Thursday, August 21, 2008

Sci-Fi! Say It Loud, Say It Proud

What is it with grousing about the term Sci-Fi?* This morning Jay Lake links to Andrew Wheeler doing a fabulous snarky take-down of the latest SF Signal Mind Meld which is all about changing one aspect of the science fiction publishing world. I haven't read the whole piece, but in it someone once again wants to get rid of the term Sci-Fi. This is a pet peeve of mine--the stressing out about Sci-Fi, not the term itself.

For some rather large subset of the folks inside the science fiction and fantasy genre world the term is considered pure poison and terribly derogatory. In the rest of the world it's at worst a neutral catchy phrase to talk about the genre and more often a term of admiration, as in "I'm a Sci-Fi fan."

Frankly, I like the term. It's short. It's catchy. It's immediately understandable unlike SF where everyone outside the genre assumes you're talking about San Francisco, or SFF or F&SF where no one outside the genre knows what you're talking about. It has no major constituency for it being derogatory outside the field--I live in academia and when when Lit-Fic folks and anti Sci-Fi academics talk about our field they don't say Sci-Fi, they drawl "Oh, you write...sciiieence fiiction, how...interesting," or "oh, a genre writer." Sci-Fi doesn't clunk like "speculative fiction" or even "spec fic."

Even if I didn't like it, I'd still use it. It's effective communication just like the Big Bang, another term that was originally intentionally dismissive. Even more than that though, by owning the term and even making it a badge of pride it robs it of what little power it might have left to hurt.

In short: Sci-Fi! Say it loud and say it proud:

Sci-Fi. I'm a Sci-Fi fan. Some of what I write is Sci-Fi.** I love Sci-Fi.***


*Usually pronounced with a rhyming "I" sound when I encounter it, as in C-Sci or Comp-Sci.

**The majority of course is fantasy which has even bigger terminology problems.

***And, no I'm not a late joiner of the genre. I've been active at conventions for 26 years--I started when I was 15. I'm also a third generation fan--my mother and grandmother were part of the letter-writing campaign to save the original Star Trek and the letter they got back from the show's creators along with a black and white publicity photo are treasured possessions in my family.


Anonymous said...

I fairly certain that the whole point of using a term like "SF" is that people outside of the core group won't recognize it. Yes, it's kind of an elitist thing. It's also kind of an identity thing. I'm not well versed in the origins of "SF" and "Sci-Fi", but I'm guessing that "SF" is the original way that fans referred to the genre and then the term "Sci-Fi" appeared outside of fandom and started pushing its way in. Being upset about the term "Sci-Fi" is a way of pushing back, saying, "The outside can't define our genre."

Though, this is really all just speculation (i.e. bullsh**) on my part. I don't have particularly strong feelings about either term.

Kelly McCullough said...

I can see that as a possibility, and that sort of thing certainly has its uses, but it also runs directly against the tide in the genre of late lamenting the shrinking of the field. I personally think we should be doing everything we can to bring more readers into the fold (disclaimer-I have a personal financial interest in doing just that). We need to be bending over backward to be inclusionist not finding reasons to look down on people who don't speak secret-language-sf.

Which, I suppose, is one of the root causes of my being annoyed with the whole kerfuffle.

gyokusai said...

I agree to the loud-and-proud thing. And it rang a bell. In his terrific How to Write Science Fiction, Bob Shaw kind of extends the argument in both directions. On one end of the spectrum, he reminds us that the term “science fiction” hadn’t been “particularly popular within the field” either, and countless efforts had been made to replace it. It gained currency, though, after the “sf community” was gripped by “sheer annoyance” at the term “sci-fi,” “loved by newspaper reporters and the media in general" (plus self-proclaimed “experts”).

But on the other end of the spectrum, Shaw goes on, the community “retaliated” by absorbing “sci-fi” into its own vocabulary, and the spelling and pronounciation variant “skiffy” has come to mean “the type of inferior science fiction produced by those who have no insight or empathy with science fiction, and no real grasp of what it is all about.”

So, yeah. Sci-Fi it is!


Bill Henry said...

As a science fiction reader, writer, and genre insider of many years, I (like the rest of us) have been well schooled in deploring the "sci-fi" label.

For instance, I would never, ever, describe The Commission (my novel presently being shopped) to anyone, inside the genre or out, as "sci-fi."

On the other hand, when my partners and I were developing the branding language and taglines for Mid-Ohio-Con and the Mighty Mighty MOC-BLOG, we struggled longest over the science fiction / s.f. / sci-fi decision. In the end, the clear choice was sci-fi, for the obvious reasons (broad inclusivity, media orientation, etc.).

As clear as that choice was, though, you'll never hear me say that what we do in the Wyrdsmiths is "writing sci-fi." Ouch, that just hurts my ear.

That said, in the wider view, the s.f. / sci-fi kerfuffle is so old that it really doesn't elevate the pulse anymore. And policing the genre's borders so vigilantly and narrow-mindedly starts to look like a bad call when you take stock of where we're at today.

The circulation of the so-called Big Three print magazines(Analog, ASF, F&SF) has been gutted by a third over the course of a decade. (Analog, for one, had a circulation of 73,649 in 1996; by 2007 it had fallen to 27,399, a 37 percent decline.) And then we have the economics of the s.f. novel. I won't belabor the point, but for the curious and un-faint-of-heart, Tobias Buckell did a survey.

So, yeah, I'm with Kelly: loud and proud, and hold out a welcoming hand to a new generation of readers, fans, and enthusiasts.

Bill Henry said...

Corrigendum: As Stephanie Z. points out in my Friday post, I expressed the math backwards: Analog experienced a 63 percent decline. Thirty-seven is what's left. Ouch all over again.