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?

All Hallow’s Read: A Tropical Horror

With Halloween approaching, it’s once again time for All Hallow’s Read. All Hallow’s Read was proposed by Neil Gaiman in 2010 as a gift-giving opportunity linked to the spooky season. The elegantly simple premise: give the gift of a scary book on Halloween.

I’m not sure how much All Hallow’s Read is catching on, but I love the concept and would like to encourage the practice. On the All Hallow’s Read website, Neil Gaiman provides a great list of recommended books, and in that same spirit, I’d like to humbly offer a recommendation of my own: The Dark Horse Book of Monsters.

Actually, I really have two suggestions, one of which is very cheap, bear with me.

The Dark Horse Book of Monsters is a great little collection of comics about various monsters—suitable for young adult readers and up—but it also features a marvelously illustrated short story by William Hope Hodgson entitled A Tropical Horror.

William Hope Hodgson is a fascinating character from the early days of weird fiction. In addition to being a highly influential writer of pulp stories, he was also a poet, sailor, bodybuilder, marksman, photographer and all-around bon vivant who perished at the WWI battle of Ypres at the age of forty.

He left behind one of the most influential early books in weird fiction The House on the Borderland, which I have recommended before for All Hallow’s Read. Borderland was written before clear genre divisions like science fiction, horror and fantasy existed and blends them all freely into a strange and unique reading experience.

A Tropical Horror was the second story Hodgson had published and appeared in 1905. While the prose is a little creaky, A Tropical Horror is immediately engrossing thanks to a combination of realistic settings and details—acquired in Hodgson’s difficult time as an apprentice seaman—and an enveloping sense of dread built carefully through the story. By limiting the number of characters, moving the worst mayhem “off-screen” and telling the story through a first-person narrator with little to no agency, Hodgson creates a heavy sense of dread. The monster of A Tropical Horror is like a force of nature—death and destruction seems inevitable and is nearly inescapable.

The Dark Horse Book of Monsters would make a lovely All Hallow’s Read gift, primarily for the Hodgson story, but also for the remaining comics, which are great fun. But if you’re looking for a more budget conscious option, how about exerting a little crafty effort?

As the copyrights on most of Hodgson’s work have lapsed, there are a number of free versions of A Tropical Horror online, such as this one. Here’s my second suggestion: print out a copy of the story and bind it yourself. You could create your own illustrations or paste in pictures from something else—Liam’s Pictures from Old Books is a great source of material. You could also retype or hand-transcribe it in order to add a more personal touch. This might be a great activity to do with older kids so they can give it as a gift to someone else.

I like to promote the purchasing of books whenever I can to support the industry, but I think the more important point of All Hallow’s Read is just to keep people reading in general, and to help the like minded discover some cool bits of seasonally appropriate spooky writing.

William Hope Hodgson wrote some truly original and frightening work that deserves to be remembered and has a lot more to offer contemporary readers than you might suspect.