Sci-fi and S.F. – what’s the difference?

I was talking to someone the other day about one of my hobby-horses: the difference between sci-fi and s.f., why you need to have the two separate labels and why you need to be careful about which label you use.  I should say that I love both sub-genres, and for that matter fantasy writing as well.  As with all genres, there are example of the good, the bad and the ugly.  A really rollicking space opera beats a dry, turgid s.f. offering hands down, but there is a lot to be said for a carefully constructed, well researched piece of s.f.

Whilst doing some chores, my mind wandered a bit and I think I may have come up with the first scientifically grounded definition of the difference between s.f. and sci-fi/fantasy.  I’ve not done any research on this, so I’d be glad to hear differently, but I think that most definitions are grounded in linguistics i.e. we usually talk about s.f. as requiring scientific laws to be obeyed, whereas in Sci-fi any cod or quasi-science can be thrown into the mix.  There are variations on this, and you could say that this is a scientific definition.  My argument is that this is a veneer put on top of a more fundamental defintition, or if you like a secondary analysis.  If we go back to the raw data, as it were, then we can find something which I think forms the core of the issue.  It goes something like this:

There are a number of physical laws fundamental to science that need to be obeyed.  There are also a number of things that we think are true, but sometimes only under certain conditions.  One of the important ones is that energy cannot be created or destroyed.  (I think that this is now perhaps a Pratchett “lie to children” , and there are circumstances where this might not be true, but under normal conditions, and indeed in more than 99% of the Universe, this is the truth).  It can be changed (e.g. from chemical to mechanical, heat to light etc), but it cannot be removed from the Universe.  Hence in s.f., energy is moved around using the laws that we understand and within the constraints that we know exist – there are few (if any) perfectly efficient systems for converting energy.  In Sci-fi energy can be transmuted any-old-how, with no thought as to how that conversion is to be effected, no time constraints (instantaneous energy) and with no regard to energy balance – energy can be created or destroyed.

That’s my 2p, anyway.  What do you think?


5 thoughts on “Sci-fi and S.F. – what’s the difference?

  1. Having never once in my entire life thought about this issue, I agree with your assessment. Makes sense to me and has made aware of a subgenre distinction that heretofore I was unaware of. Which is to say, thanks… and that the next time I’m in a bookstore I’m going to look at the books with a more discerning eye. ‘Cause now I know.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Ally – thanks for dropping by: good to see you!
      As with all distinctions, it doesn’t matter at all until it does, if you see what I mean. Good writing is good writing: it’s usually when someone with an overactive sense of what’s exciting writes a screenplay that things get awkward (changing genres, any scene involving Legolas in the film franchise *rolls eyes*). Where writers just need to be a bit careful is if they are trying to commit s.f., it has to work, or the whole thing comes tumbling down. As far as I can tell, Paul Macualey is a very careful s.f. writer, whereas Peter Hamilton is a very expansive sci-fi writer. Both do fabulously broad approaches, which include architecture, sociology, philosphy, religion – pretty much the whole human experience, but one keeps it in the world of the possible, and one definitely steps outside this. Mind you, one has to be careful when you make these rash statements – I saw the precursor to something Peter Hamilton has used in the past in the press the other day…he still writes sci-fi though!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. It never occurred to me that “sci fi” could be a legitimate term! Most of my favourite spec fic stories are “sci fi” in your sense, though I’m blowed if I’ll use the term in front of the kind of people who don’t read either and use the term “sci fi” as one of contempt!

    But I do love hard SF as well, my favourite being Stephen Baxter, who can do hard SF and STILL create characters you care about and a story that is about more than technology.

    Liked by 1 person

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