Science Fiction Cliches

Republibot 3.0
Republibot 3.0's picture

As anyone who's watched Star Trek in the last fifteen years or so can tell you, Science Fiction is riddled with overused cliches. Some of these are inherent in the structure of the genre, of course, but there are a lot that are simply lazy storytelling.

Take Aliens for example: when done properly, Aliens show us a completely realized, feasable culture that illustrates a different environment, a different biology, a different way of living and - more importantly - alternate ways of thinking. An example would be the Horta from the original Trek, or the Vorlon and Shadows from Babylon 5, or the Ood from Doctor Who.

When done badly, however, Aliens become an endless parade of poorly-thought-out prosthetic-forehead folk with monolithic cultures ("We are a race of warriors!" Really? Who takes care of the farming? or "We are a race of poets." Really? Again, who takes care of the farming? Or "We are a race of farmers!" Really? Who protects you from the warriors and poets?) that exist merely as a very fake setup to a very contrived punchline to a very blatant gag. Examples of this would be pretty much any Star Trek alien *other* than the Horta.

Of course there is a middle-ground. Aliens can be used metaphorically to reflect on various aspects of our souls - the prophetic Minbari, one very poetic Narn, and the foolish Centauri, for instance.

But all too often, it's simply a cliche done badly for no other reason than to generate some contrived conflict in a story that doesn't have the ideas to support it.

That's not the only example of a bad SF cliche, though. Another prime offender is the Time Travel Story.

It's been argued that it's impossible to do a good Time Travel Story, and with the exception of the Terry Gilliam film, "12 Monkeys," I'd say that's mostly true. The nature of Time Travel is such that it favors rigid predestination, which is the death of modern drama, and breaking the laws of causality means that a linear narative is generally reduced to nonsense ("Tomorrow is Yesterday" from TOS and "Wild Journey" from Land of the Giants being spectacularly annoying examples of this), and even when you manage to do it in a way that makes sense (John Varley's "Millenium" movie), the structure is so rigid as to make the story deadly dull.

Again, there are examples in between the extremes of "12 Monkeys" and "Time Rider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann," but my point is that most of the time Time Travel stories are simply poorly-thought-out excuses to fill out an hour or two with some idea that the writer thinks is neat, but which makes no sense. "Hey, it'd be totally bitchin' if a transporter malfunction sent Captain Kirk back in time to Pearl Harbor, and he met his Great-to-the-9th-power grandfather!" That kind of thing.

Faster than Light travel is also a huge, overused cliche. For half a century, people contented themselves with stories about tooling around in our own solar system. As our solar system turned out to be less and less interesting to writers (Which means essentially that it didn't have any life in it, not that the Solar System isn't an inherently fascinating place), they started to put their flights of fancy in worlds that are conveniently out of reach, rather than worldbuilding closer at hand. While this isn't inherently evil or even wrong, it is too damn easy by half. If you take the science out of Science Fiction, you're left with essentially fantasy, and setting all your stories on a conveniently earthlike world that you can get to as easily as you can hop a jet to Europe tends to sidestep all the more interesting and inherently dramatic stories one could tell about - and I'm just spitballing here - the society that emerges on Mars, affected by a hostile environment that causes biological changes due to low gravity, and where it takes months or years to get to and from earth.

Again, popular SF is frequently guilty of taking the easy road here, which, of course, is what cliches are *always* about - let's not put any thought in to it, let's just play out our goofy-assed World War 2 fantasies in space!

"But that's just what SF is" you say, "You can't get rid of any of that, and still have science fiction!" Not true: There are no aliens in the new Battlestar Galactica, and it's a riviting SF show most of the time.* Likewise there weren't any in Firefly, and there aren't any (So far as we know) in Lost. Time Travel is impossible in the new Galactica universe, and no one's complaining about it. There are no starships at all in Lost. All these shows are compelling Science Fiction programs that have made a concious decision to discard some or all of the hoary old cliches of SF and tell genuinely interesting human stories in a somewhat more original, and possibly more honest, framework.

There are, of course, many more SF cliches, and I hope to discuss them at some point in the future, but for now please give us some feedback: what SF cliches to you hate? What SF cliches can you not get enough of? What show do you think is the biggest offender in this category? On the other end of the spectrum: What show do you think could do with some tarting up by maybe tacking on a few cliches?

Let us know!

Sincerely,
Republibot 3.0

*- Well, it was when I wrote this. Shortly afterwards it utterly crashed and burned and became one of the more spectacular recent genre embarrassments.

Tags: