Posts Tagged ‘Harlan Ellison’

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.


When the gods do it, it is horrific and epic in scale.  But when characters in post-apocalyptic fiction are driven to it by circumstances, it is almost always laughably unbelievable.

Saturn Devouring His Son (c. 1819–1823) - Goya

Spoilers for Bodeen’s The Compound, McCarthy’s The Road, and a few other things follow, if you care.  Post also contains unapologetic and practical considerations of cannibalism with no moral/ethical judgment on those who eat others to survive.

Reading S.A. Bodeen’s YA post-apocalyptic novel The Compound, I was annoyed at how poorly handled and unrealistic one of the central horrors of the story was.  It’s an otherwise decent read (though with a predictable “twist”), but it is bogged down with a central motif that just doesn’t make a damn bit of sense.

The author sketches a somewhat preposterous scenario where survivors of a supposedly apocalyptic event, confined to a well-stocked compound, eventually begin to run low on food stores and contemplate killing and eating their “surrogates” to survive.  These surrogates are genetic clones of our survivors and have been bred through in-vitro fertilization by way of the evil genius science guy antagonist and brought to term (rapidly) by a quasi-surrogate mother (she’s their real genetic mom too–the horror!).  The lurid situation and moral quandary, then, is supposedly that these surrogate babies are not just real people, but also siblings/children.