Precision of Naming: Science Fiction, SF or Sci-Fi?

“I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.”
—Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing

As critic and writer Damien Walter rightly notes in a post at The Guardian“If there’s one thing science fiction fans love, it’s an argument. And if there’s one argument they love more than all others, it’s the attempt to define what science fiction actually is, and what is or isn’t included in that definition.”

Mr. Walter provides a succinct and entertaining glossary of terms for the main genres of writing. I laughed out loud when I got to his definition of one of my preferred abbreviations, SF:

“Because no one knows what SF means, writers and fans are forever telling people it means ‘science fiction’ before correcting people when they say, ‘Oh, you mean sci-fi,’ which tends to annoy both parties.”

I grew up reading science fiction, or whatever, in the late 70s and early 80s—in the wake of Star Wars, sure—but also in the afterglow of the New Wave of late 60s early 70s SF. (I’ve obviously drifted into another annoying subgeneric term, but stay with me.) The New Wave was a movement characterized by rampant and occasionally ill-advised experimentation. The term “speculative fiction” arose out of that movement and is still a favourite of many good writers and critics; and is yet another entertaining entry in Mr. Walter’s glossary.

The New Wave writers—like Michael Moorcock, Harlan Ellison, J.G. Ballard, Ursula K. LeGuin—disdained the use of the term sci-fi because Forry‘s pet name cheerfully included all the b-movie cultural detritus from which they sought to distance their art.

And despite my love of b-movies and related schlock, I read so much Ellison et al as a young man that I’ve never been able to fully embrace the name sci-fi. Which is unfortunate, as sci-fi has stuck with the majority of the public at large. That I would choose to cling to an abbreviation like SF at the risk of being misunderstood perhaps says more about my character than I’d care to examine.

Further, the choice of the name Albino Books speaks to my love of the work of Moorcock, who is one of the kings of cross-genre experimentation, where these labels cease to be meaningful.

In my last post I brought up William Hope Hodgson, who wrote for pulp magazines long before the term science fiction was invented and before the semi-rigid marketing categories of science fiction, fantasy, horror and mystery became commonplace in bookstores. The recent emergence of the term New Weird is partially a reaction to the restrictions of these current genre definitions. Writers like my hero China Miéville, equally inspired by Hodgson, Lovecraft, The Island of Dr Moreau and Advanced D&D, have returned to a Weird Tales-style soup of unexpected genre tropes—tales of the fantastic and unusual.

I contend that the the impulse to mix these seemingly disparate elements is really the natural order.

I sympathize with the dogmatic loyalty many writers feel towards hard science fiction—or, yikes, even Mundane SF—the grounding in real science that would seem to provide a firmer foundation to build a story upon. But China Miéville is the perfect example of a writer comfortable in moving freely from genre to genre—weird tale, fantasy, science fiction, detective fiction and back again—with no loss of purpose or quality. The reason for this is his ability to fashion a new, airtight internal logic in each successive story. He establishes rules for each new world he plays in, then rarely or never breaks those rules. No matter how weird, or even transgressive, a given story element may seem in some of China’s work, they all flow together in sympathetic fictional frameworks—nothing seems completely out of place, even the truly weird.

There’s also some melancholy to be found in the way these adherents to separate splinter factions of fantastic storytelling often react to each other with open hostility. Don’t get your urban, romantic,  paranormal fantasy in my post-colonial, slip-stream, steampunk, science fiction—our imaginary nerd seems to say—you just don’t get it. As fans and practitioners of sci-fi, aren’t we already marginalized enough without turning on our brothers and sisters?

I understand the impulse that leads so many to expend so much energy on defining themselves and what they do—I’m even a sucker for a good manifesto—but isn’t the act of defining an art the first step towards codifying that art?

And isn’t codifying any art an inherently reductive act?

About andrew

Andrew James Cornell reads, writes, sometimes sells books and cooks. He spends an inordinate amount of time talking about the differences between types of dashes. He will also lecture anyone who stands still on the importance of Dune (the book), 2001 (the movie), about how under-appreciated Paul Bowles and Italo Calvino are, and the correct way to make an Old Fashioned cocktail.
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6 Responses to Precision of Naming: Science Fiction, SF or Sci-Fi?

  1. Michelle says:

    A reductive act? I’m not sure. So long as there is room for the odd blurred line or exception, labels like genre should be encouraged and carefully considered and debated.

    Image and marketing matter. “Sci-fi,” “SF” or related sub-genres may be hard to nail down in a complete and detailed way, it does matter how you present your work to others. I get your point that things can go too far and it may eventually feel as though you are sub-dividing groups that have common interest in growing under a larger umbrella.

    However, I like that you mention China Miéville’s approach to writing in different genres, working within the structures of them. It does not have to be seen as a constraint, but rather a parameter within which to develop a skill. For example, if you tell me to stir this jug of heavy cream, there is a point at which I have stopped stirring cream and have started churning butter. It is worthwhile exploring and identifying those limits for times when deviation takes you off the path to your goal.

    I get put off by artists, including writers, who reject labels outright as though that act in and of itself raises their work. Hogwash.

    Words offer an opportunity for early precision and introduction that should not be dismissed. It certainly would change my impression of a book called, “Everyone Poops” if I found it labelled under “Children’s Books” as opposed to “Travel Non-Fiction” or “Erotica.” Urgh. Sorry for that one.

  2. andrew says:

    Despite finishing up with some really disturbing imagery…you make a great point. For example, I’ve always found Margaret Atwood’s rejection of the term science fiction—even though big chunks of her work fits easily into a long and significant tradition of dystopian SF—to be essentially condescending. And don’t get me wrong, I sometimes enjoy the debates. I guess my concern is really around the noise getting too overwhelming. I would never want to see a potential reader of anything be discouraged by a marketing label.

    • Michelle says:

      Then that would be on the reader, wouldn’t it, to avoid being put off by the marketing label? I am not saying it’s easy but let’s stop worrying that it is impossible.

      • andrew says:

        You’re not entirely wrong, but that’s a bit Darwinian isn’t it? Shouldn’t we at least worry about young and impressionable readers approaching those shelves for the first time?

        • Michelle says:

          Sure, and that is why it is worthwhile debating the labels themselves. Be clear and reasonable in their application and maybe put in some effort to gain attention from previously untapped groups of fans.

          Keep in mind that it can be just as off-putting to some people to encounter tens of thousands of books with no clue where to start.

  3. Colleen says:

    Then there’s the issue of discussing genre fiction at all–in part because it’s generally distinguished from “literature/literary fiction” which, what, isn’t a genre? And now that writers like Atwood (because snooty, maybe) and Mieville (because genius, definitely) are being filed in one or the other–sometimes both–in a few bookstores and libraries, that debate is also becoming both more muddled (or more clear; I think, more clear–and not just because of these two, but also because of works like Cloud Atlas, which are so clearly born out of many traditions). I personally wish we could file things this way: Great Writing, Great Ideas, Both of These, Neither of These. But then, of course, all that is so subjective…And then I’d be snooty like Atwood.

    I think you’re both right. I think the best workaround is to label things, knowing they’ll be incomplete and sometimes even arbitrary, and then take the genre-bending masters like Mieville and Mitchell and whomever you like and double- or triple-stock as necessary. If what we all want is for people to read widely and wildly then I can see this working–one great experience with Mieville might get a former skeptic deep into that section in the store! But of course, I’m not in charge of these decisions…

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