Five Science Fiction Pet Peeves

Some of my readers may remember back a few months ago I wrote a post about 5 Pet Peeves I have with the fantasy genre.  Now it’s science fiction’s turn.

Usually the more you love a genre and know about a genre, the more you also have specific things that you don’t like.  These can be recurring  issues that come up again and again in science fiction.  Everyone will have their own peeves, but these are a few of mine.

1.  The Name Game Part II

I’ve discussed this issue before.  What you name a character in a book will have all kinds of echoes in the text and in the reader’s mind.  A great and singular name will capture the audience’s imagination and help to define them.  What would A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle be without the iconic Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Which?  How could you imagine the Star Wars universe without Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, and Darth Vader?  Would it possibly impart the same sense of adventure and drama if they were named Morris Prometheus, Kenzie Smith and Dave?  The way a name sounds and the emotion it invokes in the audience all weave in to the story and help to give it the right sense of tone and style.

But there are mishaps.  In the science fiction universe this can take some very strange forms indeed.  Aliens may have a completely different vocabulary and method of language production, but  that doesn’t mean it’s useful to name those extraterrestrial characters things like X!!knit and O’g’ma’atshsshs and XXXRRrrralapahaaa.   It gets silly.  I mean really silly.  And how is anyone going to talk about these characters? Book discussion sort of flies out the window right there.

If instead of “E.T. Phone Home” it had been something like “Grxxplnkralllsh!! phone home” would it have been half as memorable?

A lot of authors solve this silliness by having the human characters (if there are any) provide the alien with the ridiculous name a human nickname.  That works fine, but it does get old pretty quickly as a trick.   We’ve had Alf, we’ve had E.T.,  we’ve even had J. Lo.   The space opera of Star Wars and the universe of Star Trek manage to insert aliens with easily pronounce names that still manage to sound alien. (Chewbacca, Yoda, Whorf, Spock, etc.) So there’s no reason others can’t follow suit.

This can backfire if the writers go too cute and name all their aliens things like Blort and Gleep. (why do so many ‘alien’ names sound like rude body noises?).  This seems to happen even in books like  The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex (Hyperion, 2007) which I think does a clever job with its aliens, but calls them the Boov.

 

Of course, Mork from Ork may disagree with me . . .

Another facet of science fiction naming is the how we present a scientist or inventor or other character in the book who is crucial to the plot.   Now consider these two names:  Lucas Burngold and  Ghengis Mordant.  Who is the brilliant inventor of major new technology embraced by the world for the betterment of humankind?  Who is the misunderstood mad scientist with the dangerous and monstrous explorations of science that threaten all sorts of harm and fear through his genetically mutated avocados?  (Of course an author could flip the implied names around and create unexpected name-play to mislead readers, but the obvious answers are why it pays to be careful in the naming of characters.

And just a thought, who in their right mind would name a child Ghengis Mordant and imagine they’d grow up to be anything other than an evil mad scientist or a pro-wrestler?  The closer the story is to reality, the less likely that the name of the character should obviously indicate the nature of that character.  The cartoon Kim Possible did a hysterical spin on this where Kim’s arch enemy is the evil “Dr. Drakken”, but he is apparently self-named that.  His real name is Drew Theodore P. Lipsky–clearly not villain-esque in the least.  Certain characters throughout the show keep referring to him as Drew, and it completely pokes holes in his bad guy aura.

2.  The Three Stooges–With Tentacles!

Whether it’s invented in a lab or has just flown in from outer space, I prefer my monsters be treated as more than a slapstick story line.   The idea of the bumbling alien with all the poise and charm of a 6 foot three hundred pound tentacled tourist in a loud Hawaiian print shirt and a phrasebook of human language is funny for about two seconds.  Aliens as comic relief just don’t work for me if they’re too inept to have even have crossed the street, let alone the galaxy.  It’s a lazy approach to aliens, especially strange looking aliens that aren’t people shaped.

It’s not that aliens can’t be funny, or goofy or just plain nuts,  but a completely different race from another planet is likely to have a culture and wisdom all its own.  They aren’t likely to be the clowns of the universe.  I’m going to lose interest pretty fast if the only reason to have the extraterrestrial  visitors there at all is to set up humorous messes based on their misunderstanding of human culture.

A good writer can make a story funny without divesting aliens of all dignity and sense.  Take Stinker From Space by Pamela Service (Fawcett, 1988).  Our alien is on the run and in peril.  The fact that he winds up taking over the body of an earth skunk is humorous, but it’s also out of necessity and the fact that he chose a skunk winds up being of benefit to our desperate alien within the context of the story.  Or The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex (Hyperion, 2007).  The aliens are clearly over the top, but they serve as a satirical commentary rather than just clowns. Or consider the brilliant satire that is Galaxy Quest.  The aliens are guilty of a major error in assuming that Earth’s programmed space adventures are real, but despite their somewhat clownish attempts to mimic the show and human culture, there’s clearly an intelligent race desperate for hope and chance to fight overwhelming enemies.

3. Technology of Convenience

Like magic of convenience, technology of convenience is a real peeve of mine.  When a character just happens to have a remote control in their pocket to summon a giant robot that they haven’t used the entire story until nearly the end.  Or when  there’s this amazing device that will do virtually anything–and is essentially a tech form of aladdin’s lamp without limitations . . .

Star Trek is full of this kind of stuff.  Characters are able to pull off amazing things with the holodeck and with the transporter, yet those convenient plot solutions are forgotten between one show and the next far too often.  In the real world, once something is discovered it’s like letting  the genetically engineered cat out of the bag, you aren’t going to be able to put it back in without a lot of noise, fuss and bloodletting.

And this goes hand in hand with the technobabble of convenience.  Technobabble is a lovely term to define that patter of nonsensical words that sound techie and intelligent but is essentially meaningless.  It can be used in a number of ways, and it often shows up in science fiction shows and movies.   A little technobabble is fine, especially when it helps the story along and doesn’t sound too outrageous.

On the other hand . . . “Captain the quantum conversion grid is polarizing the displacement translator and pretty soon the whole ionic field inhibitor is going to cause a multiphasic catalyst and timey wimey stuff . . .”

Too much of it and it’s simply lazy writing or refusal to research things properly.  If you can present a viable scientific explanation instead of a nonsensical bunch of terms, always do so.  It does not benefit the audience when the authors eschew their science or hide it behind a screen of words.

To my mind,  The worst offenders of the tech of convenience trope are often the malfunctioning device/flying saucer/robot that needs one critical part.  The thing where no one bothered to pack a spare.  Chances are if you’re heading across the galaxy in a ship with specialty parts, you’ll have a storage of spares.  In the movie Wall-E, the entire space ship is clearly self sufficient, with robots ready to do repairs and plenty of reserve parts.  This was an extraordinarily sensible idea.  In the Star Wars prequel,  The Phantom Menace I still get irritated over the fact that our protagonists escape on the one ship in the kingdom with no weaponry or engine repair kit on board, only the princess’s entire wardrobe.  Granted, Star Wars is more space opera anyway, but still.  If the book or movie plot hinges on having to get the one part that breaks down, or the one gear that will activate the glorious problem solving machine, then it’s just a tad too contrived for me.

Finally, if you’re using tech that is pulled out of thin air and has no basis in science or technology as we know it, it’s going to be really hard to convince me you aren’t writing disguised fantasy.  There’s nothing wrong with combining magic with tech mind you, but to call it “science”  when a highly advanced  race of aliens suddenly materializes to pull our characters out of the fire and transports them across the universe by the power of mind alone . . . it’s pretty much what would happen if powerful deities came and magically sent our characters on their trip.  Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series combines fantasy, aliens, space stations and interstellar travel perfectly well,  but if  I’m reading about a universe in  which magical things just don’t happen, then the technology should reflect that.

4. Artificial Intelligence

Robots, computers, machines that mankind has invented in order to make our lives easier.  We give them huge amounts of information and program them until they start to exhibit intelligence and personalities of their own and then we put them in place to control all sorts of things.

Hi Dave! I”m Siri-HAL, your new personal butler. I’ll make breakfast, read your mail, destroy your enemies and walk the dog. Then I’ll malfunction and try to kill you. Have a nice day.

Let’s face it, the theme of “computers gone amok” is a common one.  AI’s often get created just so that they can appear in a story with a terrible flaw that reminds the reader why we shouldn’t trust machines with our lives–because they can royally get it wrong if a mouse gnaws on the wires.  Thing is, I can’t imagine anyone intelligent enough to design a system to say . . . control the workings of a space station full of thousands of people would put it in place without safeguards, back ups, etc.  It really shouldn’t be  something mouse droppings can break down.

The other path of painful peeves for AI’s is the human vs. machine trope.  Either human kind has invented robots with intelligence and completely oppresses the poor mechanical minions, or the computers gain intelligence, seize control and completely dominate the people.  Either scenario has been done so many times in fiction that it’s hard to make the story seem fresh and new.

I prefer interesting robots and AI stories that don’t depend on these two tropes for their plot arcs.  The Norby series by  Isaac and Janet Asimov or My Robot Buddy by Alfred Slote (HarperTrophy, c1975)  are two examples from when I grew up. One more recent example is Brother From a Box  by Evan Kuhlman (Atheneum, 2012)  but that’s the only more modern example I can come up with. . . hmmm maybe something we need to remedy. (anyone know of MG books written recently with robots?).

5.  The Mad Scientist

Outside of parody and humor the mad scientist plot is really and truly a pet peeve of mine.  Mary Shelley  and Robert Louis Stevenson both gave us versions of the mad scientist.  Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein wanted to play at being a god (which is probably never a good idea) and create life.  Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll was researching the darker sides of human nature.  One created a monster, and one became a monster . . . both captured the public mind  and the trope of the mad scientist sparked into being.  In any tale of invention, there is the temptation to create a “mad” scientist or evil arch villain style scientist (usually considered mad).  In humor this plays delightfully well, in stories such as Geeks, Girls and Secret Identities by Mike Jung (Scholastic, 2012) .

Yes! Yes! I’ve done it! I’ve created a formula that will turn puppy dogs blue! BWaahahahaha!

Now, I’ve nothing against the passionate scientist, or the kooky scientist, or even the evil scientist.  But really are most of them going to work in Gothic castles complete with chains and unhygenic laboratories?  Some of the creepiest and most evil scientists are those working in coldly clinical facilities performing impersonal tests and believe they are working towards the greater good.  In House of Stairs by William Sleator (Puffin, c1974), the children are the subject of an experiment by a whole group of scientists who completely ignore the ethics of what they’re doing.   If we’re going to promote science among young people, we also want to portray scientists who are positive role models,and not simply as over the top villains.   In one of the best books this year, The Water Castle by Megan Frazer Blakemore (Walker, 2013) , the scientific pursuits may seem odd, but the characters are down to earth and earnest in their research.  They desire meaningful discovery and are conscious of the impact their discoveries may have on humankind.  The path to scientific pursuit does not have to be paved with madness, nor a preference for wild hair and maniacal laughter.

I’ve no problem with painting the occasional scientist as the antagonist or bad guy, but lets try to give them an image makeover. Unless you’re writing humor, then rustle up your Igors and polish up the test tubes to your heart’s desire!

YESS!!!!

So, here’s just a handful of peeves I happen to have–you may or may not share them.  What are your pet peeves in science fiction?  Comments welcome!

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About Stephanie Whelan

I'm a children's librarian with a life-long love of all things science fiction and fantasy.

Posted on September 2, 2013, in General Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Since my sci-fi movie preferences accept both the top and bottom end of quality, my pet peeve is all the ones in the middle. Not screamingly bad enough to amuse in “Oh no, they didn’t did they?” fashion, and not successfully innovative or well-produced enough to provide genuine delight, provoke thought or entertain via special effects. This includes 99% of every sequel to any classic, or franchise. “Westworld” good. “Futureworld” bad. “2010” was a snooze, even though half the plot centered on trying to answer your AI objections by proving HAL had behaved CORRECTLY in “2001”. All three of the second Star Wars trilogy films were a waste of time. They’re about to release a THIRD “Riddick”. Just how many damned “Supermans” must I suffer through!!?? Don’t let me go on. Shoot me now.

    Books and stories are much easier to deal with. They all have to be good. I’m bored stiff by graphic novels and YA sci-fi. Life’s short. I pick up whatever wins Hugos and Nebulas, or gets universally great reviews – for adults. Classic, core works of the genre that have stood the test of time have done so for the right reasons, including those you mentioned. I generally like Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Bradbury, Heinlein, Asimov, Dick, and Ursula LeGuin. My pet peeve would be that it’s a lot easier to find current pulp fiction about vampires from space than it is to discover authors of the caliber of those I listed.

    • Thanks for the comments! There’s no reason you have to alter personal taste for the classics of the genre. I do know that a good deal of redundancy in story lines is publishers jumping on a hot topic or trope.
      Speaking from the area of children’s books, the popularity of Harry Potter spawned an entire truckload of kids wizards, most of them simply copying the formula. I tend to prefer Diane Duane, Diana Wynne Jones and Eva Ibbotson when it comes to young witches and wizards.

      I do think the authors are out there to be found, but there is a lot being published and it can take some effort to find things that meet your standards in the huge number of titles out there.

  2. Great post, but I still love Star Trek. 🙂

    Recent robot stories for middle grade include Celia’s Robot by Chang, Eager by Fox, and A Boy and His Robot by Wilson. Eager, in particular, is thought provoking. I love the renewed interest in middle grade and YA science fiction.

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