Humanity: Champs or Chumps?
A spectrum of how alien races and humanity coexist (or don't) in science
I expect that people have written proper scholarly dissertations on this
topic, but "someone's done a better job" has never stopped me from shooting
my virtual mouth off before, so why stop now?
I read a lot of science fiction, particularly from Baen these days thanks to their Free Library and
their enlightened ebook stance. And in stories where there's action taking
place off Earth, there's a pretty broad spectrum of answers to the question
of alien races, from "Humans are all that's out there" all the way to "What's
a hummin?" This essay is a stab at describing that spectrum in relatively
large "bins", five main categories each with a few sub-categories. Keep in
mind, many settings move along the spectrum, especially if the plot of the
story involves the first contact with an alien race.
Before I start, though, I should specify what I mean by "aliens", since
several of the sub-categories hinge on that definition. As far as this essay
is concerned, "aliens" means intelligent life forms whose place of
evolutionary origin is different from that of humanity. There might have
been some tinkering along the line to adjust aliens or humans or both (for
instance, the bit in Star Trek where it's revealed that the reason everyone
can interbreed is that an ur-species messed with the gene pools on hundreds
of worlds), but the point is that they're autochthonous to different star
systems. Being able to interbreed doesn't make them not alien, even if logic
says a human would have a better chance breeding with a cactus than with an
alien...sometimes you just accept the handwave (alien interference, "there's
only three successful biological models in the entire galaxy," gene splicing
test tube babies for mixed-species couples, whatever) and move on.
Back to the main essay page.
- No aliens, period. Humanity is the only intelligent life in known
space. Asimov's Foundation is probably the canonical "no aliens" setting,
and the Battlestar Galactica remake falls into this category too
(specifically, into 1.2).
- 1.1. Nothing but baseline humans. Pretty self-explanatory.
- 1.2. We Made "Aliens". Humanity turned to genetic modification to
colonize harsher worlds, and over the generations this has led to some pretty
alien-looking races, but they're all human in origin. If a period of
collapse happened during the timeline, it's possible that when recontact
occurs that no one knows that these races were once human. Alternately, we
created robots or uplifted animals that eventually became self-aware and
split off to form their own faction. Even those could end up diverging after
a collapse, seeming to be totally alien constructs upon recontact.
- 1.3. Seedlings. Humanity as we know it is actually part of a
post-collapse starfaring race already, but natural evolution has taken us and
other surviving colonies in different directions. Earth may be the cradle of
humanity, or it could have been colonized millions of years ago and all the
evidence of the once-mighty civilization decayed. All the aliens we
encounter are really our genetic relatives, but we may not know it at first.
The AT-43 wargaming setting appears to be like this, mixed in with some
gene-modded gorillas and robots.
- No currently technologically advanced aliens. This is the model
favored by settings that try to echo the Age of Sail era (a LOT of Baen
stuff, in other words).
- 2.1. Low-tech aliens. Every species we run into either hasn't made
it to spaceflight yet, or they've collapsed and regressed to barbarity. They
may initially not even seem to be sapient, like the Treecats of Weber's Honor
Harrington books. The "molts" in several of David Drake's settings fall into
this category. Any aliens you may see on spaceships in this sort of setting
got their tech from humans.
- 2.2. Archeological remains only. There's signs of previous
intelligent civilizations, either starfaring or not, but no one alive anymore
who'd qualify as intelligent. Sometimes the stardrive humans use is derived
from remains found on Earth, or from remains found on nearby planets
colonized using our native-built crappy stardrives. In any case, there's no
living aliens anywhere.
- Humans are part of the mix. Humanity is on more or less equal
footing with one or more other starfaring races. We may be the weak
newcomer, or the decadent ancient civilization about to be replaced, but
we're in the game.
- 3.1. Contact made in space. We got to the stars on our own, then
met one or more other races who made it there without our help. They may
have visited us before we got spaceflight, but never openly, and our
stardrive is either purely native-built or based on ancient wreckage of a
dead civilization that visited us in the distant past. It's possible that
our native stardrive is crap compared to commercial shipping that we run
into, and we quickly upgrade. For instance, in Galaxy Rangers, humanity
seems to have some sort of wimpy starfaring capacity before acquiring the
Andorian Hyperdrive. Star Trek was originally in this category, with
humanity making it to Alpha Centauri before making contact, but it was later
retconned to humanity getting the notice (and sponsorship) of Vulcan before
- 3.2. Humanity sponsored everyone else. We started in category 2,
but our client races eventually absorbed enough technological savvy to break
away and become powers on a par with us. Or we actively encouraged it, on
altruistic grounds (more species is better) or selfish ones (getting someone
to do our dirty work).
- 3.3. Humanity graduated. We started in category 4 as a subject
race or a sponsored race and WE eventually absorbed enough technological
savvy to break away and become powers on a par with everyone else. This seems
to be how things happened in Schlock Mercenary, for instance.
- 3.4. No one knows. The setting is so far in the future that no one
really knows how humanity got to the stars, or even necessarily what planet
we're originally from. Humans are just part of the setting, no one really
considers how we got there except for academics. Star Wars is like this if
all you see are the movies, although ISTR the books establish the cradle of
their version of humanity.
- Humanity is a client race. This may just be a nice way of saying
we got conquered, but not necessarily. Humanity made contact with other
races while still stuck in the Solar System, and any interstellar capacity is
with the aid of or at the sufferance of those other races.
- 4.1. Nice option. Friendly aliens brought us to the stars
(although possibly with ulterior motives, like "Save us from the Queen of the
Crown!") and gave us the tech or traded with us for it.
- 4.2. Sinister option. It starts off looking like the Nice Option,
but beyond any obvious ulterior motives ("Save us from the Posleen!") there's
longer term plans to enslave us once we've done the immediate task. Usually,
the dramatic tension here comes from the reader finding out pretty quickly
that the aliens aren't nice, but the characters mostly starting off with the
wool pulled over their eyes.
- 4.3. Nasty option. We got conquered, and are a slave race within
the interstellar community. Any humans you see are chattel for the
overlords, or escapees on the run.
- 4.4. Slightly nasty option. We got conquered, but managed to mount
a successful resistance due to some plot device, or the simple fact that
supply lines are a pain on the interstellar scale. Scavenging captured tech
will let us eventually reach space on our own terms, and the setting will
move to category 3 later on. The Ekhat/Jao books from Baen show this
- 4.5. Neutral option. Some alien race either deliberately seeds
interstellar travel tech (Ancients et al in Stargate, the gatemakers in
Schlock Mercenary, etc) or they've died off and we stumble across what they'd
left on Earth back when there was nothing smarter than a vole here. Either
way, we get to the stars thanks to someone else's tech, and we're very much
at the mercy of anyone who knows what they're doing, so we need to get under
someone's protection FAST. Note, if we're scavenging tech and there's no one
alive out there to pose a threat, it's actually category 2.2.
- 4.6. Superhero option. This is a weird special case. In most
superhero universes, humanity hasn't colonized other worlds yet, and any
stardrives are idiosyncratic supertech stuff that is mostly in the hands of
heroes and villains. Alien races sometimes try to conquer Earth, but are
usually beaten back. If humans need a lot of space transport capacity on
short notice, they have to ask a friendly power for help, hence this going
under category 4 and not 3. But humanity may be at least considered a
category 3 sort of minor player despite being confined to one world.
- No humans. There are sapient races, but nothing that is exactly
Homo sapiens. This is pretty rare, though.
- 5.1. TECHNICALLY no humans. In truth, there's a race that's
functionally human but just not from Earth. They act like humans and think
like humans and maybe even look a lot like humans, but they're not Terrans.
- 5.2. Pre-human-emergence stories. Perhaps the tale is set 4
million years ago on a strange metallic planet inhabited by living machines,
so any humans there are in the galaxy are simply irrelevant. Perhaps the
story starts shortly before the arrival of humanity on the scene and will
shift to another category later...but for now we're seeing the galaxy from
the POV of an alien.
- 5.3. Post-human stories. Maybe humanity got conquered so hard they
were wiped out. Maybe we went all Singularity and vanished. There's signs of
humans here and there, but none of the characters are human. If the aliens
are actually gene-modded human descendants (for instance, in Man After Man,
Dougal Dixon has post-human aliens invading Earth and conquering post-human
natives...nothing resembling Homo sapiens exists anymore) then it's more of a
- 5.4. Irrelevant humans. Humans may be out there, but it doesn't
matter. The story is so far away from human-explored space that no one has
heard of them. Or, at best, humans might have been heard of, they just don't
impact the story in any significant way. Matt Howarth's Konny and Czu comics
seem to be in this category.