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Fantastic (Sci-Fi) Tropes...

and where to find them...

Tropes: It’s the end of the world as we know it. And I feel fine.

If you've never heard the title's song, here you go. 

Until now we have mostly discussed the tropes using fantasy examples, though there are other examples for every trope we have done in science fiction as well. Today I would like to talk about the trope of the apocalypse. It has come and gone, and the book takes place in the world that rises after. This common theme has one foot planted firmly in science fiction and one in fantasy.

Popular examples of post-apocalyptic literature include novels like The Road by Cormac McCarthy, The Stand by Stephen King, The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. In film and television, titles like Mad Max, The Walking Dead, The Book of Eli, and The Road Warrior, also depict variations of the post-apocalyptic world.

McCarthy's The Road

Let’s discuss some of the realistic problems that occur in post-apocalyptic novels and stories, that are to me, very out of place.

Scavenging for Supplies: While realistic to some extent, the constant focus on scavenging for basic necessities like food, water, and ammunition can become repetitive and predictable. The core issue for me here is timing. If you have not set your story very close to the end of the world, there is no reason to scavenge for old world supplies. Food will go bad, and even gasoline goes stale within a year or so. Society has to move on past the loss, the story should too.

Faction Warfare: Post-apocalyptic societies are often divided into factions or tribes constantly at war with each other, which can feel simplistic and lacking in nuance. It is completely reasonable that people will have factions that want to survive. We would likely return to tribalism after a fashion with smaller groups fighting one another for survival purposes. Again, at least at first. After time has passed and how we will survive as a species has been determined we don’t really need to have the same level of conflict. Prehistoric societies went to war of course but not constantly, and not usually for straight survival reasons. Give your factions real reasons to fight each other, and real motivations to make them feel more real.

Barren Wastelands: While a staple of the genre, overly desolate and homogeneous landscapes can become monotonous and fail to explore the diversity of post-apocalyptic settings. Unless there is a reason to make everything desolate, like a nuclear war, places like the United States mid-west would revert to beautiful prairie lands. The coasts would return to great swaths of forest. Ocean life would rebound. There would be a great beauty in much of the world as it grows around out left behind structures. Go visit and go see some of the abandoned places of the world and you will find a kind of liminal beauty to the spaces without us. I think the barren wasteland is rarely a good fit.

Hopeless Pessimism: Some post-apocalyptic stories lean too heavily into bleakness and despair without offering any sense of hope or redemption, which can be emotionally exhausting for the audience. This depends again a great deal on when in the apocalypse you have set your piece, but if you have surpassed the first few years, and there are people having families again, surviving again, returning to the land and giving birth to the next generation, there is bound to be hope. That can be the adventure. What is it that they will found? What could stop that hope?

Raiders and Bandits: Generic villainous groups who roam the post-apocalyptic landscape, often characterized by brutality and lack of depth. I blame video games for this one. The low-level bandit is the quintessential bad guy when you don’t know what else to do. However, after the world has settled into the post-apocalyptic state, people want to settle down with it. They want community and a life and sense of place. Even the violent road warriors. They would need to be more than just “smash and grab.” To give back meaning to your bandits give them a reason, and perhaps lean into the other tropes we have talked about of relatable villains.

 

Now I must admit like many, I love a good post apocalypse story. I think it stems from the fact that in our minds, we survive the end of things. Bad news, you and I probably wouldn’t. But here are some very enjoyable sides of writing and reading in the end of the world:

Exploration of Human Resilience: Post-apocalyptic literature often explores the resilience and adaptability of the human spirit in the face of extreme adversity. Characters are forced to confront their deepest fears, make difficult decisions, and tap into their inner strength to survive in harsh and unforgiving environments. This exploration of resilience can be inspiring and thought-provoking for readers, reminding them of the capacity for hope and courage even in the darkest of times.

 

Reflection on Societal Issues: Post-apocalyptic narratives provide a platform for exploring complex societal issues such as environmental degradation, political corruption, technological advancements, and the consequences of human actions. By depicting the collapse of civilization, these stories prompt readers to reflect on the fragility of societal structures and the importance of addressing pressing global challenges. This reflection can foster greater awareness and empathy among readers, sparking conversations and inspiring change.

 

Reimagining of the World: Post-apocalyptic literature allows you to imagine radically different worlds shaped by cataclysmic events. These imagined landscapes can be both terrifying and fascinating, offering readers a glimpse into alternative realities and speculative futures. Through vivid descriptions and creative world-building, you transport readers to dystopian landscapes filled with danger, mystery, and adventure. This reimagining of the world stimulates the imagination and encourages readers to consider the potential consequences of current actions and decisions.

 

Exploration of Moral Dilemmas: Post-apocalyptic literature often presents characters with challenging moral dilemmas where there are no easy answers. It’s a choice of bad or worse. Survivors must grapple with issues of morality, ethics, and justice as they navigate the complexities of their new reality. These moral dilemmas force readers to confront difficult questions about human nature, morality, and the meaning of existence. By engaging with these complex ethical quandaries, readers are encouraged to critically examine their own beliefs and values, fostering intellectual growth and empathy.

 

However you go about it, if you have interest in writing about the end of the world and all that comes after, give it a chance. Keep some of these goods and bad in mind, and always remember: Writers write.

Time Travel Tropes. Time Travel Tropes. Time Travel Tropes.

(Get it? Stuck in a loop?...)

Time travel is a staple of many science fiction stories and rears its head though less frequently in fantasy as well. Today I want to talk about this writing mechanic and a few of its problems, frequently used components and how to do it well.

There are no shortages of amazing time travel books.

  • The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger

  • The End of Eternity, by Isaac Asimov

  • The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells

  • 11/22/63, by Stephen King

 

It’s a well used plot device with a lot going for it, but there are huge stumbling blocks too. The first two issue is want to jump right into are straight forward:

  1. Paradoxes and Logical Inconsistencies: Time travel stories can easily fall into the trap of creating paradoxes or logical inconsistencies that strain the audience's suspension of disbelief. As writers we must carefully construct narratives to ensure that the rules of time travel remain consistent and plausible within the story's universe. The reason this is hard is because we have no examples to go by! We have never time traveled backwards in time, or forward in big jumps. (Time naturally passing excluded of course!)

  2. Complexity and Confusion: Time travel plots can quickly become convoluted and difficult to follow, especially when dealing with multiple timelines, alternate realities, or paradoxes. Keeping track of the various timelines and their interconnected events can be challenging for both writers and readers/viewers.

  3. Lack of Stakes or Tension: In stories where time travel allows characters to undo mistakes or alter events at will, the sense of stakes and tension can be diminished. If there are no meaningful consequences to the characters' actions, the story may lack emotional impact and dramatic tension. It becomes very hard to increase the plot tension through the novel.

 

Some solutions to the first two items are the same. Write your rules, keep them close at hand when you write and refer to them often. Take your time before you start your actual writing. I strongly recommend an outline in the case of a time travel book, with threads clearly laid out so that you can follow them unequivocally. Hammer on those rules and make sure at each twist, that you have not broken another rule by accident. You might find you need to write down more specific rules, or slightly different rules to achieve the world you want.

Lack of stakes is addressed differently. Like all superheroes or high magic problems where the answer is “because magic,” to avoid “Because time travel,” put limitations on the time travel. Make them rather extreme. In fact, the more extreme the better. They can still travel through time, and that makes them an unbelievably powerful person, but the more difficult it is to do, the more creative your characters need to be to use this amazing skill to solve real problems without the easy snap of a finger. It will make them and the tale more interesting.

Remember the genre is well trodden. Some of the biggest examples of time travel stories can be lumped into just four buckets.

1) The Grandfather Paradox: This classic trope involves a time traveler going back in time and inadvertently changing something that prevents their own existence, such as preventing their grandparents from meeting. This creates a paradox - if they were never born, how could they go back in time to prevent their own birth? I would advise against this one entirely. This has been done to death as has most of the ways out of it.

2) Butterfly Effect: Inspired by chaos theory, this trope suggests that even small changes in the past can have significant and unpredictable effects on the present and future. A time traveler might make seemingly innocuous alterations to the past, only to return to a drastically different present. This I believe is one of the standard tropes which still has a lot of mileage left in it to explore but be aware it has been done.  

3) Fixed Timeline vs. Mutable Timeline: In some stories, the timeline is immutable, meaning that events in the past cannot be changed and any attempt to do so is futile or leads to predetermined outcomes. In others, the timeline is mutable, allowing characters to alter the past and create new timelines or alternate realities. You will have to decide in your rules which you are dealing with, and then which you will tell the reader they are looking at. Sometimes writers fib too! They make it look like time is mutable, but then the book fulfills the old axiom, that we often meet our fate on the road we take to avoid it.

4) The Time Loop: This trope involves characters being trapped in a repeating cycle of events, often unaware that they are reliving the same period of time over and over again. Groundhog Day is a famous example of this trope. This is also well used ground and hard to do well. Remember that the investment here must be in the character development and how they grow through the loops to avoid boredom.

 

Whatever you choose to do, always remember that writers write, so go get writing.

Tropes: Dystopia

The trope of dystopia is a fascinating and often chilling exploration of imagined societies characterized by oppression, suffering, and societal decay. Dystopian narratives typically serve as cautionary tales, warning against the potential consequences of unchecked power, technological advancement, or societal trends.

Here is my personal problem with it. Too many people think we already live in one, and we don’t. We really, really don’t. A well written dystopian fantasy or science fiction can teach us about how to avoid them, but I have felt with all of them that I have read of late, they are instead something more of a “We are already here and I want to complain about it.” Dystopian fiction has to be more than this.

I think most dystopian fiction falls into five categories:

Totalitarian Control: Dystopian societies are often ruled by authoritarian regimes or oppressive governments that maintain control through surveillance, propaganda, and suppression of dissent. Citizens may have limited freedoms and be subject to strict regulations enforced by a powerful elite. This is North Korea. In many cases people are so controlled they don’t even know how bad it is, or what reality anywhere else is like.

Social Stratification: In many dystopias, there is a stark divide between the privileged few and the oppressed masses. Social classes are often rigidly defined, with inequality and injustice built into the fabric of society. The wealthy and powerful live in luxury while the majority struggle to survive. Even if you have an eighth or a sixteenth of the wrong background, you will have no privileges.  There is no social mobility for a group or groups in the society.

Technological Domination: Technology is frequently a central theme in dystopian narratives, often portrayed as both a tool of control and a force for societal disruption. Advances in technology may lead to increased surveillance, loss of privacy, or even the dehumanization of individuals. This is not usually a stand-alone item but it typically merged with one of the two above items as the tool by which the ruling elite maintain the control. I have seen a handful of books where the technology is its own end and serves it own negative cycle, usually for reasons lost to history.

Environmental Decline: Dystopian worlds often suffer from environmental degradation, whether due to pollution, climate change, or resource depletion. This degradation may exacerbate social inequalities and lead to widespread suffering as resources become scarce. This one is one I personally will no longer deliberately read. Our news is filled with enough of the doom and gloom already, whether true or not, that I don’t personally feel the need to continue it in my own reading. That is something any author of this kind of dystopia will have to contend with. Are you trying to out gloom reality? Offer hope? You would be hard pressed to offer a true cautionary tale at this point, so this is a hard sell for me.

Loss of Individuality: Dystopian societies often suppress individuality and creativity in favor of conformity and obedience. Citizens may be indoctrinated from a young age to adhere to strict societal norms, and deviation from these norms may be met with punishment or social ostracism. I think this is one where there is a very good opportunity for stories of the conflict of self versus society, where there does not need to be a single antagonist, only a system everyone has bought into.  

 

I think the genre has the potential for four major failure points:

Societal Desensitization: With the proliferation of dystopian narratives in popular culture, there's a risk of desensitization to the themes of oppression, violence, and suffering portrayed in these stories. This can undermine the impact of dystopian fiction as a vehicle for social critique and reflection, especially when the problems selected hit to close to reality and are not able to be taken as art, but instead characters become spokespeople for a cause of the author. Literature must be more than this.

Escapism vs. Engagement: While dystopian fiction can serve as a powerful tool for engaging with pressing societal issues, it can also become a form of escapism, offering audiences a thrilling but ultimately superficial distraction from real-world problems. This can lead to a passive consumption of dystopian narratives rather than active reflection and engagement with the underlying themes. In other words, people won’t go fix the real problems if your narrative doesn’t offer them a real way to go do something. As authors we must be socially responsible for what we write. Including this next one:

Failure to Offer Solutions: Some dystopian narratives focus primarily on depicting the problems of society without offering meaningful solutions or avenues for change. While highlighting societal issues is important, it's equally crucial to explore potential paths toward a better future and inspire hope for positive change.

Potential for Misinterpretation: Dystopian fiction, particularly when consumed by younger audiences, runs the risk of being misinterpreted as a glorification of violence, rebellion, or authoritarianism. It's important for creators to provide context and critical commentary to ensure that audiences understand the intended message of the narrative. Be sure your medicine isn’t worse than your disease.

 

The most important part of this or any other genre however is… keep on writing.  

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