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5 tropes science fiction and fantasy should really stop using

34 Comments

These speak for themselves, I think.

1. rape as lazy characterisation
You want to show your villain is a Bad Man, so you have him rape a woman. You want your fluffy princess to become a feisty amazon, so you have someone rape her. No no no no no no no. Do not treat women like this, not even in fiction. And when Mr Fantasy Author responds, “that’s what it was like in the Middle Ages, you moron”, but also quite happily replies with “it’s a made-up fantasy land, you moron” when the accuracy of his Middle English has been questioned, then I would suggest that Mr Fantasy Author is the real moron. If you’re going to make shit up, don’t make up regressive sexist shit.

2. the lone gunman
Thousands have died, perhaps millions, and it’s all the fault of one man (it’s almost always a man). He deliberately gave the order, or pressed the button, that resulted in all those deaths. He’s a monster, and he acted in a vacuum, according to motives of his own. He’s not part of a political or religious movement, he’s not the general of a conquering army. He is the lone gunman, the lone psycho. Like the corporate executive, in a Hugo-shortlisted space opera, who hires gangsters to seal the exits of an asteroid city with a population of 1.5 million, and then subjects them to a fate worse than death by infecting them with an alien virus… just to see what will happen. If your plot depends on one person acting like an inhuman monster, you need to rethink your plot.

3. post-catastrophe man is an animal
Thirty years ago, we were waiting for them to drop the big one and then we’d all be scrabbling for survival among the radioactive ruins. Now it’s more likely that climate crash, or nation-state failure, will do for us. Either way, our current way of life will be toast. So, of course, once this happens the men will all run rampant, rape all the women, steal everything, and kill anyone they don’t like the look of. This, at least, is what fiction tells us. We will not try and rebuild our communities, we will not recognise that cooperation increases our chances of survival. It’s every man for himself, and the women are chattel. Of course, our present ruling classes want us to believe this – they need law and order to maintain their rule, so they want us to believe that without law and order we will turn into brainless animals. In Davide Longo’s The Last Man Standing, a middle-aged couple break into the protagonist’s house and steal all his food and clothing. Regressive, but relatively plausible. They also shit all over his furniture. Why? Why would anyone stealing food to survive also shit on their victim’s furniture? If you have characters in your post-apocalypse novel raping women and shitting on beds, do “select all”, followed by “delete”.

4. the tart with a heart
It’s not just that it’s a horrible cliché centuries past its sell-by date. Think what it says about your invented world. If prostitution exists, or even flourishes, then it is not an equal society. It is patriarchal. And that makes it sexist. Is the human race – one half of it, at least – doomed to be sexist until the heat death of the universe? Biological apologists are no better than creationists. Leave regressive crap like this where it belongs – in religious books.

5. artificial people are not people
Humanity finally manages to create a race of artificial human beings. And promptly enslaves them. No no no no no no no no no. If they’re human, they’re human. They will have the same rights as everyone else. We did the slavery thing centuries ago, it was wrong and we know it was wrong… so why would we do it again? This goes for AIs too. If it’s sentient, it’s not a tool. And if you should find yourself writing a sex slave character, take your manuscript and burn it. And do not write another word until you know better.

ETA: I have added “as lazy characterisation” to the first point as it was rightly pointed out to me that it originally read as though I felt rape should never appear in fiction, when it was my intention that its use as lazy shorthand characterisation should be avoided. Rape should be written about, and as a man I am not in a position to say otherwise. I apologise for any confusion, and take to heart everything written by Kari Sperring in her response here.

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34 thoughts on “5 tropes science fiction and fantasy should really stop using

  1. I think of The Wind-up Girl which manages 1, 4 and 5. Any recent popular sf novels that hits more of your points?

  2. We’ve had this conversation before, about the ‘rape trope’. Rape should certainly not be used lazily, to underline villainy or justify why a female character is strong. But it cannot and must not be banished entirely.
    Why? Because it happens to real women every day. When you say ‘this may not be written’, you help keep it closeted, you help keep it shameful, you add to the pressure women already experience not to speak or write about it in any way
    Banning it from fiction is not the answer. Rape is a reality for millions of people. Certainly, if a writer writes about rape, they should do so mindfully, carefully, without voyeurism or exploitativeness. But they need to be able to write about it, when that writing is done with thought and care and real depth of understanding.

  3. Not going to quibble with any of those really (most of them were silly the first time they were written let alone the 10 millionth), but to add a data point about poo. I’ve heard from sources who know these things that poo is not an uncommon feature of burglaries (either in the toilet or elsewhere in the house). Especially true of young or inexperienced burglars, who naturally get both pumped up on adrenaline and pretty nervous at the idea of being caught. In short, many of them can’t help it. So, in the case you’re referring to, if the middle aged couple have just newly turned to crime, it’s actually quite a decent wee character detail.

    Depends on the story of course whether you want that level of authenticity. :D

    • In the book, it feels like a deliberate act of revenge – they crap on pretty much everything, including his desk. But there’s no indication that they know who he was or what he did.

    • This is an interesting point. I too have heard that this happens a lot with burglaries, and there’s plenty of people out there who’ll do anything if it wins them some applause from their peer group.

      However, is it useful to include this in fiction? Fiction isn’t required to be realistic and accurate down to every detail, surely? It’s required to tell a story. Fiction actually has to be more plausible, rational and joined-up than real life. If a fictional character does anything the action should have meaning. Plenty of things are done, or happen in real life for no good reason at all, but that’s not good fiction.

      Colum

      • Depends on the story, Colum. If it’s a story about a young inexperienced burglar who thinks his new career will be all glamorous International Jewel thief stylee only to be given a rude reality check by the sheer heart-pounding terror of his transgression, it might be a pertinent detail. If the owner of the house had bought those new bed sheets in preparation for the speed dating evening she was planning to go to straight from work (and in the hope that she got lucky) and the man she does in fact hit it off with turns out to be the self same thief, I’d say it’s pretty much the crucial detail of the story. Wouldn’t you say?

  4. I would agree with what you said for the main characters in a story, but they can be very useful as third tier characters… because everyone recognises them and you don’t have to go into too much detail to describe them, as should be the case for third tier characters.

  5. As I hope everyone is aware, men can also be raped. So, the encounter with ‘Bubba’ in the prison shower has probably also been overdone.

    ‘Tart with a heart’ = what about male prostitutes? Again, they also exist, especially as Taiwanese ladyboys.

    Artificial people… Where do people stand on the lovebot from ‘Serenity’?

  6. The lazy rape trope is indeed very unfortunate. It’s so common I have seen male readers comment “Oh another boring rape”, desensitation to the issue due to it being used too lightly too often.

    It’s a too convenient way to add tragedy and drama without having to think up something else that requires closer characterization and interaction between the characters.

    What you say about the lone gunman is interesting. For every lone gunman there are many others who looked the other way or enabled. There is no denying that systematic oppression/violence happens. The issue of collective guilt is difficult and challenging.

    I see what you mean about humans turning into animals at first breakdown of infrastructure a silly trope, but I have to admit that I would fear for the safety of women early on in such a scenario. Partly judging what happens when infrastructure and nationstate does break down. Still, ironically, we do have some of the same crimes with an infrastructure and nationstate well in place.

    The “tart with a heart” trope has always bothered me a lot. The arguments “She’s happy being a prostitute, what’s wrong with that? Can’t women enjoy sex and get a little something for it on the side?” really do miss all the problematic issues around prostitution, trafficking and pornography. Part of why I can’t stand Firefly, which has some really crappy characterizations, both male and female.

    When it comes to artificial humans, some have presented the idea that to be human one must have the capacity for empathy. Thus, an artificual *human* being, might not want to do a Skynet and enslave all of (the rest of) humanity.

  7. On your last point Ian, isn’t the essential problem here determining exactly when an AI is sentient? i.e. a common theme explored in SF and a still open philosophical question. Right now, AI’s are our slaves but that’s okay because no one think’s their sentient. Should they ever become so, I doubt that the transition from being slaves to citizens with full human rights is going to be as smooth as you suggest.

    Perhaps it will be smooth, who knows? But I would have thought it’s certainly a legitimate scenario for consideration in SF.

    • I agree, and exploring that process would make for an interesting story. But a computer program is not a slave, it’s lines of code that behave in prescribed ways according to set functions. It’s only on gaining sentience that a program would be deemed an AI – in the true sense of the word, not as misused by the gaming industry. Unfortunately, in many sf novels, AIs are treated like nothing more than sophisticated tools. Why bother making them AIs? Why not just have computer programs?

      • I disagree about the terminology there. AI as it exists is after all about reasoning towards decisions. There is a reason there are different words for intelligence and sentience.

        However I agree with you about the trope, as it is often applied to clear cases of sentient beings. I for instance included the Wind-up girl, where biological androids or altered humans are treated by some as non-sentient. It has become a very tired metaphor for slavery.

        • Good point. The term ‘AI’ has become somewhat blurred. The normal use in SF is for an artificial sentience, but in the modern world it’s being used more and more for ‘smart’ systems.

          Everyone should level up to ‘Artificial person’.

          That said, the ‘Virtuals’ that appear in some of my stories (one in current interzone) reject AI, Virtual, Sim, or made-mind, or anything else that implies an ‘unreal’ or lesser creation. Although they’ll use terms like ‘virt’ between themselves, they insist that everyone else uses ‘Non-biological self-aware autonomous intelligence’. But that’s mostly for mischeif.

  8. I’m pretty much in complete agreement with you for once Ian. Surely, this is the first sign of the 2012 apocalypse?

    I used to be a bit of a hardliner on the rape issue myself, which I now regret somewhat because hardliners aren’t attractive people, and I take Kari’s point that it’s something that happens (happens more often than the figures show) and shouldn’t be whitewashed away.

    On the other hand, unless the work is seriously about the ways humans abuse each other, and is really looking to educate and inform, then I think it’s hard to make a case for including such things. The author should consider that there will be people among their readership who’ve been through it, and making those people relive the experience isn’t worth it unless you’re really making a genuine point.

    Also it is a poor motivating drive in fantastical worlds, what’s the point of worldbuilding and creating something fantastical, if you’re just going to fill it with the same old revenge and injustice tropes that we’ve seen so often before?

    There are some issues though with what counts, and doesn’t count, as rape. Amazon and other retailers have been characterizing BDSM erotica as rape and refusing to carry it (I bet they’re not doing that to 50 shades of gray though). I’m not sure they should do so, myself. Also I’ve had someone say to me that a decietful relationship in a story of mine was like seeing someone be raped. I hadn’t felt that way about it till they said it, but there is a question there, where do we draw the lines? Is a dishonest or abusive (but essentially consensual) relationship a form of rape? How far does one go with that?

    Still, overall it’s something that’s overused, and using it is somewhat thoughtless.

    One thing that would help in the latter regard is the day when people can check a book before buying, either on their phones, or if buying online, on the vendors website, and see a list of ‘contains…’, just like ingredients on a jar of cooking sauce. Why not?

  9. # Thousands have died, perhaps
    # millions, and it’s all the fault of
    # one man (it’s almost always a man).

    You know, I’ve read something like that recently… what was it? Set on the moon, I think it was?

    Of course if you’ve seen anything written by me, I’d make it a lone gunwoman, but I admit that’s not progress either.

    Colum

  10. Point 4, I agree that the tart with the heart is waaaaaay overdone. However, I don’t agree that prostitution is going away, I think it will still be around centuries into the future. The question is, do we need to see it? All kinds of stuff is going on everywhere all the time, but if it’s not relevant to the immediate story, then why does it need to be in there?

    I don’t know, it’s a difficult one this. I’m a little down on utopias because I think that they are the opiate of the dreaming classes, they are places for human beings to run off to and hide from what we are.

    To me there seem to be two common attitudes to human nature: 1) it’s bad, get over it. 2) it’s good, but we are dragged down by the . Once we’ve gotten rid of them, we shall all ascend into the rapture/the singularity/workers paradise.
    Point 2 is the reason why so many utopias seem to wind up inspiring bloodletting, I think.

    There’s also a lazy implication doing the rounds that we’re all “progressing” and that we’re going to inevitably “get there” in the end. I don’t believe this for one second. Climbing any kind of hill requires work, in this case work against moral entropy (and even the word ‘moral’ is tainted, which shows how the deck is stacked). Nor am I convinced that better societies grow out of scientific progress. Things can always get worse, and it’s more likely that they will than that they wont, especially if we all believe we’re gliding downhill to utopia and stop cranking.

    I’ve wandered from the point. I guess overall I’d say that all this stuff will still be with us with in the future, but whether it should be used in fiction depends on what you are trying to do or say in that fiction. If you’re writing a grim dystopia intended to scare the blue-blazes out of people and get them to act before it’s too late, then maybe you have a case (though I suspect you may be on a fool’s errand) if you’re writing a ‘Spaceman Spiff and the Galactic Federation’ space-opera, then you’ve got less case for putting really nasty stuff into the storyline, I think.

    Colum

    • There’s also a lazy implication doing the rounds that we’re all “progressing” and that we’re going to inevitably “get there” in the end. I don’t believe this for one second.

      We have been progressing – current Tory policies notwithstanding. The life of the average person now is better than it was 200 years ago. (This is not true globally, of course – but pretty much all the cases where it’s worse are the result of Western colonialism and imperialism.) But we now have recognised rights, society is more equal than it was 100 years ago (women have the vote, for example). There have been hiccups but there’s a general trend toward a more progressive society… and yet sf authors will happily populate their futures with completely regressive societies which practice slavery, rape and pillage, etc. I know why: it’s because they’re basing their galactic empire on some historical empire, and they’ve imported its value wholesale into their fiction. Conveniently ignoring as they do so that their galactic empire isn’t limited by the same technological constraints as that historical model. Too many people are writing Hornblower in space, or WWII in space, etc.

      I’d also dispute that it’s “doing the rounds” as progressive societies in sf seem to be a minority. There may be a couple of highly visible progressive examples – Trek being the one with the biggest profile – but don’t forget that in The Phantom Menace both Anakin Skywalker and his mother were slaves…

      • We have and haven’t been progressing. Some of us have, some of us haven’t, it’s not been evenly distributed, as you point out. You can’t say that all the cases where it’s worse are just down to colonialism, because colonialism came out of the same source that produced the progress we enjoy in the western world. This has been true of empires throughout history, Rome, Persia, China, wherever often saw a rise in the living standards of the ‘citizen’ at the cost of subjugation somewhere else. The same societies that gave us the enlightenment also gave us the technology for industrial warfare.

        200 years is a tiny period of time, and it’s a period in which greater human wellbeing has purchased at the cost of eating the planet wholesale. It’s entirely possible that we will keep creating new technologies that allow us to stay ahead of the problems we generate, but it’s entirely possible we won’t. If, for instance, we don’t stay ahead of drug-resistant pathogens that attack ourselves and our food sources, then human wellbeing might be in for a major knock in the near future.

        Furthermore, there’s no real reason why we can’t slip back into older models in which the rights of the common person are much diminished. Some would say this is happening now with the increasing surveillance of the common person. Technology can put more power in the hands of the masses, but another technology can take that away and allow a power elite to rule like gods over everyone else. Our rights are based on nothing but our willingness, and ability, to fight for them. They can be taken from us tomorrow.

        If we were measuring the standard of SF by ‘likeliest to become true”, then I have to say I suspect the ‘Galactic Empire’ crowd have it right. The lesson from history is not “Oh, we’ve seen an uptick in recent centuries” it’s “Dark ages are long, Republics are few, and they are mostly extinguished by Empires, either by conquest, or by an imperial power growing up within them.” Personally I’d bet on the far future looking more like the past than it does like the present, the present is undeniably something of an aberration, historically speaking.

        However, SF isn’t really about predicting the future, so one can ask, as you have, whether it’s a good thing to portray the future as ‘regressive’. Does it normalize an ugly world and desensitize us to issues? Maybe, but a similar accusation can be leveled at utopias, that they promise ‘jam tomorrow’ and make us complacent. I do think that ‘Star Trek’ served both roles, it did hold up a standard that people aspired towards, and in the times when it was broadcast it was an important symbol of how things could be. However, my parents generation were terribly complacent that ‘the future was bright’, that everything was just going to be sorted out by the inevitable march of progress, and that we’d all be working 3-day weeks with oodles of leisure time and holidays on the moon.

        There was never, as I recall, any hint in the Star Trek franchise that the ‘brighter tomorrow’ came at any cost, or had been fought for, or really even had to be maintained. It had seemingly been born out of the laboratory, and its only problems were external threats.

        It was, perhaps, unfair of me to say that the belief in inevitable progress is lazy. It is natural for people to think that, if they are in the middle of a boom, that the boom is going to run forever. But that’s what we thought about the economy in the 90s.

        # I’d also dispute that it’s “doing the rounds” as progressive
        # societies in sf seem to be a minority.

        But the thing with that is, you’ve just identified a gap in the market. So why are you even talking about it? You should be keeping stum and hoping no-one else spots it before your Galactic Utopian masterwork comes out?

  11. Oh, just read the comments on Kari’s post. Kari’s post is fine, but some of the commentators really do fly off the handle and not get where you’re coming from, I think.

    Is it the internet that does this to us? Why can we discuss nothing anymore without accusation and counter-accusation?

    My mid-year’s resolution is to stop doing this myself. From now on if I disagree with people I will try to do so without anger, I might just be misunderstanding what they are saying.

    I know I’m going to fail, but I’m going to try, that’s the point.

  12. Point 5: I totally agree with you that artificial people are still people, and should be granted rights as such (and should be given the right to be complex characters in fiction too, rather than ‘does not compute’ stereotypes). However, I disagree with your claim that we won’t enslave them. We will. We will do it because there will be money in it. We will try to ‘surf’ the edge of sentience, getting as much as we can without ‘crossing the line’. To be extra safe we’ll put preventative measures in so that if we do accidentally ‘cross the line’ the results won’t pass one of those meddlesome Turing Tests.

    The world today is full of horrors. The world tomorrow will just have new horrors, who knows, maybe a few less. Sometimes I think it is valid to include those in fiction (I think we’d both agree on this?) Sometimes I think utopias are valid as something to aim towards, but they can become a kind of visionary mogadon. In this regard I agree with Kari, you can’t take all the injustice out of fictional societies.

    I think the important thing, perhaps, is to show injustice as injustice, not just as a plot point, a means of getting a character from A to B.

    Colum

  13. # Because it happens to real women
    # every day. When you say `this may
    # not be written’, you help keep it
    # closeted, you help keep it shameful,
    # you add to the pressure women already
    # experience not to speak or write
    # about it in any way

    There is an angle here that I’d not considered. I’ve always thought that for someone who’s undergone it, encountering rape in fiction would be an entirely negative thing. However, I can see that some people might want role-model characters who survive/recover from this, and also that the inclusion of it in fiction might make people who’ve been through it feel less alone, as they see that others have it (if something like this is in fiction, then it’s because it happens in the larger world).

    However, I do think it would have to be handled very well, and with a lot of insight into the human heart. I for one would never try to do this myself.

    • Hi, Colum,
      Certainly there’s a case for writing about rape as catharsis for those who have been raped. But it goes beyond that: written about with real care and attention and thought — not in the lazy trope-y way Ian correctly identifies as unhelpful — is also a way to make others realise what rape means, what it does to its victims, how it becomes a weapon used to control, dominate and abuse women. It can become a mode of social change. This is what began to happen here in the UK, and, I believe, in the US, when Susan Brownmiller published her non-fiction book Rape. Before that, it had gone unspoken, ignored, silenced. Brownmiller made people who had never thought about rape at all before stop and see beyond the cliches, the shaming and the stereotypes about strangers. It made people look at the huge incidence of marital rape, rape by friends and relatives, rape of children — all things that Were Not Named and were often hushed up as shameful. John Galsworthy tackled marital rape some years earlier in his Forsyte Saga, and again made people think, made people realise that it takes wider social pressure to put an end to cultural norms that support and aid rapists over victims. He scandalised a lot of people, because this wasn’t something that you’re meant to talk about. But he did, because it matters.
      Used lazily, used cheaply, it’s harmful, it colludes in rape culture. Written as Galsworthy did, and as many other authors have since, it makes society face itself and can be a locus for real change.
      Clearly my point has made you think of something that you hadn’t thought about before, and I’m glad of that.

      • # Clearly my point has made you think of something that
        # you hadn?t thought about before, and I?m glad of that.

        It has, I’m reminded now of comments in “A woman in Berlin” where after the war the women of the city wanted to discuss the widespread rape that happened when the Red Army invaded, and the men didn’t want it discussed. I can now particularly see the value of narratives of surviving and going beyond rape as having a positive value, people are guided by fiction far more than we think, I believe.

        I still agree with Ian’s point though, I suspect he just stated it with too broad a brush. Most of the use of rape in genre fiction is unhelpful. The question should perhaps less be one of lecturing others than deciding what we as writers do and don’t want to do. This is more difficult than it might sound, because I’ve written stuff myself that I’ve liked, but then people have found issues in it that I hadn’t thought of. The question then is, should I change it, drop it, or let it stand? If one isn’t careful one can wind up unable to write for fear of what might appear on one’s screen (pretty much at that point myself right now to be honest. I’ve internalized too much criticism, but that’s off the point).

        Anyways, thanks to both you and Ian for posting these, they’ve got some discussion going, and even if that’s gotten rather heated in places, I think the overall result is positive.

  14. # For every lone gunman there are
    # many others who looked the other
    # way or enabled. There is no denying
    # that systematic oppression/violence
    # happens. The issue of collective
    # guilt is difficult and challenging.

    Hiya Berit,

    good point. We have met the enemy and they is us. Most things happen because everyone goes along with them, to be fair most of the time we can’t do much else, but the popular claim that it’s all the fault of one person or group is a dangerous one on many levels.

    Colum

  15. The suckiest thing about tropes is that they’re artificial, as well you know. The thing is, good authors don’t make anything with artifice. Fiction isn’t fake. It’s the deepest elements of spirit woken via our imaginations. You can have a lone gunman cat-rapist Martian with a Hitler moustache who wants to conquer Earth and looks like Arnold Swarchzeneegherer (sp?), apart from the moustache, and, provided it’s done well enough, provided the reader is made to care and feel, it’s a strong story. Archetypes once were human, and a good author breathes life into fiction. Plastic thus becomes flesh, blank tropes given spirit, and the rankest ham of any genre can “Oink!” once more. ;)

  16. I agreed with all, but with number one you had me nodded until you said “Do not treat women like this, not even in fiction.”. I have to disagree that ethics have anything to do with good story telling. That’s like saying not to depict a character losing a limb in combat, or being executed, because you wouldn’t do that in real life – certainly not fiction.

    I think the problem is not in the material in the fiction, but the author. I’ve read some books that have dealt with sexism, racism, violence and other moral issues: without having to stick to the PC route; or appease a certain group of readers.

    Fiction should be about telling a good story, and invoking emotions. As an example, a modern reader might be outraged at a “mage society” that enslaves “non-magic” people because they see them as nothing more than animals and weak. This is a good thing. It brings forward issues that some cannot relate to and educates them: whilst also immersing themselves in that world. Just because it is similar to recent history, doesn’t mean that is should be avoided.

    In that same way, a scene of rape should not simply be avoided. If it has an impact on the story and characters, then that’s fine. The problem is “How much to show” which is my constant gripe with modern horror films. Showing less, is more effective than the “gory details”. Most people who read fiction are capable of imagining dark moments in a story without the author pushing their face into it.

    So yes, I agree with number 1 by it’s title: not by your explanation of it. There’s a difference between avoiding a trope for cliche reasons, and censorship because of the content of the trope.

    • I agreed with all, but with number one you had me nodded until you said “Do not treat women like this, not even in fiction.”. I have to disagree that ethics have anything to do with good story telling. That’s like saying not to depict a character losing a limb in combat, or being executed, because you wouldn’t do that in real life – certainly not fiction.

      You should read this: http://sophiamcdougall.com/2013/03/13/the-rape-of-james-bond/ And then think again about how women are routinely treated in genre fiction by male writers.

      without having to stick to the PC route

      I have no idea what you mean by this.

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