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Entry updated 22 December 2020. Tagged: Theme.


Sf clichés have developed, perhaps, partly out of a need for identification of stories as genuine sf – readers know where they are with a time-space warp – but mainly out of the lazy and parsimonious recycling of ideas at every level. The most obvious are cliché gadgets (Blaster, Android, Hyperspace drive, Cyborg, Time Machine, brain suspended in aquarium [see Brain in a Box], Force Field, Food Pills, Antigravity shield, translating machine [see Universal Translator], judiciary Computer, Lie Detector), but major sf cliché themes are also old friends (daring conquest of the Galaxy; Scientist goes too far; witch-hunt for Telepaths; Post-Holocaust barbarism; triumph of Yankee knowhow [see Edisonade]). A list of sf cliché characters might begin with Mad Scientists (from the merely hubristic Frankenstein to the deranged Dr Strangelove), though Scientists may also be either young, muscular and idealistic or else elderly, absent-minded and eccentric.

Cliché Women in SF normally have no character above the neck (see Sex). Some are sexy and helpless (often lab assistants or daughters of elderly scientists, rescued from danger by young scientists), break into hysterical laughter and need a slap, faint during critical fight scenes, and twist their fragile ankles during the flight through the jungle. Others are sexy and threatening (Amazon Queens from She to Wonder Woman) or sexy but ignorant tomboys (as in Forbidden Planet). Since the rise of Feminism, however, women are less commonly weak ("She flexed her mighty thews"); Joanna Russ hilariously caricatures both sides of fictional sex-wars in "The Clichés from Outer Space" (1984 Women's Studies International Forum vol 7 #2). Cliché Children in SF are hardly more variable: some are Mutant geniuses, possess magical or Psi Powers, or prove mankind's only link with alien invaders by virtue of their innocence. With "The Small Assassin" (November 1946 Dime Mystery), Ray Bradbury began a new line of sf cliché kids who, after menacing mankind in many of his stories, turned up to menace again in John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos (1957; rev 1958; vt Village of the Damned 1960) and in the film It's Alive (1974).

Sf cliché Machine characters must be comic (in many Isaac Asimov stories), horrifying (from the Golem to the Daleks) or sometimes both (from Nathaniel Hawthorne's dancing partner in "The Artist of the Beautiful" [June 1844 United States Magazine and Democratic Review] to HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey [1968]); they are seldom allowed as much thought or emotion as even BEMS or other minatory extraterrestrials. Among Monsters, giantism (see Great and Small), dwarfism (see Little Green Men), scales, hair, slime, claws and tentacles prevail. H G Wells first used octopuses in "The Sea-Raiders" (6 December 1896 The Weekly Sun Literary Supplement); other writers kept the loathsome tentacles waving for half a century, up to and beyond It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955). Wells's essay "The Man of the Year Million" (6 November 1893 Pall Mall Budget) gave us the super-evolved future human with vast brain and shrunken body: his numerous fictional descendants include Dan Dare's implacable Venusian foe the Mekon, who is also a Little Green Man, and the titular Villain of Megamind (2010).

Sf cliché plots and plot devices are so numerous that any list must be incomplete. We have the feeble old nightwatchman left to guard the smouldering meteorite crater overnight ("I'll be all right, yessirree"); the doomed society of lotus-eaters; civilization's future depending upon the outcome of a Chess game, the answer to a riddle, or the discovery of a simple formula ("a one-in-a-million chance, but so crazy it just might work!"); Shapeshifter Aliens ("one of us aboard this ship is not human"); invincible aliens ("the billion-megaton blast had no more effect than the bite of a Sirian flea"), an actual example from L Ron Hubbard's Battlefield Earth (1982) being "Here was a mark where an atomic bomb had hit it."; Alien invaders finally stopped by ordinary water (as in films of both The Day of the Triffids [1963] and The Wizard of Oz [1939]), salt, etc; the Android spouse who cuts a finger and bleeds machine-oil; the spouse possessed or Hypnotized by aliens ("Darling, you've been acting so strangely since your trip to Ganymede"); the disguised alien sniffed out by "his" pet dog, who never acted this way before; destruction of giant Computer brain by a simple Paradox ("When is a door not a door?"); Robot rebellion ("Yes, 'Master'"); a Doppelganger in the corridors of time ("it was – himself!"); Montagues and Capulets living in Parallel Worlds; evil Master of the World stopping to smirk before killing hero; pauses in the action for Imaginary Science Infodumps ("Explain the neutrino frobulator once again, Professor, as though I knew nothing of it"); everyone controlled by alien mind-Rays except one man; aliens erase someone's or everyone's memory (see Memory Edit); Oedipus kills great-great-grandad (see Time Paradoxes); world is saved by instant Technology ("it may have looked like just a hunk of breadboard, a few widgets and wires – but wow!"); a Rejuvenation elixir – but at what terrible price?; thick-headed Scientist tampers unwittingly with elemental forces better left in the hands of the Deity; Immortality tempts Nature to a terrible revenge; Monster destroys its creator; Last Man in a manless or otherwise sterile world has his pick of the women – one of several adolescent wish-fulfilments skewered in Alfred Bester's "5,271,009" (March 1954 F&SF; vt "The Starcomber" in Starburst, coll 1958); dying alien race must breed with earthling models and actresses; superior aliens step in to save mankind from self-destruction (through H-bombs, Pollution, fluoridation, Decadence); Dr X's laboratory (Island, planet) goes up in flames, with or without a crowd of peasants with torches; a Lost World is destroyed at the movie's climax by volcanic eruption and/or earthquake and/or flood; Adam and Eve are experimental subjects from an alien lab (see Shaggy God Story) ...

Pulp can always be recycled.

But, then again, it is always possible to add new pulp to old, as happened in the 1980s and every decade since, when new clichés appeared while all too many of the old ones continued. They were mostly found in films, but some were in books, too: kids playing with Computers start or wage actual Wars without knowing it; Advertising appears everywhere from posters to retinas; Genetic Engineering produces warring subcultures; expanding Black Holes at the galactic centre are the legacy of wars between superbeings; kids Time-Travel into the past and invent rock'n'roll; Alien cops buddy up with Earth cops to nab alien criminals (see Crime and Punishment); unemotional teachers and Scientists turn out to be killer Androids/Robots; vast alien artefacts prove to have extensions infinite in Time and/or space or to lead somewhere else (see Big Dumb Objects; Macrostructures); future people are obsessed with 1950s rock'n'roll (Stephen King, Allen Steele); God is an AI; an alien virus or similar diabolus ex machinaPandemics being increasingly popular – turns us all into cannibalistic Zombies; transplant Technology leads to sex orgies (severed heads have cunnilingus, penis grafts increase libido). An old cliché that returns more regularly than Halley's Comet, but especially at around the same time, has gigantic objects in space impacting or very nearly impacting Earth. Two promising late twentieth-century clichés that could not have been predicted are spacefaring trees (Stephen Baxter, Larry Niven, Dan Simmons) and romantic poets such as Keats, Byron and Shelley meeting either separately or together with Monsters, AIs and so on (Brian W Aldiss, William Gibson, Tim Powers, Dan Simmons and others). In the present century, the urban-fantasy proliferation of Vampires (especially the once-revisionist concept of virtuous vampires), Werewolves (ditto) and other assorted Shapeshifters has become numbing; likewise, though here often with an sf or semi-sf rationale, the shambling hordes of Zombies continue their relentless march.

But in the end – as in F Anstey's Tourmalin's Time Cheques (A Farcical Extravagance) (1891; vt The Time Bargain; or, Tourmalin's Cheque Book 1905) and rather too many other genre works from older days – it all turns out to be a dream. [JS/PN/DRL]

see also: Cosy Catastrophe; Prisons.

further reading

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