A Blog and Novel by S. M. Duke. Writing discussion, genre fiction, reviews, tips, and more!
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Welp, I’m doing more convention things! I’ve been very fortunate to be tasked with moderation duties, a reading, and an interview and this year’s Flights of Foundry event. I attended last year’s event as an audience member, and it was a delightful experience. This year, I’m hoping I can contribute some good conversation the SF/F/H...
Welp, I’m doing more convention things!
I’ve been very fortunate to be tasked with moderation duties, a reading, and an interview and this year’s Flights of Foundry event. I attended last year’s event as an audience member, and it was a delightful experience. This year, I’m hoping I can contribute some good conversation the SF/F/H world by gently poking panelists and my interviewee!
Here’s what I’ll be up to:
I hope to see some of y’all in the audience.
Due to circumstances beyond my control which involve several people raising interesting ideas in reply to my tweets about my essay “Why the SF Canon Doesn’t Exist,” I’m now neck deep in a massive research project on the formation of literary canons and their placement in SF scholarship (and wider discourse). In reality, I’ve been...
Due to circumstances beyond my control which involve several people raising interesting ideas in reply to my tweets about my essay “Why the SF Canon Doesn’t Exist,” I’m now neck deep in a massive research project on the formation of literary canons and their placement in SF scholarship (and wider discourse). In reality, I’ve been curious about this for a while, but I’ve never taken the time to do the deep dive because my research has demanded my attention elsewhere (ugh, tenure needs) and there hasn’t been an urgent need to do the work. After all, most people are either pretty satisfied about there being no official SF canon OR perfectly fine with the de facto canon, which we can piece together through a combination of “important anthologies” and aggregating the works people decide are Important.1 One might, for example, start with NPR’s reader-selected list of the Top 100 SF/F books and its related list of the 50 best SF/F books of the 2010s.2 I, however, want to look more deeply at why these types of lists and the “de facto” argument are so prevalent in SF discourse AND what efforts have occurred to put together a legitimate canon of SF works.
With that in mind, I’d like to turn to two curiosities on the path towards canonization in SF: Robert Silverberg’s The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One, 1929-1964 (1970) and Mark R. Hillegas’ “A Draft of the Science-Fiction Canon” (1961; in Vol. 3, Issue 1 of Extrapolation).
Silverberg’s collection was first drawn to my attention by the Hugo Book Club Blog (run by Olav Rokne and Amanda Wakaruk). Conceived as a collection of the “best science fiction ever written,” a fairly common practice in the SF anthology “market,” it was partly put together by members of the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA)3 and Silverberg’s editorial discretion (for 11 of the 26 stories). Nominations and votes ran for a year, and members were encouraged to consider the historical development of the genre when they selected works (they could not nominate themselves). For his part, Silverberg stated in the introduction that he “exercised certain limited prerogatives of selection” but mostly did not alter the list of the “fifteen most popular stories.” What Silverberg means by “limited” is important here. Given the space of a single collection, it was necessary to prevent any one author from having more than one place in the book; in that case, Silverberg chose the story he deemed most valuable by the author in question. In another case, Silverberg dropped an author from the top fifteen to make room for another author whose work was deemed significant but whose breadth of work had resulted in a vote split. Authors also had some say here, including one author who preferred a work with less votes be considered over a work with more. From there, the limiting factor was simply space, as the cost of publishing large volumes exceeded the implied mandate of the collection.
While Silverberg’s collection is not the only one purporting to present us a kind of “canon” of SF — there being subsequent volumes in this series edited by Ben Bova and numerous “best of” books throughout the last 70+ years — it is important for signaling what were the primary channels for such conversations. While academic work had been written by the time of this particular collection, the bulk of writing about SF existed (or would exist) in popular books such as this. These included visual histories, general histories, collections on specific genres (see Brian Aldiss’ Space Opera), and so on. Thus, we are presented with a work based on a popular vote rather than a robust conversation about the value of the work held within (observation, not problem); additionally, that vote is one made by writers of the genre rather than critics or academics (the primary audience for canon formation). This is not to suggest that the general public cannot be a space for canon formation; rather, this is typically not its function, in part because canonization tends to be associated with education (explicitly and implicitly) and spaces for intense literary debate. The general public, as such, tends to be less interested in that role and more interested in consuming the work.
In terms of the stories themselves, we’re presented what most people would consider to be some of the classic writers of short SF (and some of their classic works). This includes Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall,” Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Nine Billion Names of God,” and Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon” (before it became a novel). Other stories by major writers also exist here (Robert A. Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, and James Blish) alongside writers who were quite significant at the time but have mostly faded from contemporary discussions of SF in fan circles (Stanley G. Weinbaum, Lewis Padgett, and Murray Leinster). This gives us some sense of who might have been considered the important writers of the time in the short form, but like any collection attempting to represent a history of the genre, authors and works fade away over time. Some of the authors here are represented by works that are unlikely to be the recommended starting point. James Blish, for example, is perhaps best represented by his novel work — especially his Cities of Flight series — even though some of his short fiction netted him award nominations and one of his novels, A Case of Conscience (1959), actually got him the rocket.
Another thing to note is the issue of time: 1929-1964. The original edition of the book doesn’t provide this date; it is appended on later editions, possibly to differentiate it from the Bova collections that followed. Silverberg does, however, mention this date range in the introduction in a parenthetical; this is presented as merely a statement of fact (“had originally been published between…”), and so I don’t think we can give any special significance to those years beyond what they tell us about what the SFWA membership considered to be the beginnings of the genre — namely, in the pulps and in the years immediately following Hugo Gernsbacks’ founding of Amazing Stories in 1926. Additionally, this runs counter to both the prevailing academic and popular conceptions of science fiction’s emergence (what I refer to as the retroactivist position), which places precursor works at least a few decades or a century before (the common denominator being Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818)). In fairness to this anthology, it focuses on short fiction, and there is comparatively little short SF prior to the pulp era.
I’ll come back to all of this another day, in part to challenge what I’ve said here by looking at some of the writing about SF which was meant to present histories of genre to the public. These histories were not written for canonical purposes but to define, explain, and support the growing SF community. Yet, they served a vital function in the legitimization of SF. More on that another day.
The second piece is a curious snippet I discovered in a 1961 issue of Extrapolation by Professor Mark R. Hillegas. The full title of the piece tells us quite a lot: “A Draft of the Science-Fiction Canon to be proposed at The 1961 MLA Conference on Science Fiction.” In theory, this canon was, in fact, presented to someone at the 1961 MLA Conference. More on that in a hot minute…
Most of you likely haven’t heard of Hillegas, but he is quite significant in the history of SF scholarship. One of the first regular for-credit courses taught on science fiction was covered by Hillegas at Colgate University (the other by H. Bruce Franklin at Stanford).4 He also provided a variety of essays for Extrapolation and wrote a worthy academic book on dystopian literature (The Future As Nightmare: H.G. Wells and the Anti-Utopians, 1967). Prior to the courses of Hillegas and Franklin, however, SF had largely been relegated to the guest lecture “circuit” for the better part of a decade.5 Today, science fiction courses are relatively common.
On the subject of Hillegas’ canon, it seems important to acknowledge that I currently have no record on whether this was delivered at the 1961 MLA. Hillegas did give a talk on dystopian fiction (as evidenced by the MLA proceedings booklet), but this is quite different from presenting a canon for discussion and, if I interpret the introduction correctly, ratification. It’s hard to know, though. The document is remarkably sparse. It opens with two brief paragraphs indicating that Hillegas had consulted with members of the MLA Conference about a previous draft, but there is otherwise no record I can find. All we know is that a conversation occurred with someone (or someones). The introduction also acknowledges that it heavily focuses on novels to the detriment of the short form — arguably still the more important SF medium in 1961. As far as its influence on how we talk about canons in SF, it appears to have been largely forgotten. Thus far, I’ve been unable to find any record of any conversations occurring OR any records or later editions of this particular work OR any records of responses to this document. Hillegas did, however, talk about canonization briefly in some of his other academic work; otherwise, the issue seems to have remained unremarkable.
If you’re curious about this proposed canon, I’ve embedded the list below:
From a practical standpoint, Hillegas’ canon certainly has the mark of a possible canon, albeit one which is perhaps “too soon” and in need of a drastic update. After all, it doesn’t consider the New Wave or anything in the last 50 years because it simply can’t. Time travel does not exist. Yet, what is present on the list are some of the most significant works of SF, which could comprise a canon if we were to aggregate the most common references of SF scholarship. This includes works like Clarke’s Childhood’s End, Bester’s The Demolished Man, Pohl and Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants, Asimov’s Foundation, and Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. But Hillegas also includes works you’d find in a non-SF canon, such as Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, which suggests an awareness of the existing canon conversation. Historically, SF has attempted to latch itself onto works not written in its literary tradition which are basically SF anyway, in part to support legitimacy for the genre; academia did the same because there is value in comparative analysis between works nobody would question and works that might earn a side eye.
Lastly, it’s worth noting that Hillegas’ canon is a chronological one which extends from 1960 to 1607. I can’t say if this is the first instance of retroactive inclusion, but it is a familiar tactic to legitimize SF literature. Imaginative literature extends back centuries; to suggest that a modern genre links back to those in such a profound way that you cannot discount modern SF without also discounting Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelley, Jonathan Swift, or Cyrano de Bergerac lends a credibility to the genre that most academics can’t ignore. Of course, the argument has to be made, and Hillegas’ canon doesn’t do so (other academics, however, do make that argument to a certain degree). Regardless, it tells us that some of the early efforts to form an SF canon had to consider not only the landscape of literary discourse within academia but also the meaning of a canon beyond its mere “these are the works you should read” framework. Hillegas’ canon is a historical interpretation of the genre in a way that Silverberg’s anthology is not. One can imagine the argument for this canon as one which attempts to identify the tentacles of genre reaching back to the 1600s: the tentacles are long, multi-colored, and become more variable the deeper they reach. This is, perhaps, one method I’d approach if I were to create a canon of my own: not a canon of explicitly SF works but a canon of the historical literary trends which eventually give us SF.
I don’t know exactly where this project will take me. The desk in my office at work is now covered in books on canons, canonicity, challenges to canon, and more.
What I do know is this: the history of canons in SF is a murky, messy, incomplete, and complicated disasterzone. But that mess is worth exploring to highlight the theories, ideas, and methods behind attempts to form a legitimate or de facto SF canon. This hasn’t been part of the SF community’s mission. Whether I’m up to that task is questionable, but I can at least bring up the bits and pieces I relayed here to explore what canons mean to us and why it might be worthwhile to consider what the future of the SF canon could be if we collectively saw fit to explore it.
And so here we are. Rambling our way towards an SF canon…
As is periodically the case in the SFF community, we’re once more in the midst of a conversation about “the classics.” If you’re reading this now, it doesn’t actually matter that I wrote this in 2022; this conversation happens so often that the context above could apply in any given year going back decades, albeit...
As is periodically the case in the SFF community, we’re once more in the midst of a conversation about “the classics.” If you’re reading this now, it doesn’t actually matter that I wrote this in 2022; this conversation happens so often that the context above could apply in any given year going back decades, albeit more frequently today than before social media. The conversation typically features the following claims:
I’m not going to list the various reasons offered for all of these. Instead, I’ll note that we usually see two common claims for the first two: 1) that you don’t need to read them because they do not represent where genre is now; and 2) that you do need to read them because they’re necessary to understand how we got where we are now. These are incredibly reductive versions of those common arguments, and both are technically correct but typically uttered in the wrong context.
In my view, the questions of “the classics” is really only relevant in an strictly educational framework. This framework may include formal education such as that found at a university or include informal education such as that of a long-tail critic (i.e., someone who is invested in literary criticism of genre). It is not universal (there being value in teaching a variety of works when trying to support a reading culture). Outside of that educational framework, I think these questions collapse. A writer, for example, really has no need to read “the classics” to write work appropriate for now, except if such work is meant to respond to, borrow from, or be interpreted through/with those older works. Knowing works from the last twenty years within a specific genre is likely sufficient in almost all situations. A casual reader doesn’t need to know those works either, as their interactions with contemporary works may be valid within a contemporary context alone. And so on and so forth…
Within that educational framework, however, “the classics” hold a particular allure, in large part because our efforts to teach and understand the history of genre requires us to know where the genre *was* so we can understand where it is *now* (or, at least, in a given post-time). Whether we need to read all of those works may depend on what we are trying to understand and the particular needs of a given project. A project on American space opera from the 1950s, for example, would be bound to a strong, particular knowledge of the works of that period. However, even this project wouldn’t require intimate knowledge of all of the works in that category; rather, you’d need to have a good grasp of several texts largely deemed “important.” If we extend this project out to something much larger in scope, such as a history of genre or teaching a course on genre as a whole, then we can see where the knowledge of works across a wide range of times becomes essential (even if we acknowledge that one does not need to read all of those “classic” works).
But that word “important” is also one worth exploring. When we sit down to construct something within that educational framework, we’re often attempting to identify those works deemed “important” (or, at least, “important in a certain context”). If we include works that aren’t generally recognized as “important,” those works are still understood dialogically (i.e., that these works are in a conversation, albeit one we’re often superimposing onto those works). In general literary studies, this is usually an easy task; there are numerous texts defining the “canon” of literature, and the history of literary study is so substantial that identifying canonical texts usually doesn’t take much effort because those texts are rooted in our educational structures from the ground up; any work we include which is not part of “the canon,” thus, enters a conversation with the works most people accept (or recognize) as “the canon.” SF, however, does not have a canon of texts. It never has. It probably never will.
As academic tools, canons have arrived through a process of formal and discursive (arriving through conversation and dialogue and writing) practice in which works are argued for, debated, presented through formal research, used as comparative models, and used as representative examples in formal education. This process need not be objective nor the result of objective measurements, though such measurements have been used; rather, they exist as a conversation, sometimes with “the nation,” about which works matter and why they matter. In traditional literary circles (i.e., non-genre), these have arrived in two primary forces: the cultural forces of education (what works young people and educated people must know for a variety of reasons) and academic production (books about the great books). There’s a reason we can say things like “the Western Canon” (thanks, Harold Bloom…) or the “Great Books” (there are entire series dedicated to this concept, as in the case of the Encyclopedia Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World series from 1952): we have a language for talking about these things as a result of over a century of discussion about what constitutes the canon (or, at least, what constitutes the Books That Matter).
The curious case of Herman Melville is worth noting here as a prime example of this canon culture. Melville made waves with his first major works, Typee and Omoo, both notable for content that was, for the time, rather titillating. However, the work for which he is most famous today, Moby Dick, effectively marked the decline of his career. He was brutally rejected by the same (mostly New York) critics who had hailed his earlier work,1 and by his death in 1891, Melville had largely faded from literary memory. He might have stayed that way except for the efforts of Raymond Weaver, who wrote the first biography of Melville in 1921 (1919 being Melville’s 100th birthday) and partly sparked the famous “Melville Revival” of the 20s and 30s.2 Before roughly 1950, Melville wasn’t taught anywhere outside of the halls of academia (with rare exception); by the time I hit high school in the late 90s, Moby Dick was one of the most ubiquitous canonical texts taught to teenagers and The Melville Society had been in operation for about 50 years.3 Melville, in other words, became a part of the (American) literary canon through continued and sustained argument by (mostly) academics (and literary critics) who wrote books, started foundations, hosted events, and placed Melville in conversation with other works already considered canonical. While not all traditionally canonized works went through this exact process (though Shakespeare’s canonicity followed a semi-similar path), the people associated with academia (professors, literary critics, and certain publishers) had an outsized impact on defining what we now consider the Western Canon, both through the arguments they made, the works they published, and the influence they had in the classroom.
No such mechanism exists for SF.4 Prior to the 1940s, there was very little to almost nothing published outside of fan circles or popular venues such as Cosmopolitan and Harper’s on SF or its precursor genres and iterations (such as the boy’s adventure fiction of the late 1800s or the scientific romance Jules Verne). Some of this can be explained by time, of course. Shakespeare had centuries to be appraised as canonical; much of proto-SF had, in some cases, less than a century before some of the first works of academic writing began to appraise the history of the genre. Still, the first substantial works on SF and SF topics didn’t arrive until the 1940s, and SF studies as a legitimate field of study wasn’t cemented with academia until, arguably, 1970 with the creation of the Science Fiction Research Association and, later in the 70s, the emergence of research references for SF scholarship. Even then, SF struggled to gain widespread legitimacy, this despite the fact that the 60s and 70s saw a remarkable number of foundational works of SF Studies scholarship.5
It’s hard to pin down exactly when SF Studies gained widespread acceptance. It might be the emergence of the first academic programs on SF in the 1990s, though I’d argue that it still took another 20 years to get to “legitimacy.” By the time I entered grad school in 2009, it had become a thing you could seek out among the professors in a given department: some departments wore the genre label proudly while others stuck to traditional roots (with its genre professors cleverly framed as something else). By the time I left grad school in 2018, however, you’d have a hard time finding a R1 or R2 university anywhere in the U.S. that didn’t have at least an SF or SFF class or at least one or two or more faculty working in or around the field.6
Yet, by the time SF Studies gained widespread legitimacy within academia (and its allies), almost all of the critical work on SF had occurred outside of the academy or the traditional New York critics circle. Those conversations were happening in fanzines and at conventions, in letters and magazines, and even in the occasional non-academic book. They were still happening there when the boom of SF scholarship hit in the 70s, and it only increased as we entered the age of the Internet. While SF scholarship grew exponentially leading into and following the 90s, fandom grew at an even higher rate as we gained access to email, Usenet, blogs, social media, and more. Within all of that, SF had to fight to be taken seriously on its own terms: as a genre, as literature, as a legitimate form of reading. During all of this, the traditional literary canon had secured itself as an institution of its own.7 In other words, SF fought to be taken seriously while the halls of “real literature” continued to cement itself as The Canon.
Within SF scholarship, too, the issue of canonicity hasn’t had nearly the same impact as it has elsewhere. One reason for this: the SF canon likely cannot be attached to the same aesthetic and literary merits argued for so aggressively in traditional canon conversations. Instead, academic histories of SF have contended with the variable qualities of SF literature, from pulps to influential first works of dubious merit (Skylark!!!). Works might be considered significant not because they’re widely considered “good” but because they had substantial influence on the development of a genre. Histories, of course, are not canons, but they are a measuring stick for canonicity because they tell us which works most likely align with what could be seen as a canon.
Outside of scholarship, fans have also attempted to identify the significant works of SF. This post is a response to one such effort (albeit, an indirect effort). Any conversation about “the classics” is a conversation about canon, though a loose one that is more malleable and less strict than a canon must necessarily be (more on that another time). We could glean from this an SF canon, of course, but it would be an effort of aggregation rather than a concerted effort on the part of a community. Besides, what one group might consider a classic may not be so for another.8
Whether we should have a canon is an important question to ask, and one that the SFF community hasn’t seriously engaged with in decades (in my view), but the fact remains: SF does not have a literary canon. It has many varying lists of important works with an expected high degree of similarity among certain cliques, but it has no actual, defined, argued-for canon. It probably never will because the institutions that would create that canon have not taken up the project and the people who might actually take it up don’t appear to have much interest in picking up the slack. Without that activity, an SF canon is probably a doomed prospect.
Whether you consider that a bad thing will depend a great deal on your perspective on this subject. For me, it’s a complicated affair. As an academic, I find canons useful as tools for placing works in conversation with one another (among other uses). As a fan, I think canons are too often used as a bludgeoning tool by people with personal or professional agendas (the Harold Blooms of the world, if you will). Will that change? Certainly not by me. I tried that project once, and I think it was doomed to failure before it even began (maybe more on that another day).
For now, I leave you with this: argue for the works you think matter, but leave behind the exclusionary rhetoric endemic to many canon conversations. SF is a vibrant, wide-reaching field that continues to grow and adjust and change and become something new every decade. Our conversations about what makes up the Great Books of SF should reflect that as much as the history. Otherwise, we’re not really in conversation with the genre we claim to love. We’re just tourists.
The Internet is abuzz about the one fantasy author to rule them all, J.R.R. Tolkien. Over Superbowl weekend, Amazon released the first trailer for their new Tolkien adaptation, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. As with any highly-anticipated media property, the trailer (and the still shots released earlier this year) have sparked...
The Internet is abuzz about the one fantasy author to rule them all, J.R.R. Tolkien. Over Superbowl weekend, Amazon released the first trailer for their new Tolkien adaptation, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. As with any highly-anticipated media property, the trailer (and the still shots released earlier this year) have sparked considerable debate about the nature of Tolkien’s work, the process of adaptation, and, in particular, Amazon’s decision to feature more diversity than we have seen in previous adaptations of Tolkien’s work (or, indeed, in much of the public conversation of his work).
The last of these debate topics would be disheartening if it weren’t so utterly predictable — both because it’s a talking point we’ve seen before in this same community and because it’s a talking point that has been used as a response to diversity in basically all media going back long enough that it’s essentially tradition. While there may be value in discussing these attitudes of (sometimes racist) rejection in particular terms, I think it’s more fruitful to consider the root assumptions which make these debates even possible.
The core of this centers on how fantasy has been conceived as a genre in its modern incarnation. Since Tolkien, we’ve seen the genre treated as a platform for Eurocentric ideals, most notably in its interpretations of what I’d call the “medieval Europe myth,” which largely presents some version of medieval Europe in ways that more accurately reflect the social dynamics of the period following scientific racism (especially its intellectual justifications for slavery) than they do the actual makeup of cultures in much of medieval Europe.1 This myth is most apparent in historical conversations about the racial and ethnic makeup of Europe in relation to media representation; if a work of modern art presents people of color in a medieval context, one might hear someone complain that this is unrealistic or doesn’t reflect the reality of the period (i.e., Europe was basically white), etc.23 Some part of this is the self-fulfilling prophecy of fantasy, which has historically presented either explicitly white or de facto white societies modeled after European societies (sometimes quite loosely), thereby reinforcing existing biases about the makeup of such societies. Those biases have been part of U.S. culture in particular for as long as the country as existed, and while all of the people involved in the debate against diversity in fantasy (or, rather, “forced” diversity) cannot be fairly accused of deliberately participating in the reinforcement of such biases, their uncritical repetition of the medieval Europe myth enacts that reinforcement nonetheless.
Among the variations of the medieval Europe myth is the uncritically accepted notion of racially homogenous societies. This is hardly surprising. If we accept the myth, then we must accept that such societies are possible. Yet, the bulk of fantasy imbued with this myth at least hints at the trade and interaction between a wide range of peoples and cultures; in some cases, those interactions are extensive, involve substantial amounts of trade, and sometimes include “foreign meddling.” If these are meant to be European analogues, then it follows that what occurs in actuality should be present in the work of the fantastic. After all, we know that medieval Europe was not closed to interactions with its neighbors in North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia (though that one might not be a literal neighbor depending on your particular map). There were black Romans, Persian Greeks, brown Spaniards, and on and on and on. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of medieval Europe knows that it was not racially homogenous even if it historically screamed its way into increasingly more racist territory over the centuries.
Fantasy almost never addresses this — or, if it does, it provides no explanation that makes much sense. What reason is there for an entire culture to genetically remain “the same”? Wouldn’t the peoples they trade with also stay in a foreign territory, have children, and become part of that culture (insofar as they are allowed)? In the real world, we know this happened. In fantasy worlds, it sometimes doesn’t without explanation. For most readers in the West, this isn’t a problem. Our default assumptions about whose stories are being told means we can more easily slip into a new world. But when we take those assumptions and expand them outward to other interpretations of the Eurocentric fantasy or, worse, to adaptations of the real world, our default assumptions become something more: a narrative of (usually European) whiteness which erases people of color from, in many cases, their own history; it likewise excludes them from being part of the history of nations to which they are now a part, thereby making history a de facto “white” venture or, at least, a venture whose long tail is “white” and whose short tail is punctuated by supremacy. After all, if the only historical referent you’re allowed within the medieval Europe myth is being descended from slaves (for example) while you’re also denied access to the root history of your ancestral (and perhaps current) culture (by historical oppression, by rejection within educational systems, by being taught “not your history”), it becomes impossible to ignore the legacies of oppression in historical production. Reproducing that same rhetoric in fantasy, therefore, becomes a kind of continual cultural violence made exceptionally absurd by the imaginative realm in which the genre resides.
The recent furor over Amazon’s Tolkien adaptation is absolutely rooted in this medieval Europe myth.4 Or, to put it more bluntly, a willful misreading of Tolkien (there being a lot of that going around because why not…) as a consequence of the myth’s lasting damage on our conceptions of race in fantasy. Tolkien’s work is certainly more complicated than a simple binary (good/bad) would hold, in part because of the work to which he responds, the complicated racial politics of his day, and even the narrative choices made throughout his work to challenge our default assumptions about entire groups of people being “the same.”
The Hobbits, for example, feature three distinct groupings notable for their specific physical and character features, though here I am concerned with racial markers (the Harfoots are “browner,” the Stoors are not described in skin tones as far as I can tell, and the Fallohides are “fairer” in skin and hair). Variations can be found elsewhere, too, and some races, such as the Dwarves, aren’t described in this manner at all. The groups of Men are a different matter. Some groups are described as fair (but only mostly) while others aren’t racially described at all. Negative descriptions of other groups also exist, including the Easterlings (“swarthy”) and the orcs (“black-skinned” with “slant eyes”), though it is important to recognize that Tolkien’s characters and narratives often challenge the assumptions people make about these groups.5 The existence of variation in one place, of course, implies variation elsewhere, and the absence of a description at all should make us wonder why our default is “white” when it could just as well be something else entirely.
But even here, we often rely on assumptions about what words mean. A friend of mine who happens to be a medieval studies and Tolkien scholar pointed out that “fair” or “fair-skinned” often (or can) mean “beautiful” rather than “of white skin,” especially when we take into account its meaning in Old English, from which Tolkien absolutely drew inspiration. This might hint at the influence of modern language on our understanding of Tolkien, who frequently pulled from medieval and ancient references rather than contemporary ones.6 Even if we don’t accept this as the default interpretation, it cannot be discounted outright, thereby opening us up to the possibility that many of Tolkien’s races may just be stunners. Perhaps the Elves, who are sometimes seen as “fair-skinned” and frequently interpreted as white just have a really good skincare regiment. In fairness, my scholar friend admits that the Elves are probably white or lighter in skin tone, but even they suggested that this does not automatically exclude all actors of color. After all, “lighter in skin tone” can mean a variety of things depending on your default starting point. Furthermore, what holds for elves doesn’t necessarily hold for other Tolkien races because the word “fair” may need to be understand within a different context given the volume of Tolkien’s medieval references. Basically, any 1-to-1, all encompassing mapping of Tolkien is bound for trouble.
There is a plethora of scholarship of Tolkien’s treatment of race and ethnicity throughout his work (and in his letters), and while I would love to explore those here, they’re beyond the purview of this particular post and should be discussed by more well-versed Tolkien-ites than me. I simply wanted to note that even with some of his races that are described in terms of skin tones, Tolkien does sometimes remind us that there is potential for variation AND that our assumptions about entire groups of people can sometimes be completely wrong (within the context of the story and its mythical narrative frame). In other cases, the portrayals are certainly questionable, such as his treatment of the Easterlings and the orcs, though they are more complicated than some of the cruder treatments that followed in the post-Tolkien “boom.” I mention these things not to absolve Tolkien of criticism, which any healthy debate of a literary work should include. If I were writing more about Tolkien here, I might take a middle position in the debate, in large part because of the influence of his work on fantasy as a whole.
Rather, I want to get to an understanding of adaptation and Tolkien that doesn’t rely on the medieval Europe myth as a founding principle. If fantasy shouldn’t adhere to this myth because there is little justification for doing so, then it holds, too, that Tolkien’s work should make room for reinterpretations of the lore to grant a wider variety of expressions. Indeed, there’s no reason that our common ideas of elves cannot apply to a black person. The ethereal and fair nature of elves could just as easily be applied to any person of color. I can think of many actors and actresses who might as well be elves if not for the absence of one of the common fantasy stereotypes that isn’t even explicitly mentioned in the main texts of Middle Earth (I’m talking about pointy ears; you have to dig for the references outside the main ME texts, and they’re all pretty ambiguous or open to interpretation; additionally, any reading of an ambiguous statement has to justify an adjacent reading of ambiguity, thereby leading us to the odd realization that Samwise Gamgee was described as having “brown hands.” Are they dirty, or is Sam perhaps not as white as we previously assumed?).
There’s no rule that says an elf CANNOT be black or brown. There are (faulty) ASSUMPTIONS that an elf cannot be black or brown. Even if we allow for concerns about elves of color based in textual referents, we’re left with no recourse for other Tolkien races which aren’t even described in racial terms, such as the dwarves.7 And if one rejects, as you should, the notion of homogenous societies (remaining so indefinitely), it follows that we might need to reconsider our expectations for Tolkien’s “races.” Brown or darker-hued faces can just as easily be shown to us as fair and wondrous and angelic with the same visual trickery used for whiter faces. Am I to honestly believe that only Cate Blanchett’s face can become angelic in the right lighting but the same cannot be done for Ismael Cruz Córdova (the goal for the show may be otherwise, but you get my point)?
Tolkien’s Middle Earth wasn’t as homogenous as certain people believe, and the cultural referents from which it draws weren’t as homogenous as the medieval Europe myth would have us believe either. More importantly, the question of adaptation should always allow for the social shifts of the times, both so we can continually advance our understanding of ourselves and so we can invite new readings of a work. Middle Earth isn’t real, after all, and so deviations from the original work should be considered based on their impact on the structure of a given story and on the meanings of the original content. We’ve not seen this version of Tolkien’s world yet, and so we have little to say about the changes it makes to the original work beyond the superficial visuals. Until we know what this story will be, we’re forced to wait and see what changes will come and what those changes will do to our reading of the original work.
But we absolutely don’t need to hold on to this notion that Tolkien’s “races” must be X or Y way or that any work of fantasy should remain so. There are better things to do with our time, and there are better arguments to be made about the nature of adaptation. If the medieval world was more diverse than most people realize, then the same can hold for Tolkien or any fantasy series. And while I don’t know if creating a space in Tolkien’s world explicitly open to fans of color will soften the racism within fandom, I hope it will let more people see themselves in the stories that still matter in our conversations about literature. We shall see…
In a semi-recent piece for The Nation, David Klion discussed what is by now no longer the “latest” bit of Internet “free speech” theater in response to the cancellation of a collection of Norman Mailer’s essays. I shouldn’t say “cancelled,” really. The publisher passed on publishing the book, which means it could very well be...
In a semi-recent piece for The Nation, David Klion discussed what is by now no longer the “latest” bit of Internet “free speech” theater in response to the cancellation of a collection of Norman Mailer’s essays. I shouldn’t say “cancelled,” really. The publisher passed on publishing the book, which means it could very well be published somewhere else (even by Mailer’s estate), thereby making the meaning of a “cancellation” rather dubious at best. Can you really be “cancelled” in the lofty meaning that term has now taken (undeserved, really) when you’re both very much dead and your work is otherwise still available? I mean, the presumed offending work, “The White Negro,” is literally right there on the Internet. Google it if you must.1
What stands out about this latest bout of the same conversation we’ve been having for the last decade is how utterly banal it has become. It’s essentially the same handful of voices saying the same handful of things while critically missing both reality and actual issues happening over there that deserve a nuanced and stern response. I’m talking about the use of Internet mobs to destroy people’s lives, both by literally trying to ruin them over what are often extremely small offenses by blasting them for months or years on end in social media spaces (thereby making being there innately masochistic) or, worse, real world harassment (doxxing, sending threatening mail, showing up at houses, or, in rarer cases, much worse). Just a couple months ago, a friend of mine got blasted for what was actually a correctly nuanced tweet, and this became a kind of “rallying call” for those looking for a regular punching bag (and who, in some cases, had already been punching this friend for over a year in response to something else).2
What we’re witnessing happening around us is a kind of insidious sea change to which the so-called defenders of free speech have both failed to adapt and ironically brought about. What “cancel culture” used to mean in its political grift lexicon never had much to do with “cancelling” within the black community. It has always been a farce propped up by mountains of fake controversies, misunderstandings, and political posturing. The Norman Mailer incident is just another line in the “cancel culture” debate which fails miserably at dealing with the real threats. As Klion rightly notes, the U.S. alone has been beset upon by one of the most alarming increases in censorship by the State. Nearly all of them — the anti-CRT and other related bills — have been propped up by that same falsity: imagined scandals used by clever political elites to drum up support among the masses so utterly concerned by a thing they can’t really define and which has until recently largely been imaginary. The irony is pungent enough to taste: the very people who have used the grift to invent a controversy over something that isn’t actually happening as they describe have now been co-opted by people doing exactly what the first group claimed to be concerned about — restricting free speech, academic freedom, and related concerns.
In the midst of that is a current of true cruelty. That friend of mine is one of a number of people I know who have been targeted by online hate mobs. Those mobs are sometimes incredibly coordinated, using their collective power to persistently attack the same person for months or years on end. They’re also sometimes remarkably transient and fickle, which would seem to be a “good thing” except that one brutal mob can ruin someone’s life (and that same mob can draw the attention of a persistent mob later on). I don’t even need to get specific here to make the point because you probably have a suitable example in your head already. There is, in other words, a climate of fear swiftly filtering over much of “online life.” And it’s not a result of some nefarious leftist plot or the oft-repeated arguments about “cancel culture,” which are still quite wrong and are still oblivious to the real threats against free speech — there’s a dramatic difference, after all, between mobs online and governments enacting censorship laws. I see it as a consequence of multiple generations of people existing online (in far too much detail) in a culture that on the one hand does very little to protect people from actual abuse (by people, the state, etc.) and on the other hand has fostered an openly hostile environment of us vs. them.3
Here, I disagree with Klion slightly — oh so slightly. True, the “cancel culture” brigade have largely targeted the most powerless: the junior staffers, the vocal minority youth, etc. More importantly, that brigade has been wrong on nearly every front at nearly every stage. What they say young people are up to (or junior staffers, etc.) is often fiction and, worse, often sitting over a mess of illegitimate concerns about marginalized identities (trans people in bathrooms, trans athletes, gender pronouns, being overly sensitive, etc.).4 But they were right that we should be concerned about how online culture develops (though they weren’t right in terms of the details). Instead of targeting the correct things, they took us down a path that ironically created the very problem they should have seen coming. That us vs. them mentality of the web. That increasing degrees of harassment on social media. That snarky (and abusive) response culture which does little to foster conversation and everything to increase aggressive rhetoric. That attack on the academy, on businesses, on Twitter accounts, and so on which meant we were all fighting over a space that actually wasn’t the real problem to begin with.
All of that helped bring us this world we’re now watching rise up: a world where you, too, can become the Villain of the Day and have your life ruined while the government restricts your ability to talk about it. Orwell was perhaps not cynical enough to imagine a world which brought totalitarian rule upon itself without merely relying on the government to do the dirty work. We’re destroying ourselves to fight over rights and decency and kindness and intellectual diversity which all needn’t be defended. They should just be.
We’ve been talking about the wrong thing this whole time. “Cancel culture” was never the real concern. The problem was always that too many of us have forgotten what totalitarian governments look like and what happens when you turn your discursive environment into a toxic wasteland. Now, we get to watch and wait while tyrants shut down border crossings and annex city blocks…while mobs who have lost their ability to empathize ruin lives over often innocuous or comparatively minor slipups…while second chances are wiped away because every failure is a permanent scarlet letter…while state governments ban the ability to teach things that might make some people uncomfortable, creating a chilling censorship effect in education…and on and on and on.
The Ministry of Truth is here. It’s just crueler than anything Big Brother could have imagined…
It’s been many years since I’ve done one of these. As I mentioned on my 2022 resolutions post/rant, I want to do a lot more reading and a lot more positive interactions in fandom. The first step: opening myself up to a public conversation about the Hugo Awards, the things I particularly loved, and more....
It’s been many years since I’ve done one of these. As I mentioned on my 2022 resolutions post/rant, I want to do a lot more reading and a lot more positive interactions in fandom. The first step: opening myself up to a public conversation about the Hugo Awards, the things I particularly loved, and more. But I don’t want to do that alone, which is where you come in.
For several years, I asked folks to tell me what stories (fiction of all lengths and comics) they particularly enjoyed in the prior year. I then used those suggestions to together a longlist of works I consider worth checking out. This helped me narrow my focus for my nominating ballot and give other folks some insight into my process (and help narrowing their lists, too).
So here we are. The comments are open, and I want to know:
What SF/F/H (broadly defined) published in 2021 do you think deserves consideration for the Hugo Awards?
All lengths of fiction (novel, novella, and short fiction) and comics (web, graphic, etc.) are welcome.
So, tell me. What should have read? Go!
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