I came across this comment on the internet, unfortunately much too old for me to respond to to find more information or ask if they'd gotten an answer. Nonetheless, their description intrigued me and I would really like to know what story they're referring to:

There is a chilling SciFi story (I wish I could remember its name or author - Lem?) about a space traveler stranded in his ship many light-years from home. A gigantic golden swimming humanoid shape approaches, and hurls him towards home at many times light-speed. The golden giant then realizes that the poor stricken ship will not be able to slow down, and it arranges for a safe return to Earth. Later, the narrator of this story sees a child pick up a caterpillar from the sidewalk and deposit it safely on the grass and staggers with the realization that an adult would have just stepped on it.

One of the replies elaborated:

I always remember that the golden giant had so much insight into the human's nature it not only knew his home planet, it put him in Olduvai Gorge.

Other replies seem to me to imply it's at least several decades old. The idea that the commentor believed it to be possibly by Stanislaw Lem (although I could find no such Lem story myself) suggests that it was probably written in the 60s or 70s.

Anyone recognize the story and who it's by?

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    Not an answer, but a hint. I remember reading this story - IIRC it was very short, probably less than 10 pages. I think it was by Larry Niven, but perusing his short story collections I don't see a title that is obviously it.
    – Joe Fromm
    Commented Aug 25, 2020 at 22:13

1 Answer 1


"Passerby," a short story by Larry Niven. (As Joe Fromm suggested in a comment.) First published in Galaxy Magazine (September 1969). I first encountered it in the Niven collection All the Myriad Ways.

The plot is pretty much as described in the summary you quoted. But the story arguably has two narrators, depending upon how rigidly we define the term "narrator." The story as a whole is narrated by an unnamed man who spends a lot of time in a public park. His attention is caught by another man, a stranger to him, but obviously a "rammer." (A pilot who flies a starship equipped with a Bussard ramjet as its main power source.)

The rammer and the narrator both watch a little boy kneel down in a pathway in the park, and then stand up and move, with his hands cupped together, towards an oak tree. The rammer faints. His body starts to collapse and the narrator grabs him and manages to get the guy over to a park bench so he doesn't hit his head against the ground.

Then the bulk of the story is a conversation between them, with the rammer describing a very strange experience he had in space, so you could say that his dialogue qualifies as him narrating a story within the larger story narrated by the first guy. As I said, the plot is basically what was described above (although the golden giant appeared to be walking between the stars while standing upright, rather than making swimming motions). The rammer and his damaged ship were carefully dropped off in North Africa -- twelve light-years from where the rammer had been stranded in his ship -- and it seemed they had crossed that gap in mere moments. (Humans in this story had colonized other planets in other solar systems, but they did not have faster-than-light technology, and they didn't think anyone else did, either.)

The rammer and the narrator toss a few ideas back and forth regarding what that golden giant might have been. For instance, was it a mile-tall alien entity in approximately the shape of an adult male human (but with variations, such as three-fingered hands and no toes or visible ears), or was it a man-shaped starship that was built to look like a gigantic replica of its designer? At the end, the rammer explains why the sight of that boy's activities at the start of the story had triggered a panic reaction in him.

What the rammer had observed earlier, and the narrator hadn't, was that a caterpillar had been crawling along the gravel pathway, and various adults had come and gone without even noticing it. Then the boy came along, saw the caterpillar, and felt the urge to very carefully pick it up and move it off the path, over to an oak tree where he placed it on one branch, thinking it ought to be relatively safe up there. Then (implicitly) a very scary parallel between that episode and the rammer's experience suddenly occurred to the rammer, and so he collapsed.

I will quote the last paragraphs of the story. The narrator is speaking first.

"And you fainted."

"I should not have been so affected by what, after all, is no more than a comparison. I would have cracked my skull had you not caught me."

"A poor return for the golden one if you had."

The rammer did not smile. "Tell me . . . if an adult had seen the caterpillar, instead of a boy--"

"Probably he'd have stepped on it."

"Yes, I thought so." The rammer put his tongue in his cheek, which stretched incredibly. "He is nearly upside down. I hope he will not fall off."

"It won't."

"Do you think he is safe there?"

"Sure. Don't worry about it."

The obvious implication is that it has just now occurred to the rammer that he may have been even luckier than he previously realized. What if the "golden giant" who rescued him was a particularly young and/or altruistic member of his species, and a more typical specimen would have used the rough equivalent of a fly swatter to deal with a useless little pest? What if that's the same attitude the alien adults would take towards human civilization in general -- if we ever managed to sufficiently annoy them so as to draw their attention for a few minutes?

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    I've always loved the line about "put his tongue in his cheek". Niven using a lampshade. Commented Aug 26, 2020 at 14:23
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    It's kinda pessimistic to assume an adult human would deliberately step on the caterpillar. Most people I know would ignore it but not intentionally kill it... Commented Aug 27, 2020 at 4:39
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    @Xavon_Wrentaile Same here, but I have heard of people who will intentionally try to run over critters on the highway for nothing more than a moment's entertainment. In terms of the story, perhaps that's half the point.
    – Booga Roo
    Commented Aug 28, 2020 at 9:11
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    @Xavon_Wrentaile When I first read the story, I remember having much the same reaction. A typical adult is perfectly capable of stomping on an ant or a caterpillar, but that doesn't mean he tries to do so every time he notices the opportunity. But of course Niven needed to lay it on thick so that the rammer's sudden epiphany would be presented to us dramatically -- "an older golden giant might have decided to exterminate us vermin entirely, instead of generously giving me a free lift back to my species' home turf and then losing interest! It could still happen if another one comes along!"
    – Lorendiac
    Commented Aug 28, 2020 at 17:31
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    @SJuan76 I think it might be more accurate to say that it had not consciously occurred to him that such a powerful being might really want to wipe him out if it stumbled across him in the interstellar void. Earlier in the story, in a part I didn't quote, the rammer said he'd previously about convinced himself that he and the giant were "fellow spacemen" and that was why the giant was willing to give him a ride home -- a bit of professional courtesy to a colleague with less advanced technology. The boy with the caterpillar gave him a whole new slant on how the giant might have regarded him.
    – Lorendiac
    Commented Aug 28, 2020 at 18:19

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