Posts Tagged ‘tropes’

Fun Scifi Tropes: Alternate Universes

Alas, Squiders, today we come to the end of our scifi trope series, and we end with alternate universes, which are a personal favorite of mine (which seems to be a trend). WordPress handily keeps track of blog posts I’ve started, and there’s one from, oh, six years ago that is entitled “Alternate Universes” and the entirety of the post is “ARE AWESOME WOO.”

Good job, me.

Related to this (and to be included in this discussion) are parallel universes, which are almost exactly the same thing.

An alternate universe is a universe existing alongside our own, usually with slight changes (or sometimes major changes). These can be accessed in some manner that helps the plot along (or, alternately, the alt universe can stick its nose into our universe, usually with disastrous results).

TV Tropes lists ten specific variations of alternate universes:

  • Alternate History (This is, as it sounds, where some major event in the past never happened, or happened differently. Germany winning WWII is a common example of this.)
  • Another Dimension (TV Tropes says this is actually the parent trope for Alternate Universes. In this case, this is any world next to our own, whether it’s the Otherworld of the Fey or some of the weirder planes in Dungeons and Dragons. There does not need to be a relationship between our universe/dimension and the other one.)
  • Bizarro Universe (Usually everything is opposite, though the name of trope makes me think of the bizarro episode of SeaLab 2021 where all the bizarro versions said “Bizarro” all the time.)
  • Dark World (Essentially our world, but everything is terrible. To link in with last week’s time travel, you can get one of these by accidentally messing up something in the past.)
  • For Want of a Nail (One small change creates a MAJOR change between universes. Also In Spite of a Nail where the differences are critical but the characters tend to be the same.)
  • Mirror Universe (a subset of the Bizarro Universe, but basically where everything is the same except good people are evil and vice versa.)
  • The Multiverse (There’s multiple universes to be bounced around across.)
  • Elseworld (This is essentially what fanfiction alt universes–AUs–are. Basically you take a familiar character and put them in a wildly different situation.)
  • Wonderful Life (How the world would be if you were never born/existed.)
  • Alternate Tooniverse (An alternative universe that’s animated.)

(As a side note, TV Tropes is a bit like Wikipedia and you can lose hours in there, so be careful.)

Like most of the scifi tropes we’ve looked at, alternate universes can be used pretty much any way you want. They can be used to explore aspects of humanity, causality, or history. They can be used as backdrops for adventure, romance, and exploration. You can have a new universe every week, or have a number of universes intricately connected.

What are your favorite uses of alternate universes, Squiders? I recently started V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic series, which deals with alternate universes in a fantasy setting. And, of course, Star Trek makes excellent use of this trope through episodes like Mirror, Mirror and even my very favorite Next Gen episode, Inner Light.

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Fun Scifi Tropes: Time Travel

Time travel! My other trope-y love. I have been known to pick up media based solely on the fact that they included time travel even if all other signs pointed to the whole idea being terrible.

But there’s so many things you can do with a time travel story! You can do fish-out-of-water stories (i.e., character ends up in incorrect time, either past or future–I mean, it’s the whole premise of Futurama, but even Mark Twain got in on the action). You can explore a past time period through a modern lens. You can stick dinosaurs wherever the hell you want them. You can have wacky shenanigans or tragic separation. The possibilities are truly endless. (As are the time travel related tropes, yikes.)

TVTropes has categories for time travel stories as well, although it breaks it up into nine:

It also notes four methods of time travel:

  • Videocassette time travel (basically, time is a straight line that you can travel forward or back on, and you can see the world changing around you)
  • Wormhole time travel (a wormhole or other “time tunnel” is used–this going along with my theory that no one understands wormholes and writers are going to exploit that as much as possible)
  • Instantaneous time travel (one minute you’re in one time, the next you’re in another)
  • Unseen time travel (the traveling character doesn’t know how they got there, or the audience is never shown the time travel process)

Time travel can be the main plot point of a story or in the background; it can be something that comes up once or twice in a series and is never mentioned again, or something used every week. It can be used to explore history, humanity, the future, time itself, cause and effect–you name it. Or it can just be the pretty box around an adventure or romance story.

It does seem to seep into all scifi series eventually, though, doesn’t it? I mean, even if we discount time travel-oriented series like Doctor Who or Quantum Leap, you get it in Star Trek, Stargate, Supernatural…even Fraggle Rock has a time travel episode.

But I still love it.

Favorite time travel stories or tropes, squiders? I’m pretty indiscriminate, though I will say that I thought Connie Willis’s Blackout/All Clear duology was magnificent. (And I’m fond of Connie Willis in general.)

Fun Scifi Tropes: Faster-than-Light Travel

Oh, squiders. I love Faster-than-Light (FTL) travel. I love it a lot. It opens up the universe for exploration, gives us the chance to meet new species every week and touch down on a new planet.

Of course, it also breaks the laws of physics, which has made it a bit of a black sheep in science fiction circles recently. Relativistically, nothing can go faster than the speed of light, and then there’s time dilation and other things you technically need to worry about.

And there’s some really excellent science fiction out there that deals with interstellar travel in a way that’s scientifically plausible (The Forever War comes to mind, which made the engineer in me positively giddy). But I don’t mind it when we invent made up things to hand wave it away either for the sake of story.

TVTropes breaks FTL travel into three main categories:

These categories seem fairly sufficient to me–they cover everything from Star Trek to Star Wars to Stargate (although that is people moving and not a spaceship, but ehhhh, I’ll allow it). The portal/wormhole version of this trope seems to be most popular right now, which can either fall into jump drives or hyperdrives depending on what happens once you go through the portal. That’s probably because no one understands wormholes well enough to know how they work (or if they even exist) which allows better leverage for writers playing around with cool things.

I will admit to be rather partial to the warp drive version of this trope, probably because I was raised on nothing but books and Star Trek. Yes, I have two engineering degrees. Yes, I have taken more physics courses than most people can name. And, actually, I am better at quantum physics than some more mundane versions (::shakes fist:: Right hand rule!). But I love it undyingly anyway. How can you not?

Well, I mean, I suppose you can take it too far. I’ve certainly read books where I’ve shaken my head at the FTL mechanism. But I think the issue there tends to be that they’re trying to take themselves too seriously, focusing too much on technology which isn’t realistic or working.

Another way writers get around FTL travel (and its physics-breakage) is by shrinking space (i.e., making everything closer together than it really is). If everything is closer together, then it (obviously) takes less time to get places. This has its own problems of course (such as the fact that the universe is expanding) but hey, you do what works for the story.

How do you feel about FTL travel, squiders? Do you mind some types more than others? Do you avoid it? Do you love it? What’s your favorite FTL mechanism/series?

Fun Scifi Tropes: Aliens (and Their Invasions)

Good morning, squiders! I hope your Thursday finds you well.

Today we’ll be looking at aliens. Aliens come in a number of different flavors. You have your friendly aliens like E.T. You have your invading aliens ala Independence Day. You have aliens who have their own cultures and beliefs and goals, which can be presented in a totally unfamiliar way (such as insectoid aliens from Ender’s Game or Starship Troopers) or as friendly, relate-able faces that showcase different aspects of humanity.

(Alien has stopped looking like a word.)

“Alien” is a word that has been used in English for hundreds of years. My Internet combing tells me that it came into usage in the 1300s as a word meaning a foreigner (a usage it still has, though perhaps less common) or an outsider. I’m getting mixed results on the word as meaning “someone from another planet.” One sources says 1920s. Another accredits it to John Wood Campbell in 1953 in Analog magazine. Who knows? Apparently not the Internet.

(On the other hand, the word “extraterrestrial,” which is perhaps more explicit in its definition, was first used in 1848, according to Merriam-Webster.)

But anyway.

Aliens have evolved throughout science fiction. Early science fiction, which often has adventurers exploring far-off-but-not-really locales such as the Moon or Mars, usually has extraterrestrial beings that are close to human beings (I’m looking at you, A Princess of Mars).

Indeed, a lot of science fiction tends toward fairly human aliens. We touched on this a few weeks ago, but part of this is because science fiction tends to be an exploration of humanity, and by representing different alien species as different aspects of humanity (::coughStarTrekcough::) you can explore humanity as a whole. Another reason is because if an alien has an aspect of humanity to them, it makes them more relate-able to a human audience. If a character is supposed to be sympathetic, they’ll often have a human element to them.

Alternately, inhuman aliens are often portrayed as “evil” or in opposition to humanity. This isn’t always true–writers often turn this trope on its head by focusing on the miscommunication between two species with little in common. But almost all of your “evil” alien species are inhuman in appearance or actions. Series with multiple alien species sometimes make this more apparent. If you watched Falling Skies a few years back, contrast the Espheni and the Skitters (the bad guys) versus the more human-sympathetic Volm. Or take Doctor Who, where the Time Lords are literally indistinguishable in appearance from humans, versus anything that decides to try and eat Earth at any particular moment. (See particularly: Daleks.)

What are you favorite aliens, Squiders? Favorite exploration of alien vs humanity themes? Likelihood of an ancient, powerful society seeding other planets with life and/or rescuing the dinosaurs so they can earn their sentience and eat us in the future?

Fun Scifi Tropes: Robots

Hey, guys! We’re doing this today rather than Thursday because we’ve got our Winterking discussion then. (Are you guys reading that with me? At first I thought it was better but we seem to be delving back into familiar confusion as we near the end.)

So today we’ll talk about robots. Who doesn’t love robots? Well, technophobes or people waiting for the Singularity, I suppose.

According to NPR, the word robot was created in 1920 for Karel Capek’s play, Rossum’s Universal Robots (RUR). In the play, robots are biological, but have no feelings, and are used to do all the jobs that humans don’t want to do. “Robot” comes from the Old Church Slavonic word “rabota,” which means servitude of forced labor.

That being said, despite the image that is generally rendered by the world–a futuristic machine that does various tasks–robots have actually been around for quite some time, mostly in the forms of automatons, which are machines created to do a specific purpose and are usually self-contained (i.e., they don’t need external control). Stories from ancient times often include automatons, and several from the 1700s-1900s still exist.

(Automatons gained some public interest from the success of the book/movie The Invention of Hugo Cabret.)

Automatons often feature fairly strongly in steampunk media (such as the webcomic Girl Genius) though the capabilities of various automatons are somewhat exaggerated past what is historically accurate (which is a feature in steampunk anyway).

Despite living in an age of robotics now, most people still get that 1950s-era Lost in Space Robot sort of image. Or the Cybermen from Doctor Who. Or Rosie from the Jetsons. It’s hard to look at a Roomba and see the connection.

(Speaking of Roombas, my partner and I recently kickstarted a robot by the same company called Tertill, who is designed to weed your garden for you. I am SO excited. I hate weeding. Anyway.)

And, of course, scifi has branched out from your classic mid-century robots. Androids are an especially large area of interest, because it allows us to explore questions such as what it means to be human, what constitutes as life, etc. If a robot looks human, acts human, are they human? Where is the delineation between man and machine?

(Actually, for a look at a world where AI are accepted as a lifeform, you might look at the webcomic Questionable Content. It starts off as a slice-of-life comic, but has added more and more AI characters and focused more on them and how they fit into the world as the comic has gone on.)

You really can–and scifi does–go over with this trope. I read a very interesting short story in one of those Best Of collections not too long ago, about a robot whose job is to keep the outside of a spaceship repaired. You can do more humanoid, or stick with more modern-day robots, where they have a single function, often something that humans won’t or can’t do. You can look at humanity through machines or just have them as background flavor in your space adventure. They can develop sentience or not.

You can have them overthrow their creators or be locked down by the laws of robotics.

(TVTropes has 47 subtropes under “Robot.”)

Who are your favorite robots? I’m partial to Data, Bender, R2D2 and K-2SO (I really like snarky robots it turns out), and Johnny 5 (…is alive!). Favorite book/show/movie that includes robots?

Fun Scifi Tropes: Superpowers

Hey gang! Here’s the first of the tropes post I was talking about last week!

A trope, according to Merriam-Webster, is “a common or overused theme or device.” (Also “a word or expression used in a figurative sense” such as a figure of speech, and “a phrase or verse added as an embellishment or interpolation to the sung parts of the Mass in the Middle Ages,” so there you go.) Trope does have a bit of a negative connotation, normally something along the lines of implying that the creators are just sticking to common tropes and the work ends up being boring, shallow, derivative, or otherwise problematic.

And yeah, tropes can be used badly, and you can end up with bad or boring stories. But they can also be used awesomely. And the reason why something becomes a trope is because, at its base, it is awesome and it’s something that people are attracted to. Most everyone has a trope or two that they really like and gravitate toward.

Today we’ll start with superpowers. This is fairly self-explanatory; this trope involves humans with powers outside the ordinary. The most obvious example is the superhero genre, but you can also find examples of this throughout other science fiction and fantasy stories. (I’m focusing on tropes that tend to be more historically considered “science fiction” right now, even though most tropes can carry over to fantasy, but that’s a whole ‘nother discussion about soft versus hard science fiction, which is a topic no one agrees on and that will never end.)

My favorite thing about the superpowers trope is that anything goes for the source of a superpower. Bitten by a radioactive spider? Great! Spacecraft got hit by cosmic rays? Sure! Normal human evolution? Fantastic! As long as it’s vaguely science, go for it!

The biggest issue with the superpower trope is that it’s easy to overpower a character. Look at poor Superman. He’s strong, bullet-proof, can fly, can see through walls, doesn’t need a spacesuit to go into space, can go back in time (when plot convenient), etc. And as a result, a lot of people find Superman boring. He can fix any problem easily, so often the plotlines get convoluted in an attempt to keep up a semblance of suspense.

There are ways to overcome that, certainly–you give your character or the power itself a limitation. In fantasy, when we create magic systems, there tends to be a system of equivalency–some give and take. You can cast this spell, but it’ll make you blind for a day. Or you can perform this ritual, but if you do it wrong, you’ll be bound to the netherworld for eternity. Those same principles can be tied back to superpower usage.

I like the trend with the superpower trope that we’ve seen lately, where we move away from your standard Superman or Batman and explore other aspects, such as kids gaining superpowers and having to deal with the fallout from that, or people taking over mantles that have belonged to other people and trying to live up to the name, or “normal” folks trying to work beside their superpowered allies.

What’s your favorite superpower, Squiders? Favorite book/movie/TV show that deals with this trope? (I am not really a comic book person, but I recently bought some Hawkeye comics because they’re really good.)

Friendship in Fiction

As you know, Squiders, I am a giant, tribble-carrying Trekkie, and occasionally I get lost on Trek-related tumblrs that then eat half of my morning. (Let us not talk about this morning.) But today I learned something about my very favorite fictional friendship, that of the trio of Kirk, Spock, and Bones.

It was a quote from Gene Roddenberry that basically said that since, unlike a novel where you have access to a character’s internal thoughts, everything on TV has to be visible, he took one perfect person, and split him into three parts: the authoritative, the logical, and the humanistic. So apparently Kirk, Spock, and Bones seem like one whole because they are, which is kind of poetic, really.

I’m a giant sucker for the nakama or found family trope, which is where a group of people basically becomes so close they’re willing to fight for and die for one another. Trek does this all the time, as do a lot of other scifi/fantasy television series. I feel like it’s easy to do it on TV–easy to put characters into situations, stretched out over seasons at a time, where they can grow into such camaraderie.

But here’s the thing. I fell in love with Kirk, Spock, and Bones from the Trek novels, not the show. (Though I do love the show. I just didn’t have a lot of access to it as a kid. Now it is free everywhere.) Part of this was because the novels assumed you already knew the relationship and just jumped right into it. But the fact is that it’s such a strong friendship that a lot of the plots directly flowed from it, proving time and again that these men truly cared for each other and the rest of the command crew.

And that got me thinking. You do see it in books too, though it seems to be more common in older fantasy than more recent novels. (This, I suspect, reflects the changing tide of the genre. Most fantasy used to be high epic fantasy–now we get a lot more urban fantasy where the conflicts are personal instead of world-changing.) Lord of the Rings is an obvious example. Harry Potter. Pretty much any series with a large, ensemble cast. I feel like it’s harder to do in an individual book, because it’s hard to reflect the necessary growth of the characters becoming a cohesive unit, though I’m sure it’s been done.

What’s your favorite fictional friendship, Squiders? Any recommendations for me (books or other media) with good examples of this trope?