Explanatory Notes on SF Conventions #1

A couple of days back I made a throwaway comment on this weblog about the need to describe the differences between SF conventions and the normal literary festivals most people are familiar with. So take this as the first couple of steps towards that goal.

Science fiction is usually abbreviated as "sf" or "SF" (pronounced "ess-eff") by afficiandos, and as "sci-fi" (pronounced "sky-fy") by others. This last term is generally considered to be derogatory in nature, and is sometimes pronounced "skiffy" to increase the emphasis. I'm not sure where the term "sci-fi" came from, but seem to recall reading somewhere that it originated in the mainstream media in the 1950s to complement the term "hi-fi". A marketing abbrevation in other words. The general rule here is don't use it.

I've linked to the Wikipedia article on sf above, not so much because I believe each word of it but just to give you an indication of what sort of work fits under the genre's label. Any attempt at a clear and inclusive defintion of sf has always failed; there is always someone who will come up with a work that falls just outside the definition but which most people would consider as sf. Basically anything fantastical, futuristic, off-world or historically divergent is covered. Most people who consider themselves "non-readers" of the genre would be amazed at some of the books that are considered part of the canon: Frankenstein by Shelley, 1984 by Orwell, Brave New World by Huxley, Fahrenheit 451 by Bradbury, Jurassic Park by Crichton, The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, most of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, and even Illywhacker by Peter Carey, which was nominated for a World Fantasy Award. I could, and will, argue the case for each of these. If you really wanted to push the point, sf is really just a sub-set of the much larger genre of "fantasy". But in the twentieth century the "fantasy" label started to pertain to a particular section of the literary landscape - think Tolkein and his ilk - and "science fiction" came to be the predominant and overarching term in common use. Again, this was probably a labelling issue which started in the 1920s with the advent of US fiction magazines styling themselves as specifically science fiction.

These days when we say science fiction, we also include horror (just about all of Stephen King for example), high or epic fantasy (Tolkein and Robert Jordan), cyberpunk and steampunk (Gibson and Sterling), alternate history (sometimes called "counterfactuals"), space opera (Iain M. Banks and Star Wars), superhero fiction (Superman and X-Men), and even, in some part, the literary sub-genre of magic realism.

It's a broad church; just about anything fits. Which probably goes some way to describing the philosophy behind sf conventions. But more on that next time.

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on August 19, 2008 2:46 PM.

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