The Cannon of Science Fiction

This post was triggered by something one of my favorite authors, John Scalzi, wrote about the incessant “war” between science fiction aficionados regarding what’s canon. But I couldn’t resist the pun :).

The debate over what’s canon is an interesting one. Scalzi makes a number of great points about how foolish/silly it is to talk about “preserving the true essence of science fiction”. I won’t repeat them here.

But what struck me after reading his article is how the intense argument — and believe me, it does sometimes get really intense — about what’s canon and what’s not is an example of how social/political processes go awry. And how that dysfunction stems from us ignoring what is arguably our greatest strength as a species: humans, despite our track record of adapting to an enormous breadth of environments1, work hard as individuals to avoid adaptation. Which is pretty ironic.

It also sets us up, in the social/political environment, for constant disappointment. Because the one thing you can count on in life is that it changes. In fact, the more successful a culture or community is the more change it’s going to encounter, because success opens the door to try new and different things. It’s failure that constrains.

I live on the Peninsula, between San Francisco and San Jose. It’s a great place to be…but it isn’t for the faint of heart, and we have a lot of problems to address. Housing shortages making it nearly impossible for anyone not a highly-compensated or wealthy individual to have a reasonable life. Pervasive traffic jams and few mass transit options2. Constant massive construction. New people, and their views on How Best to Live Life, arriving all the time from all over the world, upsetting apple carts. It’s no wonder polls routinely show large numbers of residents planning on getting out of Dodge as soon as they can.

And it’s all due to how incredibly successful the people and organizations based here have been. Even if they haven’t been successful enough to solve all the problems success brought.

The well-loved things we each cherish probably — almost certainly — won’t survive forever. Nothing does. That isn’t cause for despair. Or, more to the point, it isn’t a reason to fight to the death to preserve them. Or fight to convince others they must preserve them, too. Picard had it right :).

Someone once told me time was a predator that stalked us all our lives. But I rather believe time is a companion who goes with us on the journey, and reminds us to cherish every moment. Because they’ll never come again. What we leave behind is not as important as how we lived. After all, Number One, we’re only mortal.

Jean-Luc Picard, sometime in the 24th century

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hold onto the things we cherish. I’ve loved Doc Smith’s Lensman series since the summer I first devoured all the books3. I re-read them regularly — I almost know every one of them by heart — precisely because I cherish them. But that doesn’t mean anyone else has to value them the way I do, or that someone else’s “failure” to value them diminishes the value they have in my own mind. The important parts of life aren’t zero-sum, and the common belief transactions “must be” zero-sum is foolish. In fact, almost nothing of what we all own and enjoy would exist if transactions were mostly zero-sum.

There are concepts, though, which I would argue are worth fighting for, some even unto death. But they’re not about things. They’re about preserving opportunity, allowing multiple perspectives to co-exist, and making it possible for as many of us as possible to succeed in as many ways as possible. Because, guess what? That enriches all of us. Both as a society and as individuals.

I’ve come to believe there are, ultimately, only two sources of success: things you can own and “extract”4 and human creativity. The interesting thing is we spend a lot of time fighting over the former — which is inherently finite — and tend to ignore the latter…which is, if not infinite, at least unbounded.

Maybe it’s time we adjusted our approach.

  1. I think we’re unique in this regard among animals. Certainly I can’t think of, offhand, any other species that lives in as wide a variety of environments as we do. Except for the parasites and such we carry with us. And they probably wouldn’t survive without us to live on or in. 

  2. I also serve on my local city council. During a recent hearing about traffic and parking a consultant told us about The Promised Land, where people could drive anywhere they wanted, anytime, with ease, and find parking near their destination. We all demanded to know where this place was and how they’d solved the kind of traffic and parking problems we faced. It was Detroit. They had succeeded because — with apologies to anyone who cherishes Detroit — “no one” wants to be there. 

  3. well, okay, Triplanetary is pretty weak. But my driver’s license has always said my eyes were grey, even when they were blue, because, well, Kim’s were grey! Interestingly, my eyes are grey now. 

  4. valuable ores, land that enables food to grow 

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