Monday, September 15, 2008

A geek by any other name

Alastair Reynolds has an interesting post on some science fiction fans’ aversion to the term “sci-fi.” I myself do not use the term much, but I’ve never shared the intense dislike of the term some people have. It’s in the URL of my blog, after all.

I do find the aversion understandable, however. “Sci-fi” is often used in a derogatory, belittling, or patronizing context- those “check out these weirdos” articles that pop up in newspapers when there’s a sci-fi convention in town, for instance. Thus, I don’t think the analogy Reynolds draws to audiophiles who get upset when people say “hi-fi” instead of “high-fidelity” really works- no one uses the term “hi-fi” while laughing or sneering at high-fidelity stereos or their owners.

There may be a regional difference shaping our differing perceptions. Reynolds is from the United Kingdom, while I’m from the Midwestern United States, and I don’t know how “sci-fi” is used in the British media.

All in all, I think it’s a useful term- catchier-sounding and more concise than “science fiction,” more readily understandable and identifiable to the uninitiated than “SF,” less likely to set my teeth on edge than “speculative fiction.” I’d hate to abandon a good word just because some people use it in an obnoxious way.

I wonder if part of the hostility to the term comes from the desire of many fans for greater mainstream respectability and recognition of science fiction as “real literature.” It’s a desire I sympathize with, but not one I consider attainable. There seems to be a common belief that written science fiction (and fantasy) could triumphantly burst out of its “ghetto” if only it were presented better- book covers that don’t look so embarrassingly science fictiony, fewer aesthetically displeasing male nerds at cons, whatever. Thus, the word “sci-fi,” with its popular connotation of schlocky movies about bug-eyed men, may strike some people as the source (or part of the source) of science fiction’s image problem, which suggests that the problem could be solved or ameliorated if we got people to say “science fiction” or “speculative fiction” instead.

This is futile, even if it were somehow possible to get everyone to use some other word or words. Even if people stopped saying "sci-fi,” the euphemism treadmill is relentless.  Whatever term replaced ‘sci-fi” in the public mind would quickly gain all the negative connotations of its predecessor- and those negative connotations are not going to go away.

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