SpecFic Friday: Trope Expedition

There's a wonderful site on the Web called TV Tropes. It catalogs -- in an semi-organized and irreverent fashion -- many tropes that are found on TV shows, in fiction, in movies, and in anime/manga.

However, if you're thinking that tropes are merely a list of things to avoid in the interests of originality, think again. As the site itself says:

Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members' minds and expectations. On the whole, tropes are not clichés. The word clichéd means "stereotyped and trite". In other words, dull and uninteresting.

While there will be a longer discussion on the subject or tropes, reader expectations, genre conventions and that whole ball of yarn, this is the first of a series of short articles on tropes that are found in the three most well-known aspects/genres of speculative fiction: science fiction, fantasy, and horror. So let's get started.

Science Fiction Trope: The Standard Science Fiction Setting

  • Time frame: the far future.
  • Situation: humans (or human-like aliens) are engaged in a war with a terrible enemy (usually alien).
  • Complication: an even bigger threat -- long hidden in the depths of space -- has turned its attention to their corner of the universe.

Sound a bit like your planned space opera? Fear not; you're in good company.

image taken from www.b5tech.comE.E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman series is perhaps the most well known example of this from the era when space opera was a derogatory term. David Brin's Uplift series has this, as does Dan Simmons's Hyperion Cantos series of novels. In other media, DC Comics's Legion of Super-Heroes, and TV's Star Trek, and Babylon 5 are all sources of good to fantastic science fiction (marred by the occasional stinker).

So what are some key elements of this SF setting?

  1. Easy Faster-Than-Light (FTL) Travel - It takes around 8.3 minutes for the light of the sun to travel to the Earth at the speed of light, making the sun approximately 8.3 light minutes away from Earth. If you want to get to the nearest solar system to ours (Alpha Centauri, as opposed to Proxima Centauri -- the nearest star), even at the speed of light it'll take you 4.4 years to get there.

    Therefore if your science fiction setting involves you want star-spanning empires and the like, you need an FTL solution. However, invoking FTL has a host of consequences, not the least of which are time dilation and time travel paradoxes.

  2. Space Navies - to help people really unfamiliar with space travel (including the authors), there's a tendency to make naval analogies to every element of space travel. Whether you consider your rocketships to be might space fleets complete with frigates, destroyers, battleships, and spacecraft carriers or more akin to submarines, there will be parallels to modern or historical blue water navies all throughout your setting.

    The purpose of all this: to provide some semblance of the understandable to your reader, who's probably already floundering due their lack of understanding of the vast and hostile nature of space; to suggest that there's an infrastructure behind space travel and space empires; and to evoke the romance of the Age of Exploration, of clandestine submarine missions, of epic WWII Fleet engagements.

  3. Space Marines - you can bombard ships and planets into nothingness, but if you want to secure them for your own use, you gotta send in people.

    Assuming that you're portraying the military as reasonably competent (and not as cannon fodder), the purpose of these characters is to give some idea what the situation on the ship or at the ground level is like.

  4. Good Empire / Bad Empire - some sort of star-spanning (or even galaxy-spanning) political entity that is analogous to a modern nation or union. Important if you want to enrich your setting with all the familiar problems of our modern world -- trade embargos, human rights violations, political ideologies, religious ideologies, bureacracy, factions galore, etc.

  5. An Element of Mysticism - this can be front and center like the Force in Star Wars, or of questionable validity like the Minbari religious beliefs in Babylon 5. We refer to it as mysticism, since religion (with all its doctrines, mysteries, and dogma) tends not to be tackled in most space operas and science fiction settings.

    The purpose: if part of the author's intent is to compare and contrast the power of hope, determination, and faith against the impartiality of science and technology, then you have quotes like Star Wars's "Trust your feelings, Luke." Sometimes, the mysticism becomes functionally magic, allowing the author to break certain laws of physics for dramatic effect.
Explore the trope further for a wealth of interesting and often humorous observations about this meta-trope.

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