10 Space Sci-Fi Tropes to Avoid

Don’t let these happen to you!

I’m being a little cheeky here, but considering that Totality is a space science fiction novel series, why not? I’ve consumed a lot of science fiction books, TV shows, and movies over the years, and there are certain things that just raise my hackles which I try to avoid in my own work.

1. Amnesia

Have you ever been enjoying a perfectly good story, and suddenly a major character has amnesia due to some convenient plot device, and this seems to occur only to delay the story or go on some irrelevant diversion that ultimately won’t matter? Man, that’s annoying.

Memory loss can, of course, be a powerful plot device and can lead to fascinating character development and exploration. But all too often it’s just a cheap premise for an ultimately forgettable story. Almost every space sci-fi show seems to have at least one (if not more) “amnesia episode.” Quit it!

2. Unexplained Obstinacy

Characters always need obstacles to overcome, but sometimes those obstacles come in the form of other people (or aliens, or other intelligent beings), who simply stand in the way for no elaborated reason–or at least a very thin one.

Not every character or group of characters needs to have an exceedingly complex motive, but giving them a clear, sensible motive at all is a good start. Don’t have people who block up the story for no evident reason. Find a more interesting use for them, or get rid!

3. Planets of Hats

Humans are incredibly diverse here on Earth. Why wouldn’t humans living on other planets be equally varied? Why wouldn’t aliens?

Instead, it’s all too common for whole planets to consist of an undifferentiated, conformist ego mass. They all dress the same, look the same, think the same. Humans aren’t like that. Aliens probably wouldn’t be, either. It’s often just an excuse for lack of imagination.

4. Everything is Authoritarian

Dystopias are all the rage, which is well and good, but it gets a little exhausting when fictional universes seem to be dominated by authoritarian jerks. Authoritarians make for convenient and straightforward villains, of course, and anti-authoritarian stories are a staple of Western culture. But they aren’t the only sort of evil out there, and easy choices tend to be boring ones.

Mix it up!

5. Earthlike Planets Everywhere

Scientifically speaking, this one is pretty obvious. The number of planets supporting human life, as usually portrayed in science fiction, tends to be well beyond what is expected to be realistic. Based on what we know of exoplanets at this point, those with Earthlike atmosphere, gravity, and suitable magnetic field (a must!) are likely to be quite rare.

This can be addressed in a number of ways, of course: terraforming technology, aliens who made lots of planets Earthlike a long time ago, and (fictional) space travel methods that let you get between habitable planets quickly. It’s not that having Earthlike planets all over the place is bad, but what if most planets are just plain harsh and humans try to live on them anyway? Plenty of fascinating stories to build off of that premise, too.

6. No Consequences

Sometimes terrible, even catastrophic things, happen–and then everyone just moves on like it’s just another day at the office.

TV shows tend to be worse about this than books and movies, though it can happen in any medium. Personally, I enjoy stories where the entire point is just stopping to explore the consequences of major events, instead of simply moving on to the next big drama.

7. Inconsistent Technology/Depowering

Invented technology can be extremely interesting–or the absolute bane of a science fiction story. In sci-fi stories set in space, that often means huge, powerful spaceships with fearsome weapons. It can mean planet destroyers, rapid terraforming, FTL travel, and so on. These are, of course, reliable devices in science fiction! But they are easy to handle inconsistently, or become so troublesome that it’s necessary to contrive a reason to neutralize their power. In the latter case, would it make more sense not to have the out-of-control technology in the first place??

8. Brainwashing

This one could be considered a cousin of amnesia. When you can’t find a good reason to make someone behave out-of-character, why not just have them get brainwashed? Mind control falls under this category, too. Again, it can be an effective plot element in some cases–and forcing characters to face what they did while brainwashed can be an excellent window into the human condition. But it’s also very easy to use as a crutch to explain weird character behavior.

9. Rabbits out of Hats

Somewhat related to inconsistent/runaway technology tropes, what better solution is there for painting characters into a corner than to have someone concoct a perfect solution out of the blue? Consider deus ex machina essentially the same category.

It’s just insulting. Characters shouldn’t showcase expertise there was no previous indication they possessed, especially not at a critical moment. Twists are fine, to an extent, but cheating the audience in this way just sucks. The way a conflict or crisis is resolved doesn’t have to be predictable, but it should at least be logical and reasonable.

10. Historical Determinism

This one is probably the most esoteric, as it’s my own personal hobbyhorse.

Historical determinism is the idea that historical events unfold as a linear sequence of events that, if they are properly analyzed and modeled, could ultimately produce a reliable, predictive system for future events. Although this is kind of a neat premise, variants of it are routinely abused in science fiction.

One of the most common ways this manifests is in storylines predicated on (usually ancient) aliens “seeding” DNA on other planets. This has been used in various stories to explain, for instance, why so many aliens are humanoid. But the entire premise is flawed: you can “seed” all the DNA you want, but the course of evolution is not predictable or predetermined. There’s no guarantee any species would ultimately evolve into a bipedal vertebrate–in fact, it would be extremely unlikely, since there are so many possible variations.

Just once, I’d like to see a story where a “DNA seeding” plan is shot down by a character in the story on the basis of its scientific absurdity.

I went on a little rant there, didn’t I? Feel free to comment with your own “favorites,” or you are welcome to nitpick mine. 😉

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