The Grand List of Overused Science Fiction Clichés

   Those of us who have read or seen a lot of science fiction have seen certain story elements pop up over and over and over. Some of these elements were actually pretty good ideas, and when handled well make for a pretty entertaining story, but have become hackneyed from overuse by the unimaginative. Others came into being through the deliberate effort to avoid another cliché. Still other ideas were lame from day one, and should have been dismissed from the author's thinking.
   Clichés are not in themselves necessarily bad, but show that the writer has forgotten what separates the strong tale from the hollow, "the human heart in conflict with itself," as Faulkner said. Where there is this conflict, the tale stands; where the conflict is absent, the tale falls flat, and in neither case does it matter how many ships get blown up.
   The sophisticated reader (one who reads more than just SF) will note that some of these clichés are not found solely in SF, but in other genres as well, and of course the lampooning of cliches is a time-honored part of good comedy.

    DISCLAIMER:  The use of masculine/feminine pronouns and assignment of gender roles is not intended to preclude a reversal of gender roles. It is, however, intended to offend those who think that the Y chromosome is the root of all evil. Nyah.

    The Symbols:
The green check marks those items which are not so bad, but have been used so many times that it takes a really strong story to lift them out of the slush pile. They will not destroy an otherwise well-written story, and some of the classics employ these elements (and employ them well).
The yellow check marks those items which were mildly interesting the first time around, but simply provoke a response along the lines of "been there, done that" on the re-runs. Only a truly bizarre twist on these ideas can give them new life.
The green cross marks those items which are baloney, but are tolerable for the sake of dramatic effect as long as the events of the story do not depend on them.
The yellow cross marks those items which are lame, and support the plot in some way, but can be saved if there is a supporting justification. For instance, having a robot bleed oil when it gets shot is pretty lame; having a hydraulically-powered robot leak hydraulic fluid when shot is creditable.
The red cross marks those items which are irredeemably stupid and cannot be taken seriously without traipsing off into fantasy land.
The Starfleet logo marks those items for which Star Trek has been a notable offender.
The piggy marks those items that are unconscionably sexist.
The swastika marks those items that show racial, ethnic, or religious bigotry.

  1. Overused plot lines:
    1. Post-cataclysmic rag-tag armies struggle to kick the Rooskies out of the good ol' US of A
    2. Post-cataclysmic rag-tag armies struggle to survive against gangs of bandits, mutants, cyberpunks, bikers, etc.
    3. Rag-tag rebel army/fleet struggles valiantly to overthrow the Evil Empire
    4. Time travel by Good Guys to stop a historical Bad Guy, usually Hitler
    5. Time travel by Bad Guy to stop Good Guy from ever being born
    6. Time travel by Temporal Policeman to catch a Bad Guy who escaped into the past
    7. The race to develop a cure for the Supervirus or a weapon to stop the Invincible Bad Guys
    8. An alien who
      1. Is stranded on earth
      2. Befriends a human child or falls in love with an earth gal
      3. Is pursued by shadowy malevolent Pentagon officials under the pretense of national security
      4. Uses alien powers to defeat the shadowy malevolent Pentagon officials, making them look foolish without really harming them
      5. Makes teary farewell and returns to home planet
    9. A virtual reality program is activated, and the distinction between reality and the program becomes confused or indistinguishable
    10. People connect their brains directly to computers and get dependent on them
    11. Aliens travel a zillion miles to loot the earth of resources which exist in far greater and much more easily recoverable quantities on the many uninhabited bodies they pass on the way to earth
    12. Gang of cute and/or misfit kids rescue the universe, where a large group of competent, organized and well-armed adults failed
    13. A complex computer system spontaneously becomes self-aware
    14. A couple files an application to the government for permission to conceive a baby
    15. A human falls in love with robot
    16. A robot falls in love with human
    17. UFO abductions
    18. Brain-controlling parasites attempt to wrest control of human race
    19. Aliens put someone on trial for the sins of humanity
    20. A high-tech amusement park goes lethally berserk
    21. Death from old age turns out to be due to some simple, single cause, leading to an easy immortality treatment, with consequent catastrophic social implications
    22. A great hunter decides that humans are the most entertaining prey of all, and visits Earth to bag a few
    23. Psychedelic drugs give somebody magical power over space, time and reality
    24. Aliens with completely incomprehensible motivations make war on the human race/invade earth
    25. The bureaucratic/reactionary mindset stands in the way of scientific progress, but is overcome by the researcher through ability, purity of heart, and use of the scientific method
    26. Two hostile factions colonize a planet within walking distance of each other
    27. The government ships criminals off to other planets
    28. A crass sexist male becomes pregnant
    29. An android discovers emotions and goes beserk
    30. A young researcher who
      1. Gets a job at a Mega-huge Corporation or Ultra-secret Government Agency
      2. Learns that the employer's latest discovery has a Nasty Side Effect or involves some obvious human rights abuses, but the employer is moving ahead with it anyway
      3. Confronts the employer, who casually dismisses the researcher's concerns and chides her/him for not being a "team player"
      4. Tries to blow the whistle to avert disaster
      5. Gets hounded by Shadowy Malevolent Goons
      6. Watches the disaster overtake the CEO
      7. Testifies before Congress and enters the Witness Protection program
    31. Aliens invade earth in order to eat humans
    32. An AI turns on its creators
    33. A person from the past goes into suspended animation and wakes up in modern times, or a person from modern times goes into suspended animation and wakes up in the future
    34. A person travels back in time to meet a major historical personage and winds up either becoming that person or taking that person's place at a critical juncture
    35. The rightful monarch or long-lost heir is restored to the throne
    36. A sexually selective plague kills off or sterilizes almost all of the men, or almost all of the women
    37. A human discovers that the human race is being controlled by aliens
    38. The alien invasion that flounders because their technological advantage is perfectly neutralized by their lack of resources, compared to the humans
    39. Earth is threatened by an asteroid, and a spcae mission is mounted to save the planet

  2. Overused characterizations/settings:
    1. Aliens whose thinking is so different from ours that no communication is possible
    2. Alien races that find our women attractive, while we find theirs to be repulsive
    3. Alien races whose women differ from ours only in skin color and facial features
    4. Extra breasts on the alien women
    5. The aliens are incomprehensible to humans, while the humans are perfectly comprehensible to the aliens
    6. Alien species depicted as having no ethnic, religious, cultural, philosophical or political variance, especially:
      1. Wise mystics
      2. Stoic warriors
      3. Pastoral innocents
      4. Cowardly sneaks
      5. Amazon babes
    7. Alien species with universal personality traits or cultural mores that are treated as invariable laws of nature
    8. Alien races whose names all have lots of hard consonants
    9. Lots of apostrophes packed into alien words and phrases for no apparent reason
    10. Humans of future depicted as having no ethnic, religious, cultural, philosophical or political variance
    11. Cities of future depicted as though sanitation workers have been on strike from now until then
    12. Entire story setting dominated by huge impersonal business conglomerates
    13. Planets with the same exact climate planet-wide (planets without atmosphere excepted)
    14. Super-intelligent AI's that speak, behave, and act in a manner indistinguishable from the human characters.
    15. The incredibly competent man-of-action with more skills/degrees than you can shake a blaster at
    16. The incredibly competent woman-of-action with large breasts, no sexual inhibitions, and more skills/degrees than you can shake a blaster at
    17. Shadowy malevolent Pentagon officials
    18. Each and every character has a tainted history
    19. Society divided as follows:
      1. A handful of ultra-powerful ultra-rich
      2. Hordes of starving people living in the streets
      3. Criminal lords who control everything not controlled by the ultra-rich
      4. Police whose only principle of operation is maintenance of the status quo
      5. Absolutely no middle class whatsoever
    20. Societies where all technology has been destroyed except automobiles and their equivalents, which are still running yet there are no mechanics, workshops, or gas stations
    21. Heroes who are so emotionally stunted that they don't care about close friends/relatives that die as long as they complete some mission
    22. Any character with a perpetual two-day growth of beard
    23. Futuristic societies where only the ultra-rich can afford quality health care, and everyone else is reduced to selling their bodily organs
    24. Beings of pure energy
    25. A society in which everyone is required to die on his or her Nth birthday
    26. Creatures from our mythology (e.g., centaurs, dragons) occur among the wildlife native to an alien planet
    27. Aliens whose sociology, values and beliefs are indistinguishable from those of an Oriental culture, e.g., feudal Japan.
    28. Eccentric scientists
    29. The assistant to the scientist who is either deformed or dating the scientist's daughter
    30. Future societies that have relapsed into feudalism
    31. Alternative Earths where society is just like some society of the past, with some technodoodads added
    32. Palace guards who are ineffectual due to ineptitude or inattentiveness
    33. Fantastical but non-viable creatures (men with tortoiseshell backs, gigantic insects) made possible by high levels of radiation
    34. Aliens that speak human languages without error, having taken no pains to learn how
    35. Aliens who speak fluent English, presumably translated for our benefit, except for the gratutious use of their own units of time and distance
    36. Aliens whose vocal apparatus is just like ours, so that they can speak human languages with only a slight accent
    37. Omnipotent pacifist aliens who impose their philosophy on us without bothering to protect us from the races they have left alone
    38. Men and women live in separate societies (and I'm not talking Mars and Venus, either)
    39. Clones are inexplicably different from regular people in a particular manner (mentally unstable, don't mind being used as cannon fodder, etc.)
    40. The vast majority of alien races consider 20ºC to be room temperature
    41. Societies that are utopian in every regard except for one serious drawback that completely outweighs the utopian aspects, such as having the death penalty for some really minor offense
    42. Disembodied live brains living in tanks (with apologies to Gharlane of Eddore)
    43. Eyes that glow (sometimes accompanied by minor-key chords in TV and film)
    44. Sentient artificial intelligences that wish to eliminate the human race
    45. Sentient artificial intelligences that select a human figure to holographically represent themselves
    46. Computers with voice synthesizers either use a sensuous female contralto, a threatening male baritone, or a nasally tinny neutral voice
    47. Bad guys who miss everything they shoot at
    48. Beginning warriors who hit everything they shoot at
    49. Characters who are alwaysready for intimate relations
    50. All genetically superior humans have an innate drive to rule, conquer, or kill everyone else
    51. Alien vampires that feed on brainwaves/life-force/exotic biochemicals/psychic energies that can only obtain from sentient life forms
    52. Post-cataclysmic societies that treats items of the lost technology as holy relics
    53. Alien monsters that find humans edible, tasty, and non-toxic
    54. The evil duplicate of the hero, sidekick, universe, etc.
    55. The grammatical differences between the languages used by humans and aliens are cited as conclusive proof of radically different ways of thinking
    56. Sentient AIs that communicate with other sentient AIs via their voice synthesizer
    57. The intelligent and confident woman who can be bribed with a dress
    58. Androids with intelligence equal to an IQ of around 1000 who can't seem to figure out human emotions, humor, or verbal contractions
    59. Everyone in the post-catastrophic future dresses like heavy metal musicians
    60. A common proverb gets "translated" into more generic terms, resulting in obfuscation of the meaning
    61. An alien race has a trait that greatly complicates interacting with them, but even after centuries of contact with humans they still manage to keep it secret
    62. The ancient spacefairing alien race that:
      1. Has existed for zillions of years
      2. Went into hiding, left this universe/dimension, or went extinct so long ago that no current spacefaring race has ever met them
      3. Is known solely through legends, ancient artifacts of amazing technological advancement, and/or evidence that they created one or more (sometimes all) currently living races
    63. The aliens whose language is not pronounceable by humans, but who can still speak human langauges with relative ease
    64. The villian who can infallibly predict how the protagonists will react to a given turn of events
    65. All religious figures fall into one of the following categories:
      1. All-tolerant lovemongers who make Jesus look like Hitler by comparison
      2. Oppressive fundamentalists who make Hitler look like Jesus by comparison
      3. Ignorant, unwashed rabble
    66. A society of aliens and/or villians that are amazingly similar to a Famous Political Movement of Ill Repute
    67. Societies wherein gender roles and attitudes are completely reversed
    68. A technologically advanced race conquers a technologically inferior race, and puts them to work doing things that the conqueror's machines can do far more efficiently

  3. Overused story events/plot devices:
    1. Discussions, ending with a joke, about how bureaucracies are the same everywhere in the galaxy
    2. Most intelligent course of action precluded by orders from high-ranking ignoramus, on the basis of a transparently flawed rationale
    3. Technological malfunction as a plot device
    4. The timer count-down on the Bad Guy Device being stopped by the hero with bare seconds left
    5. Alien contact perceived or regarded as a spiritual/quasi-religious experience
    6. Aliens who are vastly more intelligent and advanced than we are, but we beat them anyway by "ingenuity," plain guts, or exploiting an Achilles Heel
    7. Teenage genius who discovers an entire new field of science, and builds practical devices that use it, in his bedroom
    8. Psychological trauma/attitude problem of female character is cured (or at least temporarily relieved) by a Dose of Good Luvin' from the hero
    9. Persons of different species interbreeding without difficulty
    10. Lectures by the author to the reader, disguised as lectures by one character to another, or as the Cosmic Message from the Ultra-enlightened Aliens to the Great Unwashed Human Masses
    11. A conspiracy involving lots of people that remains secret for an extended period of time
    12. The author attempts to wittily euphemize the phrase go screw yourself by referring to it as "a physiologically impossible act"
    13. The availability of firearms notwithstanding, swordfighting returns as a significant method of combat
    14. The Big Surprise at the end of the tale:
      1. Barbaric society turns out to be post-cataclysmic Western civilization
      2. The man and woman who flee from a doomed civilization and start rebuilding on the third planet of a medium-sized yellow star are named Adam and Eve
      3. Alien children, slaves, or pets revealed to actually be the parents, masters, or owners
      4. Head of Terran government revealed to be disguised Bad Guy or under direct control of Bad Guys
      5. Major figure in conflict turns out to have been another major figure in disguise
      6. Kindly Benevolent Aliens turn out to have Nefarious Ulterior Motives
      7. The reputedly inhospitable Outdoors is discovered by the Hero not only to be inhabitable, but markedly better
      8. It was all just a dream/game/simulation
      9. The alien threat was just a hoax to unite humanity
      10. An ancient civilization was actually founded by space aliens
      11. A major historical figure (Jesus, Einstein, Lincoln, Elvis) turns out to have been a space alien
    15. Telepaths use their power to achieve a heightened sexual experience
    16. Telepaths are regarded as witches or lunatics, and are dealt with accordingly
    17. Inherited supernatural power (telepathy, lycanthropy, etc.) becomes pronounced at the onset of puberty
    18. Humans leave for the stars, forget all about Earth, and rediscover it later
    19. No matter how slowly the monster shambles along, or how quickly the victim runs, the monster is always right behind the victim when he/she trips or encounters an obstacle.
    20. When fleeing danger, females trip over their own shadows while men can sprint without caution
    21. An alien artifact imbues human(s) with incredible abilities
    22. The fighter pilot who yells "yee-ha" when he zaps an alien vessel
    23. The time traveller who shakes the future society out of their apathy by introducing them to music from his period
    24. Time travellers go back in time to prevent some Bad Thing from happening and in the process actually cause the Bad Thing to happen
    25. Time travellers go back in time to prevent some Bad Thing from happening; they succeed, but cause something worse to happen
    26. When a player gets "killed" in a virtual reality simulation, they also die in real life
    27. A war gets started over a stupid misunderstanding between two sides that otherwise have no reason to fight, and no effort is made to resolve the crisis diplomatically
    28. Humans have a special quality that makes us unique, so that even superbeings can learn something from us
    29. A pet survives the disaster, and is discovered at the end of the story
    30. So-called elite forces get their butts kicked by a smaller, less well-armed force
    31. A scientist develops an artificially intelligent computer system that can understand natural language and draw inductive conclusions from incomplete data, and uses it on projects far less practical and/or profitable than such a computer would be
    32. Someone gets healed by contact with aliens (often by a laying on of hands)
    33. The greedy businessman refuses to recognize that his dangerous product/service will screw him over long before he can hope to make a profit
    34. The monster eats the token black guy first
    35. Explorers are greeted as gods by the natives, who cling to this belief in spite of everything the explorers do and say
    36. An alien custom throws humans into confusion, even though one or human cultures share the custom and have followed it for centuries

  4. Silly Science:
    1. Super-intelligent computers that blow up when the hero confuses them
    2. Super-intelligent computers that get confused when the hero says to them "everything I say is a lie" or some other paradoxical statement
    3. Space vessels that lack fuses, circuit breakers, and surge supressors, so that the control panels explode when some distant portion of the ship is damaged
    4. Computers that can be programmed by someone who has no knowledge of the computer's operating system
    5. Computer terminals that display the current operation (e.g., "UPLOADING VIRUS") in huge, flashing letters
    6. The patently obvious design flaws in a vehicle or weapon system go uncorrected during the entire life cycle of the system in question
    7. Vehicles and/or weapon systems that are totally impractical for the environment in which they are deployed (e.g., the forest chase scene in Return of the Jedi)
    8. Spacecraft with features that have been pointlessly carried over from water-borne designs
    9. Untested medical treatments that are 100% effective and have no side effects
    10. A medical condition that will be fatal in an amount of time expressed to the tenth significant digit; the cure is found and applied in the nick of time, enabling a 100% recovery
    11. A robot is shot and bleeds oil
    12. Spacecraft that when shot blow up as if they had been packed with gasoline and liquid oxygen
    13. Computers that when shot explode as if they had been stuffed full of Roman candles
    14. An item of technology is quickly reverse-engineered by a far less advanced group of researchers
    15. A group of aliens is smart enough to steal someone else's technology, but too stupid to make any improvements on it
    16. A technological development progresses from half-baked theory to useful implementation in fifteen minutes instead of fifteen months
    17. Spacecraft that have no seatbelts, even though the crew gets tossed around like rag dolls on a regular basis
    18. Nuclear weapons having an effect well out of proportion for reasonable yields (like throwing the moon out of its orbit, etc)
    19. Computer security protocols that can be overridden merely by saying "override" to the computer
    20. Clones that grow to match the cloned person's state of physiological development in a small fraction of the time
    21. Clones that think, act, and speak in a manner indistinguishable from the cloned person
    22. Clones that come out of the cloning vat with the same haircut as the individual cloned
    23. AI software has unique properties that prevent it from being copied or transmitted like any other data
    24. AI software that is able to bypass the security protocols of the operating system in which it runs
    25. On-board computers that always know exactly how long it will take for the malfunction to blow up the ship
    26. Computers that exist in the far future or are alleged to be 'cutting edge,' but demonstrate less functionality than a Commodore 64
    27. Two-way viewscreens which work between two races which have never contacted each other, cannot speak each other's language, and cannot possibly have worked out compatible protocols for transmission of image and sound
    28. Hand-held weapons significantly more complex to engineer and costly to build than a twentieth-century firearm, but not noticeably deadlier, longer ranged, or more accurate
    29. Weapons that instantly kill extras and minor characters, and give dramatic but non-lethal wounds to the major characters
    30. Lasers that are visible when travelling through the vacuum of outer space
    31. Advanced robots that have difficulty negotiating stairs
    32. Tactical systems that can only deal with targets visible to the naked eye
    33. Computers that can work harder or faster when their power supply voltage is increased
    34. "Reversing the polarity" is the solution to virtually every engineering problem
    35. Laser beams that travel about as quickly as an arrow
    36. Heroes/ships that can dodge laser beams because the beams travel so slowly
    37. Alien artifacts that still work after being abandoned for a million years
    38. Spaceships that make a whoosh as they go by
    39. Huge, expensive spacecraft used to transport inexpensive goods in tiny quantities
    40. Stars go shooting past the spaceship as it flies through space
    41. A large dose of radiation results in super powers instead of super tumors
    42. A large dose of radiation causes an individual creature to "evolve" into a more advanced form
    43. The solution for a problem solved four weeks ago is thrown away and never seen again
    44. A character is aged prematurely; hair that has already grown turns gray
    45. A prematurely-aged character is cured of their condition; hair that has already grown turns from gray back to the youthful color
    46. A space vessel is sent out on missions before its systems are fully operational
   The Grand List of Overused Science Fiction Clichés is a cooperative effort. Due to my failure to keep track of things, not all of the people received credit for the clichés they pointed out. But here are the ones I can credit:

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Copyright 1998 by John VanSickle. Permission to quote for non-commercial use is granted, provided that this copyright notice is included. All other rights reserved.

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