Nasa / Space

'Science fiction' vs. 'sci-fi'...? None of the above.

According to iconic (and contentious) sci-fi author Harlan Ellison, the term sci-fi is a "debasement" -- and a dangerous one -- of a proud genre that is properly referred to as science fiction. Pardon me, but isn't that a criticism that can be leveled at the bulk of most media produced in all genres?

According to iconic (and contentious) sci-fi author Harlan Ellison, the term sci-fi is a "debasement" -- and a dangerous one -- of a proud genre that is properly referred to as science fiction, at least according to this classic Newsweek article. Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski appears to agree with him, at least according to this video, which shows an excerpt from the 1997 show SF Vortex. Sci-fi, to their thinking, equates to science fiction that's been lobotomized -- dumbed down for digestion by mass audiences with little knowledge or care for true, intelligent science fiction.

Pardon me, but isn't that a criticism that can be leveled at the bulk of most media produced in all genres?

Most romance books, movies, and TV shows are pretty shallow, bubble-gum affairs. How much similarity is their really between Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice and Grey's Anatomy even though both are sold as love stories? (Moreover, given the short shrift actual medical accuracy is given on Grey's, you can make a pretty fair case that the show is itself a form of sci-fi.)

You can draw similar parallels -- or, rather, disconnects -- between most any procedural drama on TV or in bookstores and actual high-crime works of art like Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. (Again, the entire CSI franchise's dubious understanding of forensic science -- and crime lab budgets -- could earn all three shows a place in the pulp sci-fi aisle.)

And so far as so-called "reality television" goes, the parade of personality-impaired antisocial mutants that fill out the casts of most of these travesties make the occupants of the Mos Eisley cantina look like Stepford Wives. (Of course, given the clever editing techniques and contrived situations used to highlight the various psychosocial disorders on display, there's very clearly a science at work behind these fictional realities.)

Thus, we science fiction fans can be grateful that many of these shows, and the books and movies of their ilk, have never been allowed to pollute the public understanding of science fiction by being branded, marketed, and sold as sci-fi -- even though they probably deserve the title.

So why haven't they been called sci-fi? Or, if your prefer, science fiction?

Ellison argues on paper and in the video that in science fiction, "technology is not the important thing: the effect of technology on human beings is." Well, for all its bad science, bad acting, and bad plots, CSI is about the effect of science of humans. The criminalists in those shows rival the precogs from Minority Report in their ability to divine guilt using high technology. The almost-impossible, hypercomplex, high-drama medical procedures performed by the cast of Grey's Anatomy are akin to the best works of doctors Beverly Crusher or Bones McCoy -- and the show is entirely about the emotional and social impact of medical science, especially as applies to surgeons' love lives.

But wait, you say. Those shows merely misrepresent mundane science. They aren't science fiction because they don't speculate or extrapolate into alternate or future science and the society it will create. Fair point.

But then, explain to me why Orwell's 1984, Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, or Huxley's Brave New World aren't stocked in the science fiction section of most book stores. One could argue that these are time-honored classics that transcend genre, but how then are contemporary science fiction works like Cormac McCarthy's The Road or Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union also found in general fiction -- bestsellers, no less -- rather than genre fiction?

The late Michael Crichton wrote almost nothing but near-future science fiction, yet good luck finding Jurassic Park in the sci-fi aisle. Neuromancer and Mona Lisa Overdrive may still have honored places in science fiction, but it's unlikely you'll see any of William Gibson's more recent work -- like Pattern Recognition or Spook Country -- stocked on the shelf next to those classics.

Any definition of science fiction that anyone cares to concoct is going to include works that will never, ever be stocked or marketed under the science fiction banner. Which gets to the heart of the issue, as Karl Schroeder puts it, "SF is a marketing category." Calling something science fiction or sci-fi is all about how the product is positioned for an audience. And with the exception, perhaps, of blockbuster movies, labeling something as sci-fi limits the audience.

Sci-fi is a brand and, to most people, it means spaceships and monsters and time travel and ray guns and robots and all the other tropes that most sci-fi fans see as incidental trappings of the genre, not its core constituents. That's what the science fiction label promises to the average consumer and, as sci-fi fans well know, most people can't relate to time-traveling robot spaceships with alien ray guns.

Thus, we in sci-fi are robbed of credit for many new and classic works that are by any rational definition sci-fi, but are never called such for fear of the stigma. But, since 90 percent of all media is crap, we avoid much of the pablum on the shelves, in the theaters, and what comes across the wire also being labeled sci-fi. I'll miss Bradbury, Chabon, and even Crichton, but if the price of The Road being the property of Oprah's Book Club rather than the Sci-Fi Book Club is that science fiction isn't damned by association with the television works of Jerry Bruckheimer, I'll chalk that up as a win.

(Video found via SF Signal.)

About

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger -- amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

25 comments
Roger Bamforth
Roger Bamforth

It's not just in books that science fiction isn't recognised as such, but also films. Does anyone ever refer to "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" as science fiction? But of course it is. In fact it particularly fits Ellison's definition of "the effects of technology on human beings".

nwoodson
nwoodson

Why is it that people who don't breathe through their mouths are always penalized for trying to excel? "Harrison Bergeron" anyone? Or perhaps "Someday".....

BALTHOR
BALTHOR

As for the mutant aliens---THEY'RE REAL!

JamesRL
JamesRL

I've always been an avid reader, of many genres. My wife used to harp on the difference between SF and Sci Fi. She was collecting Phillip K Dick novels before Blade Runner was filmed. But she also loved Hitchhikers Guide.... There is so much line blurring at times, and the snobbery is just so annoying. Its like the Trekkies versus Trekkers. Why do we attach ourselves to tribes instead of judging art on its own merits. James

tsadowski
tsadowski

I have always been disturbed by the fact that the Sci-Fi channel seems "hell bent" (pun intended) on passing off Horror films as science fiction, even though they have little to no science, even if they do have tons of fiction. Given their added penchant for the Reality TV drug recently, I don't see them improving the lot of true Science Fiction any time soon. Especially when they keep killing off true Sci-Fi programming in favor of these idiot box programs. OK granted Fantasy is frequently bundled with Science Fiction in book stores, and I have nothing against seeing fantasy programming on the Sci-Fi channel, so why can't we just say that these Horror flicks and "Reality" shows are in fact Fantasy TV? Well because while they may have some of the same elements of true Fantasy, as most fiction does, the classifications are based on the primary purpose of the film. If the purpose of the film is to evoke a sense of fear or terror, then I would argue that the film is a Horror film, not Sci-Fi or Fantasy. For example I personally would NEVER classify the Hellraiser series as Fantasy OR Sci-Fi, it is Horror, plain and simple. Movies like Hellraiser are intentionally meant to scare the viewers. Movies like Terminator may be scary, But since they are about the "emotional or social impact of science" as presented with a futuristic vision. The same comparison works with true Fantasy works like The Lord of the Rings. Fantasy is about giving the viewer a sense of Adventure and/or Romance in a fantastical time or place, where swords and/or magic, still hold sway. For example The Cube may be about an amazingly futuristic vision of some sort of prison or torture device, but it is ultimately about killing people and being scared (or more truly frightening, about enjoying seeing people be dismembered by a machine). In my mind that is horror, plain and simple. Thanks for reading my lunatic rants based only loosely on the subject of this article.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I don't think any use of the phrase 'Sci-Fi' is as harmful as it's use as the title of a television network that shows more fantasy, horror, and slasher content than actual science fiction content.

BFilmFan
BFilmFan

Sturgeon?s Law states that "Ninety percent of everything is crap." The Pareto principles states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. Taylor's Maxim: "Almost all the crap comes from the same sources." The current state of science fiction publishing is based on marketing and NOT the writing. The "-verse" trend in science fiction of publishing Star Wars, Star Trek, HALO, etc. have truly damaged the market. It is very difficult to get a book published that doesn't have established series characters. I've noticed that this is happening in nearly all the fields of fiction, crime, fantasy, etc. And I blame the ENTIRE mess on the fact that the majority of people DO NOT READ for pleasure anymore. They watch a TV show or a movie. Since people do not read, how would one expect a busy marketing department type to know what a book is about. They just want the BIG IDEAS so they can develop a plan to push the product. From working with a number of "creative marketing people" over the years, I've noticed that very few of them read and most can only manage reading a TV Guide (another soon to be defunct publication, I predict...wonder what we will use as an example of something the barely educated shoudl be able to read in the future?). I'll get off the soapbox now, but my admiration at another well written article brother!

LarryD4
LarryD4

The article brings up some very good points, though I kept getting the impression that its the authors complaining about being "respected" rather then "categorized". My opinion of this subject is, in my eyes, pretty clear. The Sci-Fi or Science Fiction categorization applies to any work, that either creates or embellishes the unproven, unknown, or just "over the edge", "not possible" concept. There are works through out history that depict a future with then, unfathomable ideas or concepts that are now common place. A classic example is the movie "A trip to the Moon" that was released in 1902. Since we actually went to the moon does this mean that this movie is no longer considered Sci-Fi? Well in my eyes, this movie is a classic Sci-Fi movie. With Sci-Fi being categorized even more, to include Sci-Fi Fantasy, Sci-Fi Science, Sci-Fi Medical, etc, we need to realize as more discoveries are made, more Sci-Fi, technically, becomes non-fiction. I think, especially, in the Sci-Fi genre we should stop looking to define it and just enjoy it all the more.

fionncreagh
fionncreagh

Because it's easier to pick a tribe allegiance than actually think about what we're backing. Let's buy and enjoy what we enjoy rather than argue over abbreviations and false distinctions.

mr_bandit
mr_bandit

The reason the skiffy channel is so bad is simple: the gal in charge of the programming hates SF. However, she is able to get advertisers, so the channel execs don't care and will not replace her. I stopped watching it a long time ago. Sigh. (Skiffy: Sticks to the roof of your mind)

CaptMorgan
CaptMorgan

The Sci-Fi channel used to be great showing true Sci-Fi movies, and old Sci-Fi TV shows, even some good original Sci-Fi TV shows (Farscape was great), now as others have mentioned, it's just another network showing whatever they can get their hands on cheaply or create cheaply. Battlestar Galactica is great, but will soon be over, or is it gone already, who knows?? The long breaks are losing me as a viewer to many series. Dr Who, also great. Sanctuary is ok, some growing pains, I'm hopeful it gets better. Eureka is fun, I hope that stays around. I miss the Dresden Files, I thought the characters were great and although a fantasy show, I enjoyed it. I'd list the crap shows, but don't have the space. I'm getting tired of the super pretty uber women of Sci-Fi, they know all, are smarter than everyone, kick everyones butt and never mess their hair. Nice to look at but tough to suspend my disbelief. Some flaws would be nice for a bit of realism. And what the heck is Wrestling doing on the Sci-Fi channel??? Fantasy, sure, but come on! Talk about drawing the wrong set of viewers!!!

Shellbot
Shellbot

Used to love the Sci-Fi channel..now its full of cr@p.. they don't even have star trek anymore! Still the odd gem though..they just finished showing 'V' over here..

BruceLaBonte
BruceLaBonte

I totally agree with you, Palmetto. I rarely watch the Sci-Fi Channel anymore because of its predominantly horror content. I don't know of any current television channel that produces quality science fiction programming.

LarryD4
LarryD4

A television network needs to sell their commercial slots and they can't do that with out having viewers. At least their is a Sci-Fi channel and if we didn't have one we would be spouting off on how we need one. Yes, the Sci-Fi channel has some horrid shows and ironically the better ones are coming from across the pond on BBC America. But if the majority of Sci-Fi channel watchers like the crap on it and ratings go up, then we get what we deserve.

BFilmFan
BFilmFan

Sturgeon's Channel should be the name since 90% of it is utter dreck!

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

"... wonder what we will use as an example of something the barely educated shoudl be able to read ..." I was going to say liner notes, but those are going the way of the dodo. The USDA food pyramid, maybe? Nigerian scams?

DadsPad
DadsPad

I grew up when the Golden SF authors were still alive and writing. From my early teens I grew to enjoy Asimov, Heilein and the many others that dominated the medium. I still do look for enjoyably written SF/Fantasy. I group the Science Fiction / Fantasy this way as that is the marketing way in book stores. I feel the media has created the idea that no one reads anymore. I do not believe this. J.K. Rowlings became a billionare because of kids around the world that read. Amazon still sells a lot of books, so there are bound to be other than just older people that read. On another aside, cable has a Science, a History and Discovery channels, among others, that show what young scientists are working on that are the subject that used to be handled by SF. I suspect it was SF that influenced them.

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

I'll watch that one if I happen to stumble into it. Great characterization, and chemistry between the characters. Can't stand the new Dr. Who. Wishing I could my hands on a complete 'old' Dr. Who. Right with you on the wrestling. WTF? SciFi Channel has become SciFiSchit Channel. Too damn bad.

JamesRL
JamesRL

You know the pilot was ok, I liked the linking of the aliens to the Nazis etc. But when it became a series, and turned into a soap opera (with whimpy Freddy Kruger the turncoat alien), blech, it became some of the cheeziest I ever seen. James

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

David Tenet is leaving as the Good Doctor at the end of 2009. Seems that he's scared of becoming Type Cast and only being recognized as the Doctor from now on just like Tom Baker was. Even though it's OK I still don't think that the Script Writers are of the Caliber of Terry Nation and Co from the old Series. Though the Cinematography is undoubtedly better and the sets much more expensive even the Darlek's are better made and the Sink Plunger has been replaced with something that actually looks as if it actually belongs there as well as the Polished Metal Strips on the Darleks being done away with so there is a nice smooth Finish that looks nice. They just do not have the same impact as the Original Darleks did. Though as I'm thinking of building a Robotic One I'll naturally chose the new type 5 Darleks as they look so much better. I'm currently building a K9 Computer Case but with the complete lack of time that I have it will probably never get finished or when it does there will be all new components that no longer fit. :) [b]I Hate Work!! [/b] Col ]:)

fionncreagh
fionncreagh

I think not -- since we are going the way of the terminally illiterate, and using pictographs on our signs so that non-English speakers (which includes most high-school students these days). Alas, we may be stuck advertising and other forms of "word-wooze."