11 Exhausted SF Tropes You Should Avoid. Really.

Some ideas have been done to death in science fiction. We all know there are no new ideas anymore, and what matters most is the execution of the idea you stole have, but there are a few things that are not only over-done, they’re either incredibly stupid or offensive, as well. Here’s a partial list of tropes I’d love to never see again:

Stupid/Lazy Writing

  1. Funky Alien Language: your aliens from across the galaxy speak perfect English, except for a few “untranslatable” slang phrases? Or the language is made entirely of clicks and apostrophes? Hey, I know! All of your proper names are made with the 5, 8, or 10 point letters from Scrabble. Worst yet is when all of the men have harsh, hard-sounding names, and all of  the women (or other effeminate species) have soft, vowel- and f/l/sh-heavy names. This is an instant clue that you’re dealing with a writer who thinks of gender in the strictest binary sense. Plus, woman-soft and man-hard societies? Languages which don’t have a linguistic structure other than “sounds alien”? That’s damn lazy world building.
  2. Nothing Ever Changes, Far Into the Future. Hundreds, thousands of years into the future, when we all have jetpacks and flying cars and tame velociraptors we can ride to the office, and spaceships and alien world and… humans are still exactly the same. Same government, same ideas about love/sex/prostitution/marriage, even the same jokes, slang, and phrases. It’s us from 2005, all dressed up in tin foil suits and see-through plastic dresses as if we’re not in the future at all, but stuck in some Halloween-party with a frat boy, a cabbie, and a party girl. Look back at what humans thought was right and important a hundred years ago, and everything that’s changed between then and now, and tell me how nothing but the tech changes going forward? Look at the difference between Shakespeare’s use of the English language, then Charles Dickens, and Raymond Chandler’s. Compare their slang to ours–and then look at the geographic and cultural differences in language between different cities and ethnic groups in the US. Read a history book, and see the changes in civil rights since 1900–not just the law, but what most people think of as normal. Or, go read Ferret’s thoughtful post about how birth control changed society in just the last two generations, and tell me you think we’ll all still be exactly the same in another two generations.
  3. Artificial Gravity, But Only On Spaceships, and Only To Keep Your Feet On The Ground. Artificial gravity isn’t yet an option, and we already have space travel. Assuming someone figured out how to make it work, would it really be in every ship, no matter how small/old/beat-up? Okay, fine, so you’ve got pocket-sized anti-grav generators, and that’s why no one has to wear magnet boots inside. If that’s the case, why only use it to keep your soup in your bowl? I’m not opposed to creating gravity in space as much as I am annoyed when writers don’t use that tech for any other purpose. (Note: Anti-grav and artificial grav are definitely two different things, but almost always shown as related technology in fiction.)
  4. Babel Fish. Call it a Universal translator, or blame it on the lingering effects of TARDIS travel, but is there anything lazier than a writer who makes it possible for everyone, every alien, every creature or robot or monster, to talk to each other with perfect understanding? A universal language translator based on technology instead of telepathy (which is probably silly but at least makes sort of sense) is likely impossible because there’s no reason at all to think every creature in the universe has a language structure compatible with human ones. I loved what Ted Chiang does in “Story of Your Life”, because he shows that language is wrapped up in other concepts. We can’t even create a universal translator for Earth languages, we’re so complex. But aliens will think and speak just like us, only using a different combination of sounds? (ETA: I don’t need this process of language-learning to occur on screen or in your novel, but at least make a nod to the fact that it did happen at some point in your backstory.)
  5. The Easy Hack. Inserting a disk into an alien shuttle’s dashboard and uploading a Mac OS virus into the mothership. *drops mike* *walks away*

Offensive

  1. Aliens Based on Negative Stereotypes About People of Color.
    • Jar-Jar Binks, drawn from the “Magnificent Coon” era of minstrel shows–and, oddly, is completely different from the rest of his race in attitude and speech. Uncle Ziro, who was not only purple, not only wore feathers and makeup, but also owns a nightclub, as if to say, of course he does. Oh, and the Tuskan Raiders. And the Neimoidians. And, okay, fuck it, pretty much every non-Jedi Star Wars alien Lucas ever invented (and some of the cannon fodder Jedi, too).
    • BattleField Earth‘s Chinkos are pretty much what you’d expect.
    • Ming the Merciless. Who lives in Mingo City. On planet Mongo. And whose three main desires are to destroy Earth, join forces with Flash Gordon–the great white hero–who, Ming thinks, will legitimize his rule, and to marry the white woman (Dale Arden), which will make him a man. Ming’s an early example of a lot of Yellow Peril aliens/antagonists, including the Dragon Emperor from the Mummy, Memnan Saa from the Hellboy comics, Ra’s Al-Ghul, etc (plus, Ming did keep reappearing in Flash comics/movies up until the 1990s).
    • Joss Whedon’s Reavers, who are the vicious/rapey Space Indians in his Space Western. (Note: Whedon says that’s what they are.)
    • The Prawns of District 9, who fit neatly into every reason the white South African settlers ever gave for oppressing the black Africans around them, including “naturally suited to being governed by a ruling class/caste instead of governing themselves” and “let’s put them in a ghetto because they wouldn’t know what to do with anything better”. (Note: Of course District 9 uses apartheid tropes because it’s looking at racism; this isn’t my revelation. But it is an example of using aliens to represent the negative stereotypes of non-white people.)
    • The Predator, from every Predator movie made. Because a big, muscled, dreadlocked, dark skinned, male alien, hunting you down in a jungle, isn’t meant to be a scary stereotypical black male, right?
  2. Getting Diseases From F*cking Alien Women. Suggesting one catches diseases from sex with alien women is based on the classic SF method of hiding racism by attaching negative stereotypes to “aliens” instead, and includes sexism by blaming such things on the women instead of men. Sure, ha ha, Bob got space herpes, how funny! Except, have you actually thought about why you think that’s funny? Whether it’s because you’re not comfortable with people having sex unless they “pay for it” by contracting a disease, you think women who work in the sex industry are disease-ridden whores, or you don’t like the idea of race mixing (you did what with that?), the supposed humor of the situation is based on deriding and degrading either women or people of color. Would you write, “Bob caught something from one of those black women that hang out at truck stops” and assume the audience would laugh? Or “Kevin spent too much time with those little brown sisters in Vietnam, and now he has to pee sitting down” as if that’s a throwaway line no one will really notice? Because that’s exactly what you’re saying here.
  3. Let’s Kill Hitler! Travel through time, stop the biggest bad guy of the modern era–what could go wrong? Except everything, of course. Whether it’s something worse happening in the void he leaves behind, or not being able to kill him in the first place (he was hard to kill in real life, actually), it’s all been done before. There’s even a name for the phenomena: Hitler’s Time Travel Exemption Act. The problem with the whole idea? That killing Hitler fixes everything, as if he were the only person responsible for the annihilation of roughly six million Jews–as well as millions of others, including homosexuals, the disabled, Gypsies, Serbs, and more. Let’s everyone else off the hook, doesn’t it?
  4. The Noble Savage, Alien Edition. (Read more about what the noble savage is here.)
    • Teal’C from Stargate Continuum
    • STNG Klingons (TV Tropes uses them as an example on the “Proud Warrior Race Guy” page, and several books have been written that discuss it. I should point out that Classic Trek Klingons looked “oriental” but their society was based on our Cold War interpretation of the Soviets.)
    • Na’vi
    • Star War‘s Wookies, Ewoks, and Togruta
    • People of the Wind in A Swiftly Tilting Planet
  5. Only White Heroes.
    • Shepard Book dies and Zoe loses her husband, but Captain Mal gets the girl, the ship, and the successful completion of his quest. Oh, and, WHERE ARE ALL THE ASIANS?
    • Martha gets to be a maid while trying to keep the Doctor safe while he falls for another white woman, to make it different from the rest of the time Martha’s his companion but not really since no one will ever be Rose—except for River and souffle girl and…
    • In Avatar, the Na’vi who saves the day is actually a white guy who’s “gone native”. Because the actual native aliens couldn’t save their planet in the way that the white guy wearing a Na’vi suit could.
    • Jazz is the only Autobot who dies in the first movie.
  6. Mystical Pregnancy. Watch the video. It’s got all the highlights.

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96 thoughts on “11 Exhausted SF Tropes You Should Avoid. Really.

  1. I don’t think that George Lucas is racist. Maybe I’m wrong, but I never noticed any of those “racist” themes in SW. I think it’s a bit of a stretch. So long as we are stretching, why doesn’t anyone point out the anti-white racism? It seems just as plausible as all those others. Has anyone seen a non-white stormtrooper? I don’t remember any. As far as I can remember, the Empire is an all-white xenophobic monster that needs to be stopped. In this case, white people are the bad guys. Isn’t that unfair? I guess nobody really cares.

    • Actually,there are NON-white storm troopers,just search it up in Wookiepedia.

      • Yes! Now. Decades later. Added in via the books, because fans and authors wanted a more diverse and inclusive expanded universe. It’s awesome, but it doesn’t take away from the conversation about the original movies’ actions and intent.

  2. Brilliant. This post has really got me thinking.

  3. Excellent article! Many Young African American artists, musicians and writers today explore ideas regarding Afro-Futurism for this very reason. They love Sci fi but recognize the racial politics and colonialism spilling out of the most well known stories and are trying to challenge those assumptions and mythologies with new works. Check out this article from Art News http://www.artnews.com/2013/08/01/robert-pruitt-reinvents-african-american-portraiture/

  4. having written a science-fiction(ish) book I encountered all of these issues. The big problem is this – will a reader get past the first page if he doesn’t recognise the characters or the plot? If there is no ‘babel fish’ do you provide a dictionary for the reader to refer to (of course if this was the case they would just bin the book).
    Same with the interactions between races- if it isn’t just the same as on Earth/ now then it would be unintelligible to the reader. You can add a twist but if you go too far the reader will lose the plot quite literally.

    All we writers can do is to push the envelope and hope the book still sells.

    • TV series sci-fi has a stock trope taken for granted. It is the Bonanza trope, where a core family of characters somehow manages to escape multiple catastrophes unscathed. Characters are changed only at the end of a season, presumably because the actor has found a better job.

      A often abused trope on tv sci-fi is ending a season-long story arc that completes complex mission by throwing the crew back in time.

      Time travel is most often used a a variation of the kill Hitler trope, the save Hitler/restore the original timeline screwed up by a malicious alien race.

      The second version is an obvious cost cutting measure. Put the crew either back in Earth history or in an alien crested version of it.

      The key problem with such time travel, aside from it being beat to death, is that the protagonists not only survive, but whatever changes they make usually are beneficial ones.

      The most recent TV time travel spin was an exception to the rule. In The Flash the changes are complex and vaguely interesting. They’d be better if essential supporting characters were more severely impacted. Unfortunately the trope that is being enforced is the mutants created by a new theorectical form of matter or energy not understood by the general public, i.e. magic.

      If you take away the scifi tropes and costumes from episodic tv, what remains is preachy infantile western morality plays in space or dystopian near futures combined withunrealistic interpersonal relationships..

  5. I’m writing a sci fi novel at the moment and I spotted this post and thought it would be a good idea for me to check! It is my first go so I didn’t expect to be amazing, or particularly original, at it first time, (I’m hoping to refine myself with time and editing) but I am pleased that I have not fallen into any of the clichés you have listed here (all of which I agree with). Not all the ships have artificial gravity, only the better maintained and, more modern and expensive ones do. Also, where you are (ship, moon, colony) depends on how good the gravity is. Same goes for the air.

    I also make a point of trying not to describe too much of my characters’ physical appearance, so it is up to the reader to decide if they are black/white/oriental etc. I do have some characters whose names suggest they may be of certain origin, so the reader’s mind isn’t just full of white guys, but it is ultimately up to my reader. I always think, if they were casting for a the movie, I want any actor suited to the party to be able to get it.

    Thank you very much for a very interesting and informative post.

  6. Reblogged this on The Path – J. Collyer's Writing Blog and commented:
    I’m lucky that I haven’t fallen into any of these traps (some of which are very easy to fall into) so far. It was still a very interesting post to read and good for anyone attempting sci-fi to be aware of. As the writer says, there are no new ideas any more, which I’m ok with. You can do old ideas in a new way but using cliches, whilst it might be easy, I feel, lessens the potential for you to really let your writing go and do something that is entirely you.

  7. I’m curious what you read abotu “Getting Diseases From F*cking Alien Women….” ? Because this doesn’t seem to be a common trope at all — especially in 40s-80s SF which I know best…

  8. How about “Aliens”? The John Hurt character, a guy finally, was impregnated by a alien that ate him. The “baby” then turns on everybody.

    • Ah, well, I was thinking more print SF…..

      • I just don’t think it’s a very common trope…. in actual SF books. Although, there’s tons of interspecies sexual relations diseases are seldom the result — the purpose is more just to have the hero get in bed with a “sexy” cat alien woman, or alien with long gorgeous blue legs or something…

  9. How do you feel about the current cliche of post-apocalypse or near-apocalypse dystopian worlds? I wonder whether kids growing up watching sci-fi/horror now even look forward to the future?

  10. Very cool post! I love me some Sci-Fi but some of the things you mentioned really get on my nerves. Especially mythical pregnancy and masked racism make me downright angry!

  11. Thing is a lot of these cliches are probably standard for television, film and the like (more so for TV)- they’re working to please a mass audience and often to a budget. They can’t afford to move too far away from concepts that the audience won’t get or will be too expensive. Hence why we get universal translators, rubber forehead aliens and concepts which don’t stretch the audience too far.

    Literature on the other hand has no such excuse, being constrained only by the writer’s imagination and probably being much more aimed at the serious SF fans who want to explore deeper concepts and be challenged, whilst having got tired of the more well-worn cliches. Your average movie viewer may or may not be someone who is a hardcore fan, and presumably causal viewers wanting to be entertained need to be pleased enough to recoup the substantial budget often required for many such films.

    And at least give some credit where credit is due- Star Trek TNG once did explore a situation where the universal translator was ineffective (as the race in question spoke in metaphors which it couldn’t place) and Hitchhiker lampshades the Babel Fish concept quite effectively. (It obviously doesn’t have to be believable, seeing as this is a franchise where ships are powered by the discrepancies in restaurant bills and parts of statues can be held suspended in mid-air by the power of pure art.)

  12. I disagree with your opinion on nothing ever changing. Science fiction is not about predicting the future. Science fiction is really just a different way of looking at us today.

    Take, for example, the book “1984.” It was written in 1948 as a comment on society at the time. He just switched the numbers.

    Consider also “Foundation.” Just people from the ’50s (smoking and all) in a world where they can travel around the galaxy. There was no real effort to predict the future, other than a brief discussion of how travel was possible over those distances.

    The fact is, that although most of our outlooks socially have changed (in the non-Muslim world), people are still the same. And always will be.

    What are we to do? Try to guess what the language will be like in 12,000 years? Well, we can’t, and if we tried, no one would be able to read it.

    Merely because things have changed, or progressed, doesn’t mean they will continue to. Consider Germany just prior to the Hitler era. A democracy with law and order. Struggling economically because of the First World War, but still a civilized country. Look at it during the Hitler era. Not the same.

    So, the purpose of science fiction is to write about the society of today, or maybe where it’s headed in the near future, but it’s not to try to predict the future.

    I agree about alien languages, though,

  13. [“Hundreds, thousands of years into the future, when we all have jetpacks and flying cars and tame velociraptors we can ride to the office, and spaceships and alien world and… humans are still exactly the same.”]

    Humans barely ever change, if at all. That is our curse.

  14. I think most of these are past cliche and just in the realm of stupidity.

  15. Reblogged this on Writing Reconsidered and commented:
    Basically…YES. Read this post from Carrie Cuinn. Live by it. Write by it. Beginning of story.

    Two more things to keep in mind:

    1. If you *do* decide to incorporate alien languages, but translate them to some human language for your readers, do NOT translate them into broken English/Spanish/etc (a la Avatar). And why not? Because this makes absolutely NO sense! The only possible reason for this is to make your foreigners sound more “foreign” and less intelligent. Why would any translator translate something into a broken version of their language? They wouldn’t. And why? BECAUSE THAT MAKES NO SENSE!

    2. Quit using violence against women as a plot device! Does violence happen?–sure. Does violence often happen in books and stories as a logical/tragic/critical part of an overall plot?–sure. But WHY does it always have to be that a flat, undeveloped female character is raped/killed/beaten for the sole purpose of giving some male character a blank check to then wreak whatever violence he wants in the name of this tragedy? –This is tired, annoying, and offensive. I am utterly exhausted of seeing violence against women used as an excuse to justify yet more and more violence. Because female characters are so expendable? Because they exist for no other reason but to spur someone else to action? Because violence against them is somehow worse than violence against men and/or boys? Because there’s no other possible reason for someone to start off on a journey/quest/rampage? C’mon, people. This trope is just lazy and, again, offensive. Let’s move forward already.

  16. I’ve been reading SF for about 75 years and my main interest has been the rare inclusion of strangeness in a story that really fulfills the sense of something incomprehensible. John Campbell in his story “Who Goes There?” does well and it took the Carpenter version in “The Thing” to make a decent film of it. Even the film “Alien” ended up as merely a monster version of insect reproduction with a kind of Tyrannosaurus who grew monstrously with a rather slim diet. “Roadside Picnic” by the Strugatsky brothers did present neat incomprehensibles as did Heinlein in “Methuselah’s Children” where the aliens on a planet had a real god where a human went totally mad merely meeting it. But most movie alien monsters rely on claws and teeth while humans have handy ray guns which originated with Buck Rogers on the radio when I was a kid. I did like the Terminator 2 made of liquid life but such innovation is rare and pretty hard to create.

    • I love classic SF partly because they had an opportunity to be innovative, and some of the authors ran with it. It is harder to find innovation in terms of alien life (for example) these days because there’s been such a range of creatures and lifeforms already explored. But modern SF has wonderful work too, which explores not just new alien life, but how a more diverse cast of characters reacts to that life. Like in Terminator 2 — what made that story more interesting wasn’t only the liquid robot; we also got to see how a poor, parentless boy reacted to the sudden appearance of an archetypal strong man hero, instead of seeing it from the hero’s point of view.

      Thanks for commenting!

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