Exhibit A in the ways pop culture nostalgia affects my work with speculative literature: I’m OK with the term “Sci-Fi.”
A lot of folks working in SF hate the label. They see it as a dismissive term, used by those who don’t grasp the complexities of SF as a genre or who can’t think past old ways of viewing commercial fiction (especially SF) as “trash.” When a newspaper profiled the Center for the Study of Science Fiction Writers Workshop the year I attended it, the article latched onto many members’ disdain for the term; I believe the resulting headline was “Just Don’t Call it ‘Sci Fi.'”
But I like the term, partly because of my interest in pop music and car culture. As a kid, when I first got interested in SF, I was told or read the origin story of the term “sci fi.” It went like this:
It’s 1954. Forrest J. Ackerman–enthusiast, fan, collector, and soon-to-be publisher of the seminal magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland–is cruising through Hollywood in his new car, all shiny chrome and whitewall tires. The sun is out, and he probably has the top down, hair blowing and black horn-rimmed glasses jostled by the wind. He’s got one hand atop the oversized steering wheel and the other draped over his wife’s shoulders. As he’s driving, he’s thinking about ways to promote the books and films that he loves so much. The song on the radio (we’ll say it’s Clyde McPhatter, but more likely Eddie Fisher) fades and is replaced by a commercial for stereo components. Some bourbon-and-water voiced announcer shouts “Get that Hi-Fi sound!”
And it hits Ackerman like an anvil dropped from the sky. “Hi-Fi.” A catchy Madison Avenue term for “high fidelity” used to promote stereos. Why not “Sci-Fi”? A catchy buzzword to promote science fiction. He subsequently popularized its usage, although debates about who did it first (and how it deteriorated from buzzword to literary slur) continue.
Now, as a kid who grew up obsessed with old-time radio, ’50s car culture, and science fiction, I thought this story was gold. I still do. No matter how many times I hear someone call science fiction “sci-fi,” even derogatorily, part of me pictures Ackerman in that fast slab of Detroit steel with his stereo blasting. And I smile a little bit.
I’m also fond of the term “sci-fi,” and I think there’s a generational element to our ready acceptance of the term. We come along at a time when science fiction is much more readily accepted not only as popular entertainment, but as literature. Not everyone, but a large portion of academia doesn’t even balk at the inclusion of science fiction into literature departments and course offerings. SF’s current status is thanks in no small part to the scholars of Gunn’s generation who really were hanging on to some shred of respectability by their fingernails and thus were more likely to be sensitive to the derogatory valences of sci-fi. Like a lot of pejorative terms, sci-fi has been re-appropriated by its community and is more often than not used proudly these days.