Perhaps there is an advantage after all (aside from sheer pleasure) of reading a tome such as The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. As I mentioned earlier, Ed Schubert sent back my story “Wake Me When We Get There” because he’d published a similar story a few issues back. The story is about an astronaut who comes out of suspended animation prematurely when her equipment fails on the way back from a long mission. Apparently, this theme (which I thought pretty original), is fairly common. (Allen Steel has a similarly themed story, I think.)
In going through the Encyclopedia, I am finding that Clute and Nicholls are very good at highlighting what they think are overused themes or cliches in s.f. I’m keeping an eye out for these. To some extent, they are overwhelming, but then I keep in mind Damon Knight’s advice in his book Creating Short Fiction. In part, he suggests taking the cliches and overused themes and turning them on their heads. Sometimes this has already been done, but it is still a good exercise in avoiding treading over well-worn territory. If the book does nothing else but help to highlight these areas, it’s worth it.
That’s not to say that an overly-used theme cannot make a good story. It is my belief (based on what I read in the magazines) that in some instances, good writing trumps cliches and themes. But that is the exception rather than the rule.