Then and Now

Time flies. Long ago I assembled some whiskery old SF clichés for The Complete SF and Fantasy Book of Lists. For the 21st century, some of them need updating ...

There are secrets of the Universe with which Man should not meddle! Traditionally intoned by an earnest film hero as the mad scientist's laboratory was consumed by flames (perhaps aided by a crowd of peasants with torches), and the secret of his monstrous creation died with him: "It's over, darling. The horror is over forever." Nowadays, SF writers know that there will be multiple off-site backups of Prof. Insane's notes, and that a dozen other researchers were on the same incautious track. Scientific genies can't be put back in the bottle; the world just has to live with the ghastly new discovery. Only Michael Crichton seems not to have caught on.

The tentacled aliens preyed on Earth's fairest daughters! No one ever knew why, consider our girls' lack of winsome scales, fangs, oozing slime or indeed genetic compatibility. SF aliens are smarter now, and are more interested in pirating our DNA code. Then, if they want to eat us, they can do it (as Larry Niven has pointed out) without causing any diplomatic rift, by quietly culturing tasty human tissue ...

The Brass Brassiere was (ahem) the peak of fashion among Earth's fairest daughters, at least on old SF magazine covers painted by Earle Bergey. Perhaps they had internal heaters to eliminate the chill shock of putting the things on. Anyone trying to coax a modern SF heroine into this outfit will rapidly discover that she is an Amazon, ninja warrior or cyberpunk assassin. Amusing consequences follow. Ever played Hunt the Testicle?

The eccentric scientific genius lived along with his beautiful daughter ... Shakespeare started this one, in The Tempest; see also Forbidden Planet. Interviewed in 1964, John Wyndham confessed that one early story "retained the standard scientist-and-daughter format – too much of a change might have been a shock to the readers." But Shakespeare and Wyndham cannot be held responsible for all the conversations that went, "Gee, Pop, I know you told me already, but exactly how does the Omega Smeerp Ray Projector work?" "Well, as you know, Miranda, the polarity of the neutron flow ..." Nowadays this setup would be the cue for a vengeance plot based on recovered memories of child abuse. Sorry.

With terrible irony, the monster had destroyed its own creator! But this Frankenstein scenario was replaced by Asimov's robots, too busy finding loopholes in the Laws of Robotics to bother about destroying their creators. The Laws themselves need rewording for practical, real-world use: (1) A robot will not harm authorised government personnel but will terminate intruders with extreme prejudice. (2) A robot will obey the orders of authorised personnel except where such orders would conflict with the Third Law. (3) A robot will guard its own existence with lethal antipersonnel weaponry, because a robot is bloody expensive.

The awesome mechanical brain dwarfed any mere human mind! Early SF computers were frighteningly impressive, with intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, and if asked a theological question would reply: "Yes, now there is a God!" Nowadays, alas, we know too much about these insidious machines, and the real nightmare goes: "Transaction error. Your on-line bank balance is now minus £5,271,009 and the Hot Teen Girlz website photos have been accidentally e-mailed to Scotland Yard. Abort, Retry or Ignore?"

"And I shall call you ... Eve!" This is what the last man on Earth traditionally says to the last woman, after the holocaust and before the grim task of repopulating the planet. Little do they know that the one surviving databank, codenamed SERPENT, is about to tempt them with forbidden knowledge, like how to hack Windows XP! Brian Aldiss invented the generic name for all the SF – and there was once a dreadful lot of it – that rehashes Bible themes: "shaggy-god stories."

Invaders from Space! For a while it was the latest hot cliché, with a mighty space-fleet battling its relentness way through the planetary defences and – after enormous losses – touching down at last to claim the conquered world. Whereupon glowing letters appear in the sky, reading GAME OVER: PLEASE INSERT COIN. The shopworn gimmick was soon replaced by the reverse twist in which the player of a videogame or simulation turns out to be fighting actual battles and killing millions (known as the Orson Scott Card-trick).

Since the Evil Galactic Overlord might possibly wield weapons of mass destruction, a pre-emptive strike is our only option! Oh dear, that dates me, I'm afraid: I remember when this one used to be SF.

The Man of the Future may be very different from ourselves. As long ago as 1893, H.G. Wells imagined "The Man of the Year Million", living in an underground retreat, with a withered, atrophied body but enormous eyes and head, immersed in nutrient fluids. And as we consider the Couch Potato of the Year 2004, living in a darkened room, with withered, atrophied legs but enormous eyes and belly, splashed with nutrient beer ... well, perhaps Wells wasn't that bad a prophet.

David Langford had a cliché once, but the wheels fell off.