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Ten years we had been on our way when they found a hyper-drive
And man spread to a thousand stars while we were half alive
— "Space is Dark", Bill Roper

The brave explorers or colonists set out in their spaceship to spread humankind to the stars. You can't travel faster than light, so they're going to spend most of the trip on a Sleeper Starship as Human Popsicles, or it's a Generation Ship and it'll be their descendants who step out at the other end of the trip. Either way, they're saying goodbye forever to everyone and everything they know. Decades and centuries pass, and eventually they arrive at their destination—


—and there's people there waiting for them. Turns out, Faster-Than-Light Travel (or at least sublight travel that is vastly faster than theirs) is possible, and it got sorted out while they were in transit. Now the same trip that took them centuries can be done and be back in time for Christmas. And that planet you were all set to colonise? Done already, and actually we're not sure there's any room for you...

Expect the brave pioneers to be upset about this.

An in-universe Sub-Trope of Science Marches On. Can also be related to Humans Advance Swiftly. See Fish out of Temporal Water for a comparable situation.



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    Comic Books 
  • This was the origin of Vance Astro in Guardians of the Galaxy. He was cryogenically frozen and sent on the first manned space mission to another star. When he arrived, he discovered that Earth had invented faster-than-light travel and had colonised the world he was heading for. He was hailed as a hero but found he had arrived in a world where he no longer had a place.
  • Marvel's Micronauts basically cannibalized this figment of Astro's backstory and gave it to Arcturus Rann. Like Astro, he went into stasis for most of a space voyage only to find that the rest of the universe (well, Microverse) had discovered warp travel while he slept.

  • In "Founding Fathers" by Stephen Dedman, the first FTL ship shows up after the colony's been established for a few years, but it's still a shock and an upset to the colonists, who had actually embraced leaving everything-and-everyone behind because it meant they'd be left alone to do things the way they think things ought to be done.
  • "On the Road to Tarsus" by Sean Williams is a variation involving long-range Teleportation: the first generation where the signal travelled at light speed and the later FTL Radio refinement that meant people could cross light years in a matter of days. Tarsus is Earth's first extrasolar colony, thirty light years from Earth, founded using the newer system while the original set of colonists were still en route at light speed; as the story closes, the planet is preparing itself for the imminent arrival of the original colonists-to-be.
  • In Time for the Stars by Robert A. Heinlein, the protagonist is on a NAFAL ship that spends most of the book exploring the nearby stars; at the end of the book when everything is falling apart, they get rescued by an FTL ship that's been developed on Earth in the interim.
  • Spider Robinson's Variable Star, inspired heavily by Heinlein, had the protagonist's relativistic ship rescued by the first FTL vessel, allowing them to outrun the radiation wave from earth's sun exploding.
  • In Mostly Harmless, we're told that one of the things making Galactic history so confusing is the armies that were sent out in sleepships to fight wars with distant civilisations, only to awaken, discover that diplomats travelling FTL arrived before them and hammered out a peace treaty, and damn well fighting their wars anyway.
  • Honor Harrington:
    • Happened to several groups of colonists in the backstory of the series, as the big push for colonization started before FTL travel was safe for mass transit. On at least one occasion, this lead to a planet being home to two distinctly different cultures with separate governments.
    • In Manticore's case, when the colony ship for the founding of what became Manticore left FTL travel was possible but extremely dangerous prompting them to travel sub-light. However before leaving they invested their remaining money with instructions that when safe FTL travel was invented the money should be used to contact them and if necessary prevent other people from establishing a colony on their planet before they arrived. Consequently when they did arrive they found a small squadron of warships guarding their home and all of the equipment and teachers necessary to bring them up to speed on 800 years worth of scientific advancement.
    • The "Haven Quadrant" as a whole is full of this Trope, as it was settled by a mix of early and slower sleep ships, later sleepships with more efficient engines, and hyper colony ships. Haven itself was founded about a decade after the discovery of the Warshawski sail made hyper colonization possible, with Haven being founded more than 100 years before the Jason arrived at Manticore. At which time, Grayson has already been colonized for over 400 years.
  • Charles Sheffield's Summertide starts with ships carrying Human Popsicles. They are programmed to wake the people if they reach the destination, if a problem arises the computer cannot solve — or if they receive a transmission that FTL has been invented.
  • In the final book of Harry Turtledove's World War series, Homeward Bound, a human-built sleeper ship is sent as an embassy to the homeworld of the reptilian Race. The trip takes about 30 years to accomplish. The ambassadors are only at the Race's homeworld for a month when the human-built FTL-ship shows up.
    • A more clear-cut example would be the Molotov, a Soviet Sleeper Ship sent to the same world a few years after the American Admiral Peary. It's still on the way and won't arrive to Home for a few more years to find out the truth.
  • Played with in Larry Niven's short story "Flatlander". The Outsiders (a race of Starfish Aliens who are the ultimate Higher-Tech Species in Known Space) sell the location, trajectory, and velocity of a lost colony ship to the humans, who later use their FTL technology to rescue the crew and colonists on that ship, all of whom were in stasis.
  • A. E. van Vogt's "Far Centaurus" is about a group of people who are trying to be the first to reach Alpha Centauri, but along the way somebody up and goes and discovers FTL travel.
  • Part of the backstory in Strata.
  • Pandora's Star by Peter F. Hamilton starts out with a variation. A NASA vessel makes humanity's first-ever manned voyage to another planet (Mars), only to discover that a pair of garage inventors have discovered the means to generate stable wormholes and beat them there.
  • Mentioned in the Strugatsky Brothers' Noon Universe. No FTL travel actually exists there at this point (it's XXI century, and they only discovered FTL in that verse in the XXII century), but one character mentioned how terrible it would feel to be an astronaut on a relativistic ship sent to explore a distant star only to find a colony there established by an FTL-capable ship developed after you left. Additionally, by using high acceleration on a relativistic ship, a crew manages to reverse the effects of Time Dilation (i.e. six months passes on Earth, while years pass for the crew).
  • Played for laughs in the Robert Sheckley short story "The Native Problem"; a man who wants to get away from civilization stakes a claim on a distant tropical planet using a FTL ship, only to have a sublight (or at least much much slower) colony ship turn up occupied by a society of religious fundamentalists. He eventually marries into the new colony as the "last" member of his tribe of "extinct" natives.
  • "On the Shoulders of Giants" by Robert J. Sawyer would more accurately be called "relativistic leapfrog", since no FTL travel occurs. The colonists arrive in a sleeper ship at about 1% of the speed of light. and find out their intended planet is already colonized and thriving. Fortunately, they manage to convince the colony to give them a relativistic ship to carry sleepers to head for the Andromeda galaxy.
  • In Greg Egan's Schild's Ladder, the slower travelers are known by most of spacefaring humanity as "anachronauts". It's an interesting variant, though: by the time the story begins, most anachronauts choose to continue traveling at relativistic speeds instead of using FTL, so that they can "hop" forward through time and observe the development of civilization. It's Played for Laughs when entire planetary civilizations coordinate elaborate pranks on the intrepid time travelers, leading them to think the development of the human race is even more bizarre than it actually is — which is saying something.
  • Downplayed in Coyote. In 2070, the United Republic of America launched the URSS Alabama, a Sleeper Starship driven by a Ram Scoop towards 47 Ursae Majoris, which will arrive after 230 years of travel. Midflight, the URA collapses and the Western Hemisphere Union replaces it, then launches their own colony ships powered by an extremely efficient thruster, allowing them to arrive at Coyote only a few years after the Alabama, despite being launched over a hundred years after it. The conflict of interest between the WHU leaders and the original colonists drives the plot in later novels.
  • The backstory of Francis Sandow from Roger Zelazny's Isle of the Dead. He couldn't find his place on Earth and joined the first interstellar expedition on a sleeper ship. Then he found the hard way he wasn't fit to be a colonist, thus he joined the first passing ship that had a vacancy. And then he kept joining new expeditions to run to the farthest border. After over 6 centuries he found that borders outran him:
    I made one more trip to get away, and it was already too late. People were suddenly all over the place, intelligent aliens were contacted, interstellar trips were matters of weeks and months, not centuries.
  • Samuel R. Delany's The Ballad of Beta-2 has an anthropology student sent to investigate the culture of a fleet of Generation Ships which had arrived at their destination long after it had already been colonized by FTL. By that time, the descendants of the original crews had no interest in living off their ships or interacting with anyone else so the fleet was set aside as a reservation for their odd culture.
  • Narrowly averted by the LDS Nauvoo in The Expanse, if only because the Belters building it hijacked it and tried to ram it into Eros in an attempt to stop the Protomolecule, which ended up creating the Ring.
  • Sergey Snegov's "Galactic Reconnaissance" (from the "The Men Like Gods" trilogy) features crew of the "Devourer of Space" Star Plow (FTL-capable ship) rescuing surviving crew of the "Mendeleev" photonic starship, which suffered the meteor strike and, later, attack of the Destroyants' cruiser during its journey.
  • Played with in one of the stories in Evgeny Filenko's Galactic Consul: a human and alien diplomats engage in a kind of Trial by Combat by playing a Space Chess to decide who would get the colonization rights for a prospective planet, which prospector teams from each civilization reached almost simultaneously.note  While the alien is an undisputed master of the game, the human diplomat is a total noob, but the catch is that he doesn't actually need to win: he's just stalling for time, because they found that a slower-than-light explorer ship was sent there several centuries ago from Earth, and its crew, not informed about the situation, could legitimately claim the planet for the humanity without causing a conflict. The human diplomats not entirely cynical about it, though, as they immediately offer another recently discovered planet as a consolation prize to the aliens, which is more suitable for them, anyway.
  • In Nemesis by Isaac Asimov, the reclusive spacers of an orbiting colony ship decide to ditch Earth after developing a near-lightspeed drive and discovering a previously-unknown star system closer than Alpha Centauri. They take nearly 20 years to arrive at their destination, confident that no one can follow them due to lacking the knowledge and technology. This leads to quite the surprise when another Earth ship arrives shortly after they do, sporting a shiny new FTL drive.
  • Acknowledged and intentionally, if somewhat insultingly, averted in Mayflies by Kevin O'Donnell, Jr. The Colony Ship Mayflower has it's ramscoop engines shut down early, turning it into a Generation Ship on a millennium-long one way trip to Canopus. 700 years later, Earth develops an FTL drive and sends the following message to Mayflower:
    “Initial tests of FTL Drive unqualified successes. We have met the stars and they are ours. Sympathetic to your tortoiseplight, we will not attempt to reach Canopus before you. Following find technical specifications, blueprints, and circuit diagrams.”

    Live-Action TV 
  • Babylon 5, "The Long Dark": In the 22nd century, the exploration ship Copernicus set out with a frozen crew and a navigation computer set to track down radio signals suggestive of intelligent life. A hundred years later, it arrives at the source of one such set of signals — the planet that Babylon 5 orbits. Turns out, the Centauri found Earth and gave humans jump gate technology just a few years after the Copernicus set out. And also, an Eldritch Abomination hitched a ride on it and ate all but one of the crew.
  • The season 1 finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation, "The Neutral Zone", is in part about a recovered ship sent from Earth in the pre-warp era, with cryogenically frozen passengers. Apparently it drifted out of Earth orbit at some point and traveled a few thousand lightyears from Earth in a matter of four hundred years (one Expanded Universe novel fixes this by revealing it was deliberately moved by aliens, for some unknown reason).
  • In the Andromeda episode "The Lone And Level Sands", the crew encounters the Bellerophon, a 1,700 year old exploration vessel launched shortly before Earth joined the Commonwealth and acquired slipstream drive (as in, a Perseid research ship found Earth a mere 8 years after the Bellerophon has been launched, although 30 years would pass before humans were to officially join the Commonwealth). Its mission was scheduled to last 3,000 years (on Earth - because of the relativistic time dilation, the original crew is still alive and well). The crew is divided between those loyal to the captain (who has some idea of how obsolete they've become and is keeping the rest in the dark) and their mission, and those who get the feeling that their crewmates are dying in encounters with raiders for nothing and want to leave. Partially subverted in that they aren't completely useless, because they can go to parts of the galaxy that cannot be reached with slipstream drive.
  • A mild version of this in Stargate Universe, where descendants of an alternate version of the crew of the Destiny have a 2000-year colony on planet Novus. However, as the planet is destabilizing, they have built sublight generational ships to take them to a world their advance scout teams found using stargates. The Destiny crew (not the alternate one) find one such scout group and decide to give them a lift to their destination, knowing that the generational ships will get there in about 200 years.

  • "Space is Dark" by Bill Roper is the story of a crew who awake from centuries in suspended animation, ready to seek out habitable planets, to find that humanity has spread across the galaxy using a hyperdrive invented shortly after they left Earth. They don't take it well.

    Tabletop Games 

    Video Games 
  • The manual for Elite says you can encounter ancient generation ships still flying to their destinations in your Casual Interstellar Travels. You can't, but if they were in the game, that would be this trope.
  • Vega Strike has Forsaken — whole faction formed from the settlers who arrived to their destination only to find already developed places where no one needed them. Forsaken are understandably bitter about all this, don't care about Confed and end up as a big Space Pirates haven.
  • A sublight version in Alien Legacy. In a last-ditch effort to preserve the human race in the face of the Centaurian onslaught, the Earth governments band together to build massive "seedships" to carry colonists to faraway stars with each ship instructed to maintain strict radiosilence in order not to give away their position to the enemy. The game starts with the crew of the UNS Calypso waking up from cold sleep, as the ship enters the Beta Caeli system (90 light years from Earth). The Captain (you) sees messages waiting in his/her PDA. They're from Earth, informing him/her about another seedship, the UNS Tantalus, sent to the same star 16 years after the Calypso. Thanks to a marginally better engine, the Tantalus arrived to Beta Caeli 21 years before the Calypso (it's implied the trip took centuries, if not millennia). The other parts of the trope are avoided, as all you find are remnants of the colony with no humans in sight. Finding out just what the hell happened to them drives the plot of the game.
  • Mentioned with a twist in one of the Mass Effect news feeds, where an old STL human colony ship arrives to find a planet that's already been colonized... by the asari. Needless to say, much Hilarity Ensued until an FTL human ship could arrive to explain the situation. This was also metaphorically the fate of Jump Zero, aka Gagarin Station, which served the humans as a testing ground for FTL tech before they found the Prothean Archive describing mass effect FTL, far more efficient than anything the humans had hoped to accomplish on their own.
  • A variation serves as the central conflict for Mass Effect: Andromeda. The initiative ships took 600 years in FTL to cross the intergalactic void. By the time they arrived, the planets they chose as their destinations through long range scans had been drastically altered by local populations/forces and were no longer the Golden Worlds they were expecting to find. The technology found on the first planet you arrive at is estimated at 300 years old, meaning someone faster arrived there when your journey was only half over.

    Web Original 
  • Orion's Arm does not, and will never have, an FTL drive and they still have a version of this. The first Generation Ships were often outpaced by smaller and faster sleeper ships, and when relativistic drives were developed those beat the sleeper ships. And finally linelayers could not travel at relativistic speeds but could lay down wormholes that would bring in a flood of colonists within a few years of deployment and decrease travel times thereafter from years to months.
  • In the Questden adventure The Sunfish, this is revealed to be the evil plan of the Investors: keeping FTL technology a secret, they sent crews ahead of the big sleeper ships to build Company Town colonies at their destination, so the settlers would end up completely at their mercy.

    Western Animation 
  • In an episode of Once upon a Time... Space, the first interstellar spaceship from Earth — a Sleeper Ship believed lost for nearly a millennium — arrives unannounced to its destination, smack in the middle of Federation space. The crew has to cope with the fact that humankind has already colonized space in their absence, and their thousand-year journey now takes about a week.

    Real Life 
  • The so-called Wait Calculation, introduced by Andrew Kennedy in his paper "Interstellar Travel: The Wait Calculation and the Incentive Trap of Progress", published in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, specifically refutes this idea. The author crunches some numbers and claims that it's possible to figure out an optimal departure time, which would preclude a ship from being overtaken by future technological development, assuming an exponential increase in velocity. He even claims that sudden discoveries like Faster-Than-Light Travel would not negate his idea.