Megaspace / A discussion of science fiction clichés
While working on the Megaspace, I realized there are many science fiction clichés I'd like to avoid, as well as some I don't think I can (or want) to avoid. Of course, that was many years ago. The Megaspace is obsolete, my ideas have evolved, and TVTropes has become an invaluable resource. But much of what I wrote here is still as good as always.
Aren't you annoyed by the anthropocentrism and Terracentrism of most science fiction? I mean, when Earth isn't the pinnacle of galactic civilization (usually without justification), it must be a long-lost world of legend. Egregious offenders include Star Trek in the first category and the Foundation in the second.
What is so special about Earth? That we happen to live on it now? An alien couldn't care less about that. In a galaxy with many advanced civilizations, we'd have to work hard to even get noticed. Grow up, people! Nobody's special.
For an example of this aspect done right, check out the webcomic Terra.
While bumpy foreheads are entirely justified (see below), the uniformity of the typical sci-fi aliens is downright offensive. What, they don't have different races on their planet? No different countries, languages, customs, nothing? They're all carbon copies of each other? That's a hideously simplistic proposition. I'm not saying every fictional alien species should be as complex as our own (it would be a tremendous amount of work), but you can at least make up two or three variations of each.
Example: the fantasy world of Forgotten Realms, which is otherwise quite clichéd, features several varieties of elves, dwarves, giants, dragons and so on. Just enough to make you feel there's an actual history behind each of those races.
For that matter, isn't it funny how in most science-fiction we are told there are hundreds or thousands of major worlds, but only a handful of them seem to matter at all? Like when a multi-thousand world galactic empire has a defense line relying on three (!) planets, namely in A. E. Van Vogt's 1959 novel War Against the Rull. Well, think of it this way: according to Wikipedia, there are no less than 27 cities with over 5 million people on Earth, for only about 200 countries. That's a pretty large ratio. And speaking of countries, I'll bet that all but the smallest have more than three military bases...
Of course, a single planet already provides enough room for countless adventures -- there's simply no need for most space opera stories to even go into space at all! But then at least take care not to sound ridiculous.
I used to think quasi-human "aliens" with bumpy foreheads were the bane of science fiction, but that is of course naive. You don't even need the excuse of TV budgets: just remember that sci-fi is not about future tech and distant worlds, but about ourselves, right here and now -- a distorted mirror.
That said, when each and every alien is basically just a caricature of some human stereotype, and we get to teach them right from wrong -- because, isn't it, our norms are somehow universally the best -- the story just becomes insulting. The whole point of putting aliens in a sci-fi story is to give the audience a good look at themselves from a novel angle. Are our ways really the only possible ones, let alone the best? Think, dear writer! Use that creativity of yours!
Now, if you're so worried about explaining all those quasi-human aliens (like Star Trek The Next Generation did in a ridiculous three-part episode), make our species co-exist in the galaxy with our transhuman and even posthuman descendents, like the Festival in Singularity Sky.
Looking at our civilization as it is now, it's pretty easy to see that technology tends to grow uniform. The law of diminishing returns settles in, and sooner or later everyone converges on the optimal solutions.
What many science fiction writers have not noticed is that we are one sapient species on only one planet with relatively uniform conditions. What is optimal for us will be unlikely to be optimal for an alien civilization as well. Especially as they may know things we don't, and vice-versa. The universe is weirder than we think; why make it bland?
Even if you don't really have aliens, like in my newer space opera setting, you can still have a faction living on a Stanford Torus, while another has reactionless drive and energy shields, with yet a third relying on magic. Yes, that's science fantasy. So what?
I realize you can't always be faithful to reality when telling a story. E.g. in a science fiction movie you have no choice but to depict the laser beams on screen, otherwise the audience won't be able to follow the action. But why butcher the laws of physics when you don't have to? If weapon fire looks and moves like tracer bullets, at least don't call it "energy". You have much better opportunities to be cool.
On a related note, I realize it is important for the audience to have sound in those spectacular space battle scenes. Plus, not having any would be a waste of all those surround speakers out there. But there are tricks that can be employed to satisfy both the kid in the front row and the scientist in the corner. Some exterior shots can be shortened, making the lack of sound in them a nice contrast, as opposed to a jarring absence. In others, the soundtrack can be filled with sounds from inside the ships (think submarine movies) and/or music.
Incidentally, the new Battlestar Galactica does just this; a friend had to tell me, as I hadn't noticed. As the saying goes, there are only solutions.
It's one thing to compress the action - again, for the benefit of the audience - but both filmmakers and writers are overdoing it. Starships engaging in battles at shorter ranges than even real life vessels, maneuvers never taking more than a few seconds (fighter planes in space? again?), interstellar travel times omitted completely (and never mentioned to boot, presumably to avoid inconsistencies), such tactics remove any sense of scale. The characters may just as well be kids playing in their backyard. And then, why bother setting the story, you know, in space?
Stop worrying about faster-than-light travel in, you know, science fiction. It's physically impossible, so what? Building a Bussard ramjet is so difficult it might as well be impossible; that the laws of physics technically allow one to exist doesn't make it plausible. Might as well assume quasi-magical FTL and worry about telling a good story.
Also, let me stress the point about quasi-human aliens: they are an essential plot device. Just remember that even on Earth, among plain old humans, we have cultures strange enough to qualify as alien. Imagine the divergence after a few thousand years of people living on different planets, with varying local conditions.
For more information, check out the Big List of Overused Science Fiction Clichés (which is available on several websites). And remember that clichés are not the same thing as tropes, even though sometimes it's hard to draw a line.