Plot Summary/Details

I don't recall all that much beyond the basic plot. A human being is taken captive by a group of aliens and questioned. I believe it takes place on Earth and the aliens are a scouting party of some sort, though I am not certain on that point.

The aliens clearly have superior technology to humanity, and before they question the human they make it explicitly clear they will be able to tell if he is lying (with all manner of dire consequences to follow if he does so). I don't think they are psychic per se, but rather have technology that acts as an infallible lie detector.

They ask a series of questions (the specifics of them I cannot recall) designed to determine the strength/capabilities of Earth. The man answers truthfully, but is clever enough to answer the questions in a way that will give the impression to the aliens that Earth and mankind is a lot more powerful than it seems. I recall there is some internal rationalization/dialogue on why a particular answer is truthful.

The story ends with, as best I can remember, the aliens believe that attacking Earth would be a foolish and dangerous prospect, and the man is freed, secure in the knowledge he just saved the planet.

Publication Details/Timeframe

I'm really fuzzy here. I think I read it in a paperback anthology, not a sci-fi periodical. It may have been in an anthology that also had the short story "Heavy Planet", but I'm not at all sure about that point. I can say that I read the story in the late 1970s, and the style and plot of the story felt very "Golden Age" era sci-fi.

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    Your description rings a bell, but there are a lot of stories that use the plot device of aliens making exactly the right observations to lead them to conclude that humans are way too formidable to tangle with. There's Asimov's "Victory Unintentional" - "The Easy Way Out" by G. Harry Stine, a Spider Robinson story whose name I've forgotten...
    – user888379
    Commented Dec 30, 2020 at 2:32
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    A story with a similar theme is The Space Willies by Eric Frank Russel. Russel had a well-deserved reputation for writing ingenious stories and his work is well worth looking out for. goodreads.com/book/show/… Commented Dec 30, 2020 at 17:26
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    @BernardPeek: Personally, I think that your answer would be fine with a little bit of description on how it fits. Partial answers, even after an answer has been accepted, are useful because people looking later will find it.
    – FuzzyBoots
    Commented Dec 31, 2020 at 1:07

3 Answers 3


It's a short story published in 1957 in Astounding Science Fiction by Randall Garrett (writing as David Gordon) called "The Best Policy". To quote Wikipedia on the plot:

When the alien Dal kidnap scientist Edwin Magruder from the colony planet New Hawaii, they intend to interrogate him so that they may use the information he provides to conquer humanity. However, when Magruder realizes that the Dal "lie detector" instead detects objective truth, he uses obfuscation to convince his captors that humans possess supernatural abilities and are vastly more powerful than them.

To give an example of what he does, he tells them that humans are capable of transporting their bodies from place to place, without needing spacecraft or other vehicles, by mentally controlling energy with physical results. They think he's talking about teleportation. He means walking.

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    That reminds me of the many alternate ways engineers describe things. funnyshit.com.au/engineer_speak.html Commented Dec 30, 2020 at 17:33
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    As an engineer, I want this objective truth detector. Commented Dec 30, 2020 at 18:42
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    For future curious readers, you can find this story in the Luminist Archives, specifically here, page 126.
    – naiveai
    Commented Dec 31, 2020 at 3:20
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    What a cool story. Reminds me of another short story where a telepathic alien scouting party talks to a young boy who is into Buck Rodgers and has a "ray gun", etc, and since these things are real to him, the aliens believe them and call off the invasion.
    – Wayne
    Commented Dec 31, 2020 at 21:35

Sounds very similar to "Victory Unintentional" (1942) by Isaac Asimov, but in that case three robots make first contact with Jovian aliens.

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    The OP has already accepted the other answer here as the correct work. Also you really should explain in mor detail how this matches. Try in the future to give more detail and also only answer a confirmed story id question if you really do believe the confirmed work isn’t actually correct.
    – TheLethalCarrot
    Commented Dec 30, 2020 at 23:44
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    @TheLethalCarrot: I disagree. As long as the answer makes for a reasonable match (and said details are provided), it ought to be posted. After all, we're not only hoping to help this person, but anyone else who finds the question.
    – FuzzyBoots
    Commented Dec 31, 2020 at 5:09
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    I like all three answers, as leads to checking out stories either new to me or long forgotten. Commented Jan 3, 2021 at 2:56

Mission of Ignorance by Christopher Anvil also uses this as a premise.

The aliens come and bring gifts -- an easy to make computer that can hold libraries of information, a crop that is entirely edible, and grows very fast with minimal care and fertilizer, and a contraceptive that is effective for men and women and needs to be taken only twice a year.

All encounters with the aliens take place on their ship in a particular room.

A mere lieutenant is chosen to represent Earth when they return 10 years later.

At first they are puzzled by a mere lieutenant. His brief prepped him. He pulls out a paper reads it outloud. It's a the first half of the fastest military rise and fall, appointing him to the rang of Major General.

The aliens are shocked that he read something off of paper. They make him fold the paper in half, and read each half separately.

They look at the paper and it's gibberish. On asking, this is "Speedwrite" a new system for writing by hand.

On inqiry Earth is not using the other gifts either. He explains the alternate technologies that Earthlings have developed instead, in each case opening an envelope and reading out the briefing paper inside.

On returning planetside, and getting the other half of his military rise and fall, he asks in bewilderment, why the aliens were so flabbergasted, and why he was sent with such curious briefing.

Project manager explains that:

Earthlings always came off second best when in the alien ship. Perhaps the aliens had a non-portable mind reader. The lieutenant's chief weapon was his ignorance.

PM then demonstrates some things they discovered about the gifts: A loud high pitched whistle causes the computer circuits to change to dust. A cheap as dirt chemical at parts per trillion causes the food plant to croak, and another cheap aerosol turns off the effect of the birth control, and also acts as an aphrodisiac.

Christopher Anvil wrote a ton of short stories and novelas. Some were linked to form novels. Throughout he has a very droll sense of humour. Contacts with aliens (and really wierd aliens...) figure prominently. Most of his work has been reprinted by Baen Books, with Eric Flint as editor.

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