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Personal Canons: There Is No Universal Canon

A Guest Feature by Aidan Moher

In addition to my own reflections and guest posts from brilliant folks in the writing community, the Personal Canons series will also feature essays purchased from among the many dazzling submissions I’ve received over the past couple of weeks. Last time, Alex Acks wrote about their experience of SFF. Today, I’m thrilled to feature Aidan Moher.

Aidan Moher is a Hugo-winning writer from Vancouver Island, BC. His work has appeared on Tor.com, Kotaku, and VentureBeat, and he's the editor of Astrolabe — a newsletter about SFF and gaming. You can also find him on Twitter or his website.

There Is No Universal Canon

I am not the same person I was yesterday, and tomorrow I will be a new me.

Over time, my personal SFF canon has changed and evolved as I've grown older, discovered new writers, and pushed myself into corners of the genre that I would never have experienced if not for my involvement in the broad and diverse SFF community. As time flows, we're changed by our experiences, our values adapt to encompass new thoughts and emotions, and so canon is always evolving to envelop who we are becoming.

As a kid, I swore off fantasy because it was full of unicorns and princesses and other things I considered the icky realm of girls. I devoured Tom Swift and Jurassic Park. I lived in Star Trek.

Until I read The Hobbit. And then, suddenly, my personal canon changed. Immediately, the only thing that mattered to me was adventurous secondary world fantasy in Tolkien's mould. After I devoured Lord of the Rings, I leapt straight into Shannara, which led me to R.A. Salvatore's DemonWars series.

I couldn't have named a single book by Heinlein or Clarke. It didn't matter. They weren't my canon.

As I entered my teenage years, I discovered Terry Goodkind and Robert Jordan.Their vast, sweeping fantasy worlds and grown-up characters piggy-backed me over to Robin Hobb, Tad Williams, and George R.R. Martin. My SFF world was changing drastically. The fantastical worlds of Brooks, Tolkien, and Salvatore were replaced by more real-world analogous secondary worlds, with plots that relied on complex themes and political storylines.

At this point, my opinion of Tolkien lowered.I started to think of him as overrated. His prose was a little dry, wasn't it, I thought. And wasn’t the story a bit simplistic?And who wants hobbits when Jaime Lannister is having his hand cut off and Fitz is getting beaten to a pulp for no good reason? In reality, I was exploring the vastness of fantasy, and the young me who had originally read Lord of the Rings as an adventure tale—but could not yet see its broader themes—was growing up. It would be years before I realized how I was wrong about Tolkien, and that Lord of the Rings could  be many things for many different readers.

When I started A Dribble of Ink in 2007, I didn't understand that I was setting forth on a journey of discovery. Running a popular SFF blog pushed me to explore the genre in a way I never would have otherwise. I realized a few years in that my reading lists were predominantly white and male, and reflection helped me realize it was because that was what I traditionally read growing up. I tend toward familiarity and favourites. and I wasn't making an effort to change to broaden my range. When half the books you read in a year are from your favourite authors and they all happen to be white dudes, you have to make a conscious effort to adjust your habits.

And so my canon changed again.

I discovered Ann Leckie and her wonderful Imperial Radch trilogy. N.K. Jemisin's fabulous work. Ken Liu. Kameron Hurley. Charlie Jane Anders. Erin Morgenstern. Rebecca Roanhorse. Mary Robinette Kowal. Brooke Bolander. Yoon Ha Lee. These are all writers I'd now consider part of my personal canon. But it's just a small slice of SFF, and there SO MANY others I haven't read. Just like many readers haven't read those writers who are most important to me.

Katharine Kerr's Deverry existed at the time I was reading Brooks and Tolkien, but it didn't enter my canon until decades later. 20 years ago, I would've placed Terry Goodkind's work on a golden pedestal of canon, and now I'd verily fire it out of a cannon. If my canon was different yesterday than it is today, why should I not expect it to be different again tomorrow?

Even canon lists generally accepted at the time they're published become defunct just a few years later, and, as the genre adapts, new works draw on new influences. Just go look at some old lists of "SFF canon" from earlier decades, or even 11 years ago on the web. I haven't even heard of half those books, let alone read them. If SFF canon looks like a reading list for a History of Science Fiction 101 course, it's missing the point of how the genre is a conversation with itself and the outside world of politics, sociology, and humanity.

As DongWon Song said, "The idea of the canon is outdated, colonialist, racist, sexist, and anti-queer. It’s easy to say that this is only true because old stuff is colonialist, racist, sexist, and anti-queer, but that’s a bullshit cop out."

There is no universal SFF canon.

We can scour Hugo ballots, compile lists online, listen to our parents or grandparents, or publishers selling a new leatherbound anniversary edition of a classic book. There are widely well-regarded works — like Star Wars, Legend of the Seven Rings, or Mahabharata — and though their contributions to genre literature and pop culture are undeniable, they are not ubiquitous among all readers and creators. An objectively acceptable list of SFF canon is a carrot we'll never catch.

Canon suggests that one must follow certain examples as stepping stones toward validation as a fan, but each of us travels a different path to fandom. Some of us take the freeway, travelling at 100 bpy (books per year), and some of us meander, dipping our toes in and out of the genre as we please.

There is no correct path to SFF fandom. You're going to have a different relationship with SFF than your friend across the street, even if you trade books endlessly and your introduction to the genre is largely built from the same bricks. Someone devouring epic fantasy as a kid in Ohio is going to have a very different experience than a young adult in Saitama, Japan who loves post-apocalyptic SF, and they're each going to have a different experience than someone who only dabbles in the genre. An older queer man is going to have a very different take on Ender's Game than a straight teenager reading it for English class. The idea of one singular canon erases what we all bring individually to books and the genre as readers.

SFF is global, with authors and readers from every point on Earth. It's impossible to consider a static SFF canon largely made up of white dudes from the US as relevant to every reader. As a Canadian, I'm US-adjacent, but even then many of the Golden Age SFF held up as canon by an older generation of SFF readers explored themes and motifs that aren't largely relevant to my life or culture. Even now, with a Hugo Award staring me down as I write this, I've only read a book-and-a-half between Heinlein and Clarke — and can't remember anything about either of them.

My personal canon is not your personal canon. And that's a good thing.

We are our experiences, and no list on the internet can change that. No monolithic voice can tell us what we should read, or dictate prerequisites for fandom.

The only SFF canon that counts are the books you've read.

Nobody gets to choose canon but you.

Personal Canons is a series exploring the works of genre fiction that have shaped us as readers, writers, and people. This series features contributions by established authors, new and aspiring authors, readers, and fans.