For years, science fiction authors and film writers have relied on tried-and-true tropes to draw in their audiences. Whether it's the climactic space battle with star destroyers and fighters whipping by each other at breakneck speeds, or the alien invasion resisted by a small group of intrepid freedom fighters, these tropes have almost come to be expected in traditional sci-fi stories. But now they're beginning to grow stale and readers are demanding more. In this article we'll look at four tired science fiction tropes, and how modern authors and screenwriters are redefining them in smart science fiction.
Since H.G. Wells penned War of the Worlds, humans have been fascinated with aliens coming down to Earth, taking over our planet, and chopping us up for dinner. Classics like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Invasion of the Body Snatchers enthralled us. Novels like Niven's Footfall and Heinlein's Starship Troopers took it to the next level. Mars Attacks delivered a comedic element, and the Aliens franchise put a new spin on things, but movies like Independence Day hit the theaters relying on special effects as their only differentiator. Then James Cameron came along. Avatar changed the way we look at aliens. Roles were reversed — now it was humans who were the invading monsters. Cameron also inserted extensive detail into the world he created — it was one of the very few movies where there were almost no technical flaws. District 9 is another great example of how the tired "alien" trope is being reinvigorated. The film tackled a host of social issues while delivering a compelling science fiction story involving beings from another planet. Both of these films represent some of the best in smart science fiction.
Space Battles — Pew, Pew, Pew
Who doesn't like Star Wars, especially the battle scenes? X-Wings and TIE Fighters in close quarters, dogfights with lasers firing in all directions. For the movie screen and even some novels, the close quarter battles are used to accentuate the action. In most sci-fi fights, the ships perform more like an F-16 fighter than a spacecraft. As far as we know, there has yet to be a battle in space, but the first one will bear no resemblance to what we've seen in the iconic Star Wars movie series and others like it. One set of novels — now also TV series — The Expanse paints a much more realistic view of what space combat will look like. As important as firing weapons are the maneuvers that must be performed by opposing fleets to intercept each other. In one battle scene, attacking ships are detected by their engine plumes which are pointed toward the target ship because they must slow down for the encounter. Lasers can't be seen in space and missiles will likely be more effective weapons, but this type of space combat isn't as flashy as Star Wars or Battlestar Galactica. Yet, it's real and believable, and many are beginning to prefer it to the fantasy fights that have plagued the genre.
Marooned in Space
Whether it's Sandra Bullock in the movie Gravity, or Dennis Quaid in Enemy Mine, film and book protagonists stranded in space or on a distant planet has been a common theme in science fiction since the earliest days of science fiction. Initially, the Robinson Crusoe effect drew in audiences, as protagonists battled alien creatures and struggled to survive in the ultimate of harsh environments. The problem with this trope is that in the real universe there are almost no resources that would realistically allow a marooned hero to survive. Bullock traveling to a Chinese space station was ludicrous in its technical accuracy, and that Quaid's character could breathe the atmosphere and survive on the local fauna of a distant planet is far-fetched at best. But then shouldn't we suspend reality for a little while? Shouldn't we allow this trope to get away with implausible, or downright impossible, premises? I had given up on reading or watching any story that had to do with a hero stranded in space — until Andy Weir published The Martian. This modern version of a tired theme breathed new life into the trope. What made Weir's work different — and successful — was the technical realism and problem-solving the character had to go through just to survive. The human spirit and will to survive is showcased in any of a number of stories depicting stranded protagonists, and The Martian is no different in this regard; the same old trope, but refreshed in a way we haven't seen before.
I have to admit that I'm a sucker for post-apocalyptic science fiction. I can watch The Road Warrior over and over and never get tired of it. The Postman was a wonderful novel, if not a great movie, and who can't say good things about Stephen King's The Stand. What draws us to these stories is the "what would you do" effect. We can put ourselves in these situations and thus relate to the stories. This family of stories has seen some notable recent entrants that have brought different aspects to bear. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, was published in 2006 and released as a movie in 2009 — both are worthy of attention. This gritty story is more about the story, the characters, and life lessons than the backdrop in which it takes place. The protagonists go through a series of highs and lows that carry the reader along with them.
Any trope can only be used so many times before it gets tired, and there can only be so many tropes. Will we some day run out of new and different settings for our science fiction stories? As long as there are creative, technically accurate writers, the stories will continue to come, "smart science fiction" will continue to get written, and more readers and viewers will continue to flock to the genre.
Beyer received a degree in aerospace engineering in 1989 from Virginia Tech and, following graduation, was hired by NASA at Kennedy Space Center, where he worked as a Space Shuttle experiment engineer for nearly 10 years. Beyer has had the honor of working onboard every Space Shuttle orbiter except Challenger. In late 1998, Darren left NASA to become an entrepreneur, and, after more than 17 years, an author. He is a student of science and technology, an expert in mobile technology and payments, and is an instrument-rated private pilot. Darren lives in California near San Francisco with his wife, dogs, cats, and fish.