I tackled the complex subject of genre clichés, archetypes, and originality in The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction:
Certain key components, like dragons in fantasy or robots in science fiction, are free for the taking. No one, even the estates of J.R.R. Tolkien or Isaac Asimov, can sue you for picking those archetypes up and running with them. But if you don’t give them a unique spin, agents and editors will shrug you off.
If the robot is an archetype, what makes your robot different than Asimov’s, Lucas’s, or anyone else’s? C-3PO’s gold “skin” was reminiscent of the Maria robot in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, but Threepio’s personality couldn’t be any more different. Lucas gave a nod back to one of the first science fiction movie epics, but he created robots all his own, robots that have stood the test of time. If you take any advice in this book, remember this:
Use every archetype in the genre toolbox, but make them your own.
Keeping that in mind, let’s dig a little deeper into some popular science fiction archetypes and where they came from.
Science fiction might appear, on first blush, to be more grounded in reality than fantasy, but a few of the “hardest” hard science fiction novels aside, I’m not sure that case can really be made. Fantasy authors often do extensive research into medieval technology and life, steampunk authors immerse themselves in Victoriana even while imagining airships and automatons, and even far-future science fiction does the same. We can research astronomy, spaceflight engineering, and so on, but what makes science fiction science fiction is the technology that doesn’t actually exist today but might exist tomorrow, or a thousand years from now. And like fantasy, which often feeds off myth, legend, and folklore for dragons, elves, magic wands and rings, and so on, science fiction feeds on itself for what has become an ever-growing lexicon of future technologies and concepts.
We know that the word “robot,” now increasingly a real thing, was first coined by the playwright Karel Capek in R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), all the way back in 1920. So when I said, “…robots in science fiction, are free for the taking,” was I encouraging you to rip off another science fiction author?
I suppose some argument could be made for that, but then everyone who’s ever used that word owes the Capek family money—and that would be a lot of money by now. It’s a strange, usually unseen or unremarked moment when some neologism (a newly coined word or expression) enters the realm of common usage, and sometimes those science fiction neologisms, like Karel Capek’s “robot” and William Gibson’s “cyberspace,” actually come true—someone eventually builds the thing.
But there are still a few—more than a few, really—imagined technologies that are still in the realm of science fiction but that have entered into common usage, at least in science fiction novels, movies, games, and so on. Here are three, which, like robots, are yours to put your own spin on:
A machine that allows for faster-than-light communication so two parties can communicate in real time over interstellar distances.
Radio waves travel at the speed of light, so if you want to talk to a friend on the planet Gliese 581g from your radio on Earth, your message, “Hey, Nancy, is that you?” will take twenty years to get there, and the reply, “Sorry, Nancy’s at work. Can I take a message?” will take another twenty years to get back to you, and any message you leave for Nancy will get to her a full sixty years after your first radio message.
The word “ansible,” which seems to just be a made up word, first appears in Rocannon’s World by Ursula K. Le Guin:
“But if your kinfolk, your friends, in the City Kerguelen, call you on the ansible, and there is no answer, will they not come to see—” Mogient saw the answer as Rocannon said it:
“In eight years…”
When he had shown Mogien over the Survey ship, and shown him the instantaneous transmitter, the ansible, Rocannon had told him also about the new kind of ship that could go from one star to another in no time at all.
I pushed a shiny red button. I pretended to be screaming of an invasion in a final, dying act along the securest ansible line. There were no intruders; it was all a sham. In the space of time between the admiral’s results from a scouting patrol, and the filing of official reports about that patrol, I exploited a hole in the network emergency protocols. It was such a simple hack in a procedural gap that I can only imagine what all the networks of the universe will do to prevent it from happening again.
The ansibles run precisely entangled at the quantum level, but time is ever relative.
Across campus, to the ansible attached to the space elevator, I looked up at the distant top, where ships drift away into sky. At the tip of the elevator, a signal line reached out across space and time with quantum entanglements. The binary signals of matter itself could be used to send data and create matter out of the chaos of hydrogen gas and ions and electrons.
Need characters to be able to talk to each other across interstellar distances? The ansible is there for you, but, like Joe McDermott has, give it your own spin—his functions as a transporter, too.
A personal and/or crew-served and/or vehicle-mounted weapon that projects some kind of energy beam or projectile.
Guns shoot bullets, big guns shoot shells. Laser guns shoot lasers. But blasters shoot… whatever you want them to shoot. Various scientific-sounding words like “plasma,” “fusion,” or “quantum” can be added to blaster, but in any case what you have here is a futuristic gun.
The blaster dates back all the way to the April 1925 issue of Weird Tales and the story “When the Green Star Waned” by Nictzin Dyalhis, though he spelled it Blastor:
The Blastor made no noise—it never does, nor do the big Ak-Blastors which are the fighting weapons used on the Aethir-Torps, when they are discharging annihilation—but that nauseous ugliness I had removed gave vent to a sort of bubbling hiss as it returned to its original atoms; and the others of our party hastened to where I stood shaking from excitement—Hul Jok was wrong when he said it was fear!—and they questioned me as to what I had encountered.
In the 1940 story “Coventry,” Robert A. Heinlein mentions a “portable blaster.” And of course they’re all over the Star Wars universe.
Blast away, blastermen!
The all-purpose currency of the future, credits take the place of dollars, euros, and rubles because surely all those things are going to go the way of the lira in the future.
The credit is the currency of the Traveller universe, Star Wars, Isaac Asimov’s Foundationseries, and… so many others, including the video game franchise Mass Effect. From the Mass Effect novel Revelation by Drew Karpyshyn:
She spun the screen to face him. The display showed several prospects, along with the allotted price for each. Groto had to check himself to keep from choking in shock when he saw the amounts. Unlike the whorehouses he usually frequented, hourly rates weren’t an option here. A full night at the Sanctuary was going to cost several hundred credits more than his entire bonus. For a brief second he considered turning around and just walking out, but if he did, the four hundred credits he’d paid at the door were gone for good.
According to the web site Technovelgy.com, the credit was first created by John W. Campbell, Jr. in the 1934 story “The Mightiest Machine”:
Right enough, and tell me why I have to build that five-million credit flying laboratory.
And that’s only the tip of the science fiction neologism iceberg. We stand on the shoulders of giants!