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Science Fiction vs. SciFi?

Here is a segment from the 1977 1997 SciFi Channel show SF Vortex, in which Harlan Ellison, J. Michael Straczynski, Herb Solow, and Yvonne Fern discuss the meaning of the terms “science fiction” and “SciFi”.

And the Harlan says: “‘Sci-Fi’ is a debasement.”

For what it’s worth, the original Ellison article that sparked this discussion, Strangers In A Strange Land, is available in the Newsweek archives: “‘Sci-Fi’ is…a simplistic, pulp-fiction view of the world exemplified by the movie Independence Day, which warps our curiosity about the possibility of other life in the universe into an apocalyptic Saturday-morning cartoon.”

I’m not one to haggle over labels, but is this still the predominant sentiment? Personally, I see no derogatory connotations in the term SciFi. Actually, I use the term “SciFi” to refer to science fiction films and I use the terms “science fiction” or “sf” for science fiction books. Sounds like the problem comes not from the people in the field, but the perception from people not in the field.

[via Wandering Attention]

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.

19 Comments on Science Fiction vs. SciFi?

  1. Um, you need to fix that first sentence, seems there’s a chunk missing off the front.

    And I think that was from 1997, not 1977.

  2. More authors in search of validation. This is no better than SF fans wondering why their favorite genre doesn’t get the respect that it so richly deserves.

    Here’s a clue: SF or sci-fi or skiffy or speculative fiction isn’t what an author says it is, it’s what the reader or public say it is. For example, if the band King Crimson comes out with an album declaring that its a groundbreaking work of envelope pushing yet its audience says its “prog rock”, then no matter how many huffs or puffs the members of the band use to protest, it’s prog rock.

    Science fiction is a short cut to let people know what pigeonhole a work belongs in so they can keep the categories straight in their heads. It lets them know which aisle of the bookstore to go to. For most readers other than the most obnoxiously nerdy, the terms, even the ones that Harlan Ellison doesn’t like, are interchangeable. No amount of “reeducation” regarding the degrees of difference is going to matter to people who have more important things to worry about than whether some author’s feelings are hurt.

  3. I do use the terms SF or Speculative Fiction myself, not Sci-Fi, but I’ve been interviewed a handful of times by non-SF media, and I will never, ever correct the interviewer, whether they describe my work as Sci-fi, space fantasy, speculative fiction or ‘that shit with aliens’

    If you care about the nomenclature you can always vent in a blog post. Personally I believe that around 99% of the reading public think that SF and Sci-fi are one and the same, and I’d like to encourage them to read more of it, not promote it as an exclusive club for those with The Right Knowledge.

    It’s just like comparing casual wine drinkers to connoisseurs – if you torment a casual drinker with endless buzzwords they’ll order beer instead.


  4. I could have added: This is the same feeling I have towards the term “Geek”.  Sure, some people see it as an insult, but I don’t.  I’ll be the first to admit I’m a geek. 

  5. I don’t know that it’s a big quantifiable definition you can point to, saying “This is SF. This is Sci-Fi.”

    I know that I tend to use SF, because Sci-Fi has always irritated me. It reminds me of “High Fidelity”. Which is dumb and pedantic of me, but it’s where I stand (and I mostly keep it to myself, because it’s just one of those simple worldviews, like a preference between the colors blue and purple. It’s not the end of the world.)

    But these days, oddly enough, I get more use out of the difference between SF and Sci-Fi.

    For example, I tend to point to the horrible rubbish Sci-Fi Channel original movies as Sci-Fi. MEGA ANACONDA DEATH ISLAND THREE: THE DEATHENING or something…that’s Sci-Fi.

    Babylon 5 is SF.

    Michael Bay’s “The Island” is Sci-Fi (well, I’m generous, actually it’s “You told Scarlet Johanssen WHAT when she offered to take off her shirt!?” and leave it at that) and, at least for me, Will Smith’s “I, Robot” is SF (full of fun and ideas and cool. What I took out of the best pulps of the day.)

    For others, Will Smith movies are to be derided.

    I don’t think that “Sci-Fi has to be a bad thing all the time. Independence Day is a big stupid movie, and it’s Sci-Fi to me, but even with dippy computer stuff at the end, it’s a FUN film. Men in Black is Sci-fi, but how can you resist that, it’s terrific.

    I think it’s the same as the difference between commercial books, and “Literature” you know? Yeah, you can probably point to different books and make a distinction. But it won’t agree with anyone else overmuch. And it doesn’t mean much outside your own head.

    So. Roundabout way of saying that I AGREE with Harlan Ellison — I generally do — but I’m just not quite as up in arms about it. Mostly because while he sees it as debasement, *I* just see it as two different genres. (the difference, perhaps, between Romeo & Juliet…and a Harlequin novel called “Her Tempetuous Passion” or something. You know?)

    *stops blithering and has nice tea*

  6. Ah yes, from the days when the SkiiiiFiiii Channel actually had some decent programming. What an utter waste that a channel with that potential reach doesn’t have a talk show or a news show or a chat show where they can bring on authors, showcase books (remember those?) and the like.

    Thank goodness we have sites like this, or podcasts like Adventures in Sci-Fi (there’s that term) Publishing, The Agony Column, etc., where we can actually hear those authors we all read.

  7. I’ve decided I will only appreviate it using the unused back half of each word: Ence-Ction. Pronounced “en-shun.”

  8. I admit, I think the first time I heard the term as Sci-Fi was back when I first started getting the SciFi channel.  I’d rather have been given a pony.  So from that point on, I associate Sci-Fi with that gawdawful drek that Pete Tzinski mentioned.  In fact, just yesterday I watched ten minutes of one of their original movies.

    That’s ten minutes I’ll never get back.

    So for me, it is perhaps a snobbish difference, but I see books as Science Fiction. Even SF, because I’m accustomed to seeing SF/F as a designation.  But Sci Fi will always, in my brain pan, be the Sci Fi channel filled with the drek they churn out.  I don’t see any reason to argue with Ellison. He is, after all, a master mind (even if that mind is couched softly around some stomping, opinionated views).  I can only hope to achieve a fraction of what he’s managed, and would then consider it an honor if folk thought I was a nutter.

    However, I can see a new generation coming up who see no difference at all. And maybe, ultimately, that’s a good thing.

  9. John Wright // November 24, 2008 at 4:44 pm //

    Here is the difference:

    Science Fiction is the serious realm of speculative literature that deals with such interesting speculations as aerospace travel, intelligent life on other planets, futuristic weaponry, and speculations into areas otherwise taboo, such as an enlightened approach to sexuality, that other genres shy away from.

    Sci-Fi is the pulpish hack writing that deals with such geekish ideas as rocketships, bug-eyed aliens, rayguns, and orgies with hottie space-babes!

    As we can see, there is no relation whatsoever between the two.


  10. As much as I love Harlan, I have always made a practice of saying “sci fi” whenever I felt like it.

    Excuse me, but the sci-fi with the hunky blocks of raging half-alien manflesh is MY kind of sci-fi!


  11. What the hell is Harlan’s problem?  Each time I’ve seen him speak, he’s a smug, elitist prick, even if he does have a point.  And he does have a point, it’s just that he doesn’t seem to have a very good mind for distinguishing between views.  Everyone around him is capable of making important distinctions while he goes on belligerently, intent on calling everyone else in the world a moron.  Now, I’m passionate and often argumentative, but his attitude puts me off.


    That sort of re-raises the question posed a while back on this blog: does an author’s politics put you off from their work.  Harlan’s tude is similar here in that I’m disinclined to read the work of an asshole. Somehow, knowing how much a person would likely look down on me (even if not in the work itself) puts a bad taste in my mouth.


    So my question is this: Have I just seen him on a few bad days?  

  12. John Wright // November 25, 2008 at 5:35 pm //

    “So my question is this: Have I just seen him on a few bad days?”

    As far as I know, no. I had the honor to meet Mr. Elison for exactly one second at a Nebula Awards dinner, where he was the GOH, and he insulted me for exactly no reason at all. I could not be offended, because I saw it was a joke, an insincere insult, merely his schtick.

    So, based on that one data point, I conclude that being a smug, superior, angry, and condescending (what you call ‘elitist prick’) is his schtick, his act, the thing he does for attention and applause, the one trick of a dog who knows one trick. Keep in mind that it is a schtick, an act, an ad, an attention-getter.

    Since I am a writer of speculative fiction, allow me now to speculate about the psychology of this. Like most psychologal theories, I will make appeal to no facts.

    I speculate that this “angry prick” schtick has two roots, one ancient and one modern.

    In ancient times, the prophet or the court fool was allowed to say outrageous things, to mock the king, to gore the sacred cow, provided he kept to one rule: the outrageous things he said had to be true. In this way unspeakable truths, which politeness normally gagged, could be aired, but, if spoken by a clown, could be treated as humor, or, if spoken by a prophet, the prophet could be killed by stoning.

    In modern times, the bored and silly postwar generation, resentful, perhaps, of the grave moral heroism of their fathers who had defeated Naziism, or galvanized, perhaps, but the hypocrisy and materialistic falsehood of the evil ‘establishment’ (I leave it as an exercise for the reader to deduce the true motives behind the youth movement) selected as one of their standards the idea that angry but honest denunciation of the establishment was valuable, and excused any need to be polite or restrained.

    Indeed, in a weird inversion of normal courtesies (which I am sure future psychologists will study with pursed lips and frowns of puzzlement) it was assumed that he more rude, the more angry, the more outrageous the court fool was, therefore the more authentic and hence the more trustworthy his utterances.

    I must also stress that the ancients, as well as the moderns, are willing to forgive artists their strange eccentricities, on the grounds that art is a divine madness, and their art speaks a truth not otherwise captured. It was Picasso, I think, who first exploited this idea in the modern day to escape criticism for his abominable lifestyle and wretched personal morals. Eccentric artists are simply off the hook.

    I suppose there is some truth to the idea that you can trust a rude man to be honest, on the grounds that he clearly does not care about uttering untruths for the sake of politeness. However, since there are both other motivations to be rude, aside from prophetic indignation, and other motivations to be honest, aside from spontaneity, the truth is of remarkably limited application.

    Mr. Ellison is a product of this generation, and, indeed, a standard bearer among a contingent of them. In a generation that values emotion and disvalues reason, cool and collected discourse is not admired, not trusted. Emotional outbursts are trusted because (so the myth would have it) emotional outbursts are spontaneous, spontaneity is honest, and honesty is valued whether it offends or not.

    Obviously all these ideals are wrong-headed, if not wrong: I know of many a spontaneous and dishonest reaction that can burst forth from the human heart, or spill from human lips, before any kinder or more authentic impulse can check it. I have no doubt Adam himself, the exemplar and father of our race, blurted out, “I was tempted by the woman YOU gave me,” before he had a chance to check himself.

    Sarcasm, condescention, and anger are a means of cloaking oneself in an inexpensive and safe form of prophetic authority. They are a means stupid people use to convince themselves that they are smarter than smart people who disagree with them, or, if not, at least more authentic and hence more honest than the honest people who disagree with them.

    Science Fiction authors are in a position, if they care to use it, to criticize any ills they see in current society, by extrapolating a trend and portraying the result (as REPENT HARLEQUIN extrapolates punctuality, for example). Hence SF authors have a better venue to adopt the role of prophetic anger or court fool honesty than writers, say, of Westerns or Pirate stories or Samurai Vampire novels.

    And, scifffy people being proud of their openmindedness and nonchalance, we don’t really mind having an angry ill-mannered dwarf in our midst. SF folks really do seem to be more tolerant than our neighbors, at least when it comes to things like this.


  13. Excellent analysis and by far the best response I’ve ever received to an online question, John.  Makes me think about my own outbursts of indignation as well as the motives behind my particularly smug friends’.

    I’m torn between valuing truth at all costs and the old adage, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”  I’ve been the target of schticky, insincere insults, but knowing that they’re jokes doesn’t always make them easier to bear and I worry about more fragile victims who can’t see through the facade or beat themselves up even if they can.

    I think you’re right, by the way, that this is just Harlan’s gimmick and I almost feel bad for him.  I mean, he was introduced as “perhaps the most controversial man in science fiction.” It seems like he might feel the need to live up to a reputation.  Some of my friends encourage me to “stay mad” and I jokingly berate them for typecasting me.  It is certainly an expectation, being the angry seer.

    Thanks for that thoughtful response, John.

  14. John Wright // November 26, 2008 at 10:15 am //

    “Excellent analysis”

    I feel the love! Thanks, but keep in mind that I am speculating in a vacuum of facts. My psychological (cough, cough) analysis is based on exactly one second of conversation at one awards banquet once. I don’t know Harlan Elison from Adam, except that Adam had no belly button.

    I am not really talking about Harlan, if you think about it: I am expressing a long-standing exasperation against a certain type of self-righteousness.

    “I think you’re right, by the way, that this is just Harlan’s gimmick and I almost feel bad for him.”

    I do feel bad for him. Beneath his cynical and angry exterior, I saw (or thought I saw) a man who deeply cares about vice and virtue, good and evil, and who in his old age saw that he had made a mess of his life. His is a soul that cries out for repentance and redemption. Or so it seemed to me — but I make no pretense at being able to read human character.

    Anger is thin soup and not nourishing in the long run.



  15. Harlan insulted you, John?  How awesome is that!!! 

    Harlan has a “hair trigger.”  He is capable of saying anything off the cuff, and doesn’t necessarily mean it or realize that he’s saying something that’s that off-base at the time.  Occasionally, when he realizes he’s gone off inappropriately, he’ll always apologize profusely and undertake some generous or kind action to “make up for it.”

    I think Harlan is a greatly-misunderstood person “in person.”  As pointed up, there’s not much chance to misunderstand what he writes, although I always suspect that he doesn’t mean some of his nonfiction in quite the inflammatory way it’s sometimes interpreted.

    One thing I will say about Harlan is that, especially when I was young, I was a pretty “quick” person.  Harlan was always 1000 steps ahead of me – i.e., he made me feel completely slow and “out of it.”  He is truly brilliant.  It is very unusual that someone as brilliant as he would not have gone into some actual field of science, math or other study, rather than being a (Lord, forgive me) sci-fi writer.  I’ve seen Harlan referred to as “futurist,” and I think he also refers to himself that way. 

    I cut my teeth on Harlan’s writing as a teen.  It certainly was and is no training for a real writer of a very different temperament.  But it was definitely something that activated the mind and imagination.

    I can sit around and whine about all types of stuff.  But I can also reflect back and think that I was able to get to know and be friends with someone who was a true inspiration and a hero to me in all ways – and continues to be to this day.  If there is one thing that Harlan has, it’s what he tagged me as having, and I truly believe he possesses far more than I ever could of it.  Harlan is a deeply-emotional man, with a genuine conscience for the human race – Harlan has heart.

    This “SF”/Sci Fi thing was him speaking to the core issue of “is sci fi literature?”  The reason Harlan is not “core sci fi” as in the sort of cooler, more intellectual, more defined polemical literature (read Harlan – he’s a polemic of one, not part of any movement, nor trying to start a “church,” etc.) is that he has this heart.  He is a human being, with a sort of intelligence and passion that is unique, and is the foundation of why his work is so striking and indelible, once read, never forgotten.

    So, it’s kind of a really cool thing that Harlan insulted you.  My favorite of these insults has always been, “Who the $$@@@!?? do you think you are – Marilyn !!#@^!!! Mon-ROE?”  Uh.  That one struck me speechless, inspiring him to wrongly believe that I was “brave.”

  16. Well said,the term scifi is generally used by the people outside the genre in India too to refer to light sf works including pulp and visual forms.And the word sf is usually reserved for serious (science) fiction.

  17. CynthiaV // March 24, 2009 at 8:42 pm //

    who cares about one persons elitist attitude really – I am in the midst of my thesis wondering why I got slapped on the wrist for using the term SciFi to me after all (writing about popular culture) SciFi should not be looked down upon but rather viewed as an indicator of the sometimes primal, sometimes escapist popular response to what is going on in our world in terms of technology and science.

    I am actually inclined to make a very deliberate effort to reject the SF label – I feel it is really an academic definition that holds very little academic inquiry – how can you inquire if you keep looking at these things as a ‘scientist’ (disconnect, dissect and look through the glass onto the stage).  I much prefer my cultural musings from within – it gives me a decent idea of what the draw is and what this stuff of what many people are indicating here is a lower culture, has to say about our relationships with technology.  If we are making the distinguishing features of the terms here about status – I have some major problems with that. Since when are academics or writers any ‘better’ than anyone else?? I certainly don’t see my experience in a particular style of ‘thinking’ to give me status above my next door neighbor who has an uncanny knack for putting his finger on really interesting cultural shifts, or my partner who is a ‘mad inventor’ (his term not mine 🙂 but I love it none the less ). Geeks, teens and adults into their own thing means that we are ALL blessed with ‘our stuff’ … THIS makes it possible for writers to write, academics to think -its thinking and writing on this subject that is a response to culture not the other way around that would be thinking for thoughts sake. 

    I refuse to adopt a term that brings nothing to the discourse other than a disconnection from the very thing that we want to talk about.  If we dismiss big breasted Amazonian women from mars, we are missing out on a great conversation about gender .. and some guy or gal is missing out on some fun, escapism or even their own epiphany about our culture. I can’t see my way through using such a dismissive set of ‘rules’.

  18. I can’t get with the generic “sci-fi” distinction. some of the best Science Fiction dealt with “aliens, spaceships and laser guns.” Asimov’s Foundation series was full of ’em. and there’s a legitimate argument that the latest Star Wars movie could be considered Science Fiction instead of “Sci-Fi” because it was so well-writen.

    I wrote a manuscript about a guy fighting his way out of a corrupt pharmaceutical company that does inhumane experiments on animals and humans to vivisect bizarre, hideous and deadly creatures. How would that be categorized?

  19. From watching that chat show I don’t think the panel has that much of a problem with ‘sci-fi’ per say, what they have a problem with is that producing anything but ‘sci-fi’ for TV or in the movies is next to impossible.

    There is room in the world for both, but there is a dismissive movement in popular culture and an even stronger one within literature that ignores the higher aspirations of SF and everything it has to offer. When it comes to good SF I agree completely with Harlan there is no better or more thought provoking genre for exploring the human condition because SF allows the author to challenge authordox views that can’t otherwise be challenged simply by using aliens.

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