Science Fiction Backgrounds

To keep things plausible, you may want to take a couple of months and peruse the TV Tropes list of "So You Want To Write A..." links and examine the ones relevant to your science fiction novel/game. Such as:


For science fiction authors and game designers who need a quick plausible scientific non-obvious background to inspire their next novel, there are one or two in this website. Here is a list of links that will send you directly to them.

Assorted ways your continent, planet, solar system, galaxy, or entire universe could be destroyed.
Assorted Station cultures
Interesting situations and circumstances for various space stations
Asteroid Belt Athens
How a series of asteroid colonies can spark a Renaissance.
Asteroid Mining
Notes about the hard life of meteor miners
Asteroid Mining Crew Transport
An exquisite fusion drive transport from a 1981 Boeing study commissioned by NASA. Along with the schedule to service a 5,000 person Ceres mining coloy.
Asteroid Revolutionary War
What happens when King George of Terra clashes with the George Washington of the asteroid belt?
Interstellar colonists are going to need a building material that is a renewable resource. Let me tell you about the miracle of Bamboo!
Battle For 16 Psyche
Rival asteroid-mining megacorporations will be doing battle to win the mother-load of asteroid Psyche
Opportunistic space stations that sort of form by accretion.
Bussard's War
Space combat is one thing, but it doesn't get more hard-core scientific than combat between Bussard Ramjets.
Cape Dread
How a colony on the Martian moon Deimos can become the propellant supplier to the entire solar system
Corporate Technological Disruption
Any technological development that threatens the profits (or existence) of a megacorporation will be ruthlesslessly suppressed by said corporation. Which will make hot times for the poor people developing said technology.
Customs Police In Space
Around crowded space stations the Customs Police have to inspect ships for contraband and do safety inspections to certify the ships. Which puts them at direct cross-purposes with the ship owners. Hilarity will ensue.
Cyclical History
Or the rise and fall of the Galactic empire. Its been done to death but it never gets old.
Elemental Bottleneck
How Terra's monopoly on phosphorus delayed the Martian Revolutionary War. And the situation becomes grim as Mars Colony covertly tries to find alternate sources of phosphorus, while a panicky TerraGov does their level best to suppress this. Which science fiction authors would find to be a nice juicy explosive situation full of dramatic possibilities.
Empires and Energy
How an energy crisis leads to a galactic empire crisis
Fabulous Locations
It always helps to set the story at a cinematically spectacular planet or location
Flyaway Engine
Atomic rocket engines that automatically detach and go park in orbits to remove the radioactivity. What could possibly go wrong?
Hanjin Shipping
The abrupt bankruptcy of a shipping line results in a very entertaining situation
Interstellar Communication Monopoly
The Empire/Megacorporation has a monopoly on faster than light radio, and will go to great lengths to keep it that way
Interstellar Communication Relay Station
Applying Victorian semaphore telegraph towers to outer space
Interstellar Piracy
Notes about the wild world of deep space pirates
Interstellar Privateers
Notes about the wild world of deep space privateers
Interstellar Smuggling
Notes about the wild world of deep space smugglers
Interstellar Trading
Notes about the wild world of deep space traders
Lady Space Taxi
Victorian suffragettes were liberated by bicycles, oppressed female space colonists may be liberated by space taxis.
Laser Guard
Commercial laser power stations can rent laser time to laser thermal rockets. But the military will not be happy about warship-destroying laser in civilian hands. So they might just nationalize them.
Life Support Algae Dangers
The algae which is a vital part of a spacecraft's closed ecological life support system might mutate and produce deadly toxins. And genetically engineered safe algae might be guarded with draconian patent-protection lawsuits like a futuristic Monsanto.
The homeless problem on space stations
Mos Eisley Space Station
Notes about how a station or part of one can be come a great hive of scum and villainy.
Mutually Deadly Biochemistries
Certain biochemistries are mutually deadly. Human biochemistries use lots of hydrogen-sulfur bonds. If an alien biochemistry used nitrogen–sulfur bonds, we might actually dissolve each other.
Orbital Ghost Town
A boom-town that springs up around an orbital propellant depot is jsut one technological disruption away from dying off into a ghost town.
Orbital Tax Havens
Various unethical but lucrative reasons to expand into space
Interstellar archeologists digging in the ruins of an extinct high-tech alien civilization might very will unearth some high-technology. Hilarity will ensue as the archeologists try to run to the patent office, space pirates try to dry-gulch the archeologists and swipe the tech, and megacorporations threatened with technological disruption hire assassins to kill everbody and destroy the tech. A simple outline can be found in the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy.
Pilgrim Observer
A rather famous scientifically accurate spacecraft, that turns up in several guises. It has a thousand and one uses!
Pirate Havens
Pirates need infrastructure too
Project Orion Battleship
The biggest, baddest, most terrifying scientifically accurate warship ever.
Solid-iron asteroid could be site of the steel mill of the Asteroid civilization
Resource Curse
Planets settled because of rich mining deposits of Something Profitable (or paradise planets who suddenly have the misfortune of Something Profitable being discovered) tend to rapidly become authoritarian dictatorship hell-holes. Just the sort of depressingly exciting place to put your protagonists.
Ring Raiders
An amusing civilization based around Saturn's Rings
RocketCat's Universe
The outline of an entire starter universe for you to tinker with.
Santa Guard
Santa Claus machines are perfect for establishing an interplanetary base. But they are also perfect for cranking out hundreds of weapons of mass destruction. They will have to be guarded.
Shipbreakers chop up old spacecraft. But if the ship is huge, it might be colonized instead.
Shady Space Stations
Where you can get anything ... for a price.
Ship Market Disruption
When a trader's or transporter's spacecraft becomes obsolete due to technological disruption, times become financially tough. Which creates lots of angry ship owners. Which can drive exciting plots for your novel.
Space Business Opportunities
Various valuable services usable as business models for space corporations. Or as the business model for novices trying to establish a space business in the raw cut-throat space frontier.
Space Station Functions
A list of jobs commonly performed by space stations. It should spark some ideas.
This is a motivation for spacegoing nations to establish a space military service. If asteroid miners are actually moving asteroids, everybody is going to want lots of warships to ensure that one isn't "accidentally" dropped on their nation by an enemy.
Spaceguard Problems
Spaceguards also have the problem of "Who Will Guard The Guardians?"
Spaceguard Problems2
The Spaceguard concept does not scale well. When it breaks down, an entertaining situation occurs.
Spaceport Functions
A list of jobs commonly performed by spaceports. It should spark some ideas.
The spaceport red-light district
Submarines in Space
Reactionless drives ain't scientific at all. But if you postulate their existence, there is a long tradition of using such things to turn a submarine into instant starship.
How the spacefaring civilizations can enslave the planet dwellers
The Three Generation Rule
Space habitats have a limited lifespan because societies are lazy.
Tourist Season
How Hohmann windows can create a Martian Tourist Season, and Martian Convoys.
Wagon Train in Space
A plausible excuse for an inhabited solar system, by re-hashing American pioneer days
Weird Astronomy
The entire page is a list of strange astronomical objects just begging to be made into a science fiction story

Harris Classifications

In his article Staying on the Cutting Edge of Science Fiction, James Wallace Harris notes if you study the history of science fiction ideas, they break down into a limited number of areas:

  • Interplanetary travel
  • Interstellar travel
  • Alien life forms
  • Artificial beings (robots, AI, digital life, artificial life)
  • Predicting future social structures
  • Predicting future politics
  • Impact of new technology and inventions
  • Impact of new science (anti-gravity, multiverse, higher dimensions)
  • Utopias
  • Dystopias
  • Post-apocalypse and collapse
  • Post-humanism (mutants, clones, mental powers)
  • End of humanity, end of the world

The focus of this website is on interplanetary and interstellar travel. But I have a few odd pages devoted to some of the other ideas.

Here is a mind map of one possible way to divide up science fiction ideas:

Managing Assumptions

For a science fiction author, nothing makes your stories not age well quite as badly as an over-looked assumption. Sadly, they are almost impossible for an author to spot. And in any event the author has better things to do, like writing the story.

The classic example is all those pulp scifi stories where the protagonists unthinkingly light up their cigars and cigarettes inside their spaceships. If they all perish of asphyxiation by fouling their air supply with tobacco smoke, they will get zero sympathy from RocketCat. But for the scifi authors, everybody smoking like chimneys was just one of those over-looked assumptions. An assumption so universal as to be invisible to the author.

Don't be smug, chances are that your stories will contain similar egregious flaws only visible fifty years from now. Even now young children are puzzled by stories where the protagonists use something called telephone directory yellow pages to find numbers that can be dialed into wall mounted phone. And more recent stories have mysterious things called "dial-up" internet connections, which are cut off if somebody else in the house picks up the telephone handset.

More forgivable is when the author makes a good faith effort to predict the future, but badly misses the mark. At least they tried.

The general precaution an author can take is making a diversion. You throw in some very odd futuristic detail to remind the reader that they ain't in Kansas any more. And hopefully distract the reader so much that they fail to notice any over-looked assumption you mistakenly left in. For instance, Robert Heinlein was fond of mentioning in passing how the door dilated open.


      "Lights are off because relays opened when the crash short circuited them." Morey and the entire group were suddenly shaking.
     "Nervous shock," commented Zezdon Afthen. "It will be an hour or more before we will be in condition to work."
     "Can't wait," replied Arcot testily, his nerves on edge, too.
     "Morey, make some good strong coffee if you can, and we'll waste a little air on some smokes."
     Morey turned and went to the galley.
     Five minutes later they returned to the corridor, where Arcot stood still, looking fixedly at the engine room. They were carrying small plastic balloons with coffee in them.
     They drank the coffee and returned to the control room, and sat about, the terrestrians smoking peacefully, the Ortolian and the Talsonian satisfying themselves with some form of mild narcotic from Ortol, which Zezdon Afthen introduced.
     "Well, we have a lot more to do," Arcot said. "The air-apparatus stopped working a while back, and I don't want to sit around doing nothing while the air in the storage tanks is used up."

From INVADERS FROM THE INFINITE by John W. Campbell, Jr. (1932)

      'All systems functioning normally,' said Hal. 'Two minutes to ignition.'

     Strange, thought Floyd, how terminology often survives long after the technology that gave it birth. Only chemical rockets were capable of ignition; even if the hydrogen in a nuclear or plasma drive did come into contact with oxygen, it would be far too hot to burn. At such temperatures, all compounds were stripped back into their elements.

     His mind wandered, seeking other examples. People — particularly older ones — still spoke of putting film into a camera (today digital cameras are standard), or gas into a car (soon electric cars will be standard). Even the phrase 'cutting a tape' was still sometimes heard in recording studios — though that embraced two generations of obsolete technologies.

From 2010: ODYSSEY TWO by Arthur C. Clarke (1980)


A common failing of with those who write future histories is a failure to take into account Future Shock, that is, the rapid progress of technological advancement. Refer to the "Apes or Angels" argument. Consider that one hundred years ago the paper clip had just been invented, Marconi had invented the wireless radio, the Wright brothers had invented the airplane, and the latest cutting edge material was Bakelite. Assuming that technology continues to advance at the same rate, all of our flashy technological marvels of today will look just as quaint and obsolete in the year 2100. And in 2500, they will look like something made by Galileo.

Remember, this assumes that the rate of technological progress remains the same. The evidence suggests that the rate is increasing.

When it comes to futures histories in various SF novels, the main failing I have noted is a failure of scope. While you may read novels with orbital beanstalks, immortality drugs, virtual people living in digital cyber-reality, nanotechnology, transhumanity and post-humans, Dyson spheres, teleportation, zero-point energy, matter duplicators, time travel, cloning, and cyborgs; you almost never find an individual novel that has all of these things (although Greg Egan's DIASPORA comes close, and the Orion's Arm project comes even closer).

This is because future history SF novels are not meant to predict the future, so much as they are meant to illuminate a specific point the author is trying to make.

This topic is gone into in more detail here.

I am once again stunned at the insistence that Star Trek has to be allegorically relevant, but if it must, I'd prefer it take on more scientific/ethical issues, like a justification for banning genetic enhancement. or how a society with FTL, molecular replication, and teleportation has managed to sidestep a technological singularity.

Star Trek is considered by many to be the public face of SF, it's flagship. I hold by my belief that to retain that title it needs to take it up a level: travel out into some heretofore unexplored quadrant and find that it is heavily populated by Type II Kardashev cultures, Lovecraftian ancients, Kirby-esque star gods, Matrioshka brain AIs trying to tap reality's source-code, post-singularity societies like Banks Culture, Wright's Oecumene, or Hamilton's Edenists, etc.

In short, Trek needs to catch up with the rest of science fiction.

Cliches and Tropes


Some of you might remember the Evil Overlord's List, a list of all the generic cliche mistakes that Evil Overlords tend to make in fiction (16: I will never utter the sentence "But before I kill you, there's just one thing I want to know."). I think that it might be a good idea to begin bolting together a similar list of the cliches to which Space Opera is prone, purely as an exercise in making sure that once I get under way I only make new and original mistakes, rather than recycling the same-old same-old.

This is not an exhaustive list—it's merely a start, the tip of a very large iceberg glimpsed on the horizon. And note that I'm specifically excluding the big media franchise products—Star Wars, Star Trek, Firefly, and similar—from consideration: any one of them could provide a huge cliche list in its own right, but I'm interested in the substance of the literary genre rather than in what TV and film have built using the borrowed furniture of the field.

  1. Planetary civilizations

    This subheading covers common cliches/mistakes made in discussing inhabited (Earthlike) planets and the people who live on them.

  2. Space and cosmology

    Common blunders in cosmology, planetography, orbital mechanics, and related.

    • Moons are good, the more the better!
    • Suns are good, too, the more the better!
    • ... Especially if one of them is a giant. (Those never explode or flare messily.)
    • Planetary ring systems are picturesque, not dangerous
    • Planets have a diurnal period precisely 86,400 Earth seconds long
    • Planets rotate east-to-west
    • Planets have magnetic poles that approximate their rotational axis
    • Planetary gravity can be approximated to a point source for purposes of calculating orbital dynamics
    • All satellites orbit the equator
    • You can change orbital inclination easily
    • Stuff in orbit doesn't change orbital inclination spontaneously
    • Geosynchronous orbit is easy to get to
    • If you are in geosynchronous orbit away from the equator you still hover over the same spot on the planetary surface all the time
    • Planets are close together
    • Concentric planets orbit the same distance apart
    • The flight time between planets in an inner star system is the same as between planets in the outer system
    • Asteroids are so close together that you can hide between them
    • ... but they never clump into planets
    • Asteroidal dust makes an irritating ping as it bounces off a ship's hull
    • ... for some reason you never run into it at multiple km/sec
    • Actually, hitting a space rock or other spaceship is no big deal, a bit like being in a minor car accident
    • ... Even though the kinetic energy released by an impact increases with the square of the velocity, and you're travelling hundreds to millions of time faster
    • Gas giants are good for mining volatiles
    • ... Because dealing with Mach 6 wind shear, 10,000 Bar pressure, and a lethally deep gravity well is trivial
    • ... Because we need volatiles such as 3He, to fuel our aneutronic fusion reactors (hint: Boron is cheaper and much less scarce)
    • All comets have tails
    • ... they're sort of hairless and scaly, like a [sarcasm limit exceeded - Ed.]
    • Rocky planets are either airless or shirt-sleeves worlds with breathable air
    • Pay no attention to Venus, runaway greenhouse worlds are imaginary
    • Big stars are as long-lived and likely to have planets as dwarf stars
    • Supernovae happen routinely and are no big deal
    • Interstellar space is totally empty
    • ... You can fly as fast as you like without worrying about dust particles
    • You don't have to worry about interstellar gas, either
    • ... Except when there's not enough of it to keep your ramscoop accelerating
    • Incidentally? Ramscoops totally work! (Larry Niven said so in 1968.)
    • You can go fast enough to experience relativistic time dilation without worrying about the pesky cosmic background radiation blue-shifting into hard X-rays and frying you
    • You can forget all about hitting the occasional interstellar 4He nucleus with some multiple of the energy of an alpha particle, several million times a second
    • ... Don't worry about hitting the electrons bound to the neutral hydrogen either, gamma photons totally aren't a thing
    • You can use handy black holes and neutron stars to make handbrake turns in space
    • You an also use gas giants to make handbrake turns, at high relativistic speeds
    • Don't let the fact the space is full of exciting high energy physics put you off going there, squishy meatsack-persons!
  3. Biology

    Biology is complicated—so much so that many SF authors suffer from Dunning-Kruger syndrome in approaching the design of life-supporting planets.

    • All planets harbour a single apex predator that eats people
    • All planets harbour is a single venomous insect/reptile analog that poisons people
    • The native flora and fauna use a biochemistry that we can derive sustenance from
    • ... This includes weird-ass micronutrients
    • Pay no attention to the native microbiota, they're harmless
    • ... You won't even suffer from hay fever! Much less systemic anaphylaxis.
    • Ecosystems are robust; why not let your ship's cat stretch her legs whenever you land?
    • ... This goes for your ship's rats, too
    • Planets only have one class of plant-analog and one class of animal-analog
    • ... Only Earth has reptiles, amphibia, fish, birds, insects, mammals, fungi, etc.
    • Terraforming is really simple; you can do it with algae capsules delivered from orbit
    • There are no native parasites that might eat Maize, so we can turn the entire largest continent into a robot-run plantation
    • ... Soil exhaustion isn't a thing
    • ... Terrestrial constraints on agriculture don't apply on other planets
    • You can keep a starship crew healthy and sane indefinitely using a life support system running on blue-green algae, tilapia, and maybe the odd soy bean plant
    • Life support systems are simple, stable, and self-managing
    • It is safe to put bleach down the toilet on a starship; your algae/tilapia/soy will totally deal with it it when it comes out of the recycler
    • Vitamins? Naah, we'll just genetically modify the crew to make their own
    • If you implant humans with the gene for chlorophyl they can magically become photosynthetic
    • ... Okay, if you add the genes for RuBiSCO and the C3 pathway they can magically become photosynthetic
    • ... Because of course two square meters of skin is enough surface area to photosynthetically capture enough energy for a high-metabolic-rate mammal to live off
    • Humans can too hibernate/deep sleep between star systems! All you need is a cold enough chest freezer
    • ... Just as long as their intestinal flora go into cold sleep at the same time
    • ... and so do the low metabolic rate arctic pseudofungi spores they picked up at the last planetary stop
  4. Economics

    Fingernails-on-blackboard time for me. (See also: Neptune's Brood)

    • New Colonies may be either agricultural or mining colonies; rarely, resort colonies
    • Everyone uses Money to mediate exchanges of value
    • Money is always denominated in uniform ratios divisible by 10
    • Money is made out of shiny bits of metal, OR pieces of green paper, OR credit stored in a computer network
    • There is only one kind of Money on any given planet, or one credit network
    • The same kind of Money is accepted everywhere as payment for all debts
    • Visitors are always equipped to interface with the planet-wide credit network
    • Planetary credit networks are incredibly secure except when the visitor needs to hack into someone else's bank account
    • Barter is a sign of primitive people who haven't invented money
    • People who rely on Barter are simple, trusting folks (and a bit stupid on the side)
    • Inflation? What is this, I don't even ...
    • Deflation? What will they think of next?
    • Sales tax? What's that?
    • Income tax? What's that?
    • Import duty? What's ... (rinse, spin, repeat)
    • You can get a loan from your friendly bank manager whenever you need one
    • Bank loans accrue interest
    • If you fail to replay a bank loan you may be arrested and held in debtor's prison
    • ... Or sold into slavery
    • ... Or your organs can be seized
    • ... Because your body is just one of your fungible assets, right?
    • ... And harvesting organs for transplant surgery is a universal practice
    • People on planets have not heard of Ponzi Schemes
    • People on planets have not heard of Credit Default Swaps or the Black-Scholes equation
    • If money is made of shiny bits of metal or green paper, banks have vaults where they store lots of money
    • Money sitting in a bank vault is worth something
    • Visitors to a Colony can print fake currency without fear of consequences
    • Visitors to a Colony can leave their money with a bank between infrequent visits without fear of consequences
    • Banks are stable, because ...
    • ... The planetary government will never let a bank go bust, because ...
    • ... The galactic emperor will never let a planetary government go bust, because ...
    • Traders on starships land on planets to load and unload cargo
    • ... Or they carry their own orbit-to-surface shuttle
    • ... Which is as easy and safe to operate as a fork-lift truck
    • Cargo is bought and sold in starports
    • It is profitable to ship crude break-bulk cargo like timber or foodstuffs between star systems because starships are cheap and easy to repair and operate
    • Break-bulk shipping in open cargo holds has never been improved upon
    • Multimodal freight containers, EDI/EDIFACT standards for commerce, bar codes, bourses, and RFID technologies are just inferior and unnecessarily complicated alternatives to a bazaar or indoor market
    • Insurance underwriting? Arbitrage? What's that? (rinse, spin, repeat)
    • All cargo starships need plenty of unskilled deck hands to help load and unload cargo
    • All cargo starships need gun turrets to fight off swarms of space pirates
    • ... Cargo starships with guns can fight off space pirates
    • Cargo starship crews can fix battle damage
    • ... All it takes is enough duct tape and determination
    • ... Because space pirate weapons are as deadly as shotguns, not H-bombs
    • ... And starships cost no more to build and operate than a 1920s tramp steamer
    • Space pirates will happily open fire on a cargo ship to damage it before boarding
    • Space pirates need to board cargo ships in order to steal their cargo
    • ... And impress/conscript/enslave their crew
    • Piracy is a huge problem for space traders
    • You can tell the difference between a pirate and a space trader with a glance
    • A cargo captain in a hole might easily turn to smuggling to improve their bottom line
    • Navies are a lesser threat to smugglers than random encounters with pirates
    • Nobody has ever heard of end-user certificates or bonded cargo
    • Nobody ever thinks to ship their high-tax cargo via a free port or use complex financial arrangements to avoid customs duty without having to hire a dodgy armed ship with a poor credit rating
  5. Politics

    • Planets have a single unitary government (or none at all)
    • Planetary governance is no more complex than running a village or small township
    • ... This is because the planetary capital is a village or small township, not, say, Beijing or Mexico City
    • If there are two or more ethnicities represented on a planet their collective politics are simple and easily understood by analogy to 20th century US race relations
    • All planetary natives everywhere speak Galactic Standard English, or Trade Pidgin
    • New Colonies can't afford police, detectives, customs inspectors, or the FBI
    • New Colonies don't require visting spacers to conform to local dress codes or laws
    • New Colonies don't have gun control laws
    • New Colonies don't have laws, or if they do they were written by a mad libertarian
    • Despite the lack of laws, nobody underage drinks in the saloon
    • ... Nobody underage works in the saloon rooms you rent by the hour, either
    • ... Nor is there an extensive school truancy problem or much illiteracy
    • On reaching pensionable age, all colonists are forced to retire and deported to the Planet of the Pensioners
    • There is no unemployment because happy smiley frontier needs cowboys or something
    • If the planetary government is a democracy, the new Mayor will be elected by a town meeting
    • If the planetary government is an oligarchy, the new Patrician will be elected by a town meeting (of oligarchs, in the back room of the saloon)
    • If the planetary government is a theocracy, there will be only one sect of the planetary religion and no awkward long-standing heresies that are too strong/embedded to suppress
    • ... And there will be direct rule by Clergy, along the lines of an oligarchy: no Committees of Guardians of the Faith, no separation of executive and legislature, none of the complexity and internal rivalries of Terrestrial theocracies (e.g. Iran, Saudi Arabia)
    • If the planet is a colony of the Galactic Empire, the new Planetary Governor will be appointed by the local Sector Governor
    • ... It's Governors all the way up (until you hit the Emperor)
    • Monarchy is the natural and perfectly ideal form of government
    • Only an Imperial Monarchy can ensure the good local governance of a myriad of inhabited planets scattered across the vast reaches of deep space
    • Monarchies are never a Single Point Of [Galactic] Failure
    • Monarchs are never stupid, mad, ill, or distracted by a secret ambition to be a house painter instead
    • Viziers are Always (a) Grand and (b) Evil. (At this point, let's just #include the regular Evil Overlord list, m'kay?)
    • Democracies are always corrupt
    • You can always bribe your way out of sticky situation if you're from off-world
    • All planetary legal systems work the same way (some remix of Common Law, constitutional governance, and trial by jury).
    • The standard punishments for a crime range from a small fine, to slavery in the uranium mines for life (about 18 months), to an excruciating death
    • Trials are swift and punishments are simple and easy to understand
    • Justice is always punitive/retributive/exemplary, never compensatory/preventative/rehabilitative, much less poetic/cryptic/incomprehensible
    • ... If the Author disapproves of the death penalty, substitute mind-wipe for the death penalty (like, there's a difference?)
  6. Culture

    • There is usually only one culture per planet
    • ... Sometimes there are two, to provide for an oppositional plot dynamic
    • ... Pay no attention to the blank spots on the map
    • ... And especially don't go looking for the unmarked mass graves
    • Planetary natives are either Colonists or Indigenous
    • Indigenous peoples are either Primitive or Advanced (and Decadent)
    • Advanced Indigines either don't have space travel or gave it up (see: Decadent)
    • Primitive Indigines are either Tribal or Mediaeval
    • Mediaeval Indigines invariably recapitulate the politics of the Hundred Years War
    • Visits to Mediaeval Indigenous Colonies can be approximated to a side-quest into Fantasyland
    • If the planet is a Colony it is either a Lost Colony or a New Colony
    • Lost Colonies may resemble Primitive Indigines but never Advanced
    • New Colonies resemble Tombstone, AZ, circa 1880
    • New Colonists live in log cabins, ride mules/horses and carry ~six-guns~ blasters
    • ... You can find logs (cabins, for the construction of) everywhere on planets
    • ... They're like abandoned crates in first-person shooters
    • Psychologically speaking, everybody is either WEIRD or Primitive
    • Primitive (non-WEIRD) people are stupid and unimaginative
    • WEIRD people accept and embrace change and innovation; non-WEIRD people reject both
    • Colonies are usually modelled on WEIRD 1950s cultural norms
    • Colony People come in two genders
    • The Women on New Colonies are either:
    • ... Barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen (because colonies need babies)
    • ... Dungaree-wearing two-fisted starship-engineering-obsessed lesbians desperate to get off-world
    • The Men on New Colonies are either:
    • ... Manly plaid-shirt-wearing heterosexual farmers breaking sod in the ~west~ new world
    • ... Dastardly drunken muggers waiting behind the spaceport saloon for an unwary spacer
    • QUILTBAG: huh? Who are those people and why doesn't somebody cure them?
    • ... (Alternatively: everybody is QUILTBAG, pale patriarchal heterosexual penis people are extinct)
    • Clothing invariably obeys some regional dress code that has been observed on Earth in the past thousand years; in extreme cases 1950s business attire will serve to avoid attracting undue attention
    • You can recognize someone's gender on any planet because:
    • ... Women wear dresses or skirts with make-up and long hair
    • ... Men wear pants (or occasionally suits of armour)
    • ... Hijra? Hermaphrodites? Transgender? Asexual? What are those?
    • On some planets people go naked, except for body paint
    • ... This causes no problems, whether social or practical
    • Colony Planets are invariably a Crapsack World that people are desperate to escape from, unless they're the planetary governor or some species of NPC
    • The only place worse than a Colony World is Old Earth
    • Old Earth is
    • ... An over-crowded overpopulated hell-hole
    • ... An over-regulated bureaucratic hell-hole
    • ... A poverty-stricken backwater and hell-hole
    • ... Destroyed
    • ... Lost (because everyone in the galaxy somehow forgot the way home)
    • ... Mythical (and many people think it never existed)
    • ... Somewhere to run away from
    • ... (Rarely) Somewhere to run to
    • Slavery is
    • ... Ubiquitous
    • ... No big deal
    • ... Illegal but all the bad guys do it
    • "the best thing we ever did for them; they're much happier now"
    • Humans are free; aliens are slaves
    • Humans are slaves; aliens are free
  7. Technology - space travel

    • Running a nuclear power plant is kid's business; even a drunken college drop-out can be a ship's engineer
    • Rocket motors are simple to maintain and operate, too—they never break
    • Reaction mass is incredibly dense, cheap, and easy to stash away in a spare corner
    • ... It never runs out
    • ... It doesn't require special handling procedures
    • ... It's never toxic, cryogenic, teratogenic, radioactive, or corrosive
    • Oxygen is freely available in space
    • You can go as fast as you like if you just accelerate in a straight line
    • Spaceships accelerate at right angles to the direction the occupants experience gravity in
    • Spaceships are:
    • ... bilaterally symmetrical
    • ... rugged and able to survive impacts with other objects
    • ... easily maintained by semi-skilled labour/shade tree mechanics
    • ... about as complex as a 1920s tramp steamer, or maybe a deep-sea fishing trawler
    • ... easily piloted
    • ... can stop on a dime
    • ... available second-hand in good working order from scrapyards
    • ... have wings and an undercarriage, like a biplane
    • ... You can hear them coming a parsec away
    • Generating electricity aboard a spaceship without solar panels is easy
    • ... So is getting rid of waste heat
    • ... The bigger the spaceship, the easier it gets (because the square-cube law doesn't exist)
    • ... The Death Star would totally not melt itself with its waste heat whenever it fired its planet-zapper!
    • Faster than light travel is easy
    • ... But the jump drive is fuelled by unobtainium
    • Causality violation: what's that?
    • There are no regulatory frameworks or licensing regimes for starships
    • Nobody would ever think to run a starship up to 50% of light-speed and ram a planet
    • ... Even if they did that, the effect wouldn't be significantly worse than a 1940s atom bomb
    • There's no regulatory framework for shuttlecraft, either
    • ... Because nobody has heard of Kessler syndrome
    • ... Also, a space shuttle in-falling from low earth orbit totally doesn't arrive at ground level with kinetic energy equal to about ten times it's own mass in TNT, because if it did it would be a field-expedient weapon of mass destruction
    • Flying a spaceship is not only easy, it's easier than flying a Cessna
    • Spaceship life support systems are simple to maintain and repair and very forgiving
    • Spaceships communicate across interplanetary or interstellar distances by radio
    • ... Interplanetary radio works instantaneously
    • ... Interplanetary radio communications are as easy to operate as tuning your car stereo to a new AM channel
    • GPS works in space beyond low earth orbit: who needs navigation skills these days?
  8. Technology - Pew! Pew! Pew!

    • Radar gives us an instantaneously updated map of everything in a star system
    • ... But stealth technology is totally a thing!
    • We can't detect spaceships by looking for their infrared emissions against the 2.7 kelvin cosmic background temperature
    • Also, spaceships can hide behind planets or asteroids indefinitely without using their engines or knowing the bearing of the enemy they're hiding from
    • Laser beams are instantaneous, don't spread or disperse, and can melt anything
    • ... Except a force field that somehow refracts/bends/absorbs the confused photons
    • Missiles, with a constrained (small) propulsion system, can overhaul a much bigger/less constrained spaceship at great range
    • Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties don't bother to count Free Trader Beowulf's point-defense nuclear missile battery for treaty purposes—only naval nukes count
    • Gun turrets have to have a glassed-in canopy and a gunner inside or they won't work
    • Also, human gunners can totally draw a bead on a hostile pirate ship maneuvering a few light seconds away. Fire control computers, not so much
    • Boarding actions have mysteriously made a come-back from the 1850s.
    • Guns are still bang-sticks that require a human to point them at a target
    • Stun-guns have no unpleasant after-effects
    • Bullets are brainless
    • You can dodge laser beams
    • Fisticuffs are universally considered to be the optimal way to resolve a sincere difference of opinion over complex commercial interactions
    • All starships need to carry armed guards, or at least a gun locker full of blasters for the crew when they're visiting a Colony planet
    • Knife missiles—who ordered that?
  9. Aliens

    • Aliens are multicellular organisms with nervous systems and musculoskeletal systems
    • Aliens communicate in language
    • ... Using noises
    • ... Emitted by their mouths
    • ... At frequency ranges we can perceive
    • Aliens are individuals
    • Aliens are eusocial hive organisms
    • Spacefaring aliens are conscious
    • Aliens are WEIRD people with latex face paint or funny haircuts
    • ... Because primates are a universal deterministic outcome of evolution on all worlds
    • Wittgenstein was wrong about talking lions. (If they could speak we'd find what they can say fascinating—mostly because we'd be waiting for them to mutter, "I wonder what those bipeds taste like?")
    • Aliens build starships sort-of like humans, but with wonky furniture
    • Aliens are interested in us (see Wittgenstein above)
    • Aliens want to trade with us
    • Aliens want to exchange bodily fluids with us (ewww ...)
    • Aliens want to induct us into their civilizational-level fraternity/sorority and make contact in order to teach us the house rules
    • Alien species only have one dominant culture
    • Alien species are noteworthy for their universally applicable stereotypy, utterly unlike us complicated and divergent human beings
    • Aliens have a much longer history of spaceflight than humans, but unaccountably failed to stumble upon and domesticate us during the 11th century
    • Aliens have religious beliefs because they have the same theory of mind as human beings and attribute intentionality to natural phenomena (see also: Daniel Dennett)
    • Alien religion resembles those of a human culture that thrived prior to 1000 CE and is now considered quaintly obsolescent by most humans
    • Aliens can't control themselves
    • Aliens are unconditionally hostile
    • Aliens are robots
    • ... Robot-aliens are just like alien-aliens, only more alien, because robots
    • Aliens are incomprehensible
    • Aliens have no sense of humor
    • Aliens have a human sense of humor
    • Aliens have been extinct for millions of years, but:
    • ... have left treasures behind in their death-trap-riddled tombs
    • ... their ephemeral technologies still work flawlessly
    • ... If humans trip the burglar alarm, they're coming back—and they'll be mad
    • ... they're extinct because they Sublimed
    • ... they're extinct because they became Decadent
    • ... they're extinct because they suicided
    • ... (robot-alien remix): they're extinct because they tripped over the Halting Problem
    • ... they're extinct because (insert dodgy social darwinist argument here)

Luke Campbell: re: "Planets rotate east-to-west".

     While this might be a cliche, it is also the definition of eat and west.

     You have two poles of rotation on a planet. Looking down at one, the planet spins clockwise, looking down at the other, the planet spins counter-clockwise. You choose the one where the planet is spinning counter-clockwise as the north pole, and the other as the south. Since west is defined by the direction 90 degrees counter-clockwise from north (and 90 degrees clockwise from south), and east in the opposite direction, this means that planets always "rotate east-to-west" and celestial objects always rise in the east and set in the west (with rare exceptions, such as moons orbiting faster than a planetary rotation period).


So: in the ongoing investigation of space opera, I've looked at cliches, I've tried to come up with a rough definitional general rule ... but I've avoided what's possibly the largest elephant in the room, namely, plot structures.

A key aspect of space opera is that it's about epochal events and larger-than-life characters. Most genres can be written to work in a variety of modes; for example, consider the difference in the level of melodrama in spy thrillers betwee James Bond and Graham Greene's The Human Factor. Similarly, high fantasy can be quietly introspective and pastoral, or focus on the clash of kings and dark lords, and horror can run the scale/focus gamut from The Yellow Wallpaper to The Stand.

But space opera is different: it's almost impossible to conceive of a space opera with a plot that revolves around the eqivalent of a middle-aged English professor's mid-life crisis as he carries on a furtive affair with one of his female students under the nose of his long-suffering wife (the somewhat cruel stereotype of the MFA-approved Great American Novel). I mean, you could do it, but your professor would have had to have invented a new type of FTL drive that threatens to revolutionize interstellar travel, the student is a spy from a cartel of space traders and is trying to get the blueprints out of him before she stabs him in the kidneys (because: lecherous middle-aged prof, ew), and his wife—the professor of political science at Galactic U—is actually a retired assassin (and just wait 'til she finds out about the student). Into the middle of this quiet literary novel of academic infidelity and domestic lies, we then add an evil religious cult of alien space bat worshipers who want to steal the new space drive to equip their battle fleet when they sweep in from the Orion Arm to bring fire, the blaster, and the holy spacebat inquisition to the Federation, and when they kidnap the professor his wife and his grad student have to work out their differences to get him back before he cracks under (well-deserved) torture and gives the fanatics the ultimate weapon ...

(Huh. Actually, that'd make a cracking space opera; just not one of mine. Anyone want to borrow it?)

I stand by my point: you can't write space opera without ramping up the stakes to melodramatic levels. (Well, maybe you could if you were Iain M. Banks, but he was special that way.) The need for romanticist drama is one of the pillars of the sub-genre. And one of the recurring core tropes of the genre, which is so fundamental you can hardly call it a cliche (any more than boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl/boy-gets-girl is a "cliche" in genre romance) is the Campbellian Hero's Journey.

If you are reading this blog you are familiar with the Hero's Journey monomyth because it's ubiquitous in our mythology and entertainment. Campbell derived it from studies of myths in many cultures, publishing his exposition The Hero with a Thousand Faces in 1949: his theory was that major myths from various world cultures can be traced back thousands of years and share a common cyclic template (with roughly 17 stages). Since then, it's been used repeatedly by entertainers as a construction template; for example, Christopher Vogler more or less codified it as a recipe while working for Disney studios. The plot of the original Star Wars trilogy was an explicit appropriation of the HJ cycle by to George Lucas (to be fair, before Vogler's codification); it's no accident that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father (Vader is Dutch for "Father") or that the fight between Skywalker and Vader in The Empire Strikes back is one that Skywalker loses—but survives to re-fight more successfully later. A key feature of the monomyth is that the hero leaves home on a quest, faces challenges, confronts and is struck down by his father/the darkness, then rises again, atones/achieves enlightenment/excellence, and triumphs in a final struggle that represents maturation.

Campbell's work isn't uncritically or universally accepted, to say the least, and there are variants on it: for example, Valerie Frenkel critiched him for focussing exclusively on the male variant of the Hero's Journey. It turns out that there are plenty of recurring myths where a version of the monomyth applies to women, with similar but distinctively different recurring stages focussing on the heroine's progress from girl to mother. Rather than fighting to defeat/overturn the parent, the heroine's struggle is to become the parent: rather than returning to the original home but as master (the male branch of the monomyth) the female version has her joining a new household as its mistress and new mother or goddess/priestess.

Yes, this is all horribly gender-stereotyped. But I'll take a stab in the dark at diagnosing its origin: the stages in the monomyth echo the mammalian K-selective reproductive cycle—on hitting puberty the young adult leaves the nest/parents, goes looking for a mate, meets and overcomes obstacles (competitors and predators), finds a mate, forms a new mated pair. In the case of humans or other primates there may also be issues about troupe/pack hierarchy to be resolved. Yes, there are problems with this: it doesn't map onto social structures once established settlements and agriculture become the norm and the young adults are expected to stay home and plough the fields. But the monomyth remains deeply appealing because the mythic framework it builds on has very deep roots that go all the way down to primate reproductive biology.

The monomyth doesn't have to be melodramatic: you can, at a pinch, apply it to that stereotypical MFA lit-fic novel of lecherous middle-aged academics without too much trouble. (The journey is one of internal psychological discovery, the threats are the protagonist's inner demons, the allies are the psychiatrist, the crisis/conflict is one of understanding ...) But as often as not, it's a structure for heroism: melodrama acts as a spice, raising the stakes and giving us a reason to pay attention to the protagonists, for their deeds are significant and implicitly may affect us (or the proxy the author has provided for our viewpoint).

So: Space Opera. Take the monomyth as a framework for how the action unfolds, and mix it up with melodrama. Then add space ships, ray guns, and wide-scale travel backdrops. Arguably the monomyth comes first, before the background: although some of the more skilled authors of the sub-genre spin their plots within the constrains of a background world, and sometimes manage to avoid the monomyth completely. (I'd go so far as to say that "Matter" by Iain M. Banks is an almost complete rejection of the form, as is "Look to Windward" ... actually, I suspect IMB had his own different idea of a story structure in mind for the Culture novels: as often as not they're epic tragedies ("Consider Phlebas") or illustrations of the limits of heroism.)

But if you're trying to spin a space opera, and you're reaching for a plot skeleton that works, the monomyth is your friend. Here's an exercise for the involved reader: take my dysfunctional Galactic U professorial marriage from the beginning of this essay and use the monomyth structure to come up with a plot, climax, and ending that delivers a satisfactory sense of closure. You might first want to consider who you are focussing on—the lecherous male prof, his spouse the academic with a dead-and-buried past (she thought) as an assassin, or the grad student with the secret mission. Then you need to consider what stage of the Hero's Journey you are joining them at—for there's no reason to assume the story starts at the beginning, rather than in media res. Next, work out what challenges and allies they might encounter on their way to the climax and resolution, and what role the other characters play in their quest. Finally: what is the prize they're seeking, how do they achieve it, and at what cost? For added points, see if you can find a way to twist the standard Hero's Journey cycle to apply a surprise climax to it—for example, by spinning this steamy menage-a-trois with added murderhate and alien space bats so that it appears at first to be one protagonist's journey but then switches track and turns out to be about one of the others (your classic example of this would be IMB's "Use of Weapons") ...


      As I mentioned in my last entry, I've been watching Babylon 5 lately. It's not a perfect show, but it has one big advantage: it's consistent and believable.

     Contrast this with Doctor Who. Doctor Who is fun to watch, but if you think about it for more than two seconds you notice it's full of plot holes and contradictions. Things that cause time travel paradoxes that threaten to destroy the universe one episode go without a hitch the next. And the TARDIS, the sonic screwdriver, and the Doctor's biology gain completely different powers no one's ever alluded to depending on the situation. The aliens are hysterically unlikely, often without motives or believable science, the characters will do any old insane thing when it makes the plot slightly more interesting, and everything has either a self-destruct button or an easily findable secret weakness that it takes no efforts to defend against.
     But I guess I'm not complaining. If the show was believable, the Doctor would have gotten killed the first time he decided to take on a massive superadvanced alien invasion force by walking right up to them openly with no weapons and no plan. And then they would have had to cancel the show, and then I would lose my chance to look at the pretty actress who plays Amy Pond.
     So Doctor Who is not a complete loss. But then there are some shows that go completely beyond the pale of enjoyability, until they become nothing more than overwritten collections of tropes impossible to watch without groaning.

     I think the worst offender here is the History Channel and all their programs on the so-called "World War II".

     Let's start with the bad guys. Battalions of stormtroopers dressed in all black, check. Secret police, check. Determination to brutally kill everyone who doesn't look like them, check. Leader with a tiny villain mustache and a tendency to go into apopleptic rage when he doesn't get his way, check. All this from a country that was ordinary, believable, and dare I say it sometimes even sympathetic in previous seasons.
     I wouldn't even mind the lack of originality if they weren't so heavy-handed about it. Apparently we're supposed to believe that in the middle of the war the Germans attacked their allies the Russians, starting an unwinnable conflict on two fronts, just to show how sneaky and untrustworthy they could be? And that they diverted all their resources to use in making ever bigger and scarier death camps, even in the middle of a huge war? Real people just aren't that evil. And that's not even counting the part where as soon as the plot requires it, they instantly forget about all the racism nonsense and become best buddies with the definitely non-Aryan Japanese.

     Not that the good guys are much better. Their leader, Churchill, appeared in a grand total of one episode before, where he was a bumbling general who suffered an embarrassing defeat to the Ottomans of all people in the Battle of Gallipoli. Now, all of a sudden, he's not only Prime Minister, he's not only a brilliant military commander, he's not only the greatest orator of the twentieth century who can convince the British to keep going against all odds, he's also a natural wit who is able to pull out hilarious one-liners practically on demand. I know he's supposed to be the hero, but it's not realistic unless you keep the guy at least vaguely human.

     So it's pretty standard "shining amazing good guys who can do no wrong" versus "evil legions of darkness bent on torture and genocide" stuff, totally ignoring the nuances and realities of politics. The actual strategy of the war is barely any better. Just to give one example, in the Battle of the Bulge, a vastly larger force of Germans surround a small Allied battalion and demand they surrender or be killed. The Allied general sends back a single-word reply: "Nuts!". The Germans attack, and, miraculously, the tiny Allied force holds them off long enough for reinforcements to arrive and turn the tide of battle. Whoever wrote this episode obviously had never been within a thousand miles of an actual military.

     Probably the worst part was the ending. The British/German story arc gets boring, so they tie it up quickly, have the villain kill himself (on Walpurgisnacht of all days, not exactly subtle) and then totally switch gears to a battle between the Americans and the Japanese in the Pacific. Pretty much the same dichotomy - the Japanese kill, torture, perform medical experiments on prisoners, and frickin' play football with the heads of murdered children, and the Americans are led by a kindly old man in a wheelchair.

     Anyway, they spend the whole season building up how the Japanese home islands are a fortress, and the Japanese will never surrender, and there's no way to take the Japanese home islands because they're invincible...and then they realize they totally can't have the Americans take the Japanese home islands so they have no way to wrap up the season.
     So they invent a completely implausible superweapon that they've never mentioned until now. Apparently the Americans got some scientists together to invent it, only we never heard anything about it because it was "classified". In two years, the scientists manage to invent a weapon a thousand times more powerful than anything anyone's ever seen before - drawing from, of course, ancient mystical texts. Then they use the superweapon, blow up several Japanese cities easily, and the Japanese surrender. Convenient, isn't it?
     ...and then, in the entire rest of the show, over five or six different big wars, they never use the superweapon again. Seriously. They have this whole thing about a war in Vietnam that lasts decades and kills tens of thousands of people, and they never wonder if maybe they should consider using the frickin' unstoppable mystical superweapon that they won the last war with. At this point, you're starting to wonder if any of the show's writers have even watched the episodes the other writers made.

     I'm not even going to get into the whole subplot about breaking a secret code (cleverly named "Enigma", because the writers couldn't spend more than two seconds thinking up a name for an enigmatic code), the giant superintelligent computer called Colossus (despite this being years before the transistor was even invented), the Soviet strongman whose name means "Man of Steel" in Russian (seriously, between calling the strongman "Man of Steel" and the Frenchman "de Gaulle", whoever came up with the names for this thing ought to be shot).

     So yeah. Stay away from the History Channel. Unlike most of the other networks, they don't even try to make their stuff believable.

From STUFF by Scott Alexander (2010)

Cliche Gallery

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