Thursday, November 10, 2005

How to be hip to science fiction writers

From a letter to the editor of the Anchorage Press:
I was glad to see Brandon Seifert's article on Fairbanks science fiction writer David Marusek ("Everyday science fiction," November 3). David is an amazingly cool guy and a brilliant writer, deserving of fame, fortune and almost 72 inches of copy in Alaska's hippest newspaper.

Alas, Mr. Seifert used a phrase I've come to expect from other, less hip Alaska newspapers: "sci fi." We poor science fiction writers have been fighting that silly little slang term since the 1950s. I once saw the producer of Star Wars booed at a World Science Fiction convention when he said "sci fi" - and this was when he was accepting a special award. There's no quicker way to demonstrate ignorance of the field than to say "sci fi." If you want to be hip, write "sf," pronounced "es-sef."

Not that it's a big deal. Sf writers have suffered far worse indignities, starting with the perception that what we write is mindless, silly fluff. Of course, a lot of it is, but not what David Marusek writes. The guy's a genius.

Still, a little respect would be nice. Get the slang right. Don't blunder in with an insult. Newspapers can drill Associated Press style into their writers, so you'd think they'd learn how to be science-fictionally correct. It would be way cool if the Press made "sci fi" uncool in its house style except when referring to incredibly sleazy 1950s B movies.

Michael Armstrong, member
Science fiction and Fantasy Writers of America
And here's the accompanying mea culpa:
Editor's note: Brandon Seifert used the term "SF" as well as "sci-fi" in his copy. Then an editor, who feared that some people might think Seifert was talking about San Francisco, "fixed it."
Normally, I'd laugh the letter writer right out of this blog. It's better to be accurate than use "hip" terminology, sir.

But there just might, if you look hard enough, be a lesson here. Was there any real reason a reader would mistake SF for San Francisco? (After reading the original piece, I'd say no, despite the subject having attended a California college.)

I think it's interesting that sci-fi writers hate the term "sci fi." A little insider information can be good when you're trying to offer a window into another world.


At 8:07 PM, November 10, 2005, Anonymous leebert said...

I'm gonna go to SF to one of those SF conventions.

At 10:11 PM, November 10, 2005, Blogger Bill said...

What a silly funt.

At 1:09 AM, November 11, 2005, Blogger Etaoin Shrdlu said...

The letter still contains quite a laugher, at least for a copy editor:

Newspapers can drill Associated Press style into their writers, so you'd think they'd learn how to be science-fictionally correct.

At 1:42 AM, November 11, 2005, Blogger MarkDM said...

The term "speculative fiction" got kicked around a few years ago as a possible replacement for "sci fi." Can't imagine why it wasn't a huge hit. "Speculative fiction." Yeah, just rolls right off the tongue.

At 1:48 AM, November 11, 2005, Blogger Nicole said...

But they'd still get to keep that snappy SF initialism!

At 8:55 AM, November 11, 2005, Anonymous Ted said...

Sci-fi is to SF
as Trekkie is to ...

At 12:08 PM, November 11, 2005, Anonymous Mock Turtle said...

... Trekker!
(what did I win, what did I win?)

I'm surprised that the letter writer did not also provide the phonetic spelling of SF fans' disdainful pronunciation of "sci-fi" ... it's "skiffy."

At 12:01 AM, November 12, 2005, Anonymous Philip said...

"Speculative fiction" seems like a useful term, but not as a synonym for science fiction. People use it to mean science fiction, fantasy, alternate history and much of horror.

At 10:29 PM, July 25, 2006, Blogger DJ Ten Ninjas said...


I did a vanity search on Google today to see what my dopplegangers are up to (there's a Brandon Seifert in West Virginia concerned about going bald, and one in England who's involved in movies), and I discovered this.

I found this letter amusing and frustrating, because he assumed I didn't know anything about science fiction... when the whole reason I wrote it in the first place is that I've been an avid SF fan since I was a kid, and read my first Marusek story at 16.

My copy did indeed include both "sci-fi" and "SF." The first time I wrote the words "sci-fi," I knew I'd be pissing off fans -- but fans weren't my audience, the general public was, and the general public understands "sci-fi" over SF. I considered explaining that SF is the preferred form in the genre, but I was over word-count to begin with and, honestly, I've always found the whole debate inane and misguided. If the genre has a bad reputation, it isn't because the genre's nickname rhymes.

- Brandon Seifert, formerly of the Anchorage Press

At 10:42 PM, July 25, 2006, Blogger DJ Ten Ninjas said...

Hmm. Re-reading your post, I seem to have missed the point.

You have a point. When I interviewed the author he used several bits of genre-terminology ("the Singularity" and "Gray Goo" especially) that would've needed rather in-depth explanations and didn't seem necessary for a profile, so in the end I just tried to avoid jargon altogether. Whether that was the right decision or not, I don't know.

- Brandon Seifert

At 11:48 PM, July 25, 2006, Blogger Nicole said...

Brandon, I don't think you misunderstood the post. The best-case scenario would be to use sci-fi (the term readers most easily understand) throughout the piece with a mention that people in the industry use SF.

The lesson I referred to was for your copy editors. It's one thing to change a term for consistency's sake. And it's good to change terms most readers won't understand. But I find it hard to believe that "SF," once explained, could be confused for "San Francisco" in that context. (Perhaps it was the right change, but for the wrong reason.)

I like it when pieces teach about jargon without falling victim to it.


Post a Comment

<< Home