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  • Writer's pictureAllan Dyen-Shapiro

Ignorance of the Canon: Plusses and Minuses

I didn't start reading science fiction until I was in my late thirties. Sure, I'd encountered some of the classics in high school English classes. However, the British ones were never called science fiction. 1984 and Brave New World (as well as A Clockwork Orange, which I read later) were marketed to the British public as literature—the British bookstores did not have separate science-fiction sections. As far as American writers went, I'd read Slaughterhouse Five, but Vonnegut wasn't labeling himself as science fiction, and neither were the bookstores. A few years later, I read A Handmaid's Tale—same deal. Sure, I loved a lot of literature that was science fiction-adjacent—Kafka, Borges, Pynchon—and today, these writers might be typed as speculative fiction, but they weren't back then.

Consequently, I missed the entire oeuvre in which a hero sets off in a spaceship for adventures in which he rules over (and in Captain Kirk's case, has sex with the females of) alien races that were just waiting to be subjugated by superior, white-male-cis-het-Protestant conquerors. I also missed the fantasy genre—stories in which our protagonist steps through a portal to find his adoring non-human masses, or leads an empire populated by a slavish Orientalized population, or musters magic to control minions aching to be subjugated. Reading these things at this stage in my life, much of the literature seems regressive and infantile.

I'd encountered some thinking as to why, very much buying into the argument Michael Moorcock made in his article "The Dao of Pooh." Moorcock argued that Tolkienesque fantasy was fascist apologia, the simple countryfolk just wanting to be left alone to be ruled by benevolent nobles and only stirred to action by the rare non-benevolent aristocrat. But, mea culpa, I missed the deeper connection, and thus was fortunate to have it pointed out to me and the rest of the audience at a panel this weekend at FIYAHCON: "The End of the Age of Empires." I'm writing this post on Saturday afternoon, five hours prior to my own panel (Sci-fi: Fix My World—an investigation of the use of science fiction to motivate social action, a topic near and dear to my heart), with ideas racing through my head that I needed to put to paper (or stored electrons, but you know what I mean) before the next shiny object displaced them.

One panelist, K.S. Villoso, tied mainstream science fiction and fantasy of the Golden Age to the end of the British empire. In her eyes, it was no coincidence that three years after the Brits relinquished control over India, C.S. Lewis first put his Narnia Chronicles into the world. Lewis's British characters step into a fantasy world populated with characters quite eager to be ruled by the British. Simultaneously, the genre of Adventure Fiction lost popularity. In these earlier works, Africa, Latin America, and Asia were the spaces in which a swashbuckling white man could step into, have adventures, conquer, and then return to "civilization." Well, with decolonization, they couldn't anymore. But they could step into secondary fantasy worlds or outer space, and the popularity of these genres skyrocketed.

For Americans, escape was a means to encounter a non-Soviet enemy, as they had nuclear weapons and were scary. According to the panelists (a group that also included Arkady Martine, Matt Wallace, CL Clark, and Aishwarya Subramanian), many depictions of life on other planets seemed like a recreation of the Roman Empire. Hey, it's out in space, so you're not a white supremacist if you imagine the heroes of those societies look like you, now are you? At a minimum, few bothered to make the connection. Matt Walsh made the interesting point that for many American writers, this predilection is baked into their writerly DNA because they grew up reading and loving SFF that was unexamined empire-apology fiction.

Well, I didn't grow up with this stuff. And although I'd seen a bit of it, I wasn't a Star Wars fan (as a teen, my initial impression was, meh) or a Trekkie either. My first exposure to science fiction that actually called itself science fiction was reading 1980s cyberpunk in the early Noughts. I came across it only because of a favorable review in the New York Times of William Gibson's novels—it sounded sufficiently interesting that I sought it out. Okay, I was ready for it. I'd loved The Matrix. And I was a big fan of the old Twilight Zone. But it was Gibson who set me on the path to becoming a writer. In his works, the megacorporation had replaced the empire, and he was no fan: his protagonists eked out an existence at the edge of an oppressive, corrupt, and collapsing dystopia. And the punk element in it, to me, was that in examining the structure of this new oppression, he at least implied the form that Resistance would have to take.

Maybe that battleground could be in the real world as well as in the envisioned? Perhaps I could someday write this stuff and have something to say?

That's when I started reading science fiction—now, finally, on the cusp of middle age, aware that this genre existed. I devoured the work of the cyberpunks, popped back to enjoy the New Wave writers who'd inspired them, and then leaped forward to contemporary writers, who were creating in what I'm convinced will be considered a new Golden Age for speculative fiction. At the time, I skipped the entire cannon that the old guys I encountered said had been formative for them.

Now that I'm actively trying to gain name recognition and promote my own work (I've been on panels at conventions three weekends out of the previous four, and I spend way too much time on social media), I realize a benefit to reading some of this canon. If only to be able to speak to it when it comes up. My impressions? There are a few bright spots. My primary face-to-face (albeit now via the magic of Zoom) science fiction group read some stories by Frederic Brown, and I liked them enough that a couple weeks later, I referenced them on a panel. They were silly, and funny, and high-octane. Many of Robert Sheckley's stories are still funny when read today—an accomplishment not just for science fiction humor but for any sort of humor. Mack Reynolds did a great job of railing against economic injustice using science fiction as a medium.

But would I really have lost a formative experience by not reading these authors or anyone else pre-1960s? Probably not. And try as I may, I just can't get into Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke, the three giants of the era.

Before that time, most stories have aged to the point of unreadable. The aforementioned group read an E.E. Doc Smith novel, and I got most of the way through it, but I did it solely for the unintended comedy. Smith's female characters left me wondering if he'd ever met a woman. I read a Stanley G. Weinbaum story—his most famous one—because my son was struggling through it as required reading in an English course and asked me for help. It isn't an experience I'd recommend.

On the other hand, I've been at a table at a convention selling books and gotten the response "Heinlein" to my question, "What sort of books do you enjoy?" Having read a little, I can at least acknowledge the potential buyer's interest, make a comment about how things have changed, and stress what this guy (and it's always a guy) might like in what I've written. And if I can get my novel sold (an in-progress effort), so I'm not just plugging anthologies that published me, I'm sure I will get into many more such conversations at conventions.

Conclusion: if you feel like reading some of the stuff the seventy-year-old white guys liked when they were twenty, it might help you sell some books, and some of it can still be enjoyed, but I wouldn't put it at the top of your to-read pile. And those of you who are too young to have gotten any of it when it was hot (or are like me who was oblivious), you are lucky enough to have less work to do in decolonizing your mind-space.

Now, that might make a good story: some technology that rids the minds of the masses of the strictures of empire, militarism, and capitalism.

But would the powers-that-be who serve as gatekeepers buy it?

Just kidding.

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