After Hours

The top 12 sci-fi plot devices geeks love to hate

You know what a lot of geeks hate about science fiction? The same things a lot of geeks love about science fiction -- scientific inaccuracies!

Image courtesy of Penny Arcade

You know what a lot of geeks hate about science fiction? The same things a lot of geeks love about science fiction — scientific inaccuracies! There are basically two schools of thought in sci-fi: Either your novel is a meticulously researched and considered a treatise on a plausible techno-future, or it's a logic-smashing romp into the fantastical, with just enough science-y trappings to distinguish it from pure fantasy (maybe). When it comes to the latter group, some people hate the classic sci-fi tropes, some people love goofy movie science. Whatever your position, here are the top 12 sci-fi plot devices geeks love to hate:

12. Computer programs with needless and instantaneous animations and graphics

I always marvel at the gene sequencers and fingerprint scanners that instantly generate 3D models of complex chemical reactions, or that visibly cycle through hundreds of police photos while running a database search. Clearly, in the sci-fi world, computing power is so cheap that horribly un-optimized code and superfluous visual eye-candy don't give software engineers a moment's pause. Now that's cyberpunk.

11. Nuclear weapons can accomplish anything.

Restart the sun? No problem. Blow up an asteroid the size of Texas? Don't sweat it. Get the Earth's core spinning again (even though it isn't really spinning to begin with)? Check and check. Vaporize a mothership a quarter the size of Earth's moon? Of course. Nukes can do anything, so long as "anything" here is defined as "produce more energy than the world's entire weapons arsenal, yet create no noticeable fallout." Eat it, Oppenheimer.

10. Nukes are survivable, especially for title characters.

Even though nuclear weapons can solve the problems posed by natural disasters and alien warships (see above), a protagonist (or twelve) can survive a nuclear blast — or holocaust — by hiding in a refrigerator, fallout shelter, or simply by not living in the United States. Things like nuclear winter, radioactive fallout or, you know, the complete collapse of civilization aren't really an issue. Everyone will still be beautiful, healthy, and clean-shaven. Including the girls. Hail the apocalypse.

9. Footspeed is the ultimate weapon.

No matter what threat you face, what weapons your enemy has at his disposal, what insurmountable odds stand against you, as a protagonist, you can outrun anything, especially in slow motion. Fireballs of any variety, strange spacetime effects, airborne plagues and — my personal favorite — precision-targeted machine or laser-gun fire from opposing aircraft can all be defeated by running for several seconds during a very tense moment, then diving flat-out behind some dramatically placed cover. You'd think sci-fi heroes would skip right to the 40-yard dash anytime a problem came up, but then all geek movies would be 15 minutes long.

8. Artificial gravity is only used to make walking on spaceships easy.

Hey, look, we've found a way to efficiently and effectively manipulate one of the four fundamental forces of the universe, no doubt bespeaking an incredible advance in our understanding of quantum physics, matter, energy, and the nature of all existence. And all we use it for is simulating Earth gravity on spaceships. No graviton guns. No zero-point energy sources. No wild and fantastic meta-tech based on the new science. Nope, just walking around on spaceships. Awesome.

7. Aliens speak English, or at least learn it in about five minutes.

The English language is a lot of things, but intuitive and logical aren't on the list. Every rule of spelling, grammar, punctuation, and general usage has about eleventy-dozen exceptions, yet aliens either show up from day one knowing how to speak English (or, more likely, American), or learn it by reading an old MS Encarta disk or watching 24 hours of basic cable. Look, there are people who have heard nothing but English their entire lives who can't figure out how to pronounce nuclear, and that's before we introduce slang and regional dialects into the equation. Any breed of alien smart enough to master the Queen's English and hip-hop jive in less than a day is obviously too smart to ever be defeated by mere humans. (Unless we run fast, possibly from a nuclear blast.)

6. The only fallout from time-travel paradoxes is slapstick comedy.

Okay, so you've somehow gone back in time and begun interacting with history. Set aside the facts that you've added mass and energy to the universe (whoa), that even subtle interactions will have effects on the position and energy of every microcosmic particle and photon of light you come across, domino-ing out across the universe for all time (double whoa), or that your very biology is uncontrollably introducing bacteria, viruses, and antibodies into a world where possibly none such have even existed before (d'oh). You can still go meet yourself at a younger age, but Younger You won't recognize Older You, and you won't instantly cease to exist because you've directly destroyed the version of yourself that led to the one that went back in time. Nope, you'll just date your mom, possibly becoming your own father — because that's the sole horrible consequence of time-travel that must be avoided at all costs.

5. Clones turn out just like the originals, memories and all.

Even though twins that share the same womb don't turn out exactly alike, often possessing varying heights, weights, eye colors, skin colors, and always different fingerprints (to say nothing of unique personalities), artificially developed clones that were grown at high speed in a vat will not only look just like the original person, but will have the same scars, the same haircut, the same corrected dentition and, oh yeah, the same memories as the original, too. Because all of that stuff is genetically inherited. Lamarckism triumphant. It's a wonder we waste time having new kids at all, what with the necessity of teaching them and everything. Shut down schools and bring in the human photocopier.

4. Giant monsters not only exist, but can walk, run, fly, and probably breathe fire.

The largest animal ever to exist on Earth — and in Earth's gravity — is the Blue Whale, at about 100 feet long and a weight of 200 tons. Probably the largest animal ever to walk on Earth, Argentinosaurus, was about as long but half that weight. Neither of these beasties can/could move fast, catch active prey, or do much of anything scary for fear of collapsing under their own weight. And to make a creature any bigger using stuff like bones and flesh is more or less impossible, because bones and flesh have maximum tensile strengths. So that 20-storey lizard that can fly, breathe fire, and...oh yeah...jump without collapsing into a pile of rent flesh is a little suspect. Wicked cool, but suspect.

3. Faster-than-light travel, with no spacetime consequences

We'll spot you the warp drive, fantastically implausible as it is, but if you're going to move faster than 186,000 miles per second, there's going to be some relativistic fallout. The people on your starship aren't going to age at the same rate as the folks back home. You remember those home-front folks, right? The ones that keep radioing you realtime plot updates despite the fact that radio couldn't ever catch you, or any information you exchange would be years out of sync because of time dilation. And even if you have some sort of wormhole/teleportation drive that just instantly zaps you across the galaxy, the now there still isn't the same as the now here, because time is not a constant across the universe. That is, unless your adventure can be wrapped up in 60 minutes or less, minus commercials. Then Einstein doesn't apply, obviously.

2. Teleportation that isn't just a giant quantum Xerox.

Basic rule of text messaging vs. snail mail — it's easier and cheaper to move information than matter. Thus, if we've got the tech that can build a human being (and his manly sidearm) out of pure energy, why would we bother destroying the original? Moreover, why would we mess with taking the original apart and shuffling his original atoms across the spacetime void when we could just replicate Dashing Hero-2 from stock matter and leave Dashing Hero-1 comfy at home? Heck, why not copy Dashing Hero onto every ship in the fleet, since he's awesome and undefeatable? Oh, right, because audiences react better to an ensemble cast. My bad.

1. Super powers that never wrack up an energy debt or cognitive backlash

Okay, so we'll accept the conceit that some spectacularly unlikely genetic mutation will give a human the power to shoot lasers from his eyes or generate magnetic thrust for flight. But where exactly does the energy behind the laser-gazes and the magno-jet-butt come from? Does FlyBoy or LaserFace eat a metric ton of cornflakes every hour to build up a calorie store? And if so, how exactly are they packing away those calories in an efficient manner? Because there are some major oil corporations and auto manufacturers who would love to know. Oh, and that superspeed dude who can move fast enough to search the entire city in five seconds? Even though he looks uber-fast to us, isn't he experiencing super-speed as everything else just slowing down, so to him searching the whole city would take months, get really boring, and probably at least require a shave, if not a coffee break to preserve his sanity? And wouldn't Mr. Magnet have some strong feelings about Wi-Fi hot spots that he can feel and/or see? Nope, they're all just normal people who look and act just like us — well, just like J. Crew models, at least — except when they fly, run super fast, or shoot lasers from their faces. And their energy comes magically from nowhere. Who wouldn't believe that?

Honorable mention - Giant humanoid military robots with swords

But then, I hate to repeat myself.

Got a sci-fi trope you love to hate? Rant all about it in the comments, if you dare.


Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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