This is possibly not quite the right place to ask this question but it's fundamental to the world I'm working on so here it is; if faced with a potent existential threat, in the form of an outside force, how will the human race respond?

The current scenario I'm working on looks a bit like this; humans are massively out numbered and hugely outgunned but in no way surrounded by, or even in frequent contact with, an alien race with which they can communicate but generally don't, because one sided conversations are boring. This alien race basically ignores the human race beyond securing their frontier from human intrusion, a thing humans can't begin to do in return. The frontier is static this race hasn't advanced in our direction since they became aware of us, but no-one knows if that's by chance or design, afraid of provoking a forceful response human colonisation in that direction has also ceased.

So the basic assumption I've been making is that if faced with a superior force that has shown it could destroy the human race, but doesn't, a de facto state of cold war would exist with humanity scrambling to build and spread to match their apparently unmatchable adversaries. I've made some accessory assumptions about large scale economic structure etc... based on this, and some setting shaping future history, but the underpinning of those assumptions is based in a response I'm beginning to wonder about; that being that the human race would, largely, stand its ground when faced by an alien race that is comprehensible (we understand them to communicate and more importantly the motives that appear to govern their actions), active (ambassadors "at court", open but generally quiet lines of communication), unfriendly (they don't talk much, won't trade and don't allow humans on their territory), non-belligerent (don't attack), but imminently and demonstrably capable of snuffing humanity out without breaking a sweat (they've vapourised everything that's ever crossed the border uninvited instantly).

Any examples from fiction or even better history would be most welcome here since the model I'm working from is essentially the Cold War, but that was a contest of more-or-less evenly matched opponents where this is as asymmetric as it gets.

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    $\begingroup$ Virtually all of this depends on where and when we discover the existence of aliens. Is this the modern day? Is it during the cold war? Is this before WWI? The political climate and level of technology is key. Who discovers the aliens? Is this phenomena visible to all humans, or to large observatories, or just the most advanced observatory? Is it only visible above North America, or Russia, or Antarctica? $\endgroup$
    – Dent7777
    Aug 14, 2017 at 20:51
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    $\begingroup$ Furthermore, in what form is this discovery? Do the aliens nuke pluto in order to create an impassable debris field? Is there a small signal emanating from a probe on a passing comet? Does their invasion fleet drop anchor around jupiter and fly flags in english declaring their intentions? $\endgroup$
    – Dent7777
    Aug 14, 2017 at 20:54
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    $\begingroup$ @Dent7777 and for that reason I VTC this as too broad, until more constraining explanations are specified. $\endgroup$
    – Vylix
    Aug 14, 2017 at 21:09
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    $\begingroup$ When they are that outmatched, but that unlikely to bother with us, the human response is to ignore it. This has already been happening in history. We've known for longer than we can do anything about it that there's a small chance that another asteroid like from the K2 extinction event could strike us. We know that any number of volcanoes could become active without warning. We know that a massive earthquake could strike, we know that storms can wreak havoc. In short, these aliens are essentially another force of nature. $\endgroup$
    – Michael
    Aug 14, 2017 at 21:11
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    $\begingroup$ Fair crack of drongo, mate, you're a New Zealander. Reimagine new Zealand as the only home of the human species and the USSR & USA as alien Cold War Super-Powers dominating their parts of the globe. Potentially either of them could conquer & occupy NZ in a thrice, but they don't. That's the Cold War equivalent of your world. Forget USA vs USSR, think of the little countries caught between them. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Aug 15, 2017 at 1:15

7 Answers 7


How scared are we? The threat isn't what causes the unity, it's the fear.

Governments are now more or less responsible to their people. If lots of people are scared they do lots of stuff, if few people are they do much less.

Do you think about the sun reaching out and burning us all? Or an asteroid smashing us. Some people who do guess the chance might be as high a 1% a year. Nothing much has been done.

Terrorists and airplane crashes are not an existential threat but they do scare a lot of people and do generate a fair amount of cooperation between governments.

Or global warming. There is doubt and disharmony at every level about the best course, the costs and who should pay them. Some people are really scared, and some are completely unconcerned. I would guess this is the best example for inscrutable aliens, since doing anything might trigger reprisal, so any particular thing needs to be consented to by at least the powerful nations.

Some people already suggest we probably ought to get out of this here hole and billions of dollars support various visions. If more people agreed more strongly we might make faster progress, if a powerful nation forbid it we might be set back pretty significantly.

  • $\begingroup$ I think this is the key and the quantity and quality of fear is determined by the level and tone of public attention that is given by those in power to the threat in question. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Aug 15, 2017 at 13:28

"if faced with a potent existential threat, in the form of an outside force, how will the human race respond?"

Especially if contact is infrequent, I think we'd go about our lives as normal, quashing our fears with denial and inaction. My feeling is that we'd rapidly be rent by division over whether the existential threat exists at all, with the denying side insisting that those aware of the threat are conspiracists, alarmists, and/or trying to steal their precious bodily fluids.

I think we'd continue to deny, shift blame, invent elaborate conspiracy theories argue, and whine until motherships were hovering over world cities with weapons hot, and maybe even for a while afterward, and at that point I think we'd phase-change and pursue a half-cocked, belligerent, and fearful strategy borne out of the collision of panic and short-term self interest.

While realistic, I think that would be an unsatisfying literary scenario, if for no other reason than being a bit too on the nose.

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    $\begingroup$ "While realistic, I think that would be an unsatisfying literary scenario, if for no other reason than being a bit too on the nose. " - but all of that will be forgiven by the audience when you add dying aliens, big explosions and witty one-liners delivered by Will Smith. $\endgroup$ Aug 14, 2017 at 22:18
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    $\begingroup$ I think you just summarized Game of Thrones $\endgroup$ Aug 14, 2017 at 22:50
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    $\begingroup$ The answer talks about "we". There is no "we". If it is external threat, different groups are free to take whatever actions they deem necessary, independent of other groups. This is unlike for example global warming, where we ourselves, our own actions (removing buried carbon and releasing it to the atmosphere) are the presumed cause. $\endgroup$
    – hyde
    Aug 15, 2017 at 6:55
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    $\begingroup$ I love this answer! If the OP wanted to really drive the metaphor home, have it discovered that the aliens intend to terra-form our climate. $\endgroup$ Aug 15, 2017 at 10:41
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    $\begingroup$ I'm pretty sure in addition enough people would be convinced that the only way to escape is to hide to spawn at least on super secret private colonization project aimed into deep space opposite the potential threat, so in case they do attack someday, the secet colony will just not be found and totally unknown to the rest of humanity. Opportunity for silliness if by an unbelievably small chance to secret orders send ships to the same system without knowing of each other. $\endgroup$
    – TBP
    Aug 15, 2017 at 14:58

What makes this question relevant to Worldbuilding SE is that it concerns what strategy would be adopted by the human species in face of an implacable, vastly superior alien civilization that is quite annihilating humanity but refrains from doing so while remaining within its own borders.

The querent has suggested a de facto Cold War situation exists between the aliens and humans. The Cold War was a competition for dominance between two global Super Powers. It was a contest for ideology, political influence and economic control of resources. The situation with the querent's aliens seems more than like of Traditional China, before the nineteenth century, where China was a massive self-sufficient economic, social and political empire that needed virtually nothing from the rest of the world. There are comparisons with Japan of the Meiji era. But this seems to be the reverse of that, where humans are playing the role of a Japan ignored by the rest of the world and fearful about when the black ships will arrive.

It sounds like the humans could simply continue with their own affairs and ignore this potential existential threat. However, it can be expected that wiser heads will prevail within the inner councils of government, academia, political and economic institutions. They will ponder how the human species can thrive and survive in a future that could easily be blighted by the slightest hostile move from the superior alien civilization.

There are several strategies they can adopt. Expand human territory in directions away from the alien sphere of influence. Engage in a massive program of research and development to implement, eventually, weapons, vehicles, communications, power systems, and whatever else technologies are necessary to make the human species capable of standing against their erstwhile potential alien superior adversaries. Send emissaries to the alien systems to learn more about their civilization, culture, science and technology, and generally act as ambassadors. If nothing else, this will enable humans to accurately gauge the risk potential of the aliens. if it turns out, the aliens genuinely perceive we are of no threat potential to them and they are truly unlikely to act against our species so much the better.

There is one caveat to this set of combined strategies. If the aliens didn't see our species as a threat and we then developed the technology to match their capacity and capability this might change to our detriment. Once we can match them humans are now a threat that need to be stepped on.

Wars usually break when neither side knows which of them is the superior militarily. When one adversary is clearly superior, the other naturally will avoid open conflict and warfare because they know they will lose.

The greater proportion of the human population will be unconcerned. The existential threat is remote from their normal affairs and they will get on with their lives.

In summary, do not antagonize a superior foe, potential or otherwise, but take sensible precautions to prepare for your long-term survival.


People won't care.

At least, most of them will not. Most people do not enter resistance when their country is invaded, most people do not bother about damaging their ecosystem. As people eventually die[citation needed], they focus on self-preservation at an individual sort-term level rather than on a long-term global level as a specie.

This self-interest implies that unless their very daily existence and comfort is threatened, you can expect that nobody will really care. People will continue their business as usual. If they can make money with your threat, it will even be better.

Expect a few extreme behaviors from a minority that will not be happy with the mental pressure caused by the situation, and maybe some superstition, myths, or religions about this new threat.

And finally, expect politics and people in situation of power to gather as much information on this threat so that they can use it for their interest. The underlying actions and competition may even cause the initially friendly aliens to react.


In real life many small groups of hunter-gatherers numbering from tens of thousands down to tens of persons have been in contact with much more advanced civilized nations and empires where each man was more militarily powerful than a hunter-gatherer warrior and the population outnumbered the hunter-gatherers by hundreds, or thousands, or tens of thousands of times.

From what little I known, the hunter-gatherer populations usually did not spend all their lives in fear of what the more powerful societies might do to them.

In fact, a few such situations may exist at the present time If so, a researcher could ask some of those hunter-gatherers how much they worry about attacks by the more powerful society.

In fact, members of the less powerful society might not be able to comprehend how much more powerful the other society is.

I once read a story about an Apache delegation to Washington, DC about 1876. The Apaches decided to count each white eyes they met on the journey, but they ran out of numbers. Then they tried to count each white eyes house that they saw, but they ran out of numbers. Then they tried to count each white eyes village they passed, but they ran out of numbers.

In a big city they looked out the windows of their hotel room at the crowds on the sidewalk below. They thought that there couldn't be that many people in the world and they must all be walking around the block over and over again. And when they got home and told their story, the other Apaches didn't believe them and claimed that the white eyes must have cast a magic spell on them to make them see illusions, or so goes the story.

In the pilot episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-81), released as a theatrical film in 1979, it is said that Draconian Emperor Draco the Conqueror is very eager to open diplomatic relations with Earth and/or to conquer Earth. It is also said that Draco has conquered half the universe.

Would it really be a great "feather in the cap" for Draco to open diplomatic relations with Earth or conquer Earth? Would it be a great achievement for the President of the United States to open diplomatic relations with Monaco or conquer Vatican City? The difference in the importance of the two realms is far more extreme in the case of the Draconian Empire and Earth in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-81).

If Draco has only conquered half of our galaxy he would rule about a hundred billion solar systems and have Earth outnumbered billions to one. And if Draco has conquered half of the universe he would rule billions of galaxies.

But most members of the educated audience of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-81) didn't scoff at the idea that Earth could be a prime target of the Draconians, because to most Earth people Earth seems at least as important as every other planet in the universe combined.

So I guess that most future Earth humans in the OP's scenario will not be too worried about the all powerful aliens known to exist. They will subconsciously think of Earth and its solar system and colony planets as equal to the rest of the universe combined.


Referencing first 9/11 and then climate change, I would predict an initial panicked response, calling for lots of action - perhaps the creation of pan-terrestrial government with military powers. After a while, as nothing happened, people are very good at ignoring the really big, long term threats (like climate change) in favor of the local, personal and immediate. However, in your world, people who get power from focusing on the distant threat will try to keep it so that might change the dynamic if you have powerful people with an incentive to foment fear in order to keep themselves in power.

A fictional example (I think) would be Game of Thrones where most of the characters are focused on the politics of the known world and fighting between themselves while only a few are paying attention to the very much larger threat just beyond their walls.


If the aliens can destroy us if we stray into their territory but otherwise leave us alone, then there is no existential threat. Humanity will erect a "There be monsters here" sign, and go on.

That is unless there is some resource in their territory that we believe we need badly enough for intrepid folks to risk incursion. If after each incursion, the aliens respond by taking out a city or outpost, humanity would demand their leaders to do something. The more frequent the attack, the more focused humanity would be.

Just seeing technology used would focus research into that which we already know is possible. So I would imagine we would start to catch up a bit (like the Native Americans adopting the horse, or when Japan transitioned from using straw horseshoes to iron, after seen European horses with them.)


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