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The World in the Satin Bag

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  • Shaun Duke
  • September 11, 2007 03:19:13 PM

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A Blog and Novel by S. M. Duke. Writing discussion, genre fiction, reviews, tips, and more!

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Chicon 8 / Worldcon 2022 Schedule!

For folks who follow me here on this blog object, below is my current schedule of events at this year’s Worldcon! You can find the program guide online here. There is a lot of great stuff on the program, including stuff I worked on as academic head! 😀 Do with this knowledge what you will...

For folks who follow me here on this blog object, below is my current schedule of events at this year’s Worldcon! You can find the program guide online here. There is a lot of great stuff on the program, including stuff I worked on as academic head! 😀

Do with this knowledge what you will :):

Thursday, September 1

  • 11:30 AM: SF Scholarship for Fans
  • 5:30 PM: Integrity vs. Money: The Platforming of Podcasting

Friday, September 2

  • 8:30 AM: Stroll with the Stars—Friday Morning

Saturday, September 3

  • 10:00 AM: Destroying All The Things
  • 7:00 PM: The Problematic History of Speculative Fictions

Sunday, September 4

  • 10:00 AM: Speculative Academia: Publish and Present Papers on SpecFic
  • 2:30 PM: The Evolution of Film Dystopias
  • 5:30 PM: The Expansion of Fandom

Monday, September 5

  • 10:00 AM: Table Talk – Shaun Duke

Pete’s Dragon and the Most Alarming World of Child Abduction…with Music!

When you’re a kid, you don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about the historical basis for the narratives in the fantasy films you grew to love. It’s all about the anthropomorphic Robin Hood figures, talking parrots and genies, flying beds and walking suits of armor, an astronomically large collection of Dalmatians, or a...

When you’re a kid, you don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about the historical basis for the narratives in the fantasy films you grew to love. It’s all about the anthropomorphic Robin Hood figures, talking parrots and genies, flying beds and walking suits of armor, an astronomically large collection of Dalmatians, or a magical cartoon dragon who roasts apples for his child companion. That describes much of my early experiences with Pete’s Dragon (1977), which saw Disney attempting to recreate the live-action-and-cartoon musical magic some thirteen years after Mary Poppins. It’s a film about a little boy and his magical dragon, about a small New England seaside town, about larger-than-life hillbilly villains, and about familiar Disney things like the power of family (even found family) and even the “value” of children.

Value would normally have an obvious meaning here. Something like “hey, we should listen to kids because what they have to say matters,” for example. And Disney certainly has that here. Pete (Sean Marshall), the lively redheaded boy who is taken in by lighthouse keepers Nora (Helen Reddy) and Lampie (Mickey Rooney) gets his fair share of moments to remind the adults around him that what he thinks does matter – though other adults, such as the strict and draconian schoolteacher, Miss Taylor (Jane Kean), find little of value in the words of children. Yet, it’s the other value that I found particularly shocking upon rewatching the film for this feature.

The central premise of Pete’s Dragon involves the titular character escaping from the Gogans, a group of cruel, extremely dirty farm folk who are led by matriarch Lena and who have purchased Pete for use on their farm – there’s even a song about it (“Bill of Sale”). Helping him on his journey is a dragon named Elliott (voiced by Charlie Callas). Pursued mercilessly by the Gogans, Pete makes his way to the fictional town of Passamaquoddy (though there is a bay and an indigenous group with that name) and is taken in by Lampie – the town drunk and lighthouse keeper – and his daughter, Nora – whose fiancé, Paul, was lost at sea and is presumed dead. Meanwhile, traveling charlatan Dr. Terminus (Jim Dale) and his alcoholic assistant Hoagy (Red Buttons) roll into town and once more woo the townsfolk with their nonsense health remedies. When they discover that Elliott is actually real, they hatch a plot to capture him and convert him into a lucrative (and finally legitimate) sea of health remedies. Intermixed are a series of utterly delightful songs, which you can listen to on Spotify (and you should listen to them because they are, as I said, utterly delightful). Most folks also don’t know that it is based on a short story by Seton I. Miller and S.S. Field (“Pete’s Dragon and the U.S.A. (Forever After)”) which Disney optioned in 1957.

Coming back to this film as an adult has considerably changed my perspective on Pete’s Dragon. Before, it was a light hearted and fun movie involving dragon shenanigans and some of my favorite things in the world: the ocean, roasting things on fire, and fun musical numbers. Now, well, it’s still light hearted to a degree, but the darkness lingering in the background is such that it’s a wonder the movie didn’t terrify me. Dr. Terminus and Hoagy, for example, sing an entire song about brutally murdering, chopping, and grinding up Elliott (“Every Little Piece”) – but with smiles! There’s such glee in their performance that one becomes infected with it. And how can you really dislike Hoagy here? Red Buttons is positively delightful in the role. Sure, he may be following in Dr. Terminus’ footsteps, tricking unsuspecting townsfolk out of their hard earned money in exchange for nonsense and, with a bit of coercion, partaking in a particularly gruesome crime (if one could call it that), but he sings those lines – “can you hear that jingle jangle song (oh yeah)” – and you’re sucked in. To be fair, dragon cartilage apparently keeps you thin, so…

I love you, too!

Of course, this is Disney. Literally every Disney film meant for children has featured terrible things, from the horrific murder of parents to threats to murder to threatsof skinning people (or animals) alive, and so on. Disney is a twisted company. Effective, but twisted. Yet, little did I know that in watching Pete’s Dragon as an adult, I’d be sent on a journey into the history of child trafficking in the U.S. Given that one of the two major conflicts in this story involves the Gogans trying to acquire their property and the film is set sometime in the early 1900s (many decades before its release), I should have picked up on it. Here, Disney’s motive is one of a moral message about the treatment of children as property, both in the film’s more passive examinations of the early school system (Miss Taylor) and in the more aggressive kidnapping antics of the early U.S. adoption (and related) systems (the Gogans). It quite reflects the ethics of the 1970s, which saw a rise in criticism of the longstanding rules about how we view children. In 1977, for example, Ingraham v. Wright upheld the constitutionality of corporal punishment in schools, which still remains effectively legal in a number of U.S. states even if most of us don’t realize it. By the release of Pete’s Dragon, four states had outlawed corporal punishment in public schools (and New Jersey added on bans in private schools). Today, we might look back at Ingraham v. Wright and wonder how you could uphold as legal a punishment which sent a child to the hospital after he was restrained and beaten with a paddle. In 1977, it was controversial, sure, but the tide hadn’t quite flipped over. Arguably, it hasn’t flipped over today either. It’s still legal in nineteen states and practiced in fifteen, albeit mostly in private schools.

The Gogans

If that weren’t horrifying enough, Pete’s Dragon’s explicit reference to the history of child trafficking in the U.S. prior to effective bans is arguably more grim and equally as moralistic. The Gogans – who, again, literally sing a cheerful song about the bill of sale for Pete – are presented here as ignorant, dirty, cruel, and deceitful rural folk whose obsession with Pete amounts almost entirely to getting their money’s worth out of him in the form of labor on their farm. That “bill of sale” is their contract, one which has considerable historical precedence. While adoption was established in U.S. law in 1851, it wasn’t immediately popular due in part to prevailing (eugenics-adjacent) beliefs about those children being genetically tainted due to the circumstances of their availability – often from poor and immigrant families. In 1854, several institutions put together the Orphan Train Movement, which basically gathered up orphans and shipped them around the country, often to rural Midwest communities where they were meant to provide an extra set of hands and be treated effectively as a true-born child of the families who took them in. Practically speaking, a good chunk of them basically became slave labor, albeit with a technical end point (adulthood). Much of this changed in the wake of Georgia Tann’s work with the Tennessee Children’s Home Society (or, rather, illegally to the side of it). Tann probably helped popularize adoption as a legitimate practice and apparently disagreed strongly with the genetic arguments, but she also spent nearly three decades (1924-1950) abducting and selling children (up to 5,000) to various families selected mostly for their wealth. Tann was, if anything, the prototype of Lena Gogan, a manipulative person hell bent on using legal pressure to get what she wanted.

All of this, is of course, set in the background for Disney’s moral argument against both corporal punishment and child trafficking in the form found in the U.S. up to the moment of the film. The Gogan’s are set up as deceitful monsters who are happy to lie and abuse “the system” to take ownership over a child they clearly only value for a monetary-labor relationship, we’re at no point meant to sympathize with them even if we find their antics – and propensity for getting thrown into the mud and other gross places – amusing. Indeed, the Gogan family is quite funny here in a slapstick sort of way. Miss Taylor, meanwhile, is far too strict, far too cruel, and far too distrusting, abusing Pete after accusing him of things he couldn’t possibly have done right up until the entire town learns that Elliott is, in fact, real and operates as a kind of protector to Pete (a trickster protector). Meanwhile, Dr. Terminus is all smoke and mirrors, a well-dressed, clean, quick-witted, and manipulative man whose acts are both illegal and gruesome.

Dr. Terminus and His Trusty Companion

All of these figures give the film a cast of villains who are all the butt of jokes and analogues to real-world things from yesteryear. And each serves to remind us that there is good and evil, that systems are not substitutes for morality, and that being a child in a world where what is legal and what is right are in constant flux is a dangerous game. The way to beat that game is, predictably, through family, found or otherwise. Pete’s family is a war between an imposed family and a family he chooses for himself, and it is this latter which brings him safety and security in a way that Elliott ultimately cannot. And I’ll just note that Lampie and Nora (and, eventually, Paul, who turns out to have survived) are not a bad family to have at all. Intensely loving, willing to provide stability and lessons while still giving a child space to be themselves and be heard, and happy to break out into delightful song during chores – these are all things that serve as a perfect contrast to the Gogans and as a perfect embodiment of Disney’s message. Every child won’t necessarily have their very own Elliott to protect them, but every child deserves a family that loves them. A “bill of sale” doesn’t matter. Love and stability matters.

It’s no wonder my grandmother was so fond of this movie. While many complain about “message fiction” these days (ridiculously, of course), here is a movie with a clear message – like all Disney movies, really – that both attacks the past while offering us an alternative that is absolutely better. And sure, there is a jolly giant green dragon who sings and can turn invisible. And sure, there are so many delightfully memorable songs in this film with great dance numbers attached. And sure, the film is just so much fun to watch even as an adult. But it’s that deep message, the history, that stuff embedded in there that you might not notice as a kid that really gets me. Pete’s Dragon is a film you can rewatch precisely because you’ll get something new out of it every time. It’s also a film you can rewatch precisely because it’s just so much fun.

Kicking Beers!

Sometimes “We Need a 2nd Season” Isn’t a Plan (or, How Jupiter’s Legacy Ruined a Good Thing)

According to the Internet, Kirk Douglas once said that “in order to achieve anything, you must be brave enough to fail.” I don’t know if he actually said that, but it seems plausible enough, and it helps me get to my amendment: “in order to achieve anything, you can’t do some lazy bullshit.” Jupiter’s Legacy...

According to the Internet, Kirk Douglas once said that “in order to achieve anything, you must be brave enough to fail.” I don’t know if he actually said that, but it seems plausible enough, and it helps me get to my amendment: “in order to achieve anything, you can’t do some lazy bullshit.” Jupiter’s Legacy is, well, lazy bullshit. Likely the victim of the Netflix model – which sometimes seems to treat single seasons as pilots for continuations rather than contained narratives – Jupiter’s Legacy falls painfully short on nearly every measure despite having, I’d argue, one of the most compelling “quest” stories outside of traditional epic fantasy.

Jupiter’s Legacy is split into two major narratives: the first explores what happens when the values of a Justice League-esque union of graying superheroes are challenged by a younger order of supers and a violent conspiracy plot which takes the lives of several supers; the second takes us back to the Great Depression and the journey the original supers had to complete in order to gain their powers (and, thus, pass them on to their children). There are numerous side plots, most of which center on the children of the original supers dealing with what amounts to a series of problems with one’s parents. Most of this doesn’t really matter to the story, but it’s there to distract you…

Overall, Jupiter’s Legacy is a prime example of a wasted opportunity. The second major plot (the “quest” narrative) is the most compelling part of the story, but that is owed almost entirely to the fact that it is actually completed during the course of the season. Nearly nothing else receives the same treatment. Worse, the show decides to use the final episode to throw in an out-of-nowhere twist ending in a brutal cliffhanger we now know will never be resolved. None of the super kids find peace or a resolution to their problems – some, in fact, end up worse off or dead.

Aww! They were so young once…

Much of this is frustrating for the viewer. While the “quest” narrative proceeds through the Great Depression, madness leading to grand and possibly cosmic discovery, and the resolution of tensions between most of the original supers, this is hamstrung by the story’s need to unveil grand mysteries in the present, part of which, upon the final reveal, completely undermines the “quest” story’s resolution. This wouldn’t be such a problem if the show were spread out over more space, but for reasons that are incomprehensible to me, we’re given eight episodes to resolve the kind of plot and character elements it takes most shows at least three seasons to address. Here, the writers (and actors) are forced forward as if they were hikers dumped in the middle of the desert. Find your way back to civilization, but you’ve only got water for three days! Good luck!

Set against this are a myriad of unearned character moments, most of them centered on the super children. Nearly all of them have significant baggage with regards to their parents, yet at no point does Jupiter’s Legacy show us where this baggage comes from. The original supers do have baggage of their own, but we’re given half an episode showing us why; that same courtesy is not afforded to the younger characters. We do get one scene with the Utopian teaching his kids a lesson about power and responsibility before shooting off to save someone, but I did not find this sufficient to rest an entire story in which one of your main super kids has such a contentious relationship with the Utopian (a.k.a. Her father) that it has led her to drug abuse and destructive behavior. We’re simply meant to accept it as “a thing that happens.” Naturally, the analogue here is the children of celebrities, but that level of detail is virtually absent from the show.

Chloe being Chloe.

Even Jupiter’s Legacy’s central argument about whether super people should use lethal force is given weak treatment here. The question is compelling. As younger super people deal with increasingly more dangerous threats – or, at least, that’s what we’re told – and lose their lives, it creates a rift between and amongst the original supers, who have held on to a set of codes that includes “no killing” and “don’t get involved in politics.” Can you really maintain such rigid ideals in an increasingly gray world? The first season mostly punts the answer to your imagination even as specific characters offer answers of their own (often through action, thankfully). Yet, I can’t help but imagine what a story like this would be like if it could focus on that question from start to finish rather than telling other stories? There’s almost no real engagement here. People question it. The Utopian says “no, we gotta do it.” And that’s it. The question doesn’t get to breathe, and the show’s moral ethos seems to avoid having to suggest to us what the right answer might be

Hutch beating up some goons.

There’s this overwhelming sense that this was a show written entirely as an audience and Netflix enticement. “Watch me so we can justify continuing this story,” however, is hardly a recipe for strong narrative television. As much as I enjoyed the “quest” narrative, watching all of this unravel itself in the final episode with almost no substantial foreshadowing left me speechless in the end. Why hamstring your writers and actors in this way? Why play this game where you must get enough viewers to create more just to ensure that your story makes sense?

It’s unfortunate, to say the least, that a show with so much potential could flop so painfully. Now that we know a second season will never come, we’re left with a paint can spilled across the hardwood floor. A mess we can’t fix. A mess that can only be a mess and nothing more.

An Adventure in Style Over Substance: Snyder’s Army of the Dead (2021)

There are times when I turn on a thing and realize it was a mistake. Sometimes it’s a terrible 80s horror film like Edge of the Axe (1988) or a TV series you don’t realize will leave you disappointed until it’s too late (ahem, Jupiter’s Legacy). This time, it’s Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead....

There are times when I turn on a thing and realize it was a mistake. Sometimes it’s a terrible 80s horror film like Edge of the Axe (1988) or a TV series you don’t realize will leave you disappointed until it’s too late (ahem, Jupiter’s Legacy). This time, it’s Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead.

If I’m honest, I came into this with high hopes. Unlike most people over the age of 25, I actually quite enjoy Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead (2004) – even though I agree that the original is a better film. I thought the film handled its zombie universe well, built up meaningful personal stakes for its characters, and had sufficient tension to make for an occasionally terrifying adventure. It is upon that experience that I came into Army of the Dead with certain expectations for the kind of film we’d get. Alas, a heist-y Dawn of the Dead we did not get.

Army of the Dead opens with a car crash between a military convoy and a car of newlyweds outside Las Vegas. You can imagine what the newlyweds are up to on your own time. The convoy, it turns out, is carrying a monster which might be an alien or an experiment or just a regular super zombie; naturally, the super zombie infects several of the soldiers, and then we’re gifted a montage of stylistic zombie mayhem. The rest of the story follows Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), a former mercenary who is hired by Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) to infiltrate his casino and salvage the vault of cash before Las Vegas is nuked to control the infection. With Scott is a crew of eccentric mercenary misfits that includes Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), Maria Cruz (Ana de la Reguera), Ludwig Dieter (Matthia Schweighöfer), Marianne Peters (Tig Notaro, who is CGed into the movie), Lily (Nora Arnezeder), and more. Scott’s daughter, Kate (Ella Purnell), also forces her way along to find her friend, who has gone into the quarantine zone and disappeared. Hijinks ensue.

As a film, Army of the Dead is a prime example of the Snyder approach to filmmaking. Significant portions of the film are dedicated to flashy imagery operating as a kind of concept art. Snyder has been accused of operating in a style-over-substance vein numerous times, and he does not escape that criticism here. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the brief shot in the zombie infection montage in which we watch paratroopers descend into the zombie-infested Vegas streets, where they are absurdly outnumbered and serve as little more than appetizers to the horde. While the irony is interesting, the entire sequence makes little sense. Why would the U.S. military drop paratroopers into obviously infested streets? If Vegas is the center of the infection, why wouldn’t you quarantine the area first and use crowd dispersal tactics to reduce the zombie numbers? The scene feels less anchored to the actual world and story than it does to Snyder’s style throughout the film. Ultimately, if you think even for a minute about what you’re watching, the entire thing falls apart. And, no, you can’t survive a nuke that way. No, sir.

That style-over-substance nature of the film permeates nearly every facet of the story. Scott’s conflict with his daughter, for example, is largely inserted to add tension to what is already a tense mission and to derail the story with nonsensical timelines. But we don’t understand why the tension exists, and when we do finally get an answer, it’s a throwaway line that does nothing to ground us in the emotional journey of the family – and even less to convince us of the film’s painfully obvious ending. The subplots are also compounded on top of each other, and yet none of them feel particularly earned or “lived in.” Scott’s relationship isn’t a vehicle for a meaningful exploration of family; it is merely a device to complicate the heist plot. Did it need to be here? Not really. Couple this with other side plots, such as Tanaka’s goon having an ulterior motive, or the far more interesting I Am Legend turn as we realize early on that the zombies are not what we think they are, and you end up with a movie that seems hell bent on having personal stakes but doesn’t want to spend the time to make them land. These extra levels are stylistic flourishes of other, more complete stories, inserted to imitate effective narratives. And they’re coupled with lackluster horror tropes, such as characters doing things that nobody in their right mind would do. I might have yelled at the TV on a number of occasions…

Much of this, of course, could be resolved by simply thinking about the shot sequences or plot contrivances before putting them on the screen. What does a scene add? Does it make sense in context? Is this emotional moment earned? These are all questions that this film desperately needs to interrogate but never does. The film would also have benefited from someone on set having a watch, as we’re told numerous times that the nuke will drop before the runtime of the film has concluded. The sense of space or time is almost absent here, so much so that we might as well live in an alternate reality in which those concepts mean absolutely nothing. The result is a movie that would be disappointing if it weren’t another Zack Snyder hand flail.

All of that said, the movie is not without its goods. While Notaro is criminally underused here, there are hints at a stellar performance which, yes, is style-forward but feels anchored to a real character – a badass helicopter pilot with a snarky mouth (give me more). Reducing Notaro to a “yes” character, though, leaves much to be desired. I could say similar things about Schweighöfer’s Dieter, who brings a frenetic energy to the cast that is much needed.

Additionally, Snyder is a master of the visual craft. His shot compositions, while often nonsensical, are pleasing to look at. If Snyder could focus his stories so the images are more than stylistic flourishes, I could see him producing memorable works in almost any genre. There is one scene, for example, in which the cast must weave their way through a room full of sleeping zombies without waking them; it’s as tense as any horror scene you can imagine, and I wish more of the movie focused on the horrific complexities of performing a heist in a zombie-infested city – i.e., where the heart lives. Likewise, Snyder’s vision of apocalyptic Las Vegas is stunning and puts similar genre versions – such as Resident Evil: Extinction (2007) – to bed. I also found his treatment of the zombies – as an ant-like hierarchy – quite compelling if not underexplored, and his treatment of gore throughout made for a suitably splashy film. In a lot of ways, this movie feels like an action-packed video game. Perhaps that’s where Snyder should have taken it, as I think it would have worked better in that medium than as a film.

All-in-all, I came away from this film one part disappointed and one part kicking myself for expecting anything else. The criticisms of Snyder as a director remain accurate. He is a style-first, story-second director, and while that can make for visually-pleasing films, it doesn’t make for films worth remembering. There are better zombie movies out there, and I’ll return those to my screens sooner than I’d give Army of the Dead another shot. Find a copy of the original Dawn of the Dead (1978). You won’t be disappointed.

Flights of Foundry Schedule

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:

  • Friday (4/8) at 6 PM CDT (Hour Block 7): READING BY ME!
  • Saturday (4/9) at 12 PM CDT (Hour Block 25): GOH READING – INTERVIEW W/ TOBIAS BUCKELL
  • Sunday (4/10) at 4 PM CDT (Hour Block 53): CROSSING GENRES WITH HORROR HYBRIDS
    w/ Caitlin Starling, johnnie jae, and Suzan Palumbo (me as mod)
  • Sunday (4/10) at 6 PM CDT (Hour Block 55): SOCIAL MEDIA FOR CREATIVES
    w/ George Jreije and Theresa Halvorsen (me as mod)

I hope to see some of y’all in the audience. 😀


Towards an SF Canon: Curiosities

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).

Red Rover, Red Rover, Send an Anthology On Over!

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.

What the What? A Canon, You Say?

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.

And So We Come to the Close

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…

  1. Two other groups also exist. The first argues that there is a canon — or, at least, that there are classics — and then yells at other people about it. The second hates that the canon — or, at least, the classics — doesn’t much care for that version of the canon and hates being told they have to read that stuff (though some of them may read those things anyway).
  2. For the record, I don’t think general popularity is a good way to form a literary canon. It should be considered, of course, but we must also consider factors such as influence, presentation, representation, etc. More on that another day.
  3. SFWA now also includes “Fantasy” in the name.
  4. I’m trying to get my hands on one of the essays Hillegas wrote on teaching that class. Unfortunately, it’s in a rare issue of a Colgate U magazine and may be inaccessible via digital means. We’ll see!
  5. Sam Moskowitz’s 1953 course on writing science fiction is probably the first course of its kind. It was taught on a non-credit basis at City College of New York. Numerous SF writers of note showed up to give talks.

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