That's Cheating! My Pet Peeves in SF
24 March 2015
By Robert Holbach
Everyone has their pet peeves. Some have become almost universal – clichés that now rarely appear in stories without being immediately mocked. True Love’s First Kiss; It Was All Just A Dream; Tom Cruise. Others are still alive and well and employed far too often by lazy storytellers: Sidekicks, Character Deaths That Aren’t, Tom Cruise.
In Science Fiction, there’s also the matter of bad science. Science fiction is the literature of the possible – or at the very least, the credible, the plausible. So one of my pet peeves is when an otherwise serious science fiction story cheats. Here are my top five pet peeves in SF:
When science fiction presents me with a future where people’s needs are met automatically, I immediately suspect that the author is cheating to get around the need for our hero to have a real job. In the real world, there is no indication that such strange utopias will ever become real: somehow, wealth differentials and an inability to be content / a deeply ingrained dissatisfaction that can never be sated appear to be a fundamental part of humanity and the human psyche. Perhaps these things are attainable on different worlds for different beings: for humans, they are not.
The ability to affect physical object with no other means but willpower is “magic” pure and simple. Just because someone decided to think of a more science-y sounding word for it does not make it believable in a science fiction tale.
3. Humanoid Aliens
So you’ve got all of time and space to play with and you get to be God and create life and what you come up with is… A man in a rubber suit.
Fine, I guess, if you’re a 1970s special effects guy working on a low-budget TV show, or making popcorn entertainment, but why are so many aliens in books still basically variations on the theme of homo sapiens, or life as we know it on Earth? Even the tentacle & mandible pick-n-mix buffet of alien-making is getting a little stale… Come on, imagineers! Make something TOTALLY NEW!
And, while you’re at it, make it spine-tinglingly alien in its personality and motivation, too, but still coherent and believable.
2. Faster Than Light
Let’s face it, Space Opera tends to cheat. A lot. It’s almost always reliant on Faster Than Light technology, and the more FTL happens in a story, the harder I find to take it seriously. Space will never be easy. I want to experience stories that acknowledge reality, rather than brushing it under the carpet.
The first stage of cheating is the use of ansibles – or whatever else a storyteller might call the means of communicating instantly between planets and galaxies. There’s no reason to believe there will ever be such technology. Just because we got used to instant long distance conversations on Earth does not mean we’ll achieve the same across the phenomenal distances of space.
The second level of cheating is the spaceships: I simply don’t believe there ever will be FTL spaceships with living cargo. I could just about imagine that there will one day be a nifty solution for sturdy, tiny objects to skip through the Universe at FTL speeds. I could imagine someone throwing a Flash Drive into a wormhole and it popping out somewhere useful, far far away. What I can’t imagine is that such space-skipping objects will be hospitable environments for living organisms. Lichen and bacteria, at a stretch, but soft big things like us have a tendency to splatter all over the place when exposed to ludicrous speed.
So, FTL spaceships chisel away at my suspension of disbelief, but not as much as the final stage of cheating: the FTL space battle. What exactly are those spaceships shooting at each other while they overtake their own laser pulses? Surely, all they need to do is put a little dust in the way of any passing FTL spaceship and watch as it gets shredded by the near infinite energy of the collision with dust particles…
Writers! Give me cryogenically frozen people travelling for centuries! Give me spaceships where those who arrive are descendants of those who depart! Give me a universe where people are only awake and active for one month every few hundred years – cryogenically freezing themselves by mutual consent for the intermediate millennia to allow the shuttling space-stagecoaches to travel while everyone is asleep, and to let people live parallel lives. If you’re going to tell an interstellar story, give me one that I can believe in.
(I have not yet watched Interstellar, worried that it might commit the cardinal sin of taking itself too seriously while undermining my ability to take it seriously at all: a common failure mode of space opera)
Prophecies do not belong in fiction. They detract from any fantasy novel they appear in. And they really, really don’t belong in science fiction. Prophecies are to science as particle theory is to the Bible…
Don’t get me wrong, writers, I understand where the need comes from. Your hero needs to save the world, which is easier if he (or she) has loyal followers. Unfortunately, you’re a writer, which means you probably have more in common with Socially Awkward Penguin than with Gandhi / Mandela / Churchill. You have no idea where to get minions followers, and you don’t want your character to have to slowly and arduously earn respect, friendship and admiration the hard way, one adventure at a time, so you cheat. You use the boil-in-the-bag method to save the world. You use a prophecy to have instant followers ready for him (or, theoretically, her) just as soon as some random condition is met.
BUT THAT IS CHEATING. It’s cheating in religious texts , it’s cheating in fantasy novels, and it’s double and triple cheating in science fiction.
Dune is the one exception to this rule, but unless you happen to be Frank Herbert, STAY AWAY FROM THE PROPHECY.
Of course, if a story does not take itself seriously and falls in the general realm of popcorn entertainment, then it can get away with some cheating / silly science. (But not prophecies. Prophecies suck!)
Recommendations for stories that don’t cheat
I would love for people to recommend stories that have interesting aliens or believable interstellar travel and civilisations.
Here are ones I have come across:
· China Mieville: Embassytown
· Kurt Vonnegut: Slaughterhouse Five
Credible Interstellar Stories:
· Toby Litt: Journey into Space
· Adam Roberts: Salt
Which ones would you recommend?
More about Robert
Robert loves to read and sometimes write speculative fiction. He reviews books as http://www.bastianbalthasarbooks.co.uk