Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Speculative Fiction Tropes: Vicious Cycle

Today continues the April A-Z Challenge. This month, I'll be blogging (almost) daily about a different speculative fiction trope, one for each letter of the alphabet. Today's entry is on the Vicious Cycle.

Some of the most compelling works of speculative fiction find their protagonists struggling to defeat a seemingly unstoppable force with the fate of the world (or galaxy) on the line. Whether it be a single villain, an evil empire, or an antagonistic force of nature, the odds are steep.

One of the ways some writers may illustrate the daunting task at hand is to incorporate a time limit of some kind. The villain must be stopped in ten days, or the world will come to an end! To reinforce this, the reader is clued in to what happened the last time the world faced this danger. For you see, this has all happened before.

The concept of an endlessly repeating cycle with a major event of some kind at the point of revolution is not new. Religious and philosophical traditions from many corners of the world have embraced similar concepts throughout history, from the "wheel of time" seen in Hinduism and Buddhism (which inspired one of the items on today's recommended reading list) to the "eternal return" expounded by the Pythagoreans and Stoics. There's also a (discouragingly large) group of people convinced that our world will be ending this December when our current cycle on the Mayan long count calendar ends.

Even in science, cyclical existence has been supposed from time to time. There have been a few cosmological models over the years that posit an oscillating universe, endlessly ping-ponging between a big bang and a big crunch.

In fiction, the cycle is usually tinged with a sense of threat and foreboding. The cycle must be broken! How often have you read or heard that line? More than a few, I'd wager.

A wonderfully cheesy example is the The Fifth Element, a 1997 sci-fi action flick starring Bruce Willis and Gary Oldman. Willis plays Korban Dallas, a former special forces operative who now makes a living driving a flying taxicab. With the aid of Chris Tucker's ear-abrading screech and Milla Jovovich's propensity for nudity, he must stop a Great Evil that arises every 5000 years to reap chaos and destruction across the galaxy.

Like a lot of the tropes I've mentioned in this series, this one can drift into cliche territory when not handled well. But in the right hands, a vicious cycle can be used to build effective drama and tension as the reader moves toward the climax. It lends itself particularly well to stories involving ancient prophecies, chosen ones, and the like. For this reason, it's probably more common in the fantasy genre.

I've yet to incorporate a vicious cycle into any of my own work, though I'm not opposed to the idea. In the meantime, I'll be counting down the days to December. Hopefully, I don't have a cycle of my own to break. My guidance counselor told me I would make a terrible chosen one.

Recommended Reading:
Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan
Manifold: Space by Stephen Baxter
Nightfall by Isaac Asimov

Recommended Viewing:
The Matrix
The Dark Crystal
Battlestar Galactica

Recommended Gaming:
Mass Effect
Phantasy Star
The Legend of Zelda


  1. Another fascinating post. I love stopping by here!

    This isn't something I've ever tackled, and I'm not sure I'd have the courage to either; for fear of sinking into the cliche hole.

    And I think a lot of people are hoping for an apocalypse or something this December just through sheer boredom of the status quo. You have to admit; it would be interesting...

    1. Thanks so much, Angeline! I'm glad you're enjoying it. I've had a blast writing these, and will most likely continue this series in some shape or form after A to Z is over.

      As far as the 2012 apocalypse . . . well, interesting is one way to put it! I just hope if it's true, we get something good on the wheel o' doom. I don't think I want a zombie apocalypse, though it's probably the one I'm most prepared for. :P

  2. Funny thing is that two of your video examples, the writers managed to screw such a wonderful concept and in the "cheesy" one, they pulled it off. Oh the irony, it hurts!

    1. I was definitely aware of that when posting it, especially after recently finishing Mass Effect 3. What a doozy that ending was! I find the less literal I interpret the climax, the more I like it, but I hope Bioware does the right thing and tries to deliver some closure to all of the upset fans.

  3. I loved The Fifth Element! But then again, I've yet to see a Bruce Willis movie I don't like. I even enjoyed Maddie and David. ;)

    Great post once again, J.W., you explain speculative fiction tropes so concisely(for every freakin letter of the alphabet!), I'm gonna use your blog as a reference place to look stuff up.

    And I'll be damned, you give gaming examples too!

    1. I wish more movies would embrace the cheese as unabashedly as The Fifth Element did! It's one of those movies I can watch on a yearly basis and never get tired of. It's just fun!

      I'm glad you're enjoying the tropes series! It's been great fun, and came at a time when I was searching for direction for this blog. I think I'm going to continue it as a monthly feature when the A to Z challenge is over. There's certainly enough tropes to work with!

    2. Yaay!! I look forward to that. :)

  4. Man, I just beat Mass Effect and saw the title to this post and immediately thought of the reapers (haha). I didn't know this was such a trope, but I think Bioware did a good job with the trope because it was only apparent when you pointed it out with these other examples.

    1. Despite all of the controversy with the ending, I think Mass Effect is probably my favorite gaming series of all time. Mass Effect 2 is one of the most perfect gaming experiences I've ever had, and the others in the series aren't far behind it. There were lots of tropes in the series, and Bioware handled them all pretty well!

    2. My favorite game up to this point is Uncharted 3, and come to think of if... it's got a vicious cycle in it too! Heeey!

  5. Agree with the interesting post comment. These posts of yours always leave me thinking-- I'm bummed that they're coming to an end-!

    This one reminds me of Twelve Monkeys. That one threw me for a pretty big loop--- no pun intended ;)

    1. Twelve Monkeys was great! I think I'm due for a rewatch of that one.

      Fear not, Randicop! The speculative fiction tropes series will return. As I mentioned to a few other people, I'm probably going to make it a monthly feature after the challenge is over. It's been a blast! Thanks for reading them. :)


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