Entry updated 13 December 2021. Tagged: Theme.
Term used in this encyclopedia for the frequent Space Opera plot device of a bygone Alien race which once dominated the galaxy but – following what may or may not be a significant Time Abyss – has mysteriously vanished, generally leaving behind numerous relics of its "Old Technology" which may serve as tempting McGuffins. Such artefacts often include enigmatic Big Dumb Objects or Macrostructures. Often the Forerunners prove to have seeded the galaxy with life and thus to be our ancestors (see Panspermia) – as with the Arisians of E E Smith's Lensman books, who have not so much vanished as remained enigmatically aloof until limited human contact is allowed in the late volume First Lensman (1950) which prequels the main series. The Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) episode "The Chase" (April 1993), a rare instance of the concept appearing in media sf, introduces ancient Forerunners to explain why so many of the Star Trek universe's races are humanoid (and capable of interbreeding).
Andre Norton popularized the term in sf with her Forerunner series, beginning with Storm Over Warlock (1960); in these books ancient Forerunner installations are frequently encountered, usually Underground. Further examples are very numerous, and include the Krell of Forbidden Planet (1956), which perhaps influenced Norton; the constructors of the titular objects in Larry Niven's Ringworld (1970), Bob Shaw's Orbitsville (1975) and James White's Federation World (stories August 1980, 4 January 1982 Analog; exp as fixup 1988), all being variations of the Dyson Sphere; the Jokers in Terry Pratchett's The Dark Side of the Sun (1976); the Ancients in Piers Anthony's Cluster sequence, beginning with Cluster (1977; vt Vicinity Cluster 1979); the Markovians in Jack Chalker's Midnight at the Well of Souls (1977); the Heechee in Frederik Pohl's Gateway (1977); the creators of the "Gaea" artefact in John Varley's Titan (1979) and sequels; the Original Progenitors of David Brin's Uplift sequence (see Uplift), beginning with Sundiver (1980); the Builders of Charles Sheffield's Heritage Universe sequence, beginning with Summertide (1990); the Jain in Neal Asher's Human Polity sequence, beginning with The Engineer (1999), whose Technologies are poison chalices for younger races; the makers of the Inhibitors in Alastair Reynolds's Revelation Space (2000) and its sequels; the Predecessors in John Clute's Appleseed (2001); and the Involucra who, "the best part of a billion years earlier", built the Shellworlds of Iain M Banks's Matter (2008).
Sometimes, as with the Anthony, Niven and Pohl examples above, the mystery of the Forerunners is partly or wholly unveiled in a later book of the series – generally to the detriment of Sense of Wonder. Both Pratchett and Chalker actually reveal established members of their casts to be surviving Forerunners at the finales of their cited novels. The Brin Uplift sequence and Iain M Banks's Culture books – beginning with Consider Phlebas (1987) – suggest that genuinely vanished Forerunners have, to use the Banks terminology, "Sublimed" by passing beyond the confines of mere matter into Transcendence.
Local, planetary rather than galactic, versions of Forerunners also appear in some sf – typically nonhuman races inhabiting Earth before our and our known predecessors' emergence, like the "root races" of Theosophy, the elder beings encountered in such Cthulhu Mythos tales as H P Lovecraft's "The Shadow Out of Time" (cut June 1936 Astounding; restored in The Outsider and Others, coll 1939), the prehistoric Dinosaur cultures observed in various Time Viewer stories, and the anaerobic civilization destroyed by the advent of chlorophyll and oxygen in Larry Niven's "The Green Marauder" (February 1980 Destinies).
Forerunners are also frequently invoked in the back-stories of sf Games, notably Traveller (1977) and Halo: Combat Evolved (2001); other game examples include Anachronox (2001), Galactic Civilizations (2003), Master of Orion (1993) and Star Control (1990). [DRL/NT]
see also: Prime Directive.
previous versions of this entry