YA Common Clichés series: YA Science Fiction

| Wednesday, December 14, 2011
Today's Tune: Run The Heart

Sooooooooooo it's been a while since I've created a post for this series. Let me remedy that!

One of the best bits of advice you will hear as a writer is to read, and to read a lot. Particularly within your genre to familiarize yourself with its tropes, clichés, and what's currently selling/being published. So, I read a lot of young adult literature, which is kind of its own beast. It's a specific genre, but within that genre are any number of subjects. I'm hoping to break them down and highlight some of the more common clichés (read: stuff that is so overdone it's boring and predictable) within each area.

The goal with this series is not to ridicule, but to inform and inspire a break from the usual in today's literature. Also, clichés do not automatically make a manuscript or novel junk. If used sparingly and mindfully, they can work.

Subject #5: YA Science Fiction

Science Fiction YA is on the rise! And so are its clichés. There are still certain stigmas around sci-fi, and those unfamiliar with the genre may find themselves gravitating towards certain tropes that they think are really clever and original, but are actually extremely commonplace to those in the know. So let's get started, shall we?

Aliens and Outer Space. This is the first thing that comes to mind for a lot of people when they think of science fiction. Space Operas. Doctor Who. Star Trek. Star Wars. Stargate. Starlotsofstuff. And there's nothing wrong with that! Stories set in galaxies far, far away are popular for a reason: they remind us of the newness of discovery, the great big universe outside ourselves, and stakes that are literally bigger than Planet Earth. However, a lot of newer SF writers don't even consider the broad range of science fiction that exists closer to home. Robotics! The Matrix! Genetic engineering! War simulation! If you equate SF with aliens only, look a little deeper.

The Future. A great deal of science fiction takes place in the future for obvious reasons: a lot of the science we think up hasn't been invented yet. Fair enough. But there's a lot of fun to be had in historical and present-day science fiction, as well. Even if your story is set in the future, you can still play with it. Think Firefly -- a futuristic society flavored with old-school Westerns.

Artificial Intelligence is Evil and will Kill Us All. Yeah. Everyone's scared of robots. We get it. But there is so much more philosophy about humanity and life to be explored here!

Fancy techno-gadgets. Some of these will likely be unavoidable, especially if your story is set in a futuristic society where there's, you know, futuristic technology. But sometimes writers get caught up in the cutesy technobabble and just like to throw out gadget names willy-nilly without the gadget actually adding to the atmosphere or the plot in a functional way. It's also sort of off-putting when everyone talks completely normally except for the forced techno-slang.

Morality, religion, and culture haven't changed in 1000 years. Sometimes writers forget that society shifts over time. We don't hold close to the same ideals and societal structures that our ancestors did 1000 years ago. Why are your futuristic characters still acting like 21st century teenagers? You don't have to go completely off the deep end, but some world-building and consideration of how society has changed is in order. You can even revert to an early set of ideals if it makes sense for your story.

Deux Ex Machina-style knowledge bombs. Some really heavy-level shit is going down. Something's about to explode. An airlock is about to open. The world's about to be destroyed by an asteroid. Whatever. Everything looks bleak. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a character (usually the main character) realizes they had the knowledge needed to avert disaster the whole time. Amnesia. It was hidden in their brain by SCIENCE. They have a computer chip in their neck. He was THE ONE all along. Something. POOF. Knowledge granted, crisis averted. This is a tension-destroyer and a letdown. Beware.

The bad guys are mutated, alien, malformed, or otherwise gross. DANGER, WILL ROBINSON. This trope strays dangerously close to (or outright embraces) the notion that Good = human/perfect/abled/racially ideal and Bad = abnormal/unattractive/racially diverse. Be so, so careful with this.

Alien species are almost always bipedal humanoid, with the exception of the occasional cute fuzzy breed. Why's everyone in the universe gotta look like you, huh? Extra bonus points if the opposite-sex alien the protagonist meets is "even more beautiful than a human."

An alien species, the government, or a mutated race take over human bodies and use them as hosts/vehicles. One of the many forms of mind control often seen in science fiction.

Crippling plagues. Something is introduced that could (or does) essentially wipe out humanity as we know it. Bonus points if the protagonist has super special impervious DNA and the Powers That Be want to experiment on them for a cure.

Evil Scientist is toying with Very Bad Science that he should not be messing with. Chaos ensues. There's always some evil guy who wants to try his hand at this illegal or morally reprehensible science. There's little gray area here -- whatever the guy is doing, it's always viewed as bad. Why not turn this one on its head and show the positive side?

Most science fiction heroes are male. If there's a female, she's "breathtakingly beautiful," old/unattractive (and thus evil), or a pure Action Girl. This dynamic is shifting with YA, since YA is largely geared toward female audiences and written by women. Still, this is a trope to be wary of.

I see white people. So many white people. Futuristic societies are often largely Western-culture based, often American specifically. The majority of the cast is white, with perhaps a few signature minority members or alien sidekicks. Having white cast members in and of itself is not a bad thing. It's when every important character, powerful character, or good character is white that it becomes an issue. Futuristic societies would likely be a lot more diverse than your typical white-bread American town.

The main character is a super genius. Like, a SUPER DUPER genius. Mega smart. The smartest. Everything comes quickly and easily to them, and everyone wants them to be the center of their secret government organization or rebel movement. Maybe they're even the youngest captain of a starship EVER. Be mindful of not making things too easy for your protagonist, whether it's through super powers or super smarts.

What other clichés have you come across in YA science fiction?


{ Sean Wills } at: December 14, 2011 at 6:32 AM said...

Why are your futuristic characters still acting like 21st century teenagers?

THANK YOU. This has been annoying me for years. I get that people want their YA protagonists to be relatable, but there's no reason at all why a teenager in living in the year 2100 should have values exactly like those of an American teenager living in year 2011. (Bonus points if they also attend a school that could easily have been brought to their century via a timewarp.)

{ K.T. Hanna } at: December 14, 2011 at 6:44 AM said...

I think one of my least favourites is the perfectly capable of defending themselves, standing up for themselves and surviving insurmountable odds character - who can't pick between two boys/girls, or who doesn't think a boy/girl could possibly like them. *rolls eyes*

This is in more YA fiction than I like to admit.

Great list though - and sadly very true.

{ Lori M. Lee } at: December 14, 2011 at 6:56 AM said...

Fantastic post. Lots of great things to think about, and I'm totally keeping this list for when I tackle my SF project lol.

{ Emily White } at: December 14, 2011 at 7:12 AM said...

“I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words. When I was a boy, we were taught to be discrete and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise and impatient of restraint.” ~Hesiod, 700bc

I think there's something to be said for people being exactly the same and experiencing the same underlying issues 1000 years ago and 1000 years hence.

{ Emily White } at: December 14, 2011 at 7:13 AM said...

But I totally agree with your other points! Especially the bad people being ugly trope. I get tired of that one.

{ Emy Shin } at: December 14, 2011 at 7:32 AM said...

*bookmarks this post*

As I'm writing a YA Science Fiction, I am trying to be mindful of skirting the worn tropes. I know for sure that I'm commiting the last cliche (smart protagonist) already -- but I'm determined not to make things easy for her. Considering the evil guy is smarter than she is, hopefully this won't be a problem.

(Though I hope you'll lay it on me if you see any of these in my MS when reading! :))

{ We Heart YA } at: December 14, 2011 at 8:53 AM said...

Great post! We can't think of what exactly to add to the list, but we do think that Battlestar Galactica and Firefly are great television examples of scifi done well. (Although there are a LOT of white people in both series...) We'd love to see YA book versions of series like those.

{ Carol Riggs } at: December 14, 2011 at 1:45 PM said...

Super post, Steph! You make some great points (and growl, I may be guilty of one or 2 of these in my WIP, haha). Good job. :)

{ TL Conway } at: December 15, 2011 at 11:07 AM said...

These are SPOT ON, Steph--thank you!

I will be bookmarking and coming back to this post a lot in the coming months. Probably more than I'd like to admit...

{ Jae Worth } at: June 4, 2012 at 1:57 PM said...

All good points! As I write YA Science Fiction, I'm alwasy glad to know what those who read the genre think of it.

In my book MIND MODS, in which teachers try to create the perfect student by using mond-controlling nanobots, I tried very hard not to incorporate a lot of useless gadgets. It was harder than you might think - since I love a good gadget, fictonal or otherwise. :)

{ linda } at: December 19, 2012 at 7:28 PM said...

Great post! One thing that makes me particularly sad in YA scifi is the Evil Scientist trope. I get it, scientific breakthroughs can lead to unintended consequences that may indeed be very problematic, but I feel like so many YA scifi novels have this overwhelming theme of "Science will eventually ruin humanity! It's dangerous to mess with things too much! Natural is best! All crisis would've been averted if those pesky scientist hadn't gone poking their noses in things beyond their understanding!" (but to different degrees, of course). I know Science Gone Wrong can make for good conflict/worldbuilding, but I'm tired of constantly reading cautionary tales about the Dangers of Science -- it'd be nice if scientific breakthroughs are portrayed more positively for once!

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