SF Tropes and Themes I Love + Hate 👍🏻 👎🏻

In October, for Spooky Month, I made a list of horror tropes that I love and “hate” (hate being a particularly strong word because i don’t feel that strongly about them), so I decided to do another post but this time discussing tropes that appear in sci-fi. I mean, it is Sci-Fi Month after all.

Like with the last post, I have to point out that tropes are not inherently bad things. Having tropes does not make something bad because it is impossible to write something without using tropes because tropes are tools. What matters is whether or not a trope is used well, and also whether the trope can be used without being predictable. Clichés are not tropes, but tropes can be clichéd. I’m going to save this paragraph as a copypasta because there are so many people on the internet (especially Twitter) just don’t get it. *sigh*

EXCELLENT! 👍🏻

✔️ Evil aliens

Remember in the 80s when E.T. and The Thing came out in the same year and people trashed The Thing because the alien wasn’t somewhat cute and friendly like in E.T.? I don’t because I wasn’t born yet, but I kind of feel the opposite way towards a lot of alien fiction these days. I do like my fair share of friendly aliens (Superman, Spock, Goku, Yoda) but I actually prefer my aliens to be evil and dangerous. Imagine it this way: a gigantic thing comes down from the sky and these weird creatures come out of it. They don’t speak any human languages so how are we supposed to know what they want? They could want to be our friends, or they could be intergalactic colonisers who want to kill us all and take our land. That’s pretty scary to me, and I find it more interesting.

✔️ Surrealism

Sometimes the weirder stories are the ones that I prefer. And sometimes the weirder the better. Do I understand every single thing that goes on in 2001: A Space Odyssey (yes, i know that this doesn’t really count as surrealism bc it’s hard sci-fi but it’s the best example i can think of right now)? I don’t, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t think it was an incredible movie. Apart from when the creepy baby looked directly at me. A lot of people like their sci-fi to make sense, and I do too sometimes since science is about finding out why things happen and how they happen. But there are some things that just can’t be explained because they’re just too strange.

✔️ Alternate history

History can be pretty boring to me sometimes, so alternate history stories really interest me because I am able to learn about something and be entertained by the writer’s interpretation at the same time. My favourite book series ever, the Leviathan trilogy by Scott Westerfeld, is a steampunk alternate version of the First World War and it is so cool. That series was my first foray into both steampunk and alternate history, but it has left a big impression on me that I have come to appreciate the genre. Before I might have thought that the time travel episodes of Star Trek TOS were silly, but now I kind of appreciate them in a different way.

✔️ Fictional languages

This isn’t just a sci-fi thing because I’ve seen this in fantasy too (particularly Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones), but I have so much admiration for writers who are able to invent new languages for their works. I even once had Klingon listed as one of my spoken languages on Facebook when I was a teenager. I don’t know a word of Klingon because it is not a practical language to learn when you are not an alien warlord, but the idea of learning it is very nice. They make Klingon translations of Shakespeare, and that’s really impressive to me.

✔️ Psychic powers

For most of my life, my favourite powered characters have been those with psychic powers. Every time I’m asked what superpower I would have, my answer is always to be psychic. I can deal with nosebleeds because I get them all the time, and headaches don’t bother me anyway, so I want my psychic powers and I want them now. I’ve even been writing my own superhero movie featuring a psychic hero in my head since around 2009 so I think it’s safe to say that I love psychic characters. Oh, and it’s also my favourite Pokémon type.

BOGUS!👎🏻

❌ Ancient aliens

Aliens are great and all, but not everything can be hand-waved away with “it was aliens”. This is actually something that I’ve seen people do in real life, and it’s more infuriating in real life than it is in fiction. Who built the pyramids? It was aliens. What about the heads on Easter Island? Also aliens. In real life, it’s irritating and erases the history of real ancient civilisations, while in fiction it just comes across as lazy storytelling, as if the author couldn’t think of anything better to replace [INSERT REASON HERE].

❌ Space messiahs

Whether we like it or not, Christian (or Abrahamic) imagery is still very prevalent in Western fiction, and sci-fi is no exception. We have Superman’s origin story as Moses in the basket, and then his death that saved the entire world before he eventually came back. A more unintentional example would be E.T. coming back to life after death only to go back to his home planet. Even though sci-fi is a largely humanist genre, we do still sometimes get the “majestic alien who comes to our world to save all of us” and it’s pretty tired by now.

❌ Inaccurate science

I’m okay with a little hand-waving from time to time, but if your work uses a bunch of real-life terms and measurements completely wrong, I’m going to get a little frustrated. I’m not claiming to understand real science, and hard sci-fi is sometimes a little too hard for me, but research is really important when it comes to something like science.

❌ Cyberpunk that isn’t really cyberpunk

I am by no means well-versed in cyberpunk so I can’t even pretend to be an expert on it. But from what I have seen of the genre, it amounts to so much more than “people with metal limbs shooting each other with cool guns in a lawless future”. But unfortunately, that’s all some people really seem to get out of it. Just scrolling through the replies to tweets about the upcoming Cyberpunk game really shows that there are people out there who just don’t seem to get that it’s a genre that is actually quite political and talks about social class and environmentalism. But the cool technology is always what people gravitate to instead.

❌ The alien babe

Interspecies relations happen all the time in sci-fi. It’s how Spock was born, after all. But I feel like there is a huge difference between two (or more) characters of different species being in a committed relationship, and the main character having a one night stand with some random alien woman who is never mentioned ever again. Also, if I may have a minor gripe, in all the ways that a female alien could look, why go back to making one who is a human woman with blue or green skin? Or has a human body and a weird head? Look at the Alien Queen from Aliens. No breasts, a bunch of legs, about ten feet tall, and has no sex appeal at all. That’s a creative way of creating a female alien.

What are some of your favourite and least favourite tropes/themes in sci-fi? What would you want to see more or less of?

10 Comments

  1. 15/11/2019 / 2:05 PM

    Love this list! I totally agree with you about the “Alien Babe” thing – so many interesting things could be done with interspecies relationships in sci-fi, but whenever the woman (if it’s a hetero relationship) is the alien, she’s always ‘sexy’ in the way that humans view sexiness and it’s pretty boring. Also yes – I hate it when authors use ancient aliens instead of writing about older civilisations that are often overlooked.

    • Louise
      Author
      17/11/2019 / 9:15 PM

      The alien babe trope is what makes it so frustrating for me to watch the original Star Trek series. It does well in terms of social commentary at the time and in having a racially diverse cast (in the bridge crew that is) but the female representation is so bad because Gene Roddenberry used women as set decorations and toys for the male characters.

  2. 16/11/2019 / 5:47 AM

    I’ve always liked psychic powers too, and would love to see more stories like that. And I agree about 2001: A Space Odyssey- I like how weird it gets at time.

    • Louise
      Author
      19/11/2019 / 9:33 PM

      Yes!! I want more stories with psychic characters too! 😀

  3. 18/11/2019 / 10:51 PM

    You mean you don’t want to just see sexy blue and green girls?!?! Haha I totally agree! Tho if they are too much not human like then it can get a bit weird if they are in a relationship with a human. So I’m cool with the general human form, but they can be more creative than skin color! And don’t just use them as a side piece! Give them a story!

    • Louise
      Author
      19/11/2019 / 9:38 PM

      I definitely would love to see alien babes be given their own stories. The best example I can think of who has one is Leela from Futurama, even though she’s actually a mutant and not an alien like she thought.

  4. 19/11/2019 / 11:36 PM

    I loved this list. I like evil aliens, alternate history trope a lot. Another trope that I love is time travel. I know lot of people hate that trope. Inaccurate science grates on my nerves too and so does space messaiah trope.

    • Louise
      Author
      22/11/2019 / 10:13 PM

      Glad you liked! I used to be one of those people who didn’t like time travel, but I changed my mind after watching the Bill and Ted movies.

  5. 23/11/2019 / 7:00 PM

    I love the Leviathan series – Alan Cummings did a marvelous job on the audiobook. 🙂

    • Louise
      Author
      27/11/2019 / 9:59 AM

      I haven’t listened to the audiobook but I do like Alan Cumming so I may have to give it a listen when I decide to revisit the book 🙂

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