Humanity is/isn't all that

In most sci-fi novels humanity is depicted as having some special talent or quirk that sets them apart from all the other alien races depicted. Finding out what that is or what makes humanity special is something I find extremely interesting and I’m wondering in what different ways have humans been depicted in sci-fi.

Two totally different examples are:

The Damned Series by Alan Dean Foster. You know how humans are often depicted as physically inferior to the aliens? In this humans are the big, mean, nasty bastards tearing the puny aliens apart with our bare hands (to the extent that one alien character says that is impossible to beat a human in unarmed combat). We are physically superior in every way, larger, stronger, better reflexes, instinctive talent for combat and warfare.

Its not Shakespear but it is a very enjoyable series.

The Algebriast by Iain M. Banks goes to the opposite extreme and humanity is just another bog-standard species in a galactic civilisation teeming with life. Not special in any way and outclassed in many respects by certain other races. Great story though.

Any other examples, and please explain what it is that makes humanity special in the story.

Brin’s Uplift humans were not particularly special so much as different–willing to try stupid shit that the hidebound eaties wouldn’t try.

LVN’s Known Space humans were also no superior to most known species Kzinti, Trinocs, Kdatlyno, etc. (although admittedly, they kicked the shit out of the Kzinti Empire a few times). They were arguably superior in many ways to Grogs (sessile) and Bandersnatchi (no manipulative appendages), and arguably inferior to the defunct Thrintun and extant Puppeteers and Pak.

Card’s Ender humans are arguably superior to both the Buggers and the Piggies in some ways, though not in terms of morality, which was pertty much what the series was about.

Of course, there’s Roddenberry, whose vision included a vast and homogenous galactic culture in which humans were only one among many–though possibly superior to most by virtue of their peculiar ego, ambition, and adaptability. Certainly, however, there was an undercurrent of superiority over pretty much every other race for one reason or another.

I haven’t read this in a long time, but IIRC in Andre Norton’s Star Guard, humans were the nastiest of the sentient species and lived farming themselves out as mercs to the other, more peaceful species.

Not so – in the Uplift universe, humans are the only species that didn’t have any aliens uplifting them.

In James Tiptree, Jr.'s “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side,” humans are one of the few races in the galaxy that are turned on by beings from other races, and are treated with contempt because of it.

Does fantasy count?

In some of the D&D-inspired settings like Faerûn and maybe Oerth, humans are by far the shortest-lived of the “civilized” humanoid races. As a result, humans live at a much more hurried pace than the other races and tend to be more prone to qualities like adaptability, innovation, and ambition; a human wizard might, by the age of forty or fifty, surpass an elf who has studied for centuries.

Humans in Middle Earth seemed special in a way I can’t quite articulate at the moment. If anyone more well-versed in Tolkien—paging Qadgop!—would care to step in, I’d love some clarification.

As for Star Trek, one theme in The Next Generation regarding the “specialness” of humanity wasn’t so much about the current state of humanity, but its capacity for growth. Q comments in one of the earlier episodes that his interest in humanity stems from the fact that humans have the ability to someday surpass even the Q. Says Q to Picard in the final episode of the series: “For that one fraction of a second, you had open to you options you had never considered. That is the exploration that awaits you. Not mapping stars and studying nebulae, but charting the unknown possibilities of existence.”

ME humans are the only ones whose ultimate fate is unknown (although the fate of the Dwarves is never made clear). Elves are forever bound to Arde while humans are specifically told they have a grander fate after the end of the world.

But ME humans sure aren’t special in objective terms, even if they aren’t very much inferior. They die younger than everyone else, they lack the eysight and agility of Elves and Hobbits and they lack the endurance and hardiness of the Dwarves and Hobbits. In the first two Ages they lacked the strength and height of of Elves as well (the greatest of human heroes were descibed as being almost as great as elves in stature and sterngth.). They lack the beauty of Elves. They lack the steadfastness of all the other races (Men are the only people routinely corrupted by Morgoth and Sauron).

IOW ME humans are just a mediocre, generic race. They are superior to Dwarves and Hobbits and in some ways but much inferior in many others. And they are inferior to Elves in almost every way.

(ob anime)

Dragon Ball Z - humans are weak fleshbags, but at least they can crossbreed with Saiyajins and create massively powerful offspring
Neon Genesis Evangelion - humans are running into an evolutionary dead end and therefore need to advance to the next level of existence, which apparently involves a lot of fanservice
Slayers - humans are the most short-lived, and thusly the most reckless, adventurous, and likely to try world-destroying spells without considering the consequences
Tenchi Muyo - being human bags you a harem full of cute girls, possibly
Trigun - humans are a mass of contradictions, able to be the worst of demons and the best of angels, sometimes simultaneously
Urusei Yatsura - See Tenchi Muyo

…and, darnit, I can’t think of any other titles off the top of my head where humans co-exist with other intelligent species.


Mankind survives, despite the best efforts of it’s collective enemies.
Apparently, we are as tough to kill as a cockroach, & produce many cute girls.

Well, first off, hobbits are human. And behave pretty much like the rest of the Followers (mortal men) by being weak, strong, noble, greedy, etc. etc.

Certainly the elves were struck by the frailty of mankind, calling them the sickly, the heavy-handed, the self-cursed, the night fearers, the usurpers, the followers, and so forth.

But this was essential in JRRT’s mythos where, in keeping accordance with Catholic theology, humans were a ‘fallen’ race, who turned their faces away from Iluvatar and towards Morgoth very early after their awakening. Hence their tendency towards disease, early death, and corruption.

Those men who turned away from Morgoth and looked to the West and the Elves of the Light tended to become longer-lived, and more steadfast. Beor lived into his 90’s. More would have lived longer, but they tended to get killed in battle.

But their essential nature remained. Men were given restless spirits by Iluvatar, and thus sought for something outside of themselves, and outside of Arda. Indeed the fate of men was not bound by Ainulindalë, or the Music, which is as fate to all other things. And upon death, the spirits of men leave Arda completely, and even the Vala (save perhaps Manwë and Mandos) don’t know where they go.

Meanwhile, Elves and dwarves exist solely within Arda, and the spirits of the elves can’t leave until the end of time. The fate of dwarves isn’t spelled out clearly, but the dwarve believe their spirits are gathered back by Aulë after death, and they’ll fight by his side at Dagor Dagorath, and help rebuild the world correctly after that.

The elves and dwarves don’t know what to make of mankind. Refer to Legolas and Gimli’s dialogue in ROTK, where they talk about how mankind’s seed remains mired in the mud for ages, then suddenly springs forth, bearing fruit unexpectedly. They speculate that the deeds of men will outlast both elves and dwarves, yet may come to nothing in the end.

So men were something quite unique in ME, which the powers themselves didn’t understand.

StaberindeMk2 writes:

> In most sci-fi novels humanity is depicted as having some special talent or quirk
> that sets them apart from all the other alien races depicted.

John W. Campbell, the long-time editor of Astounding (later Analog), was one of the most important influences on American science fiction from the late 1930’s to the early 1960’s. He liked stories in which humans were shown to be the smartest, the most resourceful, the bravest, etc. race in the galaxy. This tended to push writers to making their stories fit into Campbell’s ideas about how humanity would fare if it met alien races. Some of the writers who developed under Campbell’s influence didn’t particularly like his prejudices and tried to get around them. Isaac Asimov, who otherwise learned a great deal from Campbell, tried to get around this by, for instance, setting the Foundation and the Robot stories in a universe in which there are no other intelligent races so there’s no comparison to be made between humans and aliens.

I unfortunately can’t remember the titles or authors, but two examples from short stories :

  • Humans are the only carnivorous (well, omnivorous at least) sentient specie, making them extremely agressive, dangerously unpredictable and fearless. They’re just frightening predators by all other races’ standarts. Hence their mere existence is for all other species a threat that must be dealt with. And will be.

-Humans are the only mortal sentient specie giving them an unique feeling of urgency, creativity, and impossible to comprehend view of life, and making crossing the galaxy just to watch them or even venerate them worthwhile.

There’s the old chiche’ that humans possess some unquantifiable instinct that allows them to defeat the cold logic of “mere machines”. Personally I’d like to see the new Battlestar Galactica trash this.

There have been numerous science fiction stories where all other sapient species slowly evolved over tens or hundreds of millions of years, and that humans are the only hyper-virulent species to survive by some quirk of fate.

That’s debatable at best.

Firtsly the Hobbits are referred to as a separate race in the book on at least two occasions. Firstly by Treebeard who gives them a line distinct from the other free peoples in lore of the living creatures. Then by the actions of Merry who managed to harm the Witch King despite the prophecy that no man would harm him.

Then there is the fact that Tolkein mentions that Hobbits have traits that men specifically do not have, such as pointy ears, naturally leathery feet etc. He also refers to them as being distinct from the “Big People” numerous times .

Normally I’d never argue with you on point form LOTR but in this case the evidence all points to Tolkein and the characters in LOTR and The Hobbit considering Hobbits to be a distinct race from Men.

In the Harry Tourtledove series, Humans are seen as highly adaptive, always changing. There also seen as manipulative and sneaky. You can’t trust them. Because of our many, many years of war, and because there are so many different competing countries, we have mastered the art of diplomacy. Able to forgo reason and safety for a technological breakthrough, which, seen by the aliens, is are downfall. We will destroy ourselves.

Example of our irrationality from one of the books. Someone’s family is killed, he then become suicidal and kills himself along with members of the Race. Why would someone do that to themselves?

In John Ringo’s series about the Posleen wars (first book is Hymn Before Battle…good series if you like military sci-fi), the humans are physically much weaker than the Posleen and our technology is far behind them. However, the Posleen are flawed in that they don’t really understand their technology (they didn’t invent most of it themselves). Further, for some reason their military technology is geared completely towards ‘smart’ weapons. Launch a guided missile at them and they take it out instantly. Fly a plane near them and its dead meat. But toss ballistic artillary at them and they are blind. In addition the humans are also one of the few sentient races that CAN fight and kill (most other civilized races can’t even kill another sentient being…some can but are not very good at fighting).

So, its a combination of humans having the ability to fight, understanding our own technology (since we invented it) and being able to adapt to the Posleen’s invasion, to innovate where they can’t, and a fatal flaw in the aliens themselves.


Found an online prologue for Hymn Before Battle that kind of goes with the OP:

My bolding.


Thanks for the answers everyone, thats the sort of things I was looking for.

Ah, but in the Prologue to LOTR, JRRT states that hobbits are close kin to men, closer than elves or dwarves.

And JRRT confirms their link to men in letter #131 from “Letters by JRRT”:
“The Hobbits are, of course, really meant to be a branch of the specifically human race (not Elves or Dwarves)–hence the two kinds can dwell together (as at Bree), and are called just the Big Folks and Little Folk.”

Not actively, true, although the jury’s still out on whether or not they were uplifted.

So? Not better, just different, as I said.

Richard Morgan’s book Broken Angels continues on from where his first novel Altered Carbon left off, and describes humans as infants in the galactic scale, who’ve found the remains of the technology/civilisation left behind by the alien race known as “Martians” (being that the first ruins were found on mars), and who’ve managed to scrabble together enough knowledge to start populating the galaxy and expanding outwards from earth. It’s a little more difficult to gauge exactly how humanity is viewed, as there’s no living extra-terrestrial characters to bounce the human personalities off, but Morgan does a good job of making you feel exactly how small and childish humans are as they rummage around, ham-fistedly translating the martian ruins and trying to copy their technology.