Monday, July 27, 2009

Sci-Fi vs SF vs SyFy

The decision that the Sc-Fi Network be changed to "Syfy" seems to be part of a larger system of rebranding, and also rethinking the relationship between the name and the thing -- MTV has not played music for years (I don't even think MTV2 does either), KFC tried out "Kitchen Fresh Chicken," the History Channel plays Ice Road Truckers (which I guess is history in the larger sense of "it happened") and once played The Planet of the Apes. Back when it was the Sci-Fi channel it played Cabin Fever which has no science fiction element at all. I feel sort of fine with all this, but I can see how it might drive some people crazy.

The thing that sets the SyFy thing apart a bit is that often Sci-Fi people are sticklers for accuracy -- from the accuracy of hard sci-fi ("How does the Warp Drive work") to the accuracy of an internally consistent world building ("Everyone must return to the island. Everyone. Except I guess not Walt for some reason"). Names matter to Sci-fi fans: I once got into a conversation where I was told a female looking android should be called a "gynoid" (since "andros" means "man"). Sci-fi Fans are also pretty serious about branding a lot of the time -- the "Batman" brand has to mean Bruce Wayne, and "Captain America" brand has to mean "Steve Rogers" -- and the comic book companies know this, which is why these two characters will never die, even when they appear to. Combined with the social standing of science fiction fans, the decision to brand Sci-Fi as SyFy (I imagine) would feel to a lot of people like someone who is insulting and ditching their small group of friends because it will help them make more friends with a larger, more popular group.

But this reminded me that among some sci-fi fans the term sci-fi is itself verboten -- I was once told to use SF, as sci-fi is insulting, a claim I had never heard before, and have only heard about once since. I take it that people in the past have used "sci-fi" as an insulting term, and so maybe tainted it, but to rebrand as "SF" as a result seems to be a similar move as the one that resulted in the SyFy channel. I have heard it described in terms that sound to me like the ones used to discuss racial epithets, it has been used for years to demean the genre and so on, and we should not encouraged the continued use of this nasty term (perhaps someone out there has a counter argument that it should be rehabilitated and embraced).

"Sci-fi" feels normal and unpretentious to me, but I think I like it most of all because I don't want to be the guy telling other people what it should be called, because that seems fussy to me. But maybe I am not appreciating some aspect of this debate. Do folks around here have an opinion on the subject?

17 comments:

Christian said...

Much like some people complain about the term "comics," because most comics aren't comidical anymore and should really be refered to as Graphic novels or Sequential Art.

I have no problem with these terms, but I'd hate to think that the word comics should be stigmatized.

scott91777 said...

Good Post Geoff,

I was wondering what was up with the 'SyFy' rebranding... They have had Pro-Wrestling on the Channel For Some time and that has even less to do with Science Fiction than Pro-Wrestling.

Maybe they should just call it 'Geek' network? Wouldn't that truly be the best term for a network that caters to Fantasy, Science Fiction, Horror and Wrestling?

One of the strangest rebranding evolutions I can remeber was how Spike TV came into being...

Before it was Spike TV it was 'The National Network' (America's Pop-Culture Network' TNN... but, before that, TNN stood for The NASHVILLE Network! It was a country music network (MTV for country). I remember one day flipping through channels and thinking 'Why is Wrath of Kahn on The Nashville Network'? Apparently, even CMT may soon undergo a similar change as they play movies, usually somehow related to country music: O, Brother Where Art Thou, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, 9 To 5... various westerns... but, on a couple of recent occasions, they have been playing Police Academy (if there's a country music connection here I'm missing, someone please tell me).

Along the same lines, I'm reminded how 'Weapons of Mass Destruction' was so played up when we first Invaded Iraq. However, as we became unable to find them, 'Weapons of Mass Destruction'
(a fairly ambiguous term in itself) was, more and more often, shortened to WMDs. Sure, it's easier to say than 'Weapons of Mass Destruction' but it also seems less important. Personally, I think they should have pulled a KFC and just completed the rebranding proccess and started calling them 'Wacky Monkey Dildos'... I would not be at all alarmed at our inability to find those :)

Kyle said...

SF stands for speculative fiction and is more inclusive of fantasy, alternate history, utopia, dystopia, etc. I always took the preference to be an accuracy thing.

neilshyminsky said...

Christian: I hate the term 'graphic novel' precisely because it stigmatizes 'comic' and 'comic book'. And because it's needlessly pretentious.

(I recall reading a Roger Ebert review where he said something to the effect of 'some comics are good enough to be called graphic novels', to which I responded: fuck you.)

Anagramsci said...

I hope we can all agree that "graphic novel" is the dumbest term ever coined. Since when does the word novel convey "quality"? (which is presumably what these twits are aiming for) Most novels are pretty goddamned horrible. WACOUSTA is a novel for christ's sake!

In fact, from now on, I move that all pretentious douches in the comics world add the term "Graphic Wacoustas" to their sad little lexicons...

"Literary Comics" is nearly as bad. "Literary" doesn't mean "GOOD"/worthwhile (although many people in the prose world use it this way too), it simply means "having to do with books"

Dave

James said...

Dave - I read it every day, but Journalista's demarcation of "pop comics" and "literary comics" is such arbitrary, transparently snide bullshit it drives me bizzonkers.

Kieron Gillen summed it up really rather well in his review of an indie computer game called The Path:

You only really work out what something should be called after a name's codified. Names for mediums are always kind of made up on the fly. "Novel" has a particularly tortured history as a word. Comics comes from the fact they were the funny pages in the paper - but soon became anything but. A century down the line, they realised they should call comics "sequential narrative", which cuts to the core of what the medium is. It'll never stick, because it's so bloody ugly and there's already a name everyone knows. C'est la vie. We're stuck with novels, comics and games - and novels that aren't novel, comics which aren't comic and videogames which aren't...

shlomo said...

movies vs. films

Mikey said...

Eh, I never got the big deal. And it never seemed particularly pretentious to me. If something is like a novel, but in pictures and not just words, then if you do need a distinguishing adjective I can think of worse than 'graphic.'

Graphic novels are different to comics. A graphic novel usually features things like a self-contained plot that develops over time (or is that space?), recurring motifs, and depth of character development and progression over the course of a narrative. Also, long. Things that traditionally denote, y'know, prose novels. The fact that most novels are bullshit is not really a problem - most graphic novels are bullshit too. And so are most comic books.

Comic books can contain the above features as well, of course, but don't have to by definition. Works that go on to be termed 'graphic novels' are (usually) designed with that in mind, and to be read as a coherent whole by the author (writer? artist? cartoonist? graphic novelist?), as opposed to an ongoing serialised story or set of stories.

If it pisses you off as a cumbersome marketing term then fair play, but if you get worried that this somehow does comics a disservice or is somehow insulting to the medium then you should probably check yourself, lest you wreck yourself.

Anagramsci said...

I wouldn't say it pisses me off, 'cause I like to make fun of things, and this one just gives and gives

I think Mikey provides just about the best possible defense of the term, and even knows it's weak... many of the most important "novels" actually were released in serialized form--and many of them (i.e. the early works of Dickens) were composed without any real idea of where the narrative was headed

a novel (as distinguished from a romance or an epic) is a long prose work that aims to describe quotidian life--that's it

Mikey said...

Yeah, I agree. It is weak when you start thinking about it. Ever thus.

The thing I would say about the argument that some novels now considered prestigious were originally serialised is that most people cite Dickens but are hard pushed to think of any other examples, myself included. Wasn't Catcher In the Rye serialised for a bit?

I spent an undue amount of time thinking about this in a previous half-assed academic life and it always ended up with me just bursting into tears. The more you break it down the more you have to start endlessly qualifying and reframing everything. It's why I'm happy to take the term at face value and just desperately ignore all the underlying complexities.

plok said...

The sc-fi thing's an old one, and it's about insisting it isn't silly kid stuff...it had a couple interesting passages though. Starting in about the later Sixties, several well-known authors tried to elevate their field by identifying fantasy as just the sort of "kid stuff" their field (ideally) wasn't composed of...relegating "inferior" science fiction to the ranks of fantasy along the way. "Speculative fiction" was, if I recall right, Harlan Ellison's contribution to this debate -- a term not meant to be inclusive of fantasy, as fantasy really had no "speculative" element according to the dogma back then, and that's how you could tell the two apart.

Which used to be important to many; now, not so much. Thank goodness! Except "sci-fi" still has a little bit of a mocking edge to it, I think. Useful, if that's what you want to put forward! And maybe somewhat useful the other way 'round too: a friend of mine who isn't into comics makes quite an obvious effort to say "graphic novel", and doesn't notice me fidgeting when she does it...she's trying to say she doesn't think I'm a moron. I must remember to tell her it doesn't really come out right: and that I don't need any fancy-shmancy justification for my pleasures, guilty or otherwise.

But, it's a nice gesture for her to make, I guess.

A similar thing happened with music in the early Eighties: when the Rock section was all the way across the record store from the Pop section, which was still filled with Bing Crosby and stuff. There was a minor rebellion: who the fuck listens to Bing Crosby anymore, how is that "popular"? You can see the outcome today in the designation Rock/Pop, and hear the same argument carried out again between parents and kids...only now the parents are all like "Pop means the Pixies", and the kids all shake their heads, because nobody listens to that old junk anymore Mr. AlternaDad...

That early Eighties argument also established the "alternative"/"mainstream" polarity that (I hope) today we find so silly.

I never think to say "graphic novel".

plok said...

But oh Good Lord here I am again a thread-killer -- the cool kids have moved on to other much more sexy fascinations.

Seriously for the erudition here displayed, it should go deeper than just "diffing" opinions. There ought to be differing opinions on most of these posts...!

Sorry, expressing emotion. Wedding; champagne; rocky ride home. But come now. Please, I'll give you a topic that oughtta be easy: what did you think of "Big Trouble In Little China"?

I guess this sounds sort of angry, Geoff...please feel free to delete it. But you know I AM angry: people abandon discussions so easily here, that they ought to care about. I can't figure that one. Bloody mystery.

My suggestion: make an occasional post that isn't a FREE-FORM, but a MANDATORY-FORM: i.e. "I, Geoff, was interested in where this was going...please folks start up this discussion again if you don't mind."

Actually may I suggest "I, Geoff!" as a recurring title for posts?

"I, Geoff! find it remarkable that there is a FIRST San Francisco car-chase movie..."

"I, Geoff! think that this forty-comment-deep conversation about identity that no one is paying attention to anymore is FUCKING COOL ACTUALLY...!"

"I, Geoff! am far more interested in the desperate and shitty phase of the Happy Days program than the good and comprehensible phase, because I feel that Happy Days, like the Beatles, in the end broke linearism apart like a walnut shell. Though no one now lives, who remembers it..."

Okay, rant over. But consider it, Geoff. You so rarely weigh in on long threads. Surely there must be SOME of them that tickle your teaching lobe.

Okay pardon me I've been offensive. Ordinarily on the Internet one can't take anything back. However occasionally it can be done, if the person is nice enough, or receives sufficient IOUs.

I am hoping that's me, one way or another.

Geoff Klock said...

Plok -- Jason Powell has impressed me with always responding to everyone nicely on the internet and I totally think that is the way to go. So you can be the guy with sufficient IOUs, and we will all decide you have not been offensive.

by "Seriously for the erudition here displayed, it should go deeper than just "diffing" opinions. There ought to be differing opinions on most of these posts...!" do you mean that you want to see people engaging each other more, rather than just weighing in? I can see the sense in that. but what to do about your claim that people abandon discussion that they "ought" to care about? For one thing, I am not sure that a lack of comment is a lack of care -- I read things on the internet all day; if not commenting on them meant I did not care about them I would be wasting a huge amount of my time.

You are right that I rarely weigh in on long threads, but I feel that the obligation to weigh in is going to end the way academic publishing ends -- the tenure requirements say we must publish, and if we are not sure we have a well formulated book length statement that is just too bad: it's publish a book or be fired and blackballed. So academics continue to put out scholarship that often the authors themselves don't care that much about glutting the market with books no one has time to read.

If you were to claim that the act of TRYING to say something might end in something smart being said, I agree, and I think you are right that I should make more of an effort to participate. It is just a lot of the time I don't have that strong an opinion, and don't want to waste everyone's time, when my opinions are generic. For example, the sci-fi vs SF debate -- that post was put up because, as I think I said, I just don't see how people get so fired up about it. My lack of affect in the comments sort of springs out of that because no one in the comments convinced me that I should, say, passionately defend SF and demand people stop saying sci fi as it is an insult to my people.

I will say that I HAVE encouraged people in the past to return to conversations that were started -- the Dark Knight Review spawned several comments that I upgraded to posts themselves, which then got their own comments, for example. I used to do comment pull quotes and maybe I should go back to that.

And when I think some conversation is "FUCKING COOL ACTUALLY" I upgrade it to the toolbar on the right under Best of the Blog: Conversations. I did it when I free form comment post became a JJ Abrams v Whedon debate. I don't know what would be a higher approval of a conversation than giving it a permanent link on the home page of my central website.

And I have posts where I have opinions. I GEOFF Thought Star Trek was great! I Geoff thought Wolverine was Terrible.

(this response is going to have to be in two parts, since i just discovered a Max character limit on comments I did not know about and do not understand).

Geoff Klock said...

pt 2

The main thing I find troubling is the sense that people are abandoning conversations they "ought" to care about. Keeping in mind what I said before about how caring does not always equal comments, I don't quite know what to do with this. Obviously you are being ironic when you joke about "Mandatory-Form Comment Posts" but that is the crux of it -- either people care, or they don't, either they comment or they don't. No one around here has any ability to make people care about subjects other than the writing skills that are already on display. I don't think just telling people they ought to care is going to do much good. You are of course more than welcome to do some guest blogging here to try to get readers to care about what you want them to care about -- I am totally open to that. It's what we all do here, I think.

Finally -- yeah, I can be lazy. Intellectually lazy. Because a blog isn't a rigorously thought out book or even an essay collection. Web content needs to go up often or the site gets lost, which is why I brought in guest bloggers -- because everyone blogging alone means everyone has less traffic, and it is fun to have some regular folks here that you know are going to be here. A blog is more like a public journal, which means that often times things are just being tried out -- I know a lot of my posts are unsuccessful. But every once and a while I get something I am really proud of like the post about 3D glasses, so I keep at it irregularly. Emerson and Coleridge had journals, and most of it was not gold. A lot of aborted stuff in there.

And of course I have other, non-blogging and even non-internet responsibilities. You would have to call this thing sort of a hobby since I don't get paid to do it, and don't expect to.

I guess I am not sure what else you are looking for from me.

plok said...

I did not deserve such a well thought-out response from you, Geoff -- I posted in a sort of a crazed state and regretted it as soon as I became aware of having done it. I very much enjoy reading your thoughts, and the thoughts of your various contributors and commenters. I return to this blog again and again because I find it unusually stimulating, and also everyone is civil and nice and interested in what they talk about...and I had a big GASM of some sort just recently here, and though I've apologized to you over email, I feel all your readers and contributors and commenters deserve an apology too, and a public one...should they be reading this.

Guys, you belong to the GOOD group of the people talking on the Internet -- and I stepped way out of line, and I apologize to you for sullying the good mood around here. I won't try to excuse it; but please know I wouldn't choose it again, if I had it to do over.

You folks go on; I'll keep reading. And again, my sincerest apologies for being a goof here, in this pleasant online space.

Anonymous said...

Coming in VERY late to the party, but it seems to me the difference between Sci-Fi and SF is whether you are a fan of Literary Science Fiction: (IE Stapledon, Wells, Huxley, Orwell, Clarke, Asimov, et al )dealing with the world of ideas (technology's affect on society, what is the nature of Life, of Humanity, of Reality, etc.) or are of a general audience only exposed to the genre through pop-culture Movies and TV. It may be snobbish, but when someone uses one term or the other, I know whether they are "inside" or "outside."
Funny, I didn't realize I was a snob.
Now when it comes to Trekkies or Trekkers however.....

Anonymous said...

Didn't Shakespeare write "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet"?