Editorial – December 2013: Category be thy name.

December 1, 2013 | By | Reply More

Category be thy name.

Hello everyone

It’s a singular human tradition to put things into categories. No doubt this helps find things in our own memories than having to recall everything in detail like…well, like I do here from time to time. Even we geeks aren’t immune to this. One only has to look at how we categorise Science Fiction.

The works of Mary Shelley, HG Wells and Jules Verne were never actually called Science Fiction. In the beginning there was only scientific romance, nothing to do with romance, it was a Victorian thing. The label wasn’t even capped. It wasn’t until the mid-1920s when Hugo Gernsback defined our genre as Science Fiction that it covered stories with a science bent with a twist of the fantastic to differentiate it from fantasy which didn’t need science and was defined by magic with no set rule structure. It clearly made the dividing line between SF and fantasy so the two wouldn’t be confused.

The category wouldn’t have changed until 1954 when Forrest Ackerman decided to play his puns on the name abbreviating Science Fiction to ‘Sci-Fi’ to comparing it to ‘Hi-Fi’. Quite how a fiction genre could be compared to a stereo system beats me. The media got wind of it and the name stuck far more than SF did. I wonder if reporters chose it over SF simply because they could pronounce it better? I mean was ‘SF’ pronounced as initials as we call it or as an odd word? ‘Sci-Fi’ became like the pronunciation test for the media and it stuck…unfortunately. However, as the media called both good and bad genre ‘Sci-Fi’, it ultimately became the name for poor or hack material so some good or rather bad came of it without having to invent anything else for the title. At least we were spared the high-fidelity comparison from the general media.

pulpy pulp

With the division, two further divides were made in recent decades. ‘Hard SF’ is Science Fiction that applies only existing rules of science. So that means no faster-than-light travel or time travel or anything outside of our current scientific knowledge which makes it a little harder to write and hence the ‘Hard’ moniker.

For those wondering, ‘Soft SF’ is not the reverse of ‘Hard SF’ and everything can be done. Often this is used to denote the softer sciences or the more social aspects of change without worrying to much about briefing the reader of any advances or changes to our reality to make the story work.

Outside to those two definitions, there are at least another ten categories because Science Fiction covers such a wide subject area. All of it, with the exception of science fantasy, falls under my definition in that if you modify your reality then you have to remain true to the alteration without cheating the reader and pulling out an unexplained gadget to solve the story. No wonder the general media doesn’t understand us! There just aren’t that made divisions in other genres other than being set in different time periods.

Science Fiction is actually a very large field and can embrace aspects of all other genres within it without missing a heartbeat. If you look at the war story genre where the authors use a war as a backdrop for a fictitious story, then really they are actually entering SF alternative realities from the opposite direction. I doubt if SF readers would see that, mostly because we would raise the scale and see the consequences of the action across the war itself.

Anyway, that’s just to bring anyone not knowing the difference up to speed. What I’m really pointing out is no part of our society is immune to putting things into categories. Everything is categorised as something or other. A label makes for a quick identification than an elaborate definition providing, of course, that you know what the definition is and a gentle wince when you discover those who don’t and try to explain the difference. With Science Fiction, it isn’t that difficult to know the outsiders from those in the know, simply by what they call it. Even those who write around the subject aren’t always conversant with the categories and quickly fall into the trap of general opinion.

Too often, labels are often used to incite prejudice as much as categorisation. They can also cause confusion when something can’t be placed in a recognised category. As with the Science Fiction example above, when sub-categories were needed, they came into being to tell things apart because there were significant differences. The general population has a harder time with that and often the labels, such as calling car fanatics ‘petrol-heads’, comes from an insult rather than a decent label. Oddly, such fans adopted rather than felt insulted by such a label. Then again, the original image of an SF fan was a geek wearing milk-top glasses and a beanie with a propeller on the top. I’ve only ever seen one photo like that and that was of a pro-SF writer sending the image up at a late 50s USA SF convention. I suppose we should be grateful that said photo never appeared in the newspapers. However, it’s an image that didn’t fit SF fans…ever! Thankfully, it was ignored over the passage of time. A geek SF fan is known far more by their knowledge of the subject and the size of their collection than apparel, although those with that bent always turn up at SF conventions for the fancy dress party might belie that.

Even the term ‘geek’ isn’t all encompassing as I’m pretty sure that a lot of you reading here wouldn’t see yourselves under that category as you just enjoy Science Fiction for its own sake, before putting it back in the closet when you go to work. A geek is seen as someone who just encompasses any medium as a whole although I would tend to prefer the label of ‘expert’ because it is so knowledge based. I tend to be geeky than geek because I have a much wider level of tastes and knowledge over a wide range of subjects. All that proves is categories are for ease of identification than being totally accurate.

From my background in General Semantics, labels are like maps, a representation of reality, NOT the actual reality itself. As such nothing ever fits a label perfectly, so I’ve accepted things that way. It’s just a convenience, NOT a truth. We live in an imprecise reality and our brains are just making sense of the chaos. It might not be perfect but then again, what is? The best lesson is to never believe a label is a perfect fit, just somewhere to start hanging the differences from. Loving its impreciseness and seeking ever better clarification will make better sense of the world we live in. It might even make better labels, especially since I tend to find the label ‘human’ so imprecise. As long as we remember that a label isn’t everything about a subject but only a starting point to identify something then we shouldn’t go far wrong.

Sorted or am I putting this editorial into a category now?


Thank you, take care, good night and let me be the first to say happy new year.

2014 might not be any better but it has to be capable of beating 2013.

Geoff Willmetts

editor: SFCrowsnest.org.uk


A Zen thought: If winter is the time for reflection, why isn’t there more light so we can see the mirror?


Observation: In 1990 film ‘Predator 2’, it is noted that the alien hunter made a temporary home for himself in the Los Angeles meat district where he has a taste for beef. Now considering that much of this beef is frozen, it would mean he would have had to thaw it before eating. Granted, the hunter’s weaponry contains several heating appliances, I wonder what setting he had them on? When he thawed his side of beef, did he eat his meat raw or keep going until it was cooked? Was he breathing his gas mixture between bites? Come to that, why not go home for a meal, considering how close his spaceship was and him depositing skulls in the trophy room or invite his clan around for a barbecue, which must have been tempting considering they must have been eating ship rations.




Category: Culture, Scifi

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About UncleGeoff

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’
If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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