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.)