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Your superior intellect is no match for our puny weapons!
—Kang, The Simpsons
They're in interstellar space, using an FTL drive, but the First Contact team who met up with them can't figure out how or why — by all rights they should be stuck on their homeworld because they've barely figured out atomic power, or steel, or starting fire with flint. They're an anomaly. Sometimes it's because they've stolen a technology they don't know how to create themselves. Sometimes a Precursor race gave it to them or left them instructions on how to build it. Sometimes it's a simple fluke. But whatever the reason, they've made their way into space far earlier than other civilizations might think possible.
Instincts towards self-disparagement aside, Humanity itself is not likely to become one of these unless some nice aliens show up to give us a bunch of presents or show us how much more efficient what we've got could be. Wimpy though our tech may be, we have unquestionably made it ourselves and deserve to be at the level we're at.
Anime and Manga
- The Saiyans of the Dragon Ball franchise were a bunch of Blood Knight barbarians that wiped out the more advanced Tuffles who shared their homeworld. All of their technology was either salvaged from what was left of the Tuffles' civilization or given to them when Frieza recruited them into his planet-broker business.
- The Abductors from Jhonen Vasquez's Squee series. They later pop up in an episode of Invader Zim.
- The Horde from Strikeforce Morituri are a race of Planet Looters who only managed to get off their homeworld by slaughtering the Sufficiently Advanced Aliens who visited them and stealing their technology.
- This is how the Kree/Skrull war got started! The already-advanced Skrulls visited the Kree homeworld to see if they were developed enough to join the Skrull trade empire; they were prepared to share their tech, but only with the superior species of the planet. Unfortunately, the human-like Kree shared their world with the equally intelligent plants, the Cotati. So the Skrulls held a contest to see who was more creative, and the Kree lost. The Kree went "Oh yeah?!!", killed the still-peaceful Skrulls and paperclipped their technology. By the time the Skrull empire finally responded (their homeworld being in the Andromeda galaxy), the Kree had already advanced enough to be able to match them in space warfare.
- In the Mystery Science Theater 3000'd classic Prince of Space, the chicken-nosed invaders are capable of interplanetary travel, but invade Earth because their fuel is less efficient than something invented in Japan in the 50's. Also, their weapons don't work on garishly dressed heroes who wave batons.
- Morons From Outer Space is pretty much Exactly What It Says on the Tin
- The "Prawns" of District 9. Whilst they possess high levels of technology, it isn't clear that they developed it themselves and when found aboard their mothership are in a very poor state of health and hygiene. After (nominal) incorporation into human society, they rank very much as second-class citizens and barely above animals.
- The Tenctonese from Alien Nation were a slave race who overthrew their masters and landed their ship on Earth (presumably, then, the vast majority of their people are still slaves). They are very adaptable, but this means they end up about as advanced as the humans they live amongst.
- Planet 51 is set on an alien world, styled after 1950s-era suburban America. Though they have ray guns and hovering cars, their knowledge of the universe is comically outdated (they think the universe is only 500 miles long), and, as far as one can tell, they have no knowledge of space travel.
- Aliens in Signs. Their spacecraft possess the ability to travel vast interstellar distances (to Earth), and also exhibit the ability to cloak their spacecraft with a sort of invisibility shield. They, however, may not possess the astronomical skills to observe that the Earth is composed of over 70% water, a substance that is instantly fatal to them. Furthermore, the aliens are never seen using any sorts of projectiles/energy weapons, and they appear to move around without any sort of spacesuit. Not only would bodies of water be immediately fatal, but simple contact with water vapor in the air should have rendered it impossible for them to wander around Earth's surface.
- The theory of this is put forth in ET the Extraterrestrial, as Elliot's brother thinks the titular alien may just be a worker drone, and isn't necessarily a great scientist or anything. ET is actually a botanist, but has more than enough engineering know-how to make a communication device.
- Pretty much everybody in space, from the human point of view, in Harry Turtledove's "The Road Not Taken". Gravity manipulation and hyperdrive are easy to create — but if you do so before coming up with the scientific method, they'll stall out your civilization's technological development. The aliens who invaded mid-21st-Century Earth had the tech level (and mindset) of Spanish conquistadors. They tried to intimidate us with arquebuses ... and the U.S. National Guard mopped the floor with them. There was a sequel where humanity had also become stagnant at just about the current tech level as they conquered the stars, then encountered another interstellar empire that had never discovered the simple trick at all, and were thus much more advanced. They saw humans as this.
- The Lizards in Worldwar/Colonization series have interstellar travel, but their weapons technology is about where humans were at the end of the twentieth century, and they're so conservative that they are pretty much incapable of improving it, or adapting their tactics to match rapidly advancing human technology, so we catch up with them pretty quickly when they invade in the middle of WWII.
- The Fithp from Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's novel Footfall. If they hadn't had a Precursor artifact handy to tell them how to build stuff, they probably would still have been at the hunter-gatherer stage of civilization.
- Most of the races in David Brin's Uplift universe. Like the Fithp, they rely entirely on technologies and knowledge handed down through generations of civilizations, and most never actually evolve on their own terms and time schedule. In fact, many see it as blasphemy.
- The Howlers from Animorphs have advanced weaponry and interstellar spaceships despite being mentally children. Justified in that they were artificially created by an Eldritch Abomination for the purpose of killing as many sentient species as possible. Also, the Yeerks were still in the Stone Age when they stole interstellar spaceships from Andalite outposts and began to spread throughout the galaxy. By the time they reach Earth though, they've had twenty-odd years to develop their own technology and the Schizo-Tech is not obvious.
- In K. A. Applegate's Remnants series, the Shipwrights seem to be the only species that managed to develop advanced technology; the Children and the Squids were created by them and inherited their stuff, while no explanation is ever given for how the Riders got their cool hovering surfboards. And of course, humans eventually come into possession of this cool stuff too.
- Humans in Frederik Pohl's Heechee Saga use abandoned Heechee technology to explore the galaxy without really knowing how it works.
- The Kzin from Larry Niven's Known Space universe, particularly during the Man-Kzin Wars, who culturally resemble a hybrid of lions and Apache/Viking/Zulus more than they do a species with a thriving inter-stellar empire.
- The title beings in Stephen King's The Tommyknockers. They don't even begin to understand the technology they somehow managed to figure out how to make.
- The Phinons in Dykstra's War use technology that seems very counterintuitive in its design, and there appears to be no way to negotiate with them. The reason turns out to be that they have barely animal intelligence. They evolved spacecraft-building the same way bees evolved to build hives or beavers to build dams. It's a very good design, certainly good enough to kill any nascent competitor spacefaring species like humanity before we can develop more advanced tech ourselves. But the Phinons themselves are virtually mindless.
- The Star Trek novel Ishmael by Barbara Hambley asserts that the Klingons were a primitive race who were conquered by starfarers called the Karsids. The Klingons, being Klingons, then defeated the Karsids and appropriated all their tech, giving them advanced tech despite still being culturally barbaric, a perfect object lesson in the worth of the Prime Directive.
- Subverted, in that the Klingons did eventually figure out how to build and maintain this technology on their own to the point that they can manage a sizeable stellar empire and stay at par with the Federation and the Romulans. However, they remain frozen culturally at their intial primitive level.
- Poul Anderson's Technic History: The Dominic Flandry series has many examples of "barbarians" — primitive alien species given spaceships and high-tech weaponry by a more advanced civilization, generally for use as expendable mercenaries and deniable proxies.
- In Empire From the Ashes, one of the perplexing aspects of the genocidal Achuultani invaders is the odd patchwork their ships exhibit, mixing superior and inferior technologies in defiance of what the natural progression of technology should have resulted in. For instance, "they appear to possess only a very rudimentary appreciation of gravitonics and their ships do not employ gravitonic sublight drives, yet their sublight missiles employ a highly sophisticated gravitonic drive which is, in fact, superior to that of the Imperium." It is later theorized that the ships were deliberately handicapped by their overlord AI, thus perpetuating the "crisis" that enables it to exercise emergency protocols to maintain control.
- The Hive Mind fish aliens known as Squeem from the Xeelee Sequence conquer Earth at one point despite being no more intelligent and not much older than humans - but they lucked out on finding technology left over from the sufficiently advanced Xeelee.
- In Poul Anderson's The High Crusade, humans. An alien spaceship lands on Earth in the 1300s, and the locals manage to kill all the invaders save a single captive. They load their army onto the ship, fly out, lose track of Earth, and manage to dismantle the alien empire.
- The Byrum of Stephen King's Dreamcatcher are infectious spores that come to Earth in ships from a race they presumably were able to invade, though the success of even that invasion is questionable.
- The Gbaba in David Weber's Safehold novels almost qualify. Their technology had been stagnant for at least two thousand years when humanity found them, and had humanity gotten another 50 years to innovate before the war, the Gbaba would have lost. Since all evidence suggests they aren't likely to develop any new technology while humanity hides and rebuilds, Merlin is working hard to bring the people of Safehold up to a technological level capable of making the Gbaba qualify for this trope when round 2 comes along.
- Weber seems to like this trope. In Out of the Dark, the Shongairi are far more advanced than us, but their entire military doctrine is designed around conquering pre-industrial races because conquering races of our unexpected tech level is usually illegal. Plus, no other species reached our tech level without ending war, so there's no precedent for what we've done with what we have. They still have the orbital bombardment advantage, though.
- In Timothy Zahn's Blackcollar series, the Ryqril aliens are much more powerful than humanity and other species, but their technology all comes from other enslaved races - they are incapable of building it themselves, or advancing it. It ends up being a big problem for them when they have to fight human guerrillas who are aware of this.
- Christopher Anvil's "Pandora Planet" novels are based on this: while the aliens who invade Earth have higher tech, and their leaders are very, very smart, on average the typical alien isn't as bright as the typical human. Combined with the human knowledge and experience of warfare (barbed wire is a horror the aliens have never seen before, and their commander is appalled to receive reports about humans standing around laughing at them in the middle of battles due to the invaders' ineptitude), the leaders quickly reach an accommodation with humanity and bring them aboard as partners. Except not quite: the early accomodation is designed to release Earth ideas over a limited area of the alien empire, to allow the alien leaders to find the best human ideas - the 'hope' of all the ideas from Pandora's Planet - and humans to bring into the empire's leadership. At one early point, the technological level of Earth humans is stated to be "0.9 Centra-level, in some respects higher". As is soon made clear, the "in some respects higher" is not just referring to military technology. It is also made clear early on how the Centrans are in space, while the Earth humans aren't: humans simply haven't gotten around to discovering the necessary theories behind the interstellar drive, while the Centrans have known them for quite some time.
- Parodied in a story by Brazilian author Luis Fernando Verissimo, which even starts with complaints that all sci-fi have technologically superior aliens - and the characters even try to figure the advance tech only for a subversion. For instance, the lack of forest around the lumber-powered spaceship isn't a forcefield, but the aliens cutting the trees to fuel the ship. "The little men from Grork" also don't know guns, both the wheel and the vowel (so much that they tried to spell their world's name "GRRK"), electricity, and their spaceship was originally meant to be a boat, but it went upwards instead of forward.
- An odd mish-mash in David Gemmell's Echoes of the Great Song. Although called magic, the ruling Avatars have effectively laser weapons but no good way of recharging them. They use these to dominate the humans who are at an Ancient Rome sort of level. An invasion force arrives by teleporting in a huge chunk of rock but fight using black powder muskets.
Live Action Television
- Star Trek
- The Pakleds from the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Samaritan Snare" appeared to be functionally retarded, but managed to steal enough technology from their neighbours to maintain a rather patchwork starflight capability.
- Same with the Kazon from Voyager, who have interstellar spaceflight forcibly appropriated from their Trabe conquerors, but can't figure out how to synthesize water...
- The Bajorans have supposedly tens of thousands of years of recorded history, including the best part of a millenium of manned spaceflight, at the very least. But their technology seems to have stagnated at some point and most of the people behave like Medieval peasant stereotypes. Of course the the fact that their religion is based around worshipping Sufficiently Advanced Aliens might have something to do with this. The whole thing with the Cardassians going all Holocausty on them probably didn't help either.
- The Suliban on Star Trek: Enterprise also count. Phlox has encountered them and describes them as peaceful and not very technologically advanced. They're threatening because of the tech and instructions they're receiving from the "Future Guy".
- In the Stargate universe
- Humans are this, which is a major theme of the franchise.
- Another example would be the Genii on Stargate Atlantis. Of course, the bar for entry to the cosmos is much lower in this franchise since the only requirement is often “figure out or obtain valid gate addresses.”
- Although it's less obvious, the Goa'uld are eventually shown to be this: the vast majority of Goa'uld seem to be Brilliant but Lazy or suffer from Creative Sterility, and they have salvaged and reverse engineered nearly all of their technology from other races. In any fair fight between humans and the Goa'uld, the Goa'uld lose; their weapons are almost entirely Awesome but Impractical. More than enough to intimidate Iron Age cultures, but when someone else has access to equivalent Phlebotinum from the Precursors or managed to engineer some of their own, the Goa'uld are in trouble. The Goa'uld actually recognize this, and so do their best to destroy potential competition before they can pose a real danger.
- The non-rebel Jaffa, since the Goa'uld who rule over them hold back technology on a need to know basis, keeping them in Medieval Stasis with Schizo-Tech.
- The Aschen-conquered agricultural worlds.
- A Saturday Night Live skit from the '80s featured an Alien Invasion by a race that apparently hadn't advanced past muskets. When asked how they got the spaceship they came to Earth in, one scientist says, "Our guess is they stole it." The whole thing looks like an homage to The Road Not Taken.
- A major plot point in several incarnations of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, when Ford and Arthur end up on a spaceship with the rejects from an allegedly-dying planet. Basically, the most intelligent caste tricked everyone else into evacuating their planet under the pretense that it was going to become unable to support life. They kept the manual labourers and workers, getting rid of only those who were culturally or industrially unproductive: bureaucrats, insurance salesmen, telephone sanitizers, hairdressers, advertising executives etc. These lesser castes eventually landed on prehistoric Earth, equipped with advanced technology but not knowing how to make or repair it themselves. It's suggested that these people were behind the legend of Atlantis, and eventually wiped themselves out in a spectacularly stupid manner. An aside/footnote in the novels (a Guide entry, in the TV series) explains that with this useless third of the population out of the way, the people of Golgafrincham made great cultural, scientific and technological advances before being wiped out by a virus contracted from a dirty telephone.
- Babylon 5
- Humanity is one of the least-advanced major races, having only achieved interstellar capability after the Centauri made contact and opened up Earth to trade. The gap in technology contributed heavily to humanity's near-defeat in the Earth-Minbari War. At least partly in response, the humans have formed a corporation, Interstellar Expeditions, to perform archaeological surveys with the goal of locating and exploiting the technology of the First Ones. The main plot kicks off when an ISX survey locates Z'ha'dum and awakens the Shadows.
- Additionally, the Narns have reverse-engineered the technology of their former Centauri occupiers and use it not only to maintain their own empire but to sell to less-advanced races.
- Even the Minbari--the most advanced of the younger races--are the beneficiaries of Vorlon technology they don't even fully understand themselves.
- According to the background material, the Centauri got their FTL technology from a trio of Technomages and the Shoggren, the former aiding the Centauri against the latter (though the Technomages were considered renegades, and the Centauri seem to have figured out the tech they got well enough by now because what they have isn't ludicrously advanced compared to First Ones tech). This is actually a major plot point, as it means the Centauri are not as susceptible to Vorlon influence. This made them available as Shadow proxies in an Idiot Ball deal that Londo Mollari (supposedly a highly-skilled diplomat) didn't see coming until way too late.
Table Top Games
- Warhammer 40000
- The Kroot are an avian-descended race of barbaric cannibals, who were still using black powder weaponry when the technologically-advanced Tau found them. But, the Kroot still know how to build and fly their Warspheres, mainly because they happened to eat some Orks, among whom where some Ork Meks — Ork Meks have basic knowledge of engineering hard-wired into their DNA, while the Kroot have the ability to absorb useful traits from the prey they eat. It's heavily implied that the Kroot purposely keep almost all of their technology outside of travel low so that their race remains strong and their focus remains on gaining good genes from other organisms, rather than inventing stronger weapons.
- The Orks themselves qualify, handwaved by a combination of the aforementioned genetic knowledge and Clap Your Hands If You Believe powers that helps make their technology work intuitively. Except when it spectacularly doesn't.
- The Jokaero are an inversion of the trope. The ape-like creatures are capable of building advanced technology up to and including spaceships, but no one's been able to quite determine whether they're actually intelligent, or if this is an instinctive ability. They behave almost like animals in spite of their advanced technology.
- The Vargr in Traveller. It's not so much that they are unadvanced as that they are so erratic that it is hard to imagine them actually having time to build starships before they are wrecked by the next civil war.
- The Space sourcebook for GURPS 3rd edition had tables for randomly generating alien civilizations; a roll of 3 on 3d6 in the "Technology Level" table would result in this trope. (4th edition sadly removed the possibility.)
- The adventure game Star Trek: Judgment Rites features an alien colony ship filled with seemingly retarded aliens (very humanoid ones, in best Star Trek tradition) who aren't even aware that they are on a ship at all. And the ship is about to land on top of a colonized planet. The mission actually ends up going in a completely different direction, when Kirk and his crew are transported into an alien dimension, but the origin and/or fate of the ship are never revealed.
- The Doog in Star Control 3 show barely the intelligence to speak properly, and have probably received most if not all of their technology (whatever little they have) from their masters, the Ploxis.
- The Rikti in City of Heroes are have energy weapons, teleportation, anti-gravity, Independence Day-style ships that are capable of traveling between Universes, and shapeshifting. All this without ever learning how to split the atom.
- To be fair, they've had tech given to them back in the time of the Egyptians and killed all their gods, so they're certainly not incompetent, but have never developed a need to learn how to use what we would consider conventional tech. That's not to say they aren't advanced in their fields, they simply developed in what is a rather backwards fashion.
- The Covenant from Halo. Their technology is far advanced of humans, but it's all copied from Forerunners, and upgrading the technology is considered heresy. In the books, the humans are able to upgrade the technology with relative ease, and it's also shown that Covenant mathematics is quite crappy compared to what humans know.
- Ironically, other supplemental materials point out that the Prophets and Elites in the B.C. era were already at roughly the same technology level as 26th century humanity before they ever began reverse-engineering Forerunner technology.
- The Jackals (or Kig-Yar), who are more like privateers than full members of the Covenant, have had space-faring technology before encountering the Covenant. In fact, it is a Jackal ship that makes first contact with a human vessel in the Halo: Contact Harvest novel before a Brute cruiser (with Tartatus on it) arrives to Harvest to lay waste to the planet.
- The novel Halo: First Strike reveals that the Covenant have their own AIs, but these are seriously hampered by the same religious dogma as the rest of the Covenant. When Cortana begins messing around with the settings on the slipstream drive and the plasma weapons, increasing their effectiveness, the Covenant AI shows up, angry at this heresy.
- The Rakata as seen in Knights of the Old Republic faced this problem at the end of their Empire. Their galaxy-spanning dominance was based on technology that relied as much on the Force as science to operate successfully and when they lost their natural Force sensitivity, the technology ceased to function.
- In Command and Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars, the Scrin are implied to be less "insufficiently advanced" and more "insufficiently prepared" - the forces assigned to protecting their mining operation were intended for a planet where all native life was either extinct or on the verge of it. Instead, they were lured to Earth a century or two early, and ran headlong into two massive, technologically advanced, and unified global militaries, and despite being ill-equipped to face such a force, they are able to inflict massive damage on both GDI and Nod before being routed and driven off.
- Some of the races in Joy Ride are this. Intended as a subversion of the idea of aliens being, you know, smart. Smarter aliens do show up, though.
- Quentyn Quinn, Space Ranger Federation Expy in Star Trek mocking arc. Yes, they're in space, but the Federation starship Glorious Undertaking is... see the summary of the ship's structure, power source and computer systems... pardon me, system, singular.
- An episode of Isometric features Dangerman fending off a comically inferior alien invasion. It is noted that these aliens do not natively understand the concept of detecting vibrational energy (what we call "sound"), have a visible spectrum that stops just short of "ultra-red" and "infra-violet" (Dangerman is perplexed by the "invisible assassin" and his bright glowing red "stealth" outfit), are apparently highly vulnerable to banana cream (said assassin's dying attack is to throw such a pie at Dangerman, to no effect), and lack the ability to jump (thus parking their craft six feet off the ground, allowing easy access). None of this seemed to be a problem before; they just picked the wrong planet to invade this time, is all.
- Kang and Kodos from The Simpsons.
Kang: (frightened) Ah! He's got a board with a nail in it!
- Played straight when Kang and Kodos abduct Marge using a lasso rather than an abduction ray of some sort.
- The Mooninites and Plutonians from Aqua Teen Hunger Force both qualify.
- Though in the case of the Plutonians, it's less a case of them being insufficiently advanced and more them being so incompetent that they don't know how to use most of the features in their ship.
- An episode of Duckman had Ajax abducted by "inferior beings" from the planet Betamax. They're dumb enough to consider Ajax's nonsensical ramblings to be wisdom of the highest order (though they have developed big screen televisions, because they have their priorities straight). When asked how they managed to acquire a spaceship, they claim it's a rental.
- The Centauri warned against provoking the notoriously isolationist Minbari, which Earth Gov took as an attempt by the Centauri to maintain a monopoly on Earth's interstellar trade. Things went downhill from there.