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In Heinlein's Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, when humanity is being evaluated to determine if the galactic authorities will destroy it, Kip gives a defiant speech threatening them - and the Galactics decide to not destroy us. It seems to the characters that his speech may have saved the day.

However, just before the examination, we have this discussion:

“From three samples of the organism you call the human race I can predict the future potentialities and limits of that race.”

“We have no limits! There’s not telling what our future will be.”

“It may be that you have no limits,” the voice agreed. “That is to be determined. But, if true, it is not a point in your favor. For we have limits.”

“Huh?”

“You have misunderstood the purpose of this examination. You speak of ‘justice’. I know what you think you mean. But no two races have ever agreed on the meaning of that term, no matter how they say it. It is not a concept I deal with here. This is not a court of justice.”

“Then what is it?”

You would call it a ‘Security Council’. Or you might call it a committee of vigilantes. It does not matter what you call it; my sole purpose is to examine your race and see if you threaten our survival. If you do, I will now dispose of you. The only certain way to avert a grave danger is to remove it while it is small.”

If this is taken as factual, then

  1. If humanity is even potentially a danger, in capability, even if not in intent, then humanity will be destroyed as a precaution.
  2. Humanity is not destroyed.

Logically, this implies that humanity was adjudged to be not dangerous, and not to be limitless (as Kip had claimed,) but no one in the book seems to have worked out that syllogism. Are the characters right that somehow Kip persuaded the Galactics to ignore their usual policy and leave dangerous humanity alone due to (or in spite of) Kip's speech - or should we take the logic seriously and conclude that the Galactics decided that humanity could never be a danger to them and thus can safely be left alone? Have I missed a clue in the book that provides a third possibility (a hidden test of character?)

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  • Your logical steps don't follow. We evidently don't represent a threat but from that point onwards you've made an illogical leap. We might not represent a threat because we're going to evolve in a different direction, leave the galaxy entirely or simply prove a powerful ally. We're not told.
    – Valorum
    Mar 5, 2023 at 19:29
  • 1
    Some of the Galactics also spoke in support of humanity, while no Galactic spoke for the Wormface aliens. The Wormfaces also spoke in defiance before the council. Mar 5, 2023 at 19:50
  • Hmm. If we're inevitably going to leave the galaxy then we're fine, but being powerful just makes us potentially more dangerous if we break bad.
    – Andrew
    Mar 5, 2023 at 19:53
  • Interesting question! But what makes you think that the Galactics paid any attention at all to what Kip said in making their decision? They presumably are smart and experienced, and so must know that what a single human -- selected at random as far as we can tell, so the statistics are super-weak -- says tells them very little. I took the whole 3 specimens and opportunity-to-speak-in-own-race's-defense as ancient ritual. On the order of "Hear ye, hear ye. The honorable court is in session! <Bang the ceremonial mace>"
    – Mark Olson
    Mar 6, 2023 at 0:49
  • Perhaps they didn't- but the book leaves the characters with the impression that he had something to do with it
    – Andrew
    Mar 6, 2023 at 1:08

2 Answers 2

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I've always seen it as a sort of delayed judgement. The end of the "trial" says that the Earth will be re-examined after twelve half-lifes of radium - that's 19,200 years.

Humans are (at the end of the book) no threat to galactic civilization because they don't have interstellar travel. The "wormfaces" were an immediate threat because they already had interstellar travel - they could attack other members of the galactic community. As an aggressive species with star travel and a stated belief in their own superiority over "lesser" races, the "wormfaces" had already proven themselves to be a threat.

Keep in mind that the galactic council seems to keep tabs on developing races. They mention Earth humans having been previously examined "one half-death of thorium ago." They would have had the "wormfaces" under observation as well - and didn't do anything to them until they had shown themselves to be a danger.

The galactic community has taken note that humans have developed more quickly than expected. The next re-examination will take place in about 19000 years instead of the much longer period (more than 80000 years) they would otherwise have used.

The galactic community isn't evil, and they aren't in a hurry. The "wormfaces" weren't disposed of until it was clear that they not only could be a threat but that they were a present threat.

Humans aren't a threat yet, but may manage to destroy themselves. Since it is unclear what humans may become, judgement is delayed.

Part of the judgement allowed a sort of veto - if two other species speak up for the species being judged, then they may be "pardoned." The "wormfaces" behaviour didn't encourage anyone to speak up in their favor - even "the mother thing" thought the "wormfaces" too far gone.

Kip's speeches may have encouraged the "green ape" to speak up - or not. Presumably, all of the members would have access to all of the recordings made of all the things Kip and Peewee had done and all of things they told "the mother thing" and "Professor Joe." That would weigh more in favor of humans than a few sentences spoken in the heat of the moment.

Presumably, they tried to interview the "wormfaces" like they did Kip and Peewee. Given the way the "wormfaces" carried on during the "trial," they didn't cooperate in the interviews. That would leave the judgement to be based only on their actions (attack on humans) and their statements during the judgement.

While the galactic community talks a tough line, they clearly don't act on "maybe." If they did, the "wormfaces" would have been eliminated long before merely on suspicion. The galactic community didn't act until the "wormfaces" became an active threat to other species.

Look at it like a policeman threatening a young punk with life in prison to get him to straighten up before it is too late.

The galactic community thinks humans may "grow up bad," but in the mean time they give us a hand up to encourage us to do better - with the threat to put a little more emphasis on it.


The galactic community would (it seems to me) rather not destroy other species. They'd rather have more friends, so to speak. Humans might become friends or enemies. Since we aren't enemies yet, they give us a little help to avoid destroying ourselves in the hope we may become friends.

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  • That scene always bothered me. What if instead of Kip, the council had sampled an ultranationalist extremist. And who says that all wormfaces have the same beliefs as the one sampled? Given Heinlein's penchant for allegory, there maybe more behind this scene.
    – Peter M
    Mar 6, 2023 at 14:24
  • There's more to it than you are considering. The "wormfaces" had a whole secret base on the moon and Pluto, spying on and eating humans. The "mother thing" had witnessed all of that.
    – JRE
    Mar 6, 2023 at 14:31
  • Yes, I understand that and have read the book multiple times. but with no other information than that, we have no idea if the wormfaces were a monolithic block. Yet at the same time as the worm faces were condemned, you could easily find humans on Earth who are performing atrocities on an equivalent local scale - something that Heinlein ignored.
    – Peter M
    Mar 6, 2023 at 14:37
  • @PeterM As you might noticed, that was not a court of justice. There was a threat from wormfaces, there is none now. Make sure there is no threat from your species, if you don't want to be destroyed. Mar 6, 2023 at 18:18
  • @Revolver_Ocelot So why weren't the worm faces given the same preferential treatment earlier in their history that has been afforded to humans? Either no intervention is warranted, or species should be guided
    – Peter M
    Mar 6, 2023 at 18:27
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You appear to have a couple of unstated assumption: that the galactics are CAPABLE of accurately judging a species capability when that capability exceeds theirs, and that it would be a deciding factor.

The first is frankly unlikely, and the second is by no means certain.

While unlimited capability is not a point in favor of such a species, it might invoke a risk analysis instead of an inevitability lead to the decision to terminate such a species. If they have unlimited capability, there is a slight chance, perhaps 1 in a billion, or even higher, that the attempt at termination will fail. Such a failure would most likely lead inevitably to THEIR termination. It would be appropriate to consider the rest of the data before making such a decision.

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