Read this when I was a kid - I think it's a pretty famous story probably by Heinlein or someone well-known - it's about a group on a rocket ship sent to begin the colonization of a distant, uninhabited planet.

While they are years in cryogenic sleep, technology advances and a faster rocket ship is built, also sent to colonize the planet, so by the time they wake up, and arrive, the planet is already well inhabited and a huge welcome party awaits them. Surreal.

Any idea about this story - who wrote it, title, etc?

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    Take a look at this guide to help jog your memory and edit any more details. Also, take a look at our tour to get a better understanding of our site and earn your first badge!
    – Edlothiad
    Commented May 30, 2017 at 14:42
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    There is a TV Tropes article for that: Lightspeed Leapfrog.
    – eshier
    Commented May 30, 2017 at 15:16
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    Kind of rude to not stop and pick them up on your way by, don't you think?
    – Kapler
    Commented May 30, 2017 at 19:38
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    Read it when you were a kid? How long ago was that?
    – user14111
    Commented May 30, 2017 at 20:02
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    More information is going to be needed to know which story you are asking about. As mentioned by @eshier, this is a reasonably common trope. Thus, there are many stories that fit your basic description of the situation. Limiting it to the author being "someone well-known" is only marginally helpful. The author is also something that question asker often gets wrong.
    – Makyen
    Commented May 30, 2017 at 21:55

5 Answers 5


There are several such stories. The two I could trace (I vaguely remember two others, I think from the '70-'80s - one I'm almost sure was in a Gardner Dozois anthology):

  • Far Centaurus by A. E. Van Vogt (1944), in which the colonists find they are actually repulsive to their descendants.
  • On the Shoulders of Giants by Robert J. Sawyer (2000) ("After 1200 years of travel, the sleeper ship Pioneer Spirit finally arrives at Tau Ceti ... only to find that the world they intended to colonize is already inhabited. Aurora Award Nominee)
  • The Galactic Whirlpool, by D. Gerrold (1980). This is actually a Star Trek TOS story and the "generation ship" does not land on a planet; rather, it is discovered by their "descendants" - the crew of NCC-1701 "Enterprise".
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    "The Galactic Whirlpool" doesn't match; the OP said it was a cryogenic sleeper ship, not a generation ship. Probably not Sawyer; the OP thinks it was a big name sci-fi writer, someone of Heinlein's stature; and 2000 is probably too late. Most likely it's Van Vogt's "Far Centaurus", which is available at archive.org. If so, it's a duplicate of this question.
    – user14111
    Commented May 30, 2017 at 20:12

There is this short story, "The Long and Short of It" by JD Kennedy, on 365 Tomorrows, where the (recently awakened) captain of a sleeper ship is welcomed by his great grandson:

“Yes, sir. We are an advance team on New Terra. You see, 40 years after you left, we discovered the secret to faster-than-light travel. It took many more years to build a manned ship capable of safely reaching here. Sir, it took us just over a year to make the same journey that took you a hundred years to make. A dozen of us have been here for several months preparing for your arrival, but FTL ships cannot yet carry the amount of material you could. I think you will be pleased with our preparations. You will be able to land Columbia just a few days after you achieve orbit.”

Captain Branson sat in silence for a few moments before responding.

“Very well. Needless to say, this is a bit of a shock for us. By the way, what is your name?”

“I’m Captain James Branson. The fourth. Sir, I am your great grandson. I am looking forward to meeting you when you land.”

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    We recommend not using linked answers as links die. Could you provide the answer here, with details as what links up to the askers points?
    – Edlothiad
    Commented May 30, 2017 at 18:55
  • While this answers the question nearly perfectly, I think it's too recent to be what the OP is looking for. Commented May 30, 2017 at 19:22
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    Sorry this was my first answer on this site. I was just browsing and happened to remember reading the story a while ago Commented May 30, 2017 at 20:09

The Shoulders of Giants, by Robert J. Sawyer?

You can read it here: http://www.sfwriter.com/stshould.htm

But with twelve hundred years, faster spaceships would doubtless had been developed. While the colonists aboard the Pioneer Spirit had slept, some dreaming at an indolent pace, other ships had zipped past them, arriving at Tau Ceti decades, if not centuries, earlier — long enough ago that they'd already built human cities on Soror.


I'll offer a (weak) guess based on the fact that you mention Heinlein specifically and no other answers have been commented on/accepted.

Could it be Time for the Stars? While the main plot is really different from what you are describing, I feel it's worth mentioning.

... has built a dozen exploratory torchships to search for habitable planets to colonize. The vessels can continually accelerate, but cannot exceed the speed of light, so the voyages will last many years.

And at the end of the story:

Shortly after he notifies Earth of the dire situation, they are surprised to hear a spaceship will rendezvous with them in less than a month and surmise it must be a more advanced LRF spaceship. Scientists on Earth have discovered faster-than-light travel, in part due to research into the nature of telepathy, and are collecting the surviving crews of the LRF torchships.

There are definitely details that don't match your description:

  • The faster colonists didn't beat them, rather rescue them
  • The slower-than-light vessels are generation ships

But the general theme of "...technology advances and a faster rocket ship is built [during the journey]..." is still present. It is the plot device used for resolution of the novel.

  • This was my first thought, also. Pretty sure it's the only Heinlein story that even vaguely approximates the description.
    – Wildcard
    Commented May 31, 2017 at 2:11

Across The Universe by Beth Revis

The passengers are in cryogenic sleep, but the main character is woken up for some reason (I can't remember). She then interacts with the crew who have become mono-ethnic over the many generations of crewing the ship.

Eventually it is discovered that they reached the planet many generations ago, but the Captains kept announcing 20 year delays (the length of one generation of the crew). The reason being that they were beat by a faster ship that left after they did.

It's not very old or famous, but it seems to check off all the other boxes, so I figured I throw it out there.

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