Could humanity be a recent visitor to this world? Are our true origins on some distant exoplanet?
The fossil record documents our purely terrestrial linage going back hundreds of millions of years. Humans are merely a recent flourish on the tetrapod body plan and suggestions to the contrary are manifestly nonsensical.
Still, no author in possession of a cool story idea ever hesitated merely because it constituted an egregious contradiction of firmly established science. Here are five examples of stories in which humans came from somewhere beyond the sky.
Ages ago, humans evolved on Hain. The Hainish exuberantly settled a large number of worlds in our galactic neighbourhood before apparently abandoning interstellar travel for long enough that worlds like Earth forgot they were Hainish colonies. When a new era of interstellar contact began, terrestrial humans discovered worlds already occupied by their cousins.
On the plus side, even though time and evolution—or alternatively, an ancient Hainish fad for genetic engineering—led to considerable diversity between the various branches of humanity, the communications gap is still less than that which exists between any group of humans and the truly alien entities found elsewhere, such as on Vaster than Empires and More Slow’s World 4470. On the minus side, human vices manifest in diverse native forms on each world: thus, the interstellar civil disorders seen in Rocannon’s World, the political strife featured in The Dispossessed, and brutal exploitation in The Word for World is Forest.
Larry Niven: Known Space’s Pak (featured in the Ringworld Series, Protector)
Native to a world far closer to the galactic core than Earth, the Pak combine the potential for remarkable genius (provided they survive long enough to transform into Protectors) with irresistible genetic directives that compel endless, merciless Malthusian competition and a total immunity to the concept of the iterated prisoner’s dilemma. Consequently, the Pak are as good at whipping up exciting new technology as they are enthusiastic about exterminating each other.
Millions of years ago, Earth was settled by the Pak; a few hoped to found an interstellar colony sufficiently far from the Pak homeworld that they would not to be exterminated by later waves of colonization. Alas, a tiny oversight regarding the nutrient supply prevented the colony’s breeders from becoming Protector-stage adults. This left the semi-intelligent breeders—Homo erectus in modern parlance—unattended and free to evolve according to the vagaries of terrestrial circumstance. Ultimately the product was humans like you and me.
Not to worry, however: despite their propensity for endless wars of extermination, Pak are very good at keeping records. Two and a half million years after the apparently failure of the Earth colony, Phssthpok sets out to reclaim our world for Pak-kind. Hilarity ensues.
H. Beam Piper’s Paratime
Seventy-five to a hundred thousand years ago, Mars was dying. Unenthusiastic about dying along with their native world, the Martians migrated to Earth. The good news is they were generally successful, thus the presence of humans (formerly Martians) on Earth. The bad news is that settling a new world is difficult. The odds that the Martians would retain their sophisticated technology were quite poor. In most timelines, the Martians collapsed into the Stone Age, only gradually recovering advanced technology.
The Paratimers were lucky on multiple fronts: having retained their high technology, they survived their enthusiastic exploitation of Earth thanks to the discovery of paratime. Able to reach the other worlds of if, they have a secret empire, which quietly funnels goods and resources to the home line. It’s nothing but easy street for the Paratimers—provided no other timeline stumbles over the existence of the secret masters.
Arthur C. Clarke’s “Reunion”
Arthur C. Clarke’s “Reunion” offers a tragic (and extremely ableist) explanation as to why a colony would be abandoned by its homeworld. Earth was settled long ago. Tragically, a visible minority of the colonists fell victim to a local contagion, one whose disfiguring effects were so distressing that the galactic community shunned the planet long enough for the settlers to revert to the Stone Age and then claw their way back to the Atomic era. There’s a happy ending, however: the malady can be cured, and Earthlings reaccepted back into polite society.
F. L. Wallace’s “Big Ancestor”
On a hundred different worlds, a hundred different subspecies of human document the passage of some grand but now long forgotten civilization in the form of a long trail of worlds populated by increasingly evolved humans. While it is humbling that terrestrial humans are somewhere towards the middle of the sequence—neither exceptionally advanced nor notably primitive in their biology—they can at least take collective pride in the Big Ancestor who settled their worlds.
Until now, that has been an abstract pride, one based in inference rather than concrete proof. Now, however, humans and all their cousins will finally know the true face of their glorious ancestors.
No doubt you have your own favourites in this well-established but scientifically ludicrous trope. Feel free to mention them in comments.
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF(where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.