At the prompting of a friend, I read this Slate review of Jane Rogers’s The Testament of Jessie Lamb, which recently won the Arthur C. Clarke Award.  I have yet to read the book, but in a brief note thanking my friend for the heads-up I couldn’t help but add:

“The Slate reviewer really should know better than to use “sci-fi” as a shorthand for “science fiction” if she wants people who read the genre to not dismiss her opinion offhand.”

Snarky? Nitpicky? Maybe. However, I doubt most regular readers of science fiction who have followed the genre for a while would not also notice the usage in the review, which implicates the  author as somewhat unaware of the genre’s history (and, as my response implies, therefore maybe not particularly qualified to review the book?).**   The term “sci-fi” is contentious for many people who write and read science fiction, and when they use it, it is often aimed at “low-brow,” space-opera stuff.  Wikipedia has a reasonably good summary of the history of the term in the article on Science Fiction:

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.[39][40][41] 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,[42] 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”.[43]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 sense by people outside the genre.[44] The abbreviation SF (or sf) is commonly used instead of “sci-fi”.

So, people within the science fiction “community” saw that “sci-fi” was being used in the mainstream to label and discuss the genre; simultaneously they noticed that the genre was seen as trashy, juvenile, escapist, et cetera by this same mainstream (at least in part because a bunch of it, like any other genre, actually was all of these things, which is not necessarily a bad thing). So the response to this, rather than anything more nuanced, was to distinguish between “science fiction” (or “SF”) and “Sci-Fi.”  The former is serious and important (or at least tries to be).  The latter looks something like this:

Note that one of the authors featured in this issue is also mentioned in the wikipedia entry cited above.

One of the more famous articulations of this separation is Harlan Ellison’s in Newsweek article from 1997 reflecting on the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide to make a point about genre (an odd rhetorical move by an odd, contentious man):

[S]cience fiction is less concerned with fairy tales like flying saucers and more concerned with eternal questions. What is the place of human beings in the universe? How do we fulfill our potential in a way that benefits us and our children? How do we use these advances in ways that benefit humanity as a whole? Technology is not the important thing: the effect of technology on human beings is. But where science fiction asks the important questions, “Sci-Fi” answers them, and does it poorly. It preys on the desire for wish fulfillment and the gullibility of people longing for an explanation of what their lives will mean in the 21st century.

If one believes Ellison (and many who read science fiction and would seek to defend it from detractors do), the division seems clear.  However, I find it quite artificial and subjective, and I’m sure most students of literature and film will see obvious parallels to other exclusionary high vs. low divisions that are far from stable or clearly bounded. It also, somewhat ironically, resembles Margaret Atwood’s delineation between “speculative fiction” (what she wrote in The Handmaid’s Tale or Oryx and Crake) and “science fiction” (stuff with aliens and ray guns) that has been much derided by science fiction fans and authors (most notably Ursula K. Le Guin).

For a long time, my response to all this has been to merely to avoid the term “sci-fi,” especially when teaching:  don’t use it, inform students who do use it that it is lazy shorthand in the way “po-mo” or “po-co” are, and avoid the debate over the terms entirely (alternately a cowardly or very practical decision).  This is not to say I also eliminated what I might define as “the sci-fi end of the genre” from discussion (even if I had to pick primary texts from more established, high-brow works within the genre to justify my syllabus to the powers-that-be).  There’s no way in my mind to not set up Le Guin’s “science fiction” novella The Word for World Is Forest without referencing James Cameron’s “sci-fi” film Avatar, especially during the year or so after the latter was released.

The genre of science fiction is wide and varied and includes many things: some serious and philosophical, some thinly-veiled, juvenile-male wish fulfillment with cleavage, monsters, and blasters, but most somewhere in-between or to the side, and there’s no good dividing line despite what Ellison and others think.  Also, the proposed definitions of these terms have never really taken root outside of science fiction fandom and authordom.  And, finally, increasing acceptance (including the number of mainstream-ish, realist authors who have made forays into science fiction) makes defending the genre, at least beyond the confines of the stuffy, conservative halls of literary scholarship, seem a lot less necessary.

So, is there any reason,  outside of preserving a long-standing custom and avoiding lazy shorthand, to continue to avoid using “sci-fi” as interchangeable with “science fiction”?  It seems to me that there isn’t so long as the move is done consciously; though, if moving in a deliberate manner to reclaim the term, it might make sense to begin by only applying it to works that get shelved in the “literature” section of bookstores: Frankenstein, Brave New World, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Paul Auster’s In the Country of Last Things, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and the like.

** – I actually don’t quite believe that this is the case.  A lack of background of a specific genre does not preclude someone from writing an insightful review of a book.  It does, however, obviously limit the scope of the review, and such an author has really no way to situate a text within an existing tradition.


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