On this week’s Coode Street podcast Jonathan Strahan surprised me rather by saying that he hates the term “specifc” (and also variants such as “speculative fiction”). Given that I use it quite a lot, I was interested to understand why.
In context, Jonathan explained that he encounters the term most often as a whitewash phrase used by people who don’t want to admit that they are having anything to do with science fiction. So, for example, a university English department might offer courses in “speculative fiction” in order to avoid the opprobrium that would be heaped upon them for teaching “science fiction”.
Jonathan and Gary also discussed the term “sci-fi”, which was roundly hated amongst fandom until very recently for similar but opposite reasons. The theory was that anyone who used “sci-fi” rather than “science fiction” was a froth-at-the-mouth fanboy who was only interested in films and television, and was probably unable to actually read books. People who used the term “sci-fi” gave respectable science fiction fans a bad name, and “sci-fi” was used as a term of abuse by the media, just as “queer” was used to insult homosexuals.
However, language changes and evolves. The term “queer” has been largely reclaimed, though there are still people in the LGBT community who regard it as offensive. And “sci-fi” is in such common usage now that younger fans see no problem in adopting it.
Jonathan wondered whether “specfic” was another generational issue given that his friends from the Galactic Suburbia podcast use it a lot. But I’m older than Jonathan, so I have no excuse on those grounds.
You may be wondering whether, because Salon Futura is aimed at broad minded mainstream readers as well as the science fiction community, I might be using “specfic” for precisely the reasons that Jonathan suggests — in order to avoid people having to confront the awful truth that they actually read science fiction. Actually, however, my reasons are rather different. I like “specfic” because it is a useful umbrella term.
To start with it is a lot shorter than having to write “science fiction, fantasy, horror and related literatures”. Of course you could rightly point out that the term “science fiction” is often used in exactly that sort of umbrella fashion. However, I have got very tired over the years of people who insist that whenever “science fiction” is used it can only ever mean “science fiction”, not anything that they do not accept as falling under that term. I’m talking about the sort of people who insist that, because the Hugo Awards are given out by the World Science Fiction Society at the World Science Fiction Convention then they must only be for science fiction, not fantasy or indeed anything that Hugo Gernsback would not have recognized as properly scientific, despite the fact that is says clearly in the WSFS constitution that works of fantasy are eligible.
I am also very wary of the practice of using the name of a majority or most active subgroup in a community as an umbrella term for that community. For example, you should not use “English” to mean “British”. I also wince when I see people use “transgender” as an umbrella word for the trans community, particularly if I think they are using it to imply that transsexuals are deluded and politically unacceptable. So I try to use umbrella terms that are more neutral. Of course no word is perfect, and the fact that “specfic” abbreviates to SF is bound to annoy fantasy fans. I could use Clute’s term, “Fantasktika”, But unlike many Clute neologisms that one hasn’t really caught on, and would upset science fiction fans. Specfic has a certain pedigree, and has the cachet of having been coined by Heinlein.
None of this will last, of course. Language evolves very quickly. In 50 years time those of you still alive then may find everyone using Fantastika, or that distinctions between science fiction and mainstream literature have gone away because everyone writes it. One day back issues of Salon Futura may be re-issued with every occurrence of the hideously offensive world “specfic” altered to “sci-fi”. But for now I shall continue to use specfic. Sorry Jonathan.