Language and Identity, SF-Style

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.

8 thoughts on “Language and Identity, SF-Style

  1. Let’s see. How to react…

    Specfic is just fine. Most “science fiction” isn’t science-based, it’s high-tech fantasy.

    Specfic is just fine. If we succeed at claiming it, stuffy academics and elitists will have to make up new words to try to exclude us.

    Specfic is crap. Fiction that isn’t speculative is, well, nonfiction.

    But sci-fi? I thought we all hated “sci-fi” because it was Forry Ackerman’s attempt to secretly take control of fandom and wrest it away from the New York elites.

  2. “Fantastika” is a Russian word used for SF/F without differentiating the two; Clute did not coin the term (and it’s not a neologism.)

    1. Ah, thank you!

      Though I still think that outside Russia using that word to include science fiction will irritate a lot of fans.

  3. As Kathy has explained what “Fantastika” means, I quite like that! I like “specfic”, but I always feel a little awkward using it because I feel like I’m doing down my genre, in a Margaret Atwood “I don’t write fantasy, I write “speculative fiction”” fashion. The trouble is, the minute you say you write fantasy to a non SF crowd, the response is either “What, like J K Rowling?”, or, my personal favourite, *rubs greasy palms together* “You mean SEXUAL fantasies?” (apparently in some people’s grubby heads, fantasy = erotica.)

    1. Yeah, but writing erotica is probably more socially acceptable than writing science fiction. At least erotica writers are assumed to have sex lives.

  4. My main reason for hating (ok, strongly disliking–hatred is too strong a word) the term “speculative literature” is that I think it _doesn’t_ serve as a useful umbrella term, because of the ways it is being used.

    Shortly after emerging into widespread use, I’ve seen people use it in publications and interviews (many of them writers who describe their work) to mean either:
    – science fiction and fantasy,
    – science fiction, fantasy, and supernatural horror,
    – science fiction, fantasy, and all horror, supernatural or not,
    – “socially acceptable” fantastic literature, i.e. science fiction and fantasy for those who don’t want to be associated with science fiction or fantasy
    – fiction that isn’t quite mimetic, but definitely isn’t full-blown sf & f (explicitly excluding those from specfic)
    – mundane fantasy
    – “good” (with literal ambitions) science fiction and fantasy (excluding things like pulp, space opera, and epic fantasy)

    I think there might have been other uses as well. In fact, the only thing the people seemed to agree on was that it is good we now have a clear and well-defined term to use instead of some vague or too broad term like “science fiction”. 🙂

  5. One truth that is self-evident is that all it takes is a mere mention of terminology when it comes to genre fiction to see that although we may (and I say this loosely) all enjoy a similar kind of fiction, we certainly have a hard time agreeing on proper terminology. Yikes!

    I just got into a Looooooong discussion with a gentleman the other day over my use of the phrase “sci fi”. Although we are both in our 40’s (so I wouldn’t consider myself young), I grew up associating the term positively with a genre that I love. I did not grow up around ANY readers who read science fiction regularly and was completely oblivious to the hatred of the phrase, its history, or the fact that it is used in the industry as a derogatory term. For me it was the term that described what I was passionate about and was itself something of an umbrella term. I have since realized that it behooves me to be better informed about this community that I profess to belong to and perhaps rethink my use of the phrase.

    I don’t like ‘speculative fiction’ either, mostly for similar reasons that Jonathan pointed out in the podcast. My interpretation of the way it is often used is similar to those who feel the need to use “graphic novel” to describe what they are reading because they are embarrassed to admit that they are reading comic books. I don’t care what others think about what I read so I see no real reason to cater my language to them. But I don’t feel super strongly about it. I’ve used ‘speculative fiction’ myself. It isn’t my preferred phrase though.

    And wasn’t it in a podcast a few weeks back that Jonathan and/or Gary mentioned that they prefer Hugos to go to works of science fiction? 🙂

    1. You are so right. And now Cat Valente has done a blog post about how much she hates “speculative fiction,” so next time I use it I guess I’ll have a horde of Cat’s fans descend upon me to chastise me.

      I’d be happy to use a different term if anyone could come up with one that people were happy with but, as you say, we much prefer to argue about it.

      And yes, Jonathan did say he would only nominate “science fiction” for the Hugos, whatever that means.

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