Tired Sci-Fi Tropes That Must Be Retired — Part Deux

Read the first part of this blog post.

Continuing my study of tired science fiction clichés:

Explanations for Vampirism

Space vampires.  SEXY space vampires.Sci-fi writers like to find scientifical explanations for supernatural myths. Julian May suggests that fairies and dwarfs are aliens. H.P. Lovecraft proposes that ghosts and goblins are aliens. Arthur C. Clarke writes that Christian devils are… aliens.

But the favorite supernatural-meets-sci-fi trope is to describe vampires as either aliens or as victims of a disease. The classic example of the former is 1985’s Lifeforce, a great, underrated movie that everyone should see, if for nothing else than Mathilda May’s naked breasts. The best example of the latter might be 1971’s The Omega Man, which would be a classic film if it didn’t have Charlton Heston in it.

But now this has been waaaay over done. This idea even infected the Matrix movies. It was the main plot point of this year’s execrable Ultraviolet – and a movie really has to be bad if even Milla Jovovich can’t save it. And speaking of Milla, let’s stop explaining zombies as disease victims, too. If your zombie isn’t a shambling corpse created through evil Vodou magic, I don’t want to hear about it.

Nanotech as Magic

She can inject me with her nanoprobes any time.Any time nanotechnology comes up, someone quotes Arthur C. Clark; “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Well, it seems clear that the earliest advocates for nanotech very much overstated its potential as well as its dangers. Most likely, nanotech is not going to make us immortal. And the gray goo is not going to kill us all, either.

But it seems just as clear that nanotechnology, and related materials sciences, will completely change our world, and remake society as we know it.

Some authors have imagined these changes, and postulated in the impact they will have on humanity. Neil Stephenson’s The Diamond Age is my favorite of these; also the works of Rudy Rucker. And occasionally, a film will reference nanotech in an interesting way. The “mimetic polyalloy” in Terminator 2: Judgment Day is the first thing that comes to mind.

But you can’t just throw nanotech in there every time you need out of a dead-end plot. Lazy sci-fi writers are just using “nano” to replace all the usual pseudo-scientific jargon. Look, if you want to explore the medical implications of nanotech, please, go right ahead. But if you injured your hero in scene 24, and want him fully healed in scene 25, don’t fall back on a “nanopatch.” It’s asinine. Nanotechnology is not a magic word that eliminates the need for plot, character, and milieu construction.

I’m talking to YOU, Berman and Braga.

The Ineffectual Crew

Yeah, George, we get it.  That's a lot of guys.So, the U.S.S. Enterprise had a crew of 430. The Enterprise-D had a crew of over 1,000. Babylon 5 had a crew of 2500 (and a much larger population). The re-imagined Battlestar Galactica had 2800 crew. The SDF-1 had 50,000 people living inside of it. The Death Star had a crew complement of 1,226,000.

But only five people ever actually DO anything.

This is difficult to avoid; in fiction we have main protagonists, and we want to hear about what they’re doing, not about some lowly Photon Torpedo Loading Technician on Deck 23. Our heroes won’t be very interesting if all they do is bark orders all day.

One way to deal with this is a tiny crew. In Firefly, the Serenity had a crew of six, with three passengers (I’m counting the doctor, Simon, as crew). There was zero redundancy, so if someone got taken out, the ship was screwed. But at least everyone was busy.

The new Battlestar Galactica has faced this problem self-referentially. Apollo and Starbuck have both complained that they have to do all the heavy lifting. It’s a wink-and-a-nod to the audience.

To give Star Trek credit, the show did an excellent job from the very beginning of creating the illusion of a large ship with a large crew, through background sounds, the careful placement of extras, and dialogue. And Next Generation was pretty good about introducing supporting crew characters. Still, if someone was going to save the ship, it was most likely Wesley.

The message to sci-fi writers is this; if the life of a starship captain isn’t very interesting, because he or she doesn’t actually do very much on his or her own, then stop writing stories about starship captains. Or be more creative in inventing stories.

The Planet-as-Location

I met him in a swamp down on Dagobah, where it bubbles all the time like a giant carbonated soda.  S-O-D-A soda.The planet Dagobah is jungle planet with roughly Earth gravity and with oceans over only 8% of the surface. If we assume that Dagobah is the same size as the Earth, then the land area of the planet is 469,260,352 km2, or 181,182,435 miles2. Give or take.

Good thing Dagobah is in fact about one acre in size, and contains a lake, a hut, and a Secret Grove of Confronting One’s Enemy and Learning It Is Oneself. Because Dagobah is only an acre, Luke has no problem locating Yoda’s home. Imagine if he had to search 181 million square miles! And all while Han & Leia are hiding in the asteroid field!

Sci-fi writers love to treat “planet” as if it’s a single location. “Let’s land on the planet, where we’ll meet the one settlement of the one culture, and have the one adventure the planet can afford us.” Planets are entire WORLDS. Even with advanced technology, it will take a space exploration crew YEARS to explore and survey a single planet. Even an uninhabited one.

Under the “Planet-as-Location” cliché, Mars is done. We sent a robot, it roamed around a few hundred yards. We saw it. DONE. Nothing more to see here.

It’s absurd, it’s an overused sci-fi trope, and it’s time to drop it.

The Theme Planet

Mmmm mmmm, sandworm is good eatin'!The planet Dagobah is jungle planet with roughly Earth gravity and with oceans over only 8% of the surface. If we assume that Dagobah is the same size as the Earth, then the land area of the planet is 469,260,352 km2, or 181,182,435 miles2. Give or take.

That’s 181 million square miles of jungle. Jungle at the equator, jungle at the poles. Jungle in the plains, jungle on the mountains. Jungle on the ocean floor, I guess. No deserts, no tundra, no temperate grasslands. Just jungle, jungle, jungle.

Jungles occur at certain latitudes, and in specific geographic and climate conditions. Even if Johnny Jungleseed went all over the planet planting Kapok trees, it’s not going to create a single planetary biome.

Even Frank Herbert admitted that Arrakis – Dune – desert planet was not scientifically possible. Although he created a clever ecology for the planet, all of its unique (and impossible) features were due to a single creature, the sandworm. One wonders how such a destructive life form, that creates its own climate, ever evolved.

Some theme planets are possible (ocean worlds) or even probable (ice worlds). But they won’t have lovely, warm oxygen atmospheres. Look at the one “desert” planet of which we are aware – Mars. Not terribly hospitable to moisture farmers and their malcontent nephews who thirst for adventure. Scientists used to hypothesize that Venus was a jungle planet. Sulfur rain and 400Cº temperatures aren’t too conducive to rainforest conditions.

Enough with the theme planets. Again, planets are WORLDS, and should be treated as such.

Everything on Mars is Red

Dees red filtah ees makink my head explote!  Or maybe eet ees der Kahreefornia Demokrats!“Hey, let’s make this movie take place on Mars! We’ll just drive out to Topanga, and shoot everything with a red filter!”

Even movies as recent as Mission to Mars and Red Planet have fallen into this lazy, non-scientific trap. Is everything on Earth blue? Should everything that takes place on Earth be shot with a blue filter?

Mars’ surface is covered largely by iron oxide rust. This gives the surface, and atmospheric dust, an orange hue. But the sky is blue during the day and black at night, and objects are the color they would be anywhere else, unless they are covered in orange dust. The surface albedo might give objects a slight orange cast – but that’s about it.

The planet has no magical red miasma. You can’t depict the planet’s surface on the cheap with a red filter. Sorry.

Alien-Human Hybrids/Babies

Ripley Clone Number 7.  I'd still hit it.From Mr. Spock and Dana Sterling to Ripley Clone #8 and the Cylon Miracle Baby, sci-fi writers just love those alien-human hybrids.

Unfortunately, if you can’t get viable offspring from a human-chimpanzee coupling (and Lord knows I’ve tried!), what chances are there for two beings that evolved on different worlds?

Now the sticklers will point out, regarding the four examples given above, that (1) humans and Vulcans were both created by the Progenitors; (2) in some versions of the Macross back story, the Zentraedi are a human sub-species; (3) the Ripley clones weren’t created sexually, and were just Ripley with certain xenomorph genes spliced in; and (4) humanoid Cylons are almost completely human, and are designed to copulate with humans.

Excuses, excuses.

It’s funny, in 2001’s Planet of the Apes, director Tim Burton wasn’t allowed to show the human Mark Wahlberg get it on with the chimp Helena Bonham Carter. Yet James T. Kirk could get busy with any alien that had a shapely carcass and a hole.

When we finally encounter intelligent alien life, the social, psychological, and ethical challenges will be enormous. But the one thing we won’t have to worry about it alien-human babies. Time to give it up.

Sound In Space

Sound in space -- there isn't any.Everyone knows there is no sound in a vacuum. Everyone but George Lucas.

Some sci-fi movies and films have tried to accurately portray what a spaceship occupant might hear, during a battle for instance; or at least use the occupant’s perspective as an excuse to sneak in some sound. The new Battlestar Galactica does a pretty good job of this. Engine sounds, collisions, passing through gas and debris clouds, and voices can provide a lot of audio “business” in a scene.

But there is something eerie and beautiful about an appropriately silent space scene. (As long as it’s not all done in annoying slow motion, like 2001: A Space Odyssey.) Firefly had some excellent “silent” space scenes, with nothing but twangy guitar over the action.

Science fiction authors need to remember, physics is our ally, not our enemy. Make friends with it.


  1. I like the comment about a planet as a location. Prety much like Americans holiday in Europe. Spend four days in London and a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon for a day and that’s the UK done, lets move onto Paris! Of course America is a lot bigger, so it took me and my wife three weeks to do it all! Got a weekend break sorted to do Luxemburg and Monaco in the new year!

  2. Regarding alien linguistics, I think it’s fine if they sound the same as the human characters – whether American, British, or the aforementioned non-north-american-Canadian English — if the humans and aliens have had contact for some time and learned to communicate somehow. But it would be both more entertaining and more realistic for them to speak some sort of pidgin dialect, and have some difficulties in communication. Easy enough for the audience to figure out, but difficult enough to make things complicated for the protaganists.

    Another major overdone cliche is the alien race which collectively represents a single human trait or stereotype. “Captain, we’ve detected a Zeta Hydroxian ship. Their population of 42 billion has over 30,000 years of history and culture, which can all be summed up as ‘greedy and narcissistic’.”

  3. Well since I already writting my own sci-fi novel, I will be in the lookout for these cliches. But its already for me I guess. Why?

    1. The two alien species that I created are bipedal. So much for that. At least there are no giant bugs, at least not yet.

    2. One of the aliens looks like a “Grey”.

    3. The writting is bad, but at least I’m writting.

    Nice blog!

  4. George Lucas is horrible about single environment planets. The source material for Star Wars is always about single purposed planetary life. When I was playing Star Wars Galaxies, I had a friend who played Trandoshan. So he is talking to another Trando in game. I said to him in a whisper “What do you think you’re doing talking to that green Trandoshan, you know they are peace-nick hippies from the other side of the planet.”

    I’m a SciFi purist myself, but I can enjoy some of the entertaining aspects of SciFantasy like Star Wars and Star Trek. As long as it tries, based on the knowledge of the time, to be somewhat scientifically plausible, or at least give me a damn good explanation why.

    If we want to accept that there may be extra-terrestrial life in our galaxy, we are going to have to accept that there is, yet undiscovered, a means of traveling much faster (not necessarily velocity) than we can conceive at the moment. So I will forgive hyperspace and warp drive for the sake of a good story.

    I do, however, agree with many of your premises.

  5. On the point of Zombies being disease carriers, I think that, as long as it is a man-made disease, it speaks volumes on the dangers of genetic engineering, and to me zombies from a virus are more believable than zombies from a voodoo priest who’s had a really sucky day.

  6. Well, this was interesting. Just a few comments.

    First, I agree with some of what you said. I’ma huge Firefly fan, and I like the fact that everyone had a job to do, and they were very dependant on each other. It made everyone important.

    I like how, in Firefly, there was no sound in space. But you have to remember, there were no aliens in that show either. So, bringing in SOME scientific facts, like no sound in space made sense. That’s the kind of show it is.

    Star Wars had aliens. That’s the kind of show it is. It’s a little more on the fantasy side. So, they can get away with sound in space.

    It’s always amazed me how some people can let certain things slide and call other things out. For example, a friend of mine was really bothered how, in Van Helsing, his crossbow was supposed to be gas powered, but the bow still recoiled to fire the bolt. I was like, “Dude! A man turned into a werewolf and your ok. The crossbow doesn’t work realisticlly, and it ruins the movie for you?”

    It’s the same here. If a movie has ONE SINGLE ALIEN in it, and you’re willing to accept that, then enything else they do in the movie should be accepted. Everyone is talking about the science in sci-fi, but if there is one ship going the speed of light, then ALL BETS ARE OFF. You can’t accept one thing, knowing it’s unrealistic, and then call other things out for being unrealistic.

    As for the planets being a theme, yeah, we have lots of different locations on Earth. But, that’s because of many factors. We have one sun. Tatooine has 2. Who’s to say that a planet with 2 suns wouldn’t be all desert? Our ecosystems are determined by the sun, the distance from the sun, the rotation of the planet, the revolution of the planet, the size of the planet, etc, etc…

    Another thing is this. You want things to be explained. You want things to have some kind of scientific realism……SO WHY CAN’T ZOMBIES HAVE IT! Why do aliens and planets and everything else have to be more realistic…but if zombies are explained using science, that turns you off? Sounds backwards to me.

    Also, if everything were real and based on science, we’d all be watching he NASA channel. It’s entertainment. It’s fiction. Everyone keeps saying that George Lucas doesn’t know that there’s no sound in space. I’m sure he knows that. But he also knows that being realistic in a Star Wars movie would be boring.

    I’ve studied filmmaking for a long time. Slow motion in zero g. Mars being all red. Time travel. Etc…it’s all done for a reason. To help tell the story. If characters were on Mars, and Mars had a blue sky and everything looked like it does on Earth, I would get confused as to where I was. The filmmakers know this and that’s why they make the enviornment look different. If everyone was moving at normal speed, but the scene was supposed to be in zero g, how would we as an audience know that? They have to do things to sell the effect, to advance the story.

    Sorry this got long, and I know you were originally talking about things that are overdone. But some of these things HAVE to be done to tell the story. I like that Firefly had no sound in space. It fit that story. But I’m also glad that Star Wars HAD sound in space. It fit. I’m just against making things that could be cool, and making it real just for the sake of being real. If that were the case,we’d all be watching reality TV. ;-p

  7. VERY good one. Totally true. Just forgot the humanoid aliens that HAVE to have superpowers when they decide to inhabit Earth. LOL!

  8. “Many things you said are indeed scientifically incorrect but remember what genre you are talking about. Sience FICTION.” (sic)

    You aren’t thinking of Science Fiction, you’re thinking of Fantasy with Lasers.

Leave a Comment.