Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Hey, Janet! Have You Got Syfy?

This is old news, but I’ve been busy so I’m only now getting the time to laugh about it. Yes, the Sci-Fi channel has decided that the name "Sci-Fi" is just too damn geeky. It's too uncool for school, unhipper than a groovy cat gone grody to the max. Daddio, it's just not happening, dig? So they're going to call it "Syfy".

The whole article is comic genius.

[W]hen new executives join the network, they usually ask if it has ever thought about changing the name.


No shit.

Now this honking-ass huge purveyor of pulp is trying to get shot of the label because it carries the baggage that generations of such purveyors have heaped on it. They’re trying to distance themselves from the stench of kippleburgers, the schlock fiction signified by the label “Sci-Fi” and the core market of geeks who relish it. One can only imagine they've done enough research to satisfy them that a broader market exists, because that market has come to mean so little to them they're pretty much willing to piss on it with complete contempt. They want "to build a broader, more open and accessible and relatable and human-friendly brand.”


"Human-friendly." I guess that means the Aspbergerboys don’t quite cut it in the “humanity” stakes, far as they’re concerned.

What makes it funnier is that in attempting to think up something, like, really cool as a new name, they manage to maintain the original uncoolness of the tragically, chronically uncool original by having it sound exactly the same. Fuck, they actually transcend that original uncoolness, reaching a whole new level of uncool by getting sweaty-palmed over the fact that… drumroll please… it's spelled just like you'd text it! (They think.)

“When we tested this new name, the thing that we got back from our 18-to-34 techno-savvy crowd, which is quite a lot of our audience, is actually this is how you’d text it,” Mr. Howe said. “It made us feel much cooler, much more cutting-edge, much more hip, which was kind of bang-on what we wanted to achieve communication-wise.”


How high is the waist on Mr Howe's jeans? one wonders. How well does he do the Dad Dance at weddings? Does he organise focus groups to tell him whether he should wear his baseball cap backwards or to the side, as a middle-aged businessmen trying desperately to be down with the kids? Mr Howe, dude, you need to ask yourself, would Fonzie give a fuck? Would he really? Really? Dude, can’t you tell that your 18-to-34 techno-savvy crowd are clearly taking the piss out of you with a spelling that reads as “siffy”. I mean, if you wanna fuck with the spelling, “SiFi” I can just about see. Resonates with “WiFi” in the same way that “Sci-Fi” did with “Hi-Fi” once upon a time. But “Syfy”? The siffy channel — sort of a cross between silly and iffy. Well, I guess it fits.

Mind you, if the "hip" new spelling is just risible, I can't say I'm surprised they want to change the name. "Sci-Fi"? Amigos, if you’re getting all in a tizzy over a commercial TV channel realising that this term carries a whole fuckload of stereotypical baggage, you’re not living in the same world I am, the world where that’s a no-brainer. So while everyone else seems to be getting their knickers in a twist over the slight, I’m going to unleash the Behemouth, bite the head off that chicken and spit it out into the crowd. Here’s 10 reasons to get shot of that term, if we think of it as a “brand label”:

1. Obsolescence. It was coined at a time when "Hi-Fi" was the bleeding edge in technology. It’s the jive-talk of yesteryear, as dated as “hep cat”, a linguistic styling that mocks its own referent with its quaintness of form as surely as a tagline, “It’s in Dolby!”. It’s as ironically outmoded as having a major magazine in the Digital Age field of sf called, of all things, “Analog”. The comment above about “SiFi” seeming maybe vaguely sensible because of its resonances with “WiFi”? Even that’s time-limited, only working for as long as “WiFi” is not as passé as Betamax. This is the problem with all such branding that ties itself to the modish, the fashionable. Right now you might be able to slap a lower-case i on the front of a word and make it sound edgy — it’s iFiction, the genre of tomorrow! — but in fifty years’ time that’s going to sound retro to the point of kitsch. Just like “Sci-Fi” does now. It’s Bakelite-meets-literature in the Fiction of the Future! It’s Bakeliterature! Put down that TV dinner, kids, switch off Howdy Doody, and start reading some Sci-Fi today!

2. Limitation. Coined during the Golden Age when sf was largely characterisable by the spaceships and aliens, and disseminated out into the mainstream via cinematic and televisual examples that harked back to that era and before, “Sci-Fi” is as bound to a deeply traditional set of tropes as Western is to deserts and horses. Many of the most dedicated readers and writers will in fact insist that it is defined by its conventions of content. While such definitions are generally vague enough to allow for fiction founded on most any conceit of technical possibility (i.e. “speculative elements” in general rather than specific conceits like the robot or the rocketship), incoherent attempts to disallow conceits of metaphysical impossibility have led to an artificial distinction between futurological Sci-Fi and works of a more conceptual nature. Where the label “sf” has historically included all manner of imaginative fictions, Sci-Fi significantly limits its scope, generating a brand image that is largely space opera and near-future technothrillers. To the general public and, more importantly, to a substantial proportion of the dedicated genre audience, the term signifies a very narrow niche within the amorphous field of strange fiction, a niche that is widely considered to exclude shows like Lost, Heroes and Carnivále. You only have to read the comments on that article to see complaints that the channel’s programming, even leaving aside the wrestling and reality shows, contains too much that is “not proper Sci-Fi”.

3. Gaucheness. The way “Sci-Fi” was clearly coined to reflect the "coolness" of that “futuristic” jargon of — gosh! wow! — vinyl record players is telling in and of itself; it was an attempt to encapsulate the sense-of-wonder imparted by the novelties written into the texts, the quality of spectacle. As such it signifies a wide-eyed rapture of incredulity at odds with scientific rationalism and literary nous. For many of those focused on the hard-nosed science or the high-brow fiction that they see as core components of science fiction, this is a sensationalist label for an endeavour they view as intellectual, fundamentally characterising it as a pulp idiom of eyeball kicks and fictive fireworks. As a promise of lurid exotica, the term “Sci-Fi” was apt in the era of magazines titling themselves with words like “amazing”, “astounding”, “thrilling”, “stirring”, “fantastic”, but over the subsequent decades the Barnumesque hyperbole has been muted for a reason. The brand image it generates is of something cheap and disposable, shallow and callow, prone to formulation, infantilism and the all-round naffness of any compensatory fantasy. Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, to the Snake-Oil Salesman’s Six-Cent Sci-Fi Side-Show Spectacular! It’s Stirring! It’s Startling! It’s Staggering! It’s Sensational!

4. Puerility. If it sounded cool once, now “Sci-Fi” just sounds like babytalk, the linguistic equivalent of a duvet cover with cartoon aliens and robots on the rampage, or a lunchbox with rocketships and glow-in-the-dark stars. Poo-poo! Pee-pee! Wee-wee! Ka-ka! Sci-Fi! It's a cringe-inducingly cutesy diminutive, sophomoric and twee. This even more than the reasons above might well be why a lot of writers, I understand, disliked it from the start, felt it trivialised a field that was trying to assert its maturity. It just sounds naff. Old Guard and Young Turks alike saw in that term the sacrifice of all aspirations to be taken seriously, saw that the cosy familiarity of the nickname presented the field as something safe, innocuous — not just a spectacle but a spectacle for the big kid inside us all. Might as well be published as Bobberty Heiny-Leiny or Harly-Warly Elliwellison. No, they groaned. Call it science fiction, or speculative fiction, or just sf. But don't for the love of fucking, call it Sci-Fi. It’s not that such an abbreviation intrinsically infantilises the field — nobody takes postmodernism less seriously cause it gets shortened to pomo — but combined with the obsolescence and gaucheness it does crystallise the brand image of the field as basically… well… latter day Flash Gordon serials.

5. Schlockiness. Over the decades the term has been rendered virtually synonymous with formulaic pabulum by fans whose uncritical loyalty to any old shite with a rubber monster and a rocketship came to define the public perception of the whole field in terms of its surfeit of incompetence. I know it’s hard to hear, amigos, but I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: we only have ourselves to blame for the bad rep. You can blame it on Star Wars (and the pernicious influence of “Fantasy”) if you want, but it goes back to every crappy drive-in B movie, every half-arsed rip-off of The Twilight Zone, every shitty piece of symbolically formulated kipple that came off the production-line broken and useless to all but the true believers, the geeks who loved it all for the lurid glory of its strangeness, however slipshod. Truth is, the uncool goes right back to the pulp roots, the serials and the radio shows and the magazines themselves, our ancestry in the days before Old Man Campbell came along and slapped Rationalism on top of the Boy's Own Adventure stories, before the generations that came along after upped the ante with each turn. Devotion is great but devotion with no quality cut-off has made the field one great big slagheap of Shit Lit schlockbusters, for all the diamonds buried in it. As brand images go, Sci-Fi is the literary equivalent of… what? I’d say Ratners, but US readers may not know the story of how a high street jewelery chain was nearly bankrupted when its chief executive admitted their wares were shite. Wendy’s? Wal-Mart? Whatever. As brand images go, Sci-Fi is no Sony.

6. Kitschness. We don’t just forgive the schlockbusters. It’s not simply that we don’t mind our Sci-Fi being incompetent as long as it’s a spectacle. Actually, because spectacle is a key ingredient, we love the schlockbusters all the more if they can achieve spectacular incompetence. Note that I don’t exclude myself here; I'm not ashamed to have revelled in the rubbishness of countless craptastic kippleburgers of fiction, movies like Robot Jox which fail so spectacularly you can’t help but appreciate the folly. Crash and burn, baby! Crash and burn! The aesthetic that appreciates kitsch is partly ironic, involving a sort of archly detached amusement. It’s also partly nostalgic, an appreciation of the obsolescent, gauche and puerile schlock as the product of more innocent times, imbued with a naive rapture we love to return to. But it’s also partly just sensationalism, a sort of schmaltz of extravagance in which “sentimentality” is translated to “spectacle”, “soap opera” to “space opera”. It’s partly that we just surrender to the shameless charlatanry of pure pulp, relish the way it lays it on so thick, the sheer bloody boldness of it. Killer robots! Zombie pirates! Space squid! There’s a glory to it all when the good taste control-circuits are switched off and the nutjobs and hacks are let loose to be as wildly trashy as they can. Tim Burton’s Ed Wood biopic is a good articulation of the sort of sincere appreciation we can have, on this level, of bad art and those who make it. If we want to get all postmodern about it, in fact, we can argue that there’s a pulp aesthetic of passion, a different but equally legitimate standard of measurement by which a lot of “bad” art should be considered “good”… just in a different way. The price of that pulp aesthetic though — our appreciation of kitsch — is the brand image of Sci-Fi as a field of kitsch, the literary equivalent of an Easy Listening orchestral cover version of “Light My Fire” sung in German. You can deal with it or live in denial, but if you want to distance yourself from that sense of kitsch you’re gonna have to ditch the label now. “Sci-Fi” is to literature as “K-Tel” is to music.

7. Wankiness. The other night, I watched the movie version of Iron Man, where an international playboy arms-dealer ex-child-genius with pole dancers on his private jet gets to build himself a mighty suit of mechanical armour to kick arse to the sound of Sabbath. It's designed to make the 14 year old zeta male in you go, Coooooool! It’s wank, but it works, of course, because the comics and film industry have spent decades perfecting the button-pushing, developing their hand-job skills. The schlockbusters sell because they are prime examples of this sort of pandering. The spectacle in Sci-Fi is all too often a spectacle of grandiose wish-fulfilment writ so large it’s risible. And if the hokum of it all isn’t uncool enough in its obsequious fawning, its incessant attempts to get its hands into your pants — if the average Joe is actually just happy to be gotten off by a little hackwork handjob once in a while — the people that it’s pandering to shouldn’t exactly be expecting respect. There's little that's less cool, really, than the zeta male for whom Sci-Fi is an Iron Man shell, an imaginary armour they can stomp about in through their power-fantasies, crushing their foes. Imaginary armour implies a thin skin that needs it. All power-fantasies read as compensatory. And that makes those who devour them look like impotents who need that psychological fluffing. That’s the brand image of Sci-Fi. Wank.

8. Inadequacy. Given all the above it’s not really hard to see how “Sci-Fi” has bound itself to the stereotype of the geek defined by their alienation from a status hierarchy that privileges physical skills and social capabilities over mental acuity. It’s hardly shocking that the awkward type who doesn’t mesh with the bullshit social structures of cool, who can’t or won’t play the games you need to if you want to be a jock or a punk — it’s no big shocker that this sort of misfit should latch onto a subculture which is all about the imaginative life. Like it or not there’s a feedback loop of non-socialisation whereby a lack of engagement with the “cool kids” leads to a lack of the socials skills you largely learn by engagement, and the insecurity born of that lack only leads to a further disengagement. At the extreme of this we end up with the pomp and pedantry of the charmless geek, that all-too common air of intellectual and/or imaginative superiority over the “mundanes”, which speaks of a sublimated inferiority complex, the puffed-up bolstering of a weak ego as non-social skills and knowledges are afforded inflated import. Where the SF historian quoted in that article characterises these geeks as "dysfunctional, antisocial boys in their basements with video games and stuff like that, as opposed to the general public and the female audience in particular”, this is a stereotype, but it’s no more exaggerated than a characterisation of emos as angsty teenagers self-harming in their bedrooms. So Sci-Fi fan implies geek implies social misfit. Duh.

9. Fanaticism. When it comes to any genre of any artform you can simply be “into” this kind or that to a greater or lesser extent. If you’re really into it though, you might go to the next level and make it part of your identity, join the social group of the truly devoted — become an actual goth, metalhead or punk, rather than just someone who listens to Sisters of Mercy, Black Sabbath or the Sex Pistols. In the social scene that’s emerged around the field of fiction, “Sci-Fi” has become a banner for geeks to rally round, a badge of identity and a promise of mutual support, of community. A subcultural marker, “Sci-Fi” is as much a part of the geek’s (self-)image as eyeliner is for a goth. As a result the term now signifies the scene as much as the field, the whole subculture of fandom. Collecting the books, the comics, the DVDs, the merchandise. Going to conventions. Geeking out over the trivial minutiae of obscure wonders, fictive or factual. These are other subcultural markers of the geek, attributes of the Sci-Fi fan just as the black leather and purple velvet clothes are attributes of the goth. It’s all good if you don’t take the role too seriously — geek chic is based in large part, I’d say, on the inherent charm of goofy passions — but those who invest their entire identity in such tribalism all too often end up as blinkered and boring as a straight edger punk on a mission to convert the entire world to teetotal vegan anarchosyndicalism. Bearing in mind that a definitive aspect of the geek is that geeking out activity, and bearing in mind all the associations of Sci-Fi dealt with previously, it’s only to be expected that the self-identifying Sci-Fi fan(atic) should be lumped in with the obsessive hobbyist, the outsider artist or the cult member.

10. Lack of Self-Awareness. When I joined the GSFWC back in the early 90s, I was surprised by the level of hatred for this term, “Sci-Fi”, among the community of writers (and even more than a few readers). "It's not Sci-Fi; it's science fiction," was a common mutterance — which I gradually realised was an attempt to articulate the disjunct between the brand image born of all the factors outlined above and the reality of a field of quite serious intent. Yes, there was this obsolescent, gauche, puerile, schlocky, kitschy wank for inadequate fanatics, but this Sci-Fi was abjected even as it was recognised, considered something other to the “real” science fiction. Often it was posited as a kind of science fiction corrupted by Fantasy and/or by conversion to visual media. On the convention scene at the time, I remember a lot of resentment being projected onto the media fans who didn't read the novels and short stories, who were more interested in an actor's autograph than a writer's sentences. These were the people who made the genre look bad, so the story went, the fans in the Spock ears, the ones who spoke Klingon, the costumed freaks whose obsession with some corporately-whored media franchise meant that every single newspaper article that touched on the field characterised it in images of self-fantasising losers. They called it Sci-Fi to the journalists as they posed for pictures in their uniforms and bodypaint. The journalists called it Sci-Fi as they scoffed and snickered through their reports from the geek show. Everyone called it Sci-Fi, it seemed, except for the enlightened, the cognoscenti who knew that there was Sci-Fi and there was science fiction. A large part of that resentment was focused on the complete lack of self-awareness that the fanatics had when it came to the impression they were creating — of inadequates obsessed with obsolescent, gauche, puerile, schlocky, kitschy wank. That lack of self-awareness is probably the most damning aspect of the Sci-Fi brand image. At the core of the inadequacy and fanaticism of the hardcore geek, manifest in the act of geeking out to (at?) someone who is patently not fucking interested it’s what the public sees as the definitive feature, associating it (and rightly so) with a disregard even for personal grooming and hygiene. When we present ourselves as “Sci-Fi”, this is what we are presenting ourselves as. Hence the desire of many to distinguish “science fiction” from “Sci-Fi”.


This desire persists. Some make the distinction between written science fiction and televisual or cinematic Sci-Fi. Others make the distinction between serious science fiction and... well... anything which doesn't meet their quality bar. I can understand this for all of the reasons above, but it’s really a vain attempt to abject the pulpy innards of the field, to flense the fat of formulation from the skeleton of the literary form. That's not us, that Sci-Fi! Ick! We're not Sci-Fi; we're science fiction. Ironically, that abjection of science fiction’s pulp-cult extremes speaks of its own lack of self-awareness. It is a self-deluding denial, the pretence that science fiction was not, from its origins in the magazines, a crassly sensationalist idiom with all the associated issues. Worse, in its insistence on the terrible importance of “real” science fiction literature, often justified with futurological nonsense and littered with examples of sf “classics” that really don’t stand up to scrutiny, it becomes just another form of “geeking out”. It’s like a Sisters of Mercy fan deriding more derivative goth bands as “not really goth” while utterly failing to appreciate just how ludicrous the lyrics of their own favoured band are to many. If the Doctor Who fans (in the days of its absolute nadir) gave a bad impression of Sci-Fi, the literary geeks only added to the Comic Book Guy brand image of the field whenever they got their turn to speak. Mortally offended at the journalists’ blindness to “real” science fiction, their apoplectic splutterings seemed even more geekish, more fanatical, more crackpot. This is why you get the head of the Sci-Fi / SyFy channel saying, “We spent a lot of time in the ’90s trying to distance the network from science fiction, which is largely why it’s called Sci Fi… It’s somewhat cooler and better than the name ‘Science Fiction.’”

They think "science fiction" is even less cool.


The sad thing is they’re right. That’s a bitter laugh above, not a laugh of blithe merriment. The brand image of “Sci-Fi” is everything detailed above, but “science fiction” is distinct, for the general public, only as a pedantic expansion, like referring to IBM as the International Business Machines Corporation. The term “science fiction” just takes all that baggage — all that sense of a field of obsolescent, gauche, puerile, schlocky, kitschy wank for inadequate fanatics with a complete lack of self-awareness — and adds to it an extra level of tedious pomp: “Excuse me, but I do believe you’ll find that the correct nomenclature for those you insist on referring to as ‘trainspotters’ is actually ‘railfans’.” So a commercial TV channel wants to get shot of that baggage? It wants to abandon the term “Sci-Fi” and it doesn’t for a second think that “the Science Fiction Channel” would be a viable alternative? Colour me flabbergasted.

Of course, part of what really amuses me is that the brand image of the “Sci-Fi” label is pretty much a perfect match for the quality-level and direction the programming of the channel seems to be pitched at. Hmmmm. Maybe, they’re right after all to retain the sound but spell it differently just to look a little bit more retarded on top. Maybe it does capture their USP: obsolescent, gauche, puerile, schlocky, kitschy wank for inadequate fanatics with a complete lack of self-awareness! Now even more retarded!

Imagine Greater!


Blogger Adele said...

I showed the new logo to a graphic designer friend. He just sighed and pointed out that it looks like a tissue box, which it does.

8:53 pm  
Blogger Colin Meier said...

Hey Hal

Perfect example of geeking-out is the droning mind-numbing chant of the Star Trek fans determined to destroying the reputation of the new Star Trek movie before it's released. Although I understand the same might be true of the optimists (I'm one), I don't believe saying : wait-until-you-see-the-damn-thing-before-you-kill-it is in any way as *religious* as their activity.

Posted a comment at detailing this, and also on my blog,

I just thought your meta-analysis of geekdom could be perfected by a concrete example : the Star Trek fans who obsess over nacelles...

(and I fully accept that Star Trek itself, in its utopian vision of the future, and FTL drives, etc, is *already* as pulp and Sci-Fi as it gets - doesn't mean I don't wanna see the movie!)

1:05 pm  

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