Wednesday, September 19, 2007

You Say Sci-Fi, I Say SF: Let's Call the Whole Thing Off...

Last night I taught the introduction class of my science fiction writing class at the Loft. We had our usual discussion of the definitions of SF and F, and I alluded to the fact that the term "sci-fi" is considered derogatory by some science fiction fans and writers. At the time, of course, I couldn't put my finger on the source of the issue. So this morning, I found a bit of a wikipedia article about the kerfuffle:

Forrest J. Ackerman publicly used the term "sci-fi" at UCLA in 1954, though Robert A. Heinlein had used it in private correspondence six years earlier. As science fiction entered popular culture, writers and fans active in the field came to associate the term with low-budget, low-tech "B-movies" and with low-quality pulp science fiction. By the 1970s, critics within the field such as Terry Carr and Damon Knight were using "sci-fi" to distinguish hack-work from serious science fiction, and around 1978, Susan Wood and others introduced the pronunciation "skiffy." Peter Nicholls writes that "SF" (or "sf") is "the preferred abbreviation within the community of sf writers and readers." David Langford's monthly fanzine Ansible includes a regular section "As Others See Us" which offers numerous examples of "sci-fi" being used in a pejorative seen by people outside the genre.


I grew up in an era (70s/80s) where using the term "sci-fi" was still considered gauche in the circle of "serious" writers and fans. I think, however, as I said in class, this is changing. This may be because of an influx of younger, media-savvy fans/readers. As this snippet from Scifipedia suggests...


"Over the years, Sci Fi's meaning in popular culture has changed to refer almost exclusively to movies and TV with science fiction genre-related themes. Among some in fandom, the term is often used in a derogatory and dismissive way. Some purposely mispronounce the term as "skiffy" and use it to refer to poor quality science fiction and fantasy. Many committed Science Fiction readers refuse to use the term at all, preferring the more generic initialism, "SF."


...the term has been co opted by the media, and thus has fallen into much more regular use. In my opinion, the use of "sci-fi" no longer stigmatizes the user as a "mundane" (non-initiate into science fiction fandom/prodom).

What do you think? Which term do you prefer or do you not have a preference? Is it a matter of po-tato, poh-tato to you?

11 comments:

MariAdkins said...

We use "sci-fi" at Apex. It drives more than quite a few people up the wall. It's six of one, half a dozen of another to me. :shrug:

Kelly McCullough said...

This one always baffles me. I use them interchangeably and yet Tate and I grew up within a hundred miles of each other, we're less then a year apart in age, we've both been going to cons since our teens, and we've been writing seriously for about the same amount of time. I have no idea why she picked up on it as an issue and I never did.

Mary said...

I never knew it was an issue. I've always used "sci-fi" as a descriptive, not derogatory term. To me, "SF" implies Speculative Fiction and doesn't specify whether something would fall under the futuristic or fantasy.

Lynne said...

I used the term "sci-fi/fantasy" until a kindly Tor editor corrected me at a con, saying that I should use the term SF. I think he was an agent once, too...

I'm more careful about terminology now, but I still *THINK* "sci-fi", even if I say "SF"....I think it's because my personal entree into the genre was through media (film & tv) first, then the books...

Douglas Hulick said...

I tend to say "sci-fi" and write "SF" or "SF/F"('cause I'm a lazy typist :).

I never picked up on it as a pejorative, and I came up in the 70s and 80s as well. It strikes me as making a mountain out of a rather small mole hill.

I really think it's a matter of what circles you ran in when. Certainly, I don't like it being used as a short-hand for determining who is "serious" and who isn't in fandom/prodom.

ryan v said...

Add me to the people who have never seen much of a difference between the two. :)

I wonder if some of that is that I haven't been to conventions... ? Which is repeating Doug(las?)'s comment directly above mine, I suppose. :D

Eleanor said...

This may be generational. I use SF, written in caps and pronouced ess eff. Sci-fi always grates a little. It used to mark the user as outside the SF community, a mundane trying to talk about us and our kind of fiction. But it no longer does that. It may now mark the user as not an old-timer in the SF community. Well, there is nothing wrong with not being old.

lydamorehouse said...

Yeah, Eleanor's comment strikes me as particularly true of my experience, too, which is that despite myself the term "sci-fi" grates a little... because I've heard it most often used by "outsiders."

But what does that mean, given that I didn't really join fandom until the mid-80s/late 90s?

Kelly McCullough said...

I think it means that your old of soul, Lyda. Or perhaps you spent a lot of time hanging around with first fandom when you joined the con scene.

Anonymous said...

Apropos that I read this today. Just recently I got in an argument with Dan Simmons (Hyperion, Song of Kali) on his web forums for daring to suggest that actively crusading against the term sci-fi is bollocks. If you prefer to use a different term, that's fine, but Simmons and others such as Ellison actively berate people for daring to use such terms in their presence. Simmons even suggested that to call it sci-fi would be like calling someone a 'beaner' and said "Yes, indeedy. Bollocks to those SF writers who've suffered shitty reviews and decades of obloquy and obscurity through their work being derisively termed "sci-fi".

And I stand by my statement: this is a load of bull.

Sci-fi is poo-pooed upon by the older ranks of authors because they wanted their literature to be taken seriously as such, but the reason that it's taken much more seriously in 2007 than in 1967 isn't because they changed the name, it's because they wrote good fiction. Nobody looks back and extols Ellison because he was daring enough to suggest a different abbreviation. They extol Ellison because he was a good writer. If somebody's going to mock your career and body of work because it's science ficton, they're gonna do it regardless of what you call it.

If calling it SF instead of sci-fi is the solution to the problem of not being taken seriously as literature, then obviously we don't have any more racism in the USA because we use the term 'african american' instead of 'colored people.' Getting blue in the face and denigrating those who use sci-fi instead of SF serves only to reinforce insular elitism.

As Doug says, it's a mountain out of a molehill. Call it whatever you want, but what you produce is more important than the terminology you use to earmark it in a filing system.

lydamorehouse said...

That's lovely. I couldn't agree more.

Although just to be a devil's advocate, I will say there is some merit in considering the connotation of the words we use. I posted this particular blog on my Tate site and another reader there brought up the idea that sci-fi has transformed as different generations use it differently. Not unlike the way queer used to be an insult and now some of us use it with pride. So, even though I agree with you that Simmons is wrong to insist that sci-fi and SF makes much never mind these days, it probably mattered at some point.