“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?