Science Fiction’s Secret Weakness Chamber

The other night, I watched Battle: Los Angeles, and while it was okay as a piece of reasonably brainless entertainment, it still suffered from what I call S.W.C.S. – Secret Weakness Chamber Syndrome.

Ever since the exhaust vent on the Death Star in Star Wars, all evil alien technology has come with a secret weakness, which is usually housed in a handy ‘secret weakness chamber’ located at the heart of the alien’s stronghold. This weakness allows our out-gunned and out-numbered heroes to defeat vast armies with a single blow.

In the Avengers and Independence Day, the alien hordes are controlled by a central mothership, the loss of which disables their forces. There’s a similar set-up in Edge of Tomorrow and Starship Troopers, in which the aliens troops are telepathically controlled by a single entity. In Battle Los Angeles, all the aliens’ technology is controlled via centralised command and control nodes, which just happen to make handy targets for the plucky marines. And in Captain America: Winter Soldier, the mechanism for disabling the deadly armoured helicarriers is housed, for some inexplicable reason, in easily accessible glass bubbles on the bottoms of their hulls.

And let’s not forget the Borg from Star Trek.

These weaknesses, or magic off-switches, can probably be traced back to War of The Worlds by H.G.Wells where, as I’m sure you already know, the Martian invaders – having defeated everything humanity can throw at them – are finally destroyed by germs.

These secret weaknesses make for involving plots, where the good guys get to fight back against seemingly overwhelming odds – but reality just isn’t that tidy. There is no simple re-set button to cancel the alien invasion. Instead of wiping them all out in a single explosion, you’re more likely to end up with alien casualties, prisoners-of-war, and guerrilla resistance. This is the lesson the US learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that Russia may soon learn in Ukraine: nothing ends cleanly.

That’s why in my novels The Recollection and The Embers of War trilogy, I confronted humanity with seemingly unstoppable foes; and purposely neglected to provide those foes with secret weaknesses. There is no off-switch, no central brain or control system; and so none of the usual space opera narratives work.

Sometimes, you can win a temporary cessation of hostilities. Other times, all you can do is fall back. Fall back, and survive.

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Author: Gareth L Powell


4 thoughts on “Science Fiction’s Secret Weakness Chamber”

  1. I have Earth lose an invasion in Area 51: Invasion. In fact, Earth would lose in any alien invasion because if they can get here and have the logistical support to invade (aka Russia doesn’t in Ukraine) we’re pretty much screwed. On the other hand, I’ve been hoping Canada (could be considered alien?) invades the US and brings healthcare, but it doesn’t seem likely.

  2. I agree and the S.W.C.S. makes for great movies and television, but would be less plausible in that unfortunate reality. One of my favorite sci-fi series that follows your premise is Harry Turtledove’s alternate history “WorldWar” series, in which an alien race invades Earth with the goal of colonizing during the opening days of World War II. Without spoilers, they find themselves completely unprepared for how easily humans make war, as well as our innate ability to reverse-engineer captured technology and use it against them. So begins a war of attrition with losses piling up on both sides.
    Sound familiar?

  3. Also reminds me of the missing scales at the heart of the dragon where the sword discretely hits the mark. Thinking of the giant starfish in The Suicide Squad.

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