Thursday, March 19, 2009

In Defense of the Syfy Channel

The Sci Fi Channel has been getting a lot of flack for daring to change its name to the Syfy Channel, effective this July 7. I thought I'd be pop in to say, I have no problem with the name change at all. Here are five reasons why:

1. Words don't mean anything intrinsically - one of their great benefits is that, with the tiny exception of onomatopoeia (as indicated in the word "buzz"), words have no necessary connection to what they describe. This allows us to talk and write about vast and complex things very economically - indeed, to communicate about things that don't exist at all (can anyone take a photograph of "concept"?).

2. As philosopher Karl Popper pointed out, it's not usually worth the time arguing over definitions - or, what words attach to what meanings. What counts are what the labels are describing. Of course, if someone is deliberately using a word incorrectly - calling Barack Obama a Muslim, for example - then that should be pointed out. I often also point out that Obama's policies are in no sense "socialist". But, in the end, all that really counts is what Obama's policies are, and whether we agree with them or not. Applying this to the Sci Fi -> SyFy Channel, all that really counts is what it broadcasts.

3. Sci Fi itself is a name not very beloved by science fiction fans. The last time I referred to my writing as "sci fi," to another author, I was politely advised not to use that term, and instead speak of "sf". That was about 25 years ago.

4. Science fiction is itself not such a great term, even though every time I hear it my ears still perk up. Hugo Gernsback created the name in the 1920s, but it was something of a misnomer even then. H. G. Well's The Time Machine (1895), for example, is surely science fiction, but it has much more philosophy and social criticism than anything resembling science.

5. When I was President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, 1998-2001, I noticed that one of the least productive debates among writers was whether a work was science fiction or fantasy. Again, all that really counted was whether the work was good, and/or, for the less idealistic among us, whether it sold and made money. (Of course, if a work has nothing to do with either science fiction or fantasy, then giving it either label would be misleading.)

Which brings us back to the Sci Fi Channel. Call yourself whatever you like. I'll keep watching you, as long as you keep putting on series like Battlestar Galactica, which I'm looking forward to seeing the two-hour finale of this Friday.
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