PURE GOLDER Why The Internet Is Killing SF

Dave Golder likes a deliberately hyperbolic headline, but read on and you’ll understand why he specifically says “SF” and not “sci-fi”

Once upon a time, there was a great schism in science fiction. Greater than the divide between Babylon 5 fans and Deep Space Nine fans. More vitriolic than rivalry between Rose and Martha fans. More divisive than the new arrangement of the Quantum Leap theme tune.

Put simply: should science fiction be referred to as SF or sci-fi?

It used to matter. It used to really matter. Learned people within the genre would get very sniffy about such things. You might think SF and sci-fi are pretty interchangeable terms, but not-on-your-cyber-nelly. You could alienate whole swathes of fandom – be snubbed at pubs and struck off Christmas cards lists – if you inadvertently called “SF” “sci-fi”. You wouldn’t believe how long the SFX team agonised over which term to use on the cover of issue one.

The distinction is actually pretty simple. SF was proper science fiction, which 99 times out of 100 meant novels; sci-fi (a term created by Forrest J Ackerman, according to popular myth) was the fluffy, watered-down version of science fiction that TV and Hollywood pumped out – you know, the kind of “science fiction” where – gasp – you could have sound effects in space! Piffle and nonsense!

Of course, it wasn’t quite that simple: some screen science fiction was rather grudgingly accepted as SF if it tried really, really hard, and bored the pants off the hoi polloi in the mainstream audiences ( 2001: A Space Odyssey ), while pulp novels and comics – thing that, ugh, kids enjoyed – were quite clearly sci-fi.

Usually, anyway. There will always be exceptions to the exceptions in any pigeonholing based primarily on intellectual snobbishness. After all, in which part of the sci-fi/SF Venn diagram does the 1968 Planet Of The Apes fall? And then there was also “skiffy” but that never really caught on, and was only really invented to describe Star Wars (a kiddie film that hard SF authors kinda liked despite themselves).

But you know what? It really doesn’t matter now. Because SF is dying, and the internet is killing it.

Now, you’re probably expecting some rant about how in-fighting on internet forum and online fandom has diluted pure SF to so much sci-fi mush.

Nope. It’s certainly an argument I’ve heard, but I’m not sure it’s true. There’s much intelligent discussion of hardcore science fiction online as well, which is helping to keep the cutting-edge, ideas-generating end of the genre healthy and vibrant.

The trouble is, that hard SF may have to find a new term to describe it. Because the internet has dealt SF a death blow.

Experiment For Yourself

Not sure what I mean? It’s simple to demonstrate. Open a new browser window, go to Google and type in a search for “SF”.

On the first three pages of results, there are just two links to science fiction sites. The others are all for San Francisco.

Search for “sci-fi” and Bob’s your multiple-cloned uncle, a few thousand times over.

It’s all down to something called Search Engine Optimisation (SEO). Websites want your hits, so they use the terms in headlines that they know you’ll search for. Now, we already know that if you search for “SF” you’ll get San Francisco, so, having learnt that, on future searches you’re more likely to use sci-fi. And knowing that, websites are more likely to use sci-fi to lure you in.

Of course, searching for “SF books” or “SF films” will give you far more science fiction-slanted results rather than a San Francisco-slanted set of results – and Google is canny enough to make intelligent guesses that if you’re looking for “sci-fi” you’ll probably be interested in SF as well. So for the moment SF lives on. But it is a term that’s dwindling online as companies become more and more SEO-aware, and desperate to eke out every hit they can get in the face of ever-growing competition. And using “Sci-fi” prominently rather than “SF” may just give them the edge they need. I am a good example myself: sometimes I cringe as I make the decision to use “sci-fi author” instead of “SF author” for a story about, say, Peter F Hamilton, but it’s all for the greater good, I tell myself as my soul is ripped from my body.

So “SF” is in very real danger of being swallowed up entirely by “sci-fi”, which will become the default way of shortening science fiction, whether it has sound effects in space or not.

Unless, of course, somebody comes up with a new term…