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Precursors / Literature

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Precursors in Literature.

  • Arrivals from the Dark had the Daskins, a race mentioned in myths and legends of most galactic races. According to some, they once ruled the galaxy and had advanced to the point where it's impossible for modern races to figure out how the remains of their tech work. They may be able to copy some of it, especially their Organic Technology, though. The rumors also say they had Voluntary Shapeshifting and Psychic Powers. They also built a Portal Network through the galaxy that even reaches as far as the Magellanic Clouds, with entrance points located in gas giants, including Jupiter (the Great Red Spot). At some point, some speculate that they have realized that they became Abusive Precursors and left the galaxy, leaving behind their creations, known as the Lords of Emptiness, as temporary stewards, until another race was worthy of taking up the mantle. There are indications that humanity is being groomed for the role.
  • Isaac Asimov: The Asimov's Universe story collection is notable for featuring space-faring humans alongside five other non-humanoid races. A recurring motif is the ruins and remnants left behind of an earlier, seventh space-faring species that has since vanished.
  • In Robert A. Heinlein's Between Planets we have the First Empire which originated on the Fifth Planet and which became the asteroid belt. Its ruins could be found on Mars and Venus and beneath the oceans of Earth. Don Harvey's parents were doing archaeological work in ruins on Mars while Don was at Boarding School on Earth. While its technology was not immediately viable, records left behind contained hints to a new physics that through difficult research led to 20 g spaceships and artificial gravity. The story gave the example of reading a treatise on modern electronics being written in Sanskrit poetry being lucid in comparison.
  • Book of the Ancestor the planet Abeth has the precursor race of the Missing. Little is known about them by today's humans, but they are said to have Ascended to a Higher Plane of Existence by getting rid of their inner demons (which still remain, mostly trapped in ice).
  • A Colder War by Charles Stross. Stephen Jay Gould is presenting some recent paleozoic fossils and artifacts to members of a top-secret government agency that, unknown to him, deals in Eldritch Abominations straight out of H. P. Lovecraft, and has been trying to keep this stuff secret from the public. When he shows them a fossil of one of the "Old Ones" from At the Mountains of Madness, the protagonist thinks "he's found a Predecessor, god help him."
  • In Commonwealth Saga, the Planters are an apparently long gone race who seeded a planet with "plants" strange combinations of organic and machine which come in ground, aquatic and orbital varieties. The humans who discovered the planet are secretly studying them — non-invasively, in case the Planters come back and are displeased that the humans have damaged their creation.
  • In Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian story "Shadows In The Moonlight" Olivia thinks a god had been there in times she dreamed of, even though absent now.
    "The nameless, forgotten ones. Who knows? They have gone back into the still waters of the lakes, the quiet hearts of the hills, the gulfs beyond the stars. Gods are no more stable than men."
  • In the Carl Sagan novel Contact and the movie based on it, an unknown ancient race of aliens built the "cosmic subway system" of wormhole transportation used to bring a single human to meet the successor aliens who inherited the system.
  • Iain M. Banks's Culture novels are practically littered with Precursors, numerous advanced civilizations that existed in aeons past until they variously died off, Sublimed, or just plain mysteriously disappeared. These Precursors are the Sufficiently Advanced Aliens of Sufficiently Advanced Aliens, since most of Banks' protagonists themselves belong to a civilization that can casually travel across the galaxy, build gigantic habitats in space, and use the fabric of the Universe itself as a weapon — and they are occasionally awed by the Precursors.
  • In The Dark Side of the Sun, the Precursors called "Jokers" were known only for the mark they made on the universe of building blatantly impossible things for no known reason but the lulz.
  • The Eldraeverse is littered with Precursor artifacts; there's considerable evidence that the eldrae homeworld itself — a Big Dumb Object rather than a planet — is one. There's not much indication of what happened to them, and some eldrae are a bit disturbed that they're apparently the oldest of the extant young sophont species.
  • In The Expanse, a precursor race once had a huge empire, and tried to colonize Earth by sending a thing which can change living beings to build a portal. The fact that something was able to wipe out a civilisation as advanced as they were is a constant source of worry through the series.
  • In Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's novel Footfall, the aliens who invade Earth are actually at a caveman level of social development; the Forerunners left carved blocks on their planet which detail everything from simple metallurgy through advanced laser weapons and Bussard ramscoops. As a result, there are many technological paths they never even thought of.
  • The Gam3: The Game was created by the Predecessors and the Lords of Life as the culmination of their galaxy-spanning genocidal war. The Predecessors are still around, and are the strongest individual players in the game. The Lords of Life have barely been mentioned beyond their name.
  • In the Gentleman Bastard series, the Eldren dotted the continent with vast constructions of utterly indestructible Elderglass, far beyond the capabilities of human alchemy or magic to duplicate or alter. The entire species disappeared millennia before the beginning of the series for no known reason. The Bondsmagi of Karthain believe that Eldren magic drew the attention of something terrible from beyond the stars, and take great pains to disperse their own magic to keep it from happening again.
  • Subverted in the Hainish books and stories by Ursula K. Le Guin. The "Hain" are precursors who created humanoid life forms on many worlds (including earth), but they are still around and still a dominant species in interstellar society.
  • Frederik Pohl's Heechee Saga set many of the standards for this trope. Humanity has stumbled on an space station abandoned by the local Precursors, the Heechee, and try to use the Faster-Than-Light Travel spacecraft left behind to search for alien artifacts to reverse-engineer. The destinations are pre-programmed and can only be accessed randomly, making exploration a dangerous crapshoot. Some of the survivors return rich; many return dead, if they return at all.
  • In Charles Sheffield's Heritage Universe novels, the Builders left behind artifacts the size of planets — e.g. Cocoon, the first such artifact discovered by humans, was so named because that's what it looks like if you're far enough away from the planet it surrounds. A whole discipline of Adventurer Archaeologists exists to study Builder artifacts.
  • Every known non-human race in Andrey Livadny's The History of the Galaxy series can be considered a precursor, as four of them are at least 3 millions of years old, while several others are billions of years old. Humanity is the youngest known race, even though their technology level means they are strong enough to kick everyone else's backsides should the need arise. It helps that most of those races have long ago passed the peak of the civilization. In fact, two of them spent several million years as slaves, degrading their technology to the point where they forgot about their former greatness.

    Ironically, the race that is actually known as the Precursors (or Forerunners, as there is no official translation to English) are non-sentient proto-lifeforms which have been created by an energy being (supposedly, the first being to ever gain sentience in the universe) to serve as seeds for its copies. The Precursors contained within themselves the first ever DNA molecule. The unintended side effect of this was the creation of all known organic life in the galaxy.
  • Alan Dean Foster's Humanx Commonwealth series has humanity and its allies expanding into a significantly used universe, with a wide variety of species at various stages of development from primitive to superadvanced to completely extinct. Several of these, most notably the Xunca, the Tar-Aiym, and the Hur'rikku, had a profound impact on the earlier history of the galaxy and left numerous artifacts lying around after they variously departed. The Xunca are actually still around, but they packed up and moved to a different galaxy to avoid an encroaching Eldritch Abomination that the modern day protagonists now have to deal with.
  • The Grey Folk of Christopher Paolini's The Inheritance Cycle. They were the original speakers of the Ancient Language, but lived in a time when the language wasn't connected to magic at all; instead, one cast spells by thinking about what one wanted to happen. However, this method was prone to interference by intrusive thoughts. Speaking one's intent aloud was helpful, and so was common practise, but wasn't foolproof. note  Eventually, one of the Grey Folk became distracted and accidentally cast a spell that devastated the whole world. Horrified, the surviving Grey Folk cast a spell that bound their language to magic, allowing the act of speaking one's intent aloud to override such distracted thoughts and maintain the spell's intended structure, creating magic as it's known today. The surviving Grey Folk were insufficient in numbers to maintain a population, so they're stated to have interbred with the 'younger races' and eventually disappeared.
  • The ancient race that created the warp drive in Into the Looking Glass by John Ringo and Travis S. Taylor after the first book. They also created a space station that can control the output of an entire star. Why? A systemwide concert venue!
  • In the Kane Series, the last of "elder races" like the Scylredi and the Krelran, still live in degenerate forms, having forgotten their former greatness. Kane also meets Dwassllir, the last king of giants, in "Two Suns Setting".
  • In Larry Niven's Known Space universe, there are two sets of precursors. First there were the Thrintun (AKA "Slavers"), who seeded the galaxy with the ingredients of life so it would grow and evolve into unique delicacies for them to eat (being hypnotic slavers, they were defeated by the Tnuctipun in the inevitable Turned Against Their Masters, and they took all sentient life with them. Talk about bad parenting). Then there were the Pak, a race of more recent aliens with three life stages (child, breeder, Protector) only sentient in the third stage, and programmed to be homicidal to anything that could conceivably threaten their descendants (mutations were not recognized). Earth was a Lost Colony of them who couldn't advance to Protector stage when their supply of tree-of-life root ran out due to a lack of thallium in Earth's soil. They left behind lost colonies and random apelike animals all over, including the Ringworld, which they had built and abandoned.
  • Laszlo Hadron and the Wargod's Tomb: The Sagittarian Empire existed two million years before the events of the novel. At the height of their power they were equivalent to modern-day interstellar nations, only for their entire civilisation to vanish in an event known as the Sagittarian Extinction, which left behind very little of what they built, the eponymous "Wargod's Tomb" being one example of it.
  • The Arisians feature predominantly in the Lensman series. As well being the ancestors of all species (save one), they devise a multi-eon spanning plan leading to the birth of the Children of the Lens. These five psychic superpeople will not only be able to help vanquish the enemy (a race of malevolent being hailing from another space-time continuum), but will grow in power to become greater then the Arisians themselves.
  • There are two examples in The Licanius Trilogy. The Builders were first, and they created magnificent cities, buildings and engineering marvels before causing their own destruction. The Shalis were second, and they mastered the use of Essence and passed down their knowledge to humans before going extinct at the hands of the Venerate.
  • Sergey Lukyanenko's A Lord from Planet Earth series features the Seeders, mysterious ancient beings who have left highly-advanced artifacts, some of which are Black Boxes, while others are understood and adapted fairly well. They have also left mysterious spherical temples on every inhabited world (except Earth). It is eventually revealed that the Seeders are humans from the future, who have seeded their past with humanoid races and advanced technology to create an army to fight an extragalactic enemy (Earth was left undisturbed to avoid messing with history).
  • H. P. Lovecraft loved this trope and his works arguably served as an early Trope Codifier. See for example "The Call of Cthulhu", "The Shadow Out of Time" and At the Mountains of Madness. In At the Mountains of Madness the Elder Things colonized the Earth two billion years ago and sowed the seeds of all advanced life on the planet. The Mi-Go of "The Whisperer in Darkness" may precede the existence of the universe itself. Lovecraft usually concentrated more on the lore of his Precursors rather than their physical objects. In his work, the Precursors sometimes remain on Earth, hidden, in outer space, or in a space adjacent to our cosmos, ready to return at any time. The "Cthulhu Mythos" codified by his friend and admirer August Derleth builds on this. (Lovecraft himself did not use the term "Cthulhu mythos".)
  • In the Malazan Book of the Fallen, the Imass were what has become known as one of the Four Founding Races (together with their potentially Recursive Precursors the Jaghut, the Abusive Precursors known as the Forkrul Assail and the Neglectful Precursors, the K'Chain Che'Malle). Having been a hunter-gatherer society, they haven't left any advanced technology behind and besides, the T'lan Imass are still around anyway. Quite literally, the Imass were also the precursors of humans, preceding and in some places co-existing with them much like the Neanderthals did in the real world.
  • Steve Perry's Matador Series had the Zonn, a race that died out thousands of years before humanity achieved FTL. They didn't leave behind much other than interesting ruins on a number of worlds.
  • Andy McDermott's action-adventure novels. The first is called The Hunt for Atlantis and is centered around, oddly enough, a hunt for Atlantis. As the series goes on, other mythical items are 'explained' as advanced technology stemming from the Atlanteans. As the series goes on even further, the characters stumble across the Garden of Eden, which is the final resting place of a pre-human civilisztion which was driven to extinction by their human slaves, who stole certain technologies and fled. The Atlanteans are then revealed to have been the result of cross-breeding between those prehumans and the humans, causing the reader to re-evaluate the "it came from Atlantis" explanation.
  • In C. J. Cherryh's Morgaine Cycle the Qhal left behind a Portal Network of Cool Gates, which they themselves copied from a still older alien species. The humans who discovered this, rather than copying it like the Qhal did, are systematically destroying the network left behind by the Qhal. That's because the Gates can be used for Time Travel, and any Temporal Paradox caused by the Gates will trigger a Time Crash which will destroy civilization on each planet with a Gate. Such a Time Crash is precisely what wiped out the Qhal, leaving behind their Gates for humans to discover.
  • In Nexus Nine the main character is a Precursor, of sorts, a fusion of an uplifted cat in the Tri-Galactic Navy and a millennia-old memory chip implanted in her brain. Unfortunately, The Fog of Ages has set in and she doesn't recall the chip's origins, just that the humans most uplifts revere as "The First Ones" were actually preceded by an eras-old octopus civilization and it came through a Nexus pathway at some point.
  • The first Noob novel mentions that another sentient race, the Keosamas, existed before the Olydrians, the race that all Player Characters incarnate. Keosamas reached a high level of progress in terms of magic due to the fact that Olydri was much more hostile at the time, so they Had to Be Sharp. Suriving Keosamas can be found in a legendary underwater settlement near Piratas Island.
  • In the Strugatsky Brothers' Noon Universe series, the Wanderers may or may not be still active, but they fit this trope closely enough because the humans only ever find the traces of their continued and enigmatic work. They seem to be "progressing" the other civilisations, but their activities often enough utterly screw over local civilisations, though it might be for their ultimate good in some way anyway.
  • Andre Norton:
    • She wrote a lot of space opera novels featuring relics of various lost civilizations, collectively called "Forerunners". She was one of the early developers of the abandoned-gateway-between-worlds idea that the Stargate films and TV series are based on; one of her Forerunner cultures left behind such a network, which younger species, including humans, have started to explore.
    • In her Witch World fantasy novels, humans migrated to High Hallack centuries ago only to find that the Old Ones had been there before them; these Neglectful Precursors left behind quite a few ruins and dangerous artifacts.
  • In the Perry Rhodan series, a million years ago the Barkonids settled the galaxy as their planet was shot out of it. New colonies weren't given a lot of technology to prevent them from becoming decadent, which let most of them to become low tech. Over 50,000 years age the 'First Mankind', the Lemurians, settled the galaxy again, but they were wiped away in an interstellar war and fled to Andromeda galaxy. Then at least 20,000 thousand years ago we get the Akonids, who spread out but become really isolationist after a colonial war of independence with the Arkonids, who are currently becoming decadent, the next step will probably be humanity.
  • Played with in the world of The Prince of Thorns, with the beings referred to as "the builders", who created incredible works of technology and then disappeared. It becomes increasingly apparent that the world is not your average Medieval European Fantasy, but is actually After the End — "the builders" were us, before we nuked each other and lost most of our knowledge.
  • The Psalms of Isaak has three levels of this, each filling a different precursor niche. Earliest were the Younger Gods, who were so far in the past little of their works remain, but generally come off as Benevolent Precursors. They were followed by the Weeping Czars, Neglectful Precursors who are mainly remembered for bringing the third group down on the world. That would be the Wizard Kings, very much Abusive Precursors, though they still have worshippers in the present day of the series. The last Wizard King, Xhum Y'Zir, used a spell called the Seven Cacaphonic Deaths to devastate most of the world to avenge his dead sons, giving rise to the contemporary civilizations. The Younger Gods themselves were descended from the Elder Gods, who are hardly ever mentioned and so far into the past that they're little more than a mythical footnote, but are implied to be modern humans, or maybe our direct descendants (though Earth All Along is averted — the books are set in what is eventually revealed to be a Lost Colony, not Earth).
  • In David R. Witanowski's Reynard Circle three major civilizations have come and gone by the time period of the novels. (Possibly more than three if the fan theory that the series is set long After the End is ever confirmed.)
    • The golden skinned Telchines, a matriarchal culture that coexisted with Giants. The castle of Maleperduys was built by them. Their rule came to an end rather abruptly due to...
    • ...the Demons, who enslaved the world in seven days. They created the Chimera, built functional robots, and would have ruled for an eternity were it not for their apparent inability to get along with each other. A civil war (implied to be nuclear) weakened them to the point that the last of them was slain by the founder of the Kingdom of...
    • Aquilia, a kingdom that eventually splintered into several dozen countries after the last member of the royal family drowned at sea a thousand years prior to the beginning of the saga. They built some truly impressive structures using the technology of the Demons, but seemingly forgot how to use it as the years went by (either that, or the technology stopped working and they had no idea how to fix it.) Duke Nobel claims to be a direct descendant of the royal family, but it's unclear if this is just part of his public relations policy.
  • The Valheru in Raymond E. Feist's Riftwar series.
  • Rogues of the Republic: The "ancients" colonized the continent thousands of years ago, bringing with them incredible Magitek and all manner of servants, including all the human races, elves, and dwarves. Most modern civilizations are built on the scraps of technology they left behind, and even though none of it is operating perfectly, it is still capable of incredible things. They left the world in order to protect it from the Glimmering Folk. As long as the ancients are gone, the Glimmering Folk cannot step foot on the world or any other connected to it.
  • Semiosis: The human colonists on Pax move into an abandoned city built by aliens who had arrive on the planet before them and then disappeared. The aliens are named "Glassmakers", as much of their architecture features ornate glass domes, windows, and ornaments. A century later, the colonists' descendants meet a group of living Glassmakers, who rejected mutualism with Pax's sapient Plant Aliens and adopted a nomadic existence.
  • The Shannara Series has an interesting take on this; as the series is set in the future, it's our current civilisation which is the precursor civilisation.
  • The Shattered Sea takes place in a Norse Fantasy Counterpart Culture within a Medieval fantasy setting, which has been built on the ashes of a previous Elven civilization, which built with materials that cannot be replicated and had strange magical devices. However, it's heavily implied throughout and more or less revealed that the setting is Earth All Along (it's actually not a Fantasy Counterpart Culture — it's actually in Scandinavia), the Elves are modern/slightly futuristic humans, and Elf Magic is just technology.
  • J. R. R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings has several.
    • Some elven kingdoms are precursors to the people of Middle-Earth.
    • Númenor and Arnor. Even though Gondor still exists and so Númenórean civilization is not completely gone. However, it is much reduced, occupying only a small southern corner of Middle-earth. Its northern counterpart Arnor is almost entirely gone, existing only as the Shire and Bree.
    • From the perspective of the modern day, the Elves of Tolkien's Middle-Earth are a Precursor race. Humans did not descend from them, but they've been in the world longer than anyone and have really long-lasting artifacts. Gandalf, Thorin, and Bilbo's swords in The Hobbit are all artifacts from Gondolin, a city that was destroyed roughly 6,000 years before the events of the book. Not only are they unrusted and sharp, their orc proximity alert is still active.
    • Downplayed, since they never actually did anything until much later, but dwarves are technically the oldest mortal race in Arda, having been created by Mahal (the dwarven name for Aulë) and granted souls by Eru long before the elves or humans awakened.
    • And then there are the Woses, who are implied to be the original humans who built the first civilisations in middle earth.
  • The Sister Verse and the Talons of Ruin has the Crest, who created the Dreadlands and most of its infrastructure before they were annihilated by the Lord in White and its darklings.
  • In Michael Flynn's Spiral Arm: The January Dancer, "the folk of sand and iron."
  • Star Trek:
    • In the Star Trek: The Next Generation novel "The Devil's Heart" the Iconians are confirmed to be precursors to the DiWahn, Dynasian, and Ikkabar as a fair number of Iconians escaped to what were then Iconian outposts during the bombardment of Iconian 200,000 years ago. Over the centuries their descendants developed their own cultures and languages. While the Ikkabar - with the exception of a Sole Survivor - died out by the 24th century, both the DiWahn and Dynasians continued to exist well in the 2360s. note 
  • The Star Wars Expanded Universe has several features that are attributed to Precursor-like races. The two most prominent are the Rakata and the Celestials:
    • The Rakata, who debut in Knights of the Old Republic, created the first modern hyperdrives, built a vast empire (though it had relatively few planets since their dark side-powered hyperdrives could only travel to worlds with a large Force presence) and created a massive orbital factory called the Star Forge which could build enough material to supply their entire empire.
    • The Celestials lived much further in the past, circa 200,000-50,000 BBY. They created Centerpoint Station (a giant repulsor beam that created the Corellian system and is so advanced that a 25,000-year-old Galactic civilization cannot replicate or even understand how it works!) as well as the Hyperspace Triangle that bisects the galaxy (which makes galactic civilization possible), the Maw Cluster of black holes, the hyperspace anomaly that seals off the Unkown Regions and much more. The Rakata and most of the other "younger" precursor races started out as vassals of the Celestials. The Celestials were created by the EU's then-head writer Troy Denning in his novel The Joiner King, and they play a key role in the backstory of Denning's Myth Arc that stretched from the Dark Nest Trilogy to Fate of the Jedi; Denning also arc welded them to existing elements of The 'Verse such as the aforementioned Centerpoint, which debuted in The Corellian Trilogy a decade earlier. Only in the very last book of Fate of the Jedi is their true identity revealed as the Family of Mortis, as seen in Star Wars: The Clone Wars.
  • The Quyans from The Stone Dance of the Chameleon, whose civilization preceded that of the Chosen. They are later revealed to actually be still around, as the Chosen's slaves called "sartlar".
  • In Terry Pratchett's novel Strata, the Precursors built the titular strata machines reverse-engineered by humans for building planets, and other techology that humans didn't already develop themselves. These planet-building (and terraforming) precursors, called "Spindles" due to their great height, had their own set, called "Rollers" who didn't make celestial bodies, but megastructures (their ship is 500,000 miles long). These guys were preceeded by "Paleotechs", whom destroyed stars to make heavy elements (and pretty nebuli). These, in turn, had "ChThons", Space Whales who exhaled hydrogen and kindled suns. Every precursor race had some kind of celestial artwork, which they made for no other reason than a hobby, and then they went extinct, all the way back to the universe being created by a multiverse-spanning Mega-Corp. This is, in fact, mostly a lie; the Mega-Corp was the only real one, and they just wanted their creation (really only a few tens of thousands of years old) to have a bit of backstory..
  • The Dolbrians In SA Swann's Terran Confederacy universe terraformed an unknown but large number of worlds, several of which still have star maps and/or megalithic artifacts on them. The Face on Mars is one such artifact. They vanished from the galaxy millions of years ago, for unknown reasons.
  • Uplift: Every intelligent race in the galaxy was Uplifted (engineered to sentience and given access to the Great Library) by a previous one, save the first. The Progenitors (self-evolved, now extinct) are considered the next thing to gods. A race's clout in the galactic hierarchy is in part determined by how close they are to having been created directly by the Progenitors. Then along come the Humans, who have reached the stars alone, with no patron race and a complete fossil record that indicates they evolved naturally. It's practically heretical! It doesn't help matters (from the galactic standpoint) that humans have already Uplifted chimps and dolphins, too.

    In the second novel set in the Uplift Universe, Startide Rising, the first dolphin-captained Earth ship discovers what is assumed to be a fleet of the fabled Progenitors, and must try to return to Earth while being hounded by bickering alien battle fleets after the transmission of their findings is intercepted; the most active (and warlike) of the alien races/alliances are not happy that the wolfling Humans might have the key to the fate of the Progenitors (which could prove most or all of their belief systems wrong. The idea that humans may be the descendants or direct product of the Progenitors is also examined.
  • Dungeon Engineer: "Precursor ruins and artifacts" are mentioned as things that exist, in chapter seven.