May 27, 2009

SF/F cliches

A list of overused fantasy tropes and cliches here and science fiction tropes and cliches here. Amusing and telling. At the end of the day, telling stories is all about "the same only different."

Here are a few more of my own:

In the future, not only have we run out of oil, but everybody's forgotten that internal combustion engines run equally well on ethanol, butanol (better than ethanol), hydrogen and natural gas, not to mention all the diesel/turbine substitutes.

Any bright kid can crack 128-bit encryption with a laptop (Mac, of course).

Supercomputers are all mainframes based on the Cray-2, circa 1985, just bigger. Despite faster-than-light communication, nobody uses distributed networks, making single-point-of-failure catastrophes inevitable.

Nobody uses off-site backups either.

Passwords and one-time pads, no matter how complex, are always crackable thanks to some super-duper mathematics genius or wizbang gizmo.

It is impossible to "crack" a true one-time pad except through brute force. There was an old Mission Impossible episode where the mission was to crack a one-time pad. The only way to do it was to socially engineer a situation that would force the villain to reveal its source: a page from a randomly-chosen phone book. Clever.

Shooting the ten-pad causes a digitally-locked door to unlock (great security, that!).

Similarly, the hero can hotwire any vehicle or spring any prison lock with rudimentary tools.

Super-advanced militaries of the future lack the equivalent of the guided missile, JDAM, HARM, Vulcan Phalanx, drones, or even effective firearms (or lack them in sufficient quantities).

A Vulcan Phalanx is used in Under Siege. Mount a couple on the Death Star and Luke Skywalker would have lasted about five seconds. You do see guided missiles a lot in anime--but they are never proximity devices, so the good guys can always outrun them.

A nice thing about the Stargate series: conventional automatic weapons remain quite useful at killing things.

Alien races bent on destroying civilization will descend into the atmosphere and engage Earth air defenses rather than staying safely in orbit and pummeling the planet with really big rocks.

Heinlein, Niven and Pournelle have used this idea. And despite how dumb the rest of the movie is, Independence Day deserves credit for illustrating the proper use of a nuclear warhead against an enemy.

No matter how technologically developed the society, all communications systems are analog (even faster-than-light) and AM radio is ubiquitous.

Robots insist on occupying the same ecological niches as humans, despite robots ostensibly having no need for what those ecological niches provide humans.

A few more from Kate

Since Alec Guinness is dead, if you have a wise sage that instructs the youthful hero in his life's work, the wise sage must either be Liam Neeson or Roy Dotrice. That is, he must have a beard, a deep voice, and talk in something that could be a British accent. Even Ewan McGregor had to grow a beard before he could give sage advice.

Super-advanced society with massive technological advances will nevertheless be completely lacking in one area that the heroes just so happen to be skilled at.

A few more from Joe

When a movie is turned into a TV show, the villain's powerful abilities are diminished and continue to diminish as the TV show progresses. And other, often extremely useful ones magically pop up, often to only disappear the next episode without explanation.

In order to see with helmets on, lights are placed pointed at the eyes.

Complex societies exist in the future despite a) the lack of technology, b) the lack of resource, c) completely dysfunctional organizations, or d) the obvious lack of physical ability.

Aliens that aren't humanoid must build ships, machines and cities that easily accommodate humans.

When aliens or robots want to get rid of those pesky humans, they do it piecemeal instead of whacking everyone at once with poisonous gas or neutron bombs.

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5/27/2009 12:18 PM   
Great post. A sick part of me wants to merge as many of those as I could and yet still make it good.
# posted by Blogger Damien Sullivan
5/31/2009 11:32 AM   
I'm not sure if the 'mines' of Crest of the Stars were proximity or not. The ships have good "magnetic shielding" (a website says there's trapped plasma) so proximity could arguably not be good enough.

Overall, that show seemed to have good verisimilitude, apart from the lack of more widespread longevity genes.

Practical robot niche might end up resembling human niche. We're best at building machines that operate in our temperature range; 'breathing' means not having to carry the mass of oxidizer around; air in general can help cool the processor. One should be able to build robots suitable for other niches but Earth's not so bad.
# posted by Blogger Eugene
5/31/2009 1:40 PM   
The "hard" SF in Crest of the Stars is pretty good. Another notable example is Infinite Ryvius, the only space opera I've seen where a battle in space around a planet obeys the laws of orbital mechanics.

Unfortunately, Infinite Ryvius also accurately depicts how a bunch of teenagers would really behave if they got hold of a starship, and I found it too depressingly Lord of the Flies to keep watching.
# posted by Blogger Damien Sullivan
5/31/2009 5:44 PM   
Ah, that's too bad. Whereas Crest/Banner is now paired with Twelve Kingdoms for my favorites.