Dailies: Science Fiction vs. Sci-Fi

Invaders From Mars 05

Happy Monday, everyone. And that’s all the preamble I’ll offer today.

Last week I promised that I’d “offer my two cents on the difference between ‘sci-fi’ and ‘science fiction.’” As I suggested at the time, the difference lies in the focus of the purely visual (sci-fi) vs the narrative elements and philosophical concerns (science fiction). To bolster this idea, I thought I’d turn to a writer who has been quite vocal about making distinctions between the two types: Harlan Ellison, one of my favourite curmudgeons, who wrote a Newsweek piece in 1997 about the topic, entitled “Stranger in a Strange Land.”

Now I’ll preface this further by saying that, in the article, Ellison was speaking of books as well as TV and movies, but in a subsequent panel discussion on an episode of Sci-Fi Vortex (which aired shortly after the publication of the Newsweek article), he agreed that “sci-fi” is a phenomenon mostly apparent in visual media. The panel included Ellison, J. Michael Straczynski, and Herb and Yvonne Solow.

Ellison’s basic thesis in his article is that “Sci-Fi” is most apparent in the sort of paranoid fantasies we get in conspiracy theories, cults like Heaven’s Gate (whose members committed suicide in 1997), or films like Independence Day (1996), which, according to Ellison, “warps our curiosity about the possibility of other life in the universe into an apocalyptic Saturday-morning cartoon.” He echoed this argument in the Sci-Fi Vortex episode, noting that those who want to dismiss science fiction as a whole use the term “sci-fi,” which, he adds, is a sort of “debasement” of the genre. According to Straczynski (creator of Babylon 5), the consequence is that the most infantile productions get lumped together with legitimately well-written shows. However, Yvonne Solow noted that many good science fiction stories are simply not “filmable,” which naturally means that the majority of the movies we get in the run of a year are, sadly, the type of “sci-fi” Ellison refers to.

You can find the complete version of Ellison’s Newsweek article here, and a clip from the TV episode here. (It was not lost on Ellison or Straczynski that they were criticizing “sci-fi” on the Syfy network, and on a show called Sci-Fi Vortex.) I thought I’d add a couple more examples to reiterate the distinction between sci-fi and science fiction.

Independence Day is now nearly twenty years old (and will soon have a sequel), but I thought I’d look back at it briefly since it’s mentioned by Ellison and the other panelists as an example of “sci-fi,” or a debased form of science fiction. The film takes the approach of the pulps or the B-movies of the 1950s in its representation of extraterrestrials as “BEMs,” or Bug-Eyed Monsters who want nothing more than complete domination of earth and its resources, and clearly delight in carnage. Even The War of the Worlds—the original novel by H. G. Wells—includes some intelligent commentary on parallels between invading Martians and imperialist Britain. But there is no such examination of the human condition in Independence Day, only a power fantasy about the might and right of ramping up a military industrial complex.

In contrast, consider District 9 (2009), where we’re forced to compare two different types of “aliens” in the context of a racially segregated Johannesburg: literally, the alien black South Africans and the alien “Prawn,” both of whom reside in slum conditions. An added complexity is that black South Africans speak of the extraterrestrial visitors as disparagingly as white South Africans have spoken of them: We don’t want them. Keep them separated. Sure, there are detailed action sequences, with plenty of things blowing up, but writer/director Neill Blomkamp uses the otherwise “sci-fi” elements for a science-fictional exploration of how technology affects both humans and aliens. This exploration is most apparent when the Alien Affairs worker, Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharito Copley), is exposed to biotechnology. In the end, we’re forced to reexamine the very concept of the “alien”—something “sci-fi” movies are never willing to do.



  1. Has anyone talked about the use of “sci-fi” simply as an abridgement? In a world where people shorten even one-syllable words like “great” into “gr8” part of me wonders whether “sci-fi” isn’t simply (for some people) a faster or more casual way to describe a genre.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. My sense is that a lot of people use “sci-fi” in just that way: as abridgement, as shorthand. But the history of the abbreviation is an intended debasement, as Ellison mentions. He’s actually referring to Forrest J. Ackerman (and he was, indeed, a “bad punster”). Elsewhere, I think Ellison has said that “sci-fi” is comparable to calling a woman a “broad.” If you find that an extreme comparison, check out the clip from the Sci-Fi Vortex episode to see his other comparisons.

      But regardless of how “sci-fi” is used, an argument can be made that there is plenty of difference between the “science fiction” films I mention. I use “sci-fi” for the bad ones, and this is – of course – a purely subjective thing. (One man’s “sci-fi” is another man’s – or woman’s – “science fiction.”)

      Thanks for great comments!


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