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December 18, 2006
The Cassutt Files
The Canon

By Michael Cassutt
It is reliably reported, on the news site Locusmag.com and elsewhere, that four novels by our own Philip K. Dick have been selected for publication in the Library of America—The Man in the High Castle, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Ubik will be available in a single, handsome volume next June.

For those, like me, who came of age when sci-fi was still considered low-rent, when the positive mention of, say, Walter Miller Jr. or Ursula Le Guin in a national magazine was a rare moment of vindication, Philip K. Dick's elevation to this august post, his enshrinement in the canon of 20th-century literature, is undeniably good news. (Sorry, moments like these have an adverse affect on my style.)

The same reports add, however, that the complete works of Philip Roth will also be enshrined. Roth is a fabulously successful and well-regarded (though not universally so) mainstream writer. His selection for the Library of America is no surprise—indeed, two collections of his earlier works (Novels and Stories, 1957-72, and Novels 1968-72) have already been published in the series. Goodbye, Columbus? Classic work. In 2004, Roth published a fine alternate-history novel, The Plot Against America.

But Roth's complete works? The Breast? Our Gang? The completely misnamed Great American Novel? The once-controversial, now largely forgotten Portnoy's Complaint? A couple of these shouldn't have been published in the first place, much less added to the canon.

I have zero effect on the canon of literature—indeed, as Roth fans will no doubt tell me, no right to an opinion on the subject.

But I can address the canon of sci-fi ... specifically, the canon of sci-fi television.

Survival of the fittest

Merriam-Webster online defines "canon" as "an authoritative list of books accepted as Holy Scripture," or, less ecclesiastically, as "a sanctioned or accepted group or body of related works." Well and good, though it gives me giggles to think of Portnoy's Complaint in the same paragraph as Holy Scripture.

Taking the broadest definition, a canon of "accepted" works is valuable ... it gives viewers, writers and critics a bit of common ground. I've written about this earlier ("The Value of Shared Experience," in the Cassutt Files for SCI FI Weekly #344).

Let's review the criteria first: Works don't make the canon simply by being popular (though commercial success shouldn't disqualify them, either). What book outsold Moby Dick in 1851? Trick question—the answer is, almost all of them. Yet Moby Dick is in the canon.

And while the critical judgment—yours, mine and that of actual critics—is important, such judgments have a way of changing with perspective. Look at the critical reception—if being ignored is a reception—for books by Philip K. Dick.

The third criterion is time ... perspective.

This is the source of my complaint about Philip Roth and the Library of America: While he is Dick's contemporary in age and career, Roth is still publishing. The shape of his vision is not yet clear. (Sorry, there goes my style again. ...)

Dick died in 1982, and while novels have continued to appear—his very first, a mainstream work titled Voices From the Street, will be out shortly from Tor—all were written 25 years ago ... in some cases, more than 50 years ago.

There must be a formula for this kind of evaluation—Canonical Value as a product or result of Time, Critical Response and Sustained Popularity.

Why is this important? It's all just a label, after all. Roth's books, Dick's books, any series ever broadcast and, in some case, episodes that never made it to air—it's either already available, or soon will be, on the Google or Yahoo or Microsoft World Inter-pedia ... streaming print or video on demand. The Library of America is just a better package.

Yet it does matter, because in this long-tail marketing, what gets talked about, what gets blogged on, what gets published or distributed under a name like Library of America or Norton's line of literary anthologies or even in Michael Cassutt's personal sci-fi TV canon is what gets viewed, and what survives.

And as writers, we'll all about survival.

What to leave in, what to leave out

The canon of sci-fi television starts—appropriately enough—with Captain Video and his Video Rangers, the first "hit" sci-fi series on the networks. There were about 1,500 episodes produced between 1949 and 1955—and the scriptwriters may surprise you: Jack Vance, Damon Knight, James Blish, Robert Sheckley, Walter M. Miller. Even Arthur C. Clarke reportedly contributed a storyline.

Granted, the show looks crude and cheap today. Heck, it was cheap even by the standards of early TV—especially when you know it was produced for children.

So I can't recommend it for pure viewing pleasure. (That's assuming you can find it at all, though it seems www.moviesunlimited.com has a DVD available.)

But Captain Video is where sci-fi TV was born. After all, we read Beowolf and Chaucer and sci-fi by E.E. "Doc" Smith more for history and perspective than for fun.

The next choice—obvious and unanimous—would be Serling's Twilight Zone (1959-64), about which much has been written, especially by me. These shows are or have been available, and still run in syndication on our own SCI FI Channel.

Right after Twilight Zone comes the original Outer Limits (1963-65). As with the original TZ, I don't think anyone would dispute Outer Limits' place on a 5-foot shelf of essential sci-fi television. Selections from the series still play in syndication, and MGM Video released one or more sets of the original series as recently as 2005.

Then, of course, there is the original Star Trek (1966-1969)—but only the first two seasons.

These three series can still be viewed with pleasure, as you could happily read classic ("canonical") novels by Mark Twain, Jane Austen or H.G. Wells.

Part of the fun of creating a canon, of course, is deciding whom to leave out. I can't include series like Science Fiction Theater (1955-57), because it wasn't very good, and few have seen it. Or Men into Space (1959-1960)—influential on Michael Cassutt, no question, but only marginally sci-fi to begin with ... or any of Irwin Allen's notorious products, from Lost in Space to Time Tunnel to Land of the Giants (though I could be induced to give a waiver to the first, black-and-white season of Lost in Space). While these series were quite popular in the 1960s, and have spawned several remakes, does anyone watch them for fun? For insight? Have they influenced any writers and producers?

Not that I can see.

We'll carry the exploration of the sci-fi TV canon into the 1970s and beyond, next column.

Michael Cassutt is currently writing a book and a feature film. He has credits on more than 60 television episodes, from the so-far-noncanonical 1980s Twilight Zone and Max Headroom to the too-early-to-judge Dead Zone.