by Christopher DeFilippis
DeFlip Side, Vol. 1, No. 2
(First Appeared: January, 1999; First Light E-zine, Issue #77)
It wasn’t until after I’d sold my book that I heard the distinction made. I was writing a pitch letter to see if I could snag an agent and I used the term “Sci-Fi” to describe a new novel I was working on. When looking it over, my editor crossed out “Sci-Fi” and replaced it with “SF.” “It’s how we refer to it in the industry,” she told me.
Personally, I didn’t see much difference. But I wasn’t going to question a bit of jargon that helped me look as if I regularly rode the inside track. SF instead of Sci-Fi? Sure, what the hell? It was a while before I again heard someone split this particular hair.
This time, I was watching the now defunct show SF Vortex on the Sci-Fi Channel, which previewed the latest cinematic and television offerings in Sci-Fi entertainment. The centerpiece of each half hour was a “War Room” segment in which industry insiders (writers, producers, celebrities) would bandy back and forth about a different topic within the genre. On the show in question, panelists were reviewing the summer releases. Now this was the year of Independence Day, so Science Fiction was experiencing the mainstream renaissance from which it has yet to fully recover. (Don’t worry—a few more tanks like Godzilla and it’ll fade back into relative obscurity.)
Author Harlan Ellison stood out because he was the only one panning the popular flick. In his opinion, the film was crap and didn’t deserve the prestigious moniker of Science Fiction (SF). Instead, he relegated it to the ranks of Sci-Fi—the mindless tripe packaged for mass consumption by the great unwashed, i.e., you and me.
I saw him on a few other shows afterward, making the same distinction. But this time, I was having a hard time shrugging it off. For some reason, I continued to dwell on it and as I did, I began having odd visions:
- A man in a cheap corduroy jacket with a bad comb-over handing out photocopies of Hawthorne’s The Birthmark…
- A bespeckled young man, goatee aquiver with vehemence as he recounts the confrontation between Marlow and Kurtz…
- A willowy woman tugging absently at her black stockings as she tells The Story of an Hour…
The images began overlapping, comparing and contrasting in my mind and I realized with horror from whence these hideous visages came: I was having flashbacks of my days as a college English major!
Once I made the connection the entire horrible spectacle came flooding back: the freshman who came to class with a love of books, naively hoping to share that love with others; the sophomore who felt the pure rush of good story and compelling character strangled by terms like “structure” and “symbolism”; the junior who would choose any old interpretation he felt like and then search the text for supporting evidence so he could cobble together yet another stupid term paper, all the while covertly harboring the apocryphal attitude that it was okay to read merely for the enjoyment of it.
I realized that Ellison’s words had refused to stop tapping on my brain because they were crossing that line between practical and obscure, venturing into the realm of ideas that made me run screaming into journalism school in search of some semblance of rationality.
Fellow survivors already know that I’m talking about the nether world of literary analysis, the place where trifling things like story, character and author’s intent are only secondary considerations to be counted or discounted depending on how they advance your own pet point of view. Feminist, revisionist, socialist, pacifist or Marxist; psychological, sociological, theological or philosophical; existence before essence or essence before existence; come one, come all, and pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.
Who knows how it got to be this way? Personally, I think early English professors felt intimidated by the technical lingo of their medical and mathematical counterparts and invented convoluted ways of stating the keenly obvious so they, too, could impress the chicks at campus mixers. Over time, the rhetoric was permanently adopted to maintain a veneer of elitism and now has become more important than the thing for which it was created. Do we really want to see Science Fiction usurped by this exercise in Newspeak?
If the genre has managed to eek out any credibility at all in academia, it has been for its traditional role as a medium to explore social problems and issues considered taboo in the mainstream. But that role has become less relevant in our information age. From the lowliest talk show to the most revered 24-hour cable news channel, the demand to fill programming hours and grab ratings has emptied our closets of skeletons. There are no details, however suspect, left unreported, no cows still considered sacred.
In this environment of too-much-all-the-time, the object lessons of yesterday’s Science Fiction are yielding to pure entertainment. Take a look at the current television offerings. Every network has realized the audience potential and throws one show after another at us until something sticks. Buffy. Xena. Hercules. Seven Days. Early Edition. The Pretender. Charmed. Knight Rider 2000 (or was that Team Knight Rider?). The X-Files. Brimstone. Millennium. Sliders. That’s only a few, and more are on the way. None have much redeeming social value. Personally, I wouldn’t touch most of them with a ten foot remote. But sophomoric as the majority of them are, they’re still Science Fiction. My opinion can’t change that.
It’s the same with books. A walk down the Science Fiction aisle these days is like taking a stroll down Media Tie-In Avenue; the phenomenal success of the Star Trek series has spurred editors to use it as a template to launch tie-in series of their own. Who can blame them? Every time Pocket Books goes to press with a new Trek book (which is every other week, I think) it’s like they’re minting money. I only wish it had worked as well for the Quantum Leap series; I might have sold another story.
Is it edging out original voices in Science Fiction? Certainly. Is it making life hell for authors trying to get onto the mid-list? Give me a call some time and I’ll tell you all about it. So should we lump it all into a category separate from the “legitimate” stuff? Hell no. It would be a stupid distinction, dividing Science Fiction readers into opposing factions simply for the sake of living up to some arbitrary academic standard.
Take a look at the difference between Trekker and Trekkie. Now, I’ve been a Star Trek fan for most of my life and I’m still a little fuzzy on this whole thing. As far as I’ve been able to ascertain, a Trekker is someone who loves the show and everything it represents and admits that it has had a tremendous influence on their life; Trekkies take it one step further, bringing the kiddies to the conventions dressed as Klingons, or reporting for jury duty in a Next Gen uniform.
I can understand the Trekkers’ main motivation, namely to separate themselves from the ever-present dork factor associated with fandom. But to the non-fan looking in from the outside, no such distinction exists. To them, we’re all dorks, like it or not.
So what makes the distinction between SF and Sci-Fi? Who sets the standard? Simple. The standard sets itself and it has nothing to do with our choice in abbreviations. It all comes down to the caliber of writing.
How does Orwell’s 1984 differ from my own QL novel Foreknowledge? In terms of Science Fiction, it doesn’t. (Stop laughing; I’m just trying to make a point.) They both fall within the parameters of the genre and both have equal right to the term. The real distinction is the one between fiction and literature. And while all literature is fiction, not all fiction is literature.
Foreknowledge is fiction: a made up story with the simple intent to entertain. 1984, on the other hand, is that and a whole lot more. It climbs into the realm of literature because not only does it entertain, it also makes a superb statement on personal and political freedom.
Foreknowledge might linger in your mind for a few days after you’ve finished it; 1984 stays with you for a lifetime. And because of this it ceases to be Science Fiction in the eyes of most. When was the last time you heard The Metamorphosis referred to as Science Fiction at all, much less SF or Sci-Fi? How about Gulliver’s Travels? Great writing transcends genre. It’s simply too dynamic to be pigeon-holed.
I think John Stewart Mill put it best when he said to scatter all information on the winds. Most will blow away, but what remains is Truth. (Or something like that; cut me some slack, I’m remembering this from a class I took in 1991.)
So draw lines in the sand if helps you validate your intellect; in the long run it really won’t make any difference. Merit will enable the truly good stuff to endure, and in a hundred years no one will much care whether we called it SF or Sci-Fi.