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?

Science Fiction Book Meme

Who Goes There? John W. Campbell Jr

Who Goes There?, John W. Campbell, Jr., cover Malcolm Smith, Shasta, Chicago Illinois, 1951, 2nd Edition-2nd printing, movie tie-in with “The Thing from Another World

I couldn’t resist another little pre-launch appetizer. John DeNardo at SF Signal posted an excellent time-waster of a meme this past Sunday, which I am unable to pass up. My overlong answers to the original 17 questions follow below in italics.

1. My favorite alien invasion book or series is…?

I was going to pick The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, which is unquestionably great, but it really isn’t as interested in the alien threat described in the plot as it is the “what-if” psycho social ramifications of unending conflict over vast stretches of space-travel dilated time.

For that creepy, existential-crisis, fear-of-the-other that alien invasions stories largely represent, it’s still hard to top Who Goes There?, by John W Campbell Jr.

2. My favorite alternate history book or series is…?

The Difference Engine by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson—steampunk before there was such a thing, now canonical.

3. My favorite cyberpunk book or series is…?

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” Neuromancer: the perfect blend of fatalistic hardboiled noir and future shock.

4. My favorite Dystopian book or series is…?

There are a lot of great dystopian books, but 1984 is still the chilling pinnacle of this subgeneric hill. It even appeared on the bestseller lists again in the wake of recent privacy scandals. Orwell understood the inherent power of the perversion of language in service to control.

5. My favorite Golden-Age sf book or series is…?

I struggled with this one—More Than Human, Fahrenheit 451, The Foundation Trilogy—all remarkable books. But Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination sticks in my imagination more than any other book from its period. As William Gibson noted, Bruce Sterling called it “a seamless pop artifact”—it pulses with life and accomplishes more in fewer pages than most of a bookcase worth of sci fi “classics.”

6. My favorite hard sf book or series is…?

This question lets me sneak in Arthur C. Clarke’s magnificent Childhood’s End, which more properly should have been my response to the Golden-Age one above; in which case this space would go to Rendezvous with Rama. But no other work of so-called “hard” science fiction leaves me as simultaneously melancholy and hopeful as Childhood’s End.

7. My favorite military sf book or series is…?

Now I get to slip in The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, excellent.

8. My favorite near-future book or series is…?

Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge has it all: reverse-aging medical procedures, augmented reality, smart military tech—and a bone-chilling vision of libraries being devoured that still gives me nightmares…

9. My favorite post-apocalyptic book or series is…?

The Road by Cormac McCarthy. SF fans debate whether or not The Road represents a kind of literary-world dilettantism in the ghettos of genre, but no one who is a father can successfully refute this book’s power.

10. My favorite robot/android book or series is…?

My instinct is to go straight to I Robot, by Asimov—a juggernaut of the SF genre and influential even unto the real world of robotics—but I’m going to have to go with something of an oddball choice: Look to Windward by Iain M. Banks (R.I.P.). Look to Windward examines the possible emotional consequences for artificial intelligences involved in an interstellar war. Banks’ great conceit is of a civilization shepherded by “Minds,” artificial intelligences with all the possible quirks that come from being sapient. The Minds extend themselves into android avatars and there are also independent probe-style robots here and there, so it counts. Worth the price of admission for the list of names the Mind-driven space ships christen themselves: You May Not Be The Coolest Person Here, Hand Me The Gun And Ask Me Again, Nuisance Value, Experiencing A Significant Gravitas Shortfall etc.

“O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.”
—T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land

11. My favorite space opera book or series is…?

Again, back to the inimitable Iain M. Banks and his Culture. Start with Consider Phlebas, but the crown jewel in the series is Use of Weapons—avoid spoilers like a drunken uncle at the family picnic.

12. My favorite steampunk book or series is…?

My first thought was the awe-inspiring Perido Street Station by China Miéville, but although it’s rife with proto-steampunk tropes, it’s gnarly worldbuilding more easily fits into a kind of weird-fantasy crossover category than steampunk per se. So I’m going to step sideways into comics and pick The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, by Alan Moore. Pure steampunk is, at it’s best, a reconfiguration of Victoriana, and no work does that more directly than League—Mina Harker, the Invisible Man, Mr Hyde, Dorian Grey, Captain Nemo, steam, gears, historical figures, the Nautilus, airships, Moriarty—it’s got it all and mashes it all together brilliantly.

13. My favorite superhero book or series is…?

This is perhaps my most obscure choice, but I’m going to say Slan by A E van Vogt. Slan’s prose is clunky and much of it has aged poorly, but there’s still something weirdly engaging about the book. Slan’s artificially evolved superhumans in hiding prefigures the X-Men to a startling degree. The murky morality of the two principle slans, the increasingly frenetic parallel narratives, and the still gripping action make it a surprisingly readable pulp curio.

I’ve interpreted this question to mean traditional prose novels, but if I had to go straight to the source, comics, then it’s The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, hands down—dark, gritty and all that revisionist stuff, sure, but ultimately still heroic. And about heroes you’ve known all your life, which notches it above the wonderful deconstruction that is Watchmen.

14. My favorite time travel book or series is…?

Behold the Man by Michael Moorcock. No one even tangentially exposed to a Judeo-Christian upbringing can deny the impact of Moorcock’s exploration of the psychology of faith. What would have been a clever think-piece in the hands of a lesser writer, is a gripping emotionally-charged fable in the hands of the master.

15. My favorite young adult sf book or series is…?

It’s tempting to stray into fantasy works here, particularly the incomparable Ursula K. LeGuin, but I’m going to stay in SF as the question implies and say Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi, which I actually enjoyed more than the adult-oriented Old Man’s War (still good, don’t get me wrong) in the same series. The perspective of a teenage girl on the events of a semi-traditional military science fiction story was really fresh and interesting.

16. My favorite zombie book or series is…?

I’m stretching it a bit here, but I’m going to say The Passage by Justin Cronin. Although technically about vampires, the images of hordes of uncommunicative monsters swarming out of the dark and wiping out most of humanity falls more easily into the zombie tradition. It’s also one of those books that creeps slowly into your consciousness and stays there until you have to finish it at two in the morning on a weeknight. A stealthy read that starts out feeling like a re-write of The Stand and gradually evolves into a weird hybrid of potboiler and properly literary experience—apocalyptic-ally elliptical.

17. The 3 books at the top of my sf/f/h to-be-read pile are…?

The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard, Broken Angels by Richard K. Morgan and another phonebook by Steven Erikson.

Feel free to reply in the comments below or to the original meme—or to debate the relative merits of my selections if you’re feeling argumentative.

“We must be bound to one another then…”

Elric

Elric: Song of the Black Sword, Michael Moorcock, cover Kent Williams, White Wolf Publishing, 1995

We’re not really ready to receive visitors yet—still fluffing cushions and straightening up—but sometimes synchronous events impose themselves and demand a hearing.

Karin Kross of TOR.COM has started a marvelous reread project of all of the Elric books by Michael Moorcock.

Ms. Kross also notes in her intro to the reread project that Gollancz has launched a massive reprinting of Moorcock’s work. It’s a great time to be a fan of both Elric and Michael Moorcock’s many other breathtaking works.

Albino Books is a general book-topic, book-selling and cultural opinion blog, but if we had a patron saint it would be Moorcock, whose willful blending of fantasy, science fiction, hardboiled, weird tales and the literary delineates an approach to genre that we share as both fans and booksellers: anything goes.

Check back for our official opening…soon…