MIND MELD: What Are The Most Overdone/Useful/Damaging Tropes and Stereotypes in SF/F?
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
We asked this week’s panelists…
Here’s what they said…
Tropes are a funny thing. To some extent, knowing and expecting what’s going to happen next in a story – anticipating a particular structure and story elements – is why we’re drawn to specific genres and sub-genres. Many romance readers are looking for boy meets girl, boy loses girl (or girl loses boy) but they happily (and sexily) get together at the end. Hard SF readers may be reading for a Big Idea and exploring how it changes our society, but be less interested in the characters moving that big idea around on the stage. Urban Fantasy readers may be looking for tough – but vulnerable! – heroines put into paranormal situations that may seem harrowing, but all work out at the end. And in Epic Fantasy, many still expect the White Hats (Stark white!) to Save the World.
There is a benefit to this kind of comfort reading. It lets us take solace in predictable stories in an unpredictable world. Humans strive to make sense of a senseless world. When we’re stressed, in particular, we tend to see patterns in events, white noise, and coincidences where, in fact, there are none. It’s a human thing. We are hungry for meaning. We want to believe that the hardships we endure are leading up to some greater purpose, and stories help us put those events into a narrative that makes sense; it gives us hope that we haven’t suffered for nothing.
Where tropes fall down, of course, is when we make a steady diet of the same old stories with the same old patterns. Because as much as I love stories, as somebody with a day job in marketing and advertising, I also recognize how much stories affect our view of the world. Storytelling is the primary way we impart information to one another about the past. Ever sat through a boring history class where the prof recited names and dates and your eyes glazed over – until they fashioned it as a story about how so-and-so tried to poison the king because of an age-old slight, and got her cousin the Duke to help, because he was a notorious philanderer that the King was blackmailing? When we frame information as a story – in classes, in lectures – our audience is more likely to retain it. The best public speakers know that long after you’ve forgotten the boring graph they slapped up onto the screen, you’ll remember the story about how they convinced their sister she was a unicorn once…
That’s why storytelling is one of the most powerful forms of rewriting history and imparting information. Want to convince people that women are crazy hysterics? Make women crazy hysterics in all the stories and movies, and have them severely punished for their transgressions. Want to convince an audience that the majority of folks in the world are white, and white people are the only ones with agency? Make movies and tv shows and books full of white people doing things, while non-white characters take up secondary, “assistant”-type roles. You might not think you’re affected by that one ad about how $5 pizza makes you happy, but after absorbing hundreds of ads about happy-making pizza, you’re highly likely to develop a subconscious feeling of delight at the prospect of buying a pizza. And lo, you will buy more of it.
So when people tell me, “I’m writing a fantasy book all about men who save the world, and they’re all blond,” I’m like, well, that’s nice, but maybe you should think about how your one work is being viewed within the context of the hundreds of other books exactly like yours. Are you perpetuating a view of the world that you really want to perpetuate? Do you have a heroine who’s raped in order to propel her to take action on the battlefield? Is your one black character a magical wizard who’s only there to give your white character some special powers, and then dies? Do you have one gay character, best friend of your hero, who… dies? What are you saying about the world when you do this? Are you adding to a poisonous narrative?
There are other tropes, perhaps, that are not quite so damaging as these. There’s the “good folks triumph against all odds” expectation, and all the tropes of the hero’s journey – the “special” circumstances of the “chosen one’s” birth, the denial of the journey, acceptance, leaving home, descent to the underworld, etc. I wouldn’t say that these particular expectations or tropes are inherently dangerous, except insofar as they perpetuate the “blood will tell” narrative- they’re just woefully boring. Few stories can pull of a hero’s journey today in a new and interesting way. Much of the popularity of George R.R. Martin and Joe Abercrombie is their subversion of expected tropes – the wrong people die, the wrong people have sex/get married, the heroes aren’t actually heroic. Then you have folks like Jeff VanderMeer, N.K. Jemisin, Martha Wells, and Saladin Ahmed, who are skilled at taking readers to places they truly have never been before. I think readers are hungry for change in a way that some publishers haven’t quite figured out how to market yet. You can only rewrite Lord of the Rings so often before readers get exhausted with it.
As a reader and writer, I know I’ve had enough of the same old stories. If I can guess what’s going to happen in a book in the first chapter, what’s the fun in that? If I want to turn off my brain, I have reality TV. If I want to be challenged, if I want to go somewhere I’ve never been, I turn to fiction. There are all sorts of writers doing exciting things in genre, who may be overlooked for one reason or another -folks like Zachary Jernigan, Karen Lord, Genevieve Valentine, Lauren Beukes and Ian Tregillis. If we want new and exciting stories, though, we have to seek out and support writers like these.
By far the most overdone trope in fantasy, where I do most of my work, is the idea of the Chosen One fulfilling a Prophecy that will end the rule of the Evil Overlord(s). It’s such a pernicious trope that it’s even part of JJ Abrams’ Star Trek universe now, with James T. Kirk becoming a 23rd century Luke Skywalker: he has a miraculous birth, Captain Pike is his Obi-Wan, new Spock his Han Solo and old Spock his Yoda. We can thank George Lucas for this, of course; since 1977, it’s been the default plot for most mainstream fantasy and SF. And while it’s based on legitimate scholarship (hell, it’s the story of both Jesus and King Arthur), it’s not the only story out there. Yet you wouldn’t know that from a casual perusal of the genre.
The most useful tropes are the ones that allow the author to sketch things for the reader without spending a lot of time on details. We all understand that faster-than-light movement, time travel, and artificial gravity are unlikely, if not impossible, concepts. Yet we’re willing to accept them in the service of a good story, and because of that, we don’t need them described in detail. I should say that such sketching is only fair if it gets you to something substantial; if it’s simply because the writer’s lazy or uninformed, it’s cheating.
The most damaging tropes, again in my experience, are the ones based around gender assumptions. My real peeve is the Ass-Kicking Sprite, in which a tiny, conventionally sexy female character manages to break all the laws of the physical world to defeat (usually male) adversaries in hand to hand combat. She often wears a skimpy outfit, and almost never loses her sex appeal for male readers/viewers/gamers (its apotheosis is the vile movie Sucker Punch). This has nothing to do with female empowerment and everything to do with creators throwing a theoretical bone (no pun intended) to the female audience while still pandering to men. Or rather, boys.
I have serious problems with some of the tropes we apply to Strong Women Characters™. Not only does the genre tend to present a very narrow definition of what it means to be a strong woman, but so often being a Strong Woman Character™ requires that the character be broken, typically by sexual violence. Either rape was used to transform her into a “strong” character, or else she has to be raped further on in her storyline (presumably to keep her from getting too strong). Seanan McGuire had a great blog post about this a while back, it can be found here.
I’m also rather tired of love triangles that drag on and on. And on. I understand the tension those triangles create, and how writers can use them to help keep their audience invested. But I’ve gotten bored of this particular trope. Speaking from personal experience, making a choice and starting a relationship in no way eliminates the potential for tension and conflict.
As for the most useful tropes and stereotypes, I think that depends on what you do with them. Any idea can be made new and interesting and thought-provoking again. The author just needs to take the time to think a little deeper.
There are tropes that spring to mind when everyone talks of fantasy clichés-the farmboy hero, the Chosen One vs the Dark Lord-but I’m not sure they’re common enough nowadays to count as overused. I think they have this reputation because they were ubiquitous in the 80s, when fantasy really took off as a commercial genre, so everyone who’s been around for a while can remember those books. Either I’m looking in the wrong places, or the epic fantasy of recent years has grown away from those early stereotypes.
Some tropes have stayed the course, on the other hand, but have evolved along the way (at least in the hands of better writers). For example, Scott Lynch takes the classic “thief + fighter” buddy pairing, but makes his fighter Jean Tannen a poetry-lover who needs to wear reading glasses because he’s long-sighted. Well-used, an established trope evokes fond memories of the books you loved when you were younger whilst being entertaining to your older, more sophisticated (and more jaded?) self.
As for “damaging”, there are still a lot of clichés around female characters. My personal bugbear is prostitution (in both written fantasy and other SFF media). It makes sense to have a lot of brothels in a historical setting, or one tightly based on history, i.e. In cultures where women’s chastity is highly valued and/or reliable contraception is rare. What irks me is that the brothel is a common and frankly lazy way to get sex into SFF without all that messy relationship stuff (ugh, girl cooties!), to the point where it’s shoehorned into settings where it makes little sense and, worse still, is glamourised. There’s nothing glamorous about prostitution; for the most part it’s the last resort of women who have no other means of making a living.
The “kickass warrior babe” also troubles me a little. For female readers it might be a wish-fulfillment fantasy-most of us have zero chance of holding our own in a fight, particularly against a bunch of men-but such characters can stray too easily into the “solving everything with violence” trope that’s so ubiquitous in Hollywood. There’s a big difference between “woman who is the equal of her male colleagues” and “female character who’s just a guy with boobs”, but it only takes a bit of bad writing to cross that line in the wrong direction.
Ultimately that’s what separates a trope from a stereotype: the former is a familiar element that say, yes, this is the genre you know and love; the latter is the same thing done badly and without imagination.
One final warning: if you want to research this topic, do not visit TVTropes.org. It’s an evil timesink that will swallow years of your life. (Only half-serious – it’s a brilliant site, but it’ll suck you in like a black hole…)
You’ve all read this scene: the flying cars of the forever-unattainable future have been achieved a dozen centuries from now. They flit around in streamlined glory, the skies dominated by gridded flocks of them, humming on grav lifters. Some swing up toward floating cities, others speed directly into orbit, where FTL craft no bigger than commuter jets are routinely blinking in and out of existence.
A select few of the longer-ranged commuter airspacecars are piloted by fully sentient anthropomorphic AIs tasked to ferry jaded transhuman travelers to the razor thin, glistening arc of a distant ringworld. But in their hurry to get there, two of the vehicles almost collide. Robot pilot turns to stare at rival robot pilot, and utters the deprecation we are all certainly expecting:
“Yo! Watchit buddy: I’m drivin’ here!”
And the novel/story/scene is not a parody. Not at all.
Sigh. And sigh again.
I suppose honest-to-god space opera is to be afforded these liberties-but that’s probably why I also find it hard to take such far-future adventure romps too seriously. Linguistic, cultural, and social changes often languish unattended in such narratives, or have a pseudo-retro feel (Not sure what I mean? Join me for a drink at the Mos Eisley cantina later on, and I’ll explain.)
This could be a vast topic, so I’ll constrain myself to one category of examples: changes (or not) in language. Now, let me be clear: I am not talking about the most basic “realism” problem of people speaking English 2000+ years in the future. Firstly, they just might be speaking something someone today would recognize. In all major languages (but in English most markedly), core linguistic change has arguably slowed in the last century. I know this may raise some reflex objections along the “+time passed = +language change” proportionality devotees. So here I will put on my Distinguished Professor of English hat to invoke the relevant countervailing thought and examples.
Read prose from Shakespeare’s era, then read Jonathan Swift (A Modest Proposal, Gulliver’s Travels, take your pick). Not much more than a century separates those writings, but Shakespearean English seems, at times, like writings from another world. By contrast, Swift’s style and diction is mostly modern; at worst, it sounds a little affected and archaic.
Now let’s jump a little more than a century onward again; Dickens is writing, and a reasonable early novel in the right time period is Oliver Twist. The change in the foreigness of the texts is markedly less dramatic. Indeed, Dickens is readable without any assistance by the great majority of people-most of whom will find the cultural and social conventions of early Victorian England the greatest source of puzzlement. But the degree of change from Swift, while noticeable, is quite modest.
And a century later? Steinbeck, Hemingway, Heinlein. All paragons of accessibility-and once again, the degree of linguistic change in the intervening century has lessened. And the change is overwhelmingly one of “contemporary usage” (i.e.; vernacular, idiomatic expressions).
Note that this decreasing comparative “percentage of change” is not simply a matter of temporal remove: i.e.; as the creation date of the text draws closer to our own place on the calendar, it “sounds more like us because there’s been less time for change.” That is not wholly untrue, but it is actually the much less significant trend in this example. What is noteworthy is how dramatically (in terms of lexicon, syntax, even fixed grammar and spelling) the English language “modernized” between the time of Shakespeare and Swift. The answer for this lies largely in a field called technological determinism, with which I will not bore anyone (let alone myself). Short version: the profusion of the printed word led to linguistic codification and a “linguistic core” began solidifying. Picking up a novel written only a century after Swift, we can feel how firmly the foundations of English have concretized into the distinctly “modern” diction and manners that we find in Oliver Twist. And the pace of change has only slowed since then, the core now proof against any ready uprooting or even perturbation.
At the same time, the pace and diversity of vernacular and idiomatic change in contemporary English has skyrocketed-particularly with the advent of electronic media (Marshall McLuhan gets to take a bow, here). And this is where my peeve arises.
As is (painfully, I fear) obvious, I taught English at universities for many years. I frequently taught all the books/authors I listed above (and so very many more). And I have observed an unfailing pattern of reader disorientation as one travels across the past 4 centuries of English language literature. The language of Shakespeare-the structure of the language itself, even without the metric forms-is what throws students.
To cite just one example, they lose sight of subject-verb-object linkages because the grammar of the early 17th century often sounds “inverted” (or as some linguists say, “more Germanic”) than contemporary English, where we have largely steamrolled these usages into unused archaicisms. Conversely, the students acclimate fairly readily to vocabulary change-except when it also gets bound into an idiom or apothegm. Here’s an example: “Sirrah, he was hoist by his own petard.” Hoist is not a pulley/winch system, and petard-well, what the hell is that anyway? But once you explain all those unfamiliar words, most students can then unpack the phrase, and their more profound source of disorientation in this example-novel idiomatic constructions-ends quickly.
And so now, back to my peeve in summary form. I can accept that the structure of language-let us say English-might not change much over long periods of time, because we are observing a sharp increase in the codification of structural and grammatical and semantic core of many languages. But idiom, slang, colloquialisms-these increasingly demonstrate all the durability and fixity of mayflies spun from strands of quicksilver. Our high-volume, high-density mediascape ensures that vernacular (like fashion) has an increasingly short half-life, and decays into forgotten forms with startling swiftness.
So I cringe when, in a space opera set thousands of years in the future, where the tools and vehicles and lifestyles are wildly different from our own, and where the dramatic tenor of the narrative is suffused with a seriousness bordering on sturm-und-drang, I encounter dialog such as:
“We were hanging out.” (As in, from a window?)
“And we just sort of hooked up.” (As in, we became unexpectedly linked to each other with carabiner clips?)
“That’s not cool.” (As in, not at a low temperature?)
“It was just a booty-call.” (As in, you were shouting about or at your piratical treasure?)
“You go, girl.” (As in, go where?)
“But that doesn’t do anything for me.” (As in, it fails to perform a task for you?)
“Don’t get me wrong.” (As in, please get/grab me the right way?)
“It’s just that being with someone is such a pain right now.” (As in, the presence of others induces physical discomfort?)
“Yeah, I’m just punching the clock when it comes to relationships.” (As in, I am boxing with a timepiece instead of associating with people?)
“Me, too: I’m just dialing it in.” (As in, I am turning a round indicator knob inward?)
You will forgive the waggishly intentional misreadings, I hope–because it is waggishness with a serious point: if the epoch and the world has changed, so too will the humans in it. Their language will be different in many of its particulars-if for no other reason than their culturescape will be filled with referents that are hugely different from our own. They will not have seen petards, and the notion of telephones may well be archaic, let alone those truly primitive versions that you actually dialed by hand!
Perhaps this failure to adequately chart linguistic change is particularly annoying to me because it is the easiest aspect of cultureshift to negate, or at least disguise. Many better authors have resorted to writing in such far future worlds by employing both a narrative voice, and dialog structure, that is founded upon the “classical linguistic core”: they eschew slang, colloquialisms, and cast a sharp, critical eye upon the durability of any idioms the might employ. This diction does not in any way necessitate or predict stiffness: there are distinctly casual/informal speech patterns that are not subject to the vagaries of time and environment. Examples: “Oh, come now.” “Hell, you know that’s nonsense, don’t you?” “Keep your heads down and keep moving!”
Or (and while I admire this, it also courts a different species of disorientation) an author can “invent” far future idiom, either with a new lexicon and collection of referents, or by repurposing archaicisms, producing a “the old is become new again” vibe that can often work in space operas (yes, the pseudo-retro can work when done right). Michael Flynn’s Spiral Arm series certainly shows this repurposing strategy to great effect.
It is arguably harder to change human interactions-family structure, value systems, commerce, sex, reproduction-without those alterations becoming, in fact, the focus of the novel. To do any less is to leave a contemporary reader hopelessly confused: if the author does not take the (considerable, perhaps commanding) time to define this array of changes, a reader is likely to be lost in a sea of new social realities that are at best the vague and inchoate endgames of trends we can barely envision today. So it is perhaps unavoidable that far future space opera may seem a bit prosaic or provincial in that it often (even usually) elects to retain many of the mores and social structures of the current day: if the dramatic axis of the narrative is action, not social commentary/extrapolation, this is only prudent. (However, I confess that this kind of fiction frequently fails the test of my personal ‘bullshit meter”, as I described in my SF Signal article on writing complicated SF worlds. When a world requires constant suspension of sociopolitical disbelief, it begins to feel like I’m reading a comic book, not a serious novel.)
But if my suspension of disbelief is severely taxed when I encounter a future world where logical sociocultural change is minimal, that capability is shattered beyond repair when humans, millennia hence, begin uttering dialog that is semantically indistinguishable from snippets of conversation I can hear at the mall, in a bar, or on a bus. I’m willing to make a lot a lot of allowances for far future fiction, but that? Can my suspension of disbelief manage to stretch that far?
My first thought when presented with this topic was to spend my time railing against one of the most potentially narrative-tension-sapping tropes of all time: the Chosen One. But I’m the first to admit many of my favorite stories are, in fact, anchored by Chosen Ones (see Summers, Buffy; also Atreides, Paul), and anyways, I’ve got bigger fish to fry.
Lately, the SF/F community has been embroiled in a heated debate over its treatment of women on and off the page. While I believe the equitable treatment of authors, editors, and fans of any race/creed/gender/orientation/whatever should be considered prima facie obvious to anyone with two working neurons to rub together – and a moral imperative to boot – I’ll admit said belief lies outside the scope of this-here Mind Meld. But the on-the-page part falls square inside my cross-hairs, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t take the shot.
One focal point of the discussion is the cover of issue 200 of the SFWA’s Bulletin, which depicts a big-breasted, scantily clad warrior woman straddling a felled beast amidst a frozen landscape while somehow simultaneously suggesting a Whitesnake video might break out at any time. Now, I like cheesy pulp covers as much as the next guy, but even I was faintly embarrassed by what the mailman must think of me when I saw her gazing up at me seductively from my mailbox. Which is to say, I wasn’t surprised some SFWA members took offense.
In issue 202, Mike Resnick expressed puzzlement at the sudden outrage over what he called “…the thousandth painting of an absolutely generic warrior woman.” Which to me seems like irony itself, because I could not have coined a phrase that more aptly conveys why I think this trope should die than Absolutely Generic Warrior Woman.
Here’s the thing: I’m pretty sure the warrior woman trope was borne of the best intentions. The writers who first employed it doubtless intended to subvert the notion of women as damsels in distress, or shrinking violets to be led to fainting couches and/or protected. So they beefed up their roles while winnowing down their clothes. Win-win, right?
Problem is, we’re so far past that now as a society, it reads like bullshit pandering and lazy characterization with a heaping side of fanboy wish fulfillment. It doesn’t empower women in any meaningful way (nor, for the record, were women any author’s to empower); all it does is extend the list of accepted female roles by one. In that sense, it’s not unlike the equally misguided bit of fictional affirmative action, the Magical Negro – which was itself an outgrowth of the patently racist notion of a noble savage. It’s time we acknowledge that “Women are badass!” is just as broad a brush as “Women are fragile!” and start treating our female characters like full-fledged people – maybe even ones who on occasion have the foresight to grab a jacket when felling beasts in frozen climes.
TROPES THAT I COULD DO WITH LESS OF
- Adventure Story With Rocket Ships – Probably the largest fraction of all science fiction ever written fits into this category or the related categories “Adventure Story with Lasers”, “Adventure Story with Robots”, “Adventure Story with Aliens”, etc.. These are the types of stories where the ‘science fiction’ isn’t really science fiction. The futuristic science (or aliens, or whatever) aren’t there to make intelligent points about the future, realistic predictions of where we might go, critiques of technology, critiques of society, or anything else. The super science is just there so you can have bigger explosions or explosions in space or awesome scenes of killer robots pummeling extra-dimensional aliens with rocket-propelled fists or whatnot.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I like explosions. I LOVE explosions, actually. And giant killer robots? Badass. There’s a certain amount of sheer joy in consuming a well done story of this sort (whether in print or, more often these days, on the screen). But this isn’t the heart of science fiction. This is a veneer of science fiction layered over a very basic action-story core. The bigger, badder explosions can rivet us, but these stories often fail to teach us anything about either the present or the future. I’m sure we’ll keep cranking out more stories like this (especially from Hollywood) but in my mind (unless they do more than just blow shit up) they only barely count as science fiction.
- Outer Space, Not Inner Space – Another thing that bugs me is the preponderance of stories that show that we’ve gone off into space (often interstellar space) but we ourselves haven’t changed. So you’ve got what are effectively the human beings of today (maybe with a few changes) venturing thousands of light years away.
How likely is that, really? Not at all, if you ask me. Everything we see tells us that there’s going to be heck of a lot more progress in ‘inner space’ sciences (biotech, neurotech, cybernetics) than there will be in space travel. If you look at the last 40 years, we’ve had revolutions in genomics, in computers, now in wearable devices, and incredibly promising research in gene editing and in actually tapping into the human brain – but almost nothing has changed about human space travel.
Now, I love a good space yarn as much as anyone. And I appreciate that it’s much easier to write about humans-in-space than it is to write about whatever humanity will turn into. But it gives us this very distorted view of what the future looks like, IMHO. And it makes it less and less connected to the progress people actually see happening all around them.
Not all space opera falls into this, by any means. Greg Egan shows uploads, true post-humans, as the characters in his space stories. Alastair Reynolds shows humanity splintering with the rise of the Conjoiners who augment and interconnect their brains. Paul McCauley shows a humanity that’s genetically tweaking itself as it explores the solar system. Hannu Rajaniemi shows a really stunning vision of radical change in the solar system’s occupants well before we achieve interstellar travel. So you do see this. But it’s the minority in space-based science fiction.
- 50s (or 80s.. or 2010s..) America in Space – The same is true for social, political, and economic structures. A lot of space based stories really just transplant current American culture into some future interplanetary or interstellar civilization. Worse, sometimes they go backwards, projecting futures that are dominated by fairly antiquated social structures that have been undermined by both technology and progress in thought. Emperors in space? Really?
Again, it’s much easier to simply transpose current humans and current human culture into a world with much advanced technology, but it also strikes me as pretty profoundly lazy. There’s an interplay of technology and society. How would space flight change economics? How would it change politics? Those are actually the really interesting questions – much more interesting than whether your awesome battlefleet can defeat the evil aliens’ awesome battlefleet.
- Science Fiction That’s Really About the Present – Science fiction can be incredibly powerful and even transformative to society. One of the ways it can do that is to really be about present day or near future issues. That doesn’t mean it has to be set in the present day or even the near future. It could be set centuries or millennia in the future, but still be about some present day issue, and drive change there.
When I wrote Nexus I knew that I wanted a page turner full of kick-ass conflict that you couldn’t put down. I knew it was going to be a book much more about inner space (tapping into and connecting human minds) than outer space. But I also very intentionally made it a story about the War on Drugs and the War on Terror. Why? Partially because I saw that as a quite probable way that society would respond to certain new technologies. But also because I wanted to spark thoughts about present-day political issues with readers.
Lots of other sci-fi does this well. Star Trek, for all that I can knock it as frequently being Baseline Humans in Space (and looking an awful lot like current American society in various ways), also tried repeatedly to tackle social issues, or at least expose viewers to them. And that, IMHO, was one of the greatest values it brought. Novelists who’re writing about climate change and global resource and environmental issues – Tobias Buckell, Paolo Bacigalupi, David Brin, Kim Stanley Robinson, etc… – are raising awareness of present day issues. And even if you don’t agree 100% with their take on an issue, they’re at least encouraging people to think about potential problems and solutions. And perhaps they’re encouraging some of their readers to go out and learn more and perhaps even become politically active in some of these areas. The same is true of Cory Doctorow. So many of his books are set five minutes into the future, and he’s constantly tackling the questions of censorship, of privacy, of control and power in society. I’ve got to believe that his books are directly motivating people on political issues that we face in the present.
- Self-Defeating Prophesies – I learned this phrase from David Brin, who talks about “Self-Defeating Prophesies” as one of the most powerful uses of science fiction. We all know about self-fulfilling prophesies of course – this is the opposite. These are books (and movies) that show a negative path society could take, not because it’s inevitable, but as a way to try to prevent that future from coming into being. A lot of the books I talked about in the previous section are in this category.
I mention this a bit because there’s a recent theme, kicked off by Neal Stephenson, that we should have more positive visions of futures in science fiction. That we’ve gotten too dark and dystopian. Well, I love Neal Stephenson’s books, and I do love hopeful, optimistic science fiction. But I also think there’s a role for bad things happening in science fiction. First, as a novelist, you can’t just write puppies and kittens all day long – your readers would get bored. But more importantly, every positive scientific and technological development has some downside. I’m not saying it’s balanced – on the whole science and technology have been tremendously, overwhelmingly positive. But if you portray only the positive and not the occasional downsides – or the possible really bad scenario – then you’re not giving a realistic portrayal of the future. In Nexus I create what I think is a very positive future, but in the storylines you’re following, terrible things are happening, and they’re happening in part so I can argue that we should try to avoid certain scenarios. Or if you read Brave New World or 1984 or Fahrenheit 451, those books weren’t saying “the future is going to be horrible”. They were saying: Do not let this happen. No matter what you do, don’t let technology and society go down this path.
And those warnings are powerful and important.
So that’s what I want to see. I want to see more science fiction that makes you think about the present world, that makes you think about the world that’s a few minutes or a few years in the future, and prepares and motivates us to actually fight the problems in our world and to make it a better one.
I’m reluctant to label any trope as overdone because I wouldn’t want to discourage someone from trying to breathe fresh life into the old SF/F standards. There’s nothing new under the sun and anyone who thinks they’ve come up with something original probably just doesn’t know his or her history. I’m also reluctant to label any tropes or stereotypes as “damaging,” even though some may offend people.
I’m actually of two minds on this issue. I dislike sexism and racism as much as anybody. And I don’t want to support bullying in any way. But I think I have I have to defend “bad” behavior, at least in “speech.”
While I fully support the goals of political correctness, and I stand behind the effort to wipe out discrimination, I also believe attempting to eradicate insensitivity, and even cruelty, from what people say and write will result in something just as bad.
We will be forced to say and write meaningless, pre-approved things. Because if we don’t, we will be censored, banned, and ostracized. Not necessarily by some tyrannical government, but by a tyrannical corporation or ourselves.
I believe it’s better to let people say and write what they want, so we can see who they are, than it is to force them into the shadows. Let them say and write what they want and we’ll say and write what we want. If we do it well, hopefully everyone will see we’re right.
This is why I think zombies and robots are some of the most useful tropes in SF/F. People tend to be mindless and unfeeling; changing that is probably too much to hope for, but it’s important to let thinking and feeling people know that they’re not alone.
The world is a bleak place. To say “people don’t live in harmony” is an understatement. Human life has no purpose other than to perpetuate itself. We certainly don’t work together on some grand project. We actually work against each other. Compete. It sets everybody back.
We don’t know why we’re here. We don’t know what it’s all for.
Yet we stagger on. We work because our parts do.
It’s easy to argue that zombies and robots are “overdone.” But that’s like saying that people are overrepresented in fiction. When we hold up a mirror to the audience and show them that they’re robotic or zombie-like, we’re doing something important. We’re being hopeful. That they’ll become human.
Not a bad t-shirt slogan, right?
On the back, I’d add: And I like it!
I’d wear this shirt to sci fi conventions, where it would hopefully offend (and, more importantly, fend off) elitists.
When talking tropes, delineating good and bad is A-ok – part of the fun of being a reader amongst readers – so long as no one starts shouting for torches and pitchforks. Any serious talk of retiring overused tropes is utterly absurd. Allow me to demonstrate…
Question: What are the most overdone tropes in sci fi?
Answer: Space. The future. Technology. Aliens.
Question: In fantasy?
Answer: Trees. Magic. Monsters.
See what I mean? Overdone does not equal inferior, and old doesn’t mean broken. It’s all in how you use it.
Really, I’m far more tolerant of tropes than dogma, which really rankles me. And in the writing community, there is a lot of dogma. I consider it reverse censorship, someone aborting things before they even hit the page. “Never write about Venusian ping pong players,” some Procrustean blowhard pronounces, and – WHAM! – whole shelves of potentially riveting stories, novels, and maybe even an epic poem or two die. And really, is that what we, presumably the most demanding fans in terms of imagination and originality, want in a publishing world increasingly driven by marketing and distribution?
Truth be told, I don’t give a rat’s donkey what you write about. Just do it honestly, try your hardest, and find a way to add yourself. As Stephen King says in On Writing, “Write what you like, then imbue it with life and make it unique by blending in your own personal knowledge of life, friendship, relationships, sex, and work.” I agree. Whatever you want to write about, write it, but then make it your own. If you really must write about a square-jawed space captain, go for it, but don’t stop there. Flesh him out, make him real, make him yours. Simply plugging in a character type or a plot twist, shrugging your shoulders, and moving on – well, that would be weak and lazy writing, and that’s never good, regardless of genre.
I’m assuming that all writers have read their genre, know its tropes, like some, and dislike others. That’s good and natural. What I dislike and distrust is public “trope shaming,” which generates group-think dogma. Let people write what they want. Even if some trope-mines have been stripped of any visible ore, a truly passionate writer might use his or her enthusiasm and life experiences to chisel away additional layers impenetrable to the rest of us and tap into story gold.
When it comes to potentially damaging conventions, use common sense. It’s pretty easy to avoid demeaning tropes, and unless you have a great reason for including them, you probably should leave them out. This being said, let’s not go instating any zero-tolerance-for-offending-others statutes, shall we? I taught middle school for twenty years, and believe me, no matter what you say, you’re going to end up stepping on somebody’s toes. Speaking as a reader, the last thing I want driving publishing is LOP mentality.
In case you’re not familiar with it, LOP, or Least Offensive Programming, dictated TV networks for decades. The underlying assumption was that people were too lazy to change the channel… unless they found the programming offensive. It was less important to provide great entertainment, the networks reckoned, than it was to provide inoffensive content. The result: timid, forgettable programming. Apply that mentality to publishing, and people won’t just turn the channel. They’ll close the books. All of them. And in this electronic age, that might very well be all she wrote… this time, literally.
The only way to keep storytelling strong is to trust writers. Let them write what they want. They don’t need rules; they need autonomy. If they botch the job by patch-working together a wet quilt of seen-it-all-before conventions or offend you with their use of some demeaning trope, so be it. Don’t buy their next book. Publishing has always been Darwinian. Let’s let evolution run its course though, huh? Let’s trust the individual organisms to grow and change on their own.
I meant to write about tropes here, but somehow I seem to have spun into yet another rant defending individuality. Oh well. There are worse crimes… like telling people what to write and what not to write.
If I do get around to making that Tropes Happen… And I Like It! shirt, maybe I’ll make another to wear on day two of the con…
Keep your dogma on a leash at all times.
Ah, the humble trope. It seems to me, whatever genre you’re reading, watching, listening to, they are impossible to get away from. As readers/consumers, we bemoan them. As writers, we try to avoid/employ them creatively. And yet, if they weren’t there, would we miss them? I suspect we probably would. After all, aren’t they really a part of the fabric, amongst the defining characteristics of a genre? SF and F (man, does that sound like a furniture showroom…) is well known, even celebrated, for its tropes. The villain who’s not really a villain deep down and dies at the moment of his (or her) redemption to prove it; the bounty hunter/pirate/warrior of low morals who really has a heart of gold and shows it by sacrificing substantial material gain for more altruistic/moral enrichment; the mysterious tower; the dark, evil overlord; the magic juju weapon that can only be wielded by the chosen one; the lost kingdom/planet/civilization; the low-born peasant/nobody/outcast who is destined/prophesied to be ‘the one’, the king, the saviour of the universe yaddah, yaddah…
These are all classic tropes, and they’ve spawned some classic characters and stories, so I have to question: are such genre tropes really so heinous? In striving to eschew them, are we failing to embrace what is intrinsically great and reassuring familiar about works of this genre? On the other hand, if we’re doled trope after trope, do we risk stagnation and our beloved SF and F stories becoming hackneyed and predictable? For me, the answer falls somewhere between the two. Done well, I think tropes are perfectly fine and good. The less obvious the better. When it’s rammed down your throat, it feels like you’re watching the equivalent of SF/F paint by numbers. You can literally sit down with a check list of the above tropes and tick them off one by one.
I sat down to re-watch Willow a few weeks ago. Now this film is 25 years ago and about as riddled with fantasy tropes as a fantasy film could be: the prophecy child who will save the kingdom; the rogue with a heart of gold; the unlikely hero; the turncoat villain who chooses love over tyranny; the evil queen etc, etc. Sure, I was watching it through rose-tinted nostalgia spectacles, but I was cheering for every cheesy, trope-filled moment. I didn’t care; I just wanted to be taken on a great adventure where good triumphs in the end. And that’s even though I knew good was going to triumph. The classic stories, the ones that people remember, are based on formula. They have certain defining characteristics demonstrated by the tropes therein.
I read a lot of backlash in the social media for George RR Martin last week when the ‘Rains of Castamere’ episode from Game of Thrones aired in the US and UK. A Song of Ice and Fire has more than its fair share of fantasy tropes, albeit seen through the somewhat grubby lens the author provides, but it really seeks to debunk and subvert them at any given opportunity. Fans were unhappy, I mean a serious outpouring of emotional outrage, with what was essentially the massacre (literally, as it turned out) of the ‘hero’s journey’, one of the most overused fantasy tropes in the genre. It defied expectation, but, for these fans, not in a good way. On the other hand, I read (and shared) a lot of opinions expressing how much they enjoyed the episode, how refreshing and shocking it was. For me, it revived a season that was rapidly slipping into disappointing water-treading. However, if all of the heroes in this epic saga fail to triumph and all of Westeros is consumed by endless winter and the White Walkers, I think I might be asking for my money back (figuratively speaking).
I have to say, I think by far and away the most overdone trope in SF/F is the one of the low-born peasant/exile who goes on to become the ultimate saviour. This has been done to death, and I suppose there is a risk that it’s damaging the genre in the form of all the carbon copies of it from the great many lesser emulators of the classic stories/characters mentioned earlier. But without it, without them, we are going on a journey without a road map, for that’s what tropes really are and do – they tell us where we are and what we are doing. By playing with the expectation inevtiably bound up in all well-used tropes, an author/filmmaker can subvert, challenge and reinvigorate; but by being slavish to them, we risk lesser emulation, stagnation, which, I suppose, ultimately leads to death (of the genre, not the reader/viewer I hasten to add!).
In short, any trope can be useful if understood what effects it has on the reader/viewer and as long as it is deployed usefully/creativity. The flip side of that is if tropes are used badly, unimaginatively with the largest cookie cutter the writer /filmmaker can find then they’re all dangerous. They’ll wear away at the fabric of the genre, creating a sort of perverse entropy that by seeking to enhance through emulation ends up eroding. So tropes, like any blaster or broadsword, should be understood and above all else, wielded with care and attention.
The easy answer to the overdone trope question is the theme that lies at the heart of countless SFF novels: the seemingly ordinary person who discovers they are special. Not only special, but powerful, whether by magic, psychic talents, spaceship piloting skills, royal ancestry, what have you. But you know what? One person’s overdone trope makes for another’s favorite read. It’s easy for veteran readers to roll their eyes and moan over themes they’ve read a thousand times before, but I think veterans sometimes forget that new generations of fans are coming fresh to the scene. Remember how powerful the “ordinary kid becomes special” trope was the very first time you read it? New fans are having that experience right now, exploring questions of power and responsibility and sacrifice through novels influenced by our current culture (as opposed to the culture of the world when veteran readers were teens), and I’d never want to deny them the experience.
This isn’t to say that tropes can’t be harmful, that they shouldn’t change. Think of the helpless, naive female character whose main purpose was to be rescued by the male hero. Thank goodness, that’s less common now; instead, you’re more likely to find the snarky, badass warrior woman who can rip her enemies’ throats out with a spoon while trading quips with her multiple love interests. Can that feel same-old, same-old after you’ve read a couple dozen such scenes? Sure. But I’ll take a trope that reflects an image of women as competent and powerful over the helpless-wilting-flower trope any day.
Tropes get to be tropes because they have power rooted in our cultural experience. It’s hard to go against cultural conditioning. Even if an author deliberately sets out to subvert one set of tropes, other, more subtle ones can sneak past unnoticed. But I think it’s important for authors to work on being conscious of the tropes they’re using: are they damaging and/or derogatory? Are you using a familiar trope because it’s easy, where the story would be better served if you worked a little harder? Or are you using tropes deliberately to illuminate, to challenge, to speak to readers’ hearts? I say this knowing that I’m far from no expert at it, that I’ve much to learn and a long way to go. But that’s part of the fun and challenge of writing SFF: learning to tell better stories by questioning our own assumptions and experiences, and wondering how the world might be different.
I admit I get impatient when people start complaining about all the tropes in fantasy – the farm boy who turns out to be a king or a great wizard, the Gandalf-like mentor, the struggle against foes both weak and powerful, and finally, the winning of the prize (throne, girl, magical artifact, what have you). Yes, there are plenty of fantasies like that, but also plenty that are not.*
But some of these tropes are better described as mythical elements. The quest. The guide. The journey. The gatekeepers or obstacles. The allies and the trickster. The tests that lead to a final battle (either internal or external) resulting in victory over our enemies and human failings. Most fantasies carry a whiff of this structure. Even the ones described as “turning the tropes on their head” depend on these elements.
It is in our nature as humans to employ the enduring power of myth and what it promises. We live in a world where children are shot in their classrooms, bombs go off at marathons, and soldiers die overseas every day. And yet we are distracted. Our attention for tragedy lasts only a few months, at best. But nevertheless we build stories around them and the stories endure. We attach symbolism to events – assign meaning to random violence. It becomes not the story of two humans, or a thousand, or ten thousand, but the story of all of us.
I’ve always viewed fantasy as the genre that explores humanity with all our capabilities, struggles, cowardice, heroism, evil, and nobility. The quest structure hits something deep inside: our desire face challenges and come out greater – to allow our better qualities to approach the divine. Myths did that in a literal sense, with the gods granting immortality to the deserving. We no longer expect that, but when our hero overcomes his obstacles and achieves his goal, we do enjoy a feeling of satisfaction and righteousness that mirrors our own desire to improve the human situation.
There is another, more cynical way, to view this, and that is the idea that the mythological structure reinforces the status quo. It suggests that those who are in power underwent struggles and proved themselves enough to deserve it – that they are closer to the divine and therefore should not be questioned. This could be considered a conservative element of fantasy. But readers can enjoy the mythological struggle as metaphor without applying the heroic outcome to the modern world: in fact, it is in our nature to constantly question our leaders and the status quo. It could be this very tension between our desire for heroes – to be heroes – and the true nature of the modern world that draws us to fantasy in the first place.
* For example The Whitefire Crossing (Courtney Schafer), Miserere (Teresa Frohock), Scourge of the Betrayer (Jeff Salyards), Death of the Necromancer (Martha Wells), No Return (Zachary Jernigan), most things by Carol Berg . . . I could continue for a long time.
Tagged with: Alex Bledsoe • Anne Lyle • Charles E. Gannon • Chris F. Holm • Chuck Gannon • James Marshall • Jim C. Hines • John Dixon • Kameron Hurley • Mazarkis Williams • Mind Meld • Nick Kyme • Ramez Naam
Like this post? Subscribe to my RSS feed and get loads more!