Several science fiction and fantasy franchises have different approaches to what is or isn't considered 'canon' to the body of work.

As an example Star Wars used to use a tiered system of determining what is and isn't canon, developed by Leland Chee, to cope with having multiple writers contributions. Chee also employs this on his Indiana Jones continuity database.

Various other science fiction and fantasy works, such as the Marvel universe, Buffy and Firefly also have multiple writers. Kevin Fiege, of Marvel is known to have had a strong hand in making the world building aspect of the MCU as internally consistent as he can across films and how it ties into or references the comics.

This sort of shared world building across each piece of work necessitates some sort of approach to keep things internally consistent.

You don't tend to see this in non-SFF works, such as the Canon of Sherlock Holmes which, although it has been revisited by different authors doesn't have the same sort of shared world to keep consistent across each work. Whereas even The Lord of the Rings, notionally a single author work, needs a system to keep a lid on all the worldbuilding that took place. Especially as the Tolkien who started the series wrote quite differently to how he wrote near the end. The worldbuilding also inspired a bunch of letters and unfinished stories that had to be woven in or rejected.

In a similar vein, the Lovecraft Mythos is another body of work that was curated initially by Derleth and contemporary authors who wrote in that 'world' to keep it internally consistent - to varying levels of success.

There seem to be multiple different approaches, but are there any of them more widely accepted as successful than others?

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    This answer is probably a good start. Films&TV>novelisations>scripts>factbooks>WoG/Interviews>deleted scenes>EU novels/comics>fan-works.
    – Valorum
    Commented Feb 7, 2016 at 20:27
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    Creator>Subsidiary Creator>Licensed Property Creator>Unlicensed Property Creator
    – Valorum
    Commented Feb 8, 2016 at 17:02
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    It's not really about scifi though. The same question equally applies to (for instance) Sherlock Holmes or any large body of fictional works. Also it's very opinion-based.
    – Valorum
    Commented Feb 6, 2022 at 16:51
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    @AncientSwordRage - You're joking, right? There are umpteen layers of 'canon' associated with the Holmes books, notwithstanding that Conan-Doyle also wrote and co-wrote a bunch of short stories and plays and essays starring Holmes that might or might be considered canon if we apply the ridiculously simplistic 'The original author was involved' yardstick
    – Valorum
    Commented Feb 6, 2022 at 19:57
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    @AncientSwordRage - The wikipedia page you linked to for sherlock holmes demonstrates a canon with greater complexity than most sff properties.
    – ibid
    Commented Feb 7, 2022 at 22:10

1 Answer 1


This question specifically asks about "canonicity in sci-fi and fantasy." I'm not quite sure why it does this. Although the word canon seems to be one that is used mostly in Science Fiction and Fantasy fanbases, the underlying concept -- what supplemental works (author interviews, sequels, etc. etc.) should we consider when trying to learn more about a specific story -- is one that people who study literature have debated for quite some time.

In this answer I'm going to give a brief introduction to some of the answers to this question. There isn't a clear answer to this question, and this question has important philosophical implications for how we understand art.

Authorial Intent

One way of answering this question is that whatever the author says about a text is true. They, after all, wrote the text, so anything that they say about the text should be true.

Unfortunately, it's actually quite common for authors to misremember or not understand the things that they write. Here's a really funny example of this on reddit. This, among other reasons, has caused many people to question the value of relying on the word of god.

The Text Itself

Another approach is to only focus on what is said in the text itself. The definition of text needs to be clarified. I would define "text" as something marketed by an author as a single unit. To use The Lord of the Rings series as an example: I would define The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King as they are marketed under one label and are considered "one project" by the author. I would consider books like The Hobbit and The Silmarillion as separate entities.

What are the reasons for this method? Philosophically, it reflects the idea that a story has some sort of structure that separates it from things like what the author thinks they've written. Practically, it reduces (eliminates?) inconsistencies: to continue the example of Tolkien: Middle-earth changed dramatically from The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings to The Silmarillion, but a single text such as The Lord of the Rings is (supposedly) a snapshot of Middle-earth at a specific point in the development of Middle-earth, and will thus have less contradictions.

(There is always the possible that an author will unintentionally introduce contradictions into a text, or change details as they progress through a series and come up with new ideas. There also is the possibility that an author will intentionally introduce contradictions, which is something I will discuss later in this answer.)

The downside of this is that there's a lot of information contained outside the text that we would like to be able to analyze.

Hierarchies of Canonicity

The traditional fix to this problem is to create a hierarchy of various supplemental sources, e.g. check The Lord of the Rings first, and if it's not answered there, check The Silmarillion, and then check The Hobbit.

This doesn't seem to me like a very good method. For one thing, how should this hierarchy be determined? Why is The Hobbit a less important source than The Silmarillion? The answer is: no reason whatsoever. The only difference is that The Silmarillion was written later, and thus is a reflection of Middle-earth at a different state in its composition.

There are numerous reasons why scholars (i.e. professionals) of literature don't waste their time trying to create a hierarchy of canonicity.

Textual Archaeology

To continue the example of The Lord of the Rings: Tolkien modified and developed his ideas about Middle-earth throughout his life. To simplify things considerably, The Hobbit can be considered an early draft of The Lord of the Rings.

One approach to canonicity is to consider how a story is written, how it is revised and polished into it's published form. This approach can also consider how an author's vision of a story changes after a story is published. I like this method because it resolves questions of canonicity by considering different texts as revisions of an author's ideas. I also like this method because the revision process can be an important source of information about a text.

All fiction is Autobiographical

Another approach is to consider a text an extension of an authors biography. For example, it's clear that real world events inspired a lot of events in Tolkien's fictional writing. And even if we can't point to a specific real-life event that inspired a fictional event, it's also obvious that, for example, Tolkien's ideas about, say, environmentalism have to come from somewhere. Under this approach to canon, an author's political philosophy is fair game, because that will influence the text.

Considering Works not Written by the Author

There are two approaches to whether a movie adaptation of a novel is canon. The first holds that the movie and the novel are completely different entities because they are written by different authors. The second is that because the movie is clearly based off of the novel (and is usually endorsed by the author, by virtue of the author signing the contract), a movie adaptation should be considered canon.

I would like propose a third perspective. Reader Response criticism is a way of looking at texts that focuses on how the audience responds to a text. A movie adaptation can, and should, be considered a interpretation of the original text, albeit one that costs millions of dollars to produce. The question thus becomes why does the "author" of a movie make the changes they make, and why do they interpret the story in a specific way.

(These points apply to other adaptations, such as comic books, equally well.)

A note on contradictions

From what I've read of SFF.SE, the point of concepts like canon is to avoid contradictions, i.e. an extended world book in Star Wars saying something that contradicts something said in the original trilogy.

I would question the importance of avoiding contradictions. Contradictions will always occur: authors will forget minor details, or an author will dislike a detail in a previous book and change it, or an author will intentionally introduce contradictions to confuse their readers.

What's more important, in my opinion, is to ask why contradictions occur, and to try to answer that question as best as you can.

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    Just for the casual reader: The Silmarillion published in 1977 was an edited-together work (and in one place, freshly written content) by Tolkien's son, based on material written between 1916 and 1973. It's not written after LotR, and the Hobbit was not originally set in the same version of Middle-earth as it, that was retcon. Commented Feb 6, 2022 at 13:43
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    For people who analyse Tolkien's work, there is not one Tolkien, the author. People compare 1959 Tolkien to 1965 Tolkien. They critically read the letters and weigh up how much is Tolkien trying to please his correspondent, and what is a definite statement he really had decided was set in stone. There is stuff we know he wanted to rewrite, but never got around to doing it, so we only have outdated versions. And so on. There's a reason Christopher Tolkien published the 12-volume analysis History of Middle-earth, to place his cards on the table. Commented Feb 6, 2022 at 13:50
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    @David Roberts What's more, there are rewrites he did do which he shouldn't have. After publication of LotR, he started tinkering with the deep structure of his universe making it more compatible with mundane science. Christopher Tolkien (wisely) ignored this when producing the Silmarillion. Tolkien was a tinkerer who never finished anything until the publisher dragged it from his hands. LotR is the only completed, mature work that was his entirely. Understanding what is canon always requires judgment, and with Tolkien doubly -- triply -- so.
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Feb 6, 2022 at 17:35
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    @Mark absolutely. And, what's worse, Christopher admitted, in print, to mistake in his editorial process for the 1977 Silmarillion, but never made a revised version. Some of these we will never know the version he finally intended. Commented Feb 6, 2022 at 20:34

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