I have just read Harry Turtledove's novelette "The Road Not Taken" and it reminded me of a different, unmemorable, story in which Earth is invaded by humanoid aliens who aren't very bright.

It's probably from the '50s or '60s because I didn't read many short stories after that and I can only remember two snippets:

  • The invaders are a bit depressed by how much brighter humans appear compared to the excellence of their own race until someone thinks of the analogy of the foothills around a mountain, these humans only appear more clever because they are the foothills.
  • Two officers are watching a human soldier explaining to his enthralled captors that you don't have to carry separate spears and long-arms if you tie a knife to the end of the barrel of the long arm, and one officer suggests to the other that maybe humans are too bright for their own good.

1 Answer 1


I believe this is Christopher Anvil's "Pandora's Planet" (1956). Humanoid aliens from Central invade Earth to add it to their empire. The thing is that other than spaceflight (and its ability to bombard Earth's defenders) they aren't actually more technically advanced (though they really don't want to admit it).

A human suggests a bayonet to one of the aliens:

"Listen," said one of the natives conversationally, as he was hustled out of the room, "if you'd just put holes in the guards of those knives, you could slip them over the gun barrels, and it would make it twice as easy—" His voice faded away in the corridor.

The aliens consider themselves to be the apex of peoples, regardless of how intelligent humanity is (hat tip to CL) and handwave away any apparent threat to their position as superior:

This unpleasant conclusion led to one that was really ugly, namely, of two races having humanlike characteristics, which race is human, the smart race or the dull race?

At this point in the argument, an unpleasant little man in the back of the room rose up and announced that on the basis of an extension of standard comparative physique types from the humanoid to the human, the lop-tails were more advanced than the Centrans.

But that was the low point in the argument. Soon the hypothesis of "pseudo-intelligence" was introduced to explain the lop-tails accomplishments. Next, a previously undistinguished staff-member introduced the homely simile of passing over the brow of a hill. If, he said, one went far enough in one direction, he at last came to the very top of the hill. Any further motion in that direction carried one down the slope. True, he said, these lop-tails might go further in certain physical characteristics than the Centrans themselves. But to what point? The Centrans were at the peak, and any ostentatious exaggeration of Centran traits was merely ridiculous.

The problem with humans (that makes them "inferior" to Centrans) is that humans have too many ideas:

"You know the principle of the nuclear engines. There is a substance Q that flings out little particles. These little particles strike other atoms of Q which fling out more particles. There is also a substance L .which absorbs these particles. Success depends on the correct proportioning of Q and L. There must not be too much L or the particles are absorbed before things can get started. There must not be too much Q or the particles build up so fast that suddenly the whole thing flies apart.

"Now, consider these natives. What are they like? An engine with too much Q, is it not? And what are we like? To speak frankly, Horsip, we have a little too much L, don’t you think?”

Horsip nodded reluctantly, then said, "I think I see your point all right, but what are the flying particles in this comparison?”

Argit laughed. "Ideas. From what you tell me of these people, they fairly flood each other with ideas.

You can read the story in its original publication, Astounding, September 1956 at the Internet Archive.

  • I skimmed that story (Astounding, September, 1956) and couldn't find the part about tying spears to the end of long-arms (but may have missed it). I did find a part where the prisoners suggested to the captors how to make a better lock for their cells. (P.S. In this story the aliens hadn't invented machine guns or barbed wire and were baffled by both)
    – nebogipfel
    Commented Sep 20, 2023 at 15:25
  • I think you are right but I'll wait a little before I accept it. I can't find the foot-hills bit but I found ""Listen," said one of the natives conversationally, as he was hustled out of the room, "if you'd just put holes in the guards of those knives, you could slip them over the gun barrels, and it would make it twice as easy—" His voice faded away in the corridor." <ebooks.qumran.org/opds/…> Commented Sep 20, 2023 at 15:29
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    The hill analogy can be found here (search for "passing over the brow of a hill").
    – CL.
    Commented Sep 20, 2023 at 16:15
  • @nebogipfel A name that references The Time Ships! Now THAT takes me back...
    – AJM
    Commented Sep 20, 2023 at 17:24

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