There are those who in the realm of science fiction literature wonder if galactic empires are the new "Middle-Earth". But interstellar empires never seem to go out of style, and regardless of their practicality they remain a powerful meme. The terrorist organization Aum Shinrikyo found inspiration in the galactic empire of Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy. And concerns about how realistic galactic empires are will just send George Lucas laughing all the way to the bank.
Like all nations, interstellar empires will have an over-all society and culture (which is probably not true for sub-empire groups of governments such as suzerainties, confederations, etc.). And the culture may not only evolve with time, it may even go through cycles.
David Maurer's Modern Transformation tries to explain the evolution of society and culture in terms of subsequent answers to the burning question of "where is the food going to come from?" That is, the mechanisms of food production and food distribution. Tribal society was based on a subsistence economy, where most people hunt, gather, herd, or grow their own food. The relatively small amount of distribution was handled by sharing or barter between family and neighbors. Aristocrat-peasant society was fed by a subordinate class of peasants who worked the land and delivered a substantial part of the harvest to their aristocratic lords, without being paid. This was a command distribution system. Modern society depends on markets for food production and distribution, in other words it all revolves around something called "money".
Some characteristics of future societies can be extrapolated from their origins. The tired old example is the "Wild West" society from the United State's pioneer period. When one is living on the frontier rim where the government and the law is a distant and tenuous thing, often the only law is what one makes oneself, i.e., "taking the law into ones own hands." As civilization and development washed over the West, society became more stodgy.
In the Albedo Anthropomorphics universe of Steve Gallacci, one has a cluster of planets colonized by slower-than-light starships (yes, the colonists are furry anthropomorphic animals, but that is beside the point). The planetary cultures that were founded as a consequence have a "shipboard discipline mentality."
Consider, on a spacecraft, if a civilian saw something like an air leak in the hull, and didn't report it to anybody, they would be endangering not only their own life but also the lives of everybody on the colony ship. So that is a crime.
In the United States on the other hand, if a person sees somebody lying injured on the side of the road, and they try to help the injured one, more often than not they wind up being sued by the injured person. Hands off, do not get involved, it is not your problem.
In the Albedo universe, with the shipboard discipline mentality, it is a crime not to try and help somebody who is injured, and there are "Good Samaritan" laws to protect the helpers.
Obviously matters of practicality can also affect the shape of a society.
The Albedo universe is not colonized by human beings, instead the various planets are populated by various species of Terran animals genetically engineered to intelligence.
Now with most Terran mammals, the female is only sexually attractive to the male when they go into estrus (aka "in heat"). At other times the males could care less (similar to the attitudes of young pre-adolescent boys who think that girls are stupid and icky, an attitude that undergoes a marked change when puberty strikes). Consequence: in the Albedo universe there are no nudity taboos, and mixed-gender washing and toilet facilities are the norm.
But when estrus occurs the females must go into seclusion and/or use powerful deodorants. Otherwise all the males within smelling distance suddenly start acting like sexually-frustrated 16-year-old boys.
When Frank Herbert wanted to write his novel Dune, he did not want his future society to be some sort of cyberpunk future. He wanted something medieval in space. So he postulated in his future history a period where people revolted against computers and related technology in the "Butlerian Jihad", which outlawed all thinking machines. This justified Herbert's desired medieval future.
In Piers Anthony's Cluster series he postulated that there were five cultural types, labeled by the five suits of Tarot cards (Anthony's minor arcana has a fifth suit instead of the customary four). All the galactic aliens fall into one of the five categories. Anthony apparently had a lot of fun creating the characteristics of each of the five types, and illustrating the cultural clashes inherent when different types interacted. Highly unlikely to be true in reality, but it gave the author something to work with.
In the classic Battlestar Galactica TV series, there are twelve human colonies with names like Sagittaron, Gemenon, Caprica, etc. Like the rest of the "Chariots of the Gods" schtick in the show, this is supposed to be the ancient high-tech ancestor of some mystical occult Fortean stuff from Terra's alleged history. In this case it is the astrological signs of the zodiac. According to astrology, the sign of the zodiac the sun is occupying at the instant of your birth foretells your major personality traits. According to Battlestar Galactica, these are actually major personality traits of citizens living in the colony in question. The personality of the sun-sign Sagittarius is the same as the Sagittarons, sun-sign Gemenon is zodiac sign Gemini, and so on. Total felgercarb, but at least it gave the episode writers some quick-and-dirty guidelines when creating characters.
Note that the critical part of both Anthony and BSG's cultural classifications is that they cover the entire spectrum of possible cultures, with no holes. This means that Anthony's five-category system is very low-resolution, and BSG's twelved-category system is only slightly better. Which is a liability for a scientist but may be an advantages for an author.
Partnership culture is characterized by:
- Organization according to the ideals of a democratic structure
- Equal partnership between men and women
- A lack of tolerance for abuse and violence
- Belief systems that validate an empathetic perspective
Dominator culture is characterized by:
- Authoritarian social and family structure
- Rigid male dominance
- A high level of violence and abuse
- A system of beliefs that normalizes such a society
|Symbol: Gatherer's Bag||Symbol: Hunter's Flint Knive|
|Power comes from the creation and nurturing of life||Power comes from the coercion and killing of life|
|Reveres Life||Reveres Death|
|Sex is good||Sex is bad|
|Violence is bad||Violence is good|
|the ultimate sexual taboo is Incest|
(because it harms the family)
|the ultimate sexual taboo is Homosexuality|
(because it harms masculinity)
|Life is a Non-Zero Sum game||Life is a Zero-Sum Game|
|Obtain new items by creating them yourself||Why bother making things when you can steal them at knife point?|
For empire government and social psychologies, the powerful "Interesting Holes" technique is always good to use. The initial problem is one has to invent or research a classification system to use. There are some that are readily available. These often take the form of axis charts, which are scatter plots of two variables.
Jerry Pournelle has an interesting classification system for political movements within a government.
The X-axis is "Statism" or attitude towards the State. The extreme positive X-axis represents the movement's belief that the State is a positive good, nay, worthy of worship. The negative X-axis is the belief that the State is the ultimate evil.
The Y-axis is "Rationalism" or attitude toward planned social progress. It is the belief that society has "problems," and these can be "solved." The extreme postive Y-axis represents the belief that all social problems have findable solutions.
There are some other amusing X-Y classification systems. The Political Compass is similar to Pournelle's, but with a Libertarian bent.
The Dungeons and Dragon game had each character choose their "alignment" from the alignment chart. This chart had an "ethical" X-axis between Chaotic and Lawful, and a "moral" Y-axis between Good and Evil.
If you believe that "the good of the many outweights the good of the few", you are Lawful, otherwise you are Chaotic.
If you believe that "the ends justify the means" then you are Evil, otherwise you are Good.
On either axis you could be "Neutral".
Another interesting axis classification system is the Inglehart-Welzel Cultural Map of the World.
The Traditional/Secular-rational values axis reflects the contrast between societies in which religion is very important and those which are more secular.
The second axis is linked with the transition from industrial society to post-industrial societies — which brings a polarization between Survival and Self-expression values. Translation: the -2 side is where you have to spend all your time and energy just to get enough food and money to live. The +2 side is where it is easy to get all you need to eat and live, so you have plenty of free time to do whatever you want.
The authors note that each axis actually contains many related values which vary in lock step. For instance, the Traditional/Secular-rational is specifically for measuring religion. But in practice it also measures such things as the importance of parent-child ties and deference to authority, along with absolute standards and traditional family values. Cultures with a high religion value reject divorce, abortion, euthanasia, and suicide. They also have high levels of national pride, and a nationalistic outlook. Cultures with a low religion value also have the opposite preference in all those topics.
SF authors and game designers who want to invent believable cultures for their various interstellar nations can use this graph to explore both the outer limits and the finer nuances.
David Maurer's Explanation of history shows how the values and philosophy of a culture relate to the question of "where is the food going to come from?" As the answer changes, so does the culture. This more or less corresponds to the Survival — Self-expression axis in the Inglehart-Welzel graph.
Linear-actives — those who plan, schedule, organize, pursue action chains, do one thing at a time. Germans and Swiss are in this group.
Multi-actives — those lively, loquacious peoples who do many things at once, planning their priorities not according to a time schedule, but according to the relative thrill or importance that each appointment brings with it. Italians, Latin Americans and Arabs are members of this group.
Reactives — those cultures that prioritize courtesy and respect, listening quietly and calmly to their interlocutors and reacting carefully to the other side's proposals. Chinese, Japanese and Finns are in this group.
|Talks half of the time||Talks most of the time||Listens most of the time|
|Does one thing at the time||Does several things at once||Reacts to partner's action|
|Plans ahead step by step||Plans grand outline only||Looks at general principles|
|Polite but direct||Emotional||Polite, indirect|
|Confronts with logic||Confronts emotionally||Never confronts|
|Sticks to facts||Feelings before facts||Statements are promises|
|Sticks to agenda||Roams back and forth||Often asks for "repeats"|
|Written word important||Spoken word important||Face-to-face contact important|
|Restrained body language||Unrestrained body language||Subtle body language|
Plastic Bag has the Pirate-Ninja/Elf-Dwarf chart. Pirates are loud and flamboyant, gregarious and unrestrained, life-loving and vigorous, passionate and strong. Their opposite, the Ninjas are skilled and proficient, elegant and silent, contained and constrained, honourable and spiritual. Elves are Thinkers, elegant and timeless, conceptual and refined, abstract and beautiful. Dwarves are Doers, practical and structural, hard-working and no-nonsense, down-to-earth smiths and makers.
If you are creating a "future history generator" program, or something like that, you will need ways of quantifying the various factors.
For nations, the state of the citizens's well-being can be measured by the Human Development Index. This factors in life expectancy, literacy, education, and standard of living into one number. Among other things it can indicate whether a country is a developed, developing, or underdeveloped country.
The economic Misery index is found by adding the unemployment rate to the inflation rate. This tends to predict the relative crime rate of one year in the future.
And the Gini coefficient is a measure of inequality of a distribution of income. If the difference in income between the rich and the poor becomes too absurdly large, the society becomes increasingly unstable. Historians often point to a large Gini coefficient and the disappearance of the middle class as two of the warning signs of the downfall of the Roman empire.
There are the various types of government. These can be the governments of continents on a planet, goverments of an entire united planet, or governments of groups of planets. Go to The Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy and read the entries "NEOFEUDALISM" and "THEOCRATIC NEOMEDIEVALISTS".
Needless to say, there is no lack of ambitious individuals who have a burning desire to be the absolute ruler of a nation or empire. This is why the mechanism of succession must be rigidly defined. If for any reason the mechanism does not function properly when a ruler is removed, lots of people die.
For example, if in a monarchy the crown passes to the deceased king's eldest son, a king who has no son will start an instant civil war when the king dies. Anybody who has a driving ambition to be king and some pathetic scrap of a claim to the throne will gather an army and attack all the other claimants. This is why one of the royal duties is to procreate a male heir as soon as possible just in case. And a second son, as a spare.
This also leads to unromantic requirements, such as various officials watching the marriage be consumated in person so they can be legal witnesses. And why the monarchy was so fanatical about the queen being a virgin, otherwise there is some question about the legitimacy of the son to assume the crown and it is suddenly instant civil war time.
A famous example of shaky succession is the War of the Roses. Over thirty years of battles and 50,000 deaths because there was just enough vagueness over who should succeed King Richard II.
When the peasants shout "Long Live The King!" they are not proclaiming niceties to the ruler. They are selfishly hoping to delay the time before a messy dynastic battle comes raging through their backyard. Or as the ancient proverb of the Kikuyu people puts it: "When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers"
Things get rather tense if the queen gives birth to no (live) babies, or worse if there are only daughters. The latter case allows yet another faction to join the bloody civil war: those who say what's wrong with making the eldest daughter a queen? Genetically the "problem" of inability to sire sons is probably the fault of the father, but in medieval times it was Always The Woman's Fault.
This leads to all sorts of dangerous strategies, such as getting the queen secretly impregnated via a male who is not the king but does have male-baby making ability (and hoping nobody discovers the infidelity and the illegitimacy). Or, for instance, breaking away the Church of England from the authority of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church just so you can get a divorce from a queen who produces only dead or wrong-gendered babies. Another inhuman strategy is for the king to secretly engineer a tragic fatal accident for the barren queen, in the hopes that the new queen will be a better broodmare. This probably won't work if the problem is a series of girl babies. As previously mentioned the problem there is usually the father, changing the mother is not going to fix that. It will just cause a hideous string of dead queens.
Matrilineality has the advantage of removing legitimacy from the list of problems. Short of genetic testing, there is always a question of whether the child being born was sired by the king or not. But there is no question that the child came from the queen, you can witness whose birth canal the child came out of. Traditionally matrilineal governments do not care who the father was, only the mother matters. But of course such a system is by definition incompatible with patriarchy.
In representative democratic systems of government, succession is handled by elections. These are sort of legal institutionalized coup d'états. As a political system it has problems, but so do all the others.
A hydraulic empire (AKA hydraulic despotism, or water monopoly empire) is where the rulers of the empire maintain control by a monopoly on one or more critical resources. In history the resource was generally water for irrigating the crops. Such empires arise because managing such resources is such a monumental task that it requires central control, which naturally evolves into political control.
In Larry Niven's Destiny's Road the controlling resource is access to vital dietary potassium, a rarity on the colony planet. In Frank Herbert's Dune novels the controlling resource is the spice Melange, which allows faster than light starships.
If the rulers of the empire have no large planetary holdings but have a monopoly on space travel and interstellar trade, the empire is called a Thalassocracy
A common problem is that the rulers of the Hydraulic state make quite sure that their monopoly is absolute, so that all the regions have no alternatives for the resource. Which means if something kills the rulers or otherwise cuts off access to the resource, the regions are in big trouble. The rulers generally are either selfish or short-sighted enough so as to not have any contingency plans. The rulers think that they will always have the resource to offer. Or figure that if they die, then the proletariat has some nerve thinking they deserve to outlive the rulers.
For example, in John Scalzi's novel The Collapsing Empire the interstellar trader megacorporations use The Flow, which is a naturally occuring system of faster-than-light "streams". The traders have a monopoly on interstellar trade.
The Empire is called The Interdependency, because all the colonies are not self-sufficient on purpose. None of the colonies can revolt and split off from the empire because without interstellar importation of vital resources the colony will die. The rulers and the megacorporations planned this to ensure their iron grip on power over the colonies.
Then scientists realize that The Flow is gradually altering to the point where FTL starships won't work any more. All the colonies will be cut off from each other, and there is no way to stop it. OMG we're all gonna die!
A Nomadic Empire is a non-sedentary polity, i.e., the bulk of the citizens are of no fixed address. Such empires are sometimes called a Khanate. The main real-world historical example is the Mongol Empire
From a galactic empire standpoint, the main advantage is the system is scaleable. It avoids the "empire grown too huge to govern" problem since functionally a nomad empire is a mild form of swarm intelligence. Hordes that are part of the empire can operate without central control. The main problem is ensuring that the various hordes maintain their allegiance to the Khan of the empire.
In some cases the hordes live in clan ships.
There are some kinds of unorthodox interstellar empires where the rulers do not live on planets. Instead they live in orbit, and control planet dwellers by virtue of the military advantage of the gravity gauge, and by a monopoly on interstellar trade. This is called a Thalassocracy, from an ancient term for a seaborne empire.
Sometimes the monopoly is by the Thalassocracy the sole owner of transport starships, planet dwellers have to contract the Thalasso-starships if they want to ship anything interstellar.
Sometimes the monopoly is by the Thalassocracy having a monopoly on the manufacture and sale of interstellar FTL propulsion units. The technical details about the units are top secret. In SPI's game Freedom in the Galaxy all stardrives are built by the Empire, and contain a thermonuclear booby-trap to discourage attempts at reverse-engineering. The empire takes its monopoly on stardrives very seriously.
Macro Life is not a government so much as it is the next stage of societal evolution. It shares some similar qualities to a hive entity, but is not quite so drastic. It can however function as a sort of government for certain space nations, which is why I stuck it here.
The concept comes from Dandridge Cole, who was inspired by an article by Isaac Asimov titled Beyond the Phyla. Cole defined Macro Life as "life squared per cell", by which he means "Macro Life is to Man what Man is to the Cell".
In science fiction, Macro Life appears to be a huge space colony with a rocket engine. Sort of a cross between an asteroid bubble and a generation starship. But that is missing the point. The "Macro Life" part is the society living inside the asteroid.
Below is Asimov's essay that inspired Cole, and Cole's Macro Life essay. Asimov's essay is from Astounding/Analog Science Fact & Fiction, July 1960. Cole's essay is from an AAS presentation called "The Social And Political Implications of the Ultimate Human Society". This was later reprinted in a two-part article in the September and October 1961 Space World magazine.
Please note that while in science fiction Macrolife is always associated with a mobile asteroid colony, that does not necessarily have to be the case. One could have a Macrolife organism living on a planet, or a Macrolife organism composed of a multitude of planet based settlements linked by an FTL radio or something. Scifi writers like to use mobile asteroid colonies so they can make cute analogies of the colony being akin to a giant one-celled organism. The colony travels to a fresh star system and reproduces: harvesting raw materials, building more colonies, and populating the new colonies with disaffected citizens who want to leave. The scifi writer smugly points out that the macrolife asteroid colony thus fulfills all the necessary attributes to qualify as a living organism.
From the Star Hero role playing game by James Cambias, published by Hero Games. A valuable sourcebook for anybody designing a science fiction universe. From stellar dynamics to types of interstellar governments, this book belongs on the shelf of serious SF authors. This is also a great book to quickly get an author up to speed on the science behind science fiction.
- Who Rules?
- Nobody (anarchy)
- Individual Rule
- Dictator (Emperor, Warlord): rule by force
- Monarch (Chiefs, Barons, Princes, Kings, Emperors): rule by virtue of heredity. May have to delegate power to appointed bureaucracy, elected parliament, or feudal hereditary nobles.
- President (Chancellor, Premier, Governor): rule by merit, appointment, or election.
- Computerized Government
- Small Groups
- Junta: rule by force
- Oligarchy (Aristocracy): rule by virtue of heredity.
- Council (Senate): rule by merit, appointment, or election.
- Large Groups
- Conquering Army: rule by force. Unstable, generally quickly becomes a Junta or Dictator. If situation lasts for a generation it generally becomes Feudal.
- Feudal: rule by virtue of heredity. A large hereditary group may become a Ruling Caste.
- Legislature (Congress, Assembly): rule by merit, appointment, or election.
- Athenian Democracy: everybody rules by voting on all issues.
- How Is The Ruler Chosen?
- No Ruler (anarchy)
- Appointment: the key is who gets to do the appointing. A colony or conquered planet has ruler appointed by controlling planet. Sometimes officials get to appoint their replacements. Sometimes one branch of government appoints the members of another branch.
- Merit. Depends upon what is the measure of merit. Competency = Bureaucracy. Religious Faith = Theocracy. Scientific Knowledge = Technocracy. Wealth = Plutocracy. Sheer Age = Gerontocracy.
- Total Participation (Athenian Democracy)
- Random Selection (similar to jury duty)
- Omens or Oracles (in religious or superstitious societies)
- Computerized Government
From the Traveller role playing game:
- No government structure. In many cases, family bonds predominate.
- Company/Corporation. Government by a company managerial elite; citizens are company employees.
- Participating Democracy. Government by advice and consent of the citizen.
- Self-Perpetuating Oligarchy. Government by a restricted minority, with little or no input from the masses.
- Representative Democracy. Government by elected representatives.
- Feudal Technocracy. Government by specific individuals for those who agree to be ruled. Relationships are based on the performance of technical activities which are mutually beneficial.
- Captive Government. Government by a leadership answerable to an outside group; a colony or conquered area.
- Balkanization. No central ruling authority exists; rival governments compete for control.
- Civil Service Bureaucracy. Government by agencies employing individuals selected for their expertise.
- Impersonal Bureaucracy. Government by agencies which are insulated from the governed.
- Charismatic Dictator. Government by a single leader enjoying the confidence of the citizens.
- Non-Charismatic Leader. A previous charismatic dictator has been replaced by a leader through normal channels.
- Charismatic Oligarchy. Government by a select group, organization, or class enjoying the overwhelming confidence of the citizenry.
- Religious Dictatorship. Government by a religious organization without regard to the needs of the citizenry.
Instead, it is an indication of what the Traveller players can personally expect to encounter directly when they interact with the local bureaucracy. When a player is trying to get a license to import Spican Flame Gems they could care less that the government is a unicameral legislature. The player just wants to know how much red tape they will have to cut through, which is what the above table tries to indicate.
Player rarely, if ever, interact with planetary governments directly.
From THE SWORD AND THE STARS wargame by SPI.
- 10 TRIBALISTIC SERIES
- 11 Fraternalism
- 12 Sororalism
- 13 Ancestralism
- 20 UNIQUE SERIES
- 30 ABSOLUTIST SERIES
- 31 Totalitarianism
- 32 Monarchism
- 33 Feudalism
- 34 Despotism
- 40 REPUBLICAN SERIES
- 41 Democracy
- 42 Parliamentary
- 43 Republicanism
- 50 THEOCRATIC SERIES
- 60 COLLECTIVIST SERIES
From Space Opera role playing game by FGU.
- Multi-government (Balkanization)
- Subjugated (conquered by another government)
- Oligarchy (aristocracy or dictatorship)
- Religious Dictatorship
- Corporate State
- Athenian Democracy (no representatives, everybody votes)
- Republican Democracy (representatives)
- Confederacy (not a government, a group of governments)
- Personal Dictatorship
- Empire (not a government, a group of governments)
From GURPS: Space role playing game by Steve Jackson Games.
- No world government: diffuse (hundreds of factions)
- No world government: factionalized (tens of factions)
- No world government: coalition (several factions)
- Caste (as Clan, but each clan has pre-set profession)
- Dictatorship (King, dictator, or warlord)
- Representative Democracy
- Athenian Democracy
- Corporate State
- Technocracy (rule by computer programmers and engineers)
SUB-TYPES (additional conditions and modifications applied to the government type, e.g., "Matriarchal-Socialist Athenian-Democracy")
- Subjugated (government has been conquered militarily or economically)
- Slave State (slavery is legal)
- Sanctuary (will not extradite criminals wanted off-world)
- Military Government (totalitarian if single officer, feudal if junta)
- Socialist (citizens heavily taxed but taken care of by the nanny-state)
- Bureaucracy (un elected bureaucrats have the real power)
- Colony of another government
- Oligarchy (leadership in the hands of a small self-perpetuating clique)
- Meritocracy (government jobs require aptitude tests)
- Patriarchy/Matriarch (all rulers are male/female)
- Utopia (everything is perfect)
- Cybercracy (rule by computers)
The empire's society and culture might go through different stages as well.
The terminology for groups of governments gets complicated. Go to The Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy and read the entry "TRADE FEDERATION".
With most of these labels, all you have to do is add a weird noun and you have your empire's name, e.g., the Unitech Polity, the Dominion of the Technomorphs, the Romulan Star Empire, the Rigel Covenant, etc. Go to The Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy and read the entry "EMPIRE".
Science fiction writers who are writing about interstellar empires might want to contemplate the upheaval caused when the empire reaches "peak antimatter". Also interesting is how the rise of the 17th century Dutch seaborne empire was due in part to their superior utilization of wind energy, in the form of the Fluyt ship. The galactic mercantile empire of the Technomorphs' could be based on the remarkably efficient zero-point-energy reactors of their trader starships.
Ever since Asimov's Foundation novels, the Roman Empire was the model for the Galactic Empire. The fall of the Roman Empire was hastened by invading barbarians hordes from the empire's rim (mostly Goths). So of course the decadent Galactic Empire has to be threatened by Space Barbarians in their interstellar long-ships at the rim of the galaxy.
In science fiction, arguably the most well developed example of this theme is the barbarian Mercians in Poul Anderson's Dominic Flandry novels (though the Mercians became barbarians in Supernova, a David Falkayn story).
The traditional method to create barbarians is for some well-meaning but naive star-travelers to give starship technology to a primitive planet-bound species. The barbarians then proceed to raid all the civilized planets in range, like space-going vikings. The civilized military will (hopefully) eventually put down the barbarians but the war will be long, bloody, and costly. After the barbarian wars, the star-traveling civilization outlaws such technology transfers. Assuming the civilization actually survives the barbarian onslaught.
Of course after the Anti-Barbarian Act of 2500 passes, some criminals will be tempted to break it in exchange for barbarian gold.
However, the concept of primitive barbarians using starships has problems. One wonders about the tech assumptions. Either starships are relatively cheap (ponder the idea of "barbarians" fielding aircraft carriers as a comparison) or the smallest feudal units are pretty good sized. This is sort of addressed in the link above about barbarian gold, and more generally discussed in the section The Sword on the Starship.
There are some practical question about whether a government on the scale of a galactic empire could function, mostly because bureaucracy has poor scalability.
For me, this is one of those gray areas in the writing of science fiction novels. Much like faster-than-light starships in fact. Yes, it may be impossible. But you want it, your readers want it, everybody's doing it.
As a point of terminology, the marches or boondocks of a galactic empire are generally called the "rim" or the "fringe." This represents the astrographical limit of imperial control.
If you are actually trying to make a full fledged interstellar empire, the maximum speed of starships and the maximum speed of communications limits the maximum size of the empire. Timelag creates Limits On Reaction Time. If it takes a year for news of a rebellion on the outer marches of the empire to reach the capital (or sector capital) and another year for a fleet to travel back, this means the rebels will have two years to win the rebellion and fortify in preparation for the arrival of the imperial starfleet.
The defining factor of whether a given planet was part of an empire or not is whether the time delay between the start of the rebellion and the arrival of the imperial punishment fleet is longer than the time required for the rebellious planet to manufacture enough defenses to take care of the punishment fleet.
In other words: if you cannot hold on to the planet, it ain't yours.
An auxiliary factor is the expected size of the punishment fleet. This will depend upon many other factors. A worthless rock-pile might only rate one warship, while The Planet Of Immortality Drugs could get a sky full of ships. An average planet in the middle of the empire could rate a sizable fleet since it could be a nucleus of rebellion for other planets, while the same planet out on the galactic marches of the empire might not get anything.
The expected size of the punishment fleet defines how many defenses need to be manufactured. And the amount of defenses is a big factor in determining whether it is possible to manufacture all of them before the fleet shows up.
Historically on Terra, communication by travel came first (runners, horseback couriers, boat and rail-road train). Later non-travel communication was invented (telegraph and radio), and it was much faster than travel communication.
According to SpaceMike, historically we can use these as general rules:
The largest pre-telegraphy empire By Land was the Mongol Empire. The communication time from the central capital to the rim (or vice versa) was 12 weeks. The empire had a radius of about 5,000 kilometers, and a horse courier could travel about 60 km/day.
The largest pre-telegraphy empire By Sea was a toss-up between the Spanish and the Portugese, though arguably the Dutch went further. It took about 13 weeks to travel from the capital to the furthest colony of the empire. A good ship could cross the Atlantic ocean in about ten weeks, then a few more weeks to go over land to the colony.
So if the galactic empire has no FTL radio but does have FTL courier starships, the speed of the ships and the maximum allowed radius of the empire have to be adjusted so that the ship takes 10 to 15 weeks or so to travel from the central capital to the rim (or vice versa).
Early telegraph had an effective speed of about 1,600 km/hour. So it could send a message from the Mongol capital to the rim in about three hours. Which was a vast improvement over 12 weeks. Radio of course travels at the speed of light, for the Mongol empire it is effectively instantaneous.
Before the age of horseback couriers, information technology ranged from "coconut wireless" (gossip and rumors spread neighbor to neighbor), pigeon post and war pigeons (range 1,800 km, speed 80 km/h), smoke signals (on the Great Wall of China soldiers could transmit warnings 750 km in a few hours, Gondor Style ), and talking drums (160 km/hr).
Smoke signals and talking drums are hard to interfere with by enemy action. However, during World War I and II soldiers were trained to shoot at war pigeons and some actually kept hawks to intercept the pigeons. Stop that pigeon now! A pigeon named Cher Ami was awarded the French "Croix de Guerre with Palm" for heroic service by virtue of delivering messages that saved the lives of 194 US soldiers of the 77th Infantry Division's "Lost Battalion" in 1918. She delivered the message despite having been shot through the breast, blinded in one eye, and had a leg hanging only by a tendon.
Now, as a science fiction author, all you have to do is brainstorm an interstellar equivalent to smoke signals and homing pigeons.
Note the off-hand reference to "sector capitals" above. If your communications/warship speed dictate that your empire can be no more than X parsecs wide with central control in the capital then you can obviously make your empire larger if you delegate control to a series of sub-capitals at some distance.
In ancient Rome such divisions were called an Imperial Province. Ever since Isaac Asimov wrote his Foundation trilogy, divisions in a galactic empire are called "sectors" (though classic Star Trek messed up and called them "quadrants").
Asimov also popularized the naming of sectors after the brightest star contained. This meant that Sol was located in the "Sirius sector", since Sirius has an intense absolute magnitude of 1.4 and is a mere 8.6 light-years from Sol. Vega is much brighter with an absolute magnitude of 0.58, but is much farther away at 25 light-years. Poul Anderson's novels The Rebel Worlds and its sequel The Day Of Their Return are set in "Sector Alpha Crucis".
Of course sector captial rule runs the risk of an ambitious sector governor getting ideas about declaring independence from the Empire. On the other hand the sector governor had better be real sure of their chances for success. Empires consider breakaway sectors to be what you call "existential threats"; so the reaction tends to be swift, overwhelming, and harsh.
Arthur C. Clarke insists that large galactic governments are impossible because of their intolerable complexity. This is based upon a simple truth: As population grows arithmetically, the number of possible interactions rises geometrically.
...But all such attempts to showcase the "numbing complexity" of galactic government are unconvincing because information flows in interstellar empires needn't be all that serious, though we'll obviously need computer-bureaucrats to handle most of the red tape.
... Since silicon microcircuits can theoretically process ten billion times more data than human neurons, pound for pound and bit for bit, then maybe with computer help humans could run empires ten billion times larger than the historical imperial scale. The pre-computer Roman and British Empires ruled 30 million and 300 million people, respectively, before becoming too large. Perhaps a galactic empire using electronic administrators could handle 1019 people before it got too cumbersome. That's a billion planets with ten billion inhabitants each!
...According to Mosca's Rule: "The larger the political community, the smaller will be the proportion of the governing minority to the governed majority." Roberto Michels' "Iron Law of Oligarchy" goes still farther; asserting that growing political systems, especially empires, invariably evolve into more oligarchic (rule by the few) forms of government. So while democratic or republic empires are possible, as they grow they will slowly but implacably drift towards autocracy.
...Specialization leads to hierarchy and span of control. Hierarchy means levels of increasing managerial specialization, each level having supervisors of equal responsibility. Span of control is the number of subordinates administered by each supervisor.
Studies of government and private organizations show that the number of hierarchical levels and the span of control tends to increase as the whole system expands, but also that the two are complementary. For a given size, a wider span of control means fewer levels are needed above and below each span, producing a broad "flat" organizational pyramid. More levels means small spans suffice, giving a narrow "tall" organization with tighter control from the top. Humans seem naturally to prefer rather tall organizations, perhaps partially due to our simian heritage of vertical troupe dominance chains. Sentient extraterrestrials evolved from carnivorous cats or intelligent octopi, solitary creatures by nature, would favor flatter organizational structures.
...The best human organizations have spans of five subordinates per supervisor. Using this figure, a galactic empire controlling ten billion planets having ten billion inhabitants each would require at least 21 hierarchical levels. It is well known that human organizations with more than 6-8 levels become excessively bureaucratic.
...If we optimistically assume that a control span of 100 subordinates can be achieved for, say, human policymakers, then the number of hierarchical levels can almost be halved - from 21 down to 11. The structure of Sir Roger's bustling empire might then look something like Figure 1.
Sir Roger's Galactic Empire
(Span of control ~=100, Hierarchical Levels ~=11)
1 Emperor 1 1010 1020 2 Cabinet Minister 100 108 1018 3 Peer 10,000 106 1016 4 Royal Magistrate 106 10,000 1014 5 Starkeeper 108 100 1012 6 Planetary Governor 1010 1 1010 7 Continental Regent 1012 108 8 Knight 1014 106 9 Burgess 1016 10,000 10 Gentry 1018 100 11 Commoners 1020 1
Even with all this mechanized assistants, the Emperor will have absolutely no contact with non-interstellar personnel. His relationship with his magistrates would not be unlike those between the United States President and the mayors and city managers of American cities. To the Galactic Emperor, the starkeepers, each responsible for 100 worlds, will seem much as U.S. citizens appear to their President - with only a very rare audience being granted. Planetary governors are "the rabble."
Organizational specialist studying "control loss theory" say that in tall, human-like galactic organizations, memos would have to travel down through so many channels that most orders from top to bottom levels could be almost totally degraded to noise by they time they arrive. Economist Oliver Williamson devised a simple model to predict how goals generated at the top of a hierarchy are implemented at the bottom after passing down a number of levels in the chain of command.
If each message, on average, passes through a level 95% intact, then Williamson would claim that since orders must change hands 10 times, Sir Roger's Empire is (0.95)10 = 60% effective in carrying out its aims. At 85% per level (Williamson's lower limit based on studies of actual human organizations), effectiveness drops to 20% and only one-fifth of the Emperor's plans for the commoners ever reach fruition.
Peter B. Evans uses Williamson's control loss model to show that higher efficiencies are possible when the Emperor switches to "multiple hierarchy" systems, such as the dual hierarchy. If the Emperor creates a complete second command hierarchy in parallel with the first, his effectiveness rises by nearly two-thirds. The superiority of dual hierarchies is well-known in business (line-and-staff) and in public administration (especially Communist bureaucracies). Lattice structure systems are a more sophisticated form, involving a complete lattice of hierarchial links providing a startling multiplicity of pathways to the top. Such novel system my not encourage galactic stability, but the opportunities for palace intrigue are legion!
The solution is to get rid of central control. But doesn't that mean the resulting chaos ain't an "empire" any more? Maybe, but maybe not. Let's talk about termites and ants.
Look at that picture of a splendid termite mound. It is comparable to Antonio Gaudí’s church. Surprisingly, the termite mound was not constructed under any sort of centralized control. In fact, the workers cannot even perceive the overall shape of the mound (worker termites are blind). Yet the mound is built including elaborate arches. It even incorporates galleries and chimneys to manage temperature and humidity. How is this possible?
Termites use "bottom-up" management instead of the "top-down" management used with central control. Even though a given termite only has a miserable 2-volt brain it still has just enough intelligence to perform specific actions (e.g., glue your grain of sand on that growing pillar there) when triggered by local cues (scent pheromones by other local termites, temperature and humidity conditions, etc.). A bunch of simplistic actions can achieve surprisingly sophisticated result by the magic of Emergent Behavior.
The point is: management by emergent behavior is infinitely scalable. There is no size limit. Galactic "empire," here we come.
Granted, this is not going to look like the empire from Star Wars or Asimov's Foundation. But it has the virtue of being actually workable. It might look more like a nomadic empire.
It also would be a very good fit for an alien empire that had a hive mentality, since they are traditionally portrayed as insect-like aliens to start with.
Yes, human beings are more intelligent than ants. That's not the point, in such an empire the operative units might be the equivalent of a division within a corporation. Such divisions often exhibit less intelligence than your average ant.
Taken to an extreme, a galactic empire could be modeld on your typical slime mold, which is actually a colony creature that is a congomeration of single-celled critters. in 2016 scientists were flabbergasted when they discovered a slime mold was capable of learning, even though the blasted thing did not have a brain.
Even the process of fighting off an enemy starfleet can be handled this way. The defense can be handled locally as an artificial immune system.
One of the draw-backs of emergent management can be seen in ant-hills. It is not unusual to see an ant-hill at war with itself. Since there is no central control, the various local groups have no way of knowing that the other group is part of the same hill.
There are several terms associated with this process, some of which overlap.
Many species of ants communicate with their nest-mates using chemical scents known as pheromones. Pheromones can be used in many ways by ants and other animals (including humans), but we are most interested in how ants use pheromones to direct each other through their environment — this particular task is closely related to the problem of directing the flow of information through a network.
Consider a colony of ants that is searching for food. Casual observation of an ant colony will reveal that ants often walk in a straight line between their anthill and the food source. The concept of an "army" of ants marching in file has permeated popular culture, and most people who live in ant-friendly locations (nearly every human-friendly place in the world) have seen this particular behavior first-hand. Marching in a straight line, which is usually the shortest route, seems like an obvious solution to the problem of efficient food transportation, and we might pass it off as uninteresting.
Of course, we humans would do the same thing, and in fact we do march in lines along direct routes when we travel in groups as caravans. When we look down at a line of ants from above, we might simply think "so what?" But we have huge brains compared to ants, along with extraordinarily complicated visual systems (over 25% of the human brain is devoted to vision), and we also have a more elevated view of the terrain. Even with these advantages, efficient route-finding, especially through an environment that is full of obstacles, is not an easy task for us. Given ants' comparatively simpler brains, we cannot pass their collectively intelligent route-finding off as trivial. So how do they do it?
Suppose that an ant colony starts out with no information about the location food in the environment. The human strategy in this case would be to send out a "search party" to comb the surrounding area — the scouts who find food can bring some back to the home-base and inform the others about where the food is. Ants do search for food by walking randomly, which is similar to the human "combing" approach, but two issues prevent ants from implementing a human-style search party directly. First, how can an ant-scout, upon discovering food, find its way back to the nest? Second, even if a scout makes it back to the nest, how can it inform the other ants about the food's location? The answers lie in a clever use of pheromones.
To solve the "finding home" problem, each ant leaves a trail of pheromone as it looks for food. In the following example pictures, the pheromone trail left by each wandering ant is shown in transparent red.
When an ant finds food, it can follow its own pheromone trail back to the nest — this is similar to leaving a trail of bread crumbs through the woods to find your way back home. On the way back to the nest, the ant solves the "telling others" problem by laying down more pheromone, creating a trail with an even stronger scent. In the following picture, ant A reaches the food first and then follows its own trail back to the nest, while the other three ants keep wandering.
When other ants run into a trail of pheromone, they give up their own search and start following the trail. In the following picture, ant D discovers the double-strength trail left by ant A and starts to follow it. Ant C encounters the single-strength trail left by D and follows that trail, which will eventually lead to A's trail as well. Ant B eventually discovers its own route to the food source that is completely disconnected from the routed used by A.
If a pheromone trail leads an ant back to the nest with empty jaws, it turns around and follows the trail in the opposite direction. Once an ant reaches the food, it grabs a piece and turns around, following the same trail back to the nest. On the way back, an ant reinforces the trail by laying down more pheromone. In the following picture, ant C joins A's trail but follows it it the wrong direction, reaching the nest empty-jawed. Ant B follows its own trail back to the nest — it never comes in contact with the more direct trail that the other ants are using. A and D carry food back to the nest along the established route.
Once they reach the food, they grab a piece and turn around, following the same trail back to the nest. On the way back, they reinforce the trail by laying down more pheromone.
We have explained how ants find food in the first place, but how do they find the shortest route to the food? One more detail helps to answer this question: ants prefer to follow the trails with the strongest pheromone scent. Shorter routes between the nest and the food are completed faster by each ant that takes them. For example, if ant X is traveling along a 10-meter path to the food repeatedly, and ant Y is traveling along a different 20-meter path repeatedly, ant X will make twice as many trips in an hour as ant Y. Thus, ant X will lay twice as much pheromone on its trail as ant Y. Given the choice, ants will prefer the strongly-scented 10-meter path over the more weakly-scented 20-meter path. The following picture demonstrates this point. When B deposits food at the nest and sets out for another trip, it discovers the strongly-scented path used by the other ants and abandons its own path. At this point, all four ants are using the path discovered by ant A to carry food between the source and the nest.
Over time, many paths between the nest and the food are explored, but the scent on shortest path is reinforced more than the other paths, so it quickly becomes the most popular path, and soon all of the ants walk in file along it.
The ant approach to route-finding is quite different from the way humans navigate their environment. We would visually study the environment as a whole and try to "plan" the best route ahead of time. Of course, the ant method has advantages over our "high level" approach. For example, the ant method works fine in complete darkness. When it comes to navigating without visual cues, humans are comparatively helpless.
The ant method can be distilled into simple rules followed by each member of the colony:
Condition: Action: Not carrying food
Not on pheromone trail
Not carrying food
On pheromone trail
Follow pheromone trail
Lay more pheromone
Reach home without food
On pheromone trail
Follow trail in opposite direction
Reach food Pick up food
Follow trail in opposite direction
Carrying food Follow trail
Lay more pheromone
Reach home with food Deposit food
Follow trail in opposite direction
Though the table of "Simple Rules" above is relatively easy to understand, it still contains seven rules, which is not as simple as we might like. Also, there is a bit of sub-optimal behavior lurking: an empty-jawed ant may follow a pheromone trail in the wrong direction, all the way back to the nest. Of course, when an empty-jawed ant reaches the nest, it turns around and eventually makes its way back to the food, but this is still a wasted trip. The problem seems to be the lack of directionality in the trail, and it is certainly difficult to represent direction when all you have to work with are spots of chemical scents.
In the world of networking programs, we are not limited to directionless trail markers. By adding direction to the trail markers, we actually get a much simpler set of rules
Suppose that we augment the ants with two types of pheromone instead of just one, and suppose that we give these pheromones directionality. The first pheromone can be thought of as a "this way home" marker, and we will call it a home-finding pheromone. The second pheromone will be the food-finding pheromone, and it points in the direction of the food source. When ants leave the nest in search of food, they walk randomly, leaving trails of home-finding pheromone as they go. When an ant finds food, it picks up a piece and follows its home-finding trail back to the nest, leaving a trail of food-finding pheromone as it goes. If a wandering ant ever encounters a food-finding trail, it follows that trail to the food source, leaving more home-finding pheromone as it goes.
This simple modification reduces the complexity of our rule set:
Condition: Walk: Mark Ground With: Not carrying food on food-direction trail, or randomly otherwise home-direction pheromone Carrying food on home-direction trail food-direction pheromone
The good thing is that self-organizing swarm intelligence allows a galactic empire of any size. It is infinitely scaleable.
The bad news is that since is impossible to to have an administrator looking at the big picture, swarm intelligence is vulnerable to a critical flaw. I give you the so called "Ant Mill" aka "Ant Death Spiral."
Offhand, I only see two solutions:
- Allow infinite scaleability by accepting the price that some galactic units are going to die in ant mills
- Reduce scaleability by adding some sort of intelligent agents who can see the big picture and break up ant mills