We all know about tropes. They pop up in any form of writing, and often a hallmark of good writing is a writer’s ability to tackle tropes, whether by exceeding the reader’s expectations with them or subverting them altogether. Obviously, no genre is immune to any of these, but different tropes appear depending on what genre you write in. Today, I want to discuss science fiction tropes. Even if you don’t write in this genre, you know about specific elements, plot devices, and story expectations in science fiction. You also know about science fiction’s characteristics.
How can you, as a writer, put a twist on popular science fiction tropes, or even subvert them altogether? What even are some of the major tropes in science fiction? I won’t tell you how to subvert them. I’m not a magic wizard that can make your work original should you want it to be. You don’t even have to subvert them but shake things up instead. Starting here might give you some ideas. Take a look below at a few major science fiction tropes and some ideas on how to subvert them.
Aliens might be one of the most recognizable tropes in science fiction, specifically how humans interact with them. They always seem to be more advanced than us, more powerful and homogenous. You never know if they mean ill, like in Ridley Scott’s Alien, or Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day, or if they’re just smarter than us, like in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 series (if you can call monoliths aliens). The point is, we maintain certain expectations when it comes to aliens in science fiction. They seem to fulfill a specific purpose in many stories. They exist as the enemy, the colonized, or just the ones different from us.
How can you subvert the alien trope? What if you shook up the relationship between humans and aliens? Imagine if aliens were a few hundred years behind us technology-wise. Or if you wrote something from an alien’s perspective. Take a look at the common aspects of this trope and see what inspires you.
Space Travel (and Time Travel)
Space travel might involve traveling to other planets that are unfamiliar, or we know about them but they’re different from what we perceive, such as in C. S. Lewis’s Space trilogy, for example. For time travel, wherever you travel in time has consequences, even in the future, such as in H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine. Things go wrong, of course. That’s what drives the plot. A ship may get stranded or the past becomes irrevocably destroyed. But you can always find new ways for how they go wrong, new ways for your characters to end up in that situation.
Discovering new places in space, or revisiting places in time, exist as a way to showcase worldbuilding and build character development. What if the past crumbles or the future doesn’t exist? What if the ship never leaves Earth the way your characters think it does? How can you defy readers’ expectations? Maybe introduce a causal loop or other paradox and see what happens too.
Does science fiction ever feel bleak to you? Maybe it’s the dystopia talking (though even without any dystopia, things appear pretty stark and empty at times, but I digress). Dystopia seemed to run rampant in science fiction. However, science fiction often acts as the perfect medium for dystopia, as humanity’s relationships with technology, science, and society can potentially go down a dark path, a path we must be sure to avoid. Dystopias such as George Orwell’s 1984, Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, and recent entries such as Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games all discuss important threats to society, including censorship, colonization, and corrupt governments (just to name a few). All contain science fiction elements.
Dystopia exists as a genre on its own. However, science fiction often uses dystopia to convey its message within its world/environment. Science fiction and dystopia appear so synonymous that the trope itself gets lost. Books with these characteristics all discuss heavy topics that we need to address, but they don’t all need to have the same characteristics. If you want to include dystopian tropes in your sci-fi, try subverting some of its characteristics such as the government or the technology. What if the government was doing everything it could to do the right thing? What if it was doing the right thing? Could the technology not act like typical surveillance, and what if it didn’t?
Technology and Science
We all know the many tropes under these two giant topics. Specific ones like tech that takes over or science that creates monstrous experiments (like one of the first bits of science fiction, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). This probably explains why science fiction seems to carry a bleak tone for me personally. The plot and story focus on something going wrong and its repercussions, not something already wrong that needs to be fixed. We know from the story that things can and will go wrong, and we have to face it.
I’m not saying that tech and science shouldn’t go wrong. It says a lot about us when it does. We learn more about our humanity because of it. But how can you examine technology or science in a new light through your own work? How might cloning or nanotechnology, for example, say something new? What are new ways to look at them in a story?
Like aliens, robots often go bad in science fiction too. This falls under the type of “technology gone bad” trope, a much bigger umbrella term in the genre, where the inventions we create have consequences, even if it stems out of good intentions. Science fiction often acts as a critique of society and how we perceive and use tech, so as the tech we use continues to blossom, in good ways or bad, we tackle it in our writing. Robots then become the primary source for our troubles with tech. We discuss the age-old problem of what happens if AI becomes emotive rather than intelligent.
But you can turn this trope on its head. In Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 series, for example, the artificial intelligence HAL pushes the limits of “good” and “bad” in how we think of them in human terms. What if you subverted the trope and made the robots the good guys, with the tech used for greed becoming something else entirely? How can it the trope be less black-and-white?
These aren’t the only science fiction tropes out there. But these encompass a majority of what the genre discusses and builds its stories in. And many stories rely on these. Maybe this gives you inspiration and ideas for how to use these tropes in the future. You can also find many more tropes here. Chances are I expand on this article later on as well, with more tropes to come. Happy writing!
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