Should we distinguish between “science fiction” and “sci-fi”?

This recent question, reality check - How big could a space-ship get while still being plausible? - Worldbuilding Stack Exchange, reminded me of the difference between real "science fiction" and "sci-fi".

Science fiction takes a simple concept (ideally a possible event, but blatantly impossible can work too) and asks what if it actually happened? The resulting story is about the reactions of society and/or individuals to that speculative change.

Sci-fi is simply a normal, main-stream story that has been transposed into the tropes and memes that have become a standard part of science fiction. The story itself is not science fiction.

While it is possible to have good sci-fi, it still won't be science fiction. The original Star Trek was science fiction; the original Star Wars was sci-fi. The film Outland was blatant sci-fi (a remake of High Noon), but still well done.

This science fiction versus sci-fi distinction isn't recent. 70 years ago, Galaxy Magazine was founded on this basic premise:

As author Spider Robinson said, there is science fiction, and there is sci-fi, the plural of scum fum (or perhaps scus fus).

I realize it would be a big job, and is unlikely to happen, but it would make things a lot nicer if questions distinguished between science fiction and sci-fi.

UPDATE:

I remember one of Isaac Asimov magazine editorials giving a very disparaging definition of "sci-fi", but can't seem to find it anywhere. And almost all the items I did find ended up referring to Asimov as a "sci-fi" writer, something that he would not have appreciated.

In Asimov quote on the crucial essence of science fiction, he stated:

What is important about science fiction, even crucial, is the very thing that gave it birth — the perception of change through technology. It is not that science fiction predIcts this particular change or that that makes it important; it is that it predicts CHANGE.

This crucial factor is something that sci-fi neglects; it doesn't care about how technology changes society, it only cares that society has changed, and simply makes use of that setting.

Admittedly, by now the distinction between "science fiction" and "sci-fi" has all but disappeared, at least in terminology, but that is the real problem here. When vocabulary changes, especially when distinct words become synonyms, meaning gets lost.

The comments given so far make several observations, each of which misses the point:

• The original distinction between sci-fi and sf had little to do with the quality of the writing or production (though there was often a high correlation).
• Neither did it have a lot to do with the plausibility of the underlying premises.
• Nor with hard versus soft science.

Yes, these are all important issues, and they can apply to both science fiction and sci-fi, but they are unrelated to the definition of "real" science fiction.

The text you quote (in the image) doesn't seem relevant at all. it just makes the claim that Galaxy will have what its author considers "quality content", but doesn't make any point about the distinction you are drawing between "sci-fi" and "science fiction". — terdon

No, that is exactly what it doesn't say. You are completely missing its point.

It doesn't say that their fiction will be "high quality"; it says that their fiction will be fiction that must be science fiction, as opposed to fiction that would work equally well in a different genre.

There are stories that can be told only in a science fiction setting. Consider classics such as The Invisible Man, The Time Machine, Frankenstein, Brave New World, or 1984. These novels are pure science fiction: their plots require the science fiction genre.

A novel such as Moby Dick could be written in a science fictional setting, with the Pequod as a space ship, and the whale as some kind of space monster. But no matter how well written it is, and no matter how believable it is, and no matter how hard the science is, it would still be "sci-fi", not "science fiction".

If you think 1984 is a story about things that happen to a man while working for a government agency, you didn't get it. 1984 is about something far deeper and broader than that; it is about society, about the need for war, about Stalinism, about truth, and about many other important ideas. But those ideas could be expressed only as an allegory using the techniques of science fiction; it simply wouldn't work as a mainstream novel.

That is what makes something science fiction; not the apparent genre, but the necessity for that genre.

The quoted article, 'It drives writers mad': why are authors still sniffy about sci-fi? | Books | The Guardian, is about authors that write science fiction and then deny that what they have written is science fiction. It's an excellent illustration of my point.

There is a good reason they do this, and that reason is directly related to the (current lack of) distinction between science fiction and sci-fi.

Consider an analogy. Suppose your knowledge of Christianity comes from such experiences as choir masters with Roman hands and nuns that rap knuckles with rulers when you don't follow their rules. You also learn about the Inquisition and Crusades as part of the history of Christianity. Later in life you happen to read the Bible and discover some amazing philosophical insights. But when you describe your new ideas to someone else, they tell you "yes, that's what Christianity is all about". "No," you say, "that's not Christianity, it's something far better than that!". The concepts you have developed are so much better than what you have come to think of as Christianity that they can't possibly be Christian.

The same thing happened when Margaret Atwood discovered that the best way to express her ideas about society, women, religion, politics, etc. was to use the devices of science fiction to build her metaphor. She of course didn't recognize it as such, because her past experience with that genre was with crappy sci-fi films and stories of, as she said, "monsters and spaceships". She must have thought: "This couldn't possibly be science fiction, it is so much better than that nonsense. Don't insult me!". But in fact she had written science fiction, she simply couldn't admit it because she didn't know that real science fiction even existed.

I know it's a lost cause, but once again:

• Science fiction stories contain metaphors, allegories, etc. that cannot be told in any other genre without losing their message.
• Sci-fi is a genre of stories that use the memes and tropes of science fiction to tell a story that could just as well have been told in a different genre.

I'll add this distinction to my list of lost words, the most egregious of which is "wherefore"'s being subsumed by "why", rendering poor Juliet's pivotal speech universally misunderstood.

• The lines are really hard to draw here - case in point, you identify 'Star Trek' as science-fiction as opposed to sci-fi. But Star Trek has the warp drive, which makes even less sense than the Star Wars hyperdrive (which itself is is just a misnamed FTL drive). Not to mention the sheer amount of handwavium that the original Star Trek used. I'm not disparaging it, I'm just saying that these kinds of lines are hard to draw. (To clarify - the problem with Warp Drives in Star Trek is they treat 'warp factor 10' like the new limit of the fastest things can go and it makes no sense.) – Halfthawed Jul 1 '20 at 4:20
• Can you please indicate a reputable source (other than the extemporaneous and idiosyncratic musings of a North American writer) that there exists indeed an accepted difference in usage between "science-fiction" and "sci-fi"? Because I am inclined to believe that you are mistaken and there is no such difference. – AlexP Jul 1 '20 at 17:36
• I'm a moderator at Science Fiction & Fantasy and have always used the terms "science fiction" and "sci-fi" completely interchangeably. I'm always happy to learn something new, so will be very interested in a reputable source for the distinction you propose, but I'm with @AlexP here. – Rand al'Thor Jul 1 '20 at 17:37
• The text you quote (in the image) doesn't seem relevant at all. it just makes the claim that Galaxy will have what its author considers "quality content", but doesn't make any point about the distinction you are drawing between "sci-fi" and "science fiction". You are associating one term with one sub genre and the other with the other. For what it's worth, I've been an ardent fan of speculative fiction (with a preference for hard sci-fi, what you seem to be calling "science fiction") for at least 25 years and have always used "sci-fi" and "science fiction" interchangeably. – terdon Jul 1 '20 at 17:42
• @Halfthawed, no, my distinction has nothing to do with the believability of the story's basic premises. See the addition to my question. – Ray Butterworth Jul 1 '20 at 19:22
• @terdon, no, they didn't claim "quality content", they claimed content that couldn't be written as anything but science fiction. See the addition to my question. – Ray Butterworth Jul 1 '20 at 19:24
• "Content that couldn't be written as anything but science fiction": can you please give an example? As far as I'm aware, there cannot possibly be any such thing. "I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one. . . . Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil. . . . There is no other story." (John Steinbeck, East of Eden) – AlexP Jul 1 '20 at 20:31
• @AlexP, that's because Steinbeck wrote stories about individuals. Even where there is an underlying message, it is still about individuals, and limited to our past and present. Some ideas are too big for that, and need a bigger setting than a few individuals in one small part of this universe. Steinbeck could have written about a man living under Stalin's oppression, but even if great it would still be about only one man. Orwell wrote about an entire society oppressed by an extrapolation of Stalin's rule. 1984 couldn't have been written in any real-world setting; it is true science fiction. – Ray Butterworth Jul 1 '20 at 21:27
• In what way is Orwell's 1984 more a story about an entire world, whereas Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath isn't? And there are many many many stories set in fictitious worlds, usually, just like in 1984, thinly veiled versions of our real world. There is nothing essentially SF about such stories; is Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda "essentially SF"? I'd say not. There is even an entire genre of Ruritanian romance. And if works "about an entire society" are essentially SF, does this apply to Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth? – AlexP Jul 1 '20 at 21:34
• @AlexP, are you saying 1984 isn't sf? Either way, Grapes of Wrath is about how bad things are, while 1984 is about how bad things could be, and that's a fundamental difference. Zenda says, "let's have this pretend country where we can write a plot without having to worry about what's happening in real countries". 1984 says, "what if there were a country where Stalin's (and other's) ideas are taken to the extreme? What would people's lives be like? How would people react to it, both as individuals and as a society? …?", and again, that is a fundamental difference. – Ray Butterworth Jul 1 '20 at 22:52
• @AlexP, one fundamental aspect of science fiction is that the what if drives the plot, and that plot must logically (scientifically) follow from that original postulate. The "science" doesn't have to be physics, it could be political science, social science, or whatever. The crucial thing is that the original postulate must be the backbone that shapes the story. In sci-fi, all that's postulated is that the common memes and tropes of science fiction exist. The story uses that as a background, a background that could be changed to something completely different without affecting the plot. – Ray Butterworth Jul 1 '20 at 22:59
• @rayButterworth my point about your quote not being relevant wasn't about quality. You seem to be making a claim about how the terms "sci-fi" and "science fiction" are used to mean different things. However, you haven't shown any evidence of this and the text you quote doesn't mention "sci-fi" anywhere. That's why it doesn't seem relevant. You seem to believe that it is talking about science fiction vs sci-fi, but since the latter term is never used, I don't understand what makes you think so. – terdon Jul 6 '20 at 18:51

4 Answers

I'd be inclined to vote against this, for a couple of reasons.

First: It's not clear to me that this is really a settled issue. I can find loads of folks online arguing both for and against making the decision, with at least one person claiming that this dispute has been going on for nearly half a century. Our sister site, Science Fiction & Fantasy (which, interestingly, uses scifi in their URL), has an interesting discussion on the matter, and I'm not convinced that there's a consensus - it seems to differ based on what community you ask (e.g. writers vs. filmmakers vs. movie fans vs. critics). So I'm a little bit wary of us coming down on one side of the debate.

(Plus, if we were to end up doing so, we'd almost certainly have debates on the great majority of posts that refer to "science fiction" or "sci-fi", and nobody wants to go through this whole argument again and again and again. . .)

This leads into a second point: The average person almost certainly assumes that the two terms are synonymous. Yes, I admit that very few people on this site in particular fit the description of an "average person", but still - I'll bet my hat that ~90% of folks trying to use one of the terms will "misapply" it if we claim that there's only one correct way to use each term. I think this is a case where expected user behavior should strongly determine policy. Seems a bit pointless to expend so much lot of effort on policing that arguably won't succeed.

Finally - and this is something I've only come up with after trying to wrap my head around the nuances here for a day or so: put bluntly, what's the point? Sure, we all want clarity and precision in posts, but I don't see this leading to clarity or precision - precisely the opposite. A question asker never just says that their universe is a "science fiction" or "sci-fi" setting; they give many more details, and those details are the key ones. Correcting this term won't make posts clearer to answerers, commenters, or casual readers because that term doesn't encapsulate the information they need to know.

One problem with this is that "sci-fi" (or even "SF") is simply the abbreviation for "science fiction".

Sci-fi is a very broad genre that can cover anything from hard sci-fi to soft, to science fantasy to space mystery to speculative fictions of various kinds. And of course, each also has its common and high literary variants! In other words, the two terms are tautologically synonymous.

What Galaxy is promoting seems to be something more like hard sci-fi or at least literary sci-fi. (It's been a while since I've read Galaxy, so I could be mistaken there! I'd have to poke around for a copy to see.)

I argue that this is a distinction without a difference and is a can of worms best left unoped, Pandora! Consider for example this article about Machines Like Me. The author stamps his foot and says "it's not science fiction" when it's obvious that what he's writing is in point of fact sci-fi.

shrug

All due respect to the world famous Canadian author Arachnid Saxicolinas, but the difference he proposes is silly.

• The only difference between science-fiction and sci-fi is that science-fiction is the full-length formal term, and sci-fi is the colloquial short nickname.

• It may be a purely Nearctic cultural phenomenon. In my own language, that is Romanian, and in French, and in Italian, the normal short nickname for science-fiction is SF (seh-feh in Romanian, ess-eff in French, esseh-effeh in Italian). Surely if the difference of usage existed and was recognized other languages would have acquired it -- after all, the Nearctic realm is one of the world most prominent sources of scientific-fictional fiction.

In conclusion,

• The difference in usage between science-fiction and sci-fi does not exist, or at best (to be charitable) is limited to a handful of critics in North America.

• The actual terms in actual usage are "hard science-fiction" and "soft science-fiction".

Addendum

The querent edited the question to clarify that in their opinion,

"There are stories that can be told only in a science fiction setting. Consider classics such as The Invisible Man, The Time Machine, Frankenstein, Brave New World, or 1984. These novels are pure science fiction: their plots require the science fiction genre."

This is patently, blatantly, obviously false.

• The invisible man: there is zero necessary science fiction in the plot. The entire plot revolves around around the psychological dissolution of a person who is invisible and has no means of returning to a normal condition. It is irrelevant how the hero became invisible -- it could have been a spell, it could have been a magic potion.

In Plato's Republic, written in the 4th century before the common era, there is a story of a certain Gyges, who found a ring which had the power of making him invisible: and using this newly found power, he seduced the queen, murdered the king with her help, and crowned himself king in his stead. Plato uses this story to illustrate the point that "all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice".

That much for the necessarily science-fiction character of a story older than the hills.

• In The Time Machine, the science-fiction aspects are pure window-dressing. The core of the story is H. G. Wells's doom and gloom prophecy of the necessary degeneration of the human race induced by the capitalist mode of production. The SF framework is just a framework, a device skillfully used by the writer to present his gloomy prophecy in a captivating manner. The exact same prophecy could have been presented in other, different, ways.

• Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a sciencey-fictioney retelling of the old story of the Golem. It's a great horror story, told by a great writer; but it is in no way necessarily science-fiction.

• Aldous Huxley's Brave New World is an exploration of the dark sides of any Utopia. One could profitably think of it as a novelization of Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan. The science-fiction aspects are there only in order to illustrate Huxley's belief that there is no technological silver bullet to solve the problems of mankind. Any human society will have its misfits, and its dark side.

By the way, the soma which is consumed by the denizens of the Brave New World and keeps them in a haze of mindless haziness is prefigurated in episode of the lotophages in Homer's (!) Odyssey. That story is more than two and a half millennia old.

• And finally, the inclusion of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four on the list of fundamentally sciencey-fictioney novels is very strange. There is precious little SF in it: just about all the technical devices were already available in Orwell's time.

I don't see what makes Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four an essentially science-fiction work, which doesn't equally apply to Hayek's Road to Serfdom. Yes, Orwell is a much better writer, and his work is much richer in nuances and humanity; but essentially SF? I think not.

• Wikipedia lists 1984 as "social science fiction" and The Invisible Man and The Time Machine as "science fiction", so it's hardly just my opinion. "There is precious little SF in it: just about all the technical devices were already available in Orwell's time." Science fiction doesn't have to be about technology; you're thinking of sci-fi. – Ray Butterworth Jul 1 '20 at 23:18
• "Frankenstein is … in no way necessarily science-fiction.", but it is. It starts with "What if man could create life?", and naturally follows from there, that's what science fiction is. But Gyges' ring is something that makes the plot easier to write, not something that drives it. If it had been written as science fiction, the story would instead ask the question, "how would an invisibility ring affect society?". – Ray Butterworth Jul 1 '20 at 23:19
• Road to Serfdom is non-fiction. 1984 is fiction (though the continuing loss of hardcopy and the instant revisionism that the WWW provides seems to be going beyond even Orwell's worst fears). – Ray Butterworth Jul 1 '20 at 23:26
• so should the sci-fi and science-fiction tag get merged? (is it possible?) since its the same thing? – Li Jun Jul 3 '20 at 7:55

Marketing: the action or business of promoting and selling products or services

I've been in marketing a long time. The above definition is the polite definition. Here's one that might be more accurate, if not more precise:

Marketing is the act of convincing someone your product is the right choice even when it isn't.

Galaxy magazine wasn't espousing an established definition — it was marketing itself through elitism. "Buy our product because it's the real McCoy!" It's a marketing tactic that's a whole lot more popular than you might think and one of the foils of the movie Kate & Leopold ("If you eat his margarine maybe your hips will shrink and he'll come to your door.")

The entire argument is daft to me. I remember an old Dragon magazine that had a comic strip pointing out a basic fact. It never matters if it's a blaster or a Wand of Lightning - the story is the same.

And the story really is the same. a "what if?" story examining the reactions to that speculative change will always rely on one of the seven basic plots no matter what anybody says or thinks.

My family ran a micropublishing company for seven years. We read tens of thousands of manuscripts. Believe me, there's no discernible difference between "scifi" and "science fiction" other than in the eyes of people who want to argue about it. In fact, you'll almost always find a "boy meets girl" subplot because subconsciously we know that no story will sell without a little sex — and the story isn't science-fiction-vs-scifi just because someone changed it to "boy meets fembot" and tried to examine the pathos behind disassociative relationships.

Conclusion: I believe there's no value whatsoever to implementing this recommendation. I'm firmly in the camp that there isn't even a consistently objective distinction.