Different depictions of humanity in science-fiction?

One of the interesting aspects of science-fiction is having an ‘outsiders’ view of human as perceived by other species.

One of my personal favourites is that in the Mass Effect series of games where humanity is depicted as an ambitious upstart species, causing tension by demanding a seat at the top table without, as other races see it, serving their time.

Alan Dean Foster has a series where humanity is the galaxy’s badasses, larger, stronger, faster and more aggressive than any other species. Which is fine when our services are needed in a galactic war but causes problems in peacetime because other species have other niches where they’re superior to humanity.

Any other examples, I’m interested in how the human race is depicted in other stories. Thanks in advance!

*I have a personal opinion on this, some of the aspects of human nature is that as a species we are lonely, we have no other species of a similar intellectual capacity to talk to, so we have no outside view of ourselves. Perhaps in time we’ll solve this by creating companions in Artificial Intelligence or contact with a benign alien species. Yes you don’t need to tell me how extraordinarily unlikely this last scenario is.

Read “Rescue Party” by Clarke for a take on humanity’s place in a multi-species galaxy.


David Brin’s Uplift series has humanity as a “wolfing” race. In Brin’s galaxy, one society might find another pre-sapient race, and they can then “uplift” them to full intelligence as a “client”. But humanity either raised itself (if you ask us) or was abandoned by its patron race, which is just not done.

As a result, humanity is in a precarious position, without any of the alliances and networks that a patron race brings to the patron-client relationship, or any of those “family” relationships.

“Humanity” is a broader concept than “Homo sapiens” in Banks’ Culture novels. Earth-humanity is peripheral and only show up as a sideshow in some short stories.

Asimov once wrote that his editor (I think at the time it was Campbell) always wanted stories where humans were “special” in some way (we’re the only race that has a sense of humor, or the only one that takes extraordinary risks, or whatever), and where that specialness leads to us winning the day. Asimov, though, regarded that notion as originating in bigotry, as a proxy for “White protestant northern Europeans are special”, and so preferred not to use the trope. That’s why the Foundation series doesn’t have any aliens, so he could avoid the question of how humans are different from them.

But it also means that we have vastly superior science to everyone else in the Galaxy (despite also having vastly inferior technology), because to all of the established races, the way you answer any question is by looking it up in the Library, to find the answer some ancient predecessor race already found. Humans, however, are always finding our own answers, most of which don’t appear in the Library, and so nobody ever has any idea what to expect from us, or how to counter it.

I’ve only read some of the novels. Isn’t one of the points of the series that they never find any aliens (this is thousands of years in the future) except for the occasional trace of some dead race/culture? All the characters in the novels were derived from Earth humans originally, even if relatively few currently live on Earth. There is some variation due either to lengthy isolation or intentional changes, if I recall correctly, but everyone is still basically human. Or am I remembering incorrectly, and the variations are strong enough to have made different species?

Well, for starters, a lot of them aren’t any species at all, being inorganic AIs.

They find plenty of aliens in the Culture novels. Behemothaurs (I know I’m botching the spelling) and attendant species within airspheres. The Idrians from Consider Phlebas. The Affront and everything they victimize. The Chelgrians. Etc…

Though it’s not a Culture novel without some SC personnel taking on a positively bizarre form, even if they started as something recognizably human.

Yeah, RF is thinking of something else–that description doesn’t remotely fit the Culture novels.

The United Federation of “Hold My Beer”. Worth a read if you haven’t already seen it :).

Yes, sorry about that. I was thinking of the Alex Benedict series by Jack McDevitt. For some reason I thought the term Culture applied to that one. So, never mind…

No. The Culture novels teem with alien species. I don’t know which books you’re thinking of.

ETA - I see you remembered. and my link was posted already.

They’re made out of meat is usually mentioned in threads about the alien perspective on humans. Peter Watts has written a short story called The Things which gives us an insight into the thoughts of the creature from The Thing.

The Gods Themselves by Asimov might fit into your search but it could be too abstract thematically.

Greg Egan is an author who tries hard to show the alien in aliens. His novel Incandescence is largely written from an alien perspective - but it’s written in a future when humans have changed a lot as well.

The Red Dwarf TV series has something like that, set several millions of years in the future humanity itself has long gone extinct (apparently anyway) and any species and creatures the main characters meet have been created by the human race, for example genetically engineered organisms, robots etc I recall one of the writers saying that its canon that there are no actual aliens in that story universe.

Thanks for the answers everyone! :slight_smile:

In John Ringo’s Legacy of the Aldenata series, the human race is viewed as dangerously murderous and violent, and effectively drafted to fight an interplanetary war against an even more dangerously murderous and violent race.

In Hal Clement’s Iceworld, the protagonist is a (police officer? investigator?) from a race which lives in such extreme heat that they breathe gaseous sulphur. He’s trying to deal with an issue on a frozen, barren world mostly covered with liquid water…

Hal Clement is noted in general for making his aliens physically very different, but psychologically and culturally similar to humans. It’s a sort of refreshing change from the usual fare, and really (given our extrapolation from a single data point) no less plausible.

Great story, and the first thing I thought of when I saw the thread title.

Heh. I’ve read it before and I always love it. My favorite bit:

*…“but why” said the one Vulcan in the room.

“because that would fucking rule” said the humans, high-fiving each other and slamming cans of 24th-century Red Bull.*

Human beings in John Scalzi’s excellent Old Man’s War series are seen by the many other alien races in the galaxy as clever, dangerous and expansionist. Hardly anyone is interested in diplomatic relations with us, so we’re pretty much fighting interstellar wars all the time.

“they did that last week”

I think I hurt myself laughing at that, but very much needed, thank you!

Scalzi has some interesting ideas definitely, I did like his point that you can’t really tell what an alien race is like from outward appearance. One species looks like mild-mannered and placid anthro-deer but they’re actually completely hostile violent sociopaths, another species looks like the sort of eldritch horror Lovecraft would have come up with but they’re actually pleasant, friendly and good allies.

Then we have the depiction of humanity in the XCOM reboot, where if I understand it correctly humans are the only species to achieve a harmonious balance between physical prowess and psychic ability. I suppose that may come under the “White protestant northern Europeans are special” caveat mentioned above, though I have to admit I don’t really get the connection. (for the record I’m two out of those three categories, but which ones?) :wink:

One of the more dangerous alien races in the Schlock Mercenary universe look like koalas, and their peace-loving neighbors and most frequent victims look like velociraptors.

I remember years ago reading a book or three where humans had been abducted from Earth at various periods, Romans, Vikings, medieval, etc. when they were on the verge of dying without a trace. A ship going down in a storm for instance. Then using them as troops in other species wars. Apparently there was a rule that you couldn’t attack a planet with technology any higher than the planet was using and humans were really good with swords and flintlocks and the like.

I don’t remember the names of the books though. Sorry.