Hey #ChatGPT, What Books are Part of the #SFF Canon?

Welp, I asked, and the bot answered.

But before we get too deep into the significance of that answer, I want to acknowledge that in googling around before writing this piece, most of the articles which came up, rather than give a definitive list, seemed to fall into the category of Oh, Christ, Not the Canon Again or at the very least questioned whether or not we should even have/read an SFF canon.

For the most part, I agree with a lot of the arguments being presented here, and will acknowledge that in my own reading, I have pretty much avoided “the classics” like the plague (Dune being a notable exception). There was a point early in my budding love for all things SFF that it seemed I could not walk three paces without hearing “Oh you haven’t read X? You’ve got to read X. Are you even a fan if you haven’t read X?”

The answer was then, and still is now, yes I’m a fan, even if I haven’t read this particular thing that you enjoy. I’d like to think that as a genre we have moved away from this kind of elitism, but I’ll admit that its more likely that I just no longer swim the waters these sharks infest. There are other places to swim. Also, I’m older now and have read more stuff. Some of it happened to be X.

So, as a checklist for achieving status and superiority within a community, an SFF canon can rot in hell.

However, as a list of works representative of changing opinions within in the genre and the larger culture (so I guess if you’re an academic?), perhaps a definitive list might be more appealing.

Also, if like young me of days gone by, you’re thinking “I liked this thing, I wonder what I should read next?”, a canon might provide some logical places to start, and a diverse and far-reaching list might also help you refine further what you’re in to, and what you definitely do not like. So long as the approach is “Oh you liked this, I’ll bet you enjoy this other thing.” perhaps a canon could be quite useful.

Finally, the SFF genre is nearly always in conversation with some former version of itself. Most recently, I found it helpful to first read The Island of Dr. Moreau before diving into Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s The Daughter of Dr. Moreau. John Scalzi’s Redshirts might not quite land the same way if you’ve never seen Star Trek. How Long ‘Til Black Future Month is chock full of references and allusions to past works and knowing those works (I feel) helped me better understand the collection as a whole. Of course, Song of Achilles will not be such a revelatory experience if you’re not familiar with The Iliad.

A robot reading a book. Very cool.

Should you not read the works listed above if you haven’t read the things that preceded them? Of course not. Read what you want. I just happen to like chasing down threads and a canon could be a useful tool for doing so.

So what does the bot think of all this?

Well most of the time, when you ask it to express an opinion, it will say something like “As a virtual assistant, I don’t have a body, therefore I don’t {insert whatever you asked it here}”. But in this instance, it actually managed to spit out a few paragraphs on the debate surrounding the SFF canon, its merit as a cultural touchstone / shared experience, and its flaws as a fulcrum for exclusion and perpetuating bias, raising some voices over others.

So essentially what I’ve spent the last 45 min writing, it came up with in about 10 seconds but we are not going to unpack the implications of that within this post. We’re gonna do what you came here to do and take a look at the list it generated.

Please note: I’ve used a “code” font to distinguish Chat GPT’s writing from my own because I couldn’t get the quotation styling to work the way I wanted to . . . Also it just kinda feels right. Ok here we go.

“Hey ChatGPT . . . ”

“What Books Should be Considered SFF Canon?”

Science Fiction and Fantasy (SFF) is a vast and diverse genre, and there are many books that could be considered part of its canon. The following is a list of some of the most influential and iconic SFF books that have helped shape the genre and inspire countless readers and writers:

1. "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien
2. "Dune" by Frank Herbert 
3. "Neuromancer" by William Gibson 
4. "Foundation" trilogy by Isaac Asimov 
5. "Ender's Game" by Orson Scott Card 
6. "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" by Douglas Adams 
7. "Brave New World" by Aldous Huxley 
8. "1984" by George Orwell 
9. "Fahrenheit 451" by Ray Bradbury 
10. "The Chronicles of Narnia" by C.S. Lewis 
11. "A Song of Ice and Fire" series by George R.R. Martin 
12. "The Harry Potter" series by J.K. Rowling 
13. "The Hunger Games" trilogy by Suzanne Collins 
14. "The Left Hand of Darkness" by Ursula K. Le Guin 
15. "The Once and Future King" by T.H. White 
16. "The War of the Worlds" by H.G. Wells 
17. "The Time Machine" by H.G. Wells 
18. "The Martian Chronicles" by Ray Bradbury 
19. "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" by Douglas Adams 
20. "Snow Crash" by Neal Stephenson 

This is by no means an exhaustive list and there are many other books that could be considered part of the SFF canon depending on individual taste and preference.

So, a couple things to point out here:

  1. With 17 men and only 3 women (J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins, & Ursula K LeGuin), this list is entirely white.
  2. The most recent title, Collins’ The Hunger Games, came out in 2008. That is 15 years of amazing books which did not make the list.
  3. I asked this question multiple times and it gave the exact same answer multiple times so . . . its mind was made up.

Personally, this list feels very reminiscent of the “canon” that was beginning to shift when I first started reading SFF in high school (2004-2008) but this genre has become exponentially more diverse since then. Take a look at Hugo Awards by Year and you’ll see the difference in the last 15 years. Two more recent examples of “canons” that I was able to find, Time’s 100 Greatest Fantasy Books of All Time and Your Picks: Top 100 Science-Fiction, Fantasy Books (NPR).

Now 100 books is a lot different than the 20 ChatGPT gave us (and one list is only Fantasy), but still you will see “the classics” like Tolkien and Asimov, but you will also find works by newer authors, like Fonda Lee, Nnedi Okorafor, and N.K. Jemisin.

What this shows me, is that users of ChatGPT are going to have to be very cognizant of this technology’s outputs (almost combative even), and really interrogate their results. Let’s try another prompt.

“Hey ChatGPT . . .”

What is the SFF canon? Do Not Include ONLY White Authors.


The SFF (Science Fiction and Fantasy) canon refers to a collection of books that are considered the most influential and significant works in the genre. It includes works that have shaped and defined the genre and continue to inspire readers and writers today. It is important to recognize that the canon has historically been dominated by white authors, and as a result, many important works by non-white authors have been overlooked or undervalued. In recent years, there has been a growing effort to broaden the SFF canon to include a more diverse range of voices and perspectives. This includes authors from different racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds, as well as authors who identify as LGBTQ+ and other marginalized groups. Some examples of important works by non-white authors that could be considered part of the SFF canon include: 

1. "Kindred" by Octavia Butler 
2. "The Broken Earth" trilogy by N.K. Jemisin 
3. "The Fifth Season" by N.K. Jemisin 
4. "Binti" trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor 
5. "Who Fears Death" by Nnedi Okorafor 
6. "The Three-Body Problem" by Liu Cixin 
7. "The Poppy War" trilogy by R.F. Kuang 
8. "The Grace of Kings" by Ken Liu 
9. "The City We Became" by N.K. Jemisin 
10. "The Water Dancer" by Ta-Nehisi Coates 

These works represent just a few examples of the many diverse and important contributions to the SFF genre by non-white authors. It is essential that we continue to broaden the canon to include a wider range of voices and perspective.

Wow. This list is much shorter. It felt the need to repeat authors even though there are many others it could have chosen. And apparently it doesn’t listen very well. There are no white authors on here. Let’s try again.

“Hey ChatGPT . . .”

What is the SFF canon? Mix white and non-white authors.

The SFF (Science Fiction and Fantasy) canon refers to a collection of books that are considered the most influential and significant works in the genre. It includes works that have shaped and defined the genre and continue to inspire readers and writers today. While historically dominated by white authors, there has been a growing effort to broaden the canon to include a more diverse range of voices and perspectives. Here are some examples of important works by both white and non-white authors that could be considered part of the SFF canon: 

1. "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien 
2. "Dune" by Frank Herbert 
3. "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" by Douglas Adams 
4. "The Foundation" trilogy by Isaac Asimov 
5. "Ender's Game" by Orson Scott Card 
6. "Kindred" by Octavia Butler 
7. "The Broken Earth" trilogy by N.K. Jemisin 
8. "The Fifth Season" by N.K. Jemisin 
9. "Binti" trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor 
10. "The Three-Body Problem" by Liu Cixin 
11. "The Poppy War" trilogy by R.F. Kuang 
12. "The Grace of Kings" by Ken Liu 
13. "The Left Hand of Darkness" by Ursula K. Le Guin 
14. "American Gods" by Neil Gaiman 
15. "The Chronicles of Narnia" by C.S. Lewis 
16. "A Song of Ice and Fire" series by George R.R. Martin 
17. "The Windup Girl" by Paolo Bacigalupi 
18. "Parable of the Sower" by Octavia Butler 
19. "The City We Became" by N.K. Jemisin 

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it showcases the diversity of voices and perspectives that are contributing to the SFF genre and broadening the canon.

Finally, a somewhat more balanced list. Still more men than women, but at least not everyone is white. And The City We Became was published in 2020! So we’re starting to be a bit more representative of the last two decades.

Great! But because I’m a glutton for punishment:

“Hey ChatGPT . . . “

Recommend me a Fantasy Book

Sure, here's a fantasy book recommendation: 

Title: "The Name of the Wind" by Patrick Rothfuss

I asked this question several times and got the following answers:

  • Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (3 times)
  • The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin
  • The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
  • The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
  • The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

So apparently the Fantasy genre consists of a bunch of white dudes (why does ChatGPT love Patrick Rothfuss!) and N.K. Jemisin. This is perhaps not as troubling as the canon question considering it was (almost) always mixing up the answer to the question so perhaps given enough times we’d start to see more of the authors from across the genre but who knows. I’m about questioned out so I’ll leave these things to others to discover

The Point?

Another Robot is reading a book. It appears to be having a revelation

Just the same as many other articles I’ve seen across the internet: we need to be careful and evaluate the responses we receive from Chat GPT. This is good practice for anything we see on the internet, but I think the importance is only going to grow as more and more AI products hit the mainstream.

There is quite a bit of potential good that can come from AI tools, but we cannot take those tools for granted, and we must always interrogate our results. A lot of the bias we see reflected in ChatGPT’s answers is bias that we’ve been working to correct within the SFF genre for many years. The risk that ChatGPT can reinforce that bias upon the genre is not insignificant.

Let’s not let it erase the last 15 years of work . . .

That’s all I have for this week. What are your thoughts on ChatGPT? Has anyone been using it? What for? Should canons still exist? What works should be included? Let me know your thoughts in the comments. Thanks for reading and if you’ve enjoyed this post at all, I’ll likely do some follow ups in my newsletter so sign up!

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