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Old November 24 2012, 04:37 PM   #32
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Re: Is The Science Channel after our hearts?

^I'm not talking about the level of science here. That's got nothing to do with it. When I'm talking about "sci-fi" versus "science fiction," it's an entirely separate subject from the main thrust of this discussion about science content in SF; it's a sidebar having only to do with the reason The SciFi Channel's executives gave for choosing that name instead of "The Science Fiction Channel."

No one would call Harlan Ellison a hard-SF writer; his work tends to be more literary and often borders on the fanciful. But he's always been one of the most ferocious objectors to the term "sci-fi" (as he is about most everything else). Same with David Gerrold, who also wrote some strongly worded essays on the subject that I recall reading.

You have to remember, a generation or two ago, in the '50s and '60s and '70s, science fiction as a genre was not well-regarded by the general public. It may be hard to understand today, when virtually all the most popular and profitable film franchises in history are SF/fantasy, but back then it was considered an entertainment ghetto -- mindless, lowbrow stuff that was only suitable for children, the stuff of B-grade monster movies and Captain Video and Lost in Space. When most people -- and critics -- in the general public referred to "sci-fi," that's what they were thinking of, so they frequently used the term with derogatory intent. And so people in the serious science fiction community resented being painted with the same brush, having their intelligent, literary work dismissed as no better than Attack of the Giant Rutabagas. Calling what they did "sci-fi" was seen as fighting words.

These days, with less scorn for fantastic fiction among the general public, I think the stigma attached to the "sci-fi" label has subsided, which may be why you're unaware of what a slur it was once considered to be. But I think it's still useful to draw a distinction between the two labels. There is a lot of difference between prose and mass-media SF -- not simply where science content is concerned, but in countless ways. Generally the mass-media content is for a more general audience, and so there are a lot of things it just doesn't take nearly as far as prose SF does. There's less in-depth exploration of ideas and exotica, less of the sort of things that an experienced lit-SF audience would be primed for but a more general audience might find off-putting. For instance, there's prose SF whose protagonists are far removed from being human, whose values are very different from those of our society, whose environments are staggeringly alien. You won't really find that in mass-media SF because that audience needs more familiar protagonists that are easier to identify with. So the concepts tend to be more basic, the plot and character tropes more familiar, the SF or fantasy elements a smaller part of the whole. And while there is certainly a lot of prose SF/fantasy that blurs the lines between the genres, it's rarer to find film or TV material that doesn't blur them to some extent. Again, the latter is aiming for a broader, mass audience, less niche-oriented, and so it tends to encompass a broader range of ideas that get blended together. Countless people, critics, magazines, bookstores, etc. use the term "sci-fi" to encompass SF, fantasy, horror, sometimes even stuff like James Bond movies -- the whole continuum of fantastic/genre fiction perceived as a blended whole.

So while the terms "sci-fi" and "science fiction" do certainly overlap in meaning, it's fair to say that "sci-fi" is a term that can be used a lot more broadly -- that has been used in pop culture for decades to encompass all fantastic fiction whether it's science-based or not. So I think it's useful to draw a distinction between "science fiction" as a more precise category and "sci-fi" as a looser, broader label.

And apparently the people who decided on the name "The SciFi Channel" felt the same way. I wish I could cite the interview I read a couple of decades ago wherein the channel's executives explained their thinking about the difference in meaning between "SciFi" and "Science Fiction," so I could prove that I'm not presenting my opinion, but relaying theirs. What I recall them explaining is that they chose "SciFi" because they felt it was a less restrictive and literal label for their network than "Science Fiction," that it would better convey the broader, more flexible programming range they intended.

Although clearly it failed to do so, since people still had the impression they were supposed to be only science fiction, and that's part of why they changed to "Syfy" -- not as a change of policy, as some assume, but as a clarification of what their policy had been all along. Although you still hear people making the same complaint -- "Why call it Syfy if it's not just science fiction?"
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