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.

As a side issue, 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.


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 former king's eldest son, a king who has no son will start an instant civil war when he 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. 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.

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.

Things get rather tense if the queen gives birth to no children, 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 sterility or 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. 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.

INTERREGNUM, n. The period during which a monarchical country is governed by a warm spot on the cushion of the throne. The experiment of letting the spot grow cold has commonly been attended by most unhappy results from the zeal of many worthy persons to make it warm again.

From THE DEVIL'S DICTIONARY by Ambrose Bierce (1911)

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. 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.

Star Hero

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)
    • Force
    • Heredity
    • 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.
    • Election
    • Total Participation (Athenian Democracy)
    • Random Selection (similar to jury duty)
    • Omens or Oracles (in religious or superstitious societies)
    • Computerized Government
    • Purchase


From the Traveller role playing game:

  1. No government structure. In many cases, family bonds predominate.
  2. Company/Corporation. Government by a company managerial elite; citizens are company employees.
  3. Participating Democracy. Government by advice and consent of the citizen.
  4. Self-Perpetuating Oligarchy. Government by a restricted minority, with little or no input from the masses.
  5. Representative Democracy. Government by elected representatives.
  6. 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.
  7. Captive Government. Government by a leadership answerable to an outside group; a colony or conquered area.
  8. Balkanization. No central ruling authority exists; rival governments compete for control.
  9. Civil Service Bureaucracy. Government by agencies employing individuals selected for their expertise.
  10. Impersonal Bureaucracy. Government by agencies which are insulated from the governed.
  11. Charismatic Dictator. Government by a single leader enjoying the confidence of the citizens.
  12. Non-Charismatic Leader. A previous charismatic dictator has been replaced by a leader through normal channels.
  13. Charismatic Oligarchy. Government by a select group, organization, or class enjoying the overwhelming confidence of the citizenry.
  14. Religious Dictatorship. Government by a religious organization without regard to the needs of the citizenry.

The Sword And The Stars


    • 11 Fraternalism
    • 12 Sororalism
    • 13 Ancestralism
    • 31 Totalitarianism
    • 32 Monarchism
    • 33 Feudalism
    • 34 Despotism
    • 41 Democracy
    • 42 Parliamentary
    • 43 Republicanism

Star Empires

From STAR EMPIRES wargame by TSR.

  1. Anarchy
  2. Feudal
  3. Democracy
  4. Parliamentary
  5. Republic
  6. Oligarchy
  7. Theocracy
  8. Monarchy
  9. Military Junta
  10. Autocracy
  11. Hive (mostly seen with intelligent insect species)

Space Opera

From Space Opera role playing game by FGU.

  • Anarchy
  • Feudal
  • 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)

GURPS: Space

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)
  • Anarchy
  • Clan/Tribal
  • Caste (as Clan, but each clan has pre-set profession)
  • Feudal
  • Theocracy
  • 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)



For a hundred years, the Outer System settlements had been turned in on themselves, concentrating first on surviving in hostile and Spartan environments, then on establishing robust, durable ecosystems and economic and social mechanisms. But now they were trembling on the brink of a profound social and cultural revolution. A Prignogenic phase change driven by the eagerness of many young Outers to cut loose from the old, reactionary regimes of the city states on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. To light out for new territory. The moons of Uranus and Neptune. Pluto, Eris, hundreds of dwarf planets in the Kuiper Belt. A few wanted to terraform Mars, dismantling one of Jupiter's small outer moons to manufacture solar—sail mirrors and thousands of tons of halocarbon greenhouse gases that would significantly warm the planet and cause outgassing of carbon dioxide and water vapour from the frozen regolith, adding to the small but significant increase in atmospheric pressure caused by the comet dropped by the Chinese onto the original Martian colonists.

This burgeoning frontier spirit, combined with radical notions about posthuman utopianism, was beginning to cause serious social and political unrest. The Outer System's economy was built upon a barter and social ranking system based on the value of volunteer work and exchange of scientific, cultural and technological ideas and information. But now the brightest and the best of the new generation were devoting themselves to planning new kinds of social groupings that deliberately excluded themselves from the mainstream. Young people were quitting the cities for oases, shelters and other microhabitats constructed by tireless crews of robots. And they were engaged in fierce and frequently divisive debates within the collectives and family trusts that owned most of the ships in the Outer System.

The new generation of Outers wanted to use the ships for exploration and to transport volunteers eager to found new settlements in the far reaches of the Solar System, but they were outnumbered and outvoted by their parents, grandparents and great—grandparents. Because everyone in the Outer System had access to medical treatments that had increased the average life span to a little over a hundred and fifty years, the democracies of their cities and settlements, and their collectives and trusts, were really gerontocracies, cautious and reactionary, preferring discussion to decision, argument to action. The older generations had controlling interests in the ships as well as in most of the infrastructure of the Outer System settlements, asserted that they were essential for trade and commerce within and between the Jupiter and Saturn Systems, and refused to sanction construction of new ships because of the cost. Oases and shelters were built by robot labour—the robots were mostly left over from construction of the cities and it was cheaper to keep them working than to decommission them—but there were no robot factories for spaceships. Every ship was more or less hand built, and although their hulls and lifesystems could be spun from diamond and fullerene composites manufactured from carbonaceous deposits easily mined or extracted from the icy regoliths of most moons, fabrication of their fusion motors and control systems required expensive rare earths and metals.

The would-be explorers and colonists were attacking this problem with vigour. They had worked up plans to set up robot factories that could settle on suitable asteroids and mine and refine metals that would be flung toward Jupiter and Saturn using rail guns built on site, and had designed ships equipped with lightsails and propelled by fixed lasers, or with sophisticated chemical reaction motors built from ceramics and fullerene composites. These slowboats might take a decade or more to reach their destinations, but their passengers would sleep out the voyage in hibernation. The younger Outers were determined to overcome their lack of financial and political leverage with their energy, ingenuity, and determination. They had time on their side, of course. Despite gerontological treatments and sophisticated medical procedures and therapies, simple mortality meant that sooner or later the rising generation would gain control of their families’ trusts and collectives. But by then they would be as old as their grandparents were now, and they were too eager and too impatient to wait. Almost every sociopolitical model predicated breakout within a decade. If Earth could not reinforce its ties with the city states of Jupiter and Saturn and help to strengthen their conservative regimes, the Outers would diverge so quickly and in so many unpredictable ways that it would become impossible to find common ground with them. And that would make war inevitable.

From THE QUIET WAR by Paul McAuley (2009)

Kleptocracy (from Ancient Greek κλέπτης (kléptēs, “thief”), κλέπτω (kléptō, “steal”), from Proto-Indo-European *klep- (“to steal”); and from the Ancient Greek suffix -κρατία (-kratía), from κράτος (krátos, “power, rule”; klépto- thieves + -kratos rule, literally "rule by thieves") is a government with corrupt rulers (kleptocrats) that use their power to exploit the people and natural resources of their own territory in order to extend their personal wealth and political power. Typically this system involves the embezzlement of state funds at the expense of the wider population, sometimes without even the pretense of honest service.


Kleptocracies are generally associated with dictatorships, oligarchies, military juntas, or other forms of autocratic and nepotist governments in which external oversight is impossible or does not exist. This lack of oversight can be caused or exacerbated by the ability of the kleptocratic officials to control both the supply of public funds and the means of disbursal for those funds. Kleptocratic rulers often treat their country's treasury as a source of personal wealth, spending funds on luxury goods and extravagances as they see fit. Many kleptocratic rulers secretly transfer public funds into hidden personal numbered bank accounts in foreign countries to provide for themselves if removed from power.

Kleptocracy is most common in developing countries whose economies are based on the export of natural resources. Such export incomes constitute a form of economic rent and are easier to siphon off without causing the income to decrease.

A specific case of kleptocracy is Raubwirtschaft, German for "plunder economy" or "rapine economy", where the whole economy of the state is based on robbery, looting and plundering the conquered territories. Such states are either in continuous warfare with their neighbours or they simply milk up their subjects as long as they have any taxable assets. Such rapine-based economies were commonplace in the past before the rise of Capitalism. Arnold Toynbee has claimed the Roman Empire was basically a Raubwirtschaft.


The effects of a kleptocratic regime or government on a nation are typically adverse in regards to the welfare of the state's economy, political affairs and civil rights. Kleptocratic governance typically ruins prospects of foreign investment and drastically weakens the domestic market and cross-border trade. As kleptocracies often embezzle money from their citizens by misusing funds derived from tax payments, or engage heavily in money laundering schemes, they tend to heavily degrade quality of life for citizens.

In addition, the money that kleptocrats steal is diverted from funds earmarked for public amenities such as the building of hospitals, schools, roads, parks – having further adverse effects on the quality of life of citizens. The informal oligarchy that results from a kleptocratic elite subverts democracy (or any other political format).

Other terms

A narcokleptocracy is a society in which criminals involved in the trade of narcotics have undue influence in the governance of a state. For instance, the term was used to describe the regime of Manuel Noriega in Panama in a report prepared by a subcommittee of the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Committee chaired by Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. The term narcostate has the same meaning.

See also

From the Wikipedia entry for KLEPTOCRACY

Axis Charts

As far as political movements within a government are concerned, Jerry Pournelle has an interesting classification system.

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 dimension reflects the contrast between societies in which religion is very important and those in which it is not. 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.

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.

British linguist Richard Lewis in his book When Cultures Collide catagorizes world cultures into one of three types: Linear-actives, Multi-actives, or Reactives.

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.

Lewis Model Catagories
Talks half of the timeTalks most of the timeListens most of the time
Does one thing at the timeDoes several things at onceReacts to partner's action
Plans ahead step by stepPlans grand outline onlyLooks at general principles
Polite but directEmotionalPolite, indirect
Confronts with logicConfronts emotionallyNever confronts
Job-orientedPeople-orientedVery people-oriented
Sticks to factsFeelings before factsStatements are promises
Sticks to agendaRoams back and forthOften asks for "repeats"
Written word importantSpoken word importantFace-to-face contact important
Restrained body languageUnrestrained body languageSubtle 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.

And the chart in the report on the Laws of Stupidity will repay careful study.


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.


This section has been moved here.


Another important principle is Jerry Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy.

Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy is that in any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control, so that those dedicated to the goals the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely.

It's certainly true enough that there are plenty of people as you describe: indeed they are essential. Without them there wouldn't be an organization to protect. One way to keep the organization strong is to have rules that require a lot of monkey motion: that way everyone can demonstrate that he is overworked, and needs to hire more members of the bureaucracy.

The best illustration I know happened when Administrator Dan Goldin fired hundreds from NASA Headquarters. A week later no one could remember what they did: they weren't missed at all. On the other hand, when bureaucrats get in charge of reductions in force, they always try to get rid of key people who actually do the work: that way they'll have no choice but to hire more.

Jerry Pournelle

And in Robert's Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, he gives the opinion that the key question which defines a political system is:

"Under what circumstances is it moral for a group to do that which is not moral for a member of that group to do alone?"

From The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert's Heinlein

For example, if a person kills somebody, it is Murder, if the government kills somebody it is Capital Punishment.


The terminology for groups of governments gets complicated. Go to The Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy and read the entry "TRADE FEDERATION".

An alliance between governments, during which they cooperate in joint action, each in their own self-interest. This alliance may be temporary, or a matter of convenience. A coalition thus differs from a more formal Confederation.
An alliance between governments created by a compact, concord, concordat, covenant, pact or treaty. Confederations tend to be established to deal with critical issues, such as defense, foreign affairs, foreign trade, and a common currency, with the central government being required to provide support for all members. It is similar in structure to a federation but with a weaker central government. The member governments generally retain the right of secession. Synonyms: Alliance, Compact, Concordiat, League, Axis.
A Federation is similar to a Confederation, but the member governments have surrendered more of their rights and responsibilities to the central government. The member governments (known as states, dominions, or provinces) are still self-governing, but give up control of foreign affairs. Member governments generally lose the right of secession. Synonym: Commonwealth, Assembly.
A Union is a Federation where the member governments have surrendered some control of their internal affairs. The main difference between a Union and an Empire is that the Union is voluntary. Synonyms: Amalgamation, Association, Coadunation, Consolidation, Consortium, Polity, Unification.
Sphere of Influence
A metaphorical region of political influences surrounding a government. When a government falls into another's "sphere of influence" that government frequently becomes subsidiary to the more powerful one, operating as a satellite state or de facto colony. Synonyms: Hegemony, Demesne
A Suzerainty is not voluntary, the member governments have been incorporated by force. The member governments are a tributary to the conquering government (the Suzerain), and enjoys some limited domestic self-rule, but no control over foreign affairs.
An Empire is not voluntary, the member regions have been incorporated by force. The leader region is called the "metropole", the subjugated regions are called the "peripheries." The peripheries are ruled by governors, viceroys, or client kings in the name of the Emperor. Synonym: Imperium

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".

Usually the giant stars have many planets, and Betelgeuse, with forty-seven, is no exception. Of these, six have intelligent native races, and the combined resources of the whole system are considerable, even in a civilization used to thinking in terms of thousands of stars.

When the first Terrestrial explorers arrived, almost a thousand years previously, they found that the people of Alfzar had already mastered interplanetary travel and were in the process of conquering the other worlds — a process speeded up by their rapid adoption of the more advanced human technology. However, they had not attempted to establish an empire on the scale of Sol or Merseia, contenting themselves with maintaining hegemony over enough neighbor suns to protect their home.

From Agent of the Terran Empire by Poul Anderson

ABSOLUTE, adj. Independent, irresponsible. An absolute monarchy is one in which the sovereign does as he pleases so long as he pleases the assassins. Not many absolute monarchies are left, most of them having been replaced by limited monarchies, where the sovereign's power for evil (and for good) is greatly curtailed, and by republics, which are governed by chance.

ALLIANCE, n. In international politics, the union of two thieves who have their hands so deeply inserted in each other's pockets that they cannot separately plunder a third.

COMMONWEALTH, n. An administrative entity operated by an incalculable multitude of political parasites, logically active but fortuitously efficient.

DICTATOR, n. The chief of a nation that prefers the pestilence of despotism to the plague of anarchy.

INSURRECTION, n. An unsuccessful revolution. Disaffection's failure to substitute misrule for bad government.

INTERREGNUM, n. The period during which a monarchical country is governed by a warm spot on the cushion of the throne. The experiment of letting the spot grow cold has commonly been attended by most unhappy results from the zeal of many worthy persons to make it warm again.

RABBLE, n. In a republic, those who exercise a supreme authority tempered by fraudulent elections. The rabble is like the sacred Simurgh, of Arabian fable - omnipotent on condition that it do nothing. (The word is Aristocratese, and has no exact equivalent in our tongue, but means, as nearly as may be, "soaring swine.")

REPUBLIC, n. A nation in which, the thing governing and the thing governed being the same, there is only a permitted authority to enforce an optional obedience. In a republic, the foundation of public order is the ever lessening habit of submission inherited from ancestors who, being truly governed, submitted because they had to. There are as many kinds of republics as there are graduations between the despotism whence they came and the anarchy whither they lead.

From The Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce (1911)


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.

Ulla-Korsa: Klendath ... Klendath?
Klendath: Here my lord.
Ulla-Korsa: Report.
Klendath: Nothing is working and we are all that survive of the bridge crew. The escape shuttle is powering up.
Ulla-Korsa: The Hell with that. Hand me my blaster. I'll take down whomever is foolish enough to board us while I live! The blaster! Now.
Klendath: Yes ... the blaster ... here!
Ulla-Korsa: ... you miserable ...
Klendath: Actually I'm feeling pretty good right now. I want you to know something oh benevolent master ... your kingdoms are a joke. We ... my people run the show. We give you the technology we decide to give you. You are a bunch of damned barbarians. You may have beaten us at war but you lost at peace. We have worked our way into all levels of your culture until we are indispensable ... till we run the show! A shutdown here a failed rive there and you lose the war against the humans.  Yet you call us slaves and servants. Idiots ... we only needed you to keep the slugs and the Videni off our necks and free ourselves for true research. What do you say to that?
Ulla-Korsa: ... ...
Klendath: Well ... CRAP! Dying before I could rant. Lousy warrior scum! What ...?
<Clunk ... clunkclunk clang!>
Klendath: I don't want to know what that is. To the Klendath-pod!
Ulla-Korsa: Someone should tell the brilliant mastermind the difference between a kill and a stun setting. I will survive this if only to pay the little son of a bitch back!

     Barbarians in space are my second favorite space opera trope (pirates rule, sorry). In many many stories they are put in a position to gain enough technology to invade and topple far older and more advanced cultures.

     Let me explain what I mean by barbarians in space. They are people who came into the galactic community late using technology they borrowed, begged or stole from interstellar capable beings. They are new to the scene and not cosmopolitan at all, meaning they do not have much experience contacting other beings or with multispecies conventions (like signals meaning surrender or the standard airlock design). they don't have to be warlike or violent but most people think it's more fun that way.

     Larry Niven's Slavers are an example of barbarians in space. They used psionic powers to take over other races and steal their technology and (even more creepy) their minds and wills. Personally they were kind of dumb, closeminded (no pun intended) and arrogant.

     In a world where the Roswell incident was a real UFO crash and we were in fact back engineering the wreck's systems we would be on the verge of being barbarians in space. The best case of humans being the barbarians for my money is 'The Road Not Taken' by Harry Turtledove. It's available online and good reading so I won't spoil it here but it sums up a major point of being a successful barbarian: technology.

     To be a credible threat the barbarians need an edge. The Slavers had psionics. Other races might have highly advanced technology but lack developed space transportation systems (maybe they just like things at home.) I'm thinking about the Golden Age version of the Kryptonians here. Highly advanced and superhuman specimens who had no interest in space travel because they had it so good. If another race made contact and the planet didn't explode the galaxy would be under a Kryptonian flag.

     In some cases warrior spirit or raw courage gives the barbarians their edge. I'm not so sure these will out against laser rifles and battle armor when you have swords and chainmail. Poul Anderson managed to pull it off in The High Crusade, then again he was Poul Anderson! May others have claimed humans are a unique mixture of technology and primitive urges and a force to be reckoned with. That depends on the rest of the galaxy. Any race that ascended to the top of the food chain must be pretty dangerous though and in a race full of dangerous aliens I doubt anyone would become so evolved they would forget their bloody bloody past. Some cultures might outlaw war. This may not be a stable state of affairs. Take out enough of their ships and conquesr enough of their worlds and you might see what high tech really means.

     Sometimes the edge is not a strength the barabarians have but a weakness the 'civilized' galaxy has. GDW's Imperium had just grown too big to pay attention to those upstart Terrans until it was far too late (we also bred like rats.) Being preoccupied cost Great Britain the War of 1812 (or at least let the Americans survive it.) (in such stories the civilized galaxy is commonly described as being "decadent")

     Finally technology might not be everything. Perhaps energy weapons seem superior to slug throwers but just are not worth the extra cost, training time, and maintenance. So the troops with slug throwers will win the war even if they loses some initial battles.

     The most dangerous thing that any so-called barbarians can do is not attack or flank his enemy or torture the prisoners of a hundred worlds though. The most dangerous thing they can do is learn. That might be all the advantage they need.

From WAR AND HONOR by Rob Garitta (2016)

(Poul Anderson does his best to make a plausible way that Space Barbarians can come about, along with a few ideas of their characteristics)

In his state, he needed half a minute to figure out how the sliding latch, cast in the form of a monster's head, was operated. He flung the door open and stared down the projection cone of a blaster.

The weapon was not of any make he recognized. However, there was no doubt as to its nature. Flandry sighed, attempted to relax, and considered the guard who held it.

The guard gestured him back, unslung a horn from his shoulder, and blew a howling blast. That was pure flamboyancy; anyone who could build or buy spaceships would have intercoms installed. Old customs often lingered, though, especially when a people acquired modern technology overnight.

Which too many have done, Flandry reflected with grimness. One would have been too many, and as is—

Outside the Empire, knowledge faded swiftly away. Yet there had been sporadic contact with dwellers in the wilderness. Merchant adventurers had searched widely about in olden days, and not always been scrupulous about what they sold. In this way and that, individual natives had wangled passage to advanced planets, and sometimes brought back information of a revolutionizing sort. Often this got passed on to other societies.

And so, here and there, cultures arose that possessed things like starships and nuclear weapons, and played ancient games with these new toys. Barbarian raiders had fearfully harried about during the Troubles. In the long run, the practice of hiring rival barbarians as mercenaries against them only worsened matters. After the Empire brought the Pax, it soon established lethal discouragements of raids and attempts at conquest within its sphere. The marches lay long quiet. But now the Empire was in a bad way, it relied ever more on nonhuman hireling fighters, its grip upon the border stars was slipping . . . word got around, and latter-day buccaneers began to venture forth. . . .

Barbarians could be bought off, or played off against each other, or cowed by an occasional punitive expedition—most of the time. But if ever somebody among them formed a powerful coalition, and saw an opportunity—vae victis! (Woe to the conquered) Even if the Imperialists broke him, the harm he did first would be catastrophic. Vae victoris! (Woe to the conqueror)

"You must have a small empire of your own by now," Flandry said.

"Aye, though not small. The gods who forged our destiny saw to it that our ancestors did not learn the secrets of power from humans, who might afterward have paid heed to us and tried to stop our growth. It was others who came to our world and started the great change."

Flandry nodded his weary head. The historical pattern was time-worn; Terra herself had been through it, over and over, long before her children departed for the stars. By way of exploration, trade, missionary effort, or whatever, a culture met another which was technologically behind it. If the latter had sufficient strength to survive the encounter, it gained knowledge of the foreigner's tricks and tactics while losing awe of him. Perhaps in the end it overcame him.

The gap between, say, a preindustrial Iron Age and an assembly of modern machines was enormous. It was not uncrossable. Basic equipment could be acquired, in exchange for natural resources or the like. Educations could be gotten. Once a class of engineers and applied scientists was in existence, progress could be made at home; if everything worked out right, it would accelerate like a landslide. After all, when you knew more or less how to build something, and had an entire, largely unplundered planet to draw on, your industrial base would soon suffice for most purposes. Presently you would have an entire planetary system to draw on.

It wasn't necessary to educate whole populations. Automated machinery did the bulk of the work. Peasants with hoes and sickles might well toil in sight of a spacefield for generations after it had come into being. In fact, the ruling class might consider extensive schooling undesirable, particularly among nationalities which its own had conquered.

New instrumentalities—old, fierce ways—

After a time he was conducted to Cerdic's cabin. The place had a number of ethnic touches, such as a huge pair of tusks displayed on a bulkhead between shields and swords, animal skins on the deck, and a grotesque idol in one corner. Flandry wondered if they were there merely because they were expected. Other furniture included a desk with infotrieve and computer terminal, bookrolls and a reader for them, a holoscreen, and, yes, a number of codex volumes bearing Anglic titles. The prince occupied an Imperial-made lounger, too. Jewelry glittered across his massive breast.

"I told you before, I have been in the Empire, on Terra's very self; and I have studied deeply, aided by data retrieval systems, the works of your own sociologists, and of nonhumans who have an outside view of your ways. I know the Empire—its self-seeking politicians and self-indulgent masses, corruption, intrigue, morality and sense of duty rotten to the heart, decline of art into craft and science into dogma, strength sapped by a despair too pervasive for you to realize what it is—aye, aye. You were a great race once, you humans; you were among the first who aspired to the stars. But that was long ago."

The accusation was oversimplified, probably disingenuous. Yet enough truth was in it to touch a nerve. Cerdic's voice rose: "The time has waxed ready for the young peoples, in their strength and courage and hopefulness, to set themselves free, burn away the decayed mass of the Empire and give the universe something that can grow!"

Only, thought Flandry, first comes the Long Night. It begins with a pyrotechnic sunset across thousands of worlds, which billions of sentient beings will not see because they will be part of the flames. It deepens with famine, plague, more war, more destruction of what the centuries have built, until at last the wild folk howl in our temples—save where a myriad petty tyrants hold dreary court among the shards. To say nothing of an end to good music and high cuisine, taste in clothes and taste in women and conversation as a fine art.

The Scothan domain was less unmanageable. It had conquered some hundred planetary systems outright, but for the most was content to exact tribute from these, in the form of raw materials, manufactured goods, or specialized labor. It dominated everything else within that space. It had made client states of several chosen societies, helping them start their own industrial revolutions and their own enforced unifications of their species. Under Penda, the coalition had grown sufficiently confident to plan war on the Empire.

The objective was not simple plunder, albeit wealth did beckon. Goods could be produced at home without the risks of battle. Nor was it merely territorial aggrandizement. That could be more safely carried on by discovering new worlds off in the wilderness, whose inhabitants weren't able to fight back. Nevertheless, honest toil could never in hundreds of years yield what a victory would bring in overnight. And planets that Scothan or human could colonize were spread thinly indeed among the suns; long searches were necessary to find them, and then generations of struggle and sacrifice were usually needed to make them altogether fit. Terra had already made the investment.

Below and beyond these practical calculations were what Flandry saw as irrationalities and recognized as the true driving forces. Scotha—Scothan society, in the form it had taken—needed war and conquest. The great required outlets for ambition, that their names might match or outshine the forefathers'. Lesser folk wanted a chance to better their lot, a chance that the aristocratic, anti-commercial order at home could not offer them without undermining itself. Glory was a fetish, and scant glory remained to be won in the barbarian regions. Sheer adventurousness clamored, and that darker longing for submergence of self which humankind had also known, too often, too well. The needs, the drives came together and took the shape of crusading fervor, a sense of holy racial destiny.

     She halted before him. Tapestries on the walls behind her depicted former triumphs. "Proud Scotha lies fallen, in wreck and misery," she said.
     "Be happy for that," Flandry replied tonelessly.
     A slim hand touched a horn. "What?"

He thought a lecture might calm her, for sure it was that she was overwrought to the edge of endurance. "Barbarian conquests never last," he said. "Barbarians have to become civilized first, before they are fit to rule a civilization.

"And Scothania had not gone through that stage. I knew almost from the beginning that it had gone straight from barbarism to decadence. Its much-vaunted honesty was its undoing. By self-righteously denying the possibility of dishonor in its own society, it left that society ignorant, uninoculated, helpless against the infection. I never believed the germ was not present. Scothans are much too humanlike. But they made the mistake of taking their hypocrisy at face value.

"Most of my work amounted just to pointing out to their key males the rewards of treachery. If they'd been truly honest, I'd have died at the first suggestion. Instead, they wanted to hear more. They found they didn't object to bribery, blackmail, betrayal, anything that seemed to be to their private advantages. Most Terrans would have seen deeper, would have wondered if the despised slave was talking to others along the same lines, would have recollected the old saying that two can play at the same game … and so can three, four, any number, till the game becomes unstable and somebody at last kicks the board over.

"Don't mourn for lost honor, Gunli. It never was there."

From TIGER BY THE TAIL by Poul Anderson (1951)

Barbarians you want, barbarians you get. My last post left itself open to a threadjacking, and the commenters were quick to oblige. Barbarian hordes 1, temperate and indecisive, 0.

First of all, what do we mean by 'barbarians?' There turns out to be more than one definition. In comments on the last post I used it in a quasi-technical sense to mean nomadic or semi-nomadic peoples who lived on the fringes of the agrarian age world, and periodically invaded and laid it waste, or so the 'civilized' survivors claimed. But there turn out to be two other relevant definitions, at least.

A second meaning is gross violators of civilized norms, a sense of the word in which the last century produced more and worse barbarians than any before it. This is relevant to conflict because it gave us World War II, enough said.

In the beginning the word means simply people who did not speak Greek, and applied equally to Egyptians and Thracians. The late Romans applied it to all those people who made border security difficult and finally impossible, and whom the Romans viewed, well, barbarians.

In the popular culture this image comes right down, via Gibbon, to Conan the Barbarian. Because from Tacitus on, the 'barbarians' were seen not just as savages but also at times Noble Savages, free of the constraints and artifices of urban civilization. This third meaning — essentially 'barbarian' as a trope — is the one that concerns Romance, so that is the one I will concentrate on here.

This is why I set aside 'barbarian' in the sense of civilization gone bad. No matter now much a rogue state traps itself out like a heavy metal band, if you are filing weekly reports of how many people you massacred, you are not a 'barbarian' in the sense that Conan is.

(Having said that, I admit a Hollywood tendency to conflate 'barbarian' and 'totalitarian' elements that would hardly go together in real life — think of the original Klingons on Trek TOS.)

I will say a bit more, though, about the sense of 'barbarians' as warlike nomadic peoples, by quoting another eminent 18th century Briton, Adam Smith:

A nation of hunters can never be formidable to the civilized nations in their neighbourhood. A nation of shepherds may. Nothing can be more contemptible than an Indian war in North America. Nothing, on the contrary, can be more dreadful than Tartar invasion has frequently been in Asia.

From my 'Murrican perspective the likes of Andrew Jackson, not to mention George C. Custer, could have a word or two about this, but on the grand strategic level Smith is right. By sometime around 1700 the First Nations lost any prospect of stopping the European incursion. There just weren't enough of them. Even if they had learned to be shepherds, or cowhands, gunpowder had closed that window of opportunity. Compare to the fact that the Norse — Vikings, no less, the scourge of Europe for 300 years — found the local Skraelings more than they wanted to deal with.

In any case, nomadic peoples got into the history books as 'barbarians' because their ordinary way of life made most of the adult male population warriors. There's no obvious futuristic counterpart. People who have spaceships have a huge advantage over people who don't, but the advantage is in mobility, not fighting as such (other than the ability to throw kinetics).

This does offer a tempting analogy to the Vikings, and the rather similar Homeric sea rovers who helped finish off Mycenaean Greece. Seamanship provides no inherent advantage in a fight on land, though a ship's crew is already a cohesive unit, a big advantage over hastily assembled militia. But the raiders' advantage in actual fighting came more from practice than from their previous way of life.

Hastening a bit through Step Two, here is a scenario, as hackneyed as it deserves to be. The Empire is collapsing. This is actually one of the easier pieces of space opera to justify — just combine post-Apollo funk with the real estate bubble, and scale up. It would be the least of surprises if a period of spectacular space expansion were followed by retrenchment, and when Earth sneezes the outposts get pneumonia.

A 'pre-collapse' could be developing in the Back of Beyond even as the Empire is still growing. As in a classic bubble, sound enterprises — colonies, mines, whatever — give way to bubblicious ones, local shortages and crises develop, and law and order can begin to fray. This can go on for a long time before anyone on Earth really grasps the implications. (When they do grasp the implications is when collapse goes into high gear.)

A scavenger subculture plausibly develops, starting with surplus equipment sold for scrap prices and moving on to equipment that has been abandoned outright.

Scavenging permits some classic mining tropes that otherwise are hard to justify. The problem with mother lodes and claim jumping in space has always been that if you can reach one mother lode in the vastness of space you can probably reach many others. But there are only so many abandoned space stations to go around.

The next step, for some scavengers, will be not waiting for abandonment. If a struggling colony cannot defend its orbital station it is yours to salvage.

Really this is just Mad Max with spaceships instead of bikes, and the reason it works is that it doesn't really need to work — the scavenger subculture does not need to be a sustainable way of life. It is, after all, part of a collapse process. The Homeric sackers of cities ran out of cities to sack, except in Egypt where they ran into Rameses III. The scavengers will, in time, run out of stuff to scavenge.

In the meanwhile some of them might learn to do more with less, learning to maintain a high techlevel with a much smaller population base — replicators, nanotech, whatever — while others evolve from scavengers (and sometimes raiders) to traders. So the scavenger subculture has its positive side as well, and best of all it gives you three classic SF tropes for the price of one.

Are the scavengers 'barbarians?' Obviously not in the narrow historical sense of being Eurasian steppe nomads, but their way of life implies a sort of nomadism while it lasts. Some may well qualify as 'barbarians' in the moral sense, the worst of them robbing struggling habs and colonies of their means of survival.

And even the best of them might be 'barbarians' in their disconnection from large formal institutions. Their progenitors worked on contract for large firms or other institutions; later they are working just to keep going, sometimes trading, sometimes raiding, mostly scrounging and patching.

For practical purposes they will pretty much do.

There are variations on this theme. As commenters have suggested, parts of a space economy could slide into decline and collapse while the rest of it thrives — rustbelt worlds of declining industries. And we see in the present day world that world trade interests find it cheaper to pay off the occasional Somali businessman than to pay for a massive naval mobilization to suppress piracy.

Like the Wild West, or the great age of Caribbean piracy, or the terrible and grand 12th century BC that Homer sang, the era of scavengers will not last long, not in historical terms (though it might persist for decades). But it will cast a long shadow as a formative experience of the new, rising worlds.

Sort of hard to resist, isn't it? These tropes do exist for a reason ...

From BARBARIANS IN SPAAACE !!! - PART II by Rick Robinson (2010)

(ed note: Miranid of the Farla empire has just finished explaining to Henlo why conventional theory holds that a decisive interstellar war is impossible. Now he explains the sneaky trick they are going to do in order to avoid conventional theory and destroy the upstart barbarian Vilk empire.)

"Our barbarian friends have another weakness, which we have up to this point not been able to utilize without compromising its existence. I 've carefully saved it until now, and they have considerately not discovered it within themselves."

"The Vilks, of course, were able to make war quite successfully. Since they were operating as a horde of mobile independent principalities, and since they were after loot and glory only, they were never forced to gain what civilized nations would term 'victory', or 'conquest.'"

"They were reapers, harvesting the same field again and again, and gradually extending their boarders. They had no time for the re-education of subject peoples to their own ideals or patriotic causes -- a fact further implemented by their total lack of such civilized appurtenances. They merely informed their vassals that they had become the property of whatever Vilk it happened to be, and levied tribute accordingly. They left it to the natural fertility of the Vilk soldier to gradually erase all traces of independent nationality among such nations as could interbreed, and to the natural inertia of generations of slavery among such as could not."

"The result has been the gradual accumulation, in Vilk ranks, of a number of Vilks who are not Vilks."

Miranid seemed anxious to stress the point.

"And these Vilks may be good, barbarian Vilks like all the rest of them. But some of them inevitably feel that their particular kind of Vilk is better fitted to rule the communal roost."

"A situation, you will agree, which does not apply among such civilized communities as Farla, which may have its internal dissensions, but no special uniforms of hide-color, limb-distribution, or digital anomalies around which infra-nationalistic sentiments may be rallied."

Miranid stabbed the chart with his dividers. "We will slice here, here, and here, with most of our lighter units supported by some heavier groups. You and I, Henlo, will take the remainder of the main fleet and spit right through to Vilkai, where we will crown some highly un-Vilkish Vilk king of the Vilks, and then leave him to perish."

"The entire sorry mess will slash itself to suicide in the petty nationalistic squabbles which are sure to follow the precedent we set them. We will be enabled to do so quite easily by the allies which our housewifely intelligence corps have neatly suborned for us."

From SHADOW ON THE STARS by Algis Budrys (1954)

"I iz more cunnin' than a grot an' more killy than a dread, da boyz dat follow me can't be beat. [...] I'm Warlord Ghazghkull Mag Uruk Thraka an' I speak wiv da word of da gods. We iz gonna stomp da 'ooniverse flat an' kill anyfing that fights back. We iz gonna do this coz' we're Orks an' we was made ta fight an' win!"Graffiti found on a wrecked Warhound Titan at Westerlie, Piscina V, Warhammer 40,000

They come sweeping down from the mountains like an avalanche, or surging from the deep forest like a tide of vermin. They come from across the sea in their dragon-prowed ships, or storming from the forsaken wastes that no other men can dwell in. They come to Rape, Pillage, and Burn, howling like death itself, and leave only destruction and despair in their wake. They waylay travelers, ransack peasant villages, and even lay siege to the bastions of civilization. They take only what plunder and slaves they can carry, and torch and butcher the rest.

The third standard fantasy government alongside The Empire and The Kingdom, The Horde is a large group of barbaric or beastly warriors bound solely through either tribal ties (if disorganized) or the will of the Evil Overlord (if organized). Like the Proud Warrior Race Guy, they value strength above all else, but are usually not as honorable. Their leader is usually the strongest, toughest, and/or most vicious or cunning of the group, often because the fastest way to advance through the ranks is via Klingon Promotion.

Human Hordes will resemble the Vikings, Mongols, Huns, and other so-called "Barbarian" tribes of history. The Horde is also the most common depiction of Orcs, regardless of any other differences. Any "sub-human" or monstrous race will do, though, be they Goblins, Lizard Folk, or Beastmen — a coalition is even possible since evil is an equal opportunity employer. In some settings The Legions of Hell or The Undead may serve as The Horde. In a pinch you could even have large bandit gangs filling this role.

A popular convention is for the horde to originate from the east, with the west portrayed as the civilized society that is being overrun.

Often part of the Fantasy Axis of Evil. Compare The Usual Adversaries and the Horde of Alien Locusts.

(ed note: see TV Trope page for list of examples)

Other Thoughts

Can Galactic Empires Exist?


1. Administration Would Be Unmanageable

The larger an organization, the more difficult it is to run. Top leadership can’t manage everything, so they delegate authority to lieutenants, who in turn delegate further. Every level adds another delay in communication as orders and directives are passed from person to person. Every person in the chain of command adds another chance for someone to make a mistake, and that’s assuming everyone is playing by the rules. The larger an organization, the more chances people have to hide corruption...

...Consider the European Union. As an organization, the EU has its pros and cons, but even the most ardent Euro-supporter won’t deny how unbelievably complicated the whole thing is. With 28 member states, many of which don’t even share a language, anything important takes a long time to resolve. Even something as simple as rescuing shipwrecked refugees is a huge endeavor. Now consider that the EU countries represent most of one small continent on one planet.

Scale that up to an entire planet, then dozens of planets, if not hundreds, and you see the problem. Any such entity would have to juggle a myriad of different, possibly competing interests. At first, this might not seem so bad. The residents of Alpha Centauri III are convinced the space government should invest more in asteroid-mining subsidies, but Epsilon Indi IV is strongly opposed. Solve the disagreement, and you’re golden, right? Not so fast. Can you imagine anyone talking about the people of Earth as a single, united group? When have the people of Earth agreed on anything? Unless it is recently settled, every other planet in your space government will have the same problem.

This is all assuming your setting even has the technology to sustain regular contact between scattered worlds. Empires survive on communication; otherwise they’re impossible to coordinate. There’s a reason so many empires of the past are known for their long lasting roads.

How to Solve it

First, make sure your setting has instantaneous, or near instantaneous, communication. Even if it’s not available to the general public, leaders should be able to speak to each other without delay. Once that’s done, you might introduce a special ability that allows the leaders of your empire to keep everything running despite all the layers of bureaucracy. If it’s a democracy, consider a neural implant that allows representatives to get through endless debates at lightning speed. That would be excellent fodder for a story, as well. Your character wants to join parliament to serve their world but isn’t sure they can bring themselves to give up full autonomy of their thoughts.

Another option is to have one center of power in your empire. The homeworld or seat of conquest dictates the actions of everyone else. That way it doesn’t matter what people on other planets think. This works best for young empires, as it’s not a very stable form of government, but it can easily work long enough for your story.

(ed note: it is somewhat unfair to present counter-comment without allowing rebuttal, so take the comments under advisement.)

Alistair Young comments:

     (This) is mostly a problem if you are trying to use centralized executive hierarchies which then create ensuing bottlenecks, and/or are determined to micromanage the peripheries from the metropole. Granted, tight hierarchies are the governance form most in accord with the instincts of shaved apes, but if you're going to try and run a galactic empire on shaved-ape instincts, you have more problems than administration...
     I am also deeply amused that the author of the original article seems to think the solution to this problem is Centralize II: Manage Harder. Has that trick ever worked?

Rick Stump comments:

     His Solution: Instantaneous communications and really centralized government. Maybe implants so debates are superfast.

     Why this is wrong: In Real Life the planet Earth has had a few empires that were larger than the EU and ran quite smoothly, thank you. The Spanish Empire controlled more than 1/8th of the world's land in the 16th Century and was much more efficient than the Black Legend would have you believe. The Achaemenid Empire covered 6% of the world and controlled an incredible 44% of the world's population in the 6th Century B.C! The Achaemenids lasted 220 years and their empire was son efficient and stable that their core concepts have been copied by other empires throughout history.
     All without instantaneous communications.
     The key is de-centralization. As a matter of fact, the entire point of the traditional monarchy/aristocracy system so familiar in Europe, Asia, etc. is that it is very good at generating efficient leadership hierarchies at the small, medium, large, and gigantic levels. Local issues are dealt with by local rulers (barons) and as issues become larger and more complicated higher levels of authority, many of which are also local, kick in. There may even be a system, group, etc. to provide oversight.
     In a fair number of the largest pre-modern empires issues as serious as wars would be dealt with and settled before the central authority even knew that they had existed. And yet, from the Persians to the Mongols to the British, there was no real weakening of the ultimate authority of the central ruler.
     And the dire need for fast communications is also a little off. Look at the longest-surviving corporate (in the older meaning of the word, 'formal group activity') human endeavor — the Catholic Church. The Church uses a structure akin to the traditional feudal one (or vice-versa) and uses a concept called Subsidiarity to guide how things work: Subsidiarity boils down to 'make all decisions as far down the hierarchy and as locally as possible'. Regions of the Church cut of from Rome for years, even decades, not only survived but flourished during lack communications but had very little difficulty in submitting to Rome once contact was reestablished.
     These reasons are why so many Space Operas have barons and kings!

3. Warfare Would Be Impractical

Most space-opera stories include some interstellar war or at least the threat of it, which makes sense. War is a great source of conflict and an exciting way for authors to show off their cool scifi tech. It’s unfortunate, then, that interstellar civilizations have little reason to fight one another...

Taking over a planet through military invasion, another staple of the genre, would be incredibly difficult. The logistics alone are staggering. Just invading the six beaches at Normandy took more than 150,000 troops. Scaling that up to an entire planet would require transporting millions, possibly billions, of soldiers across space. Then factor in how destructive science-fiction weapons can be, and you have a situation where invaders would have to devote massive amounts of resources to an attack that’s likely to destroy the very target they hoped to capture.

More pressing than the how, though, is the why. What reason would interstellar civilizations have for going to war with one another? At their heart, most wars are fought because one or more groups believe they can gain something material from the fighting. But what is there to gain in interstellar war? It’s unlikely to be resources. Even in settings with lots of inhabited planets, there are bound to be even more uninhabited ones. Almost any raw material we might need can be found in abundance just within our own solar system. Anyone with faster-than-light (FTL) capabilities could easily harvest whatever they need without having to fight for it.

What about food or livable real estate? You can’t find those on the barren rock of Mars. Surely that would be worth fighting over. Not really, because any species that can cross interstellar distances has already mastered living in space. That means they can create whatever food or breathables they need on their own. Why go to all the trouble of fighting another space nation over something you can easily make yourself?

How to Solve it

An easy option is to borrow from the Culture series. In those books, war is no longer a necessity but something a handful of species engage in out of habit. It doesn’t gain them anything, but they do it because that’s how they’ve always done things. In this type of setting, war is a tragic farce.* The only heroic acts to be had are in service of ending a pointless conflict.

Another option is to fudge your setting’s technology so that living in space long term simply isn’t viable. Maybe they never solved the problem of bone marrow loss or figured out how to protect people from long-term exposure to cosmic rays. In either scenario, it’s still possible to cross the vast distances of space on a good FTL drive, but actually living in space isn’t an option. At that point, invading another inhabited planet to set up a colony might seem like a good idea.

Rick Stump comments:

     His Solution: Copy Iain Banks or have little to space in your space opera.

     Why this is wrong and it bugs me: First, a lot of war is fought at extreme ranges with targets represented as dots on a screen now. Battle robots have been in use since the Vietnam War!
Yes, really. The Aegis System uses what are essentially defensive battle robots.
     Now, I don't know about you, but I have noticed a few conflicts over the past few decades even though a ton of combat is really remote and very abstract with things like cruise missiles, UAVs, etc.
Note: The Russian flyovers of an American ship amused me, but the pearl-clutching over 'attack runs!' amused me more. The pilots were letting the ship see the planes weren't armed. In contemporary combat a plane attacking a ship wouldn't ever be in sight of the ship — they would fire ASMs for miles and miles away.
     So vast distances, robots in battles, dots on a screen — none of that even makes sense as an objection to war.

     As far as taking over a planet, that depends. The idea of militarily attacking a planet being impossible and someone exploiting that assumption is a huge plot point in the book Dorsai!, for example.
     As for how you could do it in at least on fictional setting with relatively low number of troops and without glassing cities, I wrote up a little something on that topic about, oh, 14 years ago. In the end it can take a lot fewer troops than you think to secure a nation and that would be true of a planet, too.
For example, in 2003 the population of Iraq was about 23 million people and they had an army of about 375,000 troops. The nation was seized by about 380,000 troops in about 40 days. Not 'totally pacified', but 'the previous government and military were effectively removed and key positions were controlled by invaders'.
     Personally, I don't think the ability or of invaders to conquer a planet matters as much as the fact that if an outside for can project enough force to be capable of at least some orbital bombardment a planet can be no less than isolated and in effect blackmailed into surrender. In short, if you can annihilate entire cities at a time with rocks a planet is going to have to win or lose in orbit.

     As for the idea that abundant resources will mean the end of war?
     Wars are, yes, sometimes fought over resources. But more often they are not. Ideology, religion, self-determination, revenge, and other factors are causes for war. The Great Siege of Malta was not about resources; the Balkans Wars of the 1990's were about groups of killing killing and dying to become part of smaller, weaker, poorer nations. There are very literally hundreds of real life examples that show than many wars, especially high-intensity ones, are not about resources.

4. Trade Would Be Unnecessary

Trade binds nations, or even groups of nations, together. Without strong economic ties, there’s little reason to remain part of a large group. The modern world is awash in trade, so it’s only natural to assume that any interstellar empire worth the name would be as well. Unfortunately, this might not be the case.

Trade is all about efficiency. If the UK produces tea for $100 a pound, and Canada produces the same tea for $150 a pound, it makes sense for Canada to import tea from the UK. Things get more complicated when you consider the cost of transportation. If it costs $75 dollars per pound to ship tea across the Atlantic, then it no longer makes sense for Canada to import from the UK.

Now, consider the cost of shipping goods across interstellar distances. That’ll add a lot of overhead. Even in really high-tech settings, it’s difficult to imagine spaceships cheap enough to make interstellar trade viable. Much easier to produce whatever a planet needs locally. Raw materials are unlikely to be profitable either, considering the vast stores that exist within just the Sol system. Using that up would require a scale of technology most authors aren’t interested in.

Of course, there is another kind of trade. Sometimes, people will trade for something because they are incapable of making it themselves. For a long time, if you wanted porcelain of decent quality, you needed to trade with China. However, in the modern age and beyond, that kind of monopoly is unlikely to last. Reverse engineering is much easier than it used to be.

How to Solve it

One option is to create new resources and then make them rare. While sending freighters across the Milky Way to pick up a load of iron ingots would be a huge waste, the same trip for cheap antimatter might be worth it. If only a handful of planets have access to the exotic matter that makes FTL possible, that would do a lot to facilitate trade.

You might also embrace an economy of scale. Trade gets cheaper the more you can transport per trip. Massive super-freighters, some the size of small moons, would do a lot to bring the shipping and handling fees down. This might even lead to entire planets with economies specialized in creating a single type of good for export.

Finally, you could introduce a strong reason for not duplicating off-world technology. Aliens might come to Earth with wondrous devices to trade, and their main condition would be that no one ever attempt to reverse engineer the new ET-Phone. Terrified of offending their new benefactors, the Earth government cracks down hard on anyone trying to pry open the alien tech to see how it works.

Rick Stump comments:

     His Solution: Rare materials and economies of scale.

     Why this bugs me: His 'obstacle' and his 'solution' are called 'contemporary economics'. The Silk Road was hideous expensive — yet it ran for 1,500+ years! Why? Rare materials.
     Right now the United States is in a manufacturing boom (yes, really) yet a majority of consumer goods are made in other locations and shipped large distances to be sold in the US. Why? Economies of scale.
     Another factor he missed: art. Africa, Europe, South and Central America, Asia, and the Indian sub-continent have multiple film and music production centers, some of extremely high quality. Yet American movies and music are imported to these nations both draining cash from local economies and stunting local businesses. Why? Perceived artistic merit.
     To me this entry isn't about an obstacle it is just 'try to make your economics at least semi-realistic'.

5. Energy Production Would Outmode All Conflict

It’s amazing how many of our world’s problems come back to energy. For example, we have technology to remove salt from seawater or even condense water out of the air. But we still have water shortages, because both those technologies are energy intensive, and our current methods for generating energy are limited. Fossil fuels give off greenhouse gasses. Nuclear fission can be dangerous, and it creates radioactive waste that we have no good way to store. Solar power has a lot of potential, but as of this writing, it isn’t efficient enough to fill all our needs.

Faster-than-light travel, if it’s possible at all, will require vast amounts of energy. Physicists still debate exactly how much, but it’s a very high number. Perhaps a mind-bogglingly high number.

Any interstellar civilization that has already cracked the problem of FTL travel means they are capable of producing energy far beyond anything on Earth. How they do it isn’t really that important: Nuclear fusion, building a Dyson Sphere around the sun, harvesting Hawking radiation from a black hole, or a host of other options, any of it can work in your setting. The important thing is what else people would do with all that energy.

Even without Star Trek’s replicator, production capability would go through the roof. Not just synthetic production, either. Food takes energy to grow, but energy isn’t a problem any longer. Unlimited nitrogen fixing and fusion-powered grow lamps would vastly improve world food production. Meanwhile, the cost of making luxury goods would plummet. Trade and warfare become things of the past, and most meaningful conflict would cease to be. That’s great for anyone living in such a setting but not the writer trying to tell a story.

How to Solve it

The key is to somehow lower the threshold of energy required for FTL travel. Perhaps in the future, an incredibly brilliant physicist discovers a trick that allows for hopping across lightyears without all the mass-energy expenditure of today’s theories. That allows for spaceships to zip between your worlds without creating the technology that would solve all their problems.

Alistair Young comments:

     Ah, here we have the touching naivete of the human-nature idealist, in which it is presumed that all warfare is a product of resource conflicts, a view more homo economicus than anything my lot ever came up with. Shaved apes, remember — we're addicted, as a species, to dominance games, relative status hierarchies, and conformity enforcement. It's hard-coded in the meat.
     (As evidence I submit this: I'm a consensualist , which is to say, a member of the movement whose prime and near-only tenet is not forcing other people to do anything . Even if you count in all the other types of libertarians — splitters! — to boost our numbers, we're a pariah group for sayin' so, and one that is barely noticeable in the statistics in the US and lost in the noise in the world as a whole.
     That's how popular and universal "forcing Those People to do it The Right [our] Way" is, as a meme-component.)
     Hand a human community unlimited energy, and they'll use it to beat the crap out of their neighbors for doing It wrong, whatever It is. Especially if it's an election year and someone's personal status in the tribe is at stake.

Rick Stump comments:

     The writer essentially just repeats obstacles #3 and #4.

     His Solution: Don't do that.

     Why this bugs me: It is just a repeat of items #3 and #4.

Reaction Time

Imperial Boarder

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. 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.

Imperial Sectors

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.


“Yes, but I haven’t your digestion.” Hardin sucked lazily at his cigar. He had long since stopped wishing for the mild Vegan tobacco of his youth. Those days when the planet, Terminus, had trafficked with every part of the Galactic Empire belonged in the limbo to which all Good Old Days go. Toward the same limbo where the Galactic Empire was heading. He wondered who the new emperor was — or if there was a new emperor at all — or any Empire. Space! For thirty years now, since the breakup of communications here at the edge of the Galaxy, the whole universe of Terminus had consisted of itself and the four surrounding kingdoms.

How the mighty had fallen! Kingdoms! They were prefects in the old days, all part of the same province, which in turn had been part of a sector, which in turn had been part of a quadrant, which in turn had been part of the all-embracing Galactic Empire. And now that the Empire had lost control over the farther reaches of the Galaxy, these little splinter groups of planets became kingdoms — with comic-opera kings and nobles, and petty, meaningless wars, and a life that went on pathetically among the ruins.

From FOUNDATION by Isaac Asimov (1951)

I was fooling around with trying to mathematically model the borders of empire, with disappointing results. It never really worked that well. I present it for its entertainment value.

This is a first approximation. It makes the simplifying assumption that there will be one Imperial rebellion suppression force sent to deal with a planetary rebellion. If the empire wants to defeat the rebellion on the installment plan, it will obviously will take longer. Perhaps the equation can be run iteratively, feeding in the results of the last equation into the next calculation.

Planet will stay as a member of the empire if:

Ar * K < Ae


  • Ar = maximum strength of rebel army
  • Ae = maximum strength of imperial army
  • K = guaranteed defeat factor. The factor that the strength of the imperial army must exceed the strength of the rebel army in order to ensure the defeat of the rebellion. Offhand I'd say this should be around 3.

The basic idea is that if the imperial army has a three-to-one advantage over the rebel army, the imperials win and the rebel planet stays as part of the empire. If the imperial army is below a three-to-one advantage, the issue is in doubt. If the imperial army has a one-to-three disadvantage the imperials will lose and the rebel planet stays out of the empire.

Maximum Strength Of Rebel Army

Ar = Pt * Pr


  • Pt = Rebel production time (how much time the rebel have before the imperial rebellion suppression force arrives)
  • Pr = Rebel production rate

Depending upon factors elaborated upon below, it could be years before the imperial army shows up over the rebel planet and starts invading. That's how long the rebels have to build their army. The size of the rebel army is simply a function of how much time they have available and how fast they can manufacture military hardware and troops.

Production Time

Pt = (Nt + Ft) - Rt


  • Nt = elapsed time from rebellion start to the arrival of rebellion news at the empire capital (or sector capital). This assumes that news of the rebellion will be sent instantly.
  • Ft = elapsed time from arrival of rebellion news at capital to arrival of imperial army at rebel planet
  • Rt = elapsed time from rebellion start to time when rebels can start building rebel army (i.e., time required for rebels to conquer planet)

The time the rebels have to manufacture their army is the sum of two values.

First is how long it takes word of the rebellion to reach the imperial capital. If your FTL communicator is instantaneous, this will be zero. If your FTL is medium fast it could be weeks. If you have no FTL it could take decades or centuries.

Second is how long it takes the empire to get its act together and get an imperial army to the rebel planet.

But the rebels have to be quick as well. When the rebellion starts, the message will start flying to the imperial capital. The clock is ticking. Every day the rebels waste in their war to take over the planet is one less day they will have to manufacture their army. And if they are still trying to conquer the planet when the imperial army shows up, the rebels are up doo-doo pulsar with no gravity generator.

Rebel Production Rate

Pr = ???

This depends upon industrial capacity of rebel planet, or at least the industrial capacity that survives the rebellion.

Elapsed Time From Rebellion Start To The Arrival Of Rebellion News At The Empire Capital

Nt = Rd / Cr


  • Rd = distance between rebel planet and empire capital (or sector capital)
  • Cr = rate at which interstellar communication travels (hopefully faster than light)

Physics 101 tells you distance equals rate times time. So time equals distance divided by rate.

Elapsed Time From Arrival Of Rebellion News At Capital To Arrival Of Imperial Army At Rebel Planet

Ft = Dt + Gt + (Rd / Er)


  • Er = rate at which imperial army travels
  • Dt = time required for imperial government to come to a decision
  • Gt = time required to gather military forces into the imperial army

This is how long it takes the empire to get its act together.

When word of the rebellion arrives, the Imperial Senate or the Emperor, or whoever is in charge has to make up their mind what to do about it. This takes time.

Secondly, the imperial army has to be assembled from their garrisons or whatever and prepared for the campaign. This takes more time. Especially if the garrisons are on other planets, or if troops have to be levied from member planets.

Finally the imperial army has to travel from the capital to the rebel planet. This is a function of how fast they can travel and how far they have to go.

Maximum Strength Of Imperial Army

Ae = ???

This depends upon how badly the empire wants to keep the rebellion planet in the empire, and what forces are available)

Empires can do math as well. They can calculate the size of Ae required to defeat Ar. But they can also calculate the cost of a task force of size Ae, and compare it to the value of keeping the rebellion planet in the empire. If it is too expensive, the empire might decide to cut its losses and let the rebellion planet go.

Rolling it all up into one big ugly equation, a planet will stay as a member of the empire if:

((((Rd / Cr) + ( (Rd / Er) + Dt + Gt)) - Rt) * Pr) * K < Ae


  • Rd = distance between rebel planet and empire capital
  • Cr = rate at which interstellar communication travels (hopefully faster than light)
  • Er = rate at which imperial army travels
  • Dt = time required for imperial government to come to a decision
  • Gt = time required to gather military forces into the imperial army
  • Rt = elapsed time from rebellion start to time when rebels can start building rebel army
  • Pr = Rebel production rate
  • K = guaranteed defeat factor. The factor that the strength of the imperial army must exceed the strength of the rebel army in order to ensure the defeat of the rebellion. Offhand I'd say this should be around 3.
  • Ae = maximum strength of imperial army

(sub-light) Punitive expeditions would be nearly impossible, hideously expensive, and probably futile: You'd be punishing the grandchildren of a generation that seceded from the Empire, or even a planet that put down the traitors after the message went out. Even a rescue mission might never reach a colony in trouble. A coalition of bureaucrats could always collect the funds for such an expedition, sign the papers certifying that the ships are on the way, and pocket the money ... in sixty years someone might realize what had happened, or not.

Jerry Pournelle

In many respects, the expansion of man into one frontier after another, and its resulting effects on his social and governmental institutions, can be seen as an alter­nating series of instability and stability in the relative efficiency of transportation and communication. A society will expand into a new frontier as its transportation technology allows it to do so, and its expansion is generally limited only by the sophistication of its transport system. However, if communication technology has not kept up with transportation technology, stresses develop between the mother country/capital and the provinces. These stresses are resolved either by a technological advance in communication (the telegraph, for example, ended the possibility of secession by the western territories from the United States), by a severance of ties between the new territory and the home government (the gradual process of colonial independence in the western hemisphere in the 18th and 19th centuries), or the arrival of a new home government generally involving a much higher degree of local autonomy than had previously existed (the Persian system of Satrapies).

Traveller assumes a remote centralized government (referred to in this volume as the Imperium), possessed of great industrial and technological might, but unable, due to the sheer distances and travel times involved, to exert total control at all levels everywhere within its star-spanning realm. On the frontiers, extensive home rule provisions allow planetary populations to choose their own forms of government, raise and maintain armed forces for local security, pass and enforce laws governing local conduct, and regulate (within limits) commerce. Defense of the frontier is mostly provided by local indigenous forces, stiffened by scattered Imperial naval bases manned by small but extremely sophisticated forces. Conflicting local interests often settle their differences by force of arms, with Imperial forces looking quietly the other way, unable to effectively intervene as a police force in any but the most wide-spread of conflicts without jeopardizing their primary mission of the defense of the realm. Only when local conflicts threaten either the security or the economy of the area do Imperial forces take an active hand, and then it is with speed and overwhelming force.

TRAVELLER BOOK 4: MERCENARY by Frank Chadwick (1979)

Bureaucratic Scale


Why, I shall tell you what we are and these are, John Ridenour. We are one more-or-less intelligent species in a universe that produces sophonts as casually as it produces snowflakes. We are not a hair better than our great, greenskinned, gatortailed Merseian rivals, not even considering that they have no hair; we are simply different in looks and language, similar in imperial appetites. The galaxy—what tiny part of it we can ever control—cares not one quantum whether their youthful greed and boldness overcome our wearied satiety and caution. (Which is a thought born of an aging civilization, by the way).

Our existing domain is already too big for us. We don't comprehend it. We can't.

Never mind the estimated four million suns inside our borders (Terran Empire has diameter of 400 light-years, 200 light-year radius). Think just of the approximately one hundred thousand whose planets we do visit, occupy, order about, accept tribute from. Can you visualize the number? A hundred thousand; no more; you could count that high in about seven hours. But can you conjure up before you, in your mind, a wall with a hundred thousand bricks in it: and see all the bricks simultaneously?

Of course not. No human brain can go as high as ten.

Then consider a planet, a world, as big and diverse and old and mysterious as ever Terra was. Can you see the entire planet at once? Can you hope to understand the entire planet?

Next consider a hundred thousand of them.

No wonder Dietrich Steinhauer here is altogether ignorant about Freehold. I myself had never heard of the place before I was asked to take this job. And I am a specialist in worlds and the beings that inhabit them. I should be able to treat them lightly. Did I not, a few years ago, watch the total destruction of one?

Oh, no. Oh, no. The multiple millions of … of everything alive … bury the name Starkad, bury it forever. And yet it was a single living world that perished, a mere single world.

No wonder Imperial Terra let the facts about Freehold lie unheeded in the data banks. Freehold was nothing but an obscure frontier dominion, a unit in the statistics. As long as no complaint was registered worthy of the sector governor's attention, why inquire further? How could one inquire further? Something more urgent is always demanding attention elsewhere. The Navy, the intelligence services, the computers, the decision makers are stretched too ghastly thin across too many stars.

And today, when war ramps loose on Freehold and Imperial marines are dispatched to fight Merseia's Arulian cat's-paws—we still see nothing but a border action. It is most unlikely that anyone at His Majesty's court is more than vaguely aware of what is happening. Certainly our admiral's call for help took long to go through channels: "We're having worse and worse trouble with the hinterland savages. The city people are no use. They don't seem to know either what's going on. Please advise."

And the entire answer that can be given to this appeal thus far is me. One man. Not even a Naval officer—not even a specialist in human cultures—such cannot be gotten, except for tasks elsewhere that look more vital. One civilian xenologist, under contract to investigate, report, and recommend appropriate action. Which counsel may or may not be heeded.

From OUTPOST OF EMPIRE by Poul Anderson (1967)

The larger a government gets, the more bureaucracy it accretes, the easier for things to slip between the cracks, the harder for things to get done.

And that's on Earth. Imagine a galaxy full of inhabited planets, with billions of people on each one, and probably not a Planet of Hats. Even an FTL drive and form of communication would not decrease the disadvantages of scale. Without the communication, difficulties would be increased — massively so if only STL travel is possible.

Worse yet, mix in aliens with their alien thought paths — but it would be impossible even with a wholy human galaxy, or a substantial portion of it, or even a solar system well filled up with inhabitable locations.

Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale, but sometimes, they realize that human government can not reach that far.

Comes up when a Galactic Superpower fails to govern.

This may lead to An Aesop about Pride and how man's reach exceeds his grasp in trying to control such a massive space. Often the cause of Vestigial Empire...IN SPACE!

For lots of examples, click here

From the UNGOVERNABLE GALAXY entry at TV Tropes

Ungovernable Galaxy: A reflection of the truth, long before you get to the size of an entire galaxy, at least when you’re talking about centralizing-hierarchist structures. As they scale up, they start bottlenecking horribly – there’s a reason why most growth patterns matching this structure stall out well before they get to 100 systems. Hell, a large subset of them crash and burn before they reach one planet.

(The exception that proves the rule is the Voniensa Republic, which claims 8,000 systems – but then, not all of those 8,000 are technically “its”, and the Shell is different from the Core, and so forth. That said, they are perhaps the acknowledged masters of making centralizing-hierarchist structures work on this scale, inefficient and kludgy though they are; just because they insist on being primitives doesn’t mean they’re stupid.)

As for the Empire? It was pursuing alternative approaches long before it hit the one-planet level. If you look over here, you’ll see this:

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!

Now, what’s the limiting case of a lattice-structure system?

The adhocracy.

That’s the strategy the Empire is pursuing – a radically decentralized system, with tremendous local autonomy handed out at each level, based around Symbol, Meme, and Mesh.

You’ve got a nice spectacular center – the Imperial Couple, the Senate, the Curia – who do serve a key function as deciders-of-last-resort, but who work very hard to avoid decisions having to reach their level, and whose main function, along with the trappings of office and capital, is to be the Symbol, the gravity well around which all else orbits.

You have the Meme, the idea of empire, the dream that is Rome, the ideology that guides policy. Which works much better as a control mechanism because it doesn’t need a center. Memes replicate. It’s what they do. There is a minor centralizing element inasmuch as the Meme must be tended, mutations pruned, and so forth, but that itself can be distributed.

And you have the Mesh. Not a single, massive, centralized hierarchy, but a whole team of organizations flying in close formation, orbiting the same point but not directly controlled by it, with each one – like flocking birds – correcting and corrected by the others near it. Exchanging information – flowing in to the center, back out to the edge, and around peripheral routes. Local nodes of distributed AI systems make decisions based on local knowledge but following shared ideas, creating global coordination without need for centralization. Everything is disseminated everywhere. Everything checks everything else.

Will it scale to an entire galaxy?

We’ll see.


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)
Imperial Office,
or Rank
of Planets
2Cabinet Minister1001081018
4Royal Magistrate10610,0001014
6Planetary Governor101011010
7Continental Regent1012 108
8Knight1014 106
9Burgess1016 10,000
10Gentry1018 100
11Commoners1020 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!

From "GALACTIC EMPIRES" by Dr. Robert A. Freitas Jr. Ares Magazine No. 16, Winter 1983

The races of man had spread across the spiral arm and toward the great whorl of the central galaxy.

By the year 970 H. C. (Calendar of the Holy Church), date of the last known Empire Census, there were more than 11,000 inhabited planets in the Empire, plus a known 1,700 more on the frontier-and estimates of at least 3,000 more beyond that whose existence was known but not confirmed. How many human beings there were simply could not be estimated.

Vast fleets of starcruisers whispered through the darkness, the fastest of them journeying a hundred light-years every three hundred days.

-but the Empire spanned a thousand light-years. More.

No matter how great the speeds of the starcruisers were, the distances of the galaxy were greater. At the fastest speed known to man it still took more than ten years to cross from one end of known space to the other. And the distance was growing. For every day that passed, 240 light-days were added to the scope of man's known frontiers.

Man was pushing outward in all directions at once, an ever-continuing explosion. For every ship travelling toward the galactic west, there was another headed for the galactic east; and the rate of man's outward growth was twice as fast as anyone could travel.

At the farthest edges of the Empire was the frontier. Beyond that lay unexplored space. Every man that fled into that wilderness dragged the frontier with him. The frontier followed willingly, and after a while, when that particular piece of itself matured, it became a part of the Empire, and the state of mind known as frontier had moved on. Thus, the Empire grew.

Even so, there were places where the Empire was only a dim legend. The further it reached, the more tenuous was its control. There were vast undeveloped areas within its sphere, areas that had simply been overlooked in man's headlong rush outward. Communications followed the trade routes, and there were backwaters in that flow of information.

News traveled via the Empire Mercantile Fleets, synthesized as Oracle tabs. Or via independent traders, synthesized as rumor. It leapfrogged from planet to planet, not according to any kind of system, but by the degree of mercantile importance in which any plan et was held by its immediate neighbors.

Every event was the center of a core of spreading ripples-unevenly growing concentric circles of reaction; like batons, the Oracle tabs were passed from ship to ship, from fleet to fleet, from planet to planet, passed and duplicated and passed again; taking ten, twenty or thirty years to work their way across the Empire. By the time any part of the human race received news from its opposite side, it was no longer news, but history.

The Empire's communications were the best possible, but they weren't good enough.

Control depends upon communication.

Weak communications means weak control, eventually no control at all.

Such was the state of the Empire at the time the skimmers became feasible. The Empire needed them.

They were the ultimate spaceship.

The Empire had always been unwieldy and unmanageable. By the year 970 H.C. it was not so much an empire as a loosely organized confederation. Lip service was paid to the idea of a unified central government for all the races of man, but the Empire was only as strong as its local representative.

Where that representative was only one agent with an Oracle machine and a twice-yearly visit from a trading ship, the Empire was a distant myth. Where that representative was an Imperial Fleet, the Empire was law. And there were all the possible variations in between. Some were just, some weren't.

The Empire passed no laws; they could not guarantee uniform enforcement. Instead, they wrote suggested codes of moral behavior for use by representatives of the Imperial Council. Agents of the Empire were free to apply them - or not apply them - as they saw fit. Or, at least to the degree that they could enforce them.

The Empire maintained few fleets of its own - and these stayed close to home. Instead letters of marque were issued.

Member planets and systems often had their own armadas to police their own territories. Often, those territories consisted of as much volume as those armadas could effectively patrol. Armed with letters of marque, these fleets were automatically acting in the name of the Empire. As agents of such, their duties were what ever their admirals wanted them to be. In return, the badge of the Empire made them - and their control - legal.

The local governments controlled the fleets, and in so doing, they wielded the real power. Some were just; some weren't. The Empire didn't care - as long as they paid their taxes. Most of them did.

In return, they received the benefits of Empire.

In addition to the implied legality of their regimes, they were automatically privy to the vast scientific and cultural library represented by the sum total of humanity. The Empire continually collected and distributed. It functioned as a gigantic clearing house of knowledge, literature, art and music. Member planets disseminated their contributions freely through the system - part of the price they paid for being able to tap the system in return. The exchange was always a bargain: the knowledge of one planet traded for the knowledge of a thousand.

Of course, there was a communications problem.

With eleven thousand inhabited planets (at last known census), that implies eleven thousand local languages. At least.

More than a few of those planets were divided into nations. More than a few of those nations were multi-cultured. Many of those cultures had several different languages - technical, literate, colloquial and argot Plus subdivisions. Not to mention dialects.

So the Empire distributed the Oracle machines, gave them out freely to its member states. The standardized keyboard-and-scanning-plate configuration of the machines was familiar from one end of known space to the other; anyone with access to an Oracle and a translating tab could read information out of any other stasis bite in existence.

It worked. More or less.

The Empire had grown too fast, too far. And it was still growing. The typical growth pattern of mankind. Cancerous.

One way to control an empire is to control the pulsing of its lifeblood - its interstellar commerce, the huge ships that swim between the stars.

Indeed, it was the only way to control the recalcitrant government of a far distant planet - threaten to cut it off from its interstellar brothers, especially those beyond its immediate reach. Expel it from the Empire altogether -

- at which point it becomes fair prey to any armada bearing the Empire insignia. After all, wasn't it a matter of restoring order? And weren't the armadas legal representatives of the Empire itself?

An Empire ship would never attack another Empire ship or planet; that would be a violation of the sacred trust of the Empire. But an attack on an independent ship or government - well, that was something else altogether.

The Empire insignia was a license - but only to be used against those who did not bear it. Neat. Effective.

The Empire held that one trump card, and it was enough. It was the card of mutually recognized legality, an insignia recognized by all mankind and one that indicated its bearer subscribed to a known code of behavior. It was a safe-conduct pass through troubled spaces and a basis upon which any two humans could meet for trade, or news, or simply for the exchange of pleasures. It was the card of the open market - and few would endanger their right to participate in that market by defying the Empire. They feared their neighbors too much.

And the Empire could do things for them that they could not do for themselves - recognition of that fact is the foundation upon which many secure governments are based. As long as a government can do things for the taxpayer that he cannot, or will not, do for himself, then that government is relatively safe.

Let that government stop meeting its obligations to its constituency, and it is in danger. Or let its constituency gain the power to do for itself...

In the year 970 H.C., the Empire held the power - but it was the kind of power that was hard to exercise.

It was the kind of power that was terrifying only in its absence. Men needed the Empire, if only for the continual reassurances it gave them that they were not alone. That somebody or something was standing behind them.

One could not pay homage to a government that might take ten or more years to respond, but at the same time its distant existence was comforting in the same way the existence of the Holy Church of Mankind was. It was one of those eternal institutions that one could measure one's life against. Indeed, sometimes it was only because of those eternal institutions that a life had any meaning at all.

(That the Holy Church had been born with the Empire and had grown with it was more than coincidence. The two were complementary entities, mutually interdependent. Their motives were purported to be dissimilar, but their goals were alike. Both were aligned toward power and control over men.)

The Empire, like the planets it ruled, was of man - made up of men.

And some were just. Some weren't.

Some of them had a vision of what the Empire could be. Some didn't.

The Empire itself was neither just nor unjust. It existed simply to fulfill a purpose - communication between all men; but whenever action was taken in its name, that action reflected the men directing it. If they were just, then so was the Empire. If they were unjust-

The Empire had been a corporation that had grown - a trade corporation that had swelled into a proper government simply because it was there when the time came. It had the tools and the abilities to fill the needs of trade between the stars. It issued its own notes, backed them by its trade, and was unsurprised when they became the standard against which other coinages were measured. Because it was a business, it responded to the wants and needs of those it served. By the time it was two hundred years old, it had become a fair and benevolent government - in fact, if not in name. An other two hundred years and even the name was honored.

The Empire Trading Corporation first, later the Empire Company. Finally just the Empire..

-and then it collapsed.

THE Empire hadn't collapsed overnight, but just how long the collapse had taken and to what extent it had occurred, no one knew.

The collapse of the Empire meant the collapse of organized communications.

A few straggling ships every now and then, some unreliable rumors, and the occasional wisp of years-old radio waves - too many member planets knew too little of what had happened.

But even as the Empire died, it was proving its power. It left as its legacy a universal standard for all men-the Oracle machines and the language.

Interlingua had been the language of trade and the language of science. Without the Empire, it was a dead language - but like a language called Latin known millennia earlier, it continued to be taught and used, first in the hope that the Empire might be resurrected, then later with the realization that the language was now the only link left to the other worlds of men. A man who spoke Interlingua could travel anywhere and survive. He could make his wants known, he could converse and he could trade.

Without the Empire, trade still continued-not on the same vast scale, of course, but between neighboring systems. It was enough to keep the language alive.

Interlingua was also the language of the Oracle machines; they still remained. The cultural heritage of mankind was not lost; it merely lay scattered across the galaxy in a thousand thousand machines and in a million million tabs. It was there for the asking - it needed only a man to reach for it. The knowledge waited for a man to begin the arduous task of once more gathering it all together.

As the years wore on, many of the old habits remained; the Empire insignia was still put on ships of peaceful intention: the traditions continued because there was nothing to replace them with. In some places the conventions broke down; in others, they endured.

From SPACE SKIMMER by David Gerrold (1972)
Swarm intelligence

So the problem is that with centralized control, eventually an empire becomes too huge to manage. In technical terms, centralized control does not scale well.

The solution is to get rid of central control, but does that not mean the resulting chaos can no longer be called an "empire?" 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 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.

Emergent Behavior
Swarm Intelligence
Spontaneous Order

Self-organizing systems don't need managers

Another Way

There's another management style which is called "emergent behavior."  In an emergent system, each individual operates independently of everyone else but acts according to a well-designed set of internal rules which take account of others' behavior.  Consider this description of a termite colony:

The cathedral termite, found in parts of Australia, is capable of creating mounds for the colony well over 10 feet high. Individual cathedral termites are just standard-looking bugs - head, thorax, abdomen, legs, and so on, with a tiny little primitive brain. But when combined with others of its species, the cathedral termite is capable of constructing a huge, complex hive to house the colony. Unlike human building projects, however, there is no foreman, no plan, and it's unlikely that any termite even knows what it is helping to create. [emphasis added]

How is this possible?

The answer lies in the fact that sometimes, a system can provide more complexity than the sum of its parts - leading to what scientists call "emergent behavior."

The behavior of the termite colony as a whole emerges from the individual actions of millions of individual termites.  As with General Motors, no termite possesses enough brain power to understand the termite mound as a whole, but somehow all the jobs get done.  Where's the org chart?  Where are the manuals of policies and procedures?  How do hordes of simple bugs implement such complex behavior?

Hundreds of thousands of spiders collaborated to build a giant web in a Texas state park.  Cooperating to build a shared 200-yard web seems to increase their catch of insects, but if this is true, why aren't cooperative spider colonies more common?

Scientists have researched such issues for many years and a few answers are emerging.  We now know enough about how ants learn enough about what other ants are doing to organize their food gathering efforts extremely efficiently.  You can even download a program which simulates the food-collection part of an ant colony's behavior and experiment with various parameter settings.  We don't yet know enough about the inner workings of an ant's brain to be certain that the ants are using exactly the same food finding rules as the simulation, but the simulated results match up pretty well with what ants are observed to do in the field.

An emergent system is far better at responding to unexpected events than a managed system because it's largely self-organizing.  Ants need a lot of food, so food gathering is the default activity - if an ant isn't doing anything else, it's finding food.  Drop a rock on an ant hill, however, and the ants stop gathering food and scurry around until all their tunnels are fixed.

Do they have a plan for handling natural disasters?  How does each ant know what to do?  Are some ants identified as "first responders?"  It's pretty clear that the ant colony's management structure is both flexible and efficient.

Open Source Software

The open source software movement has given rise to some of the purest examples of long-term emergent behavior extending far beyond the usual limit of 100 people.  In the early 1970's, Richard Stallman of MIT suggested that all software should be free and that software developers ought to work for the sheer love of it.

I have to confess to having been among the many who thought him crazy, but he turned out to be entirely correct.  Many software projects such the Gnu Emacs programmable text editor, the MySQL database, and the Linux operating system are maintained and extended by swarms of intelligent developers who work with each other closely enough to figure out what to do next while exercising their individual skills.

These developers share the overall project vision and collaborate with each other to contribute the bits and pieces which make it work.  The community is held together by a shared vision and by status gained by furthering the vision.  Individuals who have a track record of having good ideas or of developing really good code gain stature and are listened to more attentively than others, just like ants who are able to find food influence others.  An open source project is the purest example of a market-driven meritocracy visible today.

There are tens of thousands of open source projects, most of which are hardly used at all beyond a few devotees, but popular projects have tens or hundreds of thousands of users.  The open source Apache web server is the most popular server in the world.  Its devotees constantly improve it to keep ahead of commercial competition and the price can hardly be beat.


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.

Simple Rules

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:

Not carrying food
Not on pheromone trail
Walk randomly
Lay pheromone
Not carrying food
On pheromone trail
Follow pheromone trail
Lay more pheromone
Reach home without food
On pheromone trail
Turn around
Follow trail in opposite direction
Reach foodPick up food
Turn around
Follow trail in opposite direction
Carrying foodFollow trail
Lay more pheromone
Reach home with foodDeposit food
Turn around
Follow trail in opposite direction

Simplifying Nature

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 foodon food-direction trail, or randomly otherwisehome-direction pheromone
Carrying foodon home-direction trailfood-direction pheromone


Real ants are capable of finding shortest path from a food source to the nest (Beckers, Deneubourg and Goss, 1992; Goss, Aron, Deneubourg and Pasteels, 1989) without using visual cues (Hölldobler and Wilson, 1990). Also, they are capable of adapting to changes in the environment, for example finding a new shortest path once the old one is no longer feasible due to a new obstacle (Beckers, Deneubourg and Goss, 1992; Goss, Aron, Deneubourg and Pasteels, 1989). Consider the following figure in which ants are moving on a straight line which connects a food source to the nest:

It is well-known that the main means used by ants to form and maintain the line is a pheromone trail. Ants deposit a certain amount of pheromone while walking, and each ant probabilistically prefers to follow a direction rich in pheromone rather than a poorer one. This elementary behavior of real ants can be used to explain how they can find the shortest path which reconnects a broken line after the sudden appearance of an unexpected obstacle has interrupted the initial path (see next figure).

In fact, once the obstacle has appeared, those ants which are just in front of the obstacle cannot continue to follow the pheromone trail and therefore they have to choose between turning right or left. In this situation we can expect half the ants to choose to turn right and the other half to turn left. The very same situation can be found on the other side of the obstacle (see next figure).

It is interesting to note that those ants which choose, by chance, the shorter path around the obstacle will more rapidly reconstitute the interrupted pheromone trail compared to those which choose the longer path. Hence, the shorter path will receive a higher amount of pheromone in the time unit and this will in turn cause a higher number of ants to choose the shorter path. Due to this positive feedback (autocatalytic) process, very soon all the ants will choose the shorter path (see next figure).

The most interesting aspect of this autocatalytic process is that finding the shortest path around the obstacle seems to be an emergent property of the interaction between the obstacle shape and ants distributed behavior: Although all ants move at approximately the same speed and deposit a pheromone trail at approximately the same rate, it is a fact that it takes longer to contour obstacles on their longer side than on their shorter side which makes the pheromone trail accumulate quicker on the shorter side. It is the ants preference for higher pheromone trail levels which makes this accumulation still quicker on the shorter path.


Beckers R., Deneubourg J.L. and S. Goss (1992). Trails and U-turns in the selection of the shortest path by the ant Lasius niger. Journal of theoretical biology, 159, 397-415.

Goss. S., Aron. S., Deneubourg J.L. and J.M. Pasteels (1989). Self-organized shortcuts in the Argentine ant. Naturwissenschaften 76, 579-581.

Hölldobler B. and E.O. Wilson (1990). The ants. Springer-Verlag, Berlin.

Civilization Clusters


"Yeah." Donnan smiled rather sadly.’ "Y’know," he remarked, "when I was a kid in my teens, just before the Monwaingi came, I went on a science fiction kick. I must’ve read hundreds of stories where there were races travelling between the stars while humans had barely reached the nearer planets of their own system. But I can’t recall one that ever guessed the truth—the bloody simple obvious truth of the case. Always, if the Galactics noticed us, they were benevolent secret guardians; or not-so-benevolent keepers; or kept strictly hands off. In some stories they did land openly, as the Monwaingi and the rest actually did. But as near as I remember, in the stories this was always a prelude to inviting Earth into the Galactic Federation.

"Hell, why should there be a Federation? Why should anyone give a hoot about us? Couldn’t those writers see how big the universe is?"

—Big indeed. The diameter of this one galaxy is some hundred thousand light-years, the maximum width about ten thousand. It includes on the order of a hundred billion stars, at least half of which have at least one life-bearing planet. A goodly percentage of these latter also sustain intelligent life.

Sol lies approximately thirty thousand light-years from galactic centre, where the stars begin to thin out towards emptiness: a frontier region, which the most rapidly expanding civilization of space travellers would still be slow to reach. And no such civilization could expand rapidly any how. There are too many stars.

At some unknown time in some unknown place, someone created the first superlight spaceship. Or perhaps it was created independently, many times and places. No one knows. Probably no one will ever know; there are too many archives in too many languages to search. But in any event the explorers went forth. They visited, studied, mapped, traded. Most of the races they found were primitive—or, if civilized, were not interested in space travel for themselves. Some few had the proper degree of industrialization and the proper attitude of outwardness. They learned from the explorers. Why should they not? The explorers had nothing to fear from these strangers, who paid them well for instruction. There is plenty of room in space. Besides, a complete planet is self-sufficient, both economically and politically.

From these newly awakened worlds, then, a second generation of explorers went forth. They had to go farther than the first; planets of interest to them lay far, far away, lost in a wilderness of suns whose worlds were barren, or savage, or too foreign for intercourse. But eventually someone, at an enormous distance from their home, learned space technology in turn from them.

Thus the knowledge radiated, through millennia, but not like a wave of light from a single candle. Rather it spread like, dandelion seeds, blown at random, each seed which takes root begetting a cluster of offspring. A newly civilized planet (by that time, "civilization" was equated in the minds of space-farers with the ability to travel through space) would occupy itself with its nearer neighbours. Occasionally there was contact with one of the other loose astro-politicoeconomic clumps. But the contact was sporadic.

There was no economic force to maintain it, and culturally these clusters diverged too much.

And once in a while, some daring armada— traders looking for a profit, explorers looking for knowledge, refugees looking for a home, or persons with motives less comprehensible to a human—would make the big jump and start yet another nucleus of civilization.

Within each such nucleus, a certain unity prevailed. There was trading; for while no planet had to supply another with necessities, the materials of comfort, luxury, amusement, and research were in demand. There was tourism. There was a degree of interchange in science, art, religion, fashion. Sometimes there was war.

But beyond the nucleus, the cluster, there was little or nothing. No mind could possibly deal with all the planets in space. The number was so huge. A space-faring people must needs confine serious attention to their own vicinity, with infrequent small ventures beyond. Anything more would have been impossible. The civilization-clusters were never hostile to each other. There was nothing to be hostile about. Conflicts occurred among neighbours, not among strangers who saw each other once a year, a decade, or a century.

Higgledy-piggledy, helter-skelter, civilization spread out among the stars. A million clusters, comprising one to a hundred planets each, furnished the only pattern there was. Between the Clusters as wholes, no pattern whatsoever existed. A spaceship could cross the galaxy in months; but a news item, if sensational enough to make the journey at all, might take a hundred years.

There was little enough pattern within any given cluster. It was no more than a set of planets, not too widely separated, which maintained some degree of fairly regular contact with each other. These planets might have their own colonies, dependencies, or newly discovered spheres of influence, as Earth had been for Monwaing. But there was no question of a single culture for the whole cluster, or any sort of overall government. And never forget: any planet is a world, as complex and mysterious in its own right, as full of its own patterns and contradictions and histories, as ever Earth was.

No wonder the speculative writers had misunderstood their own assumptions. The universe was too big for them—

From AFTER DOOMSDAY by Poul Anderson (1962)

The same problem of size make ludicrous all thought of a galactic government. A mere thousand systems look far too cumbersome to allow a union. And I cannot see why anyone would desire to unify them. The immense diversity of environments, races, and viewpoints in such a region argues against any common purpose. Given a hyperdrive, it is not impossible that there are occasional Norman-like interstellar conquerors, whose aggressions cause alliance to be formed against them. But even on the largest feasible scale, such activity can occupy only a minute part of the entire galaxy. And it looks improbably in any event. What value has an uncolonizable planet to imperialists? Even worlds whose biochemistry happens to be enough like home that they can be settled will not solve any population problems, as the history of Europe vis-à-vis America testifies. In short, special circumstances may produce sporadic wars and political combinations; but if so, these are highly localized.

Peaceful intercourse like trade and cultural exchange seems far more plausible. But this must also be limited. It cannot take place between races unless they are willing and able to engage in it, and do not live too far apart. Chance probably decides whether this is the case in any given sector.

I therefore imagine the long-run consequence of a hyperdrive as not one galactic civilization but widely scatted clusters of civilization. Within each cluster there are several races that have some dealings with each other and many that are not concerned, being ignored or aloof. From time to time explorers, daring traders, missionaries, refugees, or other adventurous types make a long jump in search of new territory. Where they find fertile ground, planets that are useful and natives that are receptive to them, a new cluster is begun. Contact between clusters is very tenuous and, in almost every case, unofficial. Near the galactic nucleus where the stars are closer together, and many dwellers are anciently established, conditions my not be quite this anarchic; but even there I should thing that any interstellar organization is loose and spatially limited.

Maybe several kinds of clusters exist in galactic space, their histories independent. For instance, the hydrogen and oxygen breathers can have little to trade with each other and perhaps little to say to each other once some scientific questions have been answers. But this gets up far out on the windy limb of speculation.

From IS THERE LIFE ON OTHER WORLDS? by Poul Anderson (1963)

Globular clusters are ancient stellar populations with no star formation or core-collapse supernovae.

Several lines of evidence suggest that globular clusters are rich in planets. If so, and if advanced civilizations can develop there, then the distances between these civilizations and other stars would be far smaller than typical distances between stars in the Galactic disk. The relative proximity would facilitate interstellar communication and travel.

However, the very proximity that promotes interstellar travel also brings danger, since stellar interactions can destroy planetary systems. However, by modeling globular clusters and their stellar populations, we find that large regions of many globular clusters can be thought of as "sweet spots" where habitable-zone planetary orbits can be stable for long times. We also compute the ambient densities and fluxes in the regions within which habitable-zone planets can survive.

Globular clusters are among the best targets for searches for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). We use the Drake equation to compare globular clusters to the Galactic disk, in terms of the likelihood of housing advanced communicating civilizations. We also consider free-floating planets, since wide-orbit planets can be ejected and travel freely through the cluster.

A civilization spawned in a globular cluster may have opportunities to establish self-sustaining outposts, thereby reducing the probability that a single catastrophic event will destroy the civilization or its descendants. Although individual civilizations within a cluster may follow different evolutionary paths, or even be destroyed, the cluster may always host some advanced civilization, once a small number of them have managed to jump across interstellar space.

(ed note: full paper available here)


(ed note: This is an article about the paper discussed above)

     Globular star clusters are amazing in almost every way. They’re densely packed, holding a million stars in a ball only about 100 light-years across on average. They’re old, dating back almost to the birth of the Milky Way. And according to new research, they also could be extraordinarily good places to look for space-faring civilizations.
     “A globular cluster might be the first place in which intelligent life is identified in our galaxy,” says lead author Rosanne Di Stefano of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).
     Di Stefano presented this research today in a press conference at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society.
     The Milky Way hosts about 150 globular clusters, most of them orbiting in the galactic outskirts. They formed about 10 billion years ago on average. As a result, their stars contain fewer of the heavy elements needed to construct planets, since those elements (like iron and silicon) must be created in earlier generations of stars. Some scientists have argued that this makes globular cluster stars less likely to host planets. In fact, only one planet has been found in a globular cluster to date.
     However, Di Stefano and her colleague Alak Ray of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, India, argue that this view is too pessimistic. Exoplanets have been found around stars only one-tenth as metal-rich as our sun. And while Jupiter-sized planets are found preferentially around stars containing higher levels of heavy elements, research finds that smaller, Earth-sized planets show no such preference.
     “It’s premature to say there are no planets in globular clusters,” states Ray.
     Another concern is that a globular cluster’s crowded environment would threaten any planets that do form. A neighboring star could wander too close and gravitationally disrupt a planetary system, flinging worlds into icy interstellar space.
     However, a star’s habitable zone — the distance at which a planet would be warm enough for liquid water — varies depending on the star. While brighter stars have more distant habitable zones, planets orbiting dimmer stars would have to huddle much closer. Brighter stars also live shorter lives, and since globular clusters are old, those stars have died out. The predominant stars in globular clusters are faint, long-lived red dwarfs. Any potentially habitable planets they host would orbit nearby and be relatively safe from stellar interactions.
     “Once planets form, they can survive for long periods of time, even longer than the current age of the universe,” explains Di Stefano.
     So if habitable planets can form in globular clusters and survive for billions of years, what are the consequences for life should it evolve? Life would have ample time to become increasingly complex, and even potentially develop intelligence.
     Such a civilization would enjoy a very different environment than our own. The nearest star to our solar system is four light-years, or 24 trillion miles, away. In contrast, the nearest star within a globular cluster could be about 20 times closer — just 1 trillion miles away. This would make interstellar communication and exploration significantly easier.
     “We call it the ‘globular cluster opportunity,’” says Di Stefano. “Sending a broadcast between the stars wouldn’t take any longer than a letter from the U.S. to Europe in the 18th century.
     “Interstellar travel would take less time too. The Voyager probes are 100 billion miles from Earth, or one-tenth as far as it would take to reach the closest star if we lived in a globular cluster. That means sending an interstellar probe is something a civilization at our technological level could do in a globular cluster,” she adds.
     The closest globular cluster to Earth is still several thousand light-years away, making it difficult to find planets, particularly in a cluster’s crowded core. But it could be possible to detect transiting planets on the outskirts of globular clusters. Astronomers might even spot free-floating planets through gravitational lensing, in which the planet’s gravity magnifies light from a background star.
     A more intriguing idea might be to target globular clusters with SETI search methods, looking for radio or laser broadcasts. The concept has a long history: In 1974 astronomer Frank Drake used the Arecibo radio telescope to broadcast the first deliberate message from Earth to outer space. It was directed at the globular cluster Messier 13 (M13).

Galactic Empire Geometry

The simplest model of a growing galactic empire is a swelling balloon. Starting at the origin planet the spherical colonization wave will grow at the rate of empire expansion.

The much more messy and difficult to figure model of expansion is via Civilization Clusters. But this model more or less precludes the existence of an empire anyway, so it can be ignored by science fiction writers trying to build an empire.

Imagine a planet inhabited by imperialistic little opportunistic aliens, just like us, whose star is in a galaxy totally uninhabited by any other intelligent creatures (or at least uninhabited by creatures who can defend themselves). Once our imperialists discover interstellar travel, they will spread to the surrounding stars in a manner similar to a watermelon hitting the sidewalk. As previously mentioned, their empire will approximate an expanding sphere, with their homeworld at the center.

It is useful to be able to calculate a bit of geography for your interstellar empires. The control radius between the Imperial (or Sector) Capital and the Rim give you the size of your empire. It would be nice to be able to figure out how many stars are inside the empire, especially if you want to ensure that the Imperial Bureaucracy can actually handle it.

Warning, the galactic plane in the neighborhood of Sol is only about 1,000 light-years thick. If the radius is over 500 light-years the equations will calculate give an incorrect result (too many stars).

Given the empire radius in light-years, the number of stars and habitable stars inside the borders is:

Nstars = Rly3 * StarDfactor

NhStars = Rly3 * HStarDfactor


  • Nstars = number of stars
  • NhStars = number of stars with habitable planets
  • StarDfactor = star density factor, use 0.017 or see below
  • HStarDfactor = habitable star density factor, use 0.002 or see below
  • Rly = empire radius in light-years
  • x3 = cube of x, i.e., = x * x * x

Given the number of stars or habitable stars inside the imperial borders, the empire radius is:

Rly = cubeRoot(Nstars * StarRfactor)

Rly = cubeRoot(NhStars * HStarRfactor)


  • Rly = empire radius in light-years
  • Nstars = number of stars
  • NhStars = number of stars with habitable planets
  • StarRfactor = star radius factor, use 59.68 or see below
  • HStarRfactor = habitable star radius factor, use 464.46 or see below

StarDfactor, HStarDfactor, StarRfactor, HStarRfactor: all depend upon the stellar density, that is, how many stars per cubic light year. Currently the best estimate I could find for stellar density in Sol's neighborhood is Erik Gregersen's 4.0×10-3 stars per cubic light year. The density of stars with human habitable planets I calculated by using Tarter and Turnbull's Habcat dataset. Simplistic math on my part gave a value of 5.14×10-4 habitable stars per cubic light year. But keep in mind that the HabCat dataset came out in 2003.

StarRfactor = StellarDensity / ( (4/3) * π )

StarDfactor = 1 / StarRfactor

HStarRfactor = HStellarDensity / ( (4/3) * π )

HStarDfactor = 1 / HStarRfactor


  • StellarDensity = stars per cubic light-year
  • HStellarDensity = habitable stars per cubic light-year

You can find how I derived this equation here.

Erik Gregersen4.0×10-3 s/ly359.680.017
HabCat5.14×10-4 s/ly3464.460.002
Globular Cluster2.02×100 s/ly30.1188.461
Omega Centauri
3.8×100 s/ly30.06315.917
Omega Centauri
8.6×101 s/ly30.003360.236
Omega Centauri
1.8×102 s/ly30.001753.982
Galactic Core2.88×100 s/ly30.08312.064
Galactic Center8.5×101 s/ly30.003356.047

The races of man had spread across the spiral arm and toward the great whorl of the central galaxy.

By the year 970 H. C. (Calendar of the Holy Church), date of the last known Empire Census, there were more than 11,000 inhabited planets in the Empire, plus a known 1,700 more on the frontier—and estimates of at least 3,000 more beyond that whose existence was known but not confirmed. How many human beings there were simply could not be estimated.

Vast fleets of starcruisers whispered through the darkness, the fastest of them journeying a hundred light-years every three hundred days.

—but the Empire spanned a thousand light-years. More.

No matter how great the speeds of the starcruisers were, the distances of the galaxy were greater. At the fastest speed known to man it still took more than ten years to cross from one end of known space to the other. And the distance was growing. For every day that passed, 240 light-days were added to the scope of man's known frontiers.

Man was pushing outward in all directions at once, an ever-continuing explosion. For every ship travelling toward the galactic west, there was another headed for the galactic east; and the rate of man's outward growth was twice as fast as anyone could travel.

At the farthest edges of the Empire was the frontier. Beyond that lay unexplored space. Every man that fled into that wilderness dragged the frontier with him. The frontier followed willingly, and after a while, when that particular piece of itself matured, it became a part of the Empire, and the state of mind known as frontier had moved on. Thus, the Empire grew.

From Space Skimmer by David Gerrold (1972)

Abel had a map of Trantor in his study, so designed as to show the application of that force. It was a clear crystalline ovoid in which the Galactic lens was three-dimensionally laid out. Its stars were specks of white diamond dust, its nebulae, patches of light or dark fog, and in its central depths there were the few red specks that had been the Trantorian Republic.

Not "were" but "had been." The Trantorian Republic had been a mere five worlds, five hundred years earlier.

But it was a historical map, and showed the Republic at that stage only when the dial was set at zero. Advance the dial one notch and the pictured Galaxy would be as it was fifty years later and a sheaf of stars would redden about Trantor’s rim.

In ten stages, half a millennium would pass and the crimson would spread like a widening bloodstain until more than half the Galaxy had fallen into the red puddle.

That red was the red of blood in more than a fanciful way. As the Trantorian Republic became the Trantorian Confederation and then the Trantorian Empire, its advance had lain through a tangled forest of gutted men, gutted ships, and gutted worlds. Yet through it all Trantor had become strong and within the red there was peace.

Now Trantor trembled at the brink of a new conversion: from Trantorian Empire to Galactic Empire and then the red would engulf all the stars and there would be universal peace—pax Trantorica.

Abel wanted that. Five hundred years ago, four hundred years ago, even two hundred years ago, he would have opposed Trantor as an unpleasant nest of nasty, materialistic and aggressive people, careless of the rights of others, imperfectly democratic at home though quick to see the minor slaveries of others, and greedy without end. But the time had passed for all that.

He was not for Trantor, but for the all-embracing end that Trantor represented. So the question: How will this help Galactic peace? naturally became: How will this help Trantor?

The trouble was that in this particular instance he could not be certain. To Junz the solution was obviously a straightforward one. Trantor must uphold the I.S.B. and punish Sark.

Possibly this would be a good thing, if something could definitely be proven against Sark. Possibly not, even then. Certainly not, if nothing could be proven. But in any case Trantor could not move rashly. All the Galaxy could see that Trantor stood at the edge of Galactic dominion and there was still a chance that what yet remained of the non-Trantorian planets might unite against that. Trantor could win even such a war, but perhaps not without paying a price that would make victory only a pleasanter name for defeat.

So Trantor must never make an incautious move in this final stage of the game.

From The Currents of Space by Isaac Asimov (1952)

Empires In Collision

While a single empire can have all sorts of drama (trying to incorporate irate planetary natives, independent-minded star sectors attempting to secede, ambitious tratorous governors trying to carve out a pocket empire, the empire declining and falling, barbarians waiting in their interstellar long-boats at the rim of the empire, etc.) for truly cosmic-scale excitement it is hard to beat a second empire at war with the first empire over the same real estate.

Starting with two empires: assuming that they have a rough technological parity the two spheres will expand until the boarders make contact. Then it will resemble two soap bubbles stuck together, with a flat "neutral zone" populated by spies, smugglers, covert battlefleets intent on causing boarder incidents, and planets named "Casablanca".

In reality, the "neutral zone" will be the less like a plane and more like the intersection of the two spheres. It will be like a lop-sided lens shape. The equation for calculating the volume of the neutral zone can be found here

Kuramesu Drift

Kuramesu Drift: A modestly-sized modular drift-habitat located in the Omane (First Expanses) System, at the Solar-Diageri (Omane IV) trailing libration point.

Kuramesu Drift is an independent drift, unaffiliated with any of the polities or law providers of Omane Actual, the freesoil world with which it shares a system. Rather, Kuramesu Drift is chartered to the Microstatic Commission, providing a data haven and negotiation space for the Worlds’ many micronations and small freeholds to play politics out from under the eyes of their much larger cousins. Omane, one link outside the Empire’s border, protected from intimidation by other polities by its position in an isolated loop route only accessible by passing through an Imperial border world – Ionai (First Expanses) – and yet only 13 links from the Conclave Drift by optimal routing, is essentially perfect for these purposes.

Naturally, Kuramesu Drift has a very high density of spies per capita. In fact, gentle reader, you may find it easiest to assume that everyone not an actual delegate or you, yourself, is a spy for someone.

The drift is, however, well worth visiting for reasons other than espionage. The lifestyles of even minor notables ensure that Kuramesu Drift is blessed with excellent shopping districts, banking facilities, and cultural events, including a spintronic symphony orchestra, tholin baths, and microgravity ballet, and the Commission offsets the running costs of the Drift by renting out their facilities to a variety of conferences (especially those seeing an advantage in a location near, but not within, the Empire) and conventions when they are not otherwise in use.

Meanwhile, the Agent’s Rest offers one of the finest polyspecific selections of liquors and other hedonics to be found in the central Worlds. Just don’t ask for a double – everyone’s heard that one already.

– Leyness’s Worlds: Guide to the Ecumene

In his paper Long-term consequences of observing an expanding cosmological civilization S. Jay Olson explores the consequences of colliding empires. One of the assumptions is the growing spheres are domains of expanding civilizations belonging to distinct species who do not wish to share resources; i.e., they are selfish b*st*rds just like us. This results in the formation of hard boundaries between the spheres; i.e., "national" borders which can only be crossed at the expense of sparking interstellar wars and all manner of unpleasantness.

The boundary that forms between two expanding civilizations is a hyperboloid. The exact form depends upon empire expansion speed, separation distance between empires, and starting time of each empire's colonization expansion.

In the diagrams below, Empire Alfa's origin world is located at coordinates -C,0,0 and Empire Bravo's origin world is at coordinates +C,0,0. The distance between the two is 2C. Empire Alfa starts their colonial expansion at time t1 while Empire Bravo starts at time t0. t1 is earlier than t0, meaning that Empire Alfa starts first. It is assumed that Empire Alfa's expanding domain has not yet engulfed Empire Bravo's origin world at time t0, meaning Bravo gets a chance to expand instead of starting out enslaved by Alfa.

The paper assumes that both civilizations will have the same expansion speed, which is as fast as physically possible. Both empires will frantically research how to accelerate their expansion speed until both run up against the theoretical maximum.

At time t1 Empire Alfa starts their colonial expansion. Later at time t0 Empire Bravo starts their expansion (at point C), while Alfa has expanded to a sphere with a radius of 2A (the blue circle). r1(t0) is a fancy way of saying "radius of empire 1 at time zero."

Both spheres will expand, and collide at a point halfway between the edge of the blue circle and point C; that is halfway between boundary of Alfa's sphere at time t0 closest to Bravo's origin world, and the location of Bravo's origin world itself (orange hyperboloid).

When Alfa's sphere has expanded to the violet circle and Bravo's sphere has expanded to the yellow circle, the border between will be the orange hyperboloid.

Mathematically, the hyperboloid will have its foci at -C,0,0 and +C,0,0 (the coordinates of the two empire's origin planets). The semi-major axis will be A (half the radius of Alfa's sphere when Bravo starts expanding). The boarder will be the x > 0 sheet of the hyperboid.

The "canonical form" of the border hyperboid is:

B2 ≡ C2 - A2
(x2 / A2) - (y2 / B2) - (z2 / B2) = 1

The volumes of two empires can be calculated by hideously complicated equations (2) and (3) found in the paper. No, I'm not going to try and transcribe them here.

The main focus of the paper is what happens when the inhabitants of Origin Planet Bravo become panicked when they observe Origin Planet Alfa start their colonization program. Bravo will instantly start their own colonization drive.

The trouble is, the speed of light means that when Bravo sees Alfa's starting expansion, Bravo is seeing what happened in the past. If Alfa is ten-thousand light-years away from Bravo, it means that when Bravo sees Alfa's start, Alfa actually started ten-thousand years ago. Which is a heck of a head-start.

What this boils down to is that time t0 will occur X years after t1, where X equals the distance between the two empires in light-years.

t0 = t1 + (2 * C)

where t0 and t1 are in years, and C is in light-years.

In FIG 2, the separation distance 2C is an absolutely enormous three billion light years. Graphs (a), (b), (c), and (d) are for expansion speeds of 0.3, 0.6, 0.9, and 0.99 the speed of light respectively. The faster the expansion speed, the smaller the size of Empire Bravo (blue area)

If Origin Planet Bravo observes two empires start their expansion, Bravo is in big trouble.

The graphs in FIG5 shows what happens if Empires Alfa and Charlie are the same distance from Bravo (3 billion light-years, angular separation of 90°), and both start their expansion simultaneously.

At expansion speeds of 0.3 and 0.6 of the speed of light (a and b), Empire Bravo is squeezed (blue area). At the critical expansion speed of 0.75765 of the speed of light (c) Empire Bravo will become "trapped", it will become englobed by Alfa and Charlie with further expansion being impossible. At higher expansion speeds such as 0.9 (d) the size of Bravo's blue area grows smaller.

Cyclical Governments

Be sure to see the Cyclical History section of the Future History page.

The Greeks, who had a penchant for giving names to things, had a convenient label for that source: anacyclosis. That was the moniker coined by the Greek historian Polybius, who chronicled the conquest of Greece by the Romans in the second century BCE. He noted that the squabbling city-states of the Greek world tended to cycle through a distinctive sequence of governments—monarchy, followed by aristocracy, followed by democracy, and then back around again to monarchy. It’s a cogent model, especially if you replace “monarchy” with “dictatorship” and “aristocracy” with “junta” to bring the terminology up to current standards.

A short and modernized form of the explanation—those of my readers who are interested in the original form should consult the Histories of Polybius—is that in every dictatorship, an inner circle of officials and generals emerges. This inner circle eventually takes advantage of weakness at the top to depose the dictator or, more often, simply waits until he dies and then distributes power so that no one figure has total control; thus a junta is formed. In every country run by a junta, in turn, a wider circle of officials, officers, and influential people emerges; this wider circle eventually takes advantage of weakness at the top to depose the junta, and when this happens, in ancient Greece and the modern world alike, the standard gambit is to install a democratic constitution to win popular support and outflank remaining allies of the deposed junta. In every democracy, finally, competing circles of officials, officers, and influential people emerge; these expand their power until the democratic system freezes into gridlock under the pressure of factionalism or unsolved crisis; the democratic system loses its legitimacy, political collapse follows, and finally the head of the strongest faction seizes power and imposes a dictatorship, and the cycle begins all over again.

It can be educational to measure this sequence against recent history and see how well it fits. Russia, for example, has been through a classic round of anacyclosis since the 1917 revolution: dictatorship under Lenin and Stalin, a junta from Khrushchev through Gorbachev, and a democracy—a real democracy, please remember, complete with corruption, rigged elections, and the other features of real democracy—since that time. China, similarly, had a period of democracy from 1911 to 1949, a dictatorship under Mao, and a junta since then, with movements toward democracy evident over the last few decades. Still, the example I have in mind is the United States of America, which has been around the cycle three times since its founding; the one difference, and it’s crucial, is that all three stages have taken place repeatedly under the same constitution.

A case could be made that this is the great achievement of modern representative democracy—the development of a system so resilient that it can weather anacyclosis without cracking. The three rounds of anacyclosis we’ve had in the United States so far have each followed the classic pattern; they’ve begun under the dominance of a single leader whose overwhelming support from the political class and the population as a whole allowed him to shatter the factional stalemate of the previous phase and impose a radically new order on the nation. After his death, power passes to what amounts to an elected junta, and gradually defuses outwards in the usual way, until a popular movement to expand civil rights and political participation overturns the authority of the junta. Out of the expansion of political participation, factions rise to power, and eventually bring the mechanism of government to a standstill; crisis follows, and is resolved by the election of another almost-dictator.

Glance back over American history and it’s hard to miss the pattern, repeating over a period that runs roughly seventy to eighty years. The dictator-figures were George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt, each of whom overturned existing structures in order to consolidate their power, and did so with scant regard for existing law. The juntas were the old Whigs, the Republicans, and the New Deal Democrats, each of them representatives of a single social class; they were overthrown in turn by Jacksonian populism, the Progressive movement, and the complex social convulsions of the Sixties, each of which diffused power across a broader section of the citizenry. The first cycle ended in stalemate over the issue of slavery; the second ended in a comparable stalemate over finding an effective response to the Great Depression; the third—well, that’s where we are right now.

There’s no shortage of crises sufficient to tip the current system into its final stalemate, and no shortage of people in the political class who show every sign of being willing to give it that final push. The great difficulty just now, it seems to me, is precisely that fashionable contempt for democracy as it actually exists that I addressed earlier in this essay. In 1860, that habit was so far from finding a place in the political dialogue that the constitution of the Confederate States of America was in most respects a copy of the one signed at Philadelphia a long lifetime before. In 1932, though a minority of Americans supported Marxism, fascism, or one of the other popular authoritarianisms of the day, the vast majority who put Roosevelt into the White House four times in a row expected him to maintain at least a rough approximation of constitutional government.

That’s much less true this time around. Granted, there’s less public support for overtly authoritarian ideologies—I expect to see Marxism make a large-scale comeback on the American left in the next few years, for reasons I’ll explain in a future post—but as Oswald Spengler pointed out almost a century ago, in the endgame of democratic societies, it’s not the cult of ideology but the cult of personality that’s the real danger. As the Russian proverb warns, it’s never a good idea to let the perfect become the enemy of the good; in our time, as a growing number of Americans insist that America isn’t a democracy because it doesn’t live up to their fantasies of political entitlement, it’s all too possible that one or more mass movements could coalesce around some charismatic figure who offers to fix everything that’s wrong with the country if only we let him get rid of all those cumbersome checks and balances that stand in his way. How many of the benefits of democracy I listed above would survive the victory of such a movement is not a question I would like to contemplate.

The sociological doctrine of Anacyclosis is a cyclical theory of political evolution. The theory of anacyclosis is based upon the Greek typology of constitutional forms of rule by the one, the few, and the many. Anacyclosis states that three basic forms of "benign" government (monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy) are inherently weak and unstable, tending to degenerate rapidly into the three basic forms of "malignant" government (tyranny, oligarchy, and ochlocracy). Note that "ochlocracy" refers to mob rule, not the concept of democracy created in the late 18th century.

According to the doctrine, "benign" governments have the interests of all at heart, whereas "malignant" governments have the interests of a select few at heart. However, all six are considered unworkable because the first three rapidly transform into the latter three due to political corruption.

Polybius' sequence of anacyclosis proceeds in the following order: 1. Monarchy, 2. Kingship, 3. Tyranny, 4. Aristocracy, 5. Oligarchy, 6. Democracy, and 7. Ochlocracy.

According to Polybius' elaboration of the theory, the state begins in a form of primitive monarchy. The state will emerge from monarchy under the leadership of an influential and wise king; this represents the emergence of "kingship". Political power will pass by hereditary succession to the children of the king, who will abuse their authority for their own gain; this represents the degeneration of kingship into "tyranny". Some of the more influential and powerful men of the state will grow weary of the abuses of tyrants, and will overthrow them; this represents the ascendancy of "aristocracy" (as well as the end of the "rule by the one" and the beginning of the "rule by the few"). Just as the descendants of kings, however, political influence will pass to the descendants of the aristocrats, and these descendants will begin to abuse their power and influence, as the tyrants before them; this represents the decline of aristocracy and the beginning of "oligarchy". As Polybius explains, the people will by this stage in the political evolution of the state decide to take political matters into their own hands. This point of the cycle sees the emergence of "democracy", as well as the beginning of "rule by the many". In the same way that the descendants of kings and aristocrats abused their political status, so too will the descendants of democrats. Accordingly, democracy degenerates into "ochlocracy", literally, "mob-rule". During ochlocracy, according to Polybius, the people of the state will become corrupted, and will develop a sense of entitlement and will be conditioned to accept the pandering of demagogues. Eventually, the state will be engulfed in chaos, and the competing claims of demagogues will culminate in a single (sometimes virtuous) demagogue claiming absolute power, bringing the state full-circle back to monarchy.

From Wikipedia entry "Anacyclosis"

These (statues) were brooding men; men who stared down at him out of their thousand pasts. Men who had stood with a planet for a throne and watched their Empire passing in ordered glory from horizon to horizon across the night sky of Earth - men worshipped as gods on out-world planets, who watched and guided the tide of Empire until it crashed thundering on the shores of ten thousand worlds beyond Vega and Altair. Men who sat cloaked in sable robes with diamond stars encrusted and saw their civilization built out from the Great Throne, tier on shining tier until at last it reached the Edge and strained across the awful gulf for the terrible seetee suns of mighty Andromeda itself...

The last few of the men like gods had watched the First Empire crumble. They had seen the wave of annihilation sweeping in from the Outer Marches of the Periphery; had seen their gem-bright civilization shattered with destructive forces so hideous that the spectre of the Great Destroyer hung like a mantle of death over the Galaxy, a thing to be shunned and feared forever. And thus had come the Interregnum.

Kieron had no eyes for these brooding giants; his world was not the world they had known. It was in the next chamber that the out-world warrior paused. It was a vast and empty place. Here there were but five figures and space for a thousand more. This was the Empire that Kieron knew. This Empire he had fought for and helped secure; a savage, darkling thing spawned in the dark ages of the Interregnum, a Galaxy-spanning fief of star-kings and serfs - of warlocks and spaceships - of light and shadow. This Empire had been born in the agony of a Galaxy and tempered in the bitter internecine wars of re-conquest.

From "The Rebel of Valkyr" by Alfred Coppel (1950)

Empire Stability

Murder Hobos and Empire

(ed note: This is about how to build a stable 5,000 year Empire in a medieval world such as obtains in a role playing game like Dungeons and Dragons. But it has some general principle that still apply in Rocketpunk, transferring it into science fiction should be straightforwards. In D&D, a player group that rights wrongs and fights evil are called "heroes". A player group that just goes around killing people and monsters in order to steal their gold are called "murder hobos".
The author Multiplexer is highly skilled at applying modern economic theory to fantasy situations.)

The Empire

The Empire lasted 5000 years. Like all fantasy empires, the beginning was hazy and undefined. It had a founder. He was a great mythical General who slew a the head of an older, more corrupt Kingdom in a huge battle with spectacular special effects. Standing over the body of his slain foe, the General proclaimed himself Emperor. Grateful citizens, thankful to the General for leading them out of a dark time and into enlightened light, brought him the long forgotten Crown. Surrounded by family, friends, followers, and sycophants, the General sat on his Throne and began the long rule.

The Emperor was an Elf. He ruled over the races with an even hand – the other elves, the men, the halflings, the gnomes, the half-orcs, and the occasional but rare tourist dwarf. All lived together in peace and harmony until a Threat faced the Empire. Then the Heroes saved the day.

This is a bog-standard fantasy Empire. Colorless, bland, it begins with a bang and lasts thousands of years without interruption, collapse, civil war, disease, or hiccup. The enlightened Emperor keeps his people safe while his threats are evil and wrong. Yet Empires, even those headed by hyper-conservative Elves, cannot last 5000 years without major social and economical engineering. Anything can destroy an Empire: an uprising, an unwarranted technology advance, even a new idea.

The #1 social good promoted by the Empire is the existence and continued stability of the Empire. Every action must save the Empire; threats cannot disrupt the citizen’s lives; the Empire must continue. The Emperor is good, the outside is bad, and heroes save the day by preventing change. First order of business: forbid all new things, especially technological advance. Order of business #2: worship the past and ignore the future. The long lives of elves incentivize them to protect themselves and their Empires. A new thing might unbalance the delicate machinery of power. Things that threaten it must go.

Nothing lasts forever unless it exists in a hermetically sealed box. But the Elves are smart and they stack the deck. These particular Elves (good and shining all) built their Empire like so:


Unless Elves are immortal in this setting, they picked Charismatic Dynasts with primogeniture inheritance because it’s nice, stable, and a predictable. Done.

The bigger trick was establishing an effective professional bureaucracy of scholars, mostly other Elves, to run tiers of regional control across the Empire. Instead of handing control to squabbling nobles with inherited titles who vie and plot to become Emperor themselves, or raise up in civil war, the Emperor built his government through testing, meritocracy, learning, and civilian rule. Should one governor die or retire, another unrelated but similarly qualified took his or her place. This allowed the Emperor to centralize power over his kingdom, create standards, and enforce stability. Uprising regional governors were merely replaced; they had no blood relation to the Emperor and he removed them at will.

The Emperor concentrated the learning and culture of his Empire in his Capital as the central hub. As the Emperor built the government on meritocracy, only the most learned, most educated, and most erudite circulated in the bureaucracy surrounding the person of the Emperor. There, the bureaucrats spoke Elvish (even the other races), argued philosophy, tweaked the meritocracy exams, penned poems, wrote histories and composed songs. They discussed the merits of their Empire and agreed as one it was Good (although how Good was by degrees.) And should any great scholar invent a new, interesting, and particularly catchy set of ideas? He was “sent to rule the far-off provinces as a reward” for his magnificent work in thought and progress.


Magic flourished in the Empire. Wizards built academies and took in a steady stream of new students. Many of these new students matriculated to take the government exams and accept leadership posts in the Empire. The Emperor encouraged Magic – as long as young Wizards mastered only the prescribed spells as taught to them by their elders.

At the beginning of Empire, the Wizards and the Emperor met and decided on the core spell list. They broke spells into rungs of “technology” – ie, levels. Homogeneity gave the Emperor control over magic but he did not stint – the spell list was comprehensive. But that was it. No other spells.

Using the so-called “Ancient Books of the Ancients” written conveniently by theoretically ancient scholars, students learned by rote the same introductory spells and, as they progressed through their education and careers, learned the same 2nd level spells, same 3rd level spells, all the way to Mastery. Then those Masters taught their students the same spells from the Ancient Books of the Ancients. Everyone, even the greatest of villains and the worst monsters, had access to the same spell list and same spells. No magic, not even the most powerful, proved a major threat to the Emperor. He always had some Wizard with the antidote to all known spells circling his personal bureaucracy.

On this went for the 5000 years of Empire.

The Empire declared those wizards who performed their own, private magic research the evil renegades. Murder Hobos given quests by the Questgivers in the pay of the centralized bureaucracy (a lovely position if one could get one) dispatched them with extreme violence. They were evil, Murder Hobos heroes good, out they went.

But, the argument went, why would someone perform their own magical research? Such a thing was unthinkable. The current spell list was solid, covered all needs, and mastering magic guaranteed a nice job with comfortable living standards for life. So almost no one did. Rogue wizards were an aberration. The Ancients knew best.


The Emperor developed highly sophisticated trade internally, within his Empire. The north had wheat and millet. The south had fish and salt. The government built roads and canals to ease trade pains between the north and south and patrolled them with professional soldiers from the Empire’s small standing army. A lucrative trade cycle formed. Merchants made good, but not overwhelming, money. The people were happily fed. With the north and south filling each other’s needs, the people were free to specialize in their trades: mages, clerics, adventurers, magic weaponsmiths, questgivers. They developed arts and luxury goods.

Trade outside the Empire was a different story. Selling of goods and services to those outside the Empire was forbidden. It was tantamount to selling arms to the Empire’s enemies. And who would want to? No one opened trade with the Ork Hordes who wandered the steppes outside the Empire or the Spider Goddess Worshipping Dark Elves of the Underdark. Not only was it forbidden, by the cultural norms of the Empire, it was evil.

No goods flowed out, and no goods, with forbidden ideas and technology sticking to them, flowed in. To the outside, this policy appeared harsh and extremely xenophobic but, on the inside, it guaranteed good quality and predictability. Everyone was happy except those who wanted to trade for those core and luxury goods. Those guys felt a bit miffed.

But who cares about them. The Emperor created long-term generic fantasy empire stability: poetry and songs were acceptable forms of artistic expression, wizards studied the prescribed magic, a never-changing population of worshippers appeased the Gods, and the realm was generally at peace unless faced with a Big Threat. Then, to protect stability and peace, the Empire called in the Murder Hobos.

Murder Hobos in the Empire

What to do with the young, the restless, and the adventurous? What should a great Empire of 5000 years do with its Murder Hobos? Send them Murder Hoboing!

Murder Hobos assist in the Empire’s inherent extreme conservatism by destroying anything old and threatening, or new and threatening, or current and threatening.

The Empire needs its Murder Hobos.

The previous Empire’s ancient ruins are sitting there, ruining, and waiting for plunder. Those ruins could hold libraries from the previous civilization with forgotten nuggets of knowledge. Those books might suggest… science. And, in the Emperor’s eyes, that knowledge is worse than worthless. It’s an active threat.

What better way to destroy precious, ancient sites than telling groups of Murder Hobos the nearby ruins are full of monsters and treasure? Provide them money and gear. Incentivize them with government Questgivers. Murder Hobos will clean out any active, temporized threats hiding in those caves, carry away the weaponized priceless relics and burn the rest down. They saved the nearby town and the Empire, and no one knows a calculus primer went up in flames.

And, then, should the Ork Hordes on the steppes or other “outsiders” start acting up because, hey, they’d like some in to the Empire’s wealth and trade, Murder Hobos get parachuted in to the so-called remote provinces. Why burn precious professional standing army capital busy protecting the internal trade routes when expendable Murder Hobos can buzzsaw their way through the Empire’s worst “threats.” To the frontier where it’s wild and there is treasure, the Empire says. Take out the evil tribes. You will be greatly rewarded for your service in the name of Stability and Peace!

If some internal threat arises – a wizard decides to invent new spells, a dragon trainer decides to breed a new “dangerous” dragon, a bureaucrat consolidates power – send in the Murder Hobos. These guys are clear and present threats to the Empire’s stability. Destroy them before they publish a paper and tell anyone about their findings! Of course, they’re evil. Anything new and different is evil. And when attacked, they defend themselves. See? Evil.

Murder Hobos never lay their hands on new weaponry. Should a great threat appear on the horizon, they quest for the ancient weapon of great power (destroying ancient sites, above). The ancients – whose burial sites need a good trashing – are the only ones powerful enough and smart enough to stop great external or internal threats. Only the most ancient and storied weapon is the right one. If it’s powerful, it’s ancient. If it’s a threat, it’s new.

This is how the Empire likes it.

End of Empire

Everything clicks along. The Empire homogenizes government, trade, culture and magic. Culture focuses on arts, literature and history. External threats terminated or ignored. Murder Hobos erase all trace of the past while venerating its great knowledge and power. People are at peace. The Empire has no known internal threats except the occasional nuisance. Change is almost unknown.

When the Dwarves show up out of nowhere at the Empire’s cities with their Steampunk-powered mobile firing platforms, they catch Empire a little flat-footed.

Until then, the Dwarves lived quietly in their own Kingdom under the Mountains. The Empire categorized them as outsiders and ignored them. Occasionally the Dwarves sent in tourists – strange foreigners into a strange land – but, for the most part, Dwarves stayed home. A few adventurous Dwarves appeared in Murder Hobo parties, broke some ancient pottery, stole a few ancient swords, and disappeared under the mountain again. The Empire explained their absence with an elaborate fictional history of a “Dwarvish-Elvish feud” and closed borders to them.

It was quiet.

But the Dwarves didn’t stay as one Kingdom over 5000 years. The Dwarven Kingdoms grew and fell and grew again, with their own long, and exciting, internal history. They had no restrictions on research or science. And their inherent lack of magic didn’t bother them when they discovered physics. The Dwarves were happy the Empire considered them “outside” and cast the Dwarven Mountains as an external civilization to ignore. No one traded with them – except all those other societies trapped outside the Empire’s high, beautiful and bureaucratic walls.

So that worked.

There are many theories about the cause of Empire collapse: slow decay on the inside at the highest levels, disintegration of strong centralized bureaucratic control, populations whipsawed by disease, economic stagnation. The Empire would fall, eventually, from its own weight and waste, given enough time. And 5000 years is long enough for stagnation to set in, for the bureaucracy to stop being a dynamic meritocracy and magic from the Ancient Book of Ancients to become slowly ineffective as the mightiest spells and their counters diffuse through time and population. Long term conservatism may bring about long-term stability but stagnation and decay leads to complacency.

And sometimes, it’s the arrival of a more technological civilization with different military maneuvers and Steam-powered mobile weapon platforms. No one stopped the Dwarves for their drive for answers. No one had news from the Dwarves. They did their own thing and here it was.

The Dwarves invaded like aliens from outer space and flattened the Empire in weeks. The previous civilization ended when the General showed up, killed the previous King, pulled together Empire, and crowned himself Emperor. It ended the decaying, decadent Emperor and his bejeweled bureaucrats now.

The casus belli for war is almost always stuff. The Dwarves wanted to open trade with the Empire. Rebuffed by the Elves and forced to talk to the bureaucratic hand, they tried an end run and smuggled goods in for exchange. Their people caught by local authorities, cast as villains and Murder Hobos set upon them, the Dwarves decided they really wanted to open trade. Because now it was on and they needed the Empire’s ceramics for their mecha upgrades. They were going to force it open at the end of a gun.

The Empire, even with their highest level Wizards and greatest Heroes, were no match for a civilization who figured out electricity. Sure, that wizard casts chained lightning bolt 3 times a day but the mecha can attack with a laser until the power tank runs dry. And then there is another power tank. It takes eighteen years to create a new first level wizard; Dwarves build mobile fighting platforms on assembly lines.

The ensuing end of Empire was a mess. Change came, and it wasn’t pretty. Nothing lasts forever. The longer the Empire, the harder the economic and socio-political collapse.

Given an infinite timeline, even the mightiest of Empires become their own museums.


Murder Hobos picked through the ruins of Empire. Those ruins contained the loot, weapons, spells, and armor of an enlightened age. They were full of undead armies of Empire, ancient survivors plotting to return Empire to its sainted place, and Elves. Murder Hobos used the ruins of Empire to kill things for XP, level up, and improve their equipment allotment. It was an amazing, if dangerous, time to be a Murder Hobo.

And eventually, some other General from the Murder Hobos rose up to kill off the great threats and form a new Empire on the ruins of the old.

Writer’s Note: Lots of things I’m thinking about here — the Fall of Rome, Ming Dynasty Neo-Confucianism and bureaucracy, Safavid court culture, the Battle of Plassey, and Dwarves.

From Murder Hobos and Empire by multiplexer (2015)

There Once Was A Dream

There once was a dream that was Rome
You could only imagine it
Any more and all hopes would be gone

There once was a dream that was Rome
You could only whisper it
Any more and it would vanish, blown away by the wind

There once was a dream that was Rome
You could see it all around you
Every street, every statue, but so fragile, like a dream
There once was a dream that was Rome
Its marble and people realized
Thriving, working, happy , and fighting

There once was a dream that was Rome
Now standing strong
With all its people and lands, like a giant

There once was a dream that was Rome
Addicted to the sound of battle
Its beating heart now the sand of the Coliseum

There once was a dream that was Rome
Its many enemies now dulling its sword
The thriving energy that filled it depleted

There once was a dream that was Rome
Now toppled and burning
Buried in the pages of history, its true memories forgotten

There once was a dream that was Rome
Seen, but not re-enacted
For they are scared to repeat history

"There Once Was A Dream", by SHADOWasianMAN

On Earth

(ed note: Nita teleports her parents to the surface of the moon, to show them the view of the Earth)

"Harry," Nita's mother said, still looking up. The tone of her voice made her husband look up too -- and seeing what she saw, he forgot the rock.

What they saw was part of a disk four times the size of the Moon as seen from the Earth; and it seemed even bigger because of the Moon's foreshortened horizon. It was not the full Earth so familiar from pictures, but a waning crescent, streaked with cloud swirls and burning with a fierce green-blue radiance -- a light with depth, like the fire held in the heart of an opal, that light banished the idea that blue and green were "cool" colors; one could have warmed one's hands at that crescent. The blackness to which it shaded was ever so faintly touched with silver -- a disk more hinted at than seen; the new Earth in the old Earth's arms.

"There'll be a time," Nita said softly, "when any time someone's elected to a public office -- before they let them start work -- they'll bring whoever was elected up here and just make them look at that until they get what it means...."

From Deep Wizardry by Diane Duane (1985)

You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics looks so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, "Look at that, you son of a bitch."

Edgar D. Mitchell, Apollo 14 astronaut

"We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity -- in all this vastness -- there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It's been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known."

Carl Sagan, when Voyager 1 left the solar system

Twenty thousand miles above the surface of the Earth, the artificial moon that housed the World Council was spinning on its eternal orbit. The roof of the Council Chamber was one flawless sheet of crystallite; when the members of the Council were in session it seemed as if there was nothing between them and the great globe spinning far below.

The symbolism was profound. No narrow parochial viewpoint could long survive in such a setting.

From The Lion of Comarre by Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1949)

It is not easy to see how the more extreme forms of nationalism can long survive when men have seen the Earth in its true perspective as a single small globe against the stars.

From The Exploration of Space Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1951)

On Empires

SF author Charles Stross point out that one has to define what exactly you mean by the word "empire."

The Aztecs ran what is generally known as an empire, but it didn't operate on the same principles as the Roman empire. (No local governors, taxation paid only on demand in the form of gifts and jewelry, outlying cities free to refuse demands -- whenever they felt like butchering the Aztec imperial emissaries and fighting the consequent war.)

This, for an Aztec-style tribute empire, the answer is: 'a long time', meaning years or decades. An empire of this sort is dependent merely on the ability of the imperial class to beat up anyone who refuses to pay tribute on demand.

The Mongol empire didn't operate on the same principles as the Roman empire, either. The horde basically destroyed any city with walls and forcibly coopted grazing land, and demanded tribute. In many cases they imposed satraps to run the local show. But they didn't attempt to colonize the natives, or as far as I know impose their culture; they just demanded food, tribute, and no defensive countermeasures. Or else. An empire of this sort is dependent on the inability of the governed to defend themselves.

What is the interstellar equivalent of the Golden Horde?

The Chinese empire didn't operate like the Roman empire, either. It had regional governors, true, and a bureaucracy, and a hereditary ruling class, but it enforced governance through control of resources -- a 'water empire' (hydraulic state, water-monopoly empire, or hydraulic despotism). If two provinces ran into trouble, an adjoining unruly provinces resources would be assigned to a loyal province. Such an empire requires tight coupling between provinces, if not between provinces and capital. An empire of this type of dependent on shared resource control.

Then there's the British empire. An exercise in laissez-faire capitalism gone mad, it grew and prospered as a source of cheap raw materials and cheap consumers for the industrial powerhouse of the world's first industrial nation. An empire of the British type must have close coupling between centre and periphery, for it is dependent upon trade.

Then there's the Third Reich. An exercise in colonization, characterized by 'lebensraum' in the East and a massive exercise in social and cultural control, to enforce the NSDAP's idea of good German culture upon its citizenry. Such an empire can only exist where the periphery is sufficiently close to permit mass emigration.

What, I emphasize, is an "Empire"? Only when you can answer that question can you contemplate the subsequent issue of communication delays.

Charles Stross

TRANTOR-...At the beginning of the thirteenth millennium, this tendency reached its climax. As the center of the Imperial Government for unbroken hundreds of generations and located, as it was, toward the central regions of the Galaxy among the most densely populated and industrially advanced worlds of the system, it could scarcely help being the densest and richest clot of humanity the Race had ever seen.

Its urbanization, progressing steadily, had finally reached the ultimate. All the land surface of Trantor, 75,000,000 square miles in extent, was a single city. The population, at its height, was well in excess of forty billions. This enormous population was devoted almost entirely to the administrative necessities of Empire, and found themselves all too few for the complications of the task. (It is to be remembered that the impossibility of proper administration of the Galactic Empire under the uninspired leadership of the later Emperors was a considerable factor in the Fall.) Daily, fleets of ships in the tens of thousands brought the produce of twenty agricultural worlds to the dinner tables of Trantor....

Its dependence upon the outer worlds for food and, indeed, for all necessities of life, made Trantor increasingly vulnerable to conquest by siege. In the last millennium of the Empire, the monotonously numerous revolts made Emperor after Emperor conscious of this, and Imperial policy became little more than the protection of Trantor's delicate jugular vein....

From Foundation by Isaac Asimov (1951)

If the (Alderson) Drive allowed ships to sneak up on planets, materializing without warning out of hyperspace, then there could be no Empire even with the Field. There'd be no Empire because belonging to the empire wouldn't protect you. Instead there might be populations of planet-bound serfs ruled at random by successive hordes of of space pirates. Upward mobility would consist of getting your own ship and turning pirate.

Rick Cook

On Hydraulic States

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

"... do you know what a water-monopoly empire is?"

"... A lot of early civilizations were water-monopoly empires. Ancient Egypt, ancient China, the Aztecs. Any government that controls irrigation completely is a water empire... See, these water-monopoly empires, they don't collapse. They can rot from within, to the point where a single push from the barbarians outside can topple them. The levels of society lose touch with each other, and when it comes to the crunch, they can't fight. But it takes that push from outside. There's no revolution in a water empire."

"That's a very strong statement."

"Yeah. Do you know how the two-province system works? They used it in China. Say there are two provinces, A and B, and they're both having a famine. What you do is, you look at their records. If Province A has a record of cheating on its taxes or rioting, then you confiscate all the grain in Province A and ship it to B. If the records are about equal you pick at random. The result is that Province B is loyal forever, and Province A is wiped out so you don't worry about it...."

"There's nothing more powerful than controlling everybody's water. A water- control empire can grow so feeble that a single barbarian horde can topple it..."

From A World Out Of Time by Larry Niven

"Hydraulic state" is a term coined by Oswald Spengler in "Decline Of The West" to describe the societies of the Eurasian arid zone which were built on massive irrigation systems. By extension to has come to apply to any society which owes its current state of existence to a massive infrastructure.

The outstanding characteristic of hydraulic states is that their existence depends utterly on maintaining this elaborate infrastructure. If that is damaged or destroyed the civilization isn't merely damaged, it collapses. Meanwhile if the infrastructure is maintained such societies tend to be extraordinarily rich and productive.

What this means is that the infrastructure has to be maintained at all costs and in a successful hydraulic state (in the pure form) this is a major consideration in everything, from government to economic policy to military posture to culture. In such states civil war and anarchy are disasters.

A space colony or a Dyson sphere is by its nature a particularly pure form of a hydraulic state. If you maintain the infrastructure it is rich and productive. Seriously damage that infrastructure and nearly everyone dies. The entire society is far more dependent on maintaining the infrastructure than any irrigation empire ever was on Earth.

Under these circumstances there is both a huge incentive (and a strong cultural imperative) to find solutions for social conflicts short of civil war -- or even strong disorder. Buying off your dissident elements by helping them build a new colony or a generation ship to go to the next star becomes a heck of a lot more attractive than fighting it out because if you fight both groups are almost certain to lose big-time.

Rick Cook

We remind you of a statement from the Lord Leto which was reported here almost eight generations ago:

"I am the only spectacle remaining in the Empire."

Reverend Mother Syaksa has proposed a theoretical explanation for this trend, a theory which many of us are beginning to share. RM Syaksa attributes to Lord Leto a motive based on the concept of hydraulic despotism. As you know, hydraulic despotism is possible only when a substance or condition upon which life in general absolutely depends can be controlled by a relatively small and centralized force. The concept of hydraulic despotism originated when the flow of irrigation water increased local human populations to a demand level of absolute dependence. When the water was shut off, people died in large numbers.

This phenomenon has been repeated many times in human history, not only with water and the products of arable land, but with hydrocarbon fuels such as petroleum and coal which were controlled through pipelines and other distribution networks. At one time, when distribution of electricity was only through complicated mazes of lines strung across the landscape, even this energy resource fell into the role of a hydraulic-despotism substance.

RM Syaksa proposes that the Lord Leto is building the Empire toward an even greater dependence upon melange. It is worth noting that the aging process can be called a disease for which melange is the specific treatment, although not a cure. RM Syaksa proposes that the Lord Leto may even go so far as introducing a new disease which can only be suppressed by melange. Although this may appear farfetched, it should not be discarded out of hand. Stranger things have happened, and we should not overlook the role of syphilis in early human history.

From God Emperor of Dune by Frank Herbert (1981)

On Future Society

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.

The closest thing to social tradition available to the people of ALBEDO is shipboard discipline, and this is strongly ingrained in all levels of society. Simply stated, the individual member of society is not quite as "free" (in one sense of the word) as a 20th century western man, because the individual is strongly constrained by a set of expectations and responsibilities. The individual is expected to be an active citizen, and is conceived of as having both civil liberties and responsibilities. The fragile ecological and social environment on board colonisation ships has lead to the development of societies where the individual is expected to take his social role very seriously, and to contribute to the working of things around him. The individual is expected to behave in an intelligent, responsible manner, and to be aware of the implications of his or her actions. Citizens are expected to be aware of the long running consequences of their actions, and to act accordingly.

Thus in most cultures, if a person is injured, it is the civil duty of passers-by to assist that person however possible. If a passer-by refuses to aid the injured party, or pretends to ignore them, then the passer-by is held to be partly responsible for the subsequent condition of the injured man, and will be charged under law accordingly. Regional attitudes do vary, however. For instance, to the inhabitants of the Dornthant system, the tools of an ordered and peaceful society are its security measures, and the co-operation of the common citizen is an expected duty. To a Dornthantii, running away from or obstructing the authorities is a clear admission of guilt.

The practical upshot of the social attitudes prevalent in most cultures in ALBEDO is the creation of societies which are very politically and ecologically aware. The average citizens feel that they have a vested interest in the running of their government, their society and their planetary environment. Albedo is set in an age of REASON, where forethought and responsibility are highly valued faculties. In the context of the culture of known space, "honour" will usually equate as social responsibility.

From Albedo RPG Player's Manual by Craig Hilton and Paul Kidd

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 the 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.

On Energy

Another one is Thomas Homer-Dixon, a Canadian economist who wrote The Upside of Down. Homer-Dixon marshals evidence that all great empires rise and fall by controlling the dominant energy supply of their age. The Romans used roads and aqueducts to harness solar energy (in the form of food) from around the Mediterranean basin, and used that surplus to fund the most complex society of its time. The Dutch empire rose on its superior ability to master wind technologies — the windmill and the ship — to extend its land holdings, run early manufacturing industries, and extend its trading reach around the globe. The British empire rose on coal-powered steam engines, which gave it more productive industries, railroads, electrical generators, and faster ships. The US eclipsed the Brits due to its vast wealth in oil — a far more concentrated and fungible fuel — and inventions from cars and planes to plastics and fertilizers that allowed it to make the most of its advantages. And the Chinese are now making huge investments in renewable energy and safer, more efficient second-generation nuclear power, which they can use to fuel their ascent to global primacy.

The bottom line in Homer-Dixon’s theory is this: Everything that Americans understand as "wealth" under the current paradigm comes from oil. It’s the foundation of our entire economy, and the ground our superpower status stands on. Our cities are built on the assumption of cheap, plentiful oil. Our consuming patterns are made possible by a fleet of oil-burning trucks, ships, and planes that bring us goods made in oil-driven factories. Our warmaking machine, which is largely tasked with protecting our oil interests around the world, is the single largest consumer of energy on the planet. Even our food is created with vast oil-based inputs of fertilizer and pesticides; and we enjoy a year-round variety of foods (bananas! chocolate! coffee!) that is unprecedented in human history because oil makes cheap transport and refrigeration possible.

And the pain and fear caused when we're forced to face this fundamental fact explains quite a bit about why ideas like climate change and peak oil are so viscerally terrifying to so many Americans. (In many right-wing circles, denial about the American oil addiction is now a core piece of their political identity. It’s considered anti-American to even suggest that getting off oil is necessary or possible.) We are so deeply invested in oil, in so many ways, that it’s almost impossible for us to envision a world beyond it. We stand to lose so much that it’s hard to fathom it all.

And this, says Homer-Dixon, is why no empire has ever survived an energy-related phase shift with its full power intact: the reigning hegemons are always too deeply invested in the current system to recognize the change, let alone respond to it in time. And so they are always superceded by some upstart that’s motivated to put more resources and risk into aggressively developing the next source. The decline of oil as the energy reality of the world has deep implications for every aspect of American life in the coming century. It’s a phase shift at the deepest level.

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.

On War

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