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Is SF Too Geeky?

Dave Itzkoff, SF reviewer for The New York Times, recently listed his favorite SF books. But he is also making waves with some comments about the SF genre he makes in his review of David Marusek’s Counting Heads.

HERE’S a question I don’t expect to come anywhere close to answering by the end of this column: Why does contemporary science fiction have to be so geeky?

I cannot [recommend science fiction books] in good conscience because if you were to immerse yourself in most of the sci-fi being published these days, you would probably enjoy it as much as one enjoys reading a biology textbook or a stereo manual. And you would very likely come away wondering, as I do from time to time, whether science fiction has strayed so far from the fiction category as a whole that, though the two share common ancestors, they now seem to have as much to do with each other as a whale has to do with a platypus.

His reaction has already spawned a letter to be written to Locus Magazine [link via Emerald City].

Is Itzkoff right? Is he just using a bad hook to make his article more cohesive?

Is SF too geeky?

About John DeNardo (13013 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

17 Comments on Is SF Too Geeky?

  1. You have to admit, its difficult for us within the “ghetto” (to borrow from Niven) to see objectively. The hue and cry over Itskoff’s book review though, has been seen in a couple of other places besides the Locus Online letter.

    He’s struck a nerve, right or wrong.

  2. joshua corning // March 5, 2006 at 3:08 pm //

    from comments made by the locus letter:

    Itzkoff resorts to the long discredited pop term “sci-fi” to describe the genre he is allegedly promoting. Following Asimov’s distinction (“The Name of Our Field,” 1978), “sci-fi” is “Lost in Space” and “Godzilla;” SF is Alastair Reynolds, Dan Simmons, David Brin, Iain M. Banks, Peter Hamilton and scores…

    and this comes from a guy who “teaches” sci-fi in collage….hmm i wonder where Itzkoff could get the idea that sci-fi has become to geeky

  3. This guy is a fucking idiot!(6)

    Dave Itzkoff, you are dead to me!:-@

  4. joshua corning // March 6, 2006 at 12:22 am //

    thanks john,

    I just discovered that there are a bunch of blogs who use SF instead of sci-fi…wow do you get a decoder ring with that?

    Well one thing is certian…sci-fi has gotten to geeky and Itzkoff is a terrible reviewer.

  5. Lauren wrote:


  6. Even more reaction from many on Asimov Magazine’s forum.

  7. Wow… does it really have to fit a mould? Is Sci-fi stereotypical now? In my opinion I enjoy both kinds of Sci-fi. There are the science heavy books like Robinsons “Red Mars” or Sagans “Contact” then there are your more fiction books like Nivens “Ringworld” or Simmons “Hyperion.” Do they have to be categorized apart?

    I’m reminded of the Reeses peanut butter cup commercials.

    “Hey you got SCIENCE in my FICTION, no you got FICTION in my SCIENCE!”

    Who cares! Lap it up guys, or go read a technical manual on operating systems. Sometimes you just have to let ART wash over you.

  8. We should never forget that it’s the publishers who created these categories (SF, Mystery, Literature, Romance, etc.) decades ago and enforce them today purely for marketing reasons. There’s plenty of great fiction out there in any genre, just as there’s plenty of crap. Whether there’s a higher proportion of crap in “science fiction” is open to argument.

    It’s gotta be hard for Itzkoff, working at the Times and surrounded by NY intellectuals who constantly mock him for his reading choices–he’s starting to sound a little self-conscious, if you ask me.

  9. But wait, there’s more! 🙂 Here’s the response from SFBC editor Andy Wheeler.

  10. Here I think we are running afoul of, certainly in the States, people’s perception that SF must involve heavy use of science. The US in general does poorly in science, as well as math, and I think that lack of scientific knowledge morphs into science = science fiction = geeks = bad. People are afraid of science or just aren’t interested, and those feelings carry over to a literary genre called science fiction. I also believe this apathetic (At best) attitude toward science in general is a big reason why science fiction, written anyway, is not as popular as it once was and why many people look down on it and why many people associate Vonnegut with SF (admittedly, he does use SF themes and tropes).

    But let’s face it, some SF can be very technically challenging. I’d put Egan up there, Schild’s Ladder anyone?, as well as many ‘hard’ SF novels. The science is usually cool and interesting, but not to the majority of people who have little to no interest in science in general. Thus, the disdain people have of SF and the perjorative use of ‘geeky’ to SF.

    The answer? Get to the kids while they’re young! Oh, and better science education. Oh! and more appreciation for reading in general.

  11. If SF weren’t geeky, then it would just be F(iction). Where would be the fun in that?

  12. I hate to say it but I think that today most folks are “geeky” in some way or another. I mean a great number of folks are computer literate these days and have some amount of technology in thier lives. Now, if we are discussing hard SF – then yes this probably appeals to a more specific target audience much like hard science fiction (I am thinking CSI related) appeals to that audience.

    I firmly believe that there are SF novels that will appeal to more general audiences, but I am probably not the best expert in that arena. I think that if you know guys who are interested in military fiction can approach books by John Scalzi or John Ringo. These books are very approachable from a military point of view. I will also agree with JP (I am not happy about it but hey) in that the real way to deal with this is to expose kids to SF younger and really drive them to read. I know my son likes to read and I consider myself lucky in that respect. Now he has been reading stuff that is more fantasy related, but he does not shy away from books that are science and math related.

    If we, as readers and evangelists of SF, act as this is an area we are ashamed of or feel is unapproachable by larger audiences – thats how others will see it. I mean we should be pushing books to people that are accessable to larger scale audiences. We can do our parts with our kids by examining reading lists and book choices to offer a broader range of options.

  13. The reaction continues on Locus’ letters page, with responses from SF authors Elizabeth Hand, L. E. Modesitt, Jr. and Alex Irvine.

    My favorite bit, from Irvine, who puts things in perspective: “SF fandom is never happy unless it’s miserable, and nothing makes fandom more happily miserable, or miserably happy, than to invent imagined slights from the literary establishment.”

  14. Boy, Itzkoff sure has stirred the pot a bit, hasn’t he?

    More reaction from SF authors Gregory Benford and Mark Tiedemann; sf editors Andrew Wheeler and Patrick Nielsen Hayden; sf reviewer Aaron Hughes.

  15. I’ve noticed a few comments here taking umbrage with the term Sci-Fi. It’s worth noting that although there are a number of people who dislike the term it is widely used and the people using it include some science fiction authors. So we can’t really snap at everyone who uses it.

    It’s also worth noting that SF isn’t the only genre that gets panned from Literary critics. There’s been a long running pissing contest between “postmodern” and “realist” literature for several decades now. So SF is hardly the only form that critics are looking down on.

  16. Kudos To Dave Itzkoff

    Link: SF Signal: Is SF Too Geeky? (Stop by SF Signal to join the discussion. Here is my take.) Believe it or not, I am about to say something nice about the New York Times. Fire up the band; let

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