10 Great Sci-Fi Tropes (and 5 That Should Be Shot Into Space)

From left: Westworld, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Avatar.
From left: Westworld, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Avatar.
Image: HBO, Sony Pictures, 20th Century Fox

Science fiction is a genre that’s full of storylines, plot devices, and techno-jargon that would be considered ridiculous in the real world. But these tropes are effective, so we keep using them. Over and over again. That might sound like a bad thing—relying on tried-and-true sci-fi tropes instead of creating something new in a genre that’s all about innovation—but that’s not always the case.

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Here are the sci-fi tropes that have stuck around because they work, whether it’s making first contact with an alien species, using a food replicator, or hearing a spaceship go “kaboom!” We’ve also included a few tired, often bigoted tropes that should be jettisoned into the farthest reaches of space.

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Good Tropes

First Contact

It’s that moment when humans meet and join the intergalactic community, becoming part of something greater than ourselves. A great example was the entire opening of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, which gave us a montage of varying first contact moments. What’s great about First Contact is not only the way it gives characters a space to feel like the “fish out of water,” but it also inspires us to believe that a greater, intergalactic destiny is possible. One that won’t immediately try to destroy us.

Time Travel

There’s a reason Doctor Who has lasted decades: Audiences love a good time travel story. It helps us see and understand the events of the past, as well as hypothesize about what we could experience in the future. Another great thing about these narratives is that we get an opportunity to contextualize our own collective past. History is often defined by the “victors,” leaving millions of voices lost to time. But hindsight is 20/20...and so is time travel.

Parallel Worlds

Much like time travel, the multiverse provides a near-limitless opportunity to explore our own reality from another’s perspective. In this case, it’s about seeing what our world would be like if things had gone a different way. They can be minor tweaks, like a world where apples taste like bananas, or significant changes that alter the fabric of reality itself. No matter what the alteration, a Parallel World is almost always a place worth exploring.

Interspecies Romance

Everybody’s thought about banging an alien at least once in their lives. I don’t make the rules.

Sound in Space

This one might end up being the most controversial one on the list, because it’s the only one that goes against science itself. There is no sound in space (mostly)! All the pew-pews and explosions are Hollywood shenanigans, ones that some films and shows (like Firefly or The Expanse) have tried to distance themselves from in an effort to be more accurate. But just because it’s total garbage doesn’t mean it’s not a great trope.

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Adding sound to space battles not only makes things more exciting to watch, it also makes them more relatable to our own experience. Plus, it makes those rare moments when sound is taken away—like Holdo’s sacrificial attack from Star Wars: The Last Jedi—all the more powerful.

Sci-Fi Western

There’s a reason space is called the “final frontier.” Science fiction may be filled with futuristic ships, weapons, and outfits, but in the end it’s about people—folks who are venturing into the great unknown to stake their claim. That can sometimes come at great cost to native inhabitants or the planets themselves (a perspective that should never be ignored). It’s no surprise the genre has become intertwined with the classic Western, as they’re two sides of the same exploratory coin.

Food Replicators

This is mostly because I really, really want one of these in my house.

Technobabble

We laugh at the hilarious jargon and nonsensical explanations in Star Trek and other sci-fi programs, but the truth is we need technobabble in order for these shows to make sense. We’re dealing in worlds and stories that would otherwise be beyond our comprehension. Including technobabble based in our “technospeech” not only makes them relatable to our own experiences, but also provides an excuse for the things that would otherwise be downright confusing.

Countdown to Destruction

It’s a tried-and-true trope in science fiction and so many other genres, but goddamn do I love a ship or bomb that’s on the verge of exploding. Bonus points for every time a bomb is beamed to a whole other ship or planet, as we saw in Galaxy Quest and Stargate.

“Soylent Green Is People”

This is a catch-all term for all the times reality is turned upside down, exposing a terrible truth to the masses—whether it’s (spoilers) taking the red pill in The Matrix, Dolores sharing Rehoboam’s data in season three of Westworld, or learning that Logan’s Run kills all adults once they reach a certain age. I will admit I’m a little tired of the “everything is a simulation” storylines—largely because there are way too many people who actually believe that’s true—but in general, these types of twists make for excellent sci-fi stories.

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Tired Tropes

Oppressed Robots

Fantasy has elves, and sci-fi has robots. Speculative sci-fi has had a habit of using varied automatons as a metaphor for systemic oppression—mostly so they can justify having white actors play the role of the people being oppressed. Given how systemic racism is still a huge problem in the United States, we don’t need a clumsy metaphor to help us understand that it’s a bad thing.

Aliens Built Earth

In a similar vein, it’s time to retire the myth that aliens are responsible for the pyramids, Mayan ruins, or any other pinnacle of human ingenuity that launched us forward as a species—something that’s bled over into real life with shows like Ancient Aliens. It’s a racist trope that washes over thousands of years of human history, much of which involves a great deal of pain and sacrifice. Aliens are cool, but they’ve got their own planets. Let’s keep them away from ours.

Teenager Saves the Universe

The young adult dystopian sub-genre will never die. I’ve learned to accept that. But it doesn’t mean I’m not tired of the trope where all it takes are the actions of one teenager—usually someone with few skills and resentment toward actually leading people—to dismantle a mighty empire. Young people deserve to believe they can achieve anything because they can, but can we scale it back just a bit?

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Alien Pregnancy

I don’t care if it comes from aliens. That’s assault and it’s wrong.

Dances With Aliens

James Cameron might be working on a quadrillion sequels to Avatar for some reason, but his whole story is based on a premise that was just as awful then as it is now. It’s the trope where humans come to a planet and establish themselves as the savior of a species that’s modeled after more “primitive” cultures from our world. It’s great to see characters trying to help other planets—like we often see from the Federation in Star Trek—but we don’t need to use tired and often racist tropes in order to do so. It’s just called being a good person.

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Video Editor and Staff Writer at io9. My doppelganger is that rebelling greeting card from Futurama.

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DISCUSSION

we don’t need a clumsy metaphor to help us understand that it’s a bad thing.

It seems like your bigger concern is that the oppressed robots are usually played by white actors (which is a valid criticism itself).

But if you diversify the casting choices, the metaphor is actually pretty damn good. Take the Federation for example, which claims to have solved that problem.

But now they’ve built androids (Data) and want to treat them like property they can just recall (and in one episode, consider dissecting).

Hell, they did a similar ark on Voyager with the Doctor. Because it was the same situation. We replaced human works with AI and then when the AI got advanced enough to realize it was being treated like shit we had an ethical dilemma as to how to treat it.