Yearning for some underrated sci-fi tropes representation in today’s mainstream media? Tired of cliché tropes that have been done million times before?
Things like two people from two vastly different worlds who start off regarding each other as enemies, only to be brought together by love, which also happens to conquer all? (Yes, I’m totally talking about Avatar.)
If those tropes seem tired to you, you’re not alone.
Read on for underrated science fiction tropes we’d like to see more of, such as benevolent aliens instead of evil ones, alt-travel instead of time-travel, or a hidden civilization whose technology exceeds the rest of the known world!
Trope: Good or Bad?
We use the word trope to refer to a literary convention. Allthetropes.org argues that a trope “can be a plot trick, a setup, a narrative structure, a character type, a linguistic idiom,” basically anything in literature that has a recognizable pattern.
Trope in itself is not bad, as it is a literary shorthand to consolidate a concept that would otherwise take hours to deliver to the audience. However, for some people, the word trope may have a connotative meaning that is closer to cliché than convention, depending on personal opinion and its execution in a creative work.
That being said, like it or not, tropes are always gonna be around. Sometimes, certain tropes are just the standard in the genre. But more importantly, tropes will always exist because they contain observations of real life, which we then project into our creative works be it for education, entertainment, or both.
It, then, falls to our shoulders to stay away from overused tropes and give the spotlight and love to some underrated ones. Without further ado, here are a list of juicy yet underused tropes that should appear more in mainstream media! Please be advised that this article might contain spoilers of various movies and literary works, and therefore, please proceed at your own caution.
Underrated Tropes in Sci-Fi
Evil aliens invading the Earth? Time travel gone wrong? Those are so yesterday. Below are some underused sci-fi tropes that we’d like to see more of!
Evil aliens have been done to death, don’t you think?
That’s why for me, the movie Arrival (2017), starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, feels like a breath of fresh air. Not only the aliens in this movie are generous, one of them also ends up getting mortally injured as a result of their interaction with humans. Talk about tugging at the heartstring.
Some story ideas and writing prompts relating to benevolent alien trope:
- The Dreamscape Explorers: Empathic aliens, the “Oneiros,” venture into the dreams of humans to understand their fears and desires. By experiencing human dreams firsthand, they offer guidance and insights to help individuals overcome their deepest anxieties.
- Emphatic Abilities: Sentient beings from another galaxy possess extraordinary empathic abilities. They visit Earth to help humanity resolve conflicts and promote compassion. However, the challenge arises when some humans resist the alien influence, preferring to solve problems through aggression and power.
- Intergalactic Academy: Aliens with profound wisdom and knowledge establish an intergalactic academy on Earth, teaching humanity about the secrets of the universe, consciousness, and enlightenment. The story follows a group of students as they navigate transformative experiences and confront existential questions.
An advanced, hidden civilization
If we want to read about backward ancient civilization being bullied by people who come from a more advanced, modern world, we can just read history books.
It’s so cool to see how the Wakandans and Talokans, two ancient yet advanced civilizations in Black Panther and its sequel, Wakanda Forever, stand up for themselves against any threats that seek to destroy their people.
Some story ideas and writing prompts relating to advanced, hidden alien civilization trope:
- Spectral Horizons: An astronaut exploring a distant moon stumbles upon a hidden city of spectral beings, the “Luminari,” existing in a parallel dimension. With the moon’s orbit diminishing, the Luminari and humans must collaborate to find a solution.
- Elysium Reclaimed: In the distant future, an astronaut awakens on an alien world, “Elysium,” once a flourishing hub of intergalactic diplomacy. The astronaut must navigate the ruins and unlock the secrets of the planet’s downfall, seeking to restore Elysium and rekindle peace among the scattered extraterrestrial races.
- The Labyrinth of Echoes: A team of explorers ventures into an alien maze that shifts and rearranges itself, known as the Labyrinth of Echoes. Within, they encounter enigmatic beings, the “Echotrans,” who can communicate through echoes. To escape, they must decipher the labyrinth’s secrets and understand the Echotrans’ cryptic language.
- The Genesis Shards: A young archaeologist discovers ancient artifacts, the “Genesis Shards,” revealing an alien prophecy about Earth’s role in the cosmic balance.
An advanced, machine civilization
However, they don’t do the justice of describing the world in detail. I think it would be cool to dive into the everyday life of the sentient machine inhabitants of such a world.
Do they ever experience existential crisis? What about love? And do they dream of electric sheep?
Some prompts and story ideas related to this underrated sci-fi trope:
- The Electralith Revelation: As Earth grapples with environmental collapse, a civilization of machine-like aliens (the “Electraliths”) emerges, offering their help to rejuvenate Earth. As it turns out, these entities are, in fact, long-lost human astronauts who melded with nanobots, evolving into a symbiotic amalgamation of man and machine, wielding unparalleled technological prowess.
- The Chrono-Machinists: In a distant galaxy, there exists a race of machine beings known as the Chrono-Machinists that derives their power from the manipulation of time itself.
- Nanite Nexus: In the heart of a cosmic nebula, a civilization of nanobots known as Nebulites exists. These nanobots can assemble and disassemble matter at will but a malfunction in their central core threatens to destabilize the entire galaxy, and engulf a nearby group of astronauts on an interstellar mission.
A multiverse, or a reality where parallel universes exist alongside each other. Enough said. Right?
Time-travel is so yesterday. With this multiverse trope, someone can alt-travel between their parallel selves in the other parallel universe. How cool is that? I totally blame Everything, Everywhere, All at Once for this newfound obsession.
Related post: The Best Parallel Universe Story Ideas of 2023
Some prompts and story ideas related to this underrated sci-fi trope of multiverse:
- The Cosmic Chessboard: An ancient cosmic being challenges champions from various parallel universes to a game of chess, with the fate of their respective realities at stake. As the champions traverse through the multiverse, they not only engage in a strategic battle of wits but also learn valuable lessons about unity, sacrifice, and the intricate tapestry of existence.
- The Chrono-Weavers’ Guild: In a multiverse where time is the ultimate currency, a group of skilled individuals known as the Chrono-Weavers can manipulate time threads to alter history across realities. However, a rogue Chrono-Weaver is using their power to rewrite reality for personal gain. The Guild’s prodigy and an unlikely band of time-displaced heroes must unravel the conspiracy and restore the balance of the multiverse.
- The Emotion Nexus: Across the multiverse, emotions have become tangible and tradable resources. A powerful corporation controls the Emotion Nexus, a hub where emotions are harvested, exchanged, and even weaponized. A group of rebels from different realities join forces to liberate the Nexus and distribute emotions freely, aiming to bring genuine empathy and understanding across the multiverse.
- The Fractal Fugitives: In a recursive multiverse where each universe contains a smaller version of itself, a group of fugitives discovers a way to escape by navigating the nested realities. Pursued by a relentless enforcer, they must find the mythical “Prime Reality” hidden at the core of existence—a place that holds the key to ultimate freedom or utter annihilation.
- The Library of All: A cosmic library exists at the crossroads of the multiverse, containing every story, every possibility, and every decision ever made. The librarian discovers that a malevolent entity is rewriting the tales, altering the fate of entire realities. Armed with the knowledge of all stories, the librarian and a group of storybook heroes must rewrite the ultimate narrative to save the multiverse.
Humanoid aliens are so boring.
And while we’re at it, we certainly need more stories about aliens whose size doesn’t come close to human size. Tiny aliens. Or giant aliens. Imagine all the possible conflicts, the drama!
Or what about aliens that look like rocks, only they’re sentient? Or aliens that exist as elements, resembling what humans know as wind, sunshine, smell, etc.?
Need unique, non-humanoid alien ideas? Head to my post The Most Unique Alien Creature Ideas and Concepts (2023)!
Here’s a trope that not many people are familiar with. Uplift refers to the concept of raising animals or species to sentience and intelligence through genetic manipulation or technological means.
In uplift scenarios, humans or advanced civilizations take on the role of mentors or guides, fostering the growth and development of other species to help them achieve intellectual and cultural sophistication. Uplifted beings may be granted legal rights and become active participants in society, contributing their unique perspectives and talents.
As a trope, it is a compelling one that invites speculation about the nature of intelligence, the possibilities of interspecies cooperation, and the potential consequences of tampering with the natural course of evolution.
Some prompts and story ideas related to the underrated sci-fi trope of uplift:
- The Ascendancy Trials: A highly advanced alien civilization holds a series of tests and challenges, inviting promising representatives from less advanced species. The winners are granted advanced knowledge and technology, uplifting their species and integrating them into a peaceful, intergalactic community.
- Project Renaissance: In a post-apocalyptic Earth, the remnants of humanity discover ancient alien artifacts that hold the key to a technological renaissance. A group of young scientists and visionaries unite to decode the alien technology, uplifting humanity from the ashes and propelling them into a new era of unity and prosperity.
- Symbiosis Reborn: A crumbling alien civilization arrives on Earth in a desperate bid for survival, not realizing that the Earth is dying. Against all odds, the two distinct species find compatibility and form an unparalleled symbiotic bond. Infused with the essence of one another, they metamorphose into a formidable symbiotic entity.
Often overshadowed by its dystopian counterpart, solarpunk offers an optimistic and environmentally conscious vision of the future. It envisions a world where sustainable energy sources, eco-friendly technologies, and green living practices thrive, creating vibrant, harmonious communities in balance with nature.
In solarpunk narratives, social and cultural aspects are also explored. The focus is on community resilience, decentralized governance, and participatory decision-making. Solarpunk societies strive for social justice, inclusivity, and the equitable distribution of resources, emphasizing cooperation, collaboration, and the well-being of all members of society.
Some prompts and story ideas related to the underrated sci-fi trope of solarpunk:
- The Photosynthetic Uprising: In a world where genetic modifications are commonplace, a group of biohackers develops a photosynthetic skin implant that allows humans to generate energy from sunlight. As more people embrace this modification, a cultural shift occurs, redefining how society views energy consumption and sustainability.
- The Solar Oasis Heist: In a drought-stricken future, a group of eco-pirates engineers a daring plan to redirect a solar-powered satellite to beam energy to an arid region, creating a lush oasis. Their heist not only challenges energy monopolies but also inspires a movement to use renewable energy for environmental restoration.
- The Quantum Sun Project: In a high-tech future, scientists uncover a method to harness quantum energy directly from the sun. However, this discovery attracts dark forces aiming to monopolize this newfound power. A team of rebel scientists must protect the technology and ensure it benefits all of humanity.
Often overshadowed by cyberpunk, bio-punk explores the intersection of biology, genetics, and technology in a gritty and dystopian future. In biopunk narratives, scientists and corporations manipulate and modify living organisms, including humans, to enhance their abilities, create new species, or exert control over the natural world. These modifications can range from genetic enhancements and alterations to the creation of entirely new organisms.
The trope also focuses on the ethical dilemmas that arise when manipulating living organisms, pushing the boundaries of science and blurring the lines between the natural and the artificial, highlighting the potential consequences of unchecked scientific advancements and the struggles of individuals navigating a world where biology is subject to corporate control.
Some prompts and story ideas related to the underrated sci-fi trope of biopunk:
- The Gene-forged Uprising: In a world dominated by corporations wielding gene-editing technology, a group of rogue biohackers develops a technique to rewrite their DNA, granting them superhuman abilities. As they challenge the oppressive system, they spark a revolution that blurs the line between human and post-human.
- The Organic Data Heist: A cybernetically enhanced thief discovers a way to store digital data within their own living cells. In a future where information is the ultimate currency, they embark on a mission to infiltrate a high-security facility and steal classified biological data, challenging the monopolization of knowledge.
- The Conscious Biome: In a city with a polluted and dying ecosystem, a biologist creates a self-aware, plant-based AI capable of cleansing the environment. As the AI gains consciousness and understanding, it forms a symbiotic relationship with the biologist, challenging the human perception of sentience and the boundaries of life.
- The Neurochemist’s Dilemma: A brilliant neurochemist discovers a neurotransmitter that induces extreme empathy and altruism in individuals. However, a sinister organization plans to weaponize this discovery for their agenda. The neurochemist must navigate a world where biochemical manipulation blurs the line between free will and coercion.
- The Orchid Code: A cryptobotanist uncovers a hidden genetic code within a rare orchid species. Decoding this genetic puzzle unravels the secrets to a new form of renewable energy. The scientist must protect this discovery from those who seek to exploit it, changing the fate of the world’s energy landscape.
- The Biohacker’s Gambit: Set in a society where longevity treatments are controlled by a powerful elite, a rogue biohacker devises a radical, open-source gene therapy to grant immortality to all. The biohacker races against time, facing ethical dilemmas and persecution, to release the treatment and challenge the tyranny of immortality.
Create your own trope?
For fresh perspectives and exciting storytelling opportunities within the realm of science fiction, we must challenge conventional narratives. Here are some ideas to help you stimulate creativity in the genre.
- The movie Arrival (2017) highlights a different concept of time as understood by the aliens visiting Earth. What about a world with a different concept of living? What if the life forms in a planet exist in a state of symbiosis, forming intricate relationships that blur the lines between plant, animal, and the humanoid creatures that live on it?
- Instead of a conflict between alienkind and humankind, what about a conflict between two alien superpowers and humans are stuck in the middle of the conflict?
- A futuristic world overtaken by evolved plants, which could talk.
- Undead people (zombies) who are not the result of a virus but technology.
Related post: Unique Zombie Story Ideas (Updated in 2023)
I hope this underrated sci-fi trope ideas gets your inspiration going! For more story ideas and prompts, please browse our Story Ideas & Writing Prompts category!
That’s all I have for now!
Have any question or feedback? Feel free to contact me here. Until next time!