Avoiding Cliches

I’m not sure if science fiction has the most cliches of any literary genre, but it’s sure got a pile of them.* Go ahead and think for a second, I bet you’ll come up with a few even if you’re not really into science fiction.

As a noob science fiction writer, my goal is to stand out by trying to avoid or invert as many cliches as possible without becoming contrary for the sake of contrariety. I’ve put a little bit of thought into this today and I figured I’d list a few ways that I’m trying to be a little different, while at the same time revealing some worldbuilding details that you might be interested in. I decided to go for the first cliches that popped into my head: warp drive (or FTL, whatever), the world government, and (blah) space as an ocean.

As you might have guessed, I don’t care for the “space is an ocean” cliche. Granted, I’ve enjoyed a few novels featuring that sort of setting (a few of David Weber and David Drake’s early stuff), but I think that it really robs spaceflight of some of its interesting aspects, as well as a great deal of its grandeur. When I say “space as an ocean,” I’m referring primarily (though not exclusively) military science fiction where space navies are treated exactly like their terrestrial counterparts, down to the jargon and culture. Warships try to cross the T and get in broadsides, pummeling each other with energy weapons from point blank range…looks great on TV, but it’s not so interesting to read.** And I’m not even mentioning space pirates here.

My setting kind of can’t help but avoid this particular cliche, since I’m most certainly going for harder science fiction in a relatively near-future setting. There are no warships – spacecraft are far too fragile to withstand even the slightest punishment. Some of the Earth’s military powers do keep bases throughout the Solar System, and they do have armed spacecraft, but these are more like killsats than warships. That’s not to say that there aren’t any space weapons – remember the Kzinti Lesson I mentioned a few posts back. Any fusion drive can be a devastating weapon, and this is something that I’m trying to figure out how to cope with in my setting. It’s kind of like a modern commercial freighter using nuclear bombs for propulsion.***

This one I’m tremendously more forgiving of FTL in science fiction, since it’s pretty much a prerequisite for have any stories that take place outside the Solar System, and of course there are a tremendous number of stories to be told there. My story won’t feature it, but I wouldn’t hesitate to include it if I felt it was necessary. Really, my only problem with FTL is that there are some stories where it’s used by default, where the same story might be more interesting if it took place on real planets, rather than on fictional Earth-analogs. We have a crazy awesome Solar System, and I really think that it’s kind of underused in science fiction, so I’m setting about to rectify that.

As for the idea of a world government, I think that it’s cliche in the sense that a lot of science fiction tends to assume that in the future, people will have gotten over their silly nationalistic ideas and bound together for the common good. Puh-leeze. If you can point to one trend that freakin’ dominates human history, it’s that people love to fight, and I suspect that the people of Earth won’t ever band together unless they have a common enemy to fight against.

In my setting, that isn’t the case. The political situation on Earth more or less resembles that of the post-modern era in which we live, with recognizable nations and cultures. Naturally there is going to be a fair amount of shift over 150 years, but without a major cataclysm (and my story doesn’t really feature one in its past) I think that things would still be largely recognizable.

Off of Earth, things are a little bit different. All space colonies and habitats are overseen by a multinational government called UNASCA, or the United Nations Space Colonization Authority. In my setting, it is the only remnant of the old United Nations, but because it levies taxes on all corporations that wish to operate in space, it’s one of the more powerful Earth governments. However, it has very little regulatory authority on Earth apart from that ability to tax, and even in the Solar System there aren’t many people who consider themselves “UNASCA citizens” no matter what their legal status. If you live in space, you’re more likely to associate yourself with your fellow colonists or transients.

Anyway, Rant Over. Anyone else have any ideas on averting cliches in science fiction, or want to rant on what cliches you hate? Sound off in the comments.

*I think that fantasy probably gets the gold medal here, with special thanks to Gary Gygax and J. R. R. Tolkien.

**I’m being kind of hypocritical here, because I’m a big fan of Star Wars and Star Trek, both of which are extremely guilty of this cliche. My response to that is, these settings are kind of a thing unto themselves, so I can be as hypocritical as I want. So ha!

***I feel compelled to point out that I’m not a tremendous stickler for realism in science fiction if the work isn’t trying to be realistic necessarily, and I certainly don’t want to sound like a pedant. “Space as an ocean” is just a particularly overused subset of not trying to be realistic, overused well beyond the point of cliche.

One response to “Avoiding Cliches

  1. Space as an ocean: Dear gods. I hate this cliché. People always forget that in real oceans, there are such funny things like submarines, or white sharks that attack their prey from below, and then go on to make space battles entirely two-dimensional. In a three-dimensional setting. Not to mentions all the other ensuing clichés *coughsoundeffectscough*. Argh.
    Actually, if you haven’t already, you may want to read this article, I thinks it’s pretty idea-provoking: http://gizmodo.com/5426453/the-physics-of-space-battles

    World government: Hey, I got one of those (well, more than one). But they’re conquering empires and happened to start their conquest with their own planet before going for other worlds, so it’s not at all a matter of people “getting over their nationalstic ideas”. It does, however, raise the question how such a huge empire remains stable. The Roman one eventually broke apart as well…

    Fantasy clearly has the most, and most annoying, clichés (see Diana Wynne Jones’ “Tough Guide to Fantasyland” or Limyaael’s Fantasy Rants if still in doubt 😉 ) but it’s definitely unfair to blame Tolkien or Gygax. They made the stuff up, after all, so if anyone’s to blame, then the countless authors who mindlessly copied them.

    As for realism, I wrote an article on that, may be useful to you: http://artofworldbuilding.com/joomla/index.php/worlds/64-realism-a-plausibility-in-worldbuilding.html (End of shameless advertising. 😉 )

    Another cliché I can’t stand to see anymore are the much-too-human-looking aliens (the winner here is Star Trek, no question). It would make sense if all those aliens had evolved from humans, but mostly they haven’t. (And fantasy has the same problem.) I reckon why they do that in TV series, but honestly… argh. If they absolutely have to be humanoid, at least they could be culturally much more diverse, and biologically as well (that doesn’t need to be visible in any big way, after all).

    Which leads directly to the next cliché – monolithic cultures. Why the heck would any one species have only one culture??? The characters may meet only one in the story, but that’s a different thing, and unless that culture’s extremely reclusive (in which case I’d wonder how the characters got there in the first place), there’d be hints at other cultures.

    Actually, I think I once saw a list of sf clichés somewhere on the ‘net… oh, just found it: http://www.cthreepo.com/writing/cliche.shtml

    Sorry for the link-spamming…

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