DeFlip Side #94: Sci-Fi vs. SF (vs. SyFy)


Welcome everyone, I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

Have you heard the news! It’s groundbreaking! Earth-shattering! Your reality will never be the same again! The Sci-Fi Channel has changed its name! It’s now known as the SyFy Channel! What’s the difference? That’s SyFy as in S-Y-F-Y, not to be confused with the MUCH different term Sci-Fi, S-C-I-F-I.

Talk about stupidity. This nuanced rebranding of the SyFy Channel has all the earmarks of a knuckleheaded marketing committee charged with garnering a new audience of like-minded knuckleheads who are scared by the term Sci-Fi—a lame attempt to reach out to the Oprahfied masses that seems to have an awful lot to do with the network’s run-up to the premiere of the Battlestar Galactica prequel series Caprica, which SyFy is desperately trying to market to a wider audience—namely women—characterizing it more as a serial family drama than a science fiction program.

It’s obvious that SyFy wants to have its cake and eat it too, eschewing the genre around which it was purportedly created, while maintaining its core identity to avoid alienating existing fans. And from the network’s point of view, it seems to be working. Record-high ratings are rolling in for the latest SyFy Original Series, Warehouse 13—or, as I like to think of it, “The Last 40 Seconds of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Series.” Warehouse 13 is not only getting big numbers, it’s drawing more female viewers than SyFy has ever had. You can just imagine the gang of marketing doofuses high-fiving each other, as if the change to S-Y-F-Y has anything to do with it.

In reality, the name change has drawn little more than a shrug of derision from Science Fiction fans, most of whom only reluctantly tolerate the channel anyway. But it has dredged up an old fandom debate that will seemingly never go away: Science Fiction vs. Sci-Fi.

It was an argument first sparked in a 1997 Newsweek article by author Harlan Ellison, and which I subsequently wrote about in one of my first DeFlip Side columns, years before it became a radio segment.

Here’s the basic premise of the argument, presented by Ellison himself:

“Sci-Fi is a debasement… It’s not even a real phrase. It diminishes anything. It’s like referring to the feminist movement as Fem-Lib, y’know, and Sci-Fi. I suppose all Spanish literature would then be Spic-Fic, and all Jewish literature would be Kike-Fic or something. This is all intended to diminish, and it makes it easy for people to dismiss it… When you are able to diminish something, you don’t actively have to go after it. It already becomes laughable.”

Ironically enough, that clip is from a program called Sci-Fi Vortex, which aired on the Sci-Fi Channel right around the time the film Independence Day was killing at the box-office and garnering critical acclaim. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that such a dopey movie could spark such a passionate debate, but listen on:

“When people start thinking that Independence Day is science fiction, and they’ve never read a novel by A.E. van Vogt, or they’ve never read a novel by Kate Wilhelm, then what we have is a bastardized form. When they read Star Trek novels and they think this is writing, we lose from the pool of literature. We have an ever-more increasingly illiterate population. And I think this Sci-Fi crap is what helps that along. It keeps people stupid.”

Hey! Wait a minute! Does the same apply to Quantum Leap novels? I think I might be offended! But I’ll let Harlan finish making his point:

“What they do in these kinds of films, these Sci-Fi films, is they deal entirely with plot. There is never an examination of the human condition. And the core of Science Fiction as a thinking tool is the effects of technology on human beings. How will we be affected? How will our lives change?”

Ellison is correct in one key aspect: if this genre of ours has managed to eek out any credibility at all in so-called literary circles, it’s been for its traditional role as a medium to explore social problems and issues considered taboo in the mainstream.

But debating whether to call it Science Fiction or Sci-Fi is a bit like the Trekker vs. Trekkie argument, with Trekkers’ struggling to distinguish themselves from the stereotypical Spock-eared, convention-going dorks associated with Trek fandom. To the non-fan looking in from the outside, no such distinction exists. To them, we’re all dorks.

It’s the same with Science Fiction in general, however you choose to abbreviate it. Most people have just written it off as juvenile space opera, and no amount of debate will change their preconceptions. And we as fans fail to realize just how strong the stigma can be.

This really hit home recently, when my wife—an avowed Science Fiction hater—was reminiscing about how much she used to love The X-Files. I said I bet that she’d never thought that she’d be such a huge fan of a Sci-Fi show. She looked at me, perplexed, and said The X Files isn’t Science Fiction. I kid you not. Alien invasions and sewer monsters notwithstanding, The X Files simply could not be Science Fiction because she liked it, and she hates Science Fiction. She was equally surprised to hear that LOST is Science Fiction.

And if you think this little exercise in doublethink is an anomaly, consider this. When was the last time you heard anyone refer to Kafka’s The Metamorphosis as Science Fiction at all, much less Sci-Fi? How about Gulliver’s Travels or 1984? Yet, in terms of Science Fiction, none of them differ from my own Quantum Leap novel Foreknowledge. They all fall within the parameters of the genre and have equal claim to the term.

The real distinction is the one between fiction and literature. Foreknowledge is fiction: a made-up story with the simple intent to entertain. 1984, on the other hand, climbs into the realm of literature because it makes a superb statement on personal and political freedoms. Foreknowledge might linger with you for a few days after you’ve finished it; but 1984 stays with you for a lifetime. And because of this it ceases to be Science Fiction in the eyes of most. Great writing transcends genre. It’s simply too dynamic to be pigeon-holed.

So drawing lines in the sand between Science Fiction and Sci-Fi—or even S-Y-F-Y—completely misses the point. In the long run it won’t make any difference because the truly good stuff will endure. And in a hundred years no one will much care whether we debased it by calling it Sci-Fi, because they won’t be calling it Science Fiction at all.