Science Fiction vs Sci-Fi vs Space Opera.

A friend of mine bought a copy of my science fiction novel, The Chronocar, with the simple intention of supporting me. Then he decided to read it to see what it was all about. He was surprised that he enjoyed it so much because, as he told me later, “I hate science fiction!” At least two other people have written reviews where they clearly express a dislike or ambivalence for science fiction, yet they admit that they enjoyed the story.

A young lady I know on Facebook was singing the praises of the latest installment of the Star Wars franchise and how much she enjoyed science fiction. In a comment, I corrected her. Star Wars may be great entertainment but it is not, I explained, science fiction.

“But, it has spaceships and aliens!” she countered.

Here’s my favorite definition: in science fiction, the science, whether real or imaginary, has to be so central to the story that without it the story would fall apart. Star Wars does not fit this criterion. You could give the characters metal swords, horses and seagoing ships and tell essentially the same story; rebels fighting an evil empire. Star Wars is Space Opera, where space is merely the setting and the technologies are props.  In fact, the science and technology doesn’t even have to be logical. Just cool and exciting. Like lightsabers.

Lest Star Wars fans take offense, this is not a put-down. I’m a fan of Star Wars, particularly the earlier films. It’s just that science fiction is not the proper category.

Sci-Fi is yet another animal. Usually more science fiction than space opera, but not by much.  You get Sci-Fi when you start with some science fiction and try to popularize it by punching it up and sometimes dumbing it down.  For example, the finest science fiction film ever made, in my humble opinion is 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was almost brutally accurate.  The scenes in space often had music in the background; like the Blue Danube waltz playing while a shuttle docked with a space station. Not only for the beauty of it, but director Stanley Kubrick realized that there would be no sound in space, so you would not hear engines firing.  In the sequel, 2010, made 20 years later, when the engines lit, the theater rumbled with the sound.  Fun, yes.  Accurate, no.

In a now rather famous TV rant, science fiction author Harlan Ellison outlined what he felt was the difference between science fiction and Sci-Fi, on the Sci-Fi Channel of all places.

So, in a nutshell, Sci-Fi tends to involve a lot of excitement and explosions; the stuff of epic movies. Science fiction is often more cerebral, although there can be intrigue and action.  Science fiction usually follows some sort of logic, the best involving the logic of real science. Sci-Fi, quite honestly, does not have to be logical. As long as it is exciting, scary, and mind-boggling, it’s acceptable; think sharks in a tornado.

Star Trek, at least in the beginning, kind of skirted between the two. Cerebral enough to worry the producers that no one would understand it, but it still had its share of explosions and monsters.

Since the first Isaac Asimov novel I read as a kid, I have loved science fiction.  Yes, I have enjoyed a lot of Sci-Fi, space opera and fantasy. But, as a writer, my goal is to help introduce readers to science fiction. Logical, thought provoking science fiction. Sort of “old fashioned” science fiction that can be enjoyed by many people, including those who don’t like Sci-Fi.


This post is contributed as a Guest post by Steve Bellinger.


Steve was born and raised on the West Side of Chicago by a single mom who worked nights for a printing company. She would bring home books and magazines to encourage him to read. This is how he discovered Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke and the other masters of classic science fiction. It didn’t take long for him to get the itch to

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2 Comments on “Science Fiction vs Sci-Fi vs Space Opera.”

  1. Loved this article and, until now, never considered the variations carrying the label “Sci-Fi.” I just thought there was good and there was bad, and sometimes the bad wasn’t so bad because there was great acting and a plot involving something more than good vs evil and lots of explosions. I appreciate your analysis.

    1. Thank you, Maureen! I wrestled with this for years. How people compare Star Trek and Star Wars? Both are great but in very different ways and appeal to different tastes. Glad you found this helpful.

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