Is it science fiction, sci-fi or SF?

This post originally appeared May 19, 2013, on the Contact – Infinite Futures SF blog.

I’m a published science fiction author but I still don’t grok the difference between “science fiction,” “sci-fi” and “SF.” Similar to religion, I’ve been warned to choose the right one or else, but there’s a load of disagreement as to which one is right.

I’ve been told that “science fiction” refers to the real stuff — science-based literature exploring the relationship between technology and humanity — while “sci-fi” refers to B-movies and pulp novel crap with lots of lasers and explosions.

This distinction is supported by Wikipedia:

Forrest J Ackerman used the term sci-fi (analogous to the then-trendy “hi-fi”) at UCLA in 1954. As science fiction entered popular culture, writers and fans active in the field came to associate the term with low-budget, low-tech “B-movies” and with low-quality pulp science fiction. By the 1970s, critics within the field were using sci-fi to distinguish hack-work from serious science fiction. … David Langford’s monthly fanzine Ansible includes a regular section “As Others See Us” which offers numerous examples of “sci-fi” being used in a pejorative sense by people outside the genre.

But according to Dictionary.com or Merriam-Webster, the terms are interchangeable:

Sci-fi
adjective
1. of or pertaining to science fiction
noun
2. science fiction

I poked around the Internet and found several threads, articles and blog posts on the topic. None of them offered definitive clarity. Hugo Award winner John DeNardo of SF Signal seemed to share my belief that “sci-fi” is not a negative term.

In my experience, those who use the term “sci-fi” are not cretins or haters. They use “sci-fi” because abbreviations, acronyms and slang are the norm. But “sci-fi” has baggage. I found this 1997 interview from the (then) “SciFi Channel” show SF Vortex, in which Harlan Ellison, J. Michael Straczynski, Herb Solow and Yvonne Fern discuss the meaning of the terms.

Summary: “Science fiction” is about thinking and “sci-fi” is for dimwits and studio execs.

Yet “science fiction” and “sci-fi” are both used as pejorative terms by those outside the fandom, both are disregarded as not “real” literature in many circles, and while “geek chic” is a thing now, both terms are still just as likely to be dismissed as past-times for dorks, geeks, nerds and social misfits. To argue about one word being worse than another is about as pointless, imo, as an argument over the terms “television” and “TV.”

Which brings us to “SF.” A few years ago, when I started hanging around science fiction authors and publishers in such places as NASFiC and SFWA while trying to get published, industry professionals informed me that the proper way to say “science fiction” in a query letter is “SF.” I’ve also seen “SFF” or “SF/F” for science fiction and fantasy.

But I’ve also been corrected by those who claim that “SF” refers to speculative fiction — though others will insist that’s properly “spec fic,” a broader category that includes science fiction, fantasy and other genres. Richard Treitel deals with this issue by using “ScF” as an abbreviation for science fiction instead of “SF.”

So, which is it? Science fiction, sci-fi or SF? Or ScF? Does it matter? Did it matter at one time, but times are changing? Should geeks reclaim “sci-fi” or did the Syfy channel condemn that phrase to eternal ignominy? Which terms do you use, and how do you use them?

Should there even be terms that label what’s “real” and what’s “crap” in science fiction, and who gets to decide which is which? Authors? Fans? An elite cadre of self-proclaimed “true” fans? Or the general moviegoers, readers and cosplayers whose money funds movies, books and conventions?

~ J.L. Hilton

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