I read a really great SF short story published in an anthology from the late 1990s (maybe 1996-1997?) that involved humans making first contact with a more advanced alien species whose ambassadors are soon to land on Earth. However, the encounter has caused one of the aliens to commit suicide when they discover the Terrans have a mysterious innate capability that's driven them to explore space.

As a result, an Earth leader (maybe USA President?) gets on TV+radio and tells all humans they must prevent the aliens from finding out more about this human capability, and he exhorts everyone to destroy evidence of this - "Go to your libraries! Rip out the indexes! They must never know!!"

The actual ability is never revealed in the story, and I do remember it ends with the sentence "But I doubt it."

1 Answer 1


Sshhh... by David Brin

The story opens with 2 Earth Survey vessels escorting Lentili starships to Earth. The Lentili are a race of tall, long-lived aliens who are far more technologically and philosophically advanced than humans, who have only recently ventured to the stars. While the Lentili are en route to Earth, Earth President Tridden makes a planetwide announcement. He reveals that an eminent psychologist has discovered that the Lentili, for all their power, lack a certain talent possessed by humans. This talent is apparently rare and almost unthinkable among galactic races. Tridden will not reveal exactly what this talent is, but describes it as "something so mundane to us that few human beings ever bother even thinking about it past the age of ten!" This talent can wreak "untold psychic harm" among the Lentili and he asks the people of Earth to join him in making a "great sacrifice."

Tridden asks the human race to remove all mention of this talent from literature and from daily life.

The last lines of the story are

They walk among us like gods. But we have our revenge.

For the Lentili know Tridden must have been mad. They know there is no secret talent. We are not sheltering them from some bright truth, hiding something from them out of pity. Out of love.

They know it.

And yet, every now and then I have seen it. I've seen it! Seen it in their deep, expressive eyes, each time something new from our renaissance surprises them, oh, so briefly.

I have seen that glimmer of wonder, of unease. That momentary, fearful doubt.

That is when I pity the poor creatures.

Thank God, I can pity them.

It's collected in Otherness among other places.

  • 3
    The truth is that humans have no special ability. The idea is to prevent the people of Earth going the way of native peoples on Earth after contact with European immigrants.
    – JRE
    Sep 10, 2023 at 18:02
  • @JRE or maybe they do...
    – Jontia
    Sep 10, 2023 at 18:11
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    i haven't read the story, but don't those last lines imply that "pity" is the hidden talent? Sep 10, 2023 at 19:42
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    @DanielRoseman: Nope. "Pity" is not the talent. The president didn't name it, so everyone destroyed whatever they thought might point to some special talent. What the president did was to sow hope among humans that they are in someway superior to the aliens - despite the overwhelmingly superior technolgy and knowledge the aluens had. It also set a little seed of doubt in the aliens' minds that maybe there is something special about humans.
    – JRE
    Sep 10, 2023 at 22:01
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    This is a much better and more interesting storyline than the incredibly common trope of "humans default vastly superior alien race because only humans are: determined / really love their children / won't give up / insert obvious trait almost every race would obviously have here" Sep 11, 2023 at 10:37

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