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Skiffy

collateral tales

collateral tales

“The gleaming synthetic permapolish leather holster held a proton blaster. Bat Durston pulled out the deadly weapon and thumbed the power pack release.”
—“Bat Durston, Space Marshall”

All you need to know about the basic etymology of the term “Skiffy” you can learn over at Wikipedia. “Skiffy” is a deliberate mispronunciation of “Sci-Fi,” which usually denotes really bad Science Fiction. Movies, mostly. But among Science Fiction writers and editors, the term has a very specific meaning beyond the kind of SF you come across in Creature Double Feature episodes especially.

“Skiffy” is what you get when the story’s central idea and all or most plot elements would work just fine in any other genre. (That’s why we call such stories “generic,” haha.) If you can rewrite a given story and transplant it into, say, a Western or Hard Boiled setting, and it still works, then you can safely bet your bibby that this is a piece of Skiffy. Is Outland Science Fiction or is it Skiffy and the term “Space Western” just clever marketing to mask the latter? Tough question—I’ll leave that for you to decide.

If you have a basic idea, and you’re looking for a story that fits your idea best, it becomes clear rather quickly, most of the time, which genre you should choose (“mainstream” generically included). If it ain’t matter much and you decide on Science Fiction because it sells better than Western or Regency Romance at this point in time, chances are you’ll be producing Skiffy. (Fine, if you can sell it. But it’s still Skiffy.)

Now, while Skiffy is often hilarious enough to moonlight as its very own satire, there’s some really funny stuff out there that does a much better job of it. One example is G. Richard Bozarth’s pseudo-skiffy story “Bat Durston, Space Marshall” (full text), first published in the Sep/Oct 1978 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine. Here’s a little taste:

A flashing red light over one screen claimed his attention. The video readout reported the Bad Bart Blackie Gang had just robbed the Transgalactic Conglomerate of its credit transfer authorizations on PhiBetaCrappa IV. Angrily, Bat Burston’s eyes narrowed a nanometer as he fed in the reported trajectory of the gang’s starship.

Or, the “six-shooter” rationalizations:

The gleaming synthetic permapolish leather holster held a proton blaster. Bat Durston pulled out the deadly weapon and thumbed the power pack release. Into his palm plopped the rectangular cartridge. Its load indicator showed a full charge of six destructive shots of pure (yet environmentally safe) proton energy.
Before reloading the blaster, Bat Durston checked the action of the weapon. Due to safety regulations, it required two hands to fire the gun. The gun hand gripping the butt depressed a safety which opened the interlocks that prevented accidental discharges. The trigger was a centimeter-long switch on the top near the rear. It was activated by slapping it with the palm of the trigger hand. This was called “fanning” by gunslingers and space marshals.

Of course, besides parodying Skiffy, the story itself is decidedly not Skiffy. When it appeared two years later in On Writing Science Fiction (The Editors Strike Back!)1, Scithers, Schweitzer, and Ford (who worked as magazine editors for Asimov’s) wrote:

It is not a transplanted Western. If this were shifted back to the Old West, most of the humor would collapse. The laughs are produced primarily by the incongruous juxtaposition of science-fiction and Western clichés. If the science-fiction elements were removed, this effect would be lost. (188–89)

So much for Skiffy or Not Skiffy in printed stories. But wait! There’s more! In a recent comment, Science Fiction, Comedy, and Science Fiction Comedy writer ) pointed me to this wonderful little gem: SCTV’s “Midnight at Dawn Triple Feature” from 1978, featuring “Drums of the Congo Swamp Rats,” “Desert Rat Drums,” and “Drum Rats in Outer Space”:

[Note: It’s been taken down. That’s especially grating as there exists a campaign that has tried for quite a qhile to get SCTV to put that format on DVD.]

Sadly, either I messed up my audio settings since I last watched it, or something horrible happened to the clip’s soundtrack in the meantime.

If the sound works for you: enjoy!

1 Scithers, George H., Darrell Schweitzer, and John M Ford. On Writing Science Fiction (The Editors Strike Back!). Philadelphia: Owlswick P, 1981. 
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