Exploring the Used Future Trope in Science Fiction

rusty robot - illustration for used future trope science fiction article

In Praise of a Broken Future

I’ve always loved science fiction where the technology is simultaneously amazing and a piece of junk.  Give me interstellar spaceships that are so rusty and worn out that they barely make the journey, robots and computers that need a little “percussive maintenance” to make them work, and groundbreaking gadgets that could change the world, if only they had a fresh battery, some new wiring, and… never mind, it’s on fire again.

This kind of mixed technology is an example of the used future trope. The term “used future” looks to have been coined by George Lucas:

“The trouble with the future in most futuristic movies is that it always looks new and clean and shiny. What is required for true credibility is a used future. The Apollo capsules were instructive in that regard. By the time the astronauts returned from the moon, you had the impression the capsules were littered with weightless candy wrappers and old Tang jars, no more exotic than the family station wagon. And although Star Wars has no points of reference to Earth… it is a decidedly inhabited and used time and place.”George Lucas Brings Excitement Back to Your Galaxy by Carl Bennett, Scintillation, June 1977

The used future trope features a futuristic or fantastical setting that, despite its advanced technology, is shown as worn, dirty, and lived-in, sometimes even decaying. In addition to space operas like Star Wars and Firefly, the used future aesthetic is also seen in post-apocalyptic, retrofuturistic, and cyberpunk works.

So, what is so great about used future and how can we use it to tell stories?

World Building

Have you ever walked into someone’s home and felt uncomfortable because it was just too clean and neat? An excessively clean and tidy house can feel more like a museum than a home. It’s the same way with fictional worlds. The used future trope can a little dirt and worn edges to your world building, making your story feel more comfortable, homey, and authentic, a place your readers will want to visit and explore.

By giving your tech some rust spots, you can make your world feel more realistic, like someplace people actually live. A few cosmetic touches can make your world seem like it has a history, even if you haven’t bothered to write one. Scratches, dents, and other imperfections imply that your world and the characters in it have been around awhile and have had past adventures.

The used future trope can also be used for foreshadowing. Highlighting aging or flawed technology can hint that your Evil Empire is really an empire in decline, Rome about to collapse.

Creating Contrast

Used future trope details can create contrast between one character or group and another, such as the Cool Winners and the Plucky Underdogs, the Establishment and the Outsiders, the Evil Empire and the Rebels, and other opposing groups.

The used future trope allows you to quickly show disparities in power and resources. The Evil Empire marches through a recently-defeated village, showing off their gleaming armor, cutting-edge battle robots, and deadly weapons. On the other side of the galaxy, the Rebels struggle to repair their tiny fleet of ships. Their scavenged tech is heavily patched, showing the scars of past battles where they barely made it out alive. While the Evil Empire seems to have every advantage, the contrast shows the Rebels’ resilience, determination, and ability to thrive despite limited resources.

Revealing Characters

The used future trope adds depth to fictional worlds and provides opportunities for readers to get to know your characters. Technology that shows signs of being repaired, patched up, or held together with duct tape and prayers can highlight a character’s resourcefulness, determination, adaptability, and even good luck.

The used future trope can also reveal what is most important to a character, a character’s special ability, or an obsessive interest. A character might suffer through a broken used future, except for one piece of pristine, new tech. This might be an assassin who only buys new tech when it’s a weapon, a hacker who spends all his time online and lets his physical life fall apart, or a cyborg that spends all her money on tech implants and doesn’t have anything to spare to fix her ship’s life support.

Even the reasoning behind technical malfunctions can reveal your characters. A piece of important technology breaks down at the worst possible moment, all because of your character’s fatal flaw. The car wouldn’t start because your protagonist was too lazy to get an oil change. The starship’s shields failed because Rocket Rachel was too cheap to pay for repairs. A wealthy and privileged character could start out with a perfectly functional spaceship, but discover a group of racers with beat up old junkers and decide to give his ship a low tech “makeunder” to fit in better with the new crowd. Whatever reasoning you choose, the important thing is that the protagonist suffers through the consequences of their character flaw, learns, and grows.

Switching off a Deus Ex Machina

Does your story feature a powerful piece of technology that could solve all your characters’ problems in a paragraph? Give it a malfunction! Your hero could go back and stop Hitler, if only his time machine would stop dropping him off in the disco era. This starship race would be good as won, if only the ship’s AI weren’t so snarky. The inventor’s marriage would be perfect, if his android wife would stop bursting into flames every time they try to get romantic.

Humor and Personality

Incorporating the used future trope is a great way to add humor to your writing and make characters more likeable. A character’s frustration at faulty technology is something we all can understand. Readers might have trouble connecting with an alien priestess of a mysterious cult. But if you show the priestess stopping her meditation session to swear at HoverSpeaker playing the wrong nature sounds, suddenly she becomes relatable.

The contrast created between high tech and broken junk can create endless opportunities for humor and running jokes. Your character might have to give a presentation on his new human cloning techniques, but when he prints his notes, the printer runs out of ink, jams, and explodes. An army of robot warriors travels back in time to take over the world, but when they download the new battle plans, they have to use dial-up internet. An Air Force pilot attempts to fly a captured UFO, but its computers are choked with viruses, the touch screen controls don’t respond, and its coffee maker keeps spraying him in the eyes.

Giving a piece of technology some imperfections can give it a personality and make it a character in its own right. Think the Serenity from Firefly or the TARDIS from Doctor Who. Their imperfections make them far more interesting and entertaining than perfectly functional vehicles ever could be.

Creating Tension

The used future trope can help make your story more exciting.

A technical failure at the wrong moment can be a great way to increase the tension in a story. Not only does Rocket Rachel have to go up against an entire Evil Space Armada, now her ship’s shields are down, her robot copilot is on the fritz, and her AI therapist has a virus. However, malfunctions should never happen out of nowhere.

Every horror movie fan has suffered through this scene: A character running from danger jumps in their car. The car has been perfectly functional so far, but now that it’s needed the most, it suddenly doesn’t start.

Inconveniences that suddenly appear just to create tension can feel jarring, annoying, and even hacky. It’s a deus ex machina running in reverse. While a deus ex machina makes a writer look like they can’t come up with a good ending, an unexpected, random malfunction makes a writer look like they are unable to properly plan their plot.

If you want to use a technical malfunction to ramp up the tension in your story, hint at what’s coming with foreshadowing. Make the malfunction a reoccurring problem, not just a convenient plot device. Show the car breaking down before the danger occurs, or at least mention that it’s happened before. When the important malfunction happens later, it will feel integrated with the rest of the story, not something just thrown in for dramatic effect.


The used future trope is more than just an aesthetic. A future world with rust spots and worn edges is a great place to explore themes like social inequality, political and social oppression, rampant consumerism, environmental deterioration, and the inevitability of aging and death.

Used future grounds your world with a sense of history and realism. Just by describing some rust and wear, you can craft a world that readers will connect with on an emotional level. So, embrace the worn and weathered, and let your world’s imperfections tell stories of their own.

Exploring the Used Future Trope


  • “THX 1138” (1971)
  • “Silent Running” (1972)
  • “Dark Star” (1974)
  • “Star Wars” Original Trilogy (1977-1983)
  • “Mad Max” film series (1979, 1981, 1985, 2015, 2024)
  • “Alien” (1979)
  • “Outland” (1981)
  • “Blade Runner” (1982)
  • “1984” (1984)
  • “Brazil” (1985)
  • “Kin-dza-dza!” (1986)
  • “City of Lost Children” (1995)
  • “Cowboy Bebop” (1998)
  • “The Matrix” trilogy (1999-2003)
  • “Pitch Black” (2000)
  • “Serenity” (2005)
  • “Children of Men” (2006)
  • “City of Ember” (2008)
  • “Dredd” (2012)
  • “Snowpiercer” (2013)
  • “Elysium” (2013)
  • “Edge of Tomorrow” (2014)
  • “Blade Runner 2049” (2017)
  • “Prospect” (2018)


  • “Battlestar Galactica” (1978 / 2003)
  • “Babylon 5” (1984)
  • “Red Dwarf” (1988)
  • “Andromeda” (2000)
  • “Firefly” (2002)
  • “The Expanse” (2015)


  • “Consider Phlebas” by Iain M. Banks
  • “Record of a Spaceborn Few” by Becky Chambers
  • “Neuromancer” by William Gibson
  • “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson
  • “The Stars My Destination” by Alfred Bester
  • “The Windup Girl” by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” by Robert A. Heinlein
  • “The Time Machine” by H.G. Wells
  • “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by Philip K. Dick
  • “The Screaming Void” by a super handsome and talented writer.

Let's keep in touch.

Get my newsletter for the latest posts, book releases, and free stuff!

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy at https://dnschmidt.com/privacy-policy for more info.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *