Just like any form of storytelling, science fiction has conventions that everyone immediately recognizes. They’re the kinds of tropes that have been around so long, they’re ingrained in our minds. When we see time travel or space battles, we think science fiction – it’s almost instinctual. But is there a point at which – as our collective understanding of real science advances – we should force a convention into retirement?
Conventions serve an important function in fiction. They let readers know what to expect, and enable writers spend more time developing the story and less on establishing the world it takes place in. Conventions can be both good and bad, and some are flat out necessary depending on the kind of story you want to tell, regardless of how realistic it is. A good example of a necessary convention is faster-than-light travel/communication. In a story that has a lot of space travel it’s the only way a character can get anything done in their lifetime without sacrificing all connections to their family, friends and colleagues. It will almost always be necessary if the author wants to get out of the solar system.
In other cases, it’s a bit less clear cut. An author has to weigh the cost of staying true to science with telling a compelling and dramatic story. Despite the fact that having a dogfight in space would be the stupidest form of space combat, Star Wars wouldn’t have been quite as emotionally engaging without the tense fight around the Death Star. Time travel is another dicey subject, and though it doesn’t seem possible, a lot of problems in fiction wouldn’t have been solved without it. Without the time-traveling TARDIS, the BBC’s Doctor Who couldn’t exist, and while it’s not always scientifically accurate, Doctor Who is a sci-fi treasure.
But if people enjoy these conventions and you can still tell a good story with them, what’s the harm? Well, some of them have been around for almost 100 years, and while on the surface that can look like “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” that’s not the case. Just like science is all about moving forward and innovation, so is science fiction. If writers don’t adapt to modern advances in science by coming up with new ideas for old problems, the genre will stagnate and become boring. And if that happens, people stop thinking about turning science fiction into science fact, and then we stagnate as a species.
So to all you science fiction writers out there: keep trying new things. Don’t settle for using the same tricks as those who came before you. Make new conventions and redefine the genre of science fiction. After all, it’s starting to seem like now is the perfect time for a new wave of sci-fi.