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.

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

  1. Lol, in my time travel novel they actually have a discussion about why they can’t go back and kill Hitler.

    • I don’t think time travel books can avoid the discussion, of Hitler or some other “let’s change the past” idea, but good for you for not having your characters attempt it.

  2. Do you really want every novel where we routinely encounter aliens to have several hundred pages about learning to communicate with them? Or do you just want to have a single sentence ‘Six months pass and the crew learns enough to talk with the aliens.’?

    • I’m fine with the language-learning occurring in backstory, and believe any decent writer can mention the history as part of the tale–either in depth, or in a sentence or two. It doesn’t have to happen IN the story, it just has to have happened at some point.

  3. Awesome! And kudos on the language thing. I’m taking it one step further as I hate that almost all aliens speak the language of their planet. Why does that make sense?!? Because, you know, all humans from earth speak earthling? There are hundreds of languages just on our planet alone, why wouldn’t others be the same way? I get that it is easier for the story tellers to not have to worry about that, but it is way far fetched and kind of a cop out in my opinion.

    Great post!

  4. And, okay, fuck it, pretty much every non-Jedi Star Wars alien Lucas ever invented.

    –Counter example: Admiral Ackbar. But he stands out by his rarity that way.

    • I love the Admiral, I really do. That said, I’ve seen some argument that Lucas’s inherent racism spilled over into all of the alien design, and the Mon Calamari are another example of Orientalism (esp. since poor old Ackbar doesn’t get to do much but shout orders while the White Heroes save the day around him). If that’s true, it’s probably more because of Lucas than a concerted effort to design them that way. The guy’s aliens just are racist; he doesn’t seem to be able to help himself.

  5. I think the Firefly one is a bit of a stretch. The reavers were savages, yes, where savages were needed, but they weren’t as blatantly based on a particular ethnicity as the other examples you provided.

    Also, I think there is plenty of room for discussing current social issues in a far flung future in which some species represent the ideals or differences between various groups or factions on present day Earth. I agree though that it is at best irritatingly lazy and typically quite offensive when an author just flat out borrows modern cultures and slaps a different skin on them.

    #5 is one of my biggest beefs and one of the reasons I like my wife’s writing so much. I’d add the corollary, “Non-whites are probably villains. Also, they are different, and that is bad.”

    • Re: Firefly-

      That’s not my interpretation, that’s Whedon’s stated goal/inspiration for those characters. I linked to his quotes and other writing on the subject above. I didn’t actually realize it when I watched the show 10 years ago, but after seeing his explanation, it made sense.

  6. Happy to say I -not entirely consciously- avoided all of these tropes in my novel. Which, might be the reason sales will be at risk. People like these tropes and that’s the problem. They don’t even realize they’ve been sold these ideas repeatedly to ensure the careers of like-minded writers and film makers. The thinking seems to have direct correlation to the phenomenon of stretching a rubber band so far that it breaks. They believe that in breaking the rubber band or popping the balloon that all the released tension is the end. It’s not. Stressing and breaking limitations leads to change, and change is constant. It’s funny because H.G. Wells and up to Arthur C. Clarke, both old guys, never feared breaking the rubber band.
    Writers were more daring once. Some still are but they don’t sell as well as those who feed the standards to starving crowds satiated on predictability.

  7. What always gets me about “mystical pregnancy” episodes of shows is that often unless the impregnation is by something ugly and scary, the women will end up going through this creepy, “No, I desperately want to keep my baby and nobody can harm it” phase. All part of the mystical whajamacallit, I guess, but that ties back to the fact that women are never seen as suffering extended consequences of their forced and often accelerated pregnancies. Sometimes the woman desperately wants it out of her, but more often than not, she wants to keep it. She’ll be presented as thinking perfectly rationally until the moment she announces she’s keeping her demon/alien/ghost-spawn, and then her eyes will get a little vacant and fanatic and the tense music starts to play. It bothers me on a very visceral level. If the mystical pregnancy trope is a commentary on how people feel they can play around with women’s bodies for entertainment, what does that reaction say about women?

  8. enjoyed it! Laura

  9. Great blog post! I, too, am tired of seeing these cliches, although IIRC, the only instance of “Getting Diseases from Alien Women” I’ve viewed or read has been “District 9” (and that didn’t fit the description exactly, but close enough….).

    My YA fantasy novel is set in an alternate Old West and I was very conscious of race and ethnicity as I wrote it. The two protagonists, Isabella and Alijandra, are Hispanic, and the native people are depicted as individuals with distinct characteristics and motivations. And language is a big deal: many characters know and have to use different languages to communicate with other characters.

    Again, great post, Carrie. Thank you for writing it. 🙂

  10. In Stupid/Lazy, I’d call #3 (artificial gravity) a subset of #2 (nothing changes), which bothered me way back in the Lensman series and is still far too common. But I fear it may be a reader preference as well as authors being lazy.

    Also in Stupid/Lazy, #1 (funky alien language) and #4 (Babel fish) are opposite ways out of the same problem – which you might consider a subset of #1 and #4 in Offensive (People of Color and Noble Savage). Alien aliens are not only harder to write, but harder for readers to deal with. Making the reader work hard seldom increases sales, so I really respect the writers who are willing to work at making alien aliens.

  11. I’ll be adding ALL of this to my “what not to submit” instructions…

  12. The Generation Ship: Reading every one of those would take generations.

    Coming Of Age: Can’t read another or I’ll explode.

    Young Hero With A Destiny: Are you serious?

    Young Hero With A Destiny, Coming Of Age and Finding Magic Weapon: No, No, NO!

    The Dark Prophecy: Thousands of years OLD. Please let it die.

    Mysterious Alien Object. Stanly Kubrick is haunting you. Please see a psychiatrist.

    • One of the more pernicious legacies of Romanticism is the idea that art/artists should be “original”.

      There are innumerable other sins which can be laid at their doors — mostly traceable to the conceit with which they were so abundantly equipped — but that’s a biggie.

      Certain things tend to recur over and over in fiction because they’re things people are interested in — the bildungsroman, for example, or the adventure story, or (even more obviously) love.

      Complaining about this is like trying to outrun your own sweat. Dude, if it was good enough for Homer or Cervantes, it’s good enough for you.

      It’s the execution that distinguishes a good work of art from a bad one, not the “originality” of the medium or the theme.

      Fundamental innovation is rare for good reasons; it’s extremely difficult, for one, and seldom necessary, for another.

      Exemplia gratia, Joyce.

      • Except we’re not talking about fundamental issues of humanity. We’re talking about “Same government, same ideas about love/sex/prostitution/marriage, even the same jokes, slang, and phrases,” which of course wouldn’t be the same in 500 years because it’s not the same now as it was 500 years ago.

        Creating false arguments–generalizing my statement until it’s so vague you then have something to argue against–doesn’t make you look smarter or better educated on this topic. It makes it look like you can’t come up with an intelligent response to the actual statements being made.

      • Exactly. Good writing wins. If a novel is full of stereotypes and cliches, that’s just bad writing.

  13. Here is a tired ole trope. Liberal White Girls who only care about minority issues because they view it as a similar self serving victims argument based on ones insecurities and Pride.

    p.s. Censored much lately?

    • Aww, it’s cute that you’re trying. Since there are at least three major fallacies in that statement, you obviously haven’t done your homework. Do you want to go do some reading on me and then come back? I’ll wait.

  14. When the ancient Mesopotamian city of Mari (destroyed in about 1800 BCE by Hammurabi) was excavated, a number of clay-tablet letters were unearthed.

    One started: “This is the third letter I have written you about the silver you owe me for the sheep.”

    Yeah, things change. On the other hand, sometimes they don’t.

  15. PS: alternate history is just about the ultimate non-falsifiable hypothesis, but yeah, Hitler probably was responsible for the Holocaust. No Hitler, no sustained effort to kill all the Jews and other people the Nazis had it in for.

    He’s almost certainly responsible for the Second World War, too.

    Antisemitism was endemic at the time and isn’t gone yet (there are still governments subsidizing films and TV based on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion) but Germany wasn’t a particularly anti-Semitic country, compared to, say, Poland or Rumania.

    There’s a big difference between disliking, discriminating against or even persecuting Jews with an aim to making them leave (all of which lots of governments in the area did in that period, including Poland and Rumania) and making a sustained effort to kill every last one. The difference is so large that it’s qualitative, not quantitative. Even the grotesquely bloody pogroms against Jews (by both sides) during the Russian Civil War weren’t exterminationist in that sense.

    The Nazis didn’t go on about the Jews as a political tactic; it was Adolf’s personal fixation, which he imposed on his movement in a feedback cycle of radicalization. It was part of a process called “working towards the Fuehrer” in Nazi Germany.

    Likewise, most Germans were nationalistic and wanted to undo large elements of the Versailles treaty. They wanted to rearm, to make Germany a Great Power again, and hopefully to get back the territory they’d lost in 1918. Adding the German-speakers who’d been part of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy to Germany was also very popular, not least with most of those people themselves.

    Very few in Germany wanted to risk another World War, and that included the General Staff, the big industrialists, and most of the powerful politicians — including most Nazi politicians.

    This was primarily because they were (rightly) convinced that if they tried it, they’d lose. Not being idiots they knew that major wars are usually decided by attrition, they knew that was why they’d lost the last time, and they could total up stuff like population, fuel and steel production. Hitler really believed he could override fundamental factors like that with willpower, and came astonishingly close to pulling it off.

    The closest Hitler ever came to being overthrown by the German military was during the Munich crisis in 1938; not because the German generals loved the Czechs or had any objection to successful aggression, but because they thought the Anglo-French alliance was vastly stronger than they were and would beat the stuffing out of them if it came to a fight.

    They were astonished when the democracies backed down; it was after that that Hitler got a firm enough grip on the German military to make them do things they really didn’t want to do, like go to war over Poland. Then they were astonished again, when the British and French didn’t seriously attack them while all their best troops were in Poland. It wasn’t until after the fall of France in 1940 that they began to think Hitler could really bring it all off — which was precisely when he began to make big strategic mistakes, of course.

    So if a time-traveler can get rid of Hitler any time before September 1939, there would probably be no Second World War (not in the form we got it, at least) and no Holocaust. There would be wars and massacres, but not that specific war and massacre.

    People like to assume that Big Events need Big Causes. Alas, it ain’t so.

    • According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Hitler did not cause the holocaust by himself. Himmler was actually the architect of the “Final Solution”, not Hitler. WWII had its roots in the previous couple of decades; you’d actually have to kill Hitler in the early 20s or before for him to be out of the picture, and that doesn’t stop the war or antisemitism or the rest. Plus, the “Great Man Theory” was successfully argued against a mere 20 years after Carlyle came up with it, in the 19th century.

      But I’m not telling you anything you wouldn’t know from picking up a history textbook, or, you know, Google.

      • Hitler didn’t do administrative detail; he had an aversion to reading reports and attending meetings. In his personal habits, he was an artsy-boho, not a stereotypic Germanic bureaucrat.

        This was why Nazi Germany was a chaos of uncoordinated, competeing fiefdoms struggling to get his attention.

        Note the concept “working towards the Fuehrer”.

        One way to get the Fuehrer’s attention was to push more radical “solutions to the Jewish problem”. You could count on him that way.

        Various people -carried out- the extermination program. They were “working towards the Fuehrer”. The actual planning was mostly Heydrich and then Eichmann.

        Without Hitler, Himmler would have been a chicken farmer dabbling in extremist politics with a few like-minded nuts.

        And yeah, getting rid of Hitler does stop the specific war we got. The generals didn’t want that war. He made them do it, against their better judgment. Judgment which events bore out as sound.

        This is a contrast to World War One, where the German General Staff was pushing for a preventative war and the Kaiser was reluctant — until the assassination of Franz Ferdinand pushed him into their camp for a while.

        Look, wars don’t just “happen”. They’re not like the weather. They’re not even like the fluctations of the stock market, which are the result of an enormous number of people making decisions.

        Wars happen because people, usually a small number of men in positions of power, decide to make them happen. They decide to push for a given result, knowing that other people will fight to try and stop them.

        After that, events become unpredictable, except that -on average- the side with the numbers and economic resources tends to win.

        Incidentally, my degree was in history and I’ve been studying this period for decades. My reading includes a lot more than the general-survey texbooks you’re apparently working from.

        That doesn’t mean I’m necessarily right or that you’re necessarily wrong, but it does mean that any errors I make are not due to lack of information.

        Remember what “assume” does. Also, it ain’t what you don’t know that’ll get you; it’s what you think you know that just ain’t so.

  16. I totally agree with you on #5. Only White Heroes. Come on, where’s the creativity?

  17. Now I feel guilty for wanting to get a character of mine pregnant in Book 3 (though the father was normal and alive when it happened). Perhaps there’s a way to still use it without being stereotypical.

    • There’s nothing wrong with having a character get pregnant. It’s the mystical pregnancy, the magical alien rape/implantation, that’s the issue.

      • I see. Well, I just want to let you know that I’ll be examining this issue in my own post later today, since I have a lot of followers who are sf/fantasy writers. do you want me to let you know when I write it?

  18. You got me on the very perceptive, “Nothing ever changes in the future.” That always bothered me.

  19. I’m into science fiction and I’m working on some novels of my own. In thinking about how I could make aliens more interesting, I came across two themes you touched on: language and computer interfacing. As for language I haven’t come up with a definite approach for it yet. But let’s look at computers and how they are designed. Due to the necessity to communicate using human languages, we have optimized computer encodings and data retrieval schemes to fit. Our first example is ASCII and Extended ASCII. These encodings are based on languages that needed 128 and 256 characters respectively, to communicate properly. Probably as a result of this, the de facto smallest addressable unit of data is 8 bits, which we tend to call 1 byte. Now we have the three forms of Unicode that try to correct this initial language encoding limitations of the computer. Now, it’s very possible that aliens would not have the same problem where their computers were designed with a focus for one language rather than all. Or they may have one language with more characters than, say 128 or 256. So who is to say what their equivalent of the byte will be? Chances are, our computer systems would be highly incompatible. Nice post!

    • Thank you! Computer programs are a great example of alien thinking (as in, this thing is “alien” to our way of thinking) because they’re based on our idea of logic. Even if you translate the language, it’s still built on a structure of what makes sense to us. Why would an alien creature think a and then b and then c? It’s just as likely that b and d come first, then a and c, then e and g… or any other combination of “logical” steps.

      • Nope. Aliens will also think 2+2=4. Because it just does.

        They’d use different symbology, their mathematical system may use a different base, but the message would be the same.

        Some things are culturally specific (frex, using forks or chopsticks or your fingers) but other things aren’t.

        For example, all cultures which make wheels, make them round.

        This is because if they’re not round, they don’t work. There’s only one solution to that problem. Aircraft designed to do a specific thing all look generically similar regardless of who the designer is, and so forth.

        We live in a universe of invariant and uniform natural law which substantially constrains the choices we can make.

        H. Beam Piper did a very good SF story on this subject, “Omnilingual”.

        Human explorers land on a planet with a dead civilization. They’ve got the written records, but there symbology is totally alien, there’s no possibility of bilingual inscriptions like the Rosetta Stone, so at first they think that they’ll never be able to decipher the local language(s).

        Then they run into a school primer of the periodic table…

        (Figured out by a woman archaeologist, btw.)

  20. I am afraid you nailed every stereotype out there. Next stop phallic symbols. King Kong on the Empire State Building with a white girl. The problem is to relate the monster to humanity we need a focal point. Doctor Who is a prime example. Why does he care. We barely have a smack of intelligence and truthfully are just food for most of the aliens. You would think instead of harvesting humans they would just figure out to clone us but then Doctor Who can not jump in and save humanity from the boggy men.

  21. My god, this is brilliant. May I please print this and keep it handy to whip out and hold at arm’s length before people who want to inculcate me into their coven of [insert SF television show here] worshippers? I think it would work more thoroughly than my previous gambit of allowing an uncomfortable silence to form between us and then blurting, “So, are you, like, a Scientologist?”

  22. The number of normal movies that pass the Bechdel Test is vanishingly small. The number of SF movies that pass it is NONEXISTENT.

    And remember, you need to have MORE THAN ONE WOMAN IN THE STORY to even attempt to pass the Bechdel Test. So no more zillion and one guys all with their individual personalities and cute quirks, plus a Pink Ranger or Princess Leia whose “quirk” is that she’s the girl. Being a girl is not a personality type.

    And if you have a couple spaceship captains or pirates or something and try to look open-minded by making some of them women and nonwhite, it really undoes the whole open-minded schtick you’re trying to pull off when you kill off all of them except the white guy.

    How about no more “let’s have a hot sexy female alien who f*cks everything in sight?” Jesus Christ, you people have all the porn you want at your fingertips thanks to the Internet — you can’t cope with having one single female image falling onto your retinas whose job is NOT to get you to empty your balls?

    And how about SF stops using hot lesbo-a-gogo bullsh*t fanservice and excusing it because you’re trying to pretend you’re all supportive of same-sex relationships? Bullsh*t you’re supportive of same-sex anything. It’s fanboy fanservice and you know it. I don’t care if those two chicks are going at it with one another, when two women are doing anything sexual to get little boys off, that smells het to this dyke.

    • Hollyweird is a boy’s town of an exceeding boyness (even for female -screenwriters- it’s a serious disadvantage to be past 40, for example), but basically the phenomenon you’re discussing is due to market considerations.

      Generally speaking women will go to a male-oriented movie in much larger proportions than men will go to a female-oriented one; this is particularly true of younger males, who are the target demographic for most SF films.

      Film is a capitalist enterprise and the makers are competing for these guys’ beer and dope money.

      • Yeah, well most consumers are white, so I guess it’s okay to not show black characters as well. Capitalism excuses all!

        In other news, water is wet and there was a Thursday last week.

        • The statement was descriptive, not normative.

          You may notice that there are more Hispanic characters in American popular films than there used to be — for obvious reasons. And the importance of overseas release has also substantially affected film-making choices — pushing them towards more action and explosions, which translate across cultural boundaries more easily.

          Chinese movies tend to be heavily Chinese in actors, subject, and tropes… which doesn’t prevent them from being popular here, occasionally, of course.

          People make movies to make money. If they and their financial backers think “Sharknado” will make more money than doing a film version of “The Left Hand of Darkness”, that’s what we’ll get.

          Expecting film-makers to act otherwise is like expecting charity from bankers or honesty from elected officials — it’s not going to get you anything but frustration.

          And we (collectively speaking) the audience determines what movies get made, as we vote with our dollars.

          You seem to be assuming hostility on my part, by the way. This puzzles me.

          • You know, I’ve been around the block WAY too many times to believe it when people claim that a statement is “merely” normative. It is brought up like clockwork whenever anyone tries to discuss things pertaining to women. And it’s an active cop-out to say that it’s a normative statement. Sorry if this observation bugs you, but it’s the truth.

  23. I just saw your tape. Cudos. I really enjoyed it. Point pregnancy will be taken out of the equation in the future. Cloning will replace it. Women will flock to the concept. No more nature’s periods. No more going to the drugstore for tampons. It will be called zip and rip. Instead you go to the clinic and take the cells you want in your child. Bang, no fuss, no mess and an immaculate concept or misconception production.

  24. I totally agree. The classic tropes that these variations are based off should also be avoided in most literature, I believe, Congrats on the feature! Gonna poke around a bit more 🙂

  25. This is flipping amazing. This represents everything I aim to change as a writer. Strong women. Equality. Non-biased based world building. Because ultimately it’s the artists and storytellers who will change our culture and worldviews, right? That’s our territory. Not reaffirming the old prejudices.

  26. Agreed on most of your points. I kind of have an issue with #2, though (the first one.) Laws, standards and customs definitely change throughout history. But human nature doesn’t. We’re just as noble, evil, generous and greedy as we were two thousand years ago, and the documents and histories from the time prove that.

    If that’s not what you meant, sorry for misinterpreting. I just like the idea of looking another two thousand years into the future and seeing pretty much the same kinds of beings that exist today. Besides, if you make human society too different, your characters’ motivations might be too alien to the readers for them to relate, right?

    • Broad themes will probably remain true, like the idea of commerce–we will trade one kind of something for another kind of something, and there will be people who profit from the creating of goods or the selling or services.

      But that’s not what I meant (or said, really). What I object to is the idea that in a thousand years a cabbie will lean out his window, and, in a thick European accent, yell, “Hey, buddy, I’m drivin’ here!” at whatever creature crosses his path. Slang changes. Governments change. Religions change. The way we ask for breakfast at our local food-selling-place will not be the same in 50 years as it is not, because it wasn’t the same 50 years ago.

      • Sorry, then. Fair enough. I’m no fiction writer, so I’ve never had to grapple with these kinds of issues myself. Though thinking back to some of the books I’ve read, I can see examples of what you’ve listed.

      • “What I object to is the idea that in a thousand years a cabbie will lean out his window, and, in a thick European accent, yell, “Hey, buddy, I’m drivin’ here!” at whatever creature crosses his path. Slang changes.”

        So, what are you asking for? In a thousand years, language changes beyond comprehensibility. Whatever place/time/universe our stories are set in, they’re written in our own languages of today, sometimes with the barest of tweaks, very rarely with significant mods [thinking of _Riddley Walker_ here]. If we *could* write in the English of 3000, no one could understand it.

        • Ubiquitous recorded sound and broadcasting have probably changed the nature of linguistic evolution.

          It hasn’t stopped, but it has slowed down, and certain processes have gone into reverse. Even over my own lifetime regional accents in North America have become much less pronounced, for example. I go to Atlanta every year and you rarely meet the old “mushmouth” Deep South accent at all any more, or the extreme Newfoundland outport dialects common in my father’s childhood, many of which were unintelligible to a Standard English speaker.

          • Yes, there is much flattening-out of regional variation. But that is a different matter from language change. In some ways, mass communication and the Internet have accelerated language change. In your or my father’s childhood, or in yours or mine, how long would it have taken for a word like “app” or “D’ohh!” to become widespread? Now, scant years, if that many.

          • Lexical variation is one thing. Syntactic and phonological is another. The effect of modern communications has been to strongly force the spoken version(s) of the language towards the written standard. Linguistic change is one of those things that mostly happens because you’re not aware of it.

          • (OT)
            Help!
            I’m
            seeing
            comments
            squeezed
            into
            icicles
            even
            though
            there’s
            plenty
            of
            width
            in
            my
            window.
            I
            can’t
            find
            anything
            about
            it
            in
            Support.
            I’m
            CHOKING!…

  27. Reblogged this on Writing While Black- and commented:
    I don’t write a lot of SciFi (yet?) but I appreciate that there are authors out there who are turning a critical eye to sexism and racism in genre fiction. This isn’t new, but it should still be reiterated and spread as much as possible. Because ideas have consequences, and the consequences of some of these older ideas have reverberated far and wide.

  28. Cool post and I agree with you on all your points.

    One trope that gets under my skin to no end is the image of matriarchal societies that work so much better than the usual patriarchal ones. Seriously, that is naive and ignorant to an unbelievable degree.

    It’s actually disrespectful to both genders as not only does it create an image of men as bumbling incompetents (I’d watch the vapid prime time sitcoms if I wanted to see that), but it also shows women as something almost beyond human and somehow not subject to the same very human temptations that so many men can be when power is put in their hands. Power can corrupt a woman every bit as much as it ever could a man.

    I once worked in a company dominated by women that had a woman at the top and it didn’t run any more smoothly than any male run company I’ve ever worked for and it taught me that female leaders have some foibles of their own and that women vying for promotions and advancement can be some of the worst backstabbers and two faces around.

    Really, it does women they same sort of disservice that some of the tropes you’ve pointed out do; it simply does it from the opposite direction.

    Beyond that, I would really like to see time travel of any sort given a rest. It’s overused well past the point of ludicrous and is indicative of some extremely lazy writing and tremendous disrespect for the audience.

    • A lot of human characteristics are situational. It’s easy (and rhetorically very convenient) for people who don’t have power to emphasize things like “morality” and “fairness” and so forth.

      It may persuade the people with power to be less nasty to you, and in any event you can at least feel morally superior.

      Reverse the power equation, and people start acting (and thinking) differently.

  29. Good list. I’m an aspiring speculative fiction writer so I’m always happy to a new one of these lists. I’ve never written anything set in the future, I’ve only done alternate history so I’m glad the kill Hitler one was mentioned. The only thing more tired than killing Hitler is him winning WWII. I don’t like time travel much for any story.

    Only having white heroes is especially absurd considering that the US is projected to be mostly Hispanic in 20-30 years. In the five and under demographic that is already the case. If an SF writer can’t take this trend into account that is rather bad.

    • Dude, what “race” is Raquel Welsh (father from Bolivia)? That Zimmerman guy in Florida (mom from Peru)? Christina Aguilera? Ricky Martin? Our great and good Republican governor here in New Mexico, Susana Martinez? The Tejano girl James Bowie married shortly before the Alamo? The diplomat’s daughter from Ecuador my nephew married in 2010, or their kids?

      (Or for that matter, on a slightly different tangent, what “race” is Keanu Reeves? Or the governor of South Carolina?)

      “Hispanic” is a linguistic/cultural category, not a “racial” one; the equivalent is “English-speaking”. As far as “race” goes, most Hispanics classify themselves as white to the Census bureau. In other words, they’re just another immigrant group, e pluribus unum.

      Hence New Mexico, which is about 46% Hispanic by background, is about 75% “white”.

      If you’re writing in the future (or the past) of Western civilization you have to keep in mind that “whiteness” is a moving target, a mutable concept, not some real physical phenomenon; this is why I’m putting quotes around “race”.

      To illustrate what I mean: back around 1912, a Sicilian woman was charged with violating the anti-miscegenation laws for marrying a black guy in one of the Gulf States. The case went to the State supreme court, where it was dismissed; the judge in question remarking that the law didn’t apply to her because, as everyone knew, Italians weren’t “really” white people.

      (My wife’s Irish-American foster mother in Milford, MA, born in 1899, was firmly of that opinion right up until the day her son eloped with a young lady named Maria Bianci. They moved to South Carolina to get away from their families.)

      And in the first half of the 20th century, millions of Germans managed to convince themselves that “Slavs” were a “racial” category completely distinct from themselves — this despite the fact that a simple look at surnames in the Vienna or Breslau phone books would show conclusively that a large percentage of them were the descendants of Slavs who’d been linguistically Germanized, and in the not-very-distant past at that.

      So “race” doesn’t actually exist in the way racial ideologies posit — that is, it doesn’t correspond to any objective physical fact.

      For example, one of President Obama’s (white) mother’s ancestors was a slave in Georgia before the Civil War. Does that make her any less “racially” white? Nope. DNA analysis indicates that about 75 million “white” Americans have a fairly recent African ancestor. Likewise, some of my ancestors were Indians; that doesn’t make me an Indian, or anything else than a common-or-garden-variety white guy.

      That’s because “race” is just one of the stories we tell ourselves to constitute our social existence. Real enough in those terms, but only because, and as long as, and how, people believe in it.

      And it means what they think it means, neither more nor less.

      What people believe changes.

      “Race” today doesn’t mean what it meant in 1913, and it doesn’t mean -anything like- what it meant in 1813.

      Predicting the future in detail is impossible, but there’s two things that are pretty safe bets, barring an asteroid impact or something of that sort:

      a) people in, say, 2113 will use ethnic labels and stereotypes, and

      b) those won’t mean exactly the same things as the ones we use now, even if the words used haven’t changed by then.

      It’s important to approach the past on its own terms; and in SF, the future ditto.

  30. Thanks for the post. I don’t agree with every single line item, but it was very interesting. I shared throughout my platform. 🙂

  31. 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.

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

  33. 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/

  34. 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..

  35. 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.

  36. 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.

  37. 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…

  38. 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…

  39. 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?

  40. 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!

  41. 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.)

  42. 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,

  43. [“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.

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

  45. 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.

  46. 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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