Is it “science fiction,” “sci-fi” or “SF”?

I still don’t grok the difference between “science fiction,” “sci-fi” and “SF.” Like 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 mere “sci-fi” refers to B-movies and pulp novel crap with lots of lasers and explosions. The distinction is supported by this Wikipedia blurb:

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 or Merriam-Webster, the terms are interchangeable:

1. of or pertaining to science fiction
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 sentiments — we don’t see “sci-fi” as 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, for some. 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.”

Then there’s “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 was “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 which includes science fiction, fantasy and other genres. Richard Treitel, in his articles about science fiction, addresses 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 “real” and “crap” in science fiction, and who gets to decide which is which? Authors? Fans? An elite cadre of “true” fans? Or the general moviegoers, readers and cosplayers whose money funds movies, books and conventions? Share your insights with me.

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2012-jenJ.L. Hilton is the author of the Stellarnet Series published by Carina Press, including Stellarnet Rebel (January 2012) and Stellarnet Prince (November 2012), and is a monthly contributor to the Contact-Infinite Futures blog. She also makes cool wearable things that are featured in the books Steampunk Style Jewelry and 1000 Steampunk Creations. Visit her at or follow her on Google+, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Goodreads and deviantART.


  1. Good discussion of the terms. and Margaret Atwood calls her works as speculative fiction. and now there is a new subgenre of SCI FI that NPR radio recently blabbed about they are calling cli fi for climate fiction. see links here and blog post about cli fi one day here? COOL!

    ”Cli fi enters the MSM as a new term for a subgenre of SCI FI”

    Certainly near-future CLI FI novelists will feature the relationship between humans and the environment more centrally than do most current writers. The seas are rising and the seasons are unraveling: It is inevitable that our …
    more via GOOGLE

  2. hey wow just noticed carina press! they tweeted about cli fi this week and editor there told me she liked the term as a good way to find these kind of books. do you know her? email me offline at danbloom AT gmail, i coined the term cli fi in 2007

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