Monday, November 18, 2013

The Name of the Genre


We've pretty much settled on science fiction as being the best name for the sort of stuff we in genre like to read and write.  Is it really the best possible term?  Probably not.  But, as with democracy, before we get too critical, we should probably consider the alternatives.

Going back to the beginning, Jules Verne wrote Voyages Extraordinaires, emphasizing the adventure aspect of his fiction.  H. G. Wells, a far better prose stylist but a little looser with the laws of science -- when asked his opinion of Wells' First Men in the Moon, Verne snapped, "Show me this cavorite! -- wrote what were then called Scientific Romances.  (The term predates him, but I'm not pretending to any rigorous scholarship in this blogpost.)

Then came the tireless science enthusiast, inventor, and crook, Hugo Gernsback, whose magazines created science fiction as a genre and whose letter columns in those same magazines created fandom.  In keeping with the aesthetics of a man who named his weirdly visionary novel Ralph 124C41+ (try saying it out loud), his moniker for this nascent literary form was a real jaw-acher:  Scientifiction.

Obviously, that couldn't endure and with the demise of Gernsback's magazines, the acceptable term among cognoscenti became Science Fiction.  Shortly thereafter, the abbreviation SF came into common insider use, sometimes capitalized and other times not.

Alas, uber-fan, agent, magazine editor, and compulsive collector Forrest J. Ackerman, seeking his place in literary history, came up with something shorter and catchier:  Sci-Fi.  It caught on.  Sort of.  Mostly, it became attached to 1950s monster movies.  Fans pointedly used "science fiction" to refer to the sort of literature they valued, while reserving Ackerman's term for schlock.  Thus causing a great deal of snarking by those in the know directed at innocent civilians who thought they were simply using the proper term.

(Not long ago, the SciFi Channel, whose name roused outrage in fandom when it first came out, officially changed their name to SyFy, a Polish word meaning "syphilis."  Their intention being to distance themselves from the schlock implications of the old term.  Which was ironic, given how greatly many of its own shows contributed to exactly that impression.)

Somewhere in there, Robert A. Heinlein made a valiant effort to point out the inherent virtues of the genre by giving it a more respectable title:  Speculative Fiction.  This had the virtue of getting around the fact that a lot of the works we most highly prize, such as Ray Bradbury's, while excellent on the speculative front, weren't terribly strong on the science.

Alas, though Harlan Ellison spent decades championing this term (and excoriating the use of "sci-fi"), it never caught on among the general public.  So it must be considered a failure.  If Harlan couldn't make it stick, nobody could.

Today we have, through attrition and the will of the masses, settled upon Science Fiction as the one true name for our beloved genre.  Just in time, as John Clute would tell you, for its death.

But that's another story, for another time.



Unknown said...

The common abbreviation of scientifiction is/was stf pronounced stef. See

-- Michael Walsh

Michael Swanwick said...

Thanks for reminding me of that, Michael.

TheOFloinn said...

The middle ages did not have the same genre categories as we do. Chansons and romans do not quite match short stories and novels. But there was a category known as itineraria which would correspond with the Voyages Extraordinaires. For example, in the Itinerarium of Sir John Mandeville, popular in the 14th century, the fictitious Sir John told of his travels around the world, encountering "aliens" like the sciopods* and the Amazons. At one point (chapter XX) he uses the latest in science (an astrolabe) to mark the position of the north pole star (and, then the "south pole star") and show by the changes that the world is a globe and that by continuing east he will come back to his point of departure.

"Monstrous races" (="aliens") were also popular and included blemyae, centaurs, dog-heads, pygmies, sciopods, etc. They supposedly lived over near India, which was the medieval way of saying "another planet." Curiously, the Indians had similar stories and thought they lived over in Europe somewhere. Augustine of Hippo wrote in City of God that one needn't believe in all these aliens, but if they possessed the spark of reason they were human "no matter what unusual appearance he presents in color, movement, sound, nor how peculiar he is in some power, part, or quality of his nature." Turned out there really were pygmies.

So there may be something in the human spirit that longs for distant lands and strange creatures.