The meaning of 'SF' has been the subject of exhaustive (and exhausting) debate in a great many forums. It is unlikely to be conclusively resolved any time soon. However: It can, in general, either stand for Science Fiction or for Speculative Fiction. Neither should be confused with Sci Fi.
One interesting system of nomenclature was proposed by Samuel R Delany?, who mapped genre to grammatical mode. He suggested that:
Note that under this system, Ted Chiang stories such as Tower Of Babylon are fairly unambiguously Fantasy.
Delaney further linked this to the way in which books had to be read; he posits that SF and mimetic fiction are read in different ways, and an SF book is simply anything written to be read as SF. Could someone familiar with this argument explain it properly? It sounds like handwaving nonsense to me, but i'm sure it's not. -- TA
See About Five Thousand Seven Hundred And Fifty Words. -- NH
In making this argument, Delaney produced some phrases which have become classic examples in the analysis of SF, as they have entirely different meanings in the two modes of reading; two are "I turned on my left side" (rolling over in bed or powering up half your body?) and "Her world exploded" (she was really upset or her planet was demolished?).
I don't buy this argument. There are plenty of ambiguous phrases in any human language, and the correct meaning has to be decided from the context; an SF novel will have a different context from a mimetic novel, but so what? SF novels can have different contexts from one another - for example, if either of those sentences were in (for example) 'The Songs Of Distant Earth', they would have the mimetic meaning, not the so-called SF one.
Another system considers the intellectual rigour of the world and story under consideration. The approach that follows 'if that were' to its logical conclusion is Science Fiction, and probably Hard SF to boot. The approach that uses 'if that were' for the generation of wonder or the creation of scenery is Fantasy.
This Island Earth is a classic SF B Movie.
Aren't SF B Movies Sci Fi, pretty much by definition?
Possibly. However, This Island Earth is most definitely not a B Movie; it's a well-made fully-operational Feature Film in its own right.
All right, so where does Doctor Who fit in?? -- TL
If only there were Wiki Zens who knew enough about Doctor Who to explain... It seems to be pretty unambiguously Sci Fi to me, although (as I'm sure you know better than I) the books have taken in pretty much every genre, including Hard SF. I am not, by the way, using Sci Fi in the Pejorative Sense here, but I'm sure you will agree that the science is typically somewhat... malleable, and quite a lot of the plotting owes as much to fantasy as to SF.
Charlie Stross is a little like Ted Chiang in that he sometimes takes a fantastic idea ('HP Lovecraft was telling the truth') and pursues it to a logical, rational conclusion ('Nukes? Who needs nukes when you've got Great Cthulhu?'). It's not classic Hard SF, but it's really not fantasy. Still, it's The Future Of SF ...
I read an interesting essay about how Babylon Five could have been even better (<http://www.xibalba.demon.co.uk/jbr/trek/next.html>), which ended with what is actually a general description of really good SF: "... a detailed and robust imaginary world ... some contending forces (all claiming to be The Good Guys); a bit of general-purpose imagery (compare B5's "gathering darkness" metaphor); and of course a few layers of personal secrets, ancient conspiracies and unsuspected hideous cosmic truths.". I'd buy that for a dollar!
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