In communities discussing written s*f*, I've often found the following terminology:

  • Speculative fiction, or sf, is anything that asks “what if?”: stories about the future, fantasy, alternate history, etc.
  • Science fiction is a subset of sf, usually for stories being set in the author's conceivable future.
  • Sci-fi is somewhat pejorative, associated with B movies and pulp.

How common is this terminology amongst written sf communities? What terms do others, especially sf movie fans use?

  • Don't forget SyFy. ;)
    – livingtech
    Mar 9, 2011 at 7:50
  • Borderline general reference, isn't it?
    – bitmask
    Nov 10, 2012 at 5:23
  • @bitmask How so? I've linked to the Wikipedia articles that I've read; my question is something that isn't covered in these articles. What other obvious references did I miss?
    – user56
    Nov 10, 2012 at 12:17
  • @Gilles: The linked WP pages seem to describe the terms rather well, but it's very possible I'm missing the point of the question.
    – bitmask
    Nov 10, 2012 at 12:21
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    @bitmask The WP pages describe the meaning of the terms, but it is very light on usage. In particular, the paragraph on “sci-fi” is based on anecdotes, not on statistical studies, and biased towards the written communities as opposed to the movie communities. By the way, although I have accepted a pretty terse answer, I would prefer a more in-depth study (or a summary and link to an existing one).
    – user56
    Nov 10, 2012 at 12:26

4 Answers 4


I mostly agree with your definitions. I have some expansions, and then some numbers.

SF can be an umbrella term encompassing science fiction, fantasy, and horror (and their relatives). Or SF can just be an abbreviation for science fiction (which is how I'll use it in the rest of this answer -- I'll use SFFH for the superset). The intended meaning is usually clear from context.

Speculative fiction can be the SFFH umbrella above, opened up. More often (IMHO), speculative fiction is used to distinguish SF (and other SFFH, but mostly SF) that's more self-consciously literary, usually by attempting to go beyond pulp adventure. Spec fic in that sense may have: less emphasis on science -- and lots less emphasis on gadgetry; societies that are interesting and complex; characters who are well-rounded rather than cardboard cutouts; and style that's more literary. Fancyclopedia 3 (a highly-recommended fannish reference) has elements of both senses, defining speculative fiction as "Any fiction of a speculative nature, but especially science fiction, fantasy and horror that feels embarrassed when it is called science fiction, fantasy or horror."

Science fiction -- yep. Defining science fiction is a fun game, so I could spend all day fussing around with your definition (here, add a pinch of alternate multiverse; over there two dashes of science -- if you're out, you may substitute the articial ingredient sciencey-ness ... ). But I probably would end up making the definition longer but not any more accurate.

To make things more confusing, science fiction sometimes is used to mean SFFH, just like SF and speculative fiction. I believe this usage is declining. The field's leading writers' organization, SFWA,

was originally named Science Fiction Writers of America. At that time, the distinction between science fiction and fantasy was less important and SFWA’s name was accepted as encompassing both.

Later, the name of the organization was changed to Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, although the acronym SFWA was not changed.

Sci fi -- spot on, although the pejorative connotation is declining. The decline was slow after the mid-1960s, and faster after 1992 -- especially among fans and writers of visual media. Some pronounce it skiffy when they want to emphasize the pulpy/B-movie sense.

  • Isaac Asimov said in 1978, "We can define "sci-fi" as trashy material sometimes confused, by ignorant people, with s.f. Thus, Star Trek is s.f. while Godzilla Meets Mothra is sci-fi."
  • Marion Zimmer Bradley said in 1993, "nobody in the actual field ever says 'sci-fi'..."

Let's look at some actual numbers from some great resources for sf/fannish history. Fanac.org and eFanzines.com aren't a complete corpus of everything fannish, but they're pretty damn good. (Both sites focus overwhelmingly on written SF. Alas, I don't know of similar places for media fandom.) This won't tell us how the terms are used within the SF community, but it shows how popular they are (For how, see the boldfaced SF Cites links above). I searched for phrases on each site (like this: site:fanac.org "science fiction"). Dates are mostly from SF Citations.

First use  Fanac   eFzine  phrase
---------  -----   ------  -------------
1851/1927    2820    3460  science fiction
     1929    2100    3210  SF
     1954     374     921  sci fi
1889/1948     189     399  speculative fiction
     1916      33     205  scientifiction (clunky Gernsback coinage, generally superseded by "science fiction")
     1931     251     321  stf (abbrev. for "scientifiction", either nostalgic or very old-school)
    1976?      64     185  skiffy (joking -- well, half-joking -- pronunciation of "sci fi")
    1975?       0       1  structural fabulation (an academic term) 

Late edit: Links for boldfaced terms go to Science Fiction Citations, an excellent site done by the Oxford English Dictionary for crowd-sourcing first uses of sf terms (many thanks to user14111 for pointing it out). It has definitions, dates of first use, and many examples showing how usage may have evolved. Science Fiction Citations is the precursor to (and occasional follow-up for) the highly-recommended Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction.

  • I forgot to mention that the Asimov quotation is from "The Name of Our Field", an essay pertinent to your question. (It was much more pertinent when it was first published, nearly 25 years ago.)
    – sjl
    Nov 12, 2012 at 18:17
  • @user14111. I forgot about that great resource. Just added your links. Thanks!
    – sjl
    Aug 14, 2013 at 18:58
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    Don't forget Hugo Gernsback's "scientifiction" - which never caught on to my knowledge, but you gotta cite it, 'cause it's, you know, Hugo. May 10, 2017 at 3:23
  • @JonKiparsky, added "scientifiction." A little surprising to see it used less than "stf".
    – sjl
    May 11, 2017 at 8:51
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    And you could always add the "alternate phrase" which I encountered with (I think) Harlan Ellison. Who rather sarcastically suggested that "sci fi" is the plural of "scum fum". And, just to be clear, he was one of those opposed to "sci fi". Oct 23, 2018 at 18:34

I always thought SF was generally the agreed-upon term for science fiction by authors. I've always seen speculative fiction written out. Sci-fi or scifi is pejorative only outside the scifi community.

  • What is the “scifi community”? (Is there a single community that calls itself “scifi”?) Oh, and do you make a distinction between “sci-fi” and “scifi”?
    – user56
    Jan 14, 2011 at 20:58
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    From Wikipedia: "a community of people actively interested in science fiction and fantasy literature, and in contact with one another based upon that interest." I, as a regional member of that community, state that I and my regional peers consider scifi or sci-fi (no distinction) pejorative only by people who are not in that community, since I use it extensively to describe the genre with no negative connotations.
    – morganpdx
    Jan 14, 2011 at 21:20
  • @morganpdx: Not from Wikipedia Scifi_community. <google> Ok, that's from science fiction fandom. But I've encountered people who are US sf fans and use the terminology I describe in my question. It seemed to be the rule on rasfw back when I lurked there, for instance.
    – user56
    Jan 14, 2011 at 23:13
  • @gilles: Most of my experiences with the term are from f2f discussion. scifi.SE is my first online discussion :) As such, my answer is based on more regional usage.
    – morganpdx
    Jan 14, 2011 at 23:24
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    So basically then, the answer is 'it depends on who you ask'.
    – morganpdx
    Jan 14, 2011 at 23:26

The term "Speculative Fiction" is largely the brainchild of New Wave 1970's writers like Harlan Ellison and Judith Merrill. They were dissatisfied with both the negative connotation of the phrase Science Fiction, and with the conventions of that style at the time.

  • 2
    This answer would be improved by a citation.
    – Kyle Jones
    Nov 10, 2012 at 15:40

Science fiction has been used by authors to discuss philosophical ideas .Science fiction is a genre of fictions which tells us the future stories. These stories involve partial truth, part fiction and theory of science. Science fiction narrates the connection between the present till the future. Some science fiction stories do not occur in future because number of science fiction stories describe the actual future that will ensue in the real world. A few stories may branch from the present and a few may branch from the past. When Science fiction comes from the past it becomes historical and historical are not fantasies.

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