Science fiction is often measured by its tropes. Either the critics of the genre are hyper focused on the presence of them, or the absence of them. Hey, they have their reasons, I get it. You wanna see something new, so you bash on something when you see an old trope show up. But just because something is showing up frequently doesn’t mean it’s inaccurate. And no one is immune to the power of tropes either. Even if you think you’re above it all, first of all, slow down there hipster, and second of all, chances are you like something that is riddled with tropes, most likely because of the tropes. Ever watched a Marvel movie and liked it? You like tropes, then. Deal. But back to the topic at hand.
- 1: The Single Biome Planet
I’ve heard tons of people bemoan the biomes of planets in science fiction. The complaint goes something like this: “It’s stupid that this film/book contains so many planets that are just one thing. The swamp planet. The ice planet. The desert planet. Earth has so much variety, so should the planets in this!” Well, bucko, you may be right that Earth is covered with variety, but have you ever taken a look at what most planets are actually like? Grab a telescope, look at some NASA photos for crying out loud. Even with the Kepler telescope discovering thousands of planets outside our solar system, surprisingly few of those planets come anywhere near the Goldilocks Zone required for a planet to have liquid water and become Earth-like. Just check our own solar system if you need more proof. Mercury is a sun blasted waste land. Venus is a toxic wasteland. Mars is a cold, desert wasteland. And Earth’s a teenage wasteland. Planets that look like earth are surprisingly rare. Out of the tens of millions of planets in our own galaxy, only tens of thousands fit the bill of being potentially earth like. That may still sound like a lot, but consider the the numbers like this
10,000,000 (ten million)
If we truncated the numbers to something we could understand more easily, say taking the 10,000,000 to something like 1,000, then the amount of earth like planets would be 0.01.
- 2: Ancient Aliens
I’ve heard a lot of complaints on this one. Especially in the Alien franchise. With the reboot of the series through Prometheus and later Alien: Covenant, people were up in arms with the idea of ancient aliens in their beloved franchise. But here’s the main problem with that. Ancient aliens were always a part of alien. Ever seen the first film?
The crew of the Nostromo in Alien touch down on an alien planet in pursuit of a phantom alien signal, where the stumble upon an ancient alien derelict spacecraft. Keyword ancient. Keyword alien. If a species is sufficiently advanced to have space travel, and has been around for thousands of years, it’s not that much of a stretch that they’ve had some interaction with our own species at some point. After all, we’ve already established the rarity of Earth-like planets. So it’s likely to draw attention. Also, the ancient alien trope is as old as the genre of science fiction. Authors were weaving it into their narratives as long ago as 1887, in J.H. Rosny’s The Shapes. However, maybe I’m not giving the critic enough credit. There’s also the argument, “Ancient aliens as a trope is stupid because it doesn’t surprise me anymore.” Well, to that I still call foul. For this reason: ancient aliens aren’t meant to surprise you. It’s just an element of sci fi story telling that comes up a lot. Would you be mad at a super hero for getting his powers from mutation, or a super insect, or a fancy tech suit? No! That’s what you expect. It’s part of being a super hero. Just like ancient aliens. For crying out loud, ancient aliens are a major part of the Halo game series, and they’re not hiding it! It’s in the title of the game: Halo. Those Halo’s are ring worlds built by the Forerunner, an ancient alien race. Who also had ancient dealings with Earth. It’s normal. Deal with it.
- 3: Alien Hordes
This one comes up often in the discussion of video games. When there’s a sci fi game, there’s most likely going to be a bunch of bugs. The Zerg from Starcraft. The Flood from Halo. The Xenomorph from such gems as Aliens Vs. Predator II 2001, Alien: Isolation, and from such flops as Aliens: Colonial Marines. They always show up it seems, and they always eat a bunch of people and either cocoon them, transform them, or both. This is one I can understand. In Halo, I didn’t expect the Flood at all. They showed up out of nowhere and hijacked the game into a new, terrifying direction. And I loved it. It surprised me, even though it was a trope of the genre. Why? Because it doesn’t show up everywhere. It’s been a sci fi trope for longer than many may realize, even going back to such sci fi’s that don’t fit the mold as Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Hordes of creepy crawlies have been around for ages, and they are, in most instances, genuinely scary. So why get rid of it? It works super well. With the addition of Alien to the gallery in 1979, it reinvigorated the trope and reinforced it into the minds of hundreds of young creatives. Which is why, I believe, the trope has endured so well. There are direct references to the film throughout Halo, and many other works of fiction. It’s a love letter to something those creators found pleasure in when they were young. I may understand the desire to shy away from the alien hordes, but I find no fault in using it. It’s a wonderful, goopy, drippy tribute to the macabre.
Science Fiction is a genre like any other. It has a rich history, going back over one hundred years, and with that comes tropes. You can’t escape them. They’ll slither up to you in the dark and terrify you to your core. And that’s the point. Tropes matter because they are the trail markers of your past. They show where you came from, who you learned from, and what you value. Disliking something because it doesn’t make sense to you doesn’t make you better than the disliked thing. Take some time to get to know your tropes, and I bet you you’ll find far more pleasure in your viewing, reading, and gaming experiences. Thanks for reading.