One of my favourite words is ‘sfnal’

June 2, 2016 Lisa Garforth 2 comments

Author: Lisa Garforth

Sfnal: it’s a term that says a lot about contemporary sf, its journeys, its uses, the cleverness of its readers and writers. I like the idea that something can be ‘science fictional’, that sf is not necessarily an object or a genre in the sense of a container, but rather that it is a shared way of thinking and doing things.

Detail from the cover of 'The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction'
Detail from the cover of ‘The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction’

Sfnal as a contraction of ‘science fictional’ or ‘science fictionality’ seem to owe something to Csicsery-Ronay (see eg 2008 Seven Beauties of Science Fiction). Csicsery-Ronay wants to position sf as a “mode of thought,” a “habit of mind,” a “kind of awareness” (2008: 2-3). It has escaped specific sf texts and even the genre itself to become an increasingly necessary cultural response to a technoscientific world.


Sfnal things – metaphors, images, epistemologies – are at work all over the place, dislocating us from the necessity of the present and orienting us to future horizons. For Csicsery-Ronay, the sfnal leaves us ambivalent. It hesitates between what is imaginable and what may come into being, and between what might happen and its political and ethical consequences.


If the notion of science fictionality marks an important turn in academic criticism, the word sfnal tells us something about its reading communities. The compacted form circulates as casual currency among critics, fans and reviewers, on podcasts, in magazines, on fansites. It tells us that sf readers are quick and impatient; love neologism and speculation; can tolerate and even enjoy indeterminacy and the in-between. That’s why I love sf and the word sfnal.


Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr (2008). The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction. Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press.

2 Comments on “One of my favourite words is ‘sfnal’

  1. Sfnal is useful because it reveals genre to be a folksonomy, IMO; it admits that sfnality is to some extent in the eye of the beholder, but that there is nonetheless something held in common among those various definitions. You might want to look up some of Paul Kincaid’s stuff, particularly _What it is We Do When We Read Science Fiction_ (lengthy review here:, he’s really strong on the fuzziness of genre boundaries (and a lovely chap to boot).

  2. Thanks Paul. I will bump the Kincaid back up my ‘to read’ list; I think I’d been putting it off because there’s not much overlap between our fiction reading priorities (he’s much bigger on metafiction and the new weird than I will ever be …). Useful to think of folksonomy too (ashamed to admit I haven’t encountered that term before) as part of extended reading protocols or practices operating somewhere in the messy nexus of fannishness and genre/s.

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