What’s in a name?

I’ve been following a very interesting debate on the Guardian books blog …Damian G. Walter writes well and wittily about the state of SF, and how the ideas and (dare I use this pretentious word? Yes I’m using it!) tropes of science fiction have entered the mainstream.

However, he also uses the phrase ‘post sci-fi’, which frankly I don’t understand.  (As a concept, it seems to me to be, forgive my bluntness, post-sensible.) And as the thread develops, there creeps in the idea that there is a fundamental difference between ‘sci-fi’ (which I pronounce to rhyme with ‘hi-fi’ – that’s the gag isn’t it? why spoil a good joke by calling it ‘skiffy’?) and SF.  Sci-fi, Damian explicitly says, is the term we should use for Xena: Warrior Princess as opposed to Gene Wolfe (which is ‘proper’ SF).  In other words, dumb SF on TV and B-movies are  ‘sci-fi’, as are ‘bad’ novels which inhabit an SF universe -  the corny squids-in-space stuff. By contrast,  SF is the term that serious people use to reference a serious genre of ideas.

Er – ahem?  What’s wrong with Squids in Space? What’s wrong with Xena? (Though I would have called that fantasy not SF  myself, but let’s not quibble.) What’s wrong with Barsoom? Dan Dare? Dumb action science fiction?  Is The Matrix sci-fi or SF? Who gets to judge?

My answers to those questions would be: Nothing.  Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.  Both – the words mean the same thing. No-one gets to judge – you can’t define a genre by how much ‘quality’ it has. That way madness lies.

Science fiction is a great term to describe  a genre based on extrapolation, imagination, and amazing stuff that isn’t based on magic.  Sometimes science fiction is profound and rich and complex (1984, Brave New World, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Peter Hamilton at his best, Ian McDonald’s Brazyl,  Michael Marshall Smith’s Only Forward, Silverberg, Sturgeon – you can write your own list), sometimes it’s sensational action-packed pulp (A.E.Van Vogt, most of Heinlein, E.E. Doc Smith, much modern military SF and, ahem, everything I’ve written in the genre to date.) 

But sometimes, of course, sensational  ’pulp’ can be of the highest quality – just as in the crime genre, where Chandler and Hammett wrote, literally, for the the pulp mags - and sometimes reading ’serious’ SF is as boring as watching paint dry. But I can’t see any merit at all in drawing a line in the sand dividing ‘dumb’ science fiction from ‘clever’ science fiction. 

There is, I’m aware, a distinguished tradition (see here, under Definitions) in the world of SF of using ‘sci-fi’ in this, essentially, belittling sense.  Even so, it annoys the hell out of me.   For it seems me a losing tack for science fiction fans (always so stern in berating literary writers who use SF ‘tropes’ and yet deny they are writing SF) to then deny that any science fiction they don’t like – the common, pulpy, B-movie stuff – isn’t science fiction at all. 

I’d argue that we in the SF community should allow words mean what they are generally understood to mean.  Otherwise, sympathetic  occasional readers who aren’t experts in the genre are going to think we’re a bunch of, well, obsessive nerds (if they don’t already think so…)

I am, of course, rather touchy on this front, because I’m a great adherent of sensationalist pulp type science fiction in my own work.  My aim in the books I’ve written so far is to write pulp with a dash of difference.  Not ‘crap’, but ‘pulp’.  (I was delighted when one blogger called Red Claw a ‘mashup of 1950s B Monster movie, space opera, and Douglas Adams.’)  And mixed in with the lurid pulp, there’s some character stuff too, and maybe even some ideas that give you pause for thought. So am I writing SF, or am I ‘merely’ writing ‘sci-fi’?

Damn it all: I write science fiction, abbreviate that how you like.   But anyone who tries to relegate the ‘pulp’ element of science fiction to the servants’ quarters does not get my vote. I do love certain examples of cerebral science fiction; but I firmly believe that lurid sensationalism, exhilarating adventure, and stupid stuff in SF is never to be sniffed at – it’s in the DNA of the genre.  And the vast spectrum of SF/sci-fi/science fiction content – from profound to silly, via every other point of the compass – is part of its appeal.

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