One thing that separates Firefly from many other works of science fiction set in space is that there are no aliens. All sentient beings either are or used to be human.

However, I very much doubt Firefly was the first work to do this.

What was the first work set in space that featured multiple civilizations but no aliens?

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    What's your definition of "civilization" here? It could be argued that there is only on civilization represented in Firefly. – HorusKol Mar 23 '16 at 4:58
  • "the society, culture, and way of life of a particular area" - By this definition, every occupied planet has at least one civilization. – Rogue Jedi Mar 23 '16 at 11:44
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    by that definition, each nation on Earth would be a civilization (even some regions within a nation)... – HorusKol Mar 23 '16 at 12:11
  • Asimov predates it, but Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan books explores a world where there are many different civilizations on different planets but no aliens, although a theme of the book is that genetic manipulation has resulted in some civilizations not looking very human such as the Cetagandeans or the Quaddies. – FuzzyBoots Mar 23 '16 at 18:13

I don't know if he was the first, but Isaac Asimov's Foundation stories (the first one was written in 1941 and published in 1942) feature a galactic empire with many worlds, but without aliens.

Asimov explained the reason for that in an essay:

[John Campbell, editor of Astounding magazine] did not like to see Earthmen lose out to aliens, or to have Earthmen pictured as in any way inferior. Even if Earthmen were behind technologically, they should win anyway because they invariably were smarter, or braver, or had a superior sense of humor, or something.
    I, however, [...] felt that Earthmen [...] might well prove inferior in many vital ways to other civilized races; that Earthmen might lose out to the aliens; that they might even deserve to lose out. [...]
    I wrote a sequel to “Homo Sol,” which I called “The Imaginary,” in which I evaded the issue by having Earthmen not appear (and Campbell rejected it). [...] I continued to want to write “superscience stories” my way, however, and continued to probe for strategies that would allow me to do so without encountering Campbellian resistance.
    I arrived at the answer when I first thought of my story “Foundation.” For it, I needed a Galactic Empire, as in “Homo Sol,” and I wanted a free hand to have it develop as I wished. The answer, when it came to me, was so simple, I can only wonder why it took me so long to reach it. Instead of having an Empire with no human beings as in “The Imaginary,” I would have an Empire with nothing but human beings. I would not even have robots in it.
    Thus was born the “all-human Galaxy.”
The All-Human Galaxy, 1983

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    How many different civilizations are there in Asimov's Galactic Empire? – user14111 Mar 23 '16 at 5:52
  • I mean, it's not just one big galaxy-spanning civilization? – user14111 Mar 23 '16 at 6:02
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    @user14111 Arguably, it is a single civilization until the collapse of the empire - which occurs in the first book of the original Foundation trilogy. After that, a number of civilizations form as different regions that have seceded from the empire start going their own merry way. – Iker Mar 23 '16 at 7:02
  • @user14111 there are 25 million planets in the galactic empire. All occupied by humans. Tons and tons of quadrillions of people. – Dan Shaffer Mar 23 '16 at 13:59

I looked over the Science Fiction Encyclopedia page about Space Opera and found a candidate which beats Asimov's Foundation series in publication date by just two months: the story "Recruiting Station" by A. E. van Vogt, published in the March 1942 issue of Astounding (Asimov's first Foundation story was published in the May 1942 issue of Astounding). I have a collection of Astounding issues on CD-ROM (they're available from this ebay seller if anyone's interested) so I was able to look it over. The story involves two characters from the twentieth century (the story starts in 1941), "Norma" and "Garson", who are forced to work for a time-traveling empire from the distant future called the "Glorious", who are a sort of totalitarian state of enslavers and brain-washers, and who are at war with the more humanistic "Planetarians". The two civilizations are based on different worlds, though still all confined to our Solar System (but you did mention Firefly which was also confined to a single system). On page 19 an agent of the Glorious explains some of the history:

he said quietly: "Several hundred years ago, a mixed commission of Glorious and Planetarians surveyed the entire physical resources of the Solar System. Men had made themselves practically immortal; theoretically, this body of mine will last a million years, barring major accidents. It was decided available resources would maintain ten million men on Earth, ten million on Venus, five million on Mars and ten million altogether on the moons of Jupiter for one million years at the then existing high standard of consumption, roughly amounting to about four million dollars a year per person at 1941 values.

"If in the meantime Man conquered the stars, all these figures were subject to revision, though then, as now, the latter possibility was considered as remote as the stars themselves. Under examination, the problem, so apparently simple, has shown itself intricate beyond the scope of our mathematics.

Later on p. 22, this character reveals the war is interplanetary:

We must win; our cause is overwhelmingly just; we are Earth against all the planets; Earth protecting herself against the aggression of a combination of enemies armed as no powers in all time have ever been armed. We have the highest moral right to draw on the men of Earth of every century to defend their planet.

Most of the action of the story takes place on Earth (present and future), so I'm not sure if this story really meets the condition of being the "first story set in space" with multiple civilizations and no aliens. But it might be seen as meeting that condition, since there is one part of the story where Garson manages to escape the Glorious and is taken on a Planetarian spaceship heading to Venus, where he meets characters from various other times (including other civilizations from times earlier than the war but still in our distant future) who have been recruited to fight in the war by the Planetarians. He gets close enough to see Venus looming large in the window, but is then yanked through space and time by Norma, who has been granted psychic powers by descendants of humanity from even further in the future, the "four hundred and ninetieth century A. D." who are "human in name only". Still, I can verify that there are no actual aliens in the story, everyone is some sort of descendant of modern humans (along with some intelligent computers).

Incidentally, there are also some earlier stories that are set centuries in the future, and which feature civilizations on other worlds of our solar system, where the inhabitants of these other worlds seem to be entirely human-looking. I would say these otherworldly denizens are probably intended to be aliens who just look like humans as in the old Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon comics (or later works like Star Trek), but perhaps there is a little ambiguity as to whether they could be descendants of human colonists. One example I found that seem to fall into this category--though I only read plot summaries--is Hugo Gernsback's Ralph 124C 41+ which originally appeared as a magazine serial beginning in 1911, which is set in the year 2260 and features a romantic rivalry between an Earthling and a Martian named Llysanorh' CK 1618 (the summary here notes that 'the planets are populated by more or less human populations who can interbreed, Martians being tall and large-chested'). Another is Ray Cummings' Tarrano the Conqueror from 1930 (available online in its entirety here, though I only skimmed it and looked at the illustrations) which is set in 2430 and features a Napoleon-like Venusian villain who starts a war between planets. Cummings also wrote another story of warring planets that was published in 1930, Brigands of the Moon, which was set in the year 2079 and which also featured Martians and Venusians, and according to the summary here, "Martians are humanoid, but gigantic; Venusians are petite and sexy; both apparently can interbreed with Earthmen." So both the relatively near-future date and the physical differences suggest they were probably intended to be very human-like aliens, which makes it more likely this was the intent in Tarrano the Conqueror as well, though the summary of Tarrano here, by the same author of the other two summaries I quoted, refers more ambiguously to "Venus and Mars, the natives of which are human or humanoid".


Asimov seems to have preferred humans over aliens; his Galactic Empire series features humans (and occasionally robots), but no BEMs.  While written well after Foundation, his The Stars, Like Dust occurs much earlier in-universe, preceding the establishment of the Trantorian Empire.  It features a smaller empire, the Tyrannian Empire, a rebellion against it, and the search for a secret weapon that has been hidden (or perhaps simply abandoned) on Earth.

  • As the quote in Ubik's answer shows, that's less a matter of Asimov preferring humans than Asimov's editor (John Campbell) preferring humans. – Iker Mar 23 '16 at 7:04
  • Hmm...  And that would have been even clearer if Ubik's answer had said who John Campbell was, and who was being quoted. – Peregrine Rook Mar 23 '16 at 13:49
  • I updated my answer regarding these two points. – Ubik Mar 23 '16 at 23:02

Unless I'm failing to recall correctly (and this answer from Quora seems to back it up), all civilization's in Dune (1965) were descendant from humans. Paul's quote about becoming a hitler also ties this in to being a far-future scifi based on present day earth. It is mentioned that the Imperium hasn't yet ruled out the possibility of aliens (as they keep atomics stockpiled in the event of finding a malevolent civilization), but thus far has not.

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    I agree that the Dune universe is like this, but the question is about the first work, and the previous answers (about Asimov) are more than 20 years earlier. – Nate Eldredge Mar 23 '16 at 20:04
  • @NateEldredge -- True. Though this makes for an answer to a more interesting question since the Duniverse has multiple very divergent species (by all appearances non-human alien), yet all are human in genealogy. -- Possible exception would be the Machines. Sentient non-humans for sure, though created by humans. Unless they were able to "bootstrap" themselves to sentience. In which case one could argue they Uplifted themselves and are therefore fundamentally alien to humanity; even if given the initial kick by humans. – user23715 May 5 '16 at 19:55

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