Today, I had to give a five minute lesson to my ONTAP group at Kent State University as part of graduate teaching assistant training. We were asked to teach the class something that we were familiar with, it could be on any subject, and we could teach it anyway we wished. I chose to teach everyone the distinction between sci-fi and SF. I got some good comments from everyone in class, which ranged from “I watch a lot of Science Fiction movies, and now I have the language to talk to my friends about it more effectively,” to, “I didn’t really follow what you were saying.” I tried to construct it to connect with everyone, but I guess Michael Berube was right and we’re “teaching to the six.” Anyways, I’ve included my notes below (I would have included the video that they made, but it’s on VHS tape and I don’t have an easy way to convert it for posting on YouTube). Enjoy!
ONTAP 5 Minute Teaching Session
Today let’s talk about Science Fiction, sci-fi, and SF. Science Fiction, as the scholar Darko Suvin puts it, is the literature of “cognitive estrangement.” What does that mean? Science Fiction is estranging, that is it puts the reader in unfamiliar territory. You might say that other literature such as the gothic or even postmodern literature does the same thing, and you’d be right. However, what sets Science Fiction apart is the cognitive aspect of its estranging function. The cognitive estranging aspect of Science Fiction is called the novum, which is the technological and scientific extrapolation from the here-and-now that is the kernel of the story, the techno-scientific kernel of the narrative that is essential to the story and sets it apart from mainstream or fantasy literature. What are some novum examples? One example of the novum might be robots. Can you name some others? Space ships, ray guns, aliens, and humans with a multiplicity of sexes rather than just male and female are a few other examples.
Okay, so now you roughly know what Science Fiction is, however did you know that Science Fiction is a little more complicated than that? You see, for much of the history of Science Fiction, beginning with its naming by the pulp magazine publisher, Hugo Gernsback, in 1929, academic and journalist elites have often sneered at Science Fiction as marginal, low, or pop culture. These Science Fiction detractors pointed to the weakest stories and worst movies as examples of the supposed overall low quality of Science Fiction. An early response to this problem was offered by the Science Fiction author Theordore Sturgeon in the 1950s when he stated that, “ninety percent of everything is crap.” That observation is now known as Sturgeon’s Law and is available in the Oxford English Dictionary. Sturgeon’s point is that there’s a lot of good Science Fiction, but there’s a lot more bad stuff that people point to when they talk about Science Fiction. Also, the implication is that ninety percent of mainstream literature is also crap, and canonical literature such as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet isn’t derided because of the multitude of trashy Romance novels.
This state of affairs expanded with the widespread adoption of the truncated term, sci-fi. Sci-fi became widely used to describe Science Fiction by journalists with an implied insult toward the genre as a whole.
In the 1970s, Science Fiction scholars and critics decided it was time to distinguish hackwork from the 10% of good stuff. The new term for the best work, which often received the most critical attention, was simply SF. SF works are those based on a novum and are as well or better written than its mainstream counterparts. Sci-fi was used to label works with a much less extrapolated novum, and a very low level of quality in writing or production in the case of movies or television.
So, what are some examples of SF and sci-fi? A recent example of SF film would be The Matrix. It extrapolates from our world to create a reasonably plausible future based around computer simulation, autonomous robot beings, and a planet devastated by war. An example of sci-fi would be George Lucas’ Star Wars movies. Sure, there are space ships, ray guns, and aliens, but there’s also the Force, which is more fantasy than Science Fiction, and the laws of physics are violated egregiously in space such as having things slide off space ships in outer space as if it were an airplane in the Earth’s atmosphere. What are some Science Fiction movies that you’ve seen, and what would you classify them as–sci-fi or SF? Some other examples of sci-fi include Plan 9 From Outer Sapce, Back to the Future, Cloverfield, and Red Planet. Other examples of SF include A.I. Artificial Intelligence, A Scanner Darkly, WALL-E, The Dark Knight, and Mission to Mars.
Now you’re all initiate Science Fiction scholars who know the difference between SF and sci-fi!