You Say “Sci-Fi,” I Say SF: Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off…

Tuesday┬ánight I taught the introduction class of my science fiction writing class at the Loft. We had our usual discussion of the definitions of SF and F, and I alluded to the fact that the term “sci-fi” is considered derogatory by some science fiction fans and writers. At the time, of course, I couldn’t put my finger on the source of the issue. So yesterday morning, I found a bit of a wikipedia article about the kerfuffle:

Forrest J. Ackerman publicly used the term “sci-fi” at UCLA in 1954, though Robert A. Heinlein had used it in private correspondence six years earlier. 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 such as Terry Carr and Damon Knight were using “sci-fi” to distinguish hack-work from serious science fiction, and around 1978, Susan Wood and others introduced the pronunciation “skiffy.” Peter Nicholls writes that “SF” (or “sf”) is “the preferred abbreviation within the community of sf writers and readers.” 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 seen by people outside the genre.

I grew up in an era (70s/80s) where using the term “sci-fi” was still considered gauche in the circle of “serious” writers and fans. I think, however, as I said in class, this is changing. This may be because of an influx of younger, media-savvy fans/readers. As this snippet from Scifipedia suggests…

“Over the years, Sci Fi’s meaning in popular culture has changed to refer almost exclusively to movies and TV with science fiction genre-related themes. Among some in fandom, the term is often used in a derogatory and dismissive way. Some purposely mispronounce the term as “skiffy” and use it to refer to poor quality science fiction and fantasy. Many committed Science Fiction readers refuse to use the term at all, preferring the more generic initialism, “SF.”

…the term has been co opted by the media, and thus has fallen into much more regular use. In my opinion, the use of “sci-fi” no longer stigmatizes the user as a “mundane” (non-initiate into science fiction fandom/prodom).

What do you think? Which term do you prefer or do you not have a preference? Is it a matter of po-tato, poh-tato to you?

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  1. 1. Jim C. Hines

    Heh … I got mildly reamed at the WotF workshop way back when, for using “sci-fi” when talking about one of the stories.

    I tend to distinguish sci-fi (ie, the latest junk flick of the week from the Sci Fi Channel) vs. SF or Science Fiction (ie, the latest Scalzi book) in my mind, but I’ve got no problem with others swapping the terms around.

  2. 2. Bran Fan

    I tend to use “sci fi” for movies and tv (regardless of quality) and “SF” for books and short stories (regardless of quality). I guess it just shows where my loyalty lies.

  3. 3. Matt

    I’ve heard this before, and yet I persist in saying “sci-fi,” even when referring to serious genre work. For me, I think the reasoning is pretty simple: I just won’t aloud say “ess-eff.” People unfamiliar with the genre in all likelihood wouldn’t know what I was talking about and moreover, they don’t have that semantic distinction. At least, I would guess; I know I was oblivious to the whole issue for a long time.

    Yet in writing, I’ll use SF just as often–maybe more, even–than sci-fi. Maybe I’m being lazy and just want to save myself keystrokes. I guess it’s a matter of context, really. But if I ever get reamed for misusing one or the other, I’ll probably be a lot more vigilant about proper terminology, heh.

  4. 4. Mie Brotherton

    I prefer sf.

    When I sold my first novel to Tor, my editor emailed me to say that it had good skiffy values…and I had to ask her what that term meant!

  5. 5. Mie Brotherton

    I also prefer “sf” since that can mean (in my head) speculative fiction, too, and include fantasy and harder to classify stories. I’m sorry, but when people refer to Harry Potter as “science fiction” — and they do — it just makes me want to scream.

  6. 6. SarahP

    Skiffy, definitely.

  7. 7. Jim

    Yep, potato, potahto, whatever. To me they’re synonymous and always have been. If I’m going to refer to ‘B’-type sci-fi movies, then I’ll call them that – ‘B’-type sci-fi movies.

    On a related note, does any besides me actively use the phrase ‘speculative fiction’?

  8. 8. Kristine Smith

    I also use the term “speculative fiction,” just because it covers an entire realm of work that some might argue doesn’t fall under the more strict header of ‘science fiction.’ I tend to use it to cover SF, F, horror, and all the variations in between. Anything that isn’t strictly realistic.


  9. 9. Kristine Smith

    But then, I’ve also used the term “skiffy.” Because I like the way it sounds.

  10. 10. Satima Flavell

    I’ve stopped using SF because it can stand for both Sci Fi (which I pronounce Sigh Fi, BTW) and Speculative Fiction, a more inclusive term which I prefer to abbreviate to SpecFic.

  11. 11. Marie Brennan

    I use “speculative fiction” and “spec fic” to refer to science fiction, fantasy, and supernatural horror, and all their interstitial slipstreamy neither-fish-nor-fowl cousins. (In fact, my class next spring is called “Writing Speculative Fiction.”) To my way of thinking, it’s a good umbrella term for non-mimetic fiction.

    I tend to say SF more than sci-fi, and when I say sci-fi I do tend to mean media and/or stuff I think is kind of hacky. But mostly I’m a fantasy person anyway.

  12. 12. Blue Tyson

    SF is much quicker to type. Important for tags, etc. :)

  13. 13. Karen Wester Newton

    I like the term spec fic as being all inclusive of science fiction and fantasy as well as being easily understandable. I don’t think most people (as in the population of the U.S.) use sci-fi as a pejorative. They just mean science fiction. If they don’t like science fiction, it won’t matter what word they use.

    And I have no patience with writers who act visibly insulted when a fan calls their work sci-fi and then in the next breath complain that they don’t have enough fans. Call it SF if you want to, but don’t treat people badly when they don’t know the insider terminology.

  14. 14. Jackie Kessler

    I’m taking notes, to make sure I don’t commit a faux pas at the next convention I attend.

  15. 15. David de Beer

    Sometimes I use SF to mean all speculative fiction, from skiffy to fantasy to horror and whatnot, and other times I’ll say spec fic, but in the latter case is when I want to be specific that I’m referring to the entirety of weird thingies.

    othertimes I use SF to refer to science fiction, but I also happily use sci-fi, cause that’s the way I grew up learning it and it feels ridiculous to get huffy about the terminology.

    if I really want to be specific about which branch I’m referring to, I’ll call it fantasy or science fiction (or sci-fi), or horror.
    Otherwise I just call it SF.
    I seldomly call it skiffy.

    no matter what phrase you use, people pretty much most of the time know what you mean.
    if people want to get huffy about something stupid and irrelevant, I’ll likely deliberatly keep using the “wrong” phrase just to see if/ when their head explodes or what variances of red and purple their faces can get:)

    it’s all the same to me; sides, as Tyson said, SF is faster to type in tags..

  16. 16. S. M. Payne

    I’ve always called it SFF, Science Fiction Fantasy, because I love both and what I write combines the two indiscriminately.

Author Information

Lyda Morehouse

Lyda Morehouse is the author of the science fiction AngeLINK series. She's won the Shamus and the Philip K. Dick Special Citation for Excellence (aka 2nd place). Her books have also been nominated for the Romantic Times Critics' Choice and preliminary Nebula ballot. She lives in the deep-freeze of Saint Paul, MN with her partner of twenty-odd years, their son, and lots and lots of cats (and fish!) Visit site.



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