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[GUEST POST] David Barnett on Being a “Sci-Fi” Writer

David Barnett is an award-winning journalist, currently multimedia content manager of the Telegraph & Argus, cultural reviewer for The Guardian and the Independent on Sunday, and he has done features for The Independent and Wired. He is the author of Angelglass (described by The Guardian as “stunning”), Hinterland, and popCULT!. Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl is out now from Tor Books in the US and Snowbooks in the UK. His website can be found at

On Being a “Sci-Fi” Writer

by David Barnett

Hello, my name is David and I’m a sci-fi writer.

That may well be raising hackles among some readers right now. But I don’t apologise; in fact it’s deliberate.

I. Write. Sci-fi.

Sci-fi as a genre label has been out of favour for a long time, in preference to the more streamlined SF. When you ally it to its genre-sister fantasy we get SFF, or SF/F, and bringing in the slightly weird cousin horror into the speculative fiction family fold gives us, somewhat clunkily, SF/F/H.

It’s something I confess I haven’t thought too deeply about until recently. I always preferred SF as a signifier, because that’s what everyone else within fandom or the industry seemed to say. Indeed, the name of this august website is, of course, SF Signal. And everyone knows instantly what it means.

But wait. Everyone? What do I mean by everyone? When I put “SF” into Google I get a page of entries for San Francisco. When I speak to people who don’t read SF (yes! They exist! Weird, I know!) and I say I write SF they look blankly at me for a moment.

“Oh,” they say when I explain further. “Sci-fi.”

Yes, sci-fi. That’s what people who occasionally watched Star Trek or who go to the multiplex to see Elysium, call the genre. Sci-fi. To be quite honest, as an SF writer, I was possibly in the past a little sniffy about this. People calling my genre sci-fi was a bit like the old cliché of an out-of-touch High Court judge referring to the Beatles as “a popular beat combo”.

Then something changed my mind for good. Patrick Nielsen Hayden of Tor, the company which publishes my novel Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl in the US, tweeted a link to this website.

I’m not entirely sure what it is – some wiki-type entry on the phrase “sci-fi”. Not sure who wrote it, or when. But one phrase positively leaps out:

“…within the field of science fiction, it is a very, very derogatory term, so to a writer or a fan of science fiction, it is offensive the same way that racial slurs are offensive.”

Patrick said it best in his tweet: “If you actually think the term ‘sci-fi’ is offensive the way the n-word is offensive, you are a coddled, privileged nincompoop.” I can’t really better that, but I’m going to at least expound on it for a little bit longer than a 140-character social network post would let me.

Because… really? “Sci-fi” is as offensive as a racial slur? Listen: I live in a city in the North of England that is, depending on your point of view, highly multi-cultural or, from the other side of the fence, racially divided.

We’ve seen here what racial slurs lead to. Riots. Street fights. Murders.

I don’t really see science fiction fans kicking in shop windows or throwing Molotov cocktails at the police because someone called their favourite books and movies sci-fi, do you? I don’t imagine many people are actually going to, y’know, die because someone said Dangerous Visions or Starship Troopers or whatever was sci-fi.

Now, I’m pretty sure that the majority of people who view the term sci-fi with a measure of distaste would be equally disgusted with that comparison to racial slurs. But it really got my goat. Because, trigger-y language aside, it does point to a snobbishness, an elitism, a general sniffiness in the genre.

I’m aware – again, thanks to Patrick Nielsen Hayden – that the division in terminology was perhaps a necessary one dating back to the 1950s, differentiating between the ten-a-penny drive-in B-movies and the print scene. Written SF was arguably at one of its imaginative and inventive peaks, worlds away, perhaps, from the overwrought monster flicks.

But can we really argue today that intelligent, thought-provoking SF is purely the preserve of the written word? I don’t think we can. So why do we continue to not only insist on SF (which I have no beef with per se) but are so vehemently opposed to sci-fi? Is it because they – the normals, the mundanes, the non-SF readers, the people who think it’s all rockets and asteroids and talking squids in outer space – call it sci-fi, and we want to distance ourselves from them?

But you know what? If the majority call it sci-fi, then I’m happy to go along with that. And that’s pretty much what I’m going to start doing. Next time someone asks me what my book is about, I’m going to say “It’s sci-fi”.

As an aside, it’s actually steampunk, but my views on the unhelpfulness of subdividing into too many sub-genres is probably a whole other can of space-worms best saved for another time.

That’s not to say I’m going to stop using SF. Or speculative fiction, which I do have a sneaky liking for. But the thing is, I don’t want to put those people who call it sci-fi off reading it. I want them to read my books. I want SF fans to read and enjoy them, of course, but who the hell doesn’t want their work to get the widest possible potential audience? I don’t want people who call it sci-fi to be made to think they’re not part of some exclusive little club and therefore not welcome to read books in my genre just because they think SF means San Francisco. I want science fiction to be inclusive, not exclusive.

So, if you like you can call me an SF writer.

You can call me a sci-fi writer.

You can call me a writer of steampunk, or Victoriana, or alternate history.

You can call me a writer of books.

And, you know what? Labels matter so little to me, you can call me what the hell you like.

Hey, you can even call me David.

3 Comments on [GUEST POST] David Barnett on Being a “Sci-Fi” Writer

  1. Great article. There’s way too much drama among sf fandom considering some of the other issues people face. As far as terminology, there’s so much crossover between genres and mainstream literature this can often become a moot point.

  2. I like the term sci-fi better, but I’m happy some people care about – not labels – but WORDS. Especially if they’re writers. And they shouldn’t compare it to racism not because one is worse than the other but because what bothers us or annoys us does not stop mattering to us just because someone else has it worse. Our emotions are particular to us and thus incommensurable and incomparable.

    I never agreed with Harlan Ellison (who always has to come up in this debate) that sci-fi sounds like crickets @%$#@^ing, but I was glad he CARED. And he’ll throw Molotov cocktails if he reads this essay, I’m sure of it.

  3. A couple of us on twitter discussed this today. Linda Nagata had a post a few months ago embracing her “Sci-fi” label:

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