Note: I just realized that in Greek mythology, demigods probably find out later in life (sometimes) that their mother was impregnated by a god. Also, "changelings" might be brought up by their human parents who do not immediately tell the changeling his origin. So I would like to qualify this -- I am interested in science fiction, not folk tales or mythology.

There are many stories, certainly by the 1960s, in which a human discovers he is a robot. There are plenty of stories also where a creature resembles a human but is not. I am pretty sure Frankenstein's creature knew he was artificial as did the creatures in Island of Dr. Moreau.

But a story in which an apparently human character discovers he is artificial or an alien, etc. is inherently more complex. In the 20th century stories where someone is living as human, they have artificial memories (like in Blade Runner or other PKD stories -- I think Dick had multiple stories with the theme); fake memories are a requirement almost which is perhaps why 19th science fiction would not have the idea of an artificial human discovering his true nature.

I was thinking HP Lovecraft has other people thinking a monster is human but not sure any of his stories have the monster its being deluded although a movie made from one of his stories had someone discovering he is a sea creature of some sort -- the movie is Dagon but the movie does not follow the original story very closely.

Just to emphasize, I know that creatures pretending to be humans probably predate even Greek mythology but again, I am looking for the creature itself not realizing its true nature, even if other characters already know and in fact keep this fact from it.

  • 1
    Since you mentioned Lovecraft, if you include demi-human than Lovecraft has some examples; people who later discover that they (or family members) are (at least partially) deep ones. The Shadow over Innsmouth (1931) being possibly the best known example.
    – K-H-W
    Jan 25 at 18:00
  • The twist referenced in Dagon (the film, 2001) definitely seems to draw on The Shadow over Innsmouth.
    – Amanadiel
    Jan 25 at 20:18
  • 2
    Haha, funny you of all people should be asking this. Please to avoid deep injuries to your dermis, no particular reason. Jan 26 at 0:30
  • 1
    Would you count Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886)? Dr. Jekyll is does not appear to be initially aware that he is Mr. Hyde. It's unclear exactly when in the story he realizes this. The problem of course is that he is initially human, just transforms into a monster. The same might apply to early werewolf or vampire stories. Jan 27 at 15:50

7 Answers 7


Another Lovecraft story, "The Outsider", is a closer fit for the question. It was published in Weird Tales in April 1926, and probably written about five years earlier.

The narrator first recalls his unusual life, but still assumes that he is human:

Beings must have cared for my needs, yet I can not recall any person except myself...

I do not recall hearing any human voice in all those years—not even my own

I merely regarded myself by instinct as akin to the youthful figures I saw drawn and painted in the books

On encountering some humans, he is disabused of that delusion:

I beheld in full, frightful vividness the inconceivable, indescribable, and unmentionable monstrosity which had by its simple appearance changed a merry company to a herd of delirious fugitives.

It is of course his own reflection, and he is a frightful rotting ghoul.

I know always that I am an outsider; a stranger in this century and among those who are still men.


1942: "Asylum", a novella by A. E. van Vogt, first published in Astounding Science-Fiction, May 1942, available at the Internet Archive. William Leigh thinks he's an Earthman until he learns that he's actually an undercover Great Galactic.

The Great Galactic, who had been William Leigh, smiled darkly and walked toward his captives. "It has been a most interesting experiment in deliberate splitting of personality. Three years ago, our time manipulators showed this opportunity of destroying the Dreeghs, who hitherto had escaped by reason of the vastness of our galaxy.

"And so I came to Earth, and here built up the character of William Leigh, reporter, complete with family and past history. It was necessary to withdraw into a special compartment of the brain some nine-tenths of my mind, and to drain completely an equal percentage of life energy.

  • Although that isn't so much a discovery as a re-remembering. Good find though.
    – Graham
    Jan 26 at 8:33
  • 2
    Heinlein's "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag" could also be mentioned here, but it was published slightly later than van Vogt's "Asylum", and it's fantasy rather than science fiction.
    – user14111
    Jan 26 at 9:10
  • 1
    Heinlein's "They" (published 1941 so earlier than van Vogt's "Asylum") is another story about a guy who has forgotten that he's not a human being, although just what kind of being he is, and whether there are such things as "human beings", is not made clear.You could argue that it's fantasy rather than sci-fi.
    – user14111
    Jan 26 at 9:19

To get the ball rolling, Superman first discovered he wasn't human in Superman Vol. 1 #61, published in November 1949.

SUPERMAN: Now I understand why I'm different from Earthmen! I'm not really from Earth at all—I'm from another planet—the planet Jor-El called Krypton!!

Superman Vol. 1 #61, page 46

Superman Vol. 1 #61 (November, 1949)

  • \What is the Superman "ghost"? "climatic" makeup? That's fairly dumb, even for a comic book. But you know, any old changeling story might have this idea in it -- parents raise a changeling and someday have to explain it to him, why he's different. Or even a mother tells her son that she was impregnated by Zeus or something. This may not be a very question unless I rule out mythology and folk tales.
    – releseabe
    Jan 25 at 10:50
  • 3
    An earlier page in the story, posted here, includes a caption stating the following: "Editor's note: Superman is invisible to these people because he is not of their time and doesn't exist for them. He can only view them as he would a silent movie, but he can read lips." That's all we get by way of an 'explanation' for Superman's phantom-like appearance whilst time-travelling in this story. Jan 25 at 10:58

Since you mention Dagon, the relevant twist looks to be drawn heavily from The Shadow Over Innsmouth (written 1931, published 1936), in which the narrator recounts the discovery that he himself is descended from a group of sea-dwelling non-humans, beginning to change in appearance and ending the story abandoning humanity to join the "monsters".

However, by those criteria, Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family (1920, 1921) has it beat. In this case the revelation is the whole thing - Innsmouth is primarily about being stuck in a creepy cult-run town and trying to escape, but Jermyn is entirely about a character, and multiple generations of ancestors before him, learning that they're descended from intelligent apes and being horrified by the knowledge. It may not meet your criteria if "great-great-great grandma was an apefolk" isn't sufficiently exotic, but it certainly predates the other examples besides Kafka.

  • 1
    Like you, I was reminded of that one when I saw Lovecraft's work mentioned in the original post. But it seems to me that Arthur Jermyn only had 1/32 of "nonhuman" ancestry, which means his genes were still about 96.875 percent baseline human. I think releseabe is looking for cases where a main character's genes are 0.00 percent human.
    – Lorendiac
    Jan 25 at 20:58
  • Yeah, it's a bit fuzzy. In the film of Dagon, the main character is at least half human, possibly more depending on the ancestry of the fishman side of the family, so similar to Innsmouth. It's up to the questioner where they want to draw the line for "the character themselves isn't actually human".
    – Amanadiel
    Jan 25 at 21:05

In Franz Kafka's 1915 novella "Metamorphosis", the narrator, Gregor Samsa, awakes one morning to find he has transformed into a "monstrous vermin", some sort of insect, usually interpreted as a cockroach.

Full text at Project Gutenberg.

  • 10
    Hm, so I take it the narrator was human to begin with, but discovered that they'd been transformed? I had the impression that the OP was looking for examples where a character was never human to begin with. I could be wrong about that, though. Hopefully the OP will comment on this to clarify. Jan 25 at 14:50
  • 2
    @LogicDictates Well, that's one way of interpreting the story. You do have to note that Gregor's family weren't particularly surprised when it happened.
    – Spencer
    Jan 25 at 16:24
  • 2
    I seem to remember Nabokov arguing against the cockroach interpretation.
    – user888379
    Jan 25 at 16:45
  • 3
    From the title it is about a transformation, not a discovery that he was a bug all along. I do not think this is an example of what I was asking about.
    – releseabe
    Jan 26 at 7:27
  • 2
    @releseabe Your question body doesn't make that entirely clear; perhaps an edit is in order.
    – Spencer
    Jan 26 at 10:32

1955: The Tunnel Under the World, by Frederik Pohl

The protagonists discover that they're actually miniature robots in a miniature town, and their world is reset every night. Their town was destroyed in an explosion, and an advertising executive reconstructed the town with uploaded brain images of the now-dead residents programmed into robot bodies, to use as an experimental advertising lab. (If this is a spoiler for you, you need to read more Golden Age sci-fi!)

It is also one of the first examples of mind uploading stories, and is almost certainly the first where the uploaded people are initially unaware that they aren't living in the real world any more. As the OP says, there are many stories by the 60s where robots discover they're human, so I was surprised to find this concept was so (relatively) late.

It is available on Project Gutenberg.


Also 1955, Brian Aldiss short story "Outside". Several people reside together in a house. One night one of them follows another housemate through a hidden door. The tone is very Ballardian.

  • Hi, welcome to the site. Do note however that the aim of this thread is to identify the earliest example in science fiction of a character discovering that they weren't human. As such, it's only really worth submitting a new example if it's older than most or all of the examples already given, which this isn't. Also, you didn't provide any details regarding the character who discovered they weren't human, or the circumstances in which that discovery was made. As such, it's not immediately clear that this is genuinely an example of what the OP was looking for, never mind the earliest example. Jan 26 at 11:15
  • @LogicDictates It's equal with Tunnel under the World, so it's probably still fair game. If they're both equal, the OP can decide which one is a better fit for the question, I'd think. Agreed on needing more details though, although it's usually reliable to assume Aldiss is writing sci-fi.
    – Graham
    Jan 27 at 15:16
  • @LogicDictates While you are formally right I enjoy hearing about early stories in any case and (as a bystander) appreciate the contribution. I like a more relaxed, laissez-faire attitude as long as it is productive. Jan 27 at 17:33

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