The Road Not Taken (short story)

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"The Road Not Taken"
Author Harry Turtledove
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Science Fiction
Published in Analog Science Fiction
Publication date 1985

"The Road Not Taken" is a short story by Harry Turtledove, set in 2039, in which he presents a fictitious account of a first encounter between humanity and an alien race, the Roxolani. "Herbig-Haro" is another short story by Turtledove, which is the sequel to this one.

Plot summary[edit]

The story is told through limited third person point of view, with most of the story concerning a single Roxolani captain. During a routine journey of conquest, they happen upon Earth. The Roxolani anticipate a simple and rewarding campaign, as they can detect no use of gravity manipulation, the cornerstone of their civilization. Humanity is awed by the invaders, as the maneuverability granted by that technology suggests the rest of their civilization is equally impressive. But as they begin their assault, things take a turn for the absurd—the Roxolani attack with matchlock weapons and black powder explosives. Humans retaliate with automatic weapons and missiles. The battle is short, and most of the invaders are killed. A few are captured alive.

When they are interrogated, the truth becomes evident. The Roxolani's method of manipulating gravity is absurdly simple, and they were thus able to begin utilizing aircraft, spacecraft, and even faster than light travel during their Age of Sail. This enabled them to engage in wars of conquest not only on a planetary but a galactic scale. However, gravity technology by itself had no application other than transportation, and was such a bizarre discovery that their scientific theorems couldn't accommodate it. As a result, the scientific method was abandoned and their technological development ground to a halt. They have never achieved, for example, their equivalent of the Industrial Revolution, much less the Information Revolution. Most civilizations experience this at an even earlier stage of development, and the Roxolani found conquest a simple and productive endeavor.

In contrast, humanity somehow missed developing gravity technology, and its unfocused expenditure of creativity and resources thus resulted in less immediately rewarding but ultimately more versatile applications and development of a very wide range of knowledge - medicine, heavy industry, electric motors, computers, nuclear power, etc. But without gravity technology, they were restricted to a single solar system, and until recently a single planet.

The key term being were. The captured Roxolani ships reveal their secrets to any moderately trained eye, and gravity technology will spread like wildfire. Earth is overpopulated, the galaxy is filled with civilizations even less advanced than the Roxolani - the stage is set for humanity to build an interstellar empire.

In the course of the story, Turtledove presents what might happen if a technologically inferior species, with two advanced technologies unconnected to anything else, were to engage humanity in warfare. The story directly references the poem "The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost when the conquered aliens are discussing why humanity is, in their eyes, so advanced.

In the discussions among the characters, the possible problems of life on Earth in the future are mentioned, with the expanded population and food shortages referenced as possible causes of war. One Roxolani wonders if there is truth to the Earth weapons of which they have heard, but not seen. His comrade said he believed them, because he heard the fear in their voices when speaking of nuclear weapons.

As the characters realize the impact of the narrow but critical Roxolani technology for another, generally more advanced society, the story closes with the characters asking themselves, "What have we done?"

Publication history[edit]

The story was first published in Analog Science Fiction in 1985. It is a prequel story to —"Herbig-Haro", set several centuries after humanity has conquered the galaxy— published a year before under the name "Eric Iverson".

This short story contains ideas which were later more developed in the Worldwar series, in which the invading aliens have an initial technological edge that is soon surpassed by human ingenuity and innovation.