Eight Science Fiction Tropes of Convenience

February 19th, 2013

There are a number of tropes that I see popping up over and over in science fiction, even though they are not very scientifically plausible and border on the impossible given our current understanding.  They are used and will continue to be used, especially in movies and tv, because they’re very convenient.  I find it more interesting not to adopt them usually, and maybe that’s why none of my work will be adapted into a screenplay (well, one of the reasons).  Star Trek uses the majority of these, and is still popular today in its many manifestations, so what do I know?

Faster Than Light (FTL).  Space is big, really big, as they say, and it takes a long time to get around at sublight speeds.  Much more convenient to have short duration but not instantaneous travel.  Personally I think relativistic effects are really cool, as are realistic starship technologies.  You can also do interesting stories with generation ships, hibernation, etc., and certainly there has been a lot of good science fiction playing with those ideas.

Artificial Gravity.  It’s inconvenient and expensive to shoot every scene in space in zero gee, and complicated to design ships with rotating sections.  There are some nice instances of spin gravity in science fiction movies (e.g. 2001, Red Planet) or even magnetic boots (Destination Moon), but viewers are really comfortable seeing people walking around.  Lots of science fiction just shows people walking around and it’s assumed there’s artificial gravity even though it’s an incredible technology and could be used in much more creative ways.

Humanoid Aliens.  It’s challenging to create and film non-human aliens.  Also hard to relate to them.  I understand that in Avatar, a movie that tried hard to get the science right, original plans for non-human aliens were scrapped in the interest of audiences being not so likely to understand falling in love with a weird-looking critter.  Much more convenient to slap on some forehead make-up or a mask and call it a wrap.

Universal Translator.  Imagine if you had to invent an alien language for every new movie?  And train actors to speak it.  And add subtitles.  Star Trek has a universal translator for convenience, although Vulcan, Klingon, and other languages were invented anyway because it’s fun.  In Stargate SG-I, nearly everyone just spoke English for reasons I never understood (convenience!) and I’m not sure they ever explained…and they even had a linguist on the team when reading alien languages was required.  In your face, logical consistency!

Force Fields.  Why use steel bars or strong glass when you can have a magic force field?  They also make great shields for space ships, apparently.  I think they get used so much because the idea sounds cool and it’s easier to just have shields fail in a predictable way than to actually have to tear up your model spaceships or create realistic damage with CGI.  How they work exactly was never clear to me, even when sometimes it’s clear it’s just supposed to be an electric field or something.

Mental Telepathy.   I can only imagine this got grandfathered into science fiction since there were times in the past century ESP was taken seriously and studied, as well as a lot of charlatans running around claiming psychic powers.  Okay, too many people still take it seriously today.  Anyway, lots of mind reading and mind control going back to forever in science fiction.  It has been used so much that little to no explanation is ever used.  Audiences swallow it without much critical thought, and I almost never see it justified.  Star Trek has Spock and Troi.  Star Wars has the Force.  Babylon 5 had telepaths.  It’s harder to think of science fiction shows that didn’t go this route.

Super Sensors.  Finding things in space, even though there’s not really anywhere to hide (despite Star Trek II‘s Motarin Nebula), is a pretty hard problem.  As an astronomer, I know how hard it is to see every faint, small thing in the sky.  It’s also hard to see everything on the surface of a planet from orbit.  Sure, you can always see individual things you know where to find and focus on, but scanning the entire sky (or surface) deeply and at high resolution isn’t easy.  Again, maybe this is an engineering problem we can solve with sufficient time, but I still find scanning for individual isotopes or lifeforms miles underground a pretty implausible problem.

Ray Guns.  Conventional firearms are actually very efficient.  Modern ammunition carries a lot of energy that can be quickly converted into kinetic energy and deposited where you want it to go.  Lasers have the advantage of being faster (but when did the shot from a phaser or blaster ever appear to travel at light-speed?), but I have a hard time imagining a portable power source efficient enough and high energy enough to work for a laser gun.  Maybe my imagination falls short here, since this is in principle engineering and not something at all theoretically impossible.  In any event, it’s convenient to have portable weapons that don’t need ammunition and look cooler than conventional guns and can be set to ‘stun.’

I’ll stop here, wondering if I should include teleporters, time travel, or a few other things.  I won’t include things like robots/androids, since they seem entirely reasonable extrapolations of current technology, and my list is about common things in science fiction that just don’t seem all that likely to me.  Personally I think that using these is as lazy and often as boring as using for elves, dragons, and wizards in fantasy.  Sure, you can do it, and audiences seem to love it, but why not do something a little more innovative?

What do you think?


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