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 The Megaspace is obsolete, my ideas have evolved, and TVTropes has become an invaluable resource.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.
Earth should not be special in any way
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 extraterrestrial 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.
Many sapient species should be non-humanoid
Let's face it, quasi-human "aliens" with bumpy foreheads are the bane of science fiction. Even smuggling the panspermia theory into the story (which is unavoidable, if you want quasi-human aliens at all) doesn't explain why no alien species look truly different. Unless you really believe that nonsense about the human form being the best for a sapient life form, in which case I have to ask: why the bumpy foreheads? Why the pointy ears/claws/reptilian traits (insert your favorite cliché here)? Oh, so we're not the end-all, be-all of evolution? Then there really should be all kind of sapients out there.
More recently I solved that problem by having the humans co-exist in the galaxy with their transhuman and even posthuman descendents, an idea inspired by the Festival in Singularity Sky.
Aliens should be well fleshed out
While bumpy foreheads are annoying, 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 those races.
Why only a handful of interesting planets?
For that matter, isn't it funny how in most science-fiction we are told there are hundreds or thousands of major worlds, but we only get to see a handful of them? It's even funnier when a multi-thousand world galactic empire has a defense line relying on three (!) planets, like 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...
Not everyone should have the same technology
Looking at our civilization as it is now, it's pretty easy to see that technology tends towards uniformization. There is only so much we can do with our present knowledge, and sooner or later everyone settles for 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?
Energy beams should move at light speed
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.
Space should be silent
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.
The vastness of space should be acknowledged
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 writing science fiction at all?
At the risk of being hypocritical (see my remark above about the butchering of physics), I'll have to say that some form of FTL is unavoidable in most science-fiction. Heck, without the ability to quickly scout out extrasolar planets and transport lots of people to them, we'll never establish a significant presence outside our solar system. And you might need that kind of setup to tell your story.
Also, while the existence of quasi-human aliens is very unlikely, they are a very useful plot device. You can't expect a human reader to relate well with a totally alien life form, and having said alien behave in a recognizably human manner is even more unlikely. Your only other option is to get rid of aliens entirely, and again, this limits the potential range of interesting stories.
But see above under the Sapient Species heading: even on Earth, among plain old humans, we have civilizations different 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.