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.

I’m part of “Women In Genre”? Yay! Have some free fiction.

Several people are writing about their favorite “Women in Genre” this month. There’s even a hastag for it on Twitter if you’d like to see more of the discussion. Haralambi Markov (a Bulgarian writer, editor, pop culture geek, and avid reader) is writing a blog post each day, featuring his favorite women working in speculative fiction.

Today is Day 9 on his blog. Today, he wrote about me.

It basically says that I edit as well as write, and that with both of those together I’m putting out short fiction he thinks people need to read. He also recommends my blog, since I post about being a writer and editor in the midst of a change in how genre – and women in genre – is perceived Plus, you know, trying to balance my career with everything else.

Markov says that when you read my work, you can tell that:

Cuinn lives for genre and Dagan Books is a direct reflection of her passion and love.

That’s true, and I’m tickled that other people can see it. I know I’m at the beginning of my career. I have only put out a handle of books as a publisher, and have maybe twice that number in fiction sales myself. But – I do love what I do. I love spec fic. I love reading it, and I love being a part of where it’s going.

Markov mentions that he hasn’t read very many of my stories, coming to me instead as a reader of the anthologies I’ve edited, so here are links to where you can find a couple of my favorites online:

Mrs. Henderson’s Cemetery Dance” published by Red Penny Papers in their Summer 2012 issue.

Call Center Blues” published at Daily Science Fiction. Sent to subscribers Nov 2, 2011; posted to site Nov 9, 2011

Monsters, Monsters, Everywhere”, published by Crossed Genres Magazine in issue #34 (MONSTERS), October 1, 2011.

Annabelle Tree“, published in the Southern Fried Weirdness: Reconstruction anthology to benefit tornado relief efforts, May 13, 2011.

Click on the story name to read it. “Mrs. Henderson” is playful fantasy bordering on horror without actually being scary. “Call Center” is science fiction, and short – a little less than a thousand words. “Monsters” is sci fi but much creepier than the others. “Annabelle” is magic realism, and is sad but – I hope – beautiful, too.

Please let me know what you think, or if there’s anything you want to see more of. And thank you for thinking of me when you think of Women in Genre.

More classic scifi: RA Heinlein’s TUNNEL IN THE SKY

20120423-204008.jpg Tomorrow, at dawn, you are going to be shoved through a doorway that opens into a world you have never seen. You do not know if the world you are about the enter will be tropical or arctic, desert or jungle. You may emerge in a dawn-history swamp snarling with giant reptiles; you may slither on the ice of a world gaunt beneath the fading light of an aged and lonely sun…

Published by Charles Scribner’s Sons* in 1955, TUNNEL IN THE SKY is part of Heinlein’s “young adult” series of books. Since the accidental discovery of gate travel, an overpopulated Earth was shipping its hungry citizens off as quickly as it can, colonizing the Universe (or dying, trying). A degree in an off-planet career path, like colonial lawyer or emergency doctor or expeditionary leader, would mean the difference between being a subordinate, a working-class member of the group, or someone trusted with a leadership position.The bulk of the characters in the book are 17 or 18 years old, with a few in their early twenties and a few more about 15. The only adults are shown, briefly, at the bookends of the story. A group of 100 or so students, from three high schools and one college, are about to take the final exam in their Outworld survival course. With no one to guide them, they’re on their own – and the price for failure is death.

Instead of surviving for ten days and being called home, the kids find themselves waiting … and waiting … and waiting. Eventually they gather together to make a new society for themselves, since the old one seems to have forgotten all about them. Though there are elements of Lord of the Flies, this is a kid-friendly book, and Heinlein keeps the death and gore down to a warning level. You see enough to take their predicament seriously, but not enough to turn this into horror. In fact the narrator, Rod, has an easy-going way of talking and thinking that keeps the story from becoming too scary and helps propel it into an adventure story. Think Swiss Family Robinson, instead.

How does the book, 57 years old, come across to a modern reader? Continue reading

You Should Read: THE 1977 ANNUAL WORLD’S BEST SF anthology

I picked this up at a library book sale a year or so ago, and promptly forgot all about it. If I had read the table of contents, I would have sat down and read the book immediately. Joanna Russ! Asimov’s “Bicentennial Man”! Tiptree! It wasn’t until I bought new bookshelves and rearranged my collection that I realized what my spare dollar had gotten me.

  • Introduction (Donald A. Wollheim) – Is pretentious too strong a word to use for this guy? From his intro to the blurbs he puts at the beginning of each story, as if having to defend why he chose to reprint it, he comes off as thinking his readers don’t know as much as he does, which is always off-putting (and usually wrong). Ignore him.
  • “Appearance of Life” by Brian W. Aldiss – I thought this story worked a little too hard to make a point about the ways in which we fail as humans today, by showing what the future (65,000 years into the future) version of us would think of us. The current us is a long-dead specimen, an ugly point on the physical evolution of humanity, a museum piece. From this perspective, future-human sees our flaws and waxes philosphical about them. The story did bring up some interesting ideas about umwalt and the potential for humans to be influenced by outside sources; I’ll file some of them away for later.
  • “Overdrawn at the Memory Bank” (John Varley) – I liked this quite a bit. The odd things throughout the story were suitably explained by the end, and I can see it as a precurser to a lot of cyber-fiction I like from more recent authors. Fun settings, from the “Kenya Disneyland” on the moon to the world the main character creates for himself in his head.
  • “Those Good Old Days of Liquid Fuel” (Michael G. Coney) – The narrator here is hard to like. He’s telling an anecdote from his youth, but he doesn’t have positive things to say about anyone it. He essentially just bitches about his old friends until we catch up to him in present day, where he has an opportunity to reconnect with one of the people he’s been talking about – but chooses not to, on the grounds that they have nothing to say to each other. So, we just have to listen to you bitch, and there’s no character arc, no resolution at the end? Eh.
  • “The Hertford Manuscript” (Richard Cowper) – Maybe if I cared more about HG Well’s Time Machine, or hadn’t already seen/read a million adaptations from that story, I’d have been more impressed. This goes along with a few others as being probably innovative in 1977, but boring today. It’s not badly written but the framework of the story – an old book handed down by a dead aunt with a secret inside – wasn’t original even in 1977.
  • “Natural Advantage” (Lester del Rey) – Wonderful. It presents aliens as the main characters, with Earth/humanity as an outside force that is met and re-met, but doesn’t go on the journey. It has a little of that “humans are teh awesome and will always win” propaganda common from the time, but it doesn’t overwhelm the heart of the tale. The way that the aliens cherish humanity is what gives the story its emotional weight. To be seen, from the outside, as worth remembering, worth missing … that feeling makes the last paragraph of the story work.
  • “The Bicentennial Man” (Isaac Asimov) – I’d seen the movie but hadn’t read the story until now. I liked it! I can see why it was so influential, and it’s one of those classic tales that, if you like robot stories, you’re going to want to have read.
  • “The Cabinet of Oliver Naylor” (Barrington J. Bayley) – This story tried to do so much. It introduced several novel ideas, but in the end the author chose the easy out of tossing the main character into a void so none of the science had to be explained, or, you know, work. It felt lazy.
  • “My Boat” (Joanna Russ) – Like Coney’s story, this one has a narrator recounting an incident from his teen years, but not only is the anecdote far more interesting (even though it coves many of the same themes, including a male friend leaving him to spend time with a new female) but it also has a conclusion that leaves the reader hopeful and enchanted. It’s one of the best pieces in the book.
  • “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” (James Tiptree, Jr.) – I had to try to forget everything that came after this story because by now I’ve seen it redone a hundred times, but looking at it by itself, it’s quite good. It has a very strong opinion about the (assumed) primal dominance of men and the utopia of a women-only society, which I don’t actually agree with, but the philosophy is present inside of strong storytelling. There are definite bad guys but there’s also a mostly harmless guy to show the range of male personalities, instead of simply writing them all off. I’m also not sure if I agree with the idea that the main society in the story would actually have slowed way down the way it did, but I liked that the author took the future to the logical conclusion for the rules she set for it. Bonus points for logical follow-through, always.
  • I See You” (Damon Knight) – I rarely like second-person perspective, but it fits the story here. The author alternates between 2nd per, talking to you, and third-person, talking about the inventor of a device which changes people’s perspective, and is what makes the way he talks to you make sense. It isn’t the best story in the collection but it is a solid way to end the book. Definitely recommend to people who are interested in that kind of PoV shifting. The science isn’t as novel as the storytelling, but with an author this deft, it doesn’t need to be.

Overall, there was more to like than dislike, and at least half of the stories stood the test of time. If you see it, read it.

Note: My personal library has a decent-sized stack of “classic” science fiction, most of which I’ve read. There are a few recently acquired works, like this one, which I hadn’t read until this week. They range from truly “classic” era SF (40s and 50s) to late 70s “it’s not new so it’s old and it’s kind of important so we’ll call it classic“. I will continue to review the modern titles which I think you should be reading, but I because I think it’s important to know the books which influenced contemporary writers – including myself – I am going to start reviewing the older books too. You can find them under the classic fiction tag.

Attack The Block: 10 Minutes In, Best Alien Invasion Movie Ever

I promised you a review of this film a few months ago, I know. If it makes you feel any better, I watched it again, just for you, to be sure that I felt the same way about it. That’s the kind of friend I am. Quick review: It’s the best alien invasion film I’ve ever seen.

Why? It’s ok. You can ask me that. Here’s the answer:

The film opens on a shot of the night sky, with a single star falling from the heavens, before panning down to reveal fireworks over London. The camera settles, not on the downtown, not on the homes of the wealthy, but on a tube station and a young white woman talking to her mother on her mobile while walking home past street vendors hawking flowers and vegetables. Her hat doesn’t match her coat that doesn’t match her pants and her scarf – well, let’s just assume that an elderly aunt knitted it for her and move on. Kids run down the street with sparklers, as the woman walks into a residential neighborhood with more graffiti than street lamps. A sudden burst of fireworks startles her but there’s no one behind her; she’s jumpy, though we don’t yet know why. She finishes her call with a plan to meet for Sunday dinner, and looks up to see her way blocked by a group of kids wearing dark-colored hoodies and bandanas over their faces. Crossing the street doesn’t stop them from surrounding her and mugging her. Suddenly that falling star is a meteor crashing into a car only a few feet away from them, and the invasion’s begun.

Continue reading