Being a science fiction writer can sometimes be frustrating. When you tell people you write sci-fi their eyes light up and they ask if your book is anything like Star Wars, Star Trek, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, or War of The Worlds. And if like me, you write YA sci-fi they assume it’s like The Hunger Games or Divergent. It’s funny and sometimes frustrating that these stories seem to be the type of ones that jump to most people’s minds when sci-fi is mentioned.
All of these books and movies have something in common . . . they’re all either set in space, play host to aliens, or are a dystopian future. I think space opera, together with dystopian has become most people’s modern understanding of science fiction.
But that’s far from an accurate description of the genre.
What is Science Fiction?
I decided to write this post because when people ask what genre my book is and I say, ‘Science Fiction’, they often respond with questions about space travel and strange beings from other planets. But there are many science fiction books that have neither aliens nor space settings. The Hunger Games, Jurassic park, and The Matrix are from this genre. Yet they’re set on earth with no intergalactic visitors. You see, sci-fi is taking technology that may or may not exist and growing the idea of it into what it could become—opening up the possibilities. I guess like any type of writing it’s about the ‘what if’. The very first science fiction book wasjust that. The author, Mary Shelley, depicted a scientist using technology to play god. He built a body out of corpses and created life made by man. That novel was Frankenstein. Published in 1818, it’s a true classic of the genre even though most people wouldn’t classify it as science fiction.
Technology in sci-fi is used to explore a concept. It’s really obvious with dystopian novels; most of which are a reflection of society at its extreme. But it’s not just dystopian. Take Jurassic Park for example; the writers took the technology of cloning and blew it to an extreme that doesn’t exist (yet). The story takes a scientist’s dream of dinosaurs breathing and walking the earth once more and makes it reality. In a way these sci-fi stories show society at its extreme.
As a writer I think it’s important to break the mould and move away from what people expect. The possibilities are endless.
Common Science Fiction Tropes
Tropes are what contribute to the stereotype within genres. They are patterns or attributes in either a character or the story that conjure up a feeling of expectation in the reader. For example, a motorcycle riding, quick witted character in a romance story would make the reader expect a certain character arc. Same thing in sci-fi, certain tropes create certain expectations. The obvious example is Asimov’s three laws of robotics. Almost every major sci-fi book or movie for the last seventy years, from iRobot to Terminator to The Matrix, that has been a story about the rise of artificial intelligence to destroy humanity has utilised Asimov’s three laws as the basis for machine’s slow integration and eventual dominance of the human race. With the invariable twist that the third rule forces the robots to protect humans by enslaving them.
Some other commonly found tropes include;
Aliens: Typically alien invasions on Earth. Or aliens that have hive minds, or are god-like.
Travel: through time or intersteller
Human modifications: Clone, bodily transformations, superpowers
Parallel universes or worlds
Immortality, mind control
Disasters: Post apocalyptic world, or post worldwide disaster
Habitats: domed cities, floating cities, underground cities, terraformed planets.
Sometimes tropes are used so often that they become cliché. Just like any other genre there are a whole bunch of overused clichés within Science Fiction. These are sometimes what contribute to the wider expectation that the genre must include things like space travel or aliens. Clichés can be: plot devices, storylines, the stereotyped characters, or even the setting. I’m not saying they are bad, clichés appeal to many readers as it means the book will meet certain expectations. If used, I think it’s wise to make sure they’re twisted in a new and exciting way. A few clichés include;
Universal translators or all humanoids speaking the same language
Aliens that look like humans
Nuclear weapons saving the day
For more examples, there’s a very detailed list of overused Science Fiction clichés here.
These tropes and clichés are what people think of when they hear the term sci-fi. The temptation is strong to play to these well known concepts that are easily identifiable by the majority of readers. But whether we’re talking about the type of science fiction that is commonly expected or another branch of the genre, the important thing is to make it stand out. These days many people assume YA sci-fi is dystopian, and adult sci-fi is space opera. Let’s show the readers that it’s about far more than aliens, space travel, or broken societies.
Science fiction at its core and at its best is about using a technology or an advancement to make a comment about the prevailing human condition. The setting of space, or alternate reality, or advanced technology is just that; a setting that distances the reader from their own reality so any commentaries made by the story about the potential of the human race in general are more willingly accepted. Avatar for example, is just as much about current environmental issues as it is about cool blue-skinned aliens.
It is how the writer uses tropes and clichés within the genre and makes them their own that appeals to jaded readers. In my YA sci-fi I use the tropes of mind control, hidden technology, and other common romance tropes like the bad boy hero. By twisting these tropes, for example; mind control, in a way that makes it stem from technology rather a mental ability, and using it in different ways; like deletion and alteration of memories rather than just control, I feel that I’ve given it a slightly different spin that I hope readers will feel safe with, yet enjoy for its difference.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the misconception of sci-fi. Do you use clichés, and if so, what do you add to give it a that touch of personal flavour?
Stacey Nash writes adventure filled stories for Young Adults in the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres. When her head isn’t stuck in a fictional world, she calls the Hunter Valley of New South Wales home. It is an area nestled between mountains and vineyards, full of history and culture that all comes together to create an abundance of writing inspiration. Stacey loves nothing more than writing when inspiration strikes.
Forget Me Not – Collective Series, book #1
Since her mother vanished nine years ago, Anamae and her father have shared a quiet life. But when Anamae discovers a brooch identical to her mother’s favorite pendant, she unknowingly invites a slew of trouble into their world. When the brooch and the pendant are worn together they’re no longer pretty pieces of jewelry — they’re part of a highly developed technology capable of cloaking the human form. Triggering the jewelry’s power attracts the attention of a secret society determined to confiscate the device — and silence everyone who is aware of its existence. Anamae knows too much, and now she’s Enemy Number One.
She’s forced to leave her father behind when she’s taken in by a group determined to keep her safe. Here Anamae searches for answers about this hidden world. With her father kidnapped and her own life on the line, Anamae must decide if saving her dad is worth risking her new friends’ lives. No matter what she does, somebody is going to get hurt.