Sci fi vs. SF vs. science fiction: What's the big deal?

C’mon, enlighten me.

I’ve seen several instances on this board of people saying that the term “sci fi” is inappropriate for some reason. See these:

[ul][li]Must All Science Fiction Be Epic?[/li][li]Sci Fi for kids[/li][li]What Turned You On To Science Fiction?[/li][li]Who is your favorite author?[/li][li]Can Hollywood Make a Good SF Film?[/li][li]Sci-Fi genre intro?[/li][/ul]

I vaguely recall hearing a few “discussions” of this matter in college here and there. But none of them stuck.

Seriously, I’m confused. I’m 34 and I’ve been reading sci fi, aka science fiction, aka those books with the funky covers, since I could read. I’ve been going to cons, in real life and online. I’m on mailing lists. In other words, I’m hardly out of the loop.

I really, truly, fundamentally do not understand what the problem is.

Seems to me that “sci fi” is an abbreviation. English is filled with abbreviations. It makes as much sense to me to say “sci fi” as it does to say “con”. Why is “sci fi” different?

One of the links posted above said that “SF” was more appropriate than “sci fi”. Since “SF” is just another abbreviation, why is it preferable? (No quibbles about abbreviation vs. initialism vs. acronym, please.)

And somebody said that “sci fi” is a term used by lazy editors. Well! :o I’m an editor. My firm stance on abbreviations is that if they’re understood and defined, use 'em all you want. It’s efficient.

And yet another person said that “SF” was the preferred abbreviation on book spines. Umm, isn’t that entirely logical given the limited space on book spines?

Can somebody explain what the problem is, please?


Please note that I will continue to use the term “sci fi” at my whim. :wink:


PS – Mods, I kinda thought this was a poll, so I put it in IMHO. If you think it should go elsewhere, kindly move it. With the strong feeling this topic seems to generate, it may be a great debate!

I use the term sci-fi. This is because it is more defining than the abbreviation SF. It is lucky if I know what anyone is talking about when they use SF for science fiction. I guess it is because I watch the SCI FI channel a lot, which leaks into my real life. It is definitely easier for me to say “sci-fi” and not have to explain myself everytime I use SF. (IMHO) :slight_smile:

Sci-fi was used in a derogatory manner by people in the publishing industry, and then it was adopted by the people it was used against as a term for schlocky crap, like stories that are really formula westerns (or suspense stories, or military sagas) with spaceships and aliens thrown in. 99% of non-printed ‘science fiction’ would classify as ‘sci-fi’, even some of the better stuff - basically if you could replace the science-fiction elements with something else and still have the exact same story, it’s sci-fi. Alien was a good movie, but you could replace the Nostromo with a sea ship and the alien with some demon and not have to make major changes to the plot. Blade Runner, however, deals with artificial man-made ‘life’ and is true science fiction.

SF is preferred because it can stand for ‘speculative fiction’, which can include stories that don’t really have anything to do with science but should be in the same genre. Alternate histories are SF, but often aren’t science fiction. Stories like ‘The Handmaids Tale’ which are set in the near future after major social changes which had nothing to do with scientific advances are also speculative fiction. A story about what would really happen if God made his presence known again would be a good example of SF.

Personally, I’ve found that people who denounce the usage of the term “sci-fi” do it just because they like to think of themselves as “true followers” of “true science/speculative fiction”. Or because they feel like being pseudo-intellectual.

I call it what it is. If it’s got starships, lasers, or has funky technology as a primary factor of the story, it’s “sci-fi”. After that, then I get down to the basics… the more heavy-handed stuff in which advanced technology (which, as a sort-of stipulation, should be conceivably possible by today’s standards) is crucial to the plot is “science-fiction”. Stories that deal with how things MIGHT go in twenty years (personally, I think The Sixth Day is one of these) is “Speculative Fiction”. Stuff like Star Wars and Star Trek, where the techno-crap is primary to the plot but not crucial (i.e.- you can replace the Enterprise with a bus or something and it’d still work, with only slight augmentation) is “Space Opera”. And, finally, everything else (like some Outer Limits episodes) is “Science Fantasy”.

Just my oh-so-humble opinion.

It is certainly time someone did. Humph.

The problem is that some people want to use precise English when discussing a subject important to them.

And you will thus continue to expose — pardon me, but there is no other term — genre incompetence. And you an editor.

I could write all this myself, but I would prefer to simply point to a post made to the Usenet group by the redoubtable Gharlane of Eddore.

In brief: Science Fiction is a story that, given reasonable technical competance (a four year degree in a hard science or engineering), can reasonably be believed to occur sometime in the future. Soft Science Fiction allows one “floater”; faster than light travel, force fields, or something that is unknown to present science, but builds a consistent world from there. Hard Science Fiction allows no floater, but extrapolates from present science; the “hard” is hard in more than one sense, hard because it is based on hard science and hard because it is hard; lots of physics students love to rip apart hard science fiction stories. (There are great stories of physics majors appearing at Science Fiction conventions where Larry Niven was appearing with signs saying “Ringworld Is Unstable!” Niven had to do another whole story to satisfy them.) Arthur C. Clarke is the master of hard science fiction.

Anything else is Fantasy. Period. Sci-Fi is Fantasy that lifts its props from science-fiction because it is too lazy to do the work and conform to the real world; treknobabble instead of magic spells and ray guns instead of magic wands. Star Trek and Star Wars are both sci-fi. Note that George Lucas is very frank about this. The Trek people are less honest. Babylon 5 made a valiant effort, but Straczynski is so math-and-physics-challenged and was so time pressed that he just couldn’t pull it off; there are sections where there are deliberate nods to physics (check out some of the battles) but others where it just fails, and that badly.

Skiffy is a derogatory term for any sci-fi that doesn’t even try to maintain internal consistency, or even think about what they are saying. Earth 2 or Space: Abysmal and Boring in TV, or some of the Star Trek pulp in books are examples. Bad juju.

SF, no matter what the editors say, is short for Speculative Fiction, which is why most bookstores group Fantasy under the SF banner. Anything that goes for things impossible at present can be called SF.

All these terms have been pretty much set for those in the genre since the 40s, and were coined and set in stone by the great pulp publisher John Campbell. Since most of the authors of the time sold to him, they used the same categories, and by the time he died they were pretty much set in stone. With the continued degredation of language they may have slipped by now, but those of us who remember the golden years and love precision of language still remember what they mean, and use the categories as he did.

Excellent post, dlb: I’d missed Gharlane’s post first time around.

Just to add to it,

Forrest Ackerman, who was literally the world’s biggest SF fan ever (he had a 17 room house that was filled top to bottom with SF books/magazines/memoribilia, in th '50’s came up with the term. He meant it affectionatly.

Somewhere along the way, the term began to be used derogatorally (“You read that sci-fi junk?”)

Somewhere in the '60s Harlan Ellison, and a number of “new wave” SF authors demanded that their books be labeled with the (somewhat pretentious, IMHO) “Speculative Fiction” as a rebellion.

While Gharlane’s post is very accurate and very informative, I don’t think it reasonable for the non-fan to know all that stuff. I’d simply ask them to use the term “SF” for most Science Fiction, “Sci-Fi” for bad, schlocky stuff, and Fantasy for elves, etc. Expecting the non-fan to distinguish between Sci-Fi and Skiffy is unreasonable.


In other words, we’re supposed to memorize a heap o’ words that some shmuck somewhere thought up to make things a lot more hassling than they’re supposed to be just to refer to a genre that we like.

Excuse me while I roll my eyes. If you don’t understand what is meant when I say “sci-fi” in casual conversation, I pity you. Do you insist that televisions be called “Cathode-Ray Tubes” as well?


How is three a heap?

Sci-Fi = Crap, with spaceships
SF = Everything else in the genre except Fantasy
Fantasy = Elves, magic, dragons

Sure there are tons of sub-genres like Hard SF, Science-Fantasy, Space Opera, etc, but they all fall under the aegis of “SF” or “Fantasy” or “Sci-Fi”

Mystery fans have dozens of sub-genres (Hard boiled, Cozies, etc).

What’s the big deal? (or were you referring to DLB’s post?)


I was referring to DLB’s post.

If someone gets mad because I don’t “follow the rules” when talking about Star Wars or Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, they shouldn’t be surprised when they’re still a virgin at age 45.

The definitions I had read for hard SF and soft SF were pretty different. Hard SF centered around ‘hard’ sciences - physics, astronomy, biology, etc. Soft SF is centered on the ‘soft’ sciences - psychology, sociology, anthropology. A lot of the stuff I consider hard SF has some ‘floaters’ as they were called - a lot of Larry Niven’s stuff has hyperdrive, direct conversion, telepathy, etc. It’s still hard SF.

Pretty much what Fenris said. But also, it’s SF not sci-fi (Pronounced “skiffy” with a snotty attitude) to make YOU look like a dope. (“Geez, calling it sci-fi, like, what is 'e, 12? Sheesh.”)

Cool insiders call it “SF”.
Dorky outsiders call it “sci-fi”.

Should we talk about the difference between “Trekkies”, “Trekkers”, and “Star Trek Watchin’ Geeks”? (Yes, I know there’s a BIG difference- “Old Series”, “New Series”, “Lives With His Parents And Doesn’t Date Much”- but when you’re outside the clique, it really doesn’t matter.)

Call the genre what you want. Someone’s gonna roll their eyes at you no matter what you say.
(Sci-fi? Lowbrow idiot.)
(SF? Sodding git.)

::rolls eyes, sighs::

Look, it’s a small but vital distinction to those who are interested in the field. Having been a reader/consumer of SF (and Sci-Fi) for 40 years, since age 11, I like to think
I have a small grasp of the possibilities.

In the overall scheme of things, SPOOFE is right; it matters but little what you wish to call it. Hugo Gernsbeck, the early publisher for whom the Hugo Award is named, wanted to call it “Scientifiction”, but (surprise!) that never really caught on.

On the other hand, if you know that many of the people who are serious fans prefer the SF term, and that your continued use of sci-fi to paint the whole genre can be as grating as purposely using “Frisco” to San Franciscans, then you shouldn’t be piqued if they choose to bristle.

They may view it not as a “politically correct” choice, but one of conscious respect.

The choice is yours, as always.

In the UK in the early to mid 20th century, if not elsewhere, it was known as scientifiction. Makes sense. Clumsy, but makes sense.

Hey now! Too much insulting of a particular branch of geek here. Cut it out.

If you want a good definition of “skiffy” take a look at the Sci Fi Channel.

Anyone else out there read Gernsback’s masterpiece of “Scientifiction”? It’s called Ralph 124C41+ (One To Forsee For One, geddit?) and it’s a lot of fun in a creaky, old-fashioned, “SCIENCE will save the world!” way. It’s essentially a episodic travelogue about the wonders of the far future world of 2660. And there’s space-pirates and kidnapped damsels in distress and HEROIC MEN-OF-SCIENCE and rocket ship chases and…

It’s not all that well written, and the dialogue is so-so, but the “gosh-wow” sense-o-wonder factor is off the scale. I can’t think of many other books where it was so obvious that the author was having so much fun.

It’s amazing how many genre cliches were (originated?) in this book.

It’s well worth digging up a copy.



Depends on whether you want people who read the stuff to take you seriously. You can call it “those rectangular things on the shelf with the black markings on the pages” for all I care.

There are those who dip into the books, and those who take the genre seriously. The latter use terms they understand, and look askance at newbies (and editors) who don’t understand the basic language of the field, as do most idiotic people who don’t have lives (anyone who doesn’t think the latter description applies to serious science fiction fans has never attended a science fiction convention). Editors who want to communicate with genre obsessed fan-boys should understand that. Reading the OP before flaming might help.

I tend to avoid calling things by incorrect names; a cathode ray tube is not a television, and some televisions do not use cathode ray tubes. A cathode ray tube is a part of some televisions. If you are going to try and construct a really lame analogy, you might at least try to get it right.

As far as “understanding what is meant when [someone] says ‘sci-fi’”, I generally take into account the context in which it is said. If spoken in an family setting, I assume it is meant as “speculative fiction”; my family is genre incompetent. If at the office, since we are a bunch of geeks, I assume it is used correctly. If on this board, it depends on who is using it. If someone asks for clarification, particularly if it is an editor who will be dealing with people in the genre (and who therefore should already know), as in the OP, I provide it if I can, being a helpful sort of fellow (if a bit testy at times).

Further exchanges in this direction should probably go to the Pit.

I have to agree with SPOOFE - dlb’s little display of genre snobbism annoyed me too. Especially this sentence:

According to your definition, Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light is “lazy” crap. Well, bollocks to that. I’d read crap like that over “hard” SF any day, because unlike brilliant scientists Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clark, Zelazny could fucking write.

Plot. Chracters. Style. Heard of 'em? Because they’re what’s important in SF, just like they are in every other literary genre. Sure, if the physics offends me with its stupidity, then I won’t read the book; but i’d rather have bad science than bad writing.

Just tell a good tale, spin a good yarn. You do that, I’ll let you get away with anything.

Ah, who gives a fuck? Buncha bug-eyed monsters and wild-haired mad scientists and flyin’ saucers and rayguns an’ crap. Buck Rogers stuff!

– Uke, the Hostile Mystery Fiction Editor

I’ve met Forrest Ackerman. Is he no longer with us?