SF Tropes

“Some things man was not meant to know.”

This is one of the oldest ideas in storytelling. The earliest examples of this are straight Old Testament:

The Tower of Babel – Man tries to build tower up to heaven. Builders start speaking other languages and can’t understand each other.

Or even older:

Banishment from Paradise – Man gains the knowledge of good and evil and is forced to leave the garden of Eden.

It’s a pretty old idea in Science Fiction as well. With almost every new technology there is a story written about how it will be the downfall of mankind. Robots and AI are classic villains. Cold unthinking machines that decide humanity needs to be ruled or eliminated (see Terminator, I,Robot (movie not the book), The Matrix).

Admittedly these stories can be exciting. Early fears of genetic engineering and cloning created the classic that is Jurassic Park. Similar fears of biological weapons and engineered diseases are behind many of the modern Zombie plots. And Will Smith being chased by a bunch of crazy robots is fun even if it has nothing to do with how Asimov wrote those stories.

As pure action or as “morality tales” these kinds of stories are okay, but there is more to SciFi than rampaging menaces.

I’ve been listening to “The Complete Robot” by Isaac Asimov, a collection of his Robot stories spanning decades. The introduction to the book talks about this very idea. Asimov categorized all of the robot stories of his day into two categories:

1) Robots as menace (see “Some things man was not meant to know”)

2) Robots as pathos (sympathetic, human robots)

There were far fewer stories in the second category, and one of the first Asimov wrote “Robbie” fit in this category. Asimov did also write some in the “robots as menace” category, but what he’s most known for is a third category.

3) Robots as engineered machines

The best of Asimov’s Robot stories (and the one’s featured in I,Robot the book) are about solving the technical and logical problems of robots in practical use. By use of the “three laws” he eliminated storylines involving the robots directly harming humans, and instead pursued ideas of how robots would think and act in all kinds of situations. Some of his robots found religion (in the story “Reason”), others struggled between self preservation and following orders (“Runaround”), and still others tried to resolve both physical and emotional pain (“Liar!”). This last contained the first recorded use of the term “Robotics”, an engineering term now in use that Asimov invented.

I bring this up as an example of the ideas Science Fiction can explore, and the effects those ideas can have on modern life. Robots didn’t exist when Asimov began writing these stories, and now they do, many in uses he theorized.

Robots as menace stories are fun, but they don’t really make you think, and after a while, they are all the same. And there are ways to explore the consequences of new technologies without it being a simple matter of how that technology will turn on us. Real life is more subtle, the changes and consequences move much slower.

Those are the kind of stories I want to read, and to write.

What other SF or fiction tropes can you think of? What is something you have read recently that has really intrigued and informed you? How many of you can’t wait for Men In Black 3?

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “SF Tropes

  1. The theme of “Some things man was not meant to know” always pissed me off. I remember thinking that when I read the Jurassic Park novel. Really? We can safely walk on a heavenly object, breed tigers in captivity, eradicate smallpox from the face of the planet, map the genome, explore the Mariana Trench, eat mammoth meat, transplant human hearts, and build motors the size of viruses…but dinosaurs are crossing the line?

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