Humanity: Champs or Chumps?

A spectrum of how alien races and humanity coexist (or don't) in science fiction.

    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.

  1. 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).
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. No humans. There are sapient races, but nothing that is exactly Homo sapiens. This is pretty rare, though.
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