BY Pranika Nayyar
BY Pranika Nayyar
Now now readers, I must confess. The genre I harbour the least knowledge about is the science fiction genre - it’s blasphemy, I know. But that’s not to say the genre doesn’t capture my intrigue; I’ve fully caught up on Stranger Things.
With Avatar, Star Wars, Doctor Who, Transformers, Terminator, The Matrix and Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go amongst the riveting sea of sci-fi media, there’s simply no doubt that sci-fi has given us some of the best standalones and franchises of all time. The genre has presented us with some of the most memorable and fascinating fiction we are equal parts horrified and charmed by, leaving us to ponder the existence of alternate worlds and realities.
Most sci-fi tropes are highly malleable, innovatively integrating into fantasy, horror, dystopian, thriller, action and superhero narratives. Spiderman, The Hunger Games, Jurassic Park, and Men in Black all effectively employ science fiction tropes to compliment their other genres and facilitate their distinct narratives, creating hybrid media that connects to various audiences. This unique ability of sci-fi to excel in conjunction with other genres reinforces the acuity of the genre. Defining its tropes in a way that separates them entirely from other genres is not only difficult, it's reductive.
As a slightly intimidated but nonetheless adamant admirer of sci-fi tropes and one of UNSWeetened’s editors for 2022, I’m going to be ranking the three most common sci-fi tropes.
Let’s begin with Number 3, DYSTOPIAN GOVERNMENTS.
While dystopia is a developed separate genre, it is important to recognise it’s connections to science fiction. Dystopian worlds are always deliberately constructed to appear worse than ours, often focusing on the dehumanisation and corruption of humanity, whereas science fiction aims to produce worlds that are simply different, often leaving audiences to interpret the charm, virtues and moral implications of the world for themselves. Additionally, science fiction narratives tend to embrace futuristic backdrops relating closely to innovations in science or technology.
Cautionary fiction worlds often contain dystopian elements, warning mankind against our ardour for playing god, prophesising environmental catastrophe and the extinction of mankind. So many of these dystopian sci-fi worlds produce an excellent commentary on the world we live in, imagining the grave repercussions and loss of autonomy in store for humanity when our technology and oppressive socio-political hierarchies overwhelm us.
Whether it’s Huxley’s Brave New World, Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale or Collin’s Hunger Games, the trope of the oppressive government in science fiction can be absolutely brilliant, uncovering the fears we harbour about our own political systems and reflecting the realities of our world in perceptive and ugly ways. Done effectively, this trope highlights the core of its characters' humanity by placing them in a system that devalues and degrades it, revealing not only the lengths we will go to merely survive, but also the lengths we will go to recover our autonomy.
Moving onto Number 2, SENTIENT AI.
This is a massive trope with the ability to inform a wide range of plots: oppressed AI, AI uprisings, spanning from AI in small robots to the AI in entire spaceships. Chamber’s novel the Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet uses this trope to depict the sentient AI of the ship conquering its programming to develop feelings of benevolence and care for its crew. Oppressed AI’s in sci-fi media are generally used as a transparent metaphor for systematic oppression. Sometimes audiences receive sentient AI as sidekicks, becoming beloved characters as the story continues.
While these definitely aren’t unworthy depictions of this trope, I have a blast watching Avengers: Age of Ultron every single time, so I think my favouritism is quite evident. The alarm and unease that accompanies AI uprisings strike me with persistence long after my initial consumption of the media. The AI’s inclinations towards the complete genocidal obliteration of the human race, coupled with the easy hubris and ignorance it takes to bring this kind of AI into the world in the first place intelligently reveals fears that spawn from unregulated scientific/technological advancement.
This precise reflection of the world we live in, alongside the exploration of what it means to have sentience and the generally awesome action sequences that follow make this trope an undeniable favourite
It's finally time for Number 1, TIME TRAVEL.
I have always been an Outlander diehard and most recently, Umbrella Academy has captured my heart. Even though many truly treasured tropes had to be left off this list for the sake of brevity and word limits, you can be sure I was going to give this trope the spot on this list it deserves. Overlapping with both sci-fi and speculative fiction narratives, this trope is oozing with versatility – it can transport characters for the sake of a different setting, or it can be the driving force underpinning the entire plot.
You can be trapped in a time loop, hopelessly but comedically like in Groundhog Day, attempt to change the fate of the entire universe, undo a terrible wrong, get stuck in the past, or race against time itself. Coming back to the present may not be as easy as it seems; our heroes can become tragically separated by time. Time travel can seem like the ultimate reset button before you realise the timeline has already accounted for it. You can make things worse before you make them better only to realise they cannot be made better so they are left worse off than before the time travel – and it only gets more complicated from here.
This trope tops the list because it’s a deliciously fun mechanism of exploring the impact of the past on the present and future, encouraging audiences to agonise over the small details and predict the future ourselves.
SOME VERY HONOURABLE MENTIONS
· Spaceships/ Generation ships
· Parallel Universes
· Interspecies romance
· Killer/Kind Aliens
· First contact
If you are looking for diverse sci-fi media, here are some quality recommendations from my wonderful UNSWeetened team:
Diaspora by Greg Egan
The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells
A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge
Ribofunk by Paul Di Filippo
A Space Odyssey by Arthur C Clarke
Borne by Jeff Vandermeer
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K Dick
The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin
Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer
Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
Pranika is an editor at the UNSWeetened Literary Journal.
Teresa is a designer at the UNSWeetened Literary Journal.