Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Speculative Fiction Tropes: Precursors

Today continues the April A-Z Challenge. This month, I'll be blogging (almost) daily about a different speculative fiction trope, one for each letter of the alphabet. Today's entry is on Precursor civilizations.

One of the most fascinating ideas explored in fiction is the mythic concept of "those who came before." Seen in many genres of fiction, but especially sci-fi, the trope depicts enigmatic civilizations that seemingly vanished long before the rise of man.

Their mysterious disappearance is sometimes a central part of the story, usually having occurred at the apex of their society as the result of some cataclysmic event. Often they will leave behind tantalizing ruins or the remains of advanced technology, which might be sought after and competed for by modern factions and races.

I think this trope taps into that innate curiosity that we all have, that desire to understand who we are and where we came from. Obviously some of us are more interested in those questions than others, but as a species, we've long sought to answer them. The various beliefs, mythologies, and theories on our origin and who or what preceded us are practically countless over the ages. Some of the very building blocks of our culture and society--science, philosophy, religion--were born of a yearning to answer these important questions.

One of the most popular ways to explore this idea in science fiction (and in real-world pseudoscience) is to depict a forgotten alien race that seems to have interfered in human affairs at some point in our history, perhaps even by seeding life and intelligence here on Earth.

The 2000 movie Mission To Mars, while not exactly the pinnacle of sci-fi cinema, serves as a good example of the trope from this angle. After a turbulent voyage to the red planet, a team of astronauts visits the infamous "face" on Mars. There they make a remarkable discovery about the history of our planet and its scarlet twin.

None of my science fiction stories have featured alien life of any kind thus far, extinct or otherwise. Nor has any of my fantasy stuff contained ancient elf progenitors or elder gods. I do have a few ideas that might make use of the trope one day, however. In fact, writing this entry gave me a new idea that I'm actually pretty excited about. I think I have a good one on my hands. I almost want to blurt it out, but I think I'll hold it close to chest for now.

In the meantime, I'll keep devouring stories about ancient forerunners and the amazing things they left behind. After all, it's a nice arena for my inner history geek and science fiction nerd to play ball together.

Recommended Reading:
Uplift series by David Brin
At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft
Strata by Terry Pratchett

Recommended Viewing:
2001: A Space Odyssey
Prometheus *fingers crossed*

Recommended Gaming:
Mass Effect
Assassin's Creed 


  1. Aliens or living gods in human history is a highly fascinating concept, and one I've only marginally touched. Very inciting topic/post!

    The first encounter of it that comes to mind is the Goa'uld race in Stargate, which is based on Egyptian mythology, and in the fictional world of the series the Goa'uld supposedly visited Earth in ancient Egypt and the mythology was created based on them.

    So you write sci-fi too, eh? ;)

    1. You know, I completely forgot all about Stargate! Should have been in the recommended list, for sure. I never found the time to get into the television series much, but I loved the movie.

      Do I write sci-fi? Have you seen my logo? ;)

    2. I can't tell who you're face-palming! Let's be honest, it could be me. Stargate is pretty awesome.

    3. What, I didn't slap you, I just high-fived your face.


      Seriously though, Stargate Atlantis has one of my all time favorite scientists, doctor Rodney McKay, who I can describe in just three words: sarcastic egomaniac genius.

    4. Sounds like my kind of guy! I'll definitely get around to watching Stargate one of these days. It's just such a time commitment. I've tried to watch all of the Star Trek series and I just ended up fizzling out somewhere around the fourth season or so.

    5. Forget Star Trek Next Generation, and even Voyager (which is a chunk better). Go straight to the awesome Deep Space Nine. ;)

      Yes, I know I'm geeky. Shut up.

    6. Hey hey, I grew up on TNG! The first couple seasons are terrible, I'll give you that. But it got better! Oops, now my geekitude is showing.

      Deep Space Nine is the one that I really want to get around to watching. I didn't see any of that when I was a kid, and to this day I think I've only seen a handful of episodes, but everyone says it's great.

    7. It's super-great! Hyper-mega-beyond-awesome-great! Ahem.

      It was DS9 that inspired me to shift my writing focus toward sci-fi. That series, and about a dozen sequel-novels, have come to mean a great deal to me.

      Ahhh... and I've even had a crush on one of the aliens in that series.

      Okay, okay, two of them! *drooooool*

  2. Interesting. I'm replaying Mass Effect 1 (with a female Commander this time) and just finished a multi-part fan fic which has my take on the ending of the series.

    Yes, I rejected BioWares/EA reality and substituted with my own.

    One has to be careful not to use the Precursors like a magic plot-hole filling wand. And the presence of Precursors can create as many problems (plot wise) as it can solve, if not more so.

    1. I've been playing through the Mass Effect series again before getting to the new one, which I'm just playing now. All of the controversy around the ending has me worried! But it does sound like Bioware is addressing it in some way down the road.

  3. Yes, but are "Humans" capable of becoming precursors in the very very far distant future?


Thanks for reading!