My personal science fiction canon

Someone on twitter, I can’t remember anymore who it was, suggested that there’s no such thing as a literary canon, or a science fiction canon, that could ever be definitive. There’s no single list of books everyone must read to be well-read in a genre. As time passes, some works formerly considered classic have begun to fade into merely dated. Which is the process that creates classics in the first place–classics are the works that still look good after all their contemporaries have lost their shine.

Beyond this, each of us has our own canon–the books that made us readers, the books that inspired us to be writers, the books that taught us how.

Mine begins with Star Trek. One of my earliest memories is watching The Next Generation while somebody put my nighttime diaper on. My family is a Star Trek family in the way that some families are sports families: there is no option to not be a Trekkie. My dad was into it since he was a kid, and my parents’ second date was Wrath of Khan. (He cried.) We had bumper stickers that said STARFLEET ACADEMY and MY OTHER CAR IS A STARSHIP. When it was time to do chores, we weren’t told to hustle or to git ‘er done, we were told, “Work well, and you will be treated well. Work badly, and you will die.” There are quite a few lines from classic literature I first heard in the mouths of Klingons.

I’d recommend Star Trek to anybody as an introduction. It showed me that science isn’t boring, that philosophy is everywhere, that space is full of endless possibilities.

My dad was also big into Isaac Asimov, so when I started reading adult books, those were some of the first. I started with Caves of Steel, I think, and went on to the Foundation trilogy, which isn’t nearly as accessible. The short stories are probably the best–neat ideas in easy-to-swallow serving sizes. The Gods Themselves completely fascinated me: three-sexed aliens who fuse into a single being sometimes, but never remember doing it. Asimov was an ideas guy. His stories are weird and original, but he rarely gets that deeply into characters or feelings. A lot of his landscapes are just–oh, it’s a spaceship or something. But his cultural landscapes can be fascinating: people who are never alone, people who are always alone, people who have forgotten all about Earth and built new empires.

The cover of The Gods Themselves, by Isaac Asimov. A rocky moon orbits around a blue planet. In the foreground there's a round machine emitting a beam of light.

Asimov has been surpassed since, though not by anyone half so prolific, but I still think he’s worth reading. He knew that, in the vastness of space and time, almost anything is possible: leaps forward, dark ages, cultures twisted into any imaginable shape by circumstances.

Next there was Anne McCaffrey. I loved her passionately, though also with some embarrassment. I smuggled her books home from the library because some of them had sex in them. (I thought them extremely explicit, but they really weren’t as bad as I remember.) I got into her because of the Pern books, but then there were the Rowan books, The Ship Who Sang and its sequels, Powers That Be. Her imagination, like Asimov’s, was vast; and she wasn’t limited at all by what a “traditional” science fiction story would be about. Her characters had feelings; I envied their competence. I thought when I grew up, I might be like one of her heroines: confident, amazing at what I did, and of course irresistible to men.

The cover of Dragonsong, by Anne McCaffrey. Menolly, the main character, stands on the beach surrounded by flying fire lizards.

You don’t have to read Anne McCaffrey, but I recommend her in my canon because she had so many cool ideas, many of which aren’t at all played out. Cyborg ships? Seriously, there have not been enough cyborg ships. Or, for that matter, dragons in sci-fi.

For about ten years, between fourteen and twenty-four, I didn’t read any science fiction. I thought of it as somehow lesser; too likely to have secret smut (I was very afraid of getting lured in by it again, as I had during my “wicked years” of 10-13); not the aesthetic I was into anymore. I think there was something about being very traditionally religious that made me feel the past was a better place to spend my time than the future. Science fiction suggests directions we could go someday; fantasy (at least, the type I read) insists the only place worth going is where we used to be, before everything went wrong and industrial and the magic was lost.

But, years later, when I had a baby and not much to do, my husband recommended The Warrior’s Apprentice, by Lois McMaster Bujold. I was instantly hooked, and read the entire series over several years. I got caught up by the time Miriam was a baby. I remember reading Memory and sobbing like my heart had broken. Bujold, you see, doesn’t hold back on feelings. She’s also big on culture, having built the culture of Barrayar with rich detail, a place that fell back to feudalism due to catastrophe and then was yanked back into the space age all at once.

The cover of Falling Free, by Lois McMaster Bujold. A woman hangs in space, in a spacesuit, holding up a sign with the title on it. But four hands are peeking out from behind the sign instead of only two.

But I think what I loved the most, and still do, was the ethics. I don’t know (and I tried, at one point, very hard to find out) what her religion is or isn’t, but the ethical dilemmas and solutions in her books rang true to me when I was a Catholic and still do today. The past isn’t a magically moral place in her books–The Mountains of Mourning is about a cruel tradition of killing the disabled. But neither is the future–Falling Free is about a whole race of people genetically-engineered for profit. There are never any simple, easy answers, but neither are we expected to accept monstrosity. Our characters just do their best, keeping the humanity of the person in front of them at the forefront of their minds.

This is something I always want to do in my writing: to explore morality as it is, not as I wish it to be in a neater world, but without suggesting for a second the answer is to give up and embrace amorality. I want to explore what it means to care deeply for your fellow sentient being, when everything is complicated and all the systems that should protect them are broken. Not because I want to teach a lesson, but because moral quandaries are something we all deal with constantly, and I want something I can relate to. That ring of truth that says, yes, that’s how it is, that’s why it hurts, that’s what I try to do. I often abandon books that don’t have that, because it feels like they aren’t taking place in my universe. The arc of my universe bends toward justice, because good people grab hold of it and wrench it that way, as best they can. And if the metal twists and cuts their hands, that’s just how it goes.

I think this list about covers my science-fiction canon: the works that meant the most to me, the ones I try hardest to emulate. I’d like my characters more fleshed out than Asimov’s, my plot arcs tighter than McCaffrey’s, more robots and aliens than Bujold. But I strive toward the best in each of those.