The recent controversy around toastmaster George R.R. Martin’s repeated lauding of controversial editor and author John Campbell has produced a renewal of the ‘canon’ controversy. Most folks who I have seen respond to this have taken a fairly sensible approach. There’s no particular need to have read any particular set of science fictional texts to be a ‘fan’ of the genre. It’s hard to argue with the logic, particularly at a moment where one can spend a lifetime exploring a particular aspect of the genre, whether that be military science fiction, space opera or feminist science fiction. The textual production of the genre is so extensive that you are inevitably not going to have read some particular text that falls into some community’s ‘canon’, whether that is Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, Joanna Russ, Octavia Butler, or any number of significant figures.
In a sense, one could very easily stop at that moment of critique. It pretty effectively neutralizes the demand, but I want to explore a different level of the assumptions embedded in the claim of canonicity and the demand that one must read a set of subcultural figures to establish your authenticity of a fan. This obvious act of gatekeeping contains an important set of assumptions that the circle of fandom is somehow coextensive with the circle of science fiction and fantasy, or at least that it should play some significant and outsized role in defining science fiction. At this point, that illusion is fairly well shattered. We live in a world where thinly veiled slash fiction is sold at Target and figures such as George R.R. Martin and J.R.R. Tolkien are multi-million-dollar industries. Figures such as Philip K Dick and Octavia Butler are parts of significant academic conversations that only have tangential connections to fandom at best as well. At this point, their cultural relevance is no longer controlled by the subcultural fandom for better or for worse. The next book produced by George R.R. Martin is probably going to sell like hotcakes even if the most recent incidents cause the archipelago of the subculture to turn their backs on him.
But I want to push that dimension further and argue that science fiction never was the sold domain of fandom. The genre has its origins before the creation of this subculture and it always exceeded the limits of the subculture. Hugo Gernsback may have given the genre its official name and he may have played a significant role in creating the subcultural community that celebrates that name, but the conventions of the genre were coagulating before his intervention and authors and publications had made their names in its construction before him. We can point back to a number of obvious names, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe, and aspects of the utopian tradition. We can even point to a fairly significant pulp tradition that shapes the work of Gernsback and others. Most of these authors, who still define the literary conventions had no connection to the subculture or tangential connections at best, such as Wells’ frustration at the reprinting of his work by Gernsback without royalties. If one looks at the debates between Wells and Verne, one can see that they were able to debate the definition and limits of the genre without him. I don’t want to entirely dismiss the distinction between science fiction and the scientific romance or the fantastic voyage, but they are frequently less distinct than the disjunctures that exist within the subcultural world of science fiction itself, a world that includes Doc E.E. Smith, Isaac Asimov, Pamela Zoline, and Octavia Butler.
Even when we move into the era of the 1930’s, 1940’s, and 1950’s, we can find significant works of science fiction that fall outside the narrow confines of fandom. The work of Karel Capek comes immediately to mind, along with the dissident works of Soviet critics such as Yevgeny Zamyatin and Mikhail Bulgakov. In addition, we can add to the list the works of Olaf Stapledon, George Orwell, and Katharine Burdekin. Within the United States, we can think of significant figures such as George Schuyler who has only recently been recognized as a significant science fiction writer and others. Through this massively incomplete list, we can see a world of science fictional narrative production that both falls largely outside the circles of the subgenre and that often plays a significant role in shaping the literary production of the subgenre, whether in the form of the word ‘robot’ introduced to the world by Capek or the dystopian conventions of 1984 and Brave New World. That continues with the work of authors such as Stanislav Lem, who was antagonistic to the subculture, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, and others. We can also include Margaret Atwood, who until recently has tried to distinguish her dystopian production from the genre and the subculture. Science fiction as a generic form has always exceeded the grasp of the science fiction subculture. It has never fully defined the readers of the texts and it has never defined the literary production of the genre. There are worlds of science fiction that don’t connect to that subculture or only tangentially connect to it.
That isn’t to deny the real creativity and labor within the subculture. It has after all produced significant authors, modes of criticism, and very real communities. Members of the subculture have done a lot of the work to discover obscure texts that later define the conventions in the genre and have often done significant translation work. As maddening as it frequently is, it has created a rich language and a fascinating legacy. I can see why people want to preserve it and, in many cases, to break down the racialized and gendered walls of exclusion that often defined it. Within the latter context, decentering the narrative of fandom in the larger field of science fiction can play a productive role. Figures such as Campbell and Heinlein are significant within specific communities of literary production, but they don’t define the wider field of the genre. We can think of the ways that the subculture benefited from that larger world even as it frequently excluded it. We can track down other literary and historical narratives, which will be undoubtedly defined by their own flaws, contradictions, and promises. We can also follow paths of translation as subcultural narrative approaches are translated and transformed. The subculture has always played a part in this narrative, but it has never been the narrative in its entirety.