago. How many of those works survive in any meaningful sense today? How many of those that do survive (at least to the extent that they are vaguely familiar, we know the title, we think we may have heard something about them) do so only because they have been taught and taught again down the generations? In other words, of how many of these works are we likely to concede its place on the canon simply because it was once chosen to be in the canon and so got picked for university curricula?
Nevertheless, this absolutist view of the canon, particularly the sense of it underpinning the culture (whatever we might take the culture to be), still has a surprisingly strong hold on us. If you want a good argument, just raise the canonical status of someone’s favourite. How can you understand modern science fiction if you don’t understand Heinlein? Godwin no longer has a place in the history of science fiction. Now batten down the hatches and wait out the storm.
Informally, however, I think the notion of a canon is useful. Not as a fixed anatomy of the literature, but as a loose, flexible and above all personal perspective on what we, as individuals, expect the literature to be. We all build our own private canons constructed out of what survives from our own personal reading. My canon might overlap with yours, but that is not to build a public or an immutable canon out of the coincidence. Writing here about the Hugo Awards a little while ago, I noted that when the awards were first created the universe of potential voters was small and the universe of eligible works was equally small. It was theoretically possible for all the voters to have read all of the eligible works in any one year. In those circumstances some communal view about ‘worth’ might arise, though I doubt very much if there would be any real agreement about what is actually meant by ‘worth’. Nowadays, however, the universe of voters is several times bigger, as is the universe of eligible works. It is impossible for any one voter to have read all of the eligible works, so any communal consensus is unlikely to arise. I have heard it suggested that award shortlists constitute a sort of rolling canon. It’s an attractive notion, but as things become more diffuse – more awards being picked by more people from an ever bigger range of works according to ever more varied standards of worth – so any resultant canon will become vaguer, less open to agreement. Speaking personally, I might look at the sf award winners from, say, the 1960s and think that most of them are among what I might consider the more significant works of the genre, with, of course, a number of regrettable omissions. Looking back at the sf award winners over the last decade I certainly wouldn’t go anything like that far. The ’60s award winners coincide with my personal canon far more closely than the winners from the last decade; but it is my personal, informal canon that trumps any broader, more formal listing.
If the notion of a canon is so idiosyncratic and mutable, what are we to make of the propositions with which I opened this piece? Should the novels of Iain Banks be canonical? Should the best known story by Tom Godwin be removed from the canon? It is highly unlikely that I will still be around a hundred years from now, so I would say that Banks will certainly not be a part of my canon then. While ‘The Cold Equations’, much as I dislike the work, still seems to be a touchstone for a certain period and type of science fiction, and it is a work that is undoubtedly still being read today, so it seems to me that it must continue to play a part in my personal canon.
But that is not precisely what either of these proposals is about. What the participants in the Banks conference were saying was: literature lasts, and incidentally the work of Iain Banks will be among the stuff that does last. What Ian Sales was saying was: literature doesn’t last, and incidentally ‘The Cold Equations’ is one of those pieces past its sell-by date. These seem to be flatly contradictory statements, but they are not. Some works speak to posterity and some fade into obsolescence; but neither state is necessarily permanent, and neither state is any indication of the historical importance of the work.
Let’s take as an example The Discovery of a New World called the Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. First published in 1666, it was an innovative work on many levels. It was the first novel to posit a parallel earth, for example, it was the first novel in which a fictionalised version of the author plays a part in the action, and it was one of the very early examples of work by a woman that was published professionally and under her own name. At the time, Cavendish was considered eccentric and sexy (she famously turned up to a performance of one of her husband’s plays in a costume she had designed herself and that left her breasts bare), but she wasn’t really seen as that important as a writer. She dropped out of fashion fairly quickly, and until the 1970s her novel, if it was known at all, was considered unreadable. Then her reputation was rescued by the new wave of feminist criticism, she was hailed as an important and indeed a canonical figure in the history of feminist science fiction. Since then she has rather drifted from view again because, after all, people these days don’t often read obscure 17th century novels.
So how should we consider The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish? Well, for those who date the birth of science fiction with the publication of Frankenstein or the launch of Amazing Stories or such like, the question is moot anyway, she simply does not belong within sf. And the book has no real place in contemporary science fiction, both what she does and the way she does it are antithetical to the modern thrust of the genre. So either she could never have been part of the canon, or the genre has changed so significantly that she has clearly and irrevocably fallen out of the canon. Yet if we look at the development of feminist science fiction, or if we simply look at the innovations she introduced, the doors she opened, both career-wise and in terms of technique, for subsequent writers from Aphra Behn to the authors of the various hollow earth stories of the 18th century, then she is fundamentally important and clearly must be considered canonical. In other words, The Blazing World is, at the same time, both canonical and non-canonical. What determines whether we see it as canonical or not has nothing to do with changing fashions, it is simply dependent on what perspective we choose to view it from.
If we accept, therefore, that The Blazing World is both canonical and non-canonical, both eternal and obsolete, how might we consider ‘The Cold Equations’? For a start, of course, there is no question that it is science fiction, since it appeared some 30 years after the most recent supposed birthdate of the genre. Other than that, the situations are analogous. When it was written, in the early 1950s, it was clearly and intentionally shaped, by both the author and the editor, to fit within the pattern of stories being published by Astounding. When the sub-genre of ‘hard sf’ was named shortly after, ‘The Cold Equations’ was one of the stories identified as exemplifying the form. For a while it was very popular, being reprinted in anthology after anthology.
Since then, yes, our understanding of what constitutes hard sf has changed. That does not mean, indeed it cannot mean, that what was once hard sf is so no longer. That would mean that every few years there would need to be a wholesale rewriting of history as the meanings of words are transformed. No, if a story was perceived as hard sf in the 1950s, then we have to accept that the term applied then and should continue to apply now. We can say that our understanding of hard sf has changed and by modern lights it now seems an old fashioned or even obsolete example of the form; but we cannot say that it was hard sf then but is not so now.
The question, then, is not whether ‘The Cold Equations’ is hard sf or not (as Ian Sales insists), but rather, whether it is canonical hard sf or not. As with The Blazing World, our notion of the canon has moved on, and a story once extolled is now criticised and questioned. It is out of fashion, it does not serve as an exemplar for our contemporary hard sf. However, it was powerful and influential at the time, it would have inspired other writers either to follow its example or to react against it, it played a significant part in the history of hard sf. So again the question comes down to perspective. We may say, as perhaps with The Blazing World, that it is drifting into obsolescence. Nothing is forever; 50 or 60 years after a story is published often sees them in obscurity and the same cyclical pattern may be true of ‘The Cold Equations’ so that at some point in the future it may be revived as a major text for posterity. I would be surprised if that happened, but it is a possibility. In an absolute sense, therefore, we might choose to see the story as non-canonical. On the other hand, if we consider its position at a certain point in the history of a certain type of sf, then we may well choose to consider it canonical. Deciding that it is canonical is not to over-value the story, deciding that it is non-canonical is not to underplay its importance, it is simply a matter of which perspective we are viewing the story from.
Will it last or not? The question is largely irrelevant. The story has been published. That does not guarantee permanence, it is easy to see both ‘The Cold Equations’ and The Blazing World as obscure, forgotten, unread. But it is equally easy to see them revived to illustrate a point, to suit a new fashion, simply out of curiosity. And the question of whether Iain Banks will be read 100 years from now is similarly irrelevant.
Authors do not write for posterity. Shakespeare wrote for his contemporary audience not for someone in the future; Dickens wrote to fill the ever-hungry maw of the magazines where his books were serialised, not to provide a new imprint 200 years after his death. Well, we should be a little careful here. I suspect that H.G. Wells may well have thought he was writing for posterity when he produced nonfictions like Anticipations or The Outline of History, but I’m pretty sure he did not think so when he produced The Time Machine or The War of the Worlds. It is posterity that chooses whether a work will survive. The canon is always retrospective, and there is nothing we can do today to identify what will be canonical tomorrow. Shakespeare was just one of a host of playwrights, and the groundlings would have been hard put to know which of them would survive and which would fade away. Dickens was one of a huge number of writers turning out novels in weekly or monthly parts, all as eagerly anticipated, and there was nothing at the time to say that Dickens would be canonised but not the equally prolific, equally popular Eugene Sue in France. And if Wells had been asked which of his works would still be read in the 21st century, I doubt very much if he would have picked The Time Machine.
So will Iain Banks still be read in the 22nd century? He is popular now, he is highly regarded now, but neither of those is a guarantee. His reputation will probably fade over the next few years, because that seems to be the almost universal fate of writers who die at a peak of popularity. Will the reputation then recover? Will he be canonised?
But the canon is whatever we want it to be. If literary historians fit him into a significant role within their history, then in one sense he will be canonised. If future readers happen upon his work, then they may consider him canonical. Whatever happens, what constitutes a canon then will be very different from what we consider a canon today. Because really, canon is just a way of identifying what we regard as good.