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. A famous example is the War of the Roses. Over thirty years of battles because there was just enough vagueness over who should succeed King Richard II.

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)

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)

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.


If you are keeping with realistic physics, it is not fair exceeding the speed of light. No FTL starships and no Ansibles. Which will more or less limit your empire to the bounds of the Solar System. Travel and communication with with other stars will take years to decades to hundreds of thousands of years to arrive. Communication within the orbit of Neptune will be at a maximum travel time of about 8 hours (though that can increase to up to two years if you decide to include the Oort cloud).

No way around it: a galactic empire is going to need FTL starships and FTL communication.

If the science fiction author is postulating the existance of either FTL travel and/or FTL communications things get more complicated. Does FTL travel exist yes/no? Does FTL commication exist yes/no? And if both FTL travel and FTL communication exists, which if either is faster? And faster by how many orders of magntude?

The answer to these questions will have major implications to your science fiction universe in general and your galactic empire in specific.

If there are starships but no ansibles, or if the starships are much faster than ansibles, you will see the creation of ultra fast message courier starships or unmanned FTL message drones. Much like the Express Boat Network in the Traveller role playing game or the Courier Drones from Starfire.

If ansibles are much faster that starships, the situation will be much like modern-day Navy vessels talking to home port by radio. You will be not be required to send the ship's engines along with the message. Note that "much faster" does not necessarily mean "instantaneous." In classic Star Trek, when the Starship Enterprise was in deep space, a Subspace Radio message might take a couple of weeks to travel to Starfleet Command. But the Enterprise would take months to make the same trip. Subspace radio was only "real time" if you were closer than a few tens of light-years or so.

If there are ansibles but no FTL starships, you will have a lively interstellar Internet, but the massive overhead of slower-than-light starships will restrict interstellar travel to only such people and material objects that absolutely positively must be transported.

If you have both and both have the same speed, which one you will use will depend upon whether you want to move matter or move information.

And it is possible to have ansibles that provide instantaneous communciation, regardless of distance.

As I mentioned before, the maximum speed of starships and the maximum speed of communications limits the maximum size of the empire. If the travel time of the intel and the travel time of the armed response is too high a total, the Empire will not be able to prevent a rebellious planet on the rim from leaving the empire. This is assuming that the travel time increases with the distance, all bets are off if you have something weird like instantaneous communication.

Bandwidth is important as well. The Capital will have the data to make a reasoned policy if you can transmit to them several terabytes of situational reports, not so much if all you can send is a 140 character tweet.

In the Renegade Legion universe, the Terran Overlord Government (TOG) alone has the technology for "Very Large Communication Relays" (VLCA). These are titanic FTL communication installations (meaning they will not fit inside a standard starship, you need one that is outrageously huge) that have a range of pretty much anywhere inside the entire Milky Way galaxy.

Their rivals the Renagades have to make do with pathetic P-Comm FTL communication. P-Comms are lucky if it can reach a neighboring star system. VLCAs have a range that is about 100,000 times greater.

Such is the overwhelming advantage of TOG having VLCAs, that for the Renagades such installations are pretty much automatically the primary military target in a given star system. If the Renagades can destroy the VLCA, the TOG loses its unfair communication advantage and the military odds become more equal. As long as the VLCA exists the TOG has it all their own way.

In Charles Stross' IRON SUNRISE, the most valuable things are packages of entangled quantum dots, used for FTL communication via Bell's Inequality. Each dot can intantaneously transmit one bit of information, and then is worthless.

They also have the fascinating twist that the dots must be transported slower than light or they are ruined. They are shipped by Starwisp, taking years to transport between stars.

Entangled Quantum Dots

"You've got your own causal channel?" Frank asked, hope vying with disbelief...

..."Tiny — it's the second memory card in my camera." She held her thumb and forefinger apart. "Looks just like a normal solid state plug. Blue packaging."...

...Alice looked over the waist-high safety wall, then backed away from the edge. "I'm not climbing down there. But a bird — hmmmm. Think I've got a sampler head left. If it can eject the card . . . you want me to have a go? Willing to stake half your bandwidth with me if I can liberate it?"

"Guess so. It's got about six terabits left. Fifty-fifty split." Thelma nodded. "How about it?"

"Six terabits —" Frank shook his head in surprise. He hated to think how much it must have cost to haul those milligrams of entangled quantum dots across the endless light years between here and Turku by slower-than-light starwisp. Once used they were gone for good, coherence destroyed by the process that allowed them to teleport the state of a single bit between points in causally connected space-time. STL shipping prices started at a million dollars per kilogram-parsec; it was many orders of magnitude more expensive than FTL, and literally took decades or centuries of advanced planning to set up. But if it could get them a secure, instantaneous link out into the interstellar backbone nets..."

From IRON SUNRISE by Charles Stross (2004)
Imperial Command and Communication Network ICCN

(ed note: in the game Starfire, there are starships but no ansibles)

At their option, players may invest in communication installations and create an Imperial Command and Communications Network, or "ICCN."

Communication and command may be thought of as two sides of the same coin. Command control is lost if the ability to relay information to the Imperial Command Center and then inform fleet units of changed orders does not exist: raw information without the capability of making decisions is of no value. Thus, the value of the ICCN lies in the faster reaction time it provides by transmitting important information to the Imperial Command Center and then, after a decision has been reached, quickly relaying new orders to the fleet.

When players comprehend the vast distances involved in a game of New Empires and realize how quickly a population may be conquered or destroyed, they begin to understand the substantial value the days saved by the ICCN in getting fleet units to the scene of an invasion may have.

There are, effectively, only two ways of communicating over distances within a star system: by spacecraft (including courier drones) or by light-wave (laser) or radio-wave transmission. The technology of courier drones is presented in the rule section on missile technology [see (E8.3)].

Communication through warp links is not possible with light or radio-wave technology. However, a pair of bases or other spacecraft which are equipped with communication modules may be positioned so that each end of a warp link has one of the spacecraft adjacent to it. Drones may then be exchanged through the warp link.

Once a drone has gone through the warp link and entered the system at the other end of it, it will transmit its message, which is picked up by the communication module of the spacecraft adjacent to the warp point at that end of the link. This spacecraft in turn transmits the message at the speed of light to any point in the star system within its range by using the transmitters of its communication module. In this case, the drones are assumed to be programmed to stop near the spacecraft to which they transmitted their message, and may then be recovered to be used again.

The time required for a message to travel through a given star system is assumed to be six hours. The only instance in which more detailed calculations are required or allowed is if enemy spacecraft groups are involved at the system level of play and the exact time taken for the communication to reach its destination may make an important difference to the outcome of the action.

Drones may also be used for communication without the aid of wave transmission; but communicating in this manner is much slower and much less reliable (the communication may be intercepted and destroyed). Drones are normally used as the sole means of communication only by exploration ships or by units whose connecting warp links have not yet been integrated into the ICCN.


All communications are channeled to a player's designated Imperial Command Center. At an Imperial Command Center, decisions are reached and new orders to be communicated to fleet units are written. (The Imperial Command Center represents a political and military command complex).

All fleet units must attempt to move as ordered until communications from an Imperial Command Center containing changed orders are received by the units. Contingency orders may be issued by the Command Center to allow the fleet unit to react to certain types of information gained without relaying this information to the Command Center; but these contingency orders must be executed to the letter of the manner in which they were written.

When information is received by an Imperial Command Center, a six-sided die should be rolled. The die-roll result represents the number of hours required for the Command Center to reach a decision based on the information. At the end of this time period, the Command Center issues new orders which are transmitted to the fleet units.

Example of the ICCN: This example uses the map and situation shown above. A major enemy force is invading system #004 and is attempting to move into the homeworld system, #001. The survival of the player's empire may depend on whether forces in system #003 can be diverted by new orders to move into system #002 and head off the invasion.

First, the player controlling starship force "A" picks up the invading force on the science instruments modules of this force. Force "A" then moves toward the unknown starship group to bring its scanners into range to identify the threat posed.

At 10-11:35:00 (Day 10 at 11:35 AM), the long-range scanners of starship force "A" identify 50 starships (the types of which are not yet known) and launches a courier drone to alert the Imperial Command Center. This drone is unopposed at the tactical and interception levels of play, since it was launched from a point beyond weapons range.

The drone's movement is simulated at the system level of play, beginning with the system impulse of 10-12:00:00 and the system hex of launch. At the time of launch the courier drone is at a distance of 12 system hexes (72 light-minutes) from the warp point between star system #004 and #002. The drone travels this distance in six hours at its speed of "12," arriving at the warp point at 10-18:00:00.

Upon reaching this warp point, the courier drone is instantly moved through the warp link and into star system #002. In this system there is a communication base heated in the same system hex as the warp point (actually in the same tactical hex), and this base activates the transmitter of the drone and receives its message at 10-19:00:00 (rounding up to the next system-level impulse).

The message is then transmitted by the ICCN. It is relayed through the warp link between star system #002 and #001 by the communication bases adjacent to the warp points of this link, and finally reaches the Imperial Command Center 12 hours later, at 11-07:00:00.

The Imperial Command Center takes three hours to reach a decision based on this message (the player rolled a "3" on a six-sided die). New orders are then issued to divert starship force "B" to system #002, and these orders are entered on the ICCN at 11-10:00:00.

The new orders are received at the warp point in system #003 12 hours later, at 11-22:00:00. (It takes six hours for the transmission to travel across system #001 from the Imperial Command Center to the warp point, plus six hours to travel from one warp point to the other in system #002.)

Fortunately, starship force "B" has a spacecraft equipped with a "CC" (long range communication) module. This spacecraft is at a range of 12 system hexes from the warp point, and so receives the message 12 minutes later, at 11-22:12. Force "B" will move at the system level of play, and thus 11:22:12 is rounded up to 11-23:00. The orders for starship force "B" are changed as of the beginning of system impulse of 11-23:00:00.

Moving at a speed of six, force "B" enters the warp link into star system #002 at 12-11:00:00.

Is force "B"in time to intercept the invasion force? That depends on many factors. However, the total reaction time is roughly 36 hours between the time starship force "A" launches its courier drone and the time starship force "B" is ordered to attempt to intercept the enemy force by entering star system #002. This means that force "B" has a good chance of making the interception.

In the 36 hours required to react, the enemy fleet cannot move more than a total of 36 system hexes at a speed of six, including the 12 system hexes it has to traverse before reachng the warp link into star system #002. Thus, even if the enemy group has complete astrogation information (which would be an unusual occurrence) and so knows exactly where the correct warp link is located, the force can be no further than 24 hexes into star system #002 when starship force "B'is ordered to react.

If the ICCN had not been available and the communication had been relayed solely by courier drones or by even slower spacecraft, the amount of time required to receive the information and to transmit the new orders would have been much longer — days longer — even though the time required for the Command Center to reach a decision would be unchanged. The edge of survival might be riding on those hours and days saved.

RocketCat sez

Listen up, you writers. I'm gonna give you some juicy tidbits from an important book by Tom Standage called The Victorian Internet. If you are smart you should read the entire thing cover to cover.

Using the trade secret of science fiction you can use the book as a template for upheaval in your galactic empire when some clown unexpectedly increases the speed of FTL radio faster than starships. Or when FTL radio gets invented in the first place.

If you can't figure out how to use the book as a template, well you can always go back to writing Mary Sue Star Wars fanfic.

Back in the 19th century they didn't have crap for technology. No smart phones, no combat drones, no submachine guns with Teflon coated cop-killer bullets, no antibiotic-resistant microbes cultivated by dumping gallons of antibiotics downs cow gullets, no cable TV, no nuttin'.

But they did have an Internet. Don't roll your eyeballs at me, they called it the electric telegraph machine. If you had been paying attention you'd realize it was one of the most titanic advances in communication since Gutenberg invented his printing press. It changed the world more drastically than the advent of the Internet changed your world. But you would have known that already if you'd read Terry Pratchett's novel Going Postal, featuring the system of visual telegraph towers known as "the clacks".

Pretty much all the shenanigans and whoopla currently surrounding your modern-day computer internet is just a re-hash of the exact same events that swirled around the electric telegraph. Yes: revolutionizing business, inventing new types of crime, encouraging the use of secret codes, governments futilely trying to regulate it, and the rise of a new techy culture. All of it happened before in the 1800s. Everything old is new again, and you fools who ignore your history are doomed to repeat it.

And all you authors who used this in your novels can smile smugly as your know-it-all readers get blindsided. The readers will condescendingly sniff and think you are merely rewriting the tired old story about the advent of AOL and the September that never ended. And then they will be savagely sucker-punched when your novel enters the parts where the telegraph was NOT like the internet. You'll get a rep for writing surprising novels, you will.

For a zillion years prior to the telegraph, the fastest communication was by some poor sod frantically riding on horseback. Messages moved barely a hundred miles a day, and that was only with a constant supply of fresh horses (this is when your galactic empire has starships but no FTL radio). For the same zillion years rulers of various empires had to put up with outrageous time lags. Send off your army, then wait for freaking months to find out how the battle went. You ain't gonna make much of an empire with that pathetic speed. And as for central control, ha! Not a chance, Alexander the Great. You'll just have to trust your generals to handle things. Or travel with the army and hope the capital doesn't revolt while you are gone.

But that all changed in 1791 when an unemployed guy named Claude Chappe and his brothers invented the first semaphore line. Claude wanted to give it the stupid name tachygraphe, but his classically trained friend managed to talk him into télégraphe.

Given how hot tempers was running during the French Revolution Claude was lucky it was only twice that angry mobs destroyed his semaphore and chased him while waving torches and pitchforks (they were convinced that Claude was trying to talk to the dastardly royalist prisoners being held in Temple Prison). I'm sure Claude was a bit bitter about this, since the French Revolution was the reason he was unemployed in the first place.

In 1793 Claude managed to sell the French National Convention on a trial experiment (well, it sort of helped that his brother Ignace Chappe was member of the Legislative Assembly). A three tower set of semaphores was laid out along twenty miles. It was a success, sending a test message in about eleven minutes flat. The tower moved wooden arms into specific patterns while the next tower watched through a telescope.

One of the evaluators, a scientist named Joseph Lakanal, was extremely impressed. Mostly because he realized how the semaphore would allow the central government in Paris to keep an iron grip on the provinces. The speed increase from horse to semaphore also increased the range of imperial control. It was a break-through! Lakanal convinced the government to fund a fifteen-station line from Paris to Lille and it quickly proved its worth. By August of 1794 it was reporting the recapture of a French town from the evil clutches of the Austrians and Prussians within an hour after the battle ended. The French government saw this was the hottest invention since the gun, and started building more lines.

When emperor Napoleon Bonaparte seized power, he too saw the semaphore was the sine qua non of Empire, and ordered even more expansions. He also demanded the system be able to cross the English Channel, since obviously it was only a matter of time before Great Britain became a suzerainty of the mighty French Empire (he was a bit optimistic there). The other European nations awoke to the danger and started frantically making their own semaphore systems so there wouldn't be a "semaphore gap." Otherwise they'd be at a fatal disadvantage. Not that they didn't start drooling at the thought of increasing their own iron grip on their own provinces. France showed the world how to do it.

The semaphore system was called the technological marvel of the age (which was true), and was optimistically predicted to abolish war (which was hysterically false). Wipe that smug look off your face, the same thing was predicted for our modern computer internet.

Some said the semaphore could be opened to civilian use, a very rapid form of mail. The system would actually produce cash instead of being a money pit. Claude wanted to use it in business, sending commodity prices all over Europe. But Napoleon nixed both those ideas. But he did allow sending winning lottery numbers, since that stopped the cheating which stole money from the government.

Predictably all sorts of charlatans, patent trolls, and irate rival inventors came boiling out of the woodwork trying to steal Claude's money and fame. The constant barrage drove him into depression and paranoia. He committed suicide in 1805, and was buried under a tombstone engraved with a semaphore tower displaying the sign for "At Rest." There was also a bronze sculpture of Claude, but it got melted down during the Nazi occupation of Paris.

But the semaphore telegraph continued to spread like wildfire. By 1830 it covered most of western Europe and most provinces were quite firmly iron gripped. Imperialists were quite pleased.

The Britain Admiralty kept fending off stupid crackpot schemes to "improve" the telegraph, schemes pushed by the hordes of garage inventors and junior scientists who had a bad case of Telegraph Fever. Many involved using that weird phenomenon known as "electricity." Alas none of the schemes worked very well, the inventors were secretive so the other inventors had to start from scratch, and all the schemes were quite inferior to the existing semaphore system. The Admiralty saw no point in wasting money fixing something that wasn't broke.

The sad fact of the matter was that the semaphore was broke, it just wasn't obvious. It had some severe limitations that people just took for granted.

Semaphore lines were expensive to run. You had to build costly towers everywhere. You needed to staff them with large teams of skilled operators. The data transfer rate meant you could send little more than 140 character tweets at a time. This means only the government had deep enough pockets to build and run semaphores, keeping them out of the reach of civilians and businesses. Semaphores also failed to work in the dark of night or through fog.

An electric telegraph would fix most of those problems, but nobody was visionary enough to see it.

Not that an electric telegraph was going to be easy, mind you.

The first big problem of an electric telegraph was how the heck did you detect the electricity? Thomas Edison hadn't been born yet, much less invented the light-bulb. Hans Christian Ørsted solved it when he stole the credit for Gian Domenico Romagnosi's discovery that an electric current created a magnetic field. Such fields are easy to detect because they make a magnetic compass go crazy.

The second big problem was that the signal died if the wire was longer than a couple of hundred feet. A semaphore can send a message ten miles, you can shout a message farther than 200 feet. The fix was not discovered until later, don't worry, I'll get to it.

In the 1820s Samuel F. B. Morse enters the scene. He was a painter until his life got derailed. He was in Washington painting a commission when he got a letter that his wife was very ill. Unfortunately by the time he got to Connecticut his wife had not only died, she was already buried. This got him justifiably angry at the snail-like pace of horse messengers, and he vowed to discover a faster method. In 1832 he was returning to the US from Europe while working on a cockamamie scheme to show art from the Louvre to Americans (just the last in a long line of cockamamie schemes). On the boat he met a certain Dr. Charles Jackson and caught a bad case of Telegraph Fever.

Morse naively figured he was the first person in history to think of using electricity for a telegraph, blissfully ignorant of the fact that hundreds of scientists had been working on the same thing for the better part of a century. Unaware of the 200 foot wire problem, Morse instead studied the problem of how to encode letters in an electric wire (which had no little semaphore arms). All but the most unschooled readers have been mouthing the words "Morse Code" at this point.

Meanwhile in England William Fothergill Cooke got tired of making anatomical wax models of dissected cadavers for the medical training biz, and caught Telegraph Fever from a lecture about electricity. This set him on the path to become Mr. Morse's arch rival. Cooke teamed up with a famous British scientist Professor Charles Wheatstone. But Cooke was annoyed to find that Wheatstone had already been working on an electric telegraph. Cooke wanted to hog all the glory for himself. Eventually Cooke and Wheatstone would have a bitter battle over who actually invented the telegraph, but I digress. Cooke started the ball rolling by offering Wheatstone an insulting sixth share of the profits, and things only went downhill from there.

Both Morse and Cooke soon slammed into the brick wall of the 200 foot limit. Ironically the problem had been solved in 1829 by Joseph Henry. The trick is to put a relay where the signal dies, making a fresh new signal. Everybody in the scientific community on both sides of the Atlantic had known this for years, but Morse and Cooke were just amateur tinkerers. Cooke was rescued by Wheatstone (who was a member of the scientific community), and Morse was rescued by being introduced to Professor Leonard Gale (also a member of the scientific community).

They both finally managed to make working prototypes. Then they ran into the hardest problem of all: trying to penetrate the thick armor of industrial-grade stupid encasing the brains of the skeptics. The electric telegraph was a step too far on the abstract scale for the skeptics to see. At least compared to the dirt-simple straightforward semaphore tower. The semaphore towers were after all just a large mechanical version of a man waving semaphore flags, easy for skeptics to understand. But the skeptics could not see the point behind all this electrical wire dot-and-dash bull poop. Kind of like how newspaper and magazine companies in 1980 would scoff at the idea they would be driven into bankruptcy by this silly "internet" thing.

Both teams tried to find investors to fund a demonstration line in a desperate attempt to convince the skeptics. Alas willing investors were hard to find. As a side note, Morse and Cooke met each other as Morse was sniffing around for British investors, and immediately they had a cat fight. Morse gave up on Britain when he realized Cooke would sabotage any and all attempt to get British money. Morse had earned Cooke's undying hatred by being the second person threatening Cooke's monopoly of telegraph glory. Geez, what an asshat!

Eventually Morse managed to make a Washington-Baltimore line, and forced the skeptics to eat crow when he transmitted the names of the Baltimore Whig National Convention nominees to the Washington station sixty-four minutes before the info arrived by train. The skeptics were impressed in spite of themselves.

Cooke got a demo line working as well. It was thought to be an amusing but pointless gizmo. Until it gave the London Times a hot scoop of the birth of Queen Victoria's second son in forty minutes flat. The Times had nothing but good things to say about the telegraph after that. Three trainloads of Lords departed for Windsor to attend the birthday banquet, but the Duke of Wellington forgot his dress suit. He telegraphed London for it to be sent on the following train and again the telegraph proved its worth.

Sadly on both sides of the Atlantic, the respective governments were loath to fund the expansion of the telegraph system. But once private companies got their hands on the telegraph, they started making money hand-over-fist. Telegraph lines started to cross the US like cobwebs spun by hyperactive spiders strung out on crystal meth.

The Pony Express was founded in 1860 and could get a letter from St. Joseph Missouri to Sacramento California in ten days flat. It closed in October 26, 1861, two days after the telegraph line reached Sacramento.

In Britain the telegraph mostly spread along side the rail roads. It also spread across several European countries (who saw a new and improved way to make their iron grip on their provinces even stronger). With the exception of France. The French were still enamoured of their obsolete national semaphore system which had astonished the world, and were reluctant to replace it with some confounded foreign British contraption.

As telegraph networks reached the edge of national borders, treaties were made between nations to interconnect their systems. The first was between Prussia and Austria, and it was rather silly. Instead of directly connecting the telegraph wires across the border, they built a joint office straddling the border. A message would come down the telegraph line on one side, be written down, the clerk would walk the paper from one side of the office to the other (thus crossing the border), and the message would be telegraphed up the other telegraph line. Nations got real touchy about anything that would weaken their borders.

There was, however, one rather large obstacle. The Atlantic Ocean in general and the English Channel in particular. England was cut off from Europe, and the United States was cut off from everybody.

Laying underwater telegraph lines is a nightmare.

You can't use rubber, seawater corrodes it (which was good news to the gutta-percha merchants). The wire has to be heavy enough to sink. The water changes the electromagnetic characteristics of the wire, making the Morse code signals mushy. To the people of the time a transatlantic cable was akin to how we look at traveling to Alpha Centauri: it would be real nice but it ain'ta gonna happen for thousands of years.

In 1856 the newly-formed Atlantic Telegraph Company decided to try it anyway. Unfortunately their chief electrician was a crack-pot named Edward Orange Wildman Whitehouse. One can be competent in a field by educational experience or competent by practical on-the-job learning. Whitehouse had neither. His design for the cable was utterly wrong in practically every detail.

After about two years worth of effort, the blasted cable was finally laid all the way across the Atlantic. The world went wild! It was the greatest event of the century! And many suggested it would lead to a end to war, muskets being melted down and made into candlesticks. The telegraph was hailed as an instrument of world peace. Gee, that sounds familiar.

But Whitehouse's stinker of a cable never worked very well, and immediately started to deteriorate. Less than a month later it stopped working at all.

The world savagely attacked the Atlantic Telegraph Company. Some even suggested it was a hoax. A joint committee was appointed to get to the bottom of the mess (including committee member Professor Wheatstone). The star witness was Professor William Thomson (aka 1st Baron Kelvin), who conclusively proved the disaster was due to the incompetent Whitehouse and his near-terminal case of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Whitehouse was fired, and he reacted by immediately blaming everybody but himself and writing a pack of lies disguised as a book in a futile attempt at spin-doctoring his way out of the mess. It didn't work.

The Atlantic Telegraph Company had no trouble raising money for a second attempt (since the investors thought it was obviously all the fault of that lunatic Whitehouse, which was mostly true). This time the cable was professionally designed by Thomson. The cable was laid by the largest seagoing vessel afloat, the white elephant ship SS Great Eastern. After a few mishaps, the cable was successfully laid in 1865. It worked perfectly.

The very first day the cable earned an amazing one thousand pounds sterling in telegraph fees ($41,000 in 2010 dollars). And in a mere two years, the Atlantic Telegraph Company had earned enough profit to pay off all its monstrous debts. The cable was a freaking gold mine. Back in 1844 it took ten weeks to send a message from London to Bombay, now it took about four minutes to send a message and get the answer back. The world did some major shrinking. Businesses soon found it to be indispensable. The telegraph company was swimming in money.

The telegraph and submarine cable business was booming. Everybody wanted to invest, seed money came pouring in to lay more cables.

The sun never set on the British Empire, and they intended it to stay that way. England needed reliable telegraph lines to all its subject countries. And "reliable" meant not allowing the line to be vulnerable to other countries it happened to pass through. England created a special "intra-imperial telegraphy network" that other countries could not shut down. This increased the central control of London over the outlying British subject countries, and helped to protect Imperial messages from being spied upon by hostile nations. The intra-imperial telegraphy network had connections to various national networks, but would still still operate even if all the national networks were cut off.

Of course all the talk about the telegraph ushering in a new era of world peace was a steaming load of whale dreck. Improved communication with other nations just gives you new and improved reasons to be bigoted about those obnoxious creeps living in foreign parts. And when some paradigm-shifting shiny new tech toy hits the scene, there is always the same tired old song and dance. Pundits exaggerate the ability of the tech to improve the world, while being totally oblivious to how the tech enables so many new ways to be evil. The sad fact of the matter is that the type of people who are best at discovering the possibilities of a new invention are the crooks and con-artists. The telegraph opened up entire new categories for fraud, theft, and deception.

By the 1830s the semaphore system was being used to transmit stock market info, and about five minutes later it was being used for fraud. Evil bankers François and Joseph Blanc bribed a semaphore operator to transmit secret stock info using a clever system of coded transmissions disguised as "errors." The bankers watched the semaphore tower from a distance, for plausible deniability. They got away with it for almost two years before being caught.

Since telegraphs are incredibly faster than pony express, it can be used by crooks to exploit "information imbalance". This is where you have an advantage if you have access to secret information. Example: Horse races. If it takes the pony express three days to get name of the Derby winner to your sleepy little boondocks town, the bookies will let you place bets on a race that happened three days ago. Naturally the bookies will be enraged if you use the telegraph to find out the winner in advance, and place a huge bet where you already know the outcome.

My maternal grandfather managed to exploit this when he was a young man. He was on the street in California, in a crowd listening to the radio. The radio announcer was giving a play by play account of a baseball game happening in New York. Since my grandfather was a telegrapher for the US Navy, he could hear the Morse Code in the background. It was giving the baseball details, which were then decoded into English and given to the announcer. Which means my grandfather knew what the announcer was going to say half a minute in advance. He won quite a bit of money taking bets with other people in the crowd, before the crowd turned ugly and he decided to leave.

It took the lawmakers far too long to pass laws making it illegal to telegraph horse race results, a delay common with new technologies (and of course the main result of the law was to encourage the crooks to use secret codes). You may think technology outrunning the law started happening with Nigerian Email Scams on the internet, but Police Inspector John Bonfield was bitterly complaining about it in 1888. Everything old is new again.

In 1886 a crook named Myers tried to bribe a telegraph operator to delay transmission of horse racing results, allowing Myers to place bets on winning horses. When he was arrested, the authorities discovered there was no existing law he could be charged with. Delaying mail was illegal but the telegraphy hadn't been invented when the law was passed. Again the law had to be frantically extended to cover the new technology. It was too late to charge Myers, but in the meantime he managed to kill himself by ODing on laudanum.

The use of codes and cyphers in telegraph messages was forbidden, except by governments and telegraph officials. The Electric Telegraph Company used this to legally exploit information imbalance. They transmitted stocks and share prices that were public knowledge in London to the boondocks of Edinburgh Scotland, where the info was a valuable commodity. All in official code, of course. In Edinburgh bankers and merchants could obtain the information from the Electric Telegraph Company, for a fee.

The legality of secret codes started to become a tangled mess when telegraph networks of different nations became interconnected. The rules of each nation were contradictory. There were even rules about which languages were legal for telegraph messages. As more countries made bilateral connection treaties, the mess just grew. So in 1864 the French government hosted an international conference of twenty nations to sort things out. The result was the International Telegraph Union (ITU). One of the major results was that the no-code rule was killed, now anybody can use secret codes in their telegraph messages. And suddenly everybody did.

But besides secrecy, another reason to use codes was to cut down on your outrageous telegraph bill. You paid by the word. Non-secret code books (Brevity Codes) appeared on the market. They had about 50,000 code words along with associated messages. You saved 6 words by sending the code word GNAPHALIO instead of "Please Send A Supply Of Light Clothing." All you had to do was be sure your recipient had a copy of the same book, available at your local bookstore. Brevity codes were very popular with shipping managers and others who used underwater telegraph messages. Those cost an arm and a leg, about $100 per ten words (about 1,346.81 in 2010 dollars). Companies and industries started making their own customized codebooks, with vocabularies optimized for their specific needs.

There is a sample telegraph code book here, for your perusal.

For the paranoid, they used cyphers instead. This was more secret, but produced long strings of apparently random characters.

The telegraph operators became annoyed, because trying to read and send gibberish really made their lives harder, and drastically slows down your words-per-minute rate. Which costs the operators money, they get a bonus if their words per minute is over 40. The ITU came to the rescue with new rules. Codes were fine as long as the code words were pronounceable and no more than seven syllables. But gibberish cyphers were charged on the basis that every five letters counts as one "word." Since your average normal word is longer than that, bottom line is that sending cyphers was more expensive.

Predictably the code book makers tried pushing the envelope with some very hard to pronounce longish words that were technically only six syllables. In 1875 the ITU pushed back with a fifteen letter limit on code words. The result was words that were only 15 letters but still a nightmare to pronounce and send. So the ITU slammed back with a 10 letter limit AND the word had to be a genuine word of either German, English, Spanish, French, Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, or Latin.

A drawback of using brevity codes is that a one-letter mistake in sending a code word can catastrophically alter the meaning of the entire message. Which can result in very expensive mistakes. In 1887 a wool dealer named Frank Primrose send a coded telegraph message to his agent saying he had purchased 500,000 pounds of wool. "I Have Bought" was the code word BAY. The fumble-fingered telegrapher accidentally sent the words BUY, which means (surprise surprise) "buy". Morse for "A" is dot-dash, while "U" is dot-dot-dash. Very easy to make a mistake. The agent got the incorrect message and duly purchased 500,000 pounds of wool. Primrose lost $20,000 (about $270,000 in 2010 dollars). He sued the telegraph company, but unfortunately he had failed to pay the two cents extra for the message to be verified. So the court awarded him a refund of $1.15, the cost of the message.

New codes were devised where every single word in the code book differed from every other word by two letters or more, to prevent such disasters. If a letter got altered, the bogus code word would not be in the code book at all. Look-up tables in the back of the book allowed the receiver to puzzle out what the bogus code word originally was.

The trouble was is that the list of genuine ten letter words that differ by two letters or more is really tiny. There are not enough of them. So the code writers tried yet again to push the envelope by using deliberately misspelled words. The ITU tried to clamp down again by making an official list of allowed code words. But this proved to be impossible. So the ITU just gave up. Sorry telegraph operators, you are on your own.

Banks wanted to use the telegraph to transfer money, but they were afraid of bank fraud. They had a few cypher schemes but the schemes were not very secure. Things changed when a certain telegraph company named Western Union figured out a super-secure scheme using numbered codebooks (basically one-time pads) and passwords held by regional superintendents. Western Union had figured out how to "wire money."

There were some people who were married over telegraph, if the bride, groom, and minister could not be at the same location for some reason or other. One is reminded of the classic Star Trek episode Mudd's Women, where the lithium miners on the desolate planet Rigel XII married the women using Subspace radio marriage.

Telegraphers were part of a geeky closed community, where outsiders just didn't understand their world (much like modern-day computer hackers). Operators could often recognize other operators their "fist," their idiosyncratic way of typing Morse Code. During slack times, bored operators would play telegraphic checkers and chat with each other. Many operators were women, commonly between eighteen and thirty years old and unmarried. Telegraphers would sometimes romance each other by telegraph and eventually marry (though occasionally the romances would abruptly end when the couple met for the first time and actually got to see each other).

In Terry Pratchett's novel Raising Steam, Adora Belle is the CEO of the Ankh Morpork semaphore company (the "clacks"). They have special lanterns so messages can be sent at night. She knows that at night lonely clacksmen and clackswomen would fraternize via the clacks during slack hours, and she approved. The clackspeople would woo each other over the clacks and marry, with the happy result of little clacksmen and clackswomen being born. The semaphore company needs all the clackspeople they can get. And a clacksperson marrying a non-clacksperson is an unstable marriage, best they marry each other.

Telegraphers were stratified by skill. They looked with scorn on the part-time operators in the small towns (sneeringly calling them "plugs" or "hams"). Your level in the hierarchy was measured by how many words per minute you could send and receive. First class operators could do 25 to 30 words per minute. The elite "bonus men" could do 40 wpm or more (and got a pay bonus as reward). The company didn't care if you were a man or woman (or even a child), the important point was your words per minute. Wandering operators going from job to job were called "boomers." No job interview, the company just set you down to a busy wire and saw if you could handle it or not. Because boomers knew they could find a job anywhere they were often itinerant and commonly suffering from alcoholism or mental health disorders (much like short order cooks according to Anthony Bourdain).

Telegraphers got their start at a young age, in some backwoods town filling in a position part-time. There were lots of books and pamphlets around teaching Morse Code. If they had some skill it was time to go to the big city. Actually it was well known that becoming a telegrapher was one of the best ways to escape from a sleepy little dead-end town.

A newbie at a telegraph company would often be subjected to a hazing ritual called "salting." The hazers would set the newbie down to a telegraph line, not knowing that the hazers had secretly put a hot-shot bonus man on the other end. The bonus man would start out slow, but then gradually go faster and faster until the sweating newbie had to give up. Ha-ha, gotcha kid! This didn't work when they tried salting young Thomas Edison. He was better than the bonus man. Edison sarcastically told the bonus man "Why don't you use the other foot?"

Unsurprisingly the telegraph revolutionized the newspaper industry. In the good-ol' days the news from foreign parts could be six weeks old, the advent of the telegraph created the new concept of "breaking news." The paper that got the news out first was the winner, which was a jolting development for the traditionally turtle-slow news media. On the plus side, fresh news on an event in progress could be reported in installments. The paper could put out four editions on a developing story and the news-hungry citizens would buy all four.

Newspapers sending separate reporters to an event was a waste of talent, so the papers formed groups to pool their resources and prevent duplicate efforts. The first one in the US was the New York Associated Press, you may have heard of it. Another news agency was founded in Europe by a fellow named Paul von Reuter, you might have heard of that one as well. Reuter had started before semaphore, using homing pigeons to send stock market quotes. With the rise of the electric telegraph, Reuter "followed the cable" and moved his operation to London.

During the Crimean War the British government found out the hard way that newspapers with timely news can give aid and comfort to the enemy. Before the telegraph the British War Ministry would routinely issue details of troop movements to the newspapers. This was safe because the papers would arrive at the target nations weeks after the troops. But now with the telegraph, enemy agents in London could read all the details in the Times and telegraph them directly to Russia at the speed of light. Russia could actually have the news before the commander of the British troops. Naturally when the War Ministry started to censor its reports, the Times became quite angry.

The Crimean War also gave the British and French troops a harsh introduction to the "back seat driver syndrome." They got the bright idea of laying a telegraph line into the Crimean peninsula. Up until now commanders in the field would be in charge, since orders from the capital can take weeks to arrive. But the telegraph meant the commanders found themselves being constantly second-guessed and micromanaged by the incompetent superiors in London and Paris, every fifteen minutes or so.

The telegraph also gave England their first taste of the Vietnam Effect, where the people at home were horrified at their first experience with instant news from the center of the battle. Until now news from the battlefront would take weeks to arrive, and be white-washed for public consumption. But now with the telegraph the news would be up-to-the-minute, and be the raw truth.

The war was badly organized due to government mismanagement (which was common). Pre-telegraph this didn't matter, the public never knew. But now reporters on the scene telegraphed in graphic exposés of soldiers being wrongly or inadequately equipped, with no proper medical support. The Times gleefully made this front-page news. This was an eye-opener for the citizens at home. It certainly put the British government on the hot seat.

Diplomats were also disrupted by the speed of the telegraph. Before they had the luxury of time to deal with any diplomatic incident, since it would take weeks for the news to reach back home. Now with the telegraph, the news was on the headlines the very next day, with the public screaming for an instant response. Worse, it would also be in the hands of other foreign governments, doing an end-run around normal diplomatic channels. The diplomatic embassies had to have dedicated telegraph lines installed, and senior diplomats in London had lines in their homes connecting them to the embassies.

With respect to empire building, note that both the Crimean War micromanagement and the diplomatic pressure had the effect of centralizing power in London.

The telegraph had a great run, but it started to decline in 1877. It was killed by a new tech toy, Alexander Graham Bell's "telephone." Which is currently in the process of being killed by radio, in the form of smart phones.

Clacks Tower

(ed note: the "clacks" network is a semaphore telegraph system. The quote echos the early days of computer hacker at MIT, where they were all young, obsessed with computers, and spoke in technical jargon. The reference to kids echos the early days of the electric telegraph. The "hour of the dead" is the hour each day used for tower maintenance.)

It was called the lucky clacks tower, Tower 181. It was close enough to the town of Bonk for a man to be able to go and get a hot bath and a good bed on his days off, but since this was Uberwald there wasn’t too much local traffic and – this was important – it was way, way up in the mountains and management didn’t like to go that far. In the good old days of last year, when the Hour of the Dead took place every night, it was a happy tower because both the up-line and the down-line got the Hour at the same time, so there was an extra pair of hands for maintenance. Now Tower 181 did maintenance on the fly or not at all, just like all the others, but it was still, proverbially, a good tower to man.

Mostly man, anyway. Back down on the plains it was a standing joke that 181 was staffed by vampires and werewolves. In fact, like a lot of towers, it was often manned by kids.

Everyone knew it happened. Actually, the new management probably didn't, but wouldn’t have done anything about it if they’d found out, apart from carefully forgetting that they’d known. Kids didn’t need to be paid.

The – mostly – young men on the towers worked hard in all weathers for just enough money. They were loners, hard dreamers, fugitives from the law that the law had forgotten, or just from everybody else. They had a special kind of directed madness; they said the rattle of the clacks got into your head and your thoughts beat time with it so that sooner or later you could tell what messages were going through by listening to the rattle of the shutters. In their towers they drank hot tea out of strange tin mugs, much wider at the bottom so that they didn’t fall over when gales banged into the tower. On leave, they drank alcohol out of anything. And they talked a gibberish of their own, of donkey and nondonkey, system overhead and packet space, of drumming it and hotfooting, of a 181 (which was good) or flock (which was bad) or totally flocked (really not good at all) and plug-code and hog-code and jacquard (punch cards) . . .

And they liked kids, who reminded them of the ones they’d left behind or would never have, and kids loved the towers. They’d come and hang around and do odd jobs and maybe pick up the craft of semaphore just by watching. They tended to be bright, they mastered the keyboard and levers as if by magic, they usually had good eyesight and what they were doing, most of them, was running away from home without actually leaving.

Because, up on the towers, you might believe you could see to the rim of the world. You could certainly see several other towers, on a good clear day. You pretended that you too could read messages by listening to the rattle of the shutters, while under your fingers flowed the names of faraway places you’d never see but, on the tower, were somehow connected to...

Grandad had been hunched in the corner, repairing a shutter box in this cramped shed halfway up the tower. Grandad was the tower-master and had been everywhere and knew everything. Everyone called him Grandad. He was twenty-six.

'I can’t stand this,' muttered Grandad. 'Roger, let’s get this tower working again. We’ve got local signals to send, haven’t we?'

'Sure. And stuff waiting on the drum,' said Roger.

Princess looked out from the upstream window. '182’s lit up,' she announced.

'Right! Let’s light up and shift code,' Grandad growled. 'That’s what we do! And who’s going to stop us? All those without something to do, get out! We are running!'

Princess went out on to the little platform, to be out of the way. Underfoot the snow was like icing sugar, in her nostrils the air was like knives.

When she looked across the mountains, in the direction she’d learned to think of as downstream, she could see that Tower 180 was sending. At that moment, she heard the thump and click of 181’s own shutters opening, dislodging snow. We shift code, she thought. It’s what we do.

Up on the tower, watching the star-like twinkle of the Trunk in the clear, freezing air, it was like being part of the sky.

From Going Postal by Terry Pratchett (2004)


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)

Other Thoughts

Can Galactic Empires Exist?

Four Obstacles

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

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.

As a point of terminology, the marches or boondocks of a galactic empire are generally called the "rim" or the "fringe."

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.

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. Of course this runs the risk of an ambitious sector governor getting ideas about declaring independence.

In the Renegade Legion universe, the Terran Overlord Government (TOG) alone has the technology for "Very Large Communication Relays" (VLCA). These are titanic FTL communication installations (meaning they will not fit inside a standard starship) that have a range of pretty much anywhere inside the entire Milky Way galaxy. Their rivals have to make do with P-Comm FTL communication, which are lucky if they can reach a neighboring star system. Such is the overwhelming advantage of TOG having VLCAs, that for the Renagades such installations are pretty much the primary military target in a given star system. If the Renagades can destroy the VLCA, the TOG loses its communication advantage and the military odds become more equal.

I was fooling around with trying to mathematically model this, 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

Ungovernable Galaxy

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
Trope-a-Day: Ungovernable Galaxy

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.

Too Much Hierarchy

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
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
Emergent Behavior and the End of Management

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.

How Ants Find Food

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

Ant Colony Optimization

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 as Cradles of Life and Advanced Civilizations

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)

From Globular Clusters as Cradles of Life and Advanced Civilizations by Stefano and Ray (2016)

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"

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

(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

Germinating in regions far apart, these empires easily mastered any sub-utopian worlds that lay within reach. Thus they spread from one planetary system to another, til at last empire made contact with empire.

Then followed wars such as had never occurred before in our galaxy. Fleets of worlds, natural and artificial, manoeuvred among the stars to outwit one another, and destroyed one another with long-range jets of sub-atomic energy. As the tides of battle spread hither and thither through space, whole planetary systems were annihilated. Many a world spirit found a sudden end. Many a lowly race that had no part in the strife was slaughtered in the celestial warfare that raged around it.

From Star Maker by Olaf Stapeldon (1937)

"- and then, of course, continue till all the barbarians have been conquered," said Manuel.

"Why?" I demanded. "Interstellar imperialism can't be made to pay. It does for the barbarians because they haven't the technical facilities to produce at home what they can steal elsewhere. But Sol would only be taking on a burden."

"For defense," said Manuel. "You don't think I'd let a defeated enemy go off to lick his wounds and prepare a new attack, do you? No, everyone but Sol must be disarmed, and the only way to enforce such a peace is for Sol to be the unquestioned ruler." He added thoughtfully: "Oh, the empire won't have to expand forever. Just till it's big enough to defend itself against all corners. And a bit of economic readjustment could make it a paying proposition, too. We could collect tribute, you know."

"An empire-?" asked Kathryn. "But the Commonwealth is democratic-"

"Was democratic!" he snapped. "Now it's rotted away. Too bad, but you can't revive the dead. This is an age in history such as has often occurred before when the enforced peace of Caesarism is the only solution. Maybe not a good solution but better than the devastation we're suffering now. When there's been a long enough period of peace and unity it may be time to think of reinstating the old republicanism. But that time is many centuries in the future, if it ever comes. Just now the socio-economic conditions aren't right for it."

He took a restless turn about the bridge. A million stars of space in the viewport blazed like a chill crown over his head. "It'll be an empire in fact," he said, "and therefore it should be an empire in name. People will fight and sacrifice and die for a gaudy symbol when the demands of reality don't touch them. We need a hereditary aristocracy to put on a good show. It's always effective, and the archaism is especially valuable to Sol just now. It'll recall the good old glamorous days before space travel. It'll be even more of a symbol now than it was in its own age. Yes, an empire, Kathryn, the Empire of Sol. Peace, ye underlings!"

"Aristocracies decay," I argued. "Despotism is all right as long as you have an able despot but sooner or later a meathead will be born-"

"Not if the dynasty starts with strong men and women, and continues to choose good breeding stock, and raises the sons in the same hard school as the fathers. Then it can last for centuries. Especially in these days of gerontology and hundred-year active lifespans."

I laughed at him. "One ship, and you're planning an empire in the Galaxy!" I jeered. "And you yourself, I suppose, will be the first emperor?"

His eyes were expressionless. "Yes," he said. "Unless I find a better man, which I doubt."

Kathryn bit her lip. "I don't like it," she said. "It's- cruel."

"This is a cruel age, my dear," he said gently.

He added after a moment, as if to himself: "Hate is a useful means to an end but damned dangerous. We'll have to get the racist complex out of mankind. We can't conquer anyone, even the Gorzuni, and keep them as inferiors and hope to have a stable empire. All races must be equal." He rubbed his strong square chin. "I think I'll borrow a leaf from the old Romans. All worthy individuals, of any race, can become Terrestrial citizens. It'll be a stabilizing factor."

From "The Star Plunderer" by Poul Anderson (1952)

In the short story "Shadow on the Stars" by Algis Budrys (1954), 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, as edited by David Drake in Space Dreadnoughts

On the Rise and Fall of Great Powers

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)

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)

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)

Atomic Rockets notices

This week's featured addition is nuclear spacecraft A. C. Clark

Atomic Rockets

Support Atomic Rockets

Support Atomic Rockets on Patreon