Do We Need to Retire the SFF Term?

“Victor readjusted the shovels on his shoulder and stepped gingerly over an old, half-sunken grave.”

First line in Vicious by V. E. Schwab

It’s time for a discussion post, and as the title suggests, I want to take a closer look at the SFF term that is so often used in the bookish community. SFF stands for Science Fiction and Fantasy and is a way of talking about both genres collectively. But why would we want to do that, again? Why are these two genres so often grouped together? That is what I want to try and uncover, and maybe discover if it is about time we retire the term.

Firstly, let’s get the basics straight. What is Science Fiction? What is Fantasy? Something is generally defined as Science Fiction if it contains an unknown/nonexistent element that stems from technology. In Fantasy, this unknown/nonexistent element stems from magic or something otherwise unspecified. Sounds pretty straight-forward, right? Well, when you have to genre-categorize a book in real life, it might not necessarily be this clear-cut. Maybe some technology is so fanciful that it practically feels like magic. Or maybe the author doesn’t disclose the origin of the unknown element until book six in the series. Is this the explanation for the SFF term? They are just so hard to distinguish?

In those instances I say: Why not both? A book can fit into more than one genre. We know this. We frequently use genre descriptions such as “Sci-fi Thriller” or “Fantasy Romance”, although they do not have their own abbreviations. At least not ones that are as popularized as SFF. A book can easily be both Science Fiction and Fantasy, but those instances aren’t even behind the most common uses of the SFF abbreviation, so I wouldn’t go ahead and call that an explanation or a justification for its existence. It would have made sense to me if that was the case. That SFF only refers to books that are both Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Then we have the not-so-scientific argument of “Well, a lot of readers like both genres so it makes sense to group them together.” A lot is not all. I also think a lot of readers like Fantasy and Romance (not to be confused with Fantasy Romance), but I know of several readers who would object very heavily if those two genres were grouped together as much as Science Fiction and Fantasy are.
To give a more concrete example of what I’m talking about, I’m going to direct your attention towards Scribd, an online site that provides audiobooks and e-books. Here you can search for books by genre through some predetermined categories. There are more than 50 different categories, but Science Fiction and Fantasy are still in the same one. You will find the same problem on Amazon, and even Goodreads in some cases.

But is all that because they are the same genre? You can argue that Science Fiction is a very popular sub-genre of Fantasy, and therefore this elevation of the (sub)genre is justified, but it can’t be separated from its origin or so to speak. I’m not going to go into the technicalities of that argument, but only say that I don’t think Fantasy needs more sub-genres. Let’s just think of Science Fiction as its own genre since it is so popular why don’t we.

Another category I want to draw into this discussion is Speculative Fiction. It is simply defined as fiction that includes some nonexistent element, or in other words, something that isn’t real in our world and reality. That includes Science Fiction and Fantasy but also throws Horror into the mix. You might notice the similarities with the definitions I mentioned earlier about the nonexistent element, but with Speculative Fiction, there’s no need to look further into the specifics of said element. So why is the Speculative Fiction term not more used when the genres can be so hard to distinguish? You could avoid that problem entirely by using this more broad umbrella term.
Is it because we’re back to the assumption that when you like Science Fiction, you also like Fantasy and vice versa? But that Horror is a bit of a stretch? I can see the reasoning behind that, but then again, some readers will also deem Science Fiction or Fantasy a bit of a stretch.

The final reason behind the SFF term’s existence I could come up with is that it is all a marketing ploy. By marketing something (book, award, article) as SFF, you naturally draw the attention of both Science Fiction fans and Fantasy fans instead of just one of the groups (even though there are overlaps). Marketing isn’t, of course, the intention behind every use of the term, but it might explain its origin. We’ve seen something similar with the category Young Adult, which is something invented by publishers, but it has been embraced by the community as something we naturally use when talking about books. So is that also how SFF was adopted into our language? If that is the case, it might be difficult to change.

To wrap this rambling up, I’m going to be honest and say that the idea for this post, of course, came from the fact that I love Fantasy dearly, but I am not super hyped about Science Fiction. So yes, I would love to see the two genres split up more often, not just to make it easier for me the find the books I want to read, but maybe also to remove some of the peer pressure about how it appears natural to love both genres. And now I really want to stress that this is not me trying to police how other people do blogging, BookTubing, etc. If you love both genres and want to talk about them collectively in recommendation posts or discussions, then please do. Maybe just take a moment to consider why you’re using SFF, and whether it’s something you want to change.

I ask a lot of questions in this post and practically answer none since I’m so far from being an expert on genres, so please share what you think in the comments. Why are Science Fiction and Fantasy joined at the hip? And do they need to be separated?

12 thoughts on “Do We Need to Retire the SFF Term?

  1. I think the reason that Science Fiction and Fantasy is always grouped together is historical. Not only were they (usually) read by the same demographic (in the main young men, at least in the early 20th Century), historically SFF was considered quite ‘low-brow’ literature and therefore consigned to a small part of a book store (usually at the back) and grouped together. There was never ( as far as I know) any marketing plan by publishers or book stores. In fact it was often hard to find SFF books in many bookstores except for the really big names. This was certainly true in the UK back in the 1960s/70s and has only changed in terms of bookstores as SFF has got more popular and is read now by a greater cross-section of people. For myself, I actually prefer them being grouped together. But I am getting on a bit and now find change difficult LOL!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I did try and search for some historical reasons behind SFF but didn’t find much, so I’m really glad you mention that ‘low-brow’ aspect. It makes sense since both genres were something you weren’t “allowed” to read, but then were read anyway by the same demographic, so a community was created.
      However, I would still argue that a lot has changed with both genres gaining a lot more popularity as you say, so I still think they deserve to be separated. But I get that change is difficult 😊


  2. Lots of great points! I use SFF because I like both science fiction and fantasy, but I can definitely see the argument for stopping because while two are kiiiiinda linked, there are a lot of difference between, say, epic fantasy and hard SF (not just in setting).

    I agree that speculative fiction should be the good term, and would nicely wrap horror (which is a subgenre of fantasy and that is a hill I will die on) into the mix. Unfortunately I think it’s gained something of a higher-brow ~literary~ term for people who write fancy science fiction instead of crowd-pleasing science fiction (which is bullshit btw).

    But for those books that blend science fiction and fantasy, I like the term science fantasy (like historical fantasy or fantasy of manners), because SFF has lots of other connotations. In my MLIS I did a subgenre map for fantasy, horror and science fiction and it was fascinating and challenging to figure out where to put what (steampunk can be either SF or F) since there can be a lot of overlap.

    Anywho, great post and I’m sorry I went on and on and on!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really like your point about speculative fiction being something people use to refer to something literary because I think you’re right no matter how much I wish you weren’t. I’m still hoping it gains more popularity because its basic definition talks nothing about excluding those “crowd-pleasing” books.

      And I agree with you that science fantasy is more appropriate when a book has these overlaps. My point about it more a hypothetical thought-experiment about how SFF could have originated. Today it has too many connotations to use in a different way.

      Thank you! I’m glad you liked the post and wanted to write such a lovely long comment 😊

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I did try and find out how SFF came to be because writing this post made me very interested. However, Google wasn’t particularly helpful in that regard, unfortunately.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve never really put much thought into this topic, so this post was very interesting! Personally, I did always think it was strange that sci-fi and fantasy are lumped together so often, since I think they are actually very distinct genres, but it’s never really bothered me too much. Probably because I basically never browse by genre when I’m looking for something new to read. I usually always have so many books on my backlist that when I’m on Scribd, for example, I’ll just immediately search for a specific book. Or take notice of what’s in my recommended feed because Scribd is actually eerily accurate when it comes to my reading tastes… 😅 And also, I absolutely love both fantasy and science fiction, so I don’t mind at all when the books are in the same place in bookstores. It just means that all my favorites are in one spot! 😁

    But I do think it’s annoying when people treat them as though they were the same thing. Technology and magic are so vastly different! And I get how this might be even more frustrating to someone who only really likes one of the two genres…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t think most people who like both genres think about this much, which is also why I wanted to write the post and create some awareness. I used Scribd as an example because the number of categories they have is ridiculous, so why would it be a problem to have one more? However, I’ll also praise their recommendations because they still only recommend me fantasy 😁 I don’t experience the problem in bookstores much because any English section in a bookstore here is so small that I actually appreciate how they still have a section dedicated to sci-fi and fantasy (such sections don’t exist in the Danish parts of the stores at all).

      And I’m glad you say they are not the same! When writing this, I couldn’t stop thinking about how people would react if any other two random genres were combined this often, like the point I made about romance. That is what SFF feels like to me. Guess I’ll just have to deal with it 😅

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, trust me, I feel you on the abysmally small English sections in bookstores 😂 Often, though, I’ll just look at the German versions to get an idea of what the books are about, and if something grabs my attention, I’ll research it a bit more and then order a copy online. I know – I’m playing right into the hands of evil corporate giants like Amazon 😅

        And I totally see your point! Fantasy and science fiction are at least as different as fantasy and romance, if you ask me. So it’s only fair that they should be separated!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve been asking myself the same question a bit recently – I also tried searching it and couldn’t find anything.

    In any case, I’d be happy to decouple them – I’m pretty much a pure fantasy fan who gets disgruntled by “oh you’d like Sci-Fi” (sometimes I reply “no, Sci-Fi smells of wee”) – and if we can’t, fully agree on going with Speculative Fiction instead. Let Horror fans into the club!

    Liked by 1 person

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