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.

What Do You Mean By Empire?

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

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


Society and Culture

Like all nations, interstellar empires will have an over-all society and culture (which is probably not true for sub-empire groups of governments such as suzerainties, confederations, etc.). And the culture may not only evolve with time, it may even go through cycles.

David Maurer's Modern Transformation tries to explain the evolution of society and culture in terms of subsequent answers to the burning question of "where is the food going to come from?" That is, the mechanisms of food production and food distribution. Tribal society was based on a subsistence economy, where most people hunt, gather, herd, or grow their own food. The relatively small amount of distribution was handled by sharing or barter between family and neighbors. Aristocrat-peasant society was fed by a subordinate class of peasants who worked the land and delivered a substantial part of the harvest to their aristocratic lords, without being paid. This was a command distribution system. Modern society depends on markets for food production and distribution, in other words it all revolves around something called "money".

Some characteristics of future societies can be extrapolated from their origins. The tired old example is the "Wild West" society from the United State's pioneer period. When one is living on the frontier rim where the government and the law is a distant and tenuous thing, often the only law is what one makes oneself, i.e., "taking the law into ones own hands." As civilization and development washed over the West, society became more stodgy.

In the Albedo Anthropomorphics universe of Steve Gallacci, one has a cluster of planets colonized by slower-than-light starships (yes, the colonists are furry anthropomorphic animals, but that is beside the point). The planetary cultures that were founded as a consequence have a "shipboard discipline mentality."

Consider, on a spacecraft, if a civilian saw something like an air leak in the hull, and didn't report it to anybody, they would be endangering not only their own life but also the lives of everybody on the colony ship. So that is a crime.

In the United States on the other hand, if a person sees somebody lying injured on the side of the road, and they try to help the injured one, more often than not they wind up being sued by the injured person. Hands off, do not get involved, it is not your problem.

In the Albedo universe, with the shipboard discipline mentality, it is a crime not to try and help somebody who is injured, and there are "Good Samaritan" laws to protect the helpers.

Obviously matters of practicality can also affect the shape of a society.

The Albedo universe is not colonized by human beings, instead the various planets are populated by various species of Terran animals genetically engineered to intelligence.

Now with most Terran mammals, the female is only sexually attractive to the male when they go into estrus (aka "in heat"). At other times the males could care less (similar to the attitudes of young pre-adolescent boys who think that girls are stupid and icky, an attitude that undergoes a marked change when puberty strikes). Consequence: in the Albedo universe there are no nudity taboos, and mixed-gender washing and toilet facilities are the norm.

But when estrus occurs the females must go into seclusion and/or use powerful deodorants. Otherwise all the males within smelling distance suddenly start acting like sexually-frustrated 16-year-old boys.

When Frank Herbert wanted to write his novel Dune, he did not want his future society to be some sort of cyberpunk future. He wanted something medieval in space. So he postulated in his future history a period where people revolted against computers and related technology in the "Butlerian Jihad", which outlawed all thinking machines. This justified Herbert's desired medieval future.

In Piers Anthony's Cluster series he postulated that there were five cultural types, labeled by the five suits of Tarot cards (Anthony's minor arcana has a fifth suit instead of the customary four). All the galactic aliens fall into one of the five categories. Anthony apparently had a lot of fun creating the characteristics of each of the five types, and illustrating the cultural clashes inherent when different types interacted. Highly unlikely to be true in reality, but it gave the author something to work with.

In the classic Battlestar Galactica TV series, there are twelve human colonies with names like Sagittaron, Gemenon, Caprica, etc. Like the rest of the "Chariots of the Gods" schtick in the show, this is supposed to be the ancient high-tech ancestor of some mystical occult Fortean stuff from Terra's alleged history. In this case it is the astrological signs of the zodiac. According to astrology, the sign of the zodiac the sun is occupying at the instant of your birth foretells your major personality traits. According to Battlestar Galactica, these are actually major personality traits of citizens living in the colony in question. The personality of the sun-sign Sagittarius is the same as the Sagittarons, sun-sign Gemenon is zodiac sign Gemini, and so on. Total felgercarb, but at least it gave the episode writers some quick-and-dirty guidelines when creating characters.

Note that the critical part of both Anthony and BSG's cultural classifications is that they cover the entire spectrum of possible cultures, with no holes. This means that Anthony's five-category system is very low-resolution, and BSG's twelved-category system is only slightly better. Which is a liability for a scientist but may be an advantages for an author.

Cultural historian Riane Eisler proposes a new social paradigm that places various cultures on a spectrum with the Dominator model at one end and the Partnership model at the other.

Partnership culture is characterized by:

  • Organization according to the ideals of a democratic structure
  • Equal partnership between men and women
  • A lack of tolerance for abuse and violence
  • Belief systems that validate an empathetic perspective

Dominator culture is characterized by:

  • Authoritarian social and family structure
  • Rigid male dominance
  • A high level of violence and abuse
  • A system of beliefs that normalizes such a society
(Chalice Culture)
(Blade Culture)
Symbol: Gatherer's BagSymbol: Hunter's Flint Knive
Power comes from the creation and nurturing of lifePower comes from the coercion and killing of life
Reveres LifeReveres Death
Sex is goodSex is bad
Violence is badViolence is good
the ultimate sexual taboo is Incest
(because it harms the family)
the ultimate sexual taboo is Homosexuality
(because it harms masculinity)
Life is a Non-Zero Sum gameLife is a Zero-Sum Game
Obtain new items by creating them yourselfWhy bother making things when you can steal them at knife point?


...This kind of society sometimes has the outward appearance of being an aristocrat peasant society, but in reality the common people have not been reduced to peasant status and are not compelled to deliver large amounts of food to their political leaders. This means that the common people retain a great deal of personal freedom and independence. These people fully realize that they have much more freedom than the peasants in neighboring societies and are determined to defend it. Most of the men carry weapons most of the time.

This group contains quite a large number of different people. It includes Albanians, Kurds, Chechens, Berbers, Druse, many of the Arab countries, Afghans, a number of groups in Central Asia, Tibetans, Mongols, Gurkhas, and a number of Hill Tribes in Southeast Asia. The Scottish Highlanders were a member of this group before they were destroyed in the 18th century.

Most of these people lived in mountains, deserts, and difficult hill country where it was just not possible to produce a reliable food surplus. They were tough, well armed, and sometimes envious of the wealth that was produced by their more prosperous neighbors. It used to be common for many of them to raid their neighbors for food, women, and moveable wealth. It was a very macho form of society that admired physical toughness and ability with weapons. These aristocrat tribal societies seem to have a high level of resistance to the transition into modern nation-states.

(ed note: sound much like the Klingon Empire from classic original Star Trek)


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

      As civilization has advanced, the pack-bond (the tribe, the extended family) has been broken. This is the root of the widely diagnosed "anomie" or "alienation" or "existential anguish" about which so many social critics have written so eloquently.

     What has happened is that the conditioning of the bio-survival bond to the gene-pool has been replaced by a conditioning of bio-survival drives to hook onto the peculiar tickets which we call "money".

     Concretely, a modern man or woman doesn't look for bio-survival security in the gene-pool, the pack, the extended family. Bio-survival depends on getting the tickets. "You can't live without money," as the Living Theatre troop used to cry out in anguish. If the tickets are withdrawn, acute bio-survival anxiety appears at once.
     Imagine, as vividly as possible, what you would feel, and what you would do, if all your sources to bio-survival tickets (money) were cut off tomorrow. This is precisely what tribal men and women feel if cut off from the tribe; it is why exile, or even ostracism, were sufficient punishments to enforce tribal conformity throughout most of human history. As recently as Shakespeare's day the threat of exile was an acute terror signal ("Banished!" cries Romeo, "the damned use that word in Hell!")
     In traditional society, belonging to the tribe was bio-security; exile was terror, and real threat of death. In modern society, having the tickets (money) is bio-security; having the tickets withdrawn is terror.

From PROMETHEUS RISING by Robert Anton Wilson (1983)

Culture Axis Charts

For empire government and social psychologies, the powerful "Interesting Holes" technique is always good to use. The initial problem is one has to invent or research a classification system to use. There are some that are readily available. These often take the form of axis charts, which are scatter plots of two variables.

Jerry Pournelle has an interesting classification system for political movements within a government.

The X-axis is "Statism" or attitude towards the State. The extreme positive X-axis represents the movement's belief that the State is a positive good, nay, worthy of worship. The negative X-axis is the belief that the State is the ultimate evil.

The Y-axis is "Rationalism" or attitude toward planned social progress. It is the belief that society has "problems," and these can be "solved." The extreme postive Y-axis represents the belief that all social problems have findable solutions.

There are some other amusing X-Y classification systems. The Political Compass is similar to Pournelle's, but with a Libertarian bent.

The Dungeons and Dragon game had each character choose their "alignment" from the alignment chart. This chart had an "ethical" X-axis between Chaotic and Lawful, and a "moral" Y-axis between Good and Evil.

If you believe that "the good of the many outweights the good of the few", you are Lawful, otherwise you are Chaotic.

If you believe that "the ends justify the means" then you are Evil, otherwise you are Good.

On either axis you could be "Neutral".


It is a truth universally acknowledged among wonky introverts that derive their identity from the contents of their minds over the coalition to which they belong that the left-right political spectrum must be in want of an overhaul.

The political spectrum is one-dimensional for a reason: conflicts tend to come down to two sides. If there aren’t the factions will join up or spilt until there are. Each side will have a center of gravity, and since we can draw a line between any two points there will be a spectrum. All was well until the sticklers objected. It wasn’t just that no single side appealed to them, but that no point on the line between them did.

So the political compass was invented.

It augmented a mostly economic left-right axis with a social axis ranging from the “authoritarian” to the “libertarian”. This allowed its most vocal fans to express their distinction by congregating in the lower right corner, which is underserved by electoral politics but popular among people who liked to argue politics on the internet 15 years ago.

The compass became wildly popular but I’ve never been a big fan. Part of the reason is that one tends to be underwhelmed by classification models that don’t result in a clear position for oneself. The compass doesn’t work for me, as I tend to wind up here:

This isn’t an accident or error, it’s a correct result given how the model is set up. But I still don’t get an identity and I doesn’t “do anything” for me. There’s no sense of insight.

However, this isn’t just about my personal dissatisfaction. I have some better objections.

When I worked as a consultant I made more of these 2-by-2:s than I can remember, and over the years I worked out a few rules of thumb for how to make them good:

  1. The axes should be independent or close to it. That means statisically independent as in “uncorrelated”, not just logically independent as in “not the exact same thing”.
  2. The axes should be inputs, ideally simple and as close to “fundamental” (whatever that means) as possible. They’re what explains, not what needs to be explained.
  3. Each end of the axes should be equal. They should be equally interesting, equally important and sometimes, if possible, equally good. If they’re outcomes (as in scenario planning) they should be approximately equally likely and one should not simply be the absence of the other (i.e. not “thing happens” vs. “thing doesn’t happen”.
  4. Something novel should emerge in the quadrants. Each intersection ought to be more than just the axis values put together. Interaction ought to produce a result with its own identity that we can recognize as a thing over and above its axis values[1].

I don’t think the political compass does very well according to these standards.

I’ll give it a pass on independence. It’s not perfect, since placing real politicians on it tends to yield a stretched blob from the bottom left to the top right, but I can accept that as partly an artifact of coalition politics as described above.

But the meaning of left and right is complex and it strikes me as more of an outcome than a basic attribute. The same applies to the authoritarian-libertarian axis. Few think of themselves as “authoritarian”, and those who are aren’t so for shits and giggles — you don’t value repression for its own sake (and don’t call it repression) but in the service of something, and that thing is more fundamental.

The axis (and the whole compass) is championed mostly by those with a libertarian bent, and freedom is central to them. But their opponents aren’t anti-freedom as such and defining them like that are going to be incorrect, and furthermore, loaded in a way we ought to avoid when making these models (as per rule three).

Also, “social issues” as commonly defined doesn’t stand out as a natural category to me. The axis that does exist seems to be what you’re permissive about and what you aren’t, more than how permissive you are across the board. It seems so if you constrict “social issues” to being about sex and drugs, but include political correctness, environmentalism and guns and it all looks less coherent except to the small minority the political compass was apparently made for.

The compass breaks my last rule most of all. Good 2-by-2:s are supposed to be “insight porn”, where everything falls into place when the axes are combined. This doesn’t happen. The quadrants don’t even get their own names! Look:

They’re just called “libertarian left”, “authoritarian left”, “authoritarian right” and “libertarian right”.  That’s it? That’s a failure in my book. Yes, you get some feel for what each quadrant is like, but they don’t seem to map on to the real political landscape all that much. All the memes built on the model portray them as, in order: hippies, stalinists, nazis and pseudo-Randians. That’s fun for playing internet weirdo games but it doesn’t in my opinon describe the real political world particularly well, since it sacrifices explaining most of the landscape for some funny stereotypes at the extremes. It puts me at “half hippie and half pseudo-Randian”. Thanks, that’s certainly one mix of falsehood and old news.

I want to suggest another way to produce a similar structure, but better according to my rules. I don’t expect it to inspire any memes, but it does result in what I consider to be real groupings, emergent and internally complex, out of what I similarly believe are more fundamental underlying psychological factors (attitudes and stances more than policy preferences).

Cognitive decoupling transplanted

I’ve written a fair bit about cognitive decoupling. Here’s Sarah Constantin describing the idea:

Stanovich talks about “cognitive decoupling”, the ability to block out context and experiential knowledge and just follow formal rules, as a main component of both performance on intelligence tests and performance on the cognitive bias tests that correlate with intelligence. Cognitive decoupling is the opposite of holistic thinking. It’s the ability to separate, to view things in the abstract, to play devil’s advocate.


Speculatively, we might imagine that there is a “cognitive decoupling elite” of smart people who are good at probabilistic reasoning and score high on the cognitive reflection test and the IQ-correlated cognitive bias tests. These people would be more likely to be male, more likely to have at least undergrad-level math education, and more likely to have utilitarian views. Speculating a bit more, I’d expect this group to be likelier to think in rule-based, devil’s-advocate ways, influenced by economics and analytic philosophy. I’d expect them to be more likely to identify as rational.

I used the concept in my article about the skirmish between public intellectuals Sam Harris and Ezra Klein last year:

High-decouplers isolate ideas and ideas from each other and the surrounding context. This is a necessary practice in science which works by isolating variables, teasing out causality and formalizing and operationalizing claims into carefully delineated hypotheses. Cognitive decoupling is what scientists do.


While science and engineering disciplines (and analytic philosophy) are populated by people with a knack for decoupling who learn to take this norm for granted, other intellectual disciplines are not. Instead they’re largely composed of what’s opposite the scientist in the gallery of brainy archetypes: the literary or artistic intellectual.

This crowd doesn’t live in a world where decoupling is standard practice. On the contrary, coupling is what makes what they do work. Novelists, poets, artists and other storytellers like journalists, politicians and PR people rely on thick, rich and ambiguous meanings, associations, implications and allusions to evoke feelings, impressions and ideas in their audience. The words “artistic” and “literary” refers to using idea couplings well to subtly and indirectly push the audience’s meaning-buttons.

In discussed it further and developed it into a broader concept in Decoupling Revisited and boiled it down to this in Postscript to a Podcast:

At its most general it just means looking at a single issue/question/idea/fact at a time. Related ideas, implications and associations etc. can only be brought in explicitly and with the consent of all parties. Contextualizing, on the other hand, means that all associative connections between ideas are valid and count as relevant if any party thinks they are.

Now I’ll continue to milk it by applying it to politics[2].

Decoupling is about ideas: how are they connected? By any association or only by strict logic? What’s the default relationship? Connected and you need to prove isolation (difficult or impossible), or separate and you need to justify a connection by willing agreement or by proving it beyond reasonable doubt?

Now what if we replace ideas with people?

In decoupled society the default relationship between two people is that of no obligations whatsoever (special circumstances like friendship or family bonds don’t count since we’re talking about the macro scale). The only obligations are to respect explicitly stated rights and agreements. No expectations beyond that are valid (for example, between employers and employees). Social problems can and should be adressed with formal means: contracts, property rights, tort law. Political decouplers like money and the market as institutions because they quantify and decontextualize social obligations.

In coupled society what it means to be a good person or what may be required of you at any point is open-ended. There are not clear boundaries between people and you are expected to take others’ or society’s interests into account as much as your own. Anything you do that plausibly affects anyone or anything outside yourself is everybody’s business; duties are not fully specified and can never be completely discharged or fulfilled. Social problems can and should be adressed by everyone taking on themselves to be more self-sacrificing and focus less on what rights they have to do what they want. Political couplers dislike money and the market for the same reasons decouplers like it[3].

Coupling and decoupling[4] as moral stances are obviously politically relevant. How about as factual stances? At least as much. According to a decoupled view, human beings are built from the inside out. They have traits, tastes and behaviors that results from a combination of inborn nature, rational thought and acts of will, and social structures are the emergent result of them interacting. In the coupled view, human beings are created from the outside in. They’re lumps of clay shaped to perform the roles assigned to them by a system tending to perpetuate itself, and individual selves are the emergent result of socialization into these roles[5].

Thrive and survive

Is that “left” and “right”? A little bit, yes, but it’s by no means the entire difference. There’s definitely a Right that celebrates conformity and fitting in, obedience to authority and tradition, and there’s also a Left that insists on their right to be and do what they want without restriction or condemnation.

We need something more. And remembering my first rule of thumb, it should be something as independent from the decoupling dimension as possible. The answer came to me right away in the form of this article from a few years back, where Scott Alexander defines left and right as “thrive” and “survive” type values:

My hypothesis is that rightism is what happens when you’re optimizing for surviving an unsafe environment, leftism is what happens when you’re optimized for thriving in a safe environment.

Before I explain, a story. Last night at a dinner party we discussed Dungeons and Dragons orientations. One guest declared that he thought Lawful Good was a contradiction in terms, very nearly at the same moment as a second guest declared that he thought Chaotic Good was a contradiction in terms. What’s up?

I think the first guest was expressing a basically leftist world view. It is a fact of nature that society will always be orderly, the economy always expanding. Crime will be a vague rumor but generally under control. All that the marginal unit of extra law enforcement adds to this pleasant state is cops beating up random black people, or throwing a teenager in jail because she wanted to try marijuana.

The second guest was expressing a basically rightist world view. The prosperous, orderly society we know and love is hanging by a frickin’ thread. At any moment, terrorists or criminals or just poor management could destroy everything. It is really really good that we have police in order to be the “thin blue line” between civilization and chaos, and we might sleep easier in our beds at night if that blue line were a little thicker and we had a little more buffer room.

The article goes on to give several examples but this is the gist. In a “survive” scenario (think famine, war or zombie apocalypse) mistakes are costly, outsiders are potential threats, keeping order is paramount and we can’t afford to be too generous towards the weak lest they pull us down with them. Only serious dangers are real problems and risk and discomfort are things we need to deal with.

In a “thrive” scenario by contrast (think true post-scarcity in a future automated economy), where we don’t even need to think about making a collective living we can afford almost limitless generosity towards the “other”, the non-useful, the few antisocial, the sensitive and the non-conformist. As we get richer we work towards eliminating ever smaller risks and discomforts.

This also captures a big part of left and right but not all of it, and I think the decoupling dimension picks up the remainder perfectly. For example, Scott A says that the thrive-survive model struggles with explaining why school choice is rightist, which the decoupling axis can handle.

Towards Left and Right

Think of the combination “coupled” and “thrive”. We’ve got far-reaching, non-enumerated duties toward the common good and self-sacrifice as the solution to problems. We don’t need to be concerned with survival/productivity and therefore don’t need to be stingy towards the needy —  especially since somebody’s problem is everybody’s problem. So we distribute the costs of individual weaknesses, mistakes and misfortunes throughout the population because we can afford to deal with them and nobody has the right to refuse.

This “we’re rich” plus “we’re in it together” produces a love for grand public works and programs meant to help and nurture the people in various ways. The fact that this requires taxation is not much of a problem since wealth is produced by the system as a whole anyway[6]. The reason we’re not using our society’s wealth to satisfy everyone’s needs is that some are hogging more than their fair share. Restrictions on behavior is mostly in service of combating this. This is close to the essence of the modern political left.

Putting “decoupled” and “survive” together yields the right. Here everybody is responsible for themselves and their loved ones only. You have your list of rights and obligations but anything more is strictly over and above what is required. Civilization is kept running by the productive and thus being productive must be rewarded and being unproductive or even destructive must be punished or at the very least not supported or society will stagnate or worse. You’ll suffer the consequences of your own mistakes and misfortunes because you must learn to improve, be an example to others — and because nobody else is obligated to clean up after you.

“We’re not rich enough” plus “limited, enumerated obligations” produces a skepticism of social programs deemed overly ambitious, intrusive, coddling or frivolous. The solution to poverty is the production of more wealth, which requires incentivizing the productive — the disciplined, smart, self-sufficient and responsible — to do so. Restrictions on behavior is mostly in service of cultivating these traits.

Putting the two dimensions together and tilting the whole thing so the left goes on the the left and the right on the right gives us this:

It’s very hard (and a popular internet pastime) to try to pin down the difference between left and right but I think this is them, in as pure a form as I’ve ever seen.

End of part 1.

In part 2 we’ll look at the other two quadrants and their tricky relationships to the left-right dichotomy.


[1] In fancy words: we want nonlinear interaction effects.

[2] Actually, that’s not fair. This isn’t a farfetched idea coming out of thinking about this concept excessively. I thought of it immediately after writing about decoupling for the first time so it’s more of a core feature than an exotic expansion.

[3] I suspect a large part of the attraction of strongly coupled political ideology like communism is due to dissatisfaction with the formalized, sterilized, and from a social and emotional perspective grossly distorted relations (both towards each other and to work itself) that results from the use of currency as the most important or only way to allocate obligations. Note this quote from Red Plenty, a book about the economic aspirations of the Soviet Union:

Marx had drawn a nightmare picture of what happened to human life under capitalism, when everything was produced only in order to be exchanged; when true qualities and uses dropped away, and the human power of making and doing itself became only an object to be traded.

Then the makers and the things made turned alike into commodities, and the motion of society turned into a kind of zombie dance, a grim cavorting whirl in which objects and people blurred together till the objects were half alive and the people were half dead. Stock-market prices acted back upon the world as if they were independent powers, requiring factories to be opened or closed, real human beings to work or rest, hurry or dawdle; and they, having given the transfusion that made the stock prices come alive, felt their flesh go cold and impersonal on them, mere mechanisms for chunking out the man-hours. Living money and dying humans, metal as tender as skin and skin as hard as metal, taking hands, and dancing round, and round, and round, with no way ever of stopping; the quickened and the deadened, whirling on.

And what would be the alternative? The consciously arranged alternative? A dance of another nature. A dance to the music of use, where every step fulfilled some real need, did some tangible good, and no matter how fast the dancers spun, they moved easily, because they moved to a human measure, intelligible to all, chosen by all.

I read this as an expression of disgust at how modern market economies are systems where economic relations are stripped of their social elements, of feelings, intentions, meaning and will, turning it all into a machine. It needs to be machine. Machines work. But it will never feel quite right for most of us.

[4] This could be called “individualism” vs. “collectivism” but those words are worn and overused to the point that they no longer can be used to communicate anything specific.

[5] These two assumptions have some impressively divergent implications that leads to opposing perspectives on many, many issues. Having this one contradiction underneath the surface of public discourse condemns whole continents of conversation to dysfunction. It needs to be adressed openly and explicitly so that at least a little bit of consensus can be built as a basis on which to hold meaningful debate.

[6] This might be slightly off. In my experience a lot of popular (far-)leftism appears to conceive (in a partial narrative way) not of “wealth” that’s “produced” but of “resources” — a choice of word that evokes the naturally occurring — that simply exists and are to be “distributed”. The right, of course, does the opposite pointing-out-vs-overlooking dance.


[Note: Since part 1 got quite a lot of hits I’ve become a bit self-conscious about the sweeping generalizations I’m about to make. I’m mostly thinking out loud.]

In part 1 I complained about the Political Compass. I said it doesn’t explain much and it’s quadrants aren’t particularly interesting or true to life, all in my opinion as a former professional 2-by-2 matrix maker. That post is somewhat required reading to properly understand this one, but since I can’t count on everybody doing that I’ll summarize it briefly.

I tried to reconstruct the political compass landscape from two new dimensions at 45 degree angles from the ones the political compass uses. The first draws on the “cognitive decoupling” idea, creating a spectrum between two visions of the ideal society — the decoupled and the coupled.

In the first, people are by default completely separate and all obligations are either formally defined in terms of rights or explicitly agreed to. Interactions with strangers are modeled on arms-length formal transactions, i.e. money and contracts.

In the second, people are by default connected and obligations to others and to society as a whole are open-ended and in theory unlimited. Interactions with strangers are modeled on personal relationships, i.e. empathy, loyalty and unquantifiable debts.

I lifted the other dimension straight from A Thrive-Survive Theory of the Political Spectrum. The “thrive” end are values suitable for safe, rich and comfortable societies where we don’t need to focus so much on making our living and can afford to be generous towards others, the weak, the irresponsible and the unproductive. Self-actualization is the ideal. The “survive” end are values suitable for rough, precarious situations where we do need everybody to be productive, orderly and well-behaved in order for everything to work out. Discipline is the ideal, while personal feelings and wants take a back seat.

I argue that none of these define the left and the right on their own, but put together they do so as well as anything else does. “Coupled” combined with “thrive” produce the quintessential left, while “decoupled” and “survive” does the same for the right:

Think of the combination “coupled” and “thrive”. We’ve got far-reaching, non-enumerated duties toward the common good and self-sacrifice as the solution to problems. We don’t need to be concerned with survival/productivity and therefore don’t need to be stingy towards the needy — especially since somebody’s problem is everybody’s problem. So we distribute the costs of individual weaknesses, mistakes and misfortunes throughout the population because we can afford to deal with them and nobody has the right to refuse.

This “we’re rich” plus “we’re in it together” produces a love for grand public works and programs meant to help and nurture the people in various ways. The fact that this requires taxation is not much of a problem since wealth is produced by the system as a whole anyway. The reason we’re not using our society’s wealth to satisfy everyone’s needs is that some are hogging more than their fair share. Restrictions on behavior is mostly in service of combating this. This is close to the essence of the modern political left.

Putting “decoupled” and “survive” together yields the right. Here everybody is responsible for themselves and their loved ones only. You have your list of rights and obligations but anything more is strictly over and above what is required. Civilization is kept running by the productive and thus being productive must be rewarded and being unproductive or even destructive must be punished or at the very least not supported or society will stagnate or worse. You’ll suffer the consequences of your own mistakes and misfortunes because you must learn to improve, be an example to others — and because nobody else is obligated to clean up after you.

“We’re not rich enough” plus “limited, enumerated obligations” produces a skepticism of social programs deemed overly ambitious, intrusive, coddling or frivolous. The solution to poverty is the production of more wealth, which requires incentivizing the productive — the disciplined, smart, self-sufficient and responsible — to do so. Restrictions on behavior is mostly in service of cultivating these traits.

In response to questions and criticism

The piece attracted a bit of attention (it was linked from Slate Star Codex among others) and with that some criticism, including some very insightful comments on the post itself. Part of it made me think it was a bad idea to split this post in two parts, since it made part 1 leave some things unclear. For example, some seem to have thought that my characterization of the essences of left and right ought to correspond to the two sides of the political landscape, either generally or specifically in the United States. That’s not the intention and I had hoped that the two blank quadrants left for part 2 would’ve made it clear enough that these are the “cores” of left and right and they’re joined by parts of the other quadrants to form full coalitions.

Another thing that appears to have been misunderstood is the meaning of “decoupling” transferred from ideas to people. I did say “special circumstances like friendship or family bonds don’t count since we’re talking about the macro scale” but perhaps I should have been clearer: it’s not meant to be about valuing social bonds. It’s about your relationship to strangers, or more accurately to the “generic other person”.

You have social bonds to some people like family and friends, which means you owe them to think of them in three full dimensions, to feel their pain, to come to their aid, and to not just respect their interests but make them your own on a deep, emotional level. If you treat them instrumentally, transactionally or in a blind, rule-based way you’ll damage the relationship.

The “coupled” view I’m referring to is the ideal that we treat everyone around us as if they were friends and family. It’s unattainable in practice but still something we’re supposed to try to do if asked, and in any case not explicitly. It means that a competitive, transaction-based market society where it’s acceptable to model unseen strangers as objects — as means and not ends that you interact with indirectly through a law-contracts-and-currency interface — instead of fully-fledged fellow human beings you interact with through caring relationships is on some level deeply wrong. Given this, we get a moral-political vision that is what I described: there’s no clear end to our obligations to think of others. This description of utopian communities is what I mean by seriously extreme coupling.

Decoupling is an explicit rejection of this overwhelming implied duty in the form of demarcation. You have open-ended obligations towards people you have personal relationships with and clearly defined obligations like “respect rights and agreements” toward others, but not open-ended obligations to people in general than can be invoked and/or expanded at any time. “Nobody owes you anything” is a decoupler’s response to perceived overentitlement. It is typically not meant to refer to family and friends.

I might also not have been clear about how the two dimensions interact: they affect each other’s expression. The decoupling property “comes out” differently in the Thrive vs. Survive condition. At the far Thrive end we get something like “the expanding circle” or “a brotherhood of man”: in the limit a duty to feel empathy and personal relationship-like concern for literally everyone. Survive means scarcity mindset, which requires the expansion of concern to have some limit by sheer necessity. Sometimes the limit setting is relatively benign like with civic nationalism but can become increasingly nasty and dangerous when clan, tribe, language, class, religion or race becomes the criterion. In any case the duty extends further than your personal relationships, which is the defining factor.

Overall, I’m still unsure about how robust an idea this is, but I’m certain there something I’m grasping for.

Part 2: Up and Down

Now, this is where we left off.

There are two more quadrants to discuss. Lets look at the bottom one first. It’s the combination of “decoupled” and “thrive”, which is the view that society is stable and wealthy enough for us to demand much less discipline and conformity in service of productive organization and risk management than we used to, but that us breaking free from restrictions imposed by our need to weather the slings and arrows of ordinary fortune ought not to be replaced by restrictions in the form of a general duty to serve the interests of others.

For all the problems with the word, this is liberalism as described by me in I, LPC.

To be liberal is to be live and let live. It means acceptance of difference and of pluralism of thought, feeling and action as legitimate and not as a problem to be suppressed. It means tolerance in its classical meaning: accepting the existence of what you’d rather see gone.

Liberalism stands opposed to authoritarianism, naturally. But not just that. It also opposes a communitarianism where your individual needs, wants and rights are subordinate not to the duties attached to your place in a hierarchy, but to the needs and wants of the rest of the community. To be liberal is to strive for everyone’s self-authorship, self-determination and freedom from involuntary obligations, towards either the better off or the worse off.

That opens up a lot of questions about priorities, but this brand of liberalism is less of a full political philosophy than an attitude: profound skepticism towards all restrictions of individual autonomy, whether in the service of stability, efficiency, safety, harmony or equality.

For example, a certain level of fighting poverty through government action is fine, but for liberals, as opposed to leftists, it’s for “thrive reasons”: it increases self-determination on the whole and in a wealthy society we can afford it without imposing too much of a burden on people (especially if the duties are clearly circumscribed and as unintrusive and impersonal as possible[1]). It’s not because we’re fundamentally obligated to make substantial sacrifices for strangers, i.e. “coupled reasons”. In this view, a social safety net is not a right, it’s a privilege — but a privilege we ought to be generous about granting when we’re lucky enough to live in a fabulously wealthy society[2].

I said that one of the reasons I don’t like the standard political compass is that it doesn’t give me a proper identity. I end up on the border between two things I don’t particularly identify with:

But now, look! In the tilted version I have a home!

(This has almost not everything to do with why this model appeals to me.)

Varieties of slicing (part 1)

Liberalism is distinct from the right and the left, and has tended to side with the weaker of the two against the stronger. Forcing it into a pure left-right model therefore results in confusion. The differences between the US and Sweden is instructive. In the US, the right is comparatively strong and the left weak, so the political landscape gets cut like this (for two roughly equal coalitions):

This makes Americans feel like the “thrive-survive” dimension is more indicative of left vs. right, and the American labels for the two sides — liberal and conservative — reflect this cutting.

In Europe in general and Sweden in particular the left has been stronger and the political landscape got cut this way:

This makes the coupled-decoupled dimension more indicative of left vs. right and Swedish coalitional labels reflect this: socialist and bourgeois parties are distinguished primarily by their differing attitudes towards public vs. private ownership and management of the economy.

Naturally the American use of “liberal” for “left” drives me up the wall — as a Swedish liberal the difference is rather essential, thank you very much. The phrase “economically liberal” is especially nuts, as it apparently means the exact opposite of economically liberal (laissez-faire)[3].

Interestingly, I think I see the difference between leftists and liberals become more important for Americans as well — at least among the coastal, educated middle classes where outright conservatives are rare enough to make the other two turn on each other in fits of online culture warring, just like game theory would predict. In a pure Thrive environment the ways leftists and liberals agree become nothing more than background scenery and the divisions start to stand out.

This has lead to a game of linguistic musical treadmills where liberals try to claim an identity apart from the left without joining the right, while leftists try to prevent them from doing so. Some liberals choose to adopt the “classical liberal” label but I think that has certain problems. It’s not new, for one. It traditionally separates the very decoupled liberals from the moderately so, rather than separate liberals from the left, and using it amounts to ceding the territory around the plain “liberal” label — home soil! [4] That seems unwise to me. If we’re looking for a label that makes a distinction while keeping the claim to the core territory I’d go with “Actual Liberal”. Just the right amount of on-the-nose.

The Problem Child

Neat. But aren’t the pictures above missing something? Something big? Like a top quadrant? Yes and there are reasons for that, as we shall see.

While liberalism is easy to identify I struggle with what to call this. I rejected “authoritarianism” as a label in part 1 because hardly anybody is “authoritarian” for its own sake, and I stand by that. Let’s see what else we can get.

“Coupled” and “survive” certainly paints a picture. The world is a tough, unforgiving place and we need discipline to navigate it. Open-ended obligations means you can expect to be helped and supported by everyone else — as long as you contribute and conform. We’re a team and you’re a team player. That’s important, because supporting that kind of cohesion on a large scale requires constant work towards unity. Not surprisingly, this quadrant contains a lot of rhetoric comparing the state to a family, evoking feelings of unbounded support, loyalty and duty.

By serendipity I happen to be reading Bertrand Russell’s The History of Western Philosophy as I’m writing this, and I note that the description of ancient Sparta is a perfect match for the top corner — especially the way it’s neither left nor right. Sparta was militaristic, extraordinarily tough-minded, masculine and with an oppressed serf class, but they also insisted on equality among citizens (and somewhat between the sexes), they hated money, trade and consumerism and aggressively fought accumulation of wealth, and even separated families to practice collective child rearing. Spartan politics were clearly coherent — as coherent as liberalism — but not an extreme endpoint on a left-right spectrum.

There have been versions of “Spartanism”, but the pure form only really came back in full force in the West with modernity and mass society, after industrialization, urbanization and World War I showed what performance civilization-as-fossil-powered-machine is really capable of[5]. That was fascism, which could have worked as a descriptor for this quadrant had it not been turned into a contentless term of abuse. The real, historical fascists believed in something like Spartanism. Internal order was paramount and everyone’s duty towards the collective and its institutionalized form (the state) was essentially limitless. They also thought of themselves, justifiably, as an economic “third way” beyond left and right[6].

It makes sense to put them directly opposite liberalism and between left and right because much of their ideology was a direct rejection of liberal principles but has clear points of contact with both leftism and rightism[7]. Fascism as far-rightism is well-trodden ground. They both agree that competition and the cultivation of competence and strength are absolutely essential for the health of society, making them suspicious of anything that sounds weak, whiny or trivial. With the left they share a distaste for selfishness, instrumentality and the quasi-sociopathic virtuelessness of the market, and agree that it is everyone’s duty think more of the whole than to satisy their own personal desires.

Hardly anybody calls themselves a fascist today, obviously. Part of the reason is likely that actual, capital-F Fascism was soundly defeated and that the nature of its crimes (particularly the Nazi variety) contaminated the whole quadrant to this day, making any settlements there impossible, even at a safe distance from the extreme corner.

That leaves an “identity vacuum” in the moderate north-of-center area. That’s no law of nature; I can imagine a world where it wasn’t the case. Any ideology is bad in the extreme, but it could be normal, theoretically, to be “fascist-leaning” in the way it’s normal now to be a social democrat with socialist sympathies and not want to seize the means of production and shoot all the kulaks, or to be liberal and not want to privatize roads and the justice system, or to be conservative and not want to be ruled by church and crown.

But it is the case: there’s no “mild and respectable” version of fascism.

However, no big settlements doesn’t mean the area close to the center but above it isn’t populated[8]. Oh no. There are plenty of people there, plenty of people who don’t want to be too generous or forgiving towards the undeserving, and also believe in a society where we all owe each other support and sacrifice when we fall on hard times. Who are they?

They tend to be upset at perceived erosion of social trust and believe that it’s because we don’t prioritize rewarding good behavior and punishing bad behavior enough. They’re weary of immigration partly because of its effect on social cohesion — which is considered necessary to maintain fragile, society-wide economic solidarity — and because they suspect some immigrants to not live up to standards of good behavior, especially if they come from countries low on social trust and can be expected to bring such attitudes with them.

They’re suspicious of free trade, transnational corporations and organizations like the EU, partly for rational reasons: globalization’s been good for richer people in the first world and poorer people in the third but not as good for the working class in the first world or for the cultural and economic solidarity that supported them[9].

There’s a sensitivity to threats to economic safety and social stability like rampant inequality (a leftist fear, historically not great for stability) and loss of work ethic and trust (a rightist fear, not great for stability either). For leftists and rightists these are separate things, and you worry about one more than the other, but for this quadrant the two are merged into one large sense that the social fabric is deteriorating[10].

Near the center it isn’t Sparta by any means, but considerably closer to it than, say, the political center of gravity at your average upper middle class dinner party.

Up is on the up

The Up quadrant is gaining in political power throughout the western world. It’s often called “populism”, but I don’t exactly want to call it that because I think the populism is incidental. It’s a contingent result of elites not taking their concerns seriously, resulting in anti-elite sentiment. In essence, they’re angry at ruling elites for not showing them the loyalty they think they’re entitled to.

This anger’s been ignored and disdained by the right and the left[11] — understandably because given any of their worldviews it’s illegitimate. From the perspective of the comparatively thrive-y left — in whose world we treat everyone with equal compassion because we can afford it — expecting such loyalty (preferential treatment, really) looks like xenophobic stinginess. From the right it looks like a demand for a sacrifice of aggregate economic growth in the name of loyalty (preferential treatment, really) that they have no right to make in the first place: “Can’t compete? Nobody’s problem but yours.”

The dismissal has backfired, to put it mildly. Britain is leaving the EU, France is teeming with yellow vests, and the Sweden Democrats have 62 seats in the parliament building ten minutes’ walk from this café.

These all make more sense as “up vs. down” than “left vs. right” conflicts and the left-right system isn’t well equipped to deal with that. Part of the problem is that a one-dimensional spectrum focused on left and right with liberals in the middle will result in Up being assigned a role of endpoint, obscuring its coherence and making it seem extremist and fringe even when not very far from the center in absolute terms.

Varieties of slicing (part 2)

To very specifically hammer at a point I want to make to Americans who consider the small-town, patriotic conservative the essence of the right: this “Up” group is not essentially left-wing or right-wing as I conceive of them. To me, the central example of a right-wing politician isn’t the president but Margaret Thatcher, and she didn’t exactly appeal to coal miners.

On which side the Ups end up depends, just like their opposites the liberals, on the particular time and place. In America I think it’s the low base level of national cohesion and long history of self-sufficiency that has made political history take a somewhat different turn compared to in Europe.

Let’s look at that compass again, now without a big hole up top. If we draw the whole line we get a division I think makes sense for the United States:

The landscape is sliced mostly along the Thrive-Survive divide, putting the top quadrant mostly on the right, emphasizing their conservative (“survive”) aspect.

In Sweden we don’t have the same strong relationship between “left vs. right” and urban vs. rural/suburban the US has[12] and the archetypical salt-of-the-Earth type working class voter who values honest work and national solidarity is, historically, not a rightist but a social democrat. This is the full slicing I’m more used to[13]:

In other words, the temperament and values often called “small-town conservatism” — in Big Five terms low openness to experience, preference for clear answers etc. — isn’t essentially right wing; it exists in considerable tension with free-market capitalism and its associated “rootless creative destruction ethos” and this aspect can sometimes dominate.

The astute observer may object that I’ve simply declared the essence of left and right to be whatever is common to the left and right in Sweden and the United States. They’d be kind of right but I’m not sure it’s much of a problem, given that I think most other western countries are somewhere in between (I wouldn’t extend this model outside that group).


Is this a better model than the political compass? I don’t know. The quadrants form more natural categories to me, although I recognize that people might have different opinions on that. I wrote these posts because I thought the compass was all wrong not in content but in format. It’s inside out. It has what’s to be explained as its inputs and the underlying dimensions as its outputs, possibly because we’re more used to the outputs and therefore think they’re “simpler”. I don’t think they are.

Of course I should also fess up to being highly motivated to articulate the to me very distinct difference between leftists and liberals that tend to disappear in US-dominated online discourse[14].

I’m half-regretting getting caught up in all this. Usually I try to say something newish, and this topic has been dissected and mulled over so much by so many political scientists, philosophers and bloggers that I don’t have that much to add other than some half-baked speculation of limited novelty.

Hell, my model — even the tiltedness — comes up if you look up “political spectrum” on Wikipedia.

It’s got the same quadrants but gets them using the boring “economic” and inadequate “cultural” axis I was trying to get away from. But since the resulting landscape is the same I’m not sure I’ve accomplished much.

I’ve spent far too much time writing, editing, re-editing, erasing, re-writing and re-erasing various ways to make sense of this model, when all I really wanted was to use the coupled-decoupled approach to politics I thought was neat. The thrive-survive thing wasn’t even my idea at all. I just thought it happened to perfectly complement my axis and voilà! — there was a simple model. I didn’t mean to write 8000 words on it (with another 3000 or so discarded), it just happened. “This will be easy and quick” I thought, before getting lost at the deep end of the pool looking for the best way to justify why the populist left and the populist right are more the same region of a square than the opposite ends of a spectrum[15], all without saying something obviously dumb.

A learning experience — I’d think if I didn’t I know I’ve done this before and still can’t control it.



[1] Say, more like taxes than detailed regulations or restrictive norms regarding how selfless you’re required to be. For a personal example, I very much see the problems with drug and gambling addiction and have quite a powerful distaste for the advertising and business practices of online gambling companies, but I also very much resist having any of it banned. I would much prefer — even it if would be less efficient — using large amounts of public funds to help people escape destructive behaviors.

[2] This is part of the reason I’m skeptical of political taxonomies based explicitly on what policies you support. As mentioned in The Signal and the Corrective, people often support similar policies for different reasons.

[3] I saw a similar example in the wild recently. I listened to Joe Rogan’s podcast where we was talking to independent journalist Tim Pool and Twitter representatives Jack Dorsey and Vijaya Gadde. Tim commented that Joe was close to socialist politically and he answers that he’s not, but “very liberal” except for on the second amendment where he disagrees with liberals. I had to do a double take there but I understand it to mean he’s pretty consistently liberal since the left-wing position on the second amendment isn’t liberal.

[4] The other popular choice, “centrist”, has similar issues.

[5] Born in a city state with the necessary population density early in history

[6] So did 1990’s liberals like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, showing that both the Up and Down quadrants can be “centrist” on a left-right scale while having opposing visions for society

[7] In further support I’d point out that actually existing communist societies looked pretty similar to fascist ones, despite serious ideological differences. How come? I think that can be resolved by saying that communist societies are in the far left corner in theory; to work they have to be so rich that they can adopt perfect Thrive thinking together with their extreme coupling. But when they aren’t post-scarcity they slide toward a fascist-like structure because they’re confronted with a reality that requires more of a Survive mindset than a “good” version of communism can handle. In other words, fascism is intentionally in the top corner, while communism collapses into it upon contact with scarcity.

[8] The reason the “horseshoe” is open upwards instead of downwards is partly because of “fascism fallout” as described, partly because it tends ot be a response to threat and crisis which creates an aura of “extremeness”, and finally partly because the chattering class that disproportionally determine public discourse and collective consciousness are significantly more Down than Up, making Down a high-pressure zone as opposed to the vacuum on the other side. Note for example how the phrase “fiscal conservative, social liberal” is common in the US, meaning essentially Down (perhaps close to the right border). However, while the opposite phrase is less known, the actual position is more common.

[9] When I wrote and rewrote this description I kept worrying that it was either too charitable or too uncharitable. I guess when I worry about both it’s probably alright

[10] You could call the top and bottom quadrants Open and Closed, where Open is another word for liberalism and Closed for the last quadrant. I don’t intend for it to be insulting, it’s just that what it values can be reasonably summarized as such: predictability, stability, control, cohesion and balance. The Open quadrant values dynamism, difference, creative destruction and disruption, decentralization, speed and excitement — which is great fun when you’re not threatened by any of it. Both Left and Right are semi-closed and semi-open because they favor certain kinds of restrictions and not others, in the left’s case to prevent people from hogging more than their fair share of existing resources, in the right’s case to prevent people from being a drain on the prosperity creation process.

[11] The liberal camp right across tend to engage in both criticisms plus a few measures of disbelief, confusion or pity. Personally I’ve made efforts to understand their point of view and become far less dismissive than I would’ve been, say, ten years ago when I viewed them with outright disdain. It no longer looks like either entitlement or xenophobia, but more like tragedy. I sympathize, but there’s just no way to accomplish what they want with acceptable means, or even get the desired results.

[12] Most cities are pretty representative of the country as a whole when it comes to left and right. The most you can say is that wealthy suburbs vote more right (but not “up”) and small industrial towns and the sparsely populated north vote more left (but not “down”).

[13] For now at least, because the Swedish political landscape is shifting as well. After several months of post-election deadlock, two liberal parties reluctantly agreed this January to leave their former coalition partners on the right to support a social democratic government in return for pro-market reforms. The rise of the Sweden Democrats necessitated the change.

[14] For instance, I think studies about the ideological lopsidedness of US universities miss the mark when they cite the huge difference in representation between “liberals” and “conservatives”. Yes there are very few conservatives, which is an issue. The much discussed censorious PC and activism culture however, isn’t caused by that as much as by an imbalance between leftists and liberals. Such deas are, virtually by definition, pushed by the former and not the latter.

[15] This episode of the Intellectual Explorers Podcast with Bret Weinstein has some discussion of this, referencing known right-wing pundit Tucker Carlson’s apparent embrace of some pretty far-lefty ideas.

Another interesting axis classification system is the Inglehart-Welzel Cultural Map of the World.

The Traditional/Secular-rational values axis reflects the contrast between societies in which religion is very important and those which are more secular.

The second axis is linked with the transition from industrial society to post-industrial societies — which brings a polarization between Survival and Self-expression values. Translation: the -2 side is where you have to spend all your time and energy just to get enough food and money to live. The +2 side is where it is easy to get all you need to eat and live, so you have plenty of free time to do whatever you want.

The authors note that each axis actually contains many related values which vary in lock step. For instance, the Traditional/Secular-rational is specifically for measuring religion. But in practice it also measures such things as the importance of parent-child ties and deference to authority, along with absolute standards and traditional family values. Cultures with a high religion value reject divorce, abortion, euthanasia, and suicide. They also have high levels of national pride, and a nationalistic outlook. Cultures with a low religion value also have the opposite preference in all those topics.

SF authors and game designers who want to invent believable cultures for their various interstellar nations can use this graph to explore both the outer limits and the finer nuances.

David Maurer's Explanation of history shows how the values and philosophy of a culture relate to the question of "where is the food going to come from?" As the answer changes, so does the culture. This more or less corresponds to the Survival — Self-expression axis in the Inglehart-Welzel graph.


(ed note: article has a Libertarian slant. Main point is all the nations who are near +2.5 on the Survival Vs. Self-Expression axis also rank at the top of the Cato freedom index. Except the United States, which anomalously has a pathetic #23. Having a similar anomalous value in your galactic empire will produce an interesting background for your novels.)

Ronald Inglehart’s theory of “post-materialist” value change is the most helpful place to start in understanding cultural liberalization.

This is the World Values Survey cultural map. You’ll see it has two dimensions. One ranges from “traditional values” to “secular-rational values.” The other ranges from “survival values” to “self-expression values.”

As countries become wealthier, their people generally become less and less concerned with mere physical survival and the values associated with survival, and more and more concerned with self-expression and autonomy. People animated by survival values prefer security over liberty, are suspicious of outsiders, dislike homosexuality, don’t put much stock in politics, and tend not to be very happy. In contrast, those fueled by self-expressive values prefer liberty over security, are welcoming to outsiders, tolerant of homosexuality (or most any expression of the real, authentic, inner self), are more positive about politics and political participation, and tend to be fairly satisfied with life.

Cultures also tend to transition from “traditional” to “secular-rational” attitudes about the grounds of moral, cultural, and political authority as they modernize and gain distance from mass poverty and material insecurity. Traditionalists about authority are generally religious; prize traditional notions of marriage and family; esteem obedience; and wave the flag with zesty, patriotic pride. In contrast, people with secular-rational values are less religious; aren’t so troubled by Heather having two Dads; are more likely to question and defy authority; and take less pride from national membership.

You might wonder about causality. Maybe “post-materialist” values cause economic growth. That’s probably true, too. But the WVS data are clear enough that we can be confident that growth does cause value change. Inglehart and Christian Welzel write:

This strong connection between a society’s value system and its per capita GDP suggests that economic development tends to produce roughly predictable changes in a society’s beliefs and values, and time-series evidence supports this hypothesis. When one compares the positions of given countries in successive waves of the values surveys, one finds that almost all the countries that experienced rising per capita GDPs also experienced predictable shifts in their values.

(For those interested in digging deeper, the best current overview of the theory is Christian Welzel’s Freedom Rising: Human Empowerment and the Quest for Emancipation. It’s an impressive body of work with a great deal of data and analysis behind it.)

If you care about freedom and liberal values generally, the fact that rising prosperity tends to produce increasingly “post-materialist” cultures in which secular-rational and expressive values overshadow traditional and survival values is profoundly important. Why? Because countries with moral cultures that emphasize self-expressive, secular-rational values demand and enjoy the most freedom.

Take a glance at the top ten countries in the Cato Institute’s Human Freedom Index—Hong Kong, Switzerland, Finland, Denmark, New Zealand, Canada, Australia, Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands—which I’ve tagged with their Freedom Index ranks on the WVS cultural map below. You’ll see that almost all the world’s freest countries rate relatively highly on both dimensions of post-materialist values. But a high prevalence of self-expression values in particular strongly predicts a high level of freedom.

Now take a look at the United States.

According to the Cato index, the U.S. ranks an inglorious 23rd in terms of combined political and economic freedom, wedged between two former Soviet republics, Estonia and Latvia. Except for Iceland (which has a population smaller than Des Moines metropolitan area), every country to the right of the United States in self-expression values does better on the Cato freedom index. Self-expression values are evidently particularly important for generating political support for high levels of freedom. Secular-rational values, which are relatively high in a number of relatively despotic countries, and relatively low in Ireland, which ranks 4th on the Cato index, and Canada, which ranks 6th, are evidently less tightly connected to political and economic liberty.

Secular-rational and self-expressive values tend to move in the same direction over time, but they don’t always, and in the United States they haven’t. If you watch the below animation of the cultural map through time, you’ll see that since the World Values Survey began, the United States has become significantly more secular-rational, while losing ground on self-expressive values. (In the early oughts, we were about where New Zealand is now on that dimension.)

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.


The first basic law of human stupidity

The first basic law of human stupidity asserts without ambiguity that:

Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.

At first, the statement sounds trivial, vague and horribly ungenerous. Closer scrutiny will however reveal its realistic veracity. No matter how high are one's estimates of human stupidity, one is repeatedly and recurrently startled by the fact that:

a) people whom one had once judged rational and intelligent turn out to be unashamedly stupid.

b) day after day, with unceasing monotony, one is harassed in one's activities by stupid individuals who appear suddenly and unexpectedly in the most inconvenient places and at the most improbable moments.

The First Basic Law prevents me from attributing a specific numerical value to the fraction of stupid people within the total population: any numerical estimate would turn out to be an underestimate. Thus in the following pages I will denote the fraction of stupid people within a population by the symbol σ.

The second basic law

Cultural trends now fashionable in the West favour an egalitarian approach to life. People like to think of human beings as the output of a perfectly engineered mass production machine. Geneticists and sociologists especially go out of their way to prove, with an impressiveapparatus of scientific data and formulations that all men are naturally equal and if some are more equal than others, this is attributable to nurture and not to nature. I take an exception to this general view. It is my firm conviction, supported by years of observation andexperimentation, that men are not equal, that some are stupid and others are not, and that the difference is determined by nature and not by cultural forces or factors. One is stupid in the same way one is red-haired; one belongs to the stupid set as one belongs to a blood group. A stupid man is born a stupid man by an act of Providence. Although convinced that fraction of human beings are stupid and that they are so because of genetic traits, I am not a reactionary trying to reintroduce surreptitiously class or race discrimination. I firmly believe that stupidity is an indiscriminate privilege of all human groups and is uniformly distributed according to a constant proportion. This fact is scientifically expressed by the Second Basic Law which states that

The probability that a certain person be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.

In this regard, Nature seems indeed to have outdone herself. It is well known that Nature manages, rather mysteriously, to keep constant the relative frequency of certain natural phenomena. For instance, whether men proliferate at the Northern Pole or at the Equator, whether the matching couples are developed or underdeveloped, whether they are black, red, white or yellow the female to male ratio among the newly born is a constant, with a very slight prevalence of males. We do not know how Nature achieves this remarkable result but we know that in order to achieve it Nature must operate with large numbers. The most remarkable fact about the frequency of stupidity is that Nature succeeds in making this frequency equal to the probability quite independently from the size of the group.

Thus one finds the same percentage of stupid people whether one is considering very large groups or one is dealing with very small ones. No other set of observable phenomena offers such striking proof of the powers of Nature.

The evidence that education has nothing to do with the probability was provided by experiments carried on in a large number of universities all over the world. One may distinguish the composite population which constitutes a university in five major groups, namely the blue-collar workers, the white-collar employees, the students, the administrators and the professors.

Whenever I analyzed the blue-collar workers I found that the fraction σ of them were stupid. As σ's value was higher than I expected (First Law), paying my tribute to fashion I thought at first that segregation, poverty, lack of education were to be blamed. But moving up the social ladder I found that the same ratio was prevalent among the white-collar employees and among the students. More impressive still were the results among the professors. Whether I considered a large university or a small college, a famous institution or an obscure one, I found that the same fraction σ of the professors are stupid. So bewildered was I by the results, that I made a special point to extend my research to a specially selected group, to a real elite, the Nobel laureates. The result confirmed Nature's supreme powers: σ fraction of the Nobel laureates are stupid.

This idea was hard to accept and digest but too many experimental results proved its fundamental veracity. The Second Basic Law is an iron law, and it does not admit exceptions. The Women's Liberation Movement will support the Second Basic Law as it shows that stupid individuals are proportionately as numerous among men as among women. The underdeveloped of the Third World will probably take solace at the Second Basic Law as they can find in it the proof that after all the developed are not so developed. Whether the Second Basic Law is liked or not, however, its implications are frightening: the Law implies that whether you move in distinguished circles or you take refuge among the head-hunters of Polynesia, whether you lock yourself into a monastery or decide to spend the rest of your life in the company of beautiful and lascivious women, you always have to face the same percentage of stupid people — which percentage (in accordance with the First Law) will always surpass your expectations.

The third (and golden) basic law

The Third Basic Law assumes, although it does not state it explicitly, that human beings fall into four basic categories: the helpless, the intelligent, the bandit and the stupid. It will be easily recognized by the perspicacious reader that these four categories correspond to the four areas I, H, S, B, of the basic graph (see right).

If Tom takes an action and suffers a loss while producing a gain to Dick, Tom's mark will fall in field H: Tom acted helplessly. If Tom takes an action by which he makes a gain while yielding a gain also to Dick, Tom's mark will fall in area I: Tom acted intelligently. If Tom takes an action by which he makes a gain causing Dick a loss, Tom's mark will fall in area B: Tom acted as a bandit. Stupidity is related to area S and to all positions on axis Y below point O. As the Third Basic Law explicitly clarifies:

A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.

When confronted for the first time with the Third Basic Law, rational people instinctively react with feelings of skepticism and incredulity. The fact is that reasonable people have difficulty in conceiving and understanding unreasonable behaviour.

But let us abandon the lofty plane of theory and let us look pragmatically at our daily life. We all recollect occasions in which a fellow took an action which resulted in his gain and our loss: we had to deal with a bandit. We also recollect cases in which a fellow took an action which resulted in his loss and our gain: we had to deal with a helpless person. We can recollect cases in which a fellow took an action by which both parties gained: he was intelligent. Such cases do indeed occur.

But upon thoughtful reflection you must admit that these are not the events which punctuate most frequently our daily life. Our daily life is mostly, made of cases in which we lose money and/or time and/or energy and/or appetite, cheerfulness and good health because of the improbable action of some preposterous creature who has nothing to gain and indeed gains nothing from causing us embarrassment, difficulties or harm. Nobody knows, understands or can possibly explain why that preposterous creature does what he does.

In fact there is no explanation — or better there is only one explanation: the person in question is stupid.

Frequency distribution

Most people do not act consistently. Under certain circumstances a given person acts intelligently and under different circumstances the same person will act helplessly. The only important exception to the rule is represented by the stupid people who normally show a strong proclivity toward perfect consistency in all fields of human endeavours.

From all that proceeds, it does not follow, that we can chart on the basic graph only stupid individuals. We can calculate for each person his weighted average position in the plane of figure 1 quite independently from his degree of inconsistency. A helpless person may occasionally behave intelligently and on occasion he may perform a bandit's action. But since the person in question is fundamentally helpless most of his action will have the characteristics of helplessness. Thus the overall weighted average position of all the actions of such a person will place him in the H quadrant of the basic graph.

The fact that it is possible to place on the graph individuals instead of their actions allows some digression about the frequency of the bandit and stupid types.

The perfect bandit is one who, with his actions, causes to other individuals losses equal to his gains. The crudest type of banditry is theft. A person who robs you of £100 without causing you an extra loss or harm is a perfect bandit: you lose £100, he gains £100. In the basic graph the perfect bandits would appear on a 45-degree diagonal line that divides the area B into two perfectly symmetrical sub-areas (line OM of figure 2).

However the "perfect" bandits are relatively few. The line OM divides the area B into two sub-areas, B1, and B2, and by far the largest majority of the bandits falls somewhere in one of these two sub-areas.

The bandits who fall in area B1 are those individuals whose actions yield to them profits which are larger than the losses they cause to other people. All bandits who are entitled to a position in area B1 are bandits with overtones of intelligence and as they get closer to the right side of the X axis they share more and more the characteristics of the intelligent person.

Unfortunately the individuals entitled to a position in the B1 area are not very numerous. Most bandits actually fall in area B2. The individuals who fall in this area are those whose actions yield to them gains inferior to the losses inflicted to other people. If someone kills you in order to rob you of £50 or if he murders you in order to spend a weekend with your wife at Monte Carlo, we can be sure that he is not a perfect bandit. Even by using his values to measure his gains (but still using your values to measure your losses) he falls in the B2 area very close to the border of sheer stupidity. Generals who cause vast destruction and innumerable casualties in return for a promotion or a medal fall in the same area.

The frequency distribution of the stupid people is totally different from that of the bandit. While bandits are mostly scattered over an area stupid people are heavily concentrated along one line, specifically on the Y axis below point O. The reason for this is that by far the majority of stupid people are basically and unwaveringly stupid — in other words they perseveringly insist in causing harm and losses to other people without deriving any gain, whether positive or negative.

There are however people who by their improbable actions not only cause damages to other people but in addition hurt themselves. They are a sort of super-stupid who, in our system of accounting, will appear somewhere in the area S to the left of the Y axis.

The power of stupidity

It is not difficult to understand how social, political and institutional power enhances the damaging potential of a stupid person. But one still has to explain and understand what essentially it is that makes a stupid person dangerous to other people — in other words what constitutes the power of stupidity.

Essentially stupid people are dangerous and damaging because reasonable people find it difficult to imagine and understand unreasonable behaviour. An intelligent person may understand the logic of a bandit. The bandit's actions follow a pattern of rationality: nasty rationality, if you like, but still rationality. The bandit wants a plus on his account. Since he is not intelligent enough to devise ways of obtaining the plus as well as providing you with a plus, he will produce his plus by causing a minus to appear on your account. All this is bad, but it is rational and if you are rational you can predict it. You can foresee a bandit's actions, his nasty manoeuvres and ugly aspirations and often can build up your defenses.

With a stupid person all this is absolutely impossible as explained by the Third Basic Law. A stupid creature will harass you for no reason, for no advantage, without any plan or scheme and at the most improbable times and places. You have no rational way of telling if and when and how and why the stupid creature attacks. When confronted with a stupid individual you are completely at his mercy. Because the stupid person's actions do not conform to the rules of rationality, it follows that:

a) one is generally caught by surprise by the attack;

b) even when one becomes aware of the attack, one cannot organize a rational defense, because the attack itself lacks any rational structure.

The fact that the activity and movements of a stupid creature are absolutely erratic and irrational not only makes defense problematic but it also makes any counter-attack extremely difficult — like trying to shoot at an object which is capable of the most improbable and unimaginable movements. This is what both Carlyle and Schiller had in mind when the former stated that "with stupidity and sound digestion man may front much" and the latter wrote that "against stupidity the very Gods fight in vain."

The fourth basic law

That helpless people, namely those who in our accounting system fall into the H area, do not normally recognize how dangerous stupid people are, is not at all surprising. Their failure is just another expression of their helplessness. The truly amazing fact, however, is that also intelligent people and bandits often fail to recognize the power to damage inherent in stupidity. It is extremely difficult to explain why this should happen and one can only remark that when confronted with stupid individuals often intelligent men as well as bandits make the mistake of indulging in feelings of self-complacency and contemptuousness instead of immediately secreting adequate quantities of adrenaline and building up defenses.

One is tempted to believe that a stupid man will only do harm to himself but this is confusing stupidity with helplessness. On occasion one is tempted to associate oneself with a stupid individual in order to use him for one's own schemes. Such a manoeuvre cannot but have disastrous effects because

a) it is based on a complete misunderstanding of the essential nature of stupidity and

b) it gives the stupid person added scope for the exercise of his gifts. One may hope to outmanoeuvre the stupid and, up to a point, one may actually do so. But because of the erratic behaviour of the stupid, one cannot foresee all the stupid's actions and reactions and before long one will be pulverized by the unpredictable moves of the stupid partner.

This is clearly summarized in the Fourth Basic Law which states that:

Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances to deal and/or associate with stupid people always turns out to be a costly mistake.

Through centuries and millennia, in public as in private life, countless individuals have failed to take account of the Fourth Basic Law and the failure has caused mankind incalculable losses.

The fifth basic law

Instead of considering the welfare of the individual let us consider the welfare of the society, regarded in this context as the algebraic sum of the individual conditions. A full understanding of the Fifth Basic Law is essential to the analysis. It may be parenthetically added here that of the Five Basic Laws, the Fifth is certainly the best known and its corollary is quoted very frequently. The Fifth Basic Law states that:

A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.

The corollary of the Law is that:

A stupid person is more dangerous than a bandit.

The result of the action of a perfect bandit (the person who falls on line OM of figure 2) is purely and simply a transfer of wealth and/or welfare. After the action of a perfect bandit, the bandit has a plus on his account which plus is exactly equivalent to the minus he has caused to another person. The society as a whole is neither better nor worse off. If all members of a society were perfect bandits the society would remain stagnant but there would be no major disaster. The whole business would amount to massive transfers of wealth and welfare in favour of those who would take action. If all members of the society would take action in regular turns, not only the society as a whole but also individuals would find themselves in a perfectly steady state of no change.

When stupid people are at work, the story is totally different. Stupid people cause losses to other people with no counterpart of gains on their own account. Thus the society as a whole is impoverished. The system of accounting which finds expression in the basic graphs shows that while all actions of individuals falling to the right of the line POM (see fig. 3) add to the welfare of a society; although in different degrees, the actions of all individuals falling to the left of the same line POM cause a deterioration.

In other words the helpless with overtones of intelligence (area H1), the bandits with overtones of intelligence (area B1) and above all the intelligent (area I) all contribute, though in different degrees, to accrue to the welfare of a society. On the other hand the bandits with overtones of stupidity (area B2) and the helpless with overtones of stupidity (area H2) manage to add losses to those caused by stupid people thus enhancing the nefarious destructive power of the latter group.

All this suggests some reflection on the performance of societies. According to the Second Basic Law, the fraction of stupid people is a constant σ which is not affected by time, space, race, class or any other sociocultural or historical variable. It would be a profound mistake to believe the number of stupid people in a declining society is greater than in a developing society. Both such societies are plagued by the same percentage of stupid people. The difference between the two societies is that in the society which performs poorly:

a) the stupid members of the society are allowed by the other members to become more active and take more actions;

b) there is a change in the composition of the non-stupid section with a relative decline of populations of areas I, H1 and B1 and a proportionate increase of populations H2 and B2.

This theoretical presumption is abundantly confirmed by an exhaustive analysis of historical cases. In fact the historical analysis allows us to reformulate the theoretical conclusions in a more factual way and with more realistic detail.

Whether one considers classical, or medieval, or modern or contemporary times one is impressed by the fact that any country moving uphill has its unavoidable σ fraction of stupid people. However the country moving uphill also has an unusually high fraction of intelligent people who manage to keep the σ fraction at bay and at the same time produce enough gains for themselves and the other members of the community to make progress a certainty.

In a country which is moving downhill, the fraction of stupid people is still equal to σ; however in the remaining population one notices among those in power an alarming proliferation of the bandits with overtones of stupidity (sub-area B2 of quadrant B in figure 3) and among those not in power an equally alarming growth in the number of helpless individuals (area H in basic graph, fig.1). Such change in the composition of the non-stupid population inevitably strengthens the destructive power of the σ fraction and makes decline a certainty. And the country goes to Hell.

From BASIC LAWS OF STUPIDITY by Carlo M. Cipolla (1986)


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.

On Earth

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

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

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

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

From DEEP WIZARDRY by Diane Duane (1985)

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

Edgar D. Mitchell, Apollo 14 astronaut

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

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

Carl Sagan, when Voyager 1 left the solar system

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

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

From THE LION OF COMARRE by Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1949)

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

From THE EXPLORATION OF SPACE Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1951)


There are the various types of government. These can be the governments of continents on a planet, goverments of an entire united planet, or governments of groups of planets. Go to The Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy and read the entries "NEOFEUDALISM" and "THEOCRATIC NEOMEDIEVALISTS".

Needless to say, there is no lack of ambitious individuals who have a burning desire to be the absolute ruler of a nation or empire. This is why the mechanism of succession must be rigidly defined. If for any reason the mechanism does not function properly when a ruler is removed, lots of people die.

For example, if in a monarchy the crown passes to the deceased king's eldest son, a king who has no son will start an instant civil war when the king dies. Anybody who has a driving ambition to be king and some pathetic scrap of a claim to the throne will gather an army and attack all the other claimants. This is why one of the royal duties is to procreate a male heir as soon as possible just in case. And a second son, as a spare.

This also leads to unromantic requirements, such as various officials watching the marriage be consumated in person so they can be legal witnesses. And why the monarchy was so fanatical about the queen being a virgin, otherwise there is some question about the legitimacy of the son to assume the crown and it is suddenly instant civil war time.

A famous example of shaky succession is the War of the Roses. Over thirty years of battles and 50,000 deaths because there was just enough vagueness over who should succeed King Richard II.

When the peasants shout "Long Live The King!" they are not proclaiming niceties to the ruler. They are selfishly hoping to delay the time before a messy dynastic battle comes raging through their backyard. Or as the ancient proverb of the Kikuyu people puts it: "When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers"

Things get rather tense if the queen gives birth to no (live) babies, or worse if there are only daughters. The latter case allows yet another faction to join the bloody civil war: those who say what's wrong with making the eldest daughter a queen? Genetically the "problem" of inability to sire sons is probably the fault of the father, but in medieval times it was Always The Woman's Fault.

This leads to all sorts of dangerous strategies, such as getting the queen secretly impregnated via a male who is not the king but does have male-baby making ability (and hoping nobody discovers the infidelity and the illegitimacy). Or, for instance, breaking away the Church of England from the authority of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church just so you can get a divorce from a queen who produces only dead or wrong-gendered babies. Another inhuman strategy is for the king to secretly engineer a tragic fatal accident for the barren queen, in the hopes that the new queen will be a better broodmare. This probably won't work if the problem is a series of girl babies. As previously mentioned the problem there is usually the father, changing the mother is not going to fix that. It will just cause a hideous string of dead queens.

Matrilineality has the advantage of removing legitimacy from the list of problems. Short of genetic testing, there is always a question of whether the child being born was sired by the king or not. But there is no question that the child came from the queen, you can witness whose birth canal the child came out of. Traditionally matrilineal governments do not care who the father was, only the mother matters. But of course such a system is by definition incompatible with patriarchy.


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)

A 'princess' is the term given to the larval phase of the designated reproductive host of a hereditary military dictatorship.

Somehow sounds a lot less aspirational when phrased that way, doesn't it?

From a tweet by Charles Stross (2021)

In representative democratic systems of government, succession is handled by elections. These are sort of legal institutionalized coup d'états. As a political system it has problems, but so do all the others.

Hydraulic State

A hydraulic empire (AKA hydraulic despotism, or water monopoly empire) is where the rulers of the empire maintain control by a monopoly on one or more critical resources. In history the resource was generally water for irrigating the crops. Such empires arise because managing such resources is such a monumental task that it requires central control, which naturally evolves into political control.

In Larry Niven's Destiny's Road the controlling resource is access to vital dietary potassium, a rarity on the colony planet. In Frank Herbert's Dune novels the controlling resource is the spice Melange, which allows faster than light starships.

If the rulers of the empire have no large planetary holdings but have a monopoly on space travel and interstellar trade, the empire is called a Thalassocracy

A common problem is that the rulers of the Hydraulic state make quite sure that their monopoly is absolute, so that all the regions have no alternatives for the resource. Which means if something kills the rulers or otherwise cuts off access to the resource, the regions are in big trouble. The rulers generally are either selfish or short-sighted enough so as to not have any contingency plans. The rulers think that they will always have the resource to offer. Or figure that if they die, then the proletariat has some nerve thinking they deserve to outlive the rulers.

For example, in John Scalzi's novel The Collapsing Empire the interstellar trader megacorporations use The Flow, which is a naturally occuring system of faster-than-light "streams". The traders have a monopoly on interstellar trade.

The Empire is called The Interdependency, because all the colonies are not self-sufficient on purpose. None of the colonies can revolt and split off from the empire because without interstellar importation of vital resources the colony will die. The rulers and the megacorporations planned this to ensure their iron grip on power over the colonies.

Then scientists realize that The Flow is gradually altering to the point where FTL starships won't work any more. All the colonies will be cut off from each other, and there is no way to stop it. OMG we're all gonna die!


"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 (the drug) 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.

(ed note: the current dependence is that the spice melange is the sine qua non of safe faster-than-light space travel)

From GOD EMPEROR OF DUNE by Frank Herbert (1981)


Of course there is a reverse, in that space living makes establishment of of brutal hydraulic monopolies relatively trivial. Really important to remember that right now, anyone inside a spaceship is actually POOR. Poor as it gets. Not gonna change for a long time. anyone who goes out to space to truly colonize will be "poor" in this way. On a minimum energy, minimum cost mission, each human has JUST enough air/water/food/shelter to accomplish mission.


The assumption at play is that the entity who establishes a Mars colony, be it a government or private corporation, will set the colony up so that its inhabitants are powerless and remain powerless. That the colony-initiating entity will control the food, water, and air and intends to maintain this control. The assumption is not wrong in the sense that this is how space exploration is, at present, but it is wrong in assuming a universal intent for any and all agencies and entities to maintain this absolute control, as a matter of course, forever. To assume this requires an additional leap of logic (one that is sometimes covertly smuggled into the discourse) to assert that this absolute control over inhabitants of a space colony is the end purpose and is the natural outcome and the only possible outcome. People accept this assumption without question (or perhaps without realizing they’ve accepted it) because this is how space exploration, by government space agencies, has been carried out up to this point. Sometimes this is an innocent proposition based on current and past practices, sometimes I think it is not so innocent and represents an intentional effort of fear mongering.

What is the alternative? For sake of argument let’s suppose that a private entity, we’ll call it “Mars Colony Corporation,” MC Corp for short. Let’s propose that MC Corp sets out to recruit entrepreneur’s in the areas of closed-environment greenhouse gardening, livestock farming, vat-grown protein production, ISRU ECLSS systems (water recovery and electrolysis cracking plant technologies) robotic habitat construction, planetary and/or asteroid mining, and let’s propose that these entities and their employee’s are the colonists.

In this case the colonists are not powerless, and the colony-establishing entity does not control all the resources.

I have pointed out previously that this is the sort of scenario Elon Musk is proposing, citing his own thought on the matter here ”Assuming that SpaceX is ultimately successful in getting lots of people to Mars, “big entrepreneurial opportunities” open up, he said. Those opportunities would range from “the first iron ore refinery to the first pizza joint.”

“What SpaceX is trying to do is establish the environment for entrepreneurs on Mars to flourish,” said Musk."

See link here


Hydraulic monopolies are great for writers: instant villains, constraints on the hero, and audience empathy for the underdog. But the overlord would need to conscript the colonists and avoid the sabotage methods described in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. I think in the real world they wouldn't get off the ground.

This was my biggest problem with the Expanse. A venture can afford to build a refinery in the asteroids, run it with people instead of robots, and even let them bring their families … but it can't go the extra half-millimeter to provide normal oxygen levels? That's a very precise level of investment.

I'd expect colonists to demand equity or other significant leverage (voting rights, protection from sponsoring gov't, whatever) before departing. They'd be like homesteaders or European petty nobles: land-rich, cash-poor. If someone tries to take those rights away the bossman will want to keep a pressure-suit handy all the time.


The problem with water-monopoly empires, historically, is that control of the vital resources tended to be backed up by more old-fashioned forms of control.

Namely, inasmuch as all the riverworks, aqueducts, and wells around here belong to Gilgamesh, the folly of any attempt to step outside of the Gilgameshian water-monopoly by building your own infrastructure or finding alternative sources will be explained to your heirs and bystanders by Big Gil's brute squad.

This is a strategy that works pretty well in pretech societies in which the professional warrior class can act with impunity, but less so the less impunity they have.

There's also the strategy of convincing people that they need a centralized monopoly to look after task X for them. (Which is obviously very familiar to me, given my inclinations — inasmuch as it's isomorphic to the arguments, tediously familiar to every libertarian, that there is literally no possible third option in between "government-run roads-or-whatever" and "no roads-or-whatever at all ", which I shall not waste time repeating here. Consult your friendly local political flamewar for details.)

This latter is why we're most likely to end up with brutal hydraulic monopolies, in my opinion, because as everyone from Loki to Terry Pratchett has observed, humans tend to be distressingly flexible about the knees (if you are strong and charismatic, if you tell the masses to bow down to you, an alarmingly large number of them will). But it ain't exactly a law of nature — and it depends on the sanction of the victim. You've got to talk the people you're doing it to, or at least the majority of them, into letting you do it.

Another note that I think is peculiarly relevant to the space case, of course, is that hydraulic despotisms depend on infrastructure that is both centrally controlled, and also actually centralized, so that people can't just walk away taking their bit of the infrastructure with them.

If you are building colony-sized life support systems, not just dinky transport pods, it should not escape your notice that this is the diametric opposite of good engineering practice designed to ensure that single or closely grouped points of failure don't get everyone in the colony killed.

Which is to say: at an architectural level, a despotism and a deathtrap look very similar, and are both easily distinguishable from good design, methinks.

And one would hope that anyone with the independence of mind to go colonize space (and the brains not to open both doors of the airlock at the same time) is going to learn to notice that sort of thing.


Muad Dib: “The people who can destroy a thing, they control it.”

Space colony: "It takes a lot of training to keep the twelve-year-olds from accidentally destroying the life support system."


Karl Gallagher, Y'know, I've seen that said a few times, and it always gives me a flashback to certain critiques of The Cold Equations .


Coroner: "Wait, wait, wait. So you're saying that you had these incredibly delicate life support systems that everyone depended on , and you didn't so much as put a childproof lock on the door to that compartment?"

Survivor: "Um... yes?"

Coroner: " Okay , then. We're done here. Mr. Secretary, record my verdict as 'deaths by reason of stupidity above and beyond the call'."



I will point out some kids just treat those things as amusing toys.



Ah, good question. That's just it — it wouldn't be a hydraulic empire. For a large station, I'm imagining it being more like a condo. Stations have sections and sections are controlled by some form of polity, a faction. All the equipment necessary for survival is contained within that section. Each section beyond that is also self-supporting, just like owners in a condo — the owner pays the note on his mortgage and nobody else in the community needs to help him on that. Of course, condos have areas of common responsibility and expense. When the organization becomes dysfunctional, that sort of stuff deteriorates. And then you can end up with the situation of individual units held onto by owners as the rest of the neighborhood deteriorates.

Now you may ask "Why would a station be built with so much redundancy in the first place?" And that would be precisely to avoid the situation of a hydraulic empire as you state. Say three factions come together to build a trading station in neutral territory. The expense is greater than any individual power can afford so they split the cost. The station is constructed. Each faction has territory on the station that they own in the clear. Furthermore, those sections are self-supporting for all essentials because they wish to avoid the chance of anyone cutting them off from the station's grid. But because there are common needs of the station, all three pay towards the maintenance of the structure and what elements cannot be easily triplicated. On paper this operations company may be considered independent and neutral with personnel drawn from all three factions or maybe from third parties. But you can well imagine how things on such a station could become dysfunctional in time.

From comments to TRANSPORT NEXUS

Nomadic Empire

A Nomadic Empire is a non-sedentary polity, i.e., the bulk of the citizens are of no fixed address. Such empires are sometimes called a Khanate. The main real-world historical example is the Mongol Empire

From a galactic empire standpoint, the main advantage is the system is scaleable. It avoids the "empire grown too huge to govern" problem since functionally a nomad empire is a mild form of swarm intelligence. Hordes that are part of the empire can operate without central control. The main problem is ensuring that the various hordes maintain their allegiance to the Khan of the empire.

In some cases the hordes live in clan ships.


      THE HOT F6 DWARF that was Kandemir’s sun lay about 175 light-years from Vorlak, northwards and clockwise. Although its third planet was some what heavier than Earth, the intense irradiation had thinned and dried the atmosphere. Even so, a man who took precautions against ultra-violet could live on Kandemir and eat most of the food.

     History there had taken an unusual course. Vast fertile plains fostered the growth on one continent of a nomadic society which conquered the sedentary peoples. This was not like cases on Earth when barbaric wanderers overran a civilization. On Kandemir, the nomads were the higher culture, those who invented animal domestication, writing, super-tribal government, and machine technology. The cities became mere appendages where helots laboured at the tasks such as mining which could not move with the seasons. When the nomads learned how to cross Kandemir’s small shallow oceans, their way of life soon dominated the world. Warfare and economic competition between their hordes spurred the advent of an industrial revolution. But gunpowder, steam engines, and mass production shifted the balance. Nomad society could not readily assimilate them; it developed strains. A century ago, Kandemir had become as chaotic as the last years of Earth. Then (interstellar) explorers from T’sjuda came upon it and began to trade (among other things, the secret of building FTL starships).

     Numerous Kandemirians went to space as students, workers, and mercenary soldiers—for T'sjuda, like Xo and some other powers, was not above occasional imperialism on backward planets. The Kandemirians returned home with new ideas for revitalizing their old culture. Under Ashchiza the Great, the Erzhuat Horde forced unification on Kandemir and launched a feverish programme of modernization; but one adapted to nomadism. The cybernetic machine replaced the helot, the spaceship replaced the wagon, the clans became the crews of distinct fleets. Soon Kandemirian merchants and adventurers swarmed through space. Yet their tradition bound them to the mother world, where they returned for those seasonal rites of kinship that corresponded in them to a religion. Thus the Grand Lord remained able to command their allegiance.

     As time passed, their habits (which others interpreted as cruelty, arrogance, and greed) brought them ever more often into conflict with primitive races. These were easy prey. But this, increasingly, caused trouble with advanced worlds such as T’sjuda, who had staked out claims of their own. Action and reaction spiraled into open battle on the space frontiers. Defeated at first, Kandemir rallied so violently that its enemies asked for terms. The peace settlement was harsh; in effect, the one-time teachers of the nomads became their vassals.

     The little empire which thus more or less happened in the time of Ashchiza’s son began to grow more rapidly under his grandson Ferzhakan. Decentralized and flexible, nomadic overlordship was well suited to the needs of interstellar government; the empire worked. For glory, wealth, and protection—most especially to gain the elbow room which Kandemirian civilization required in ever greater quantities, for space traffic as well as for the gigantic planetary estates of its chieftains—the empire must expand. Ferzhakan dreamed of ultimate hegemony over this entire spiral arm.

     His policy soon brought an opposing coalition into existence. This was dominated by the Vorlakka Dragar, who also had far-flung interests. The nomad fleet was stopped at the Battle of Gresh. But that fight was a draw. Neither side could make further headway. The war settled down to years of raids, advances and retreats, flareups and stalemates, throughout the space between the two planets. Well off to one side, (planet) Monwaing and her daughters maintained what was officially an armed neutrality, in practice an assistance and encouragement of Vorlak. The other independent, space-travelling races in the cluster were too weak to make much difference.

From AFTER DOOMSDAY by Poul Anderson (1961)


There are some kinds of unorthodox interstellar empires where the rulers do not live on planets. Instead they live in orbit, and control planet dwellers by virtue of the military advantage of the gravity gauge, and by a monopoly on interstellar trade. This is called a Thalassocracy, from an ancient term for a seaborne empire.

Sometimes the monopoly is by the Thalassocracy the sole owner of transport starships, planet dwellers have to contract the Thalasso-starships if they want to ship anything interstellar.

Sometimes the monopoly is by the Thalassocracy having a monopoly on the manufacture and sale of interstellar FTL propulsion units. The technical details about the units are top secret. In SPI's game Freedom in the Galaxy all stardrives are built by the Empire, and contain a thermonuclear booby-trap to discourage attempts at reverse-engineering. The empire takes its monopoly on stardrives very seriously.


In fact, it’s so difficult and expensive that, once you’re in space, it might make more sense to just stay there.

Landing on alien planets might not be worth doing unless you plan to settle there permanently. Instead, you could wander through space, harvesting all the resources you need from asteroids and comets and perhaps smaller planetoids like the Moon.

That brings us to the world of ancient thalassocracies. Thalassocracies are empires of the sea, as opposed to traditional land empires. The word is Greek for “rule of the seas.”

Well known examples include the Phoenicians, Athenians, and Carthaginians. The British Empire might also be described as a thalassocracy, except the British controlled a lot of land in addition to most of the world’s waterways.

Traditional thalassocracies possessed enormous navies. They rarely bothered waging war on land, preferring instead to exert their military power through piracy, naval blockades, and near unrivaled dominance of maritime trade routes.

I’m guessing that space-faring societies will end up behaving more like ancient thalassocracies than modern nation-states. This might be especially true for space-faring civilizations still early in their development and still struggling with the high costs of takeoffs and landings.

(ed note: I'm thinking this would also apply to mobile asteroid bubble space habitats who threw their weight around. They would have an advantage over planet-based civilizations since the thalassocrats are at the top of the gravity gauge. Thalassocracies can be examples of hydraulic states if they control access to spaceflight and interstellar trade.)

From SCIENCY WORDS: THALASSOCRACY by James Pailly (2015)

(ed note: discussion of Bussard ramjets omitted. The ramjets would be mounted on space habitats to make generation starships. He does believe in the now discredited idea that the magnetic field of a Bussard Ramjet can instantly kill all life on Terra.)

Now that we have the ships let us deal with the warriors and their society. If we assume one system trying to rule another, we have to have some reason for the society to send its sons across many light years (and more real years) to overcome the people of another. Aliens will have their own, alien reasons for doing this. As for humans, idealism, power-lust, need for resources, flight from disaster, or the desire to keep the status quo may cause interstellar invasions.

For instance, the citizens of nearby inhabitable stars hear that the residents of Sol System are going to erect a Dyson Sphere around their system to trap as much energy as possible. This troubles the nearby colonists, who fear that the power produced may go into a blackmailing gamma-ray laser which could reach across interstellar distances to nova suns. An armada is gathered...

The inhabitants of these systems would have some trouble manning their fleets, however. For while relativity would keep the voyager younger than his compatriots back home, you're still spending decades away from home. Hopefully there will be enough Idealists, Militarists, Patriots, and Tourists to man the fleet.

As for an occupation army, you could manage it as long as it was as much a colonization effort as an army. The settler/soldiers, in the midst of an unfriendly land, would tend to be more loyal to the homeland than to the conquered system, but matters would not remain so forever. Eventually they'd feel themselves to be members of the conquered system, and their loyalty would shift to themselves.

The situation may be helped by doubling or tripling the human life span, and thus encouraging a slowly-progressing society at home which could be left for thirty years and still be easily acclimatized to on return.

Nevertheless, an interstellar empire of any size using these methods will not be large, if only due to time lag. If a successful revolt occurred on a colony planet 10 light years away from the fuling system, it would take the rulers 10 years to hear about it and 10 years to send a punitive expedition. This gives the revolting system 20 years at the least to prepare for the counter attack.

Even if systemic rule is difficult or impossible, it may be that rule by a starship people may not be so difficult. Robert Silverberg and Poul Anderson have both written of a people who live out their lives in their ships, carrying the interstellar trade, and seeing many civilizations rise and fall as relativity slows their aging. Such a people could control interstellar trade and, if they wished, even the immediate space around the system.

If they controlled interplanetary space they'd control the planets within it, for shooting up against the pull of gravity is much more difficult than shooting down. Even a planet with no big cities to nuke is vulnerable. All the ship people have to do is turn on their ramfield, and every animal (living on the planet that is more highly evoloved than a) paramecium dies.

(ed note: it is no longer thought that Bussard ramjet fields can kill a planet. But being at the top of the gravity gauge is still quite the decisive military advantage.)

Using the resources of one system a ship people can build another fleet of their tribe, and send it out to conquer another system.

Their deployment in a system would have a star-ship and several systemic spaceships orbiting every inhabited planet, several military starships and systemic spaceships farther out as safeguards in case a revolt should destroy the guard ships, and, yet further out, the home ships of the tribe with escorts. If a successful revolt should occur, these would head for friendlier territory controlled by relatives or allies. As one successful revolt could spark others, they'd probably send forces.

The rule of a star tribe would necessarily be light, as cultural differences and the difficulty of maintaining a garrison on those dirty, disease-ridden, overgravitied planets would work against tight rule. They'd encourage the development of spatial resources and interstellar trade, which they would control the transportation for. Some systems could maintain a precarious independence, but on the whole I see little to stop the star tribes from expanding over the Galaxy. Each ship-family and each little tribe would have a very stable culture (as in Heinlein's "Citizen of the Galaxy") so that a trading voyage by a family will not doom it to the difficulties of culture lag. Eventually all human space (and beyond) would be ruled by many tribes of one people who would certainly have to cooperate with each other against the Flatlanders, the Fraki (Heinlein's Citizens of the Galaxy), the Groundhogs who would certainly attempt in places to overthrow their hold.

From INTERSTELLAR WAR by Scott Rusch, The Space Game issue #5 (1976)

(ed note: Protagonist Michael Trehearne knew since he was a child that he didn't fit in. He had no idea that his ancestry was not strictly terrestrial. He attempts to trace his family tree and winds up in Brittany. At the festival of Midsummer, he encounters some people who seem to share his ancestry.

As it turns out, they ain't from Terra. Aldebaran, actually.

They are Vardda, a race of star travelers. As a matter of fact, Michael has some Vardda blood in his family tree. The result of a one-night stand near Brittany about a century ago. The thing about Vardda, they alone can survive the stress of FTL starship travel. All other people die hideously in a few minutes. )

     Trehearne’s throat was strangely tight. He stammered in his speech, finding it difficult to breathe. “Star-flight? An alien race coming and going on Earth—and all this in secret, no one knows of it?”
     Edri laughed. “Oh, billions of people know about it, from Cygnus to Hercules. We Vardda trade openly between the star-worlds of the galaxy for we’ve an unbreakable monopoly on interstellar flight.
     “You mean you’ve conquered all those stars and worlds?”
     Edri snorted. “That’s your Earth war-obsession talking. War is not only backward, it’s damned unprofitable. We Vardda aren’t conquerors, we’re merchant-adventurers.”
     He added patiently, “It’s this way—there are hundreds of inhabited star-worlds. They’re most of them civilized and proudly independent. We Vardda rule our own world but no other.
     “But we have something the other star-worlds don’t have. We’ve got a monopoly on interstellar travel for certain reasons. We Vardda and we alone can travel and trade between the galaxy’s worlds—the richest monopoly of all time!

(ed note: And obviously the planet-bound people do not like the Vardda very much. Even the Earth people of Brittany think the Vardda are devil's-spawn, and they don't even know about the Vardda monopoly.)

     “But if you come and go like that, why not openly to Earth?”
     Edri shrugged. “You can’t trade profitably with worlds still in their war-ridden phase. Such worlds we prefer to visit secretly. Your Earth is one of them.”
     Shairn broke in. “It’s true, Michael! We keep Vardda agents here secretly to gather from Earth whatever of value its civilization produces. We’ve done that for several centuries.”

     Shairn said, “It’s quite simple, Michael. Controlled hereditary mutation, altering slightly the form and structure of the body cells so that they have enormous resistance to pressure and vibration. The other races of the galaxy are tied by their human weakness to their own solar systems—only the Vardda have the freedom of the stars!
     “Then,” said Trehearne, “if the mutation had not bred true in me I would have died.”

     “It's quite true, then—about the mutation?”
     “Oh, yes, quite. The form and structure of your body cells, and mine, are different from other people's. Due to that altered form and structure, your tissues, and mine, possess a tensile strength in their cell-walls that can withstand incredible acceleration pressure without collapse. And I hope you never know how lucky you were that the mutation was a recessive gene that finally bred true in you.” He filled the glasses again, slowly, withdrawn for a moment into some brooding thought of his own. Then he added somberly, “Some day I'll tell you the story of Orthis, who found the secret of the mutation. And a grand proud story it is, but with a shameful ending. He... No. Forget it. The less you know about that, the better. Besides, we're celebrating. Drink up.”

     “I know it must have, but I don't believe it.” Trehearne shook his head. “Of all the incredible... What were you doing there, Edri? How can you come and go on Earth without anyone knowing? What are the Vardda, besides—well, mutants?”
     “Traders. Merchants. The most commercial race in the galaxy.” Edri lifted the cover off a tray on a small table by the bunk. “I brought your breakfast. Go ahead and eat while I gabble. How we come and go is fairly simple. We land at odd intervals, here and there in the waste spaces of which Earth has a number. We do our business, and after a while are picked up again. As I told you before, we're exceedingly careful, and the fact that hardly anyone on Earth would believe the truth if they were told it is a protection. Of course, trading in secret that way, we're limited in what we can take, and Earth exports—the genuine articles and not mere copies—command very high prices. You'd be amazed at the value of French perfumes, Scotch whiskey, and American films on planets you never heard of.”
     “Do you trade with them all in secret?”
     “Good Lord, no! Most worlds, even the very primitive ones, we can deal with quite openly. They might not like us, but they benefit enormously from our commerce.”
     “Then why not Earth?”
     “Well,” said Edri, “I don't like to offend your sensibilities as a native of the place, but Earth is a crazy planet. Oh, it's not the only one. There's a number of them scattered about, and we avoid open contact with all of them. You see, Trehearne, most worlds develop, or remain undeveloped, more or less homogeneously in the matter of civilization. I don't mean they're entirely peaceful, because they're not, but in the long run their populations are more predictable, more stable than on the Earth-type worlds that have grown up all out of joint. You know what I mean—on one side of the world atomic power, on the other the wooden plough and the blowgun. Too big a gap, and it makes trouble all down the line. Now, a primitive society regards war as a sport and takes an honest pleasure in it. A society in a high state of culture regards it as something outgrown and obsolete as hunting game for food. Everybody knows where they are. But when you get a world with great big overlapping mobs of population, every one of them in a different stage of cultural development and every one of them subject to a constant bombardment of outside stimuli they can't assimilate, you have got a mixture that keeps exploding in all directions. We have a healthy desire not to get blown up, and besides, it's impossible to establish any profitable trade with a world continually torn by wars. So—does that answer your question?”
     “I take it,” Trehearne said sourly, “that the Vardda don't think much of Earth.”
     “It's a good world. It'll settle down some day. Nobody can fight forever. They either knock themselves back into barbarism again, or they grow up.”
     Trehearne put down the fork on the empty plate, and looked at Edri, rather angrily. “Don't the Vardda ever fight?” he demanded. “I gather there's a vast commercial empire. There must be trade wars, battles over markets and rights. No empire was ever built without them.”
     “No other empire was ever built,” said Edri quietly, “without any competition. I think you still don't quite understand. We have an absolute, complete, and unbreakable monopoly on interstellar flight. Only the Vardda ships go between the stars, and only the Vardda men can fly them. You know the reason, you proved it in yourself. We don't have to fight.”
     Trehearne let go a long, low whistle. “And we thought we had monopolies on Earth! But I don't see why, if you could mutate, others couldn't do it, too. How do you hold them down?”
     “We don't hold anybody down. We don't rule, influence, or interfere with any world but our own. We learned long ago that it was bad business. As to the mutation, it's impossible. The secret of the process was lost with Orthis, some thousand years ago.
     Trehearne took one and lit it. He sat for some time in silence, remembering. He remembered most clearly Kernel’s angry threat. He asked, “What did Kernel mean by Vardda law ? What will they do with me when we reach Llyrdis ?”
     Edri looked worried. “I wish to Heaven I knew.”
     “What can they do? I’m a Vardda. I’ve proved it.”
     “Ye-es,” Edri agreed dubiously. “Actually, you’re all Vardda, a complete atavism. But legally—”

     He began again. “You see, the law Kerrel referred to is a prohibition against admitting non-Vardda strains of any kind. Cross-breeding is forbidden under penalty of death, is the one unbreakable law. Keeping the Vardda blood pure isn’t just pride, it’s an economic necessity.
     “Then that was true about the mutation?”
     Edri nodded. “It's the foundation upon which the Vardda monopoly is built. No one else can fly at interstellar speeds and live, so we are the only species of Galactic Man, holding the stars in our two hands.
     “A star-flight monopoly of the galaxy, built on a simple mutation in body-cells!

     “Yes,” said Edri. “Simple—but fundamental. Tissues having a certain cellular structure possess a tensile strength in their cell-walls that can withstand incredible acceleration-pressure without collapse. You’re lucky that the mutation was a recessive that finally bred true in you.”
     He paused, then added somberly, “So, Trehearne, though actually Vardda, you’re legally not one. It will be up to the Council. I have no influence there but Shairn has some.”

     Now he faced Kerrel and said, “I asked Edri a question, and he referred me to you. So I'll ask it again. Why would the Vardda Council be afraid to accept me?”
     Kerrel put his hands on the back of a chair and thought a minute. “You understand the Vardda position among all the other races of the galaxy.”
     “Yes. And I don't see how I could possibly alter it.”
     “Then your understanding isn't complete. There are many worlds in space, Trehearne. Countless millions of people live on them. Do you know how they feel about us?”
     “I hadn't thought.”
     “They hate us. They envy us. It's natural enough. They're prisoned in their own solar systems, forced to watch strangers carry on all their commerce with other stars. But natural or not, it's a factor we have to reckon with.”
     Trehearne said impatiently, “What can they do about it? They can't mutate, and they can't even try to force you to share the process with them. The thing was lost a thousand years ago. You're safe.”
     “There are still Orthists.”
     “Who are they?”
     Kerrel looked mildly surprised. “I thought Edri would have told you. No? But you have, of course, heard of Orthis, the discoverer of the mutational process. He was a great man, Trehearne. A brilliant man, a genius, the founder of our race. But he was not a practical man. He lived alone too much in space, worked alone too long in his laboratory-ship. He didn't know human beings, he didn't understand the hard grimy necessities of life, the law of self-preservation. He wanted to give the mutation—and the freedom of the stars—to everyone.”
     “Orthis,” Kerrel said, “was not able to see what, fortunately, others did see—that giving the mutation to all the races of the galaxy would mean wars and conflicts of such staggering dimensions that whole solar systems, including ours, might very well be destroyed. He clung stubbornly to his views and eventually fled from Llyrdis in defiance of the government, determined to have his own way. He was pursued, of course, and driven away from his objective, so that his attempt failed, but he was never captured. He vanished far out on the rim of the galaxy, and the process went with him. And that's where the trouble is, Trehearne. Some time later Orthis sent back a certain message, which gave his adherents hope that his ship had not been destroyed, that it was, in fact, waiting somewhere to be found again, and the process with it. Now, after a thousand years, they still hope.”
     Trehearne shook his head. “I certainly can't tell them where the ship is. So how does it affect me?”
     “Don't you see how you could be used? An alien, a mongrel, but able to fly the stars—the effect on the Orthist movement would be tremendous, and not only on Llyrdis. People all over the galaxy, wanting what we have, would take you up as a symbol of what they consider their emancipation. I have a lively imagination, but it balks at trying to conceive all the trouble that could breed out of that situation.”

     He stepped out onto the open dock, and the full roaring, thundering impact of the biggest spaceport in the galaxy hit him like an explosion.
     Row upon row, and on all sides, the towering docks stretched to the end of his seeing and beyond. Ships lay in most of them, recumbent monsters taking their ease, while men and machines in vast numbers and great complexity waited on their needs. The ringing air was heavy with smells, strange spices and subtle unidentifiable things mingling with the reek of oil and hot metal, cargoes of unimagined riches from unimaginable worlds. Trehearne stood, feeling the tremendous pulse beat through him, hardly aware for the moment that Edri was trying to steer him to a kiosk at the end of the dock, or that the young Vardda was amused at his wide-eyed astonishment.
     In endless hordes, men swarmed upon the looming hulls and went busily along the docks, testing, checking, guiding and managing the machines. They were not Vardda men. They were men from the other worlds, who could not fly the stars (There are seven planets in the Vardda solar system with different alien species. They can use slower-than-light spaceships). A lot of them—and here Trehearne's eyes opened even wider, because even though he had been told, seeing is another thing—were not at all what he would have called human. But in spite of their strangeness, they seemed familiar. They were like any of the cheerful, hard-handed, competent men to be seen around any port of Earth, serving the ships and the planes. The incessant noise was deafening. Gigantic cranes moved ponderously on their tracks, shifting cargoes between strings of carriers and the gaping holds. Small trams weaved in and out of the confusion. At intervals between the docks were lines of shops, where atomic-powered forges shaped new parts, new plates and housings. Here a crew worked on a hull with flaring welders, and there a great bow section was lowered slowly into place with an ear-shattering clang.
     Edri's voice reached him, thin and faint. “Big business, Trehearne. The biggest in the galaxy. Impressive, isn't it?”

     Resplendent in black and silver supplied for him out of Edri's wardrobe, free, accepted, and with a future ahead, Trehearne walked the streets of the city, drunk with color and sound and movement, dazed with the incredible size and the utter strangeness of the greatest metropolis in the galaxy. It surged magnificently, crowded, thriving, beautiful, drenched in the wealth and inventiveness of a thousand far-flung cultures, Mecca for all the peoples of Aldebaran's seven inhabited planets. And its beauty was honest. There were no dark and evil places hidden behind the splendid buildings, no slums, no poverty, no ugliness. The Vardda had traveled widely, and seen much, and they had learned from others. From a vantage point given to no other people in history, they had studied and compared the inceptions, growths, and collapses of more empires, races, and cultures than a man could count in a year, and the work still went on under the direction of their best minds, correlating and compiling, examining causes and evolving from the mass of evidence ways and means to keep the Vardda empire healthy. They had managed well for a thousand years, and Trehearne felt a tremendous admiration for them, laboring as they did under the extra handicap of an essentially inbred society. Their government was elective, and they kept it clean. Their laws were relatively few and simple, and they were obeyed. They oppressed nobody, and saw to it that their non-Vardda neighbors benefited heavily from the Vardda trade.
     “It's not at all,” Edri had told him once, “that we're so much more bloody noble than anybody else. Matter of fact, we're probably unrivalled in our basic selfishness. It's good business, you see. Keep everybody as happy as possible, deal as fairly as you can, make 'em all rich, and you don't have trouble, which is bad for trade. The non-Vardda races may not love us, but they're not inclined to try getting along without us. As for domestic politics and administration, it's simple self-preservation to keep them sound. We're not Utopians, to use one of your favorite Earthly terms, we just try to make sense.”
     Looking at the city, Trehearne thought they had done a remarkably good job. Actually, few of the Vardda were urbanites. Llyrdis was essentially a world of estates and small communities. The Vardda sociologists had not been blind to that final corrosive stage of civilization that Spengler called Megalopolis. The city was not a place in which great mobs of people spent their lives. It was a clearing house, a warehouse, an office, a factory, devoted entirely to business. The population was chiefly non-Vardda, and they only stayed there during their employment. Their homes were on their own worlds. They inhabited the city without being trapped in it.

     He knew that Joris must have supplied the books and he was glad to get them. The trade codes, like laws anywhere, were pretty dull stuff and interesting only because of the fantastically broad field they dealt with. The manuals were better, because they were full of references to alien and frequently non-human races, with fascinating glimpses into the damndest customs and psychologies Trehearne had ever heard of. But the history held him spellbound.
     It began with a foreword on what the Vardda had been like in the millenniums before Orthis, when they were simply the people of Llyrdis. It seemed to Trehearne that they were not too different from the people of Earth. They had had their ages of barbarism and change and growth, and their homogeneity had not been achieved without pain. However, they had achieved it, and at an earlier period in their world-culture than that in which his native planet now was. He thought perhaps the task had been easier for the Llyrdians because there were fewer geographic barriers to the free mingling of peoples in their nomadic phase. The oceans were landlocked and the mountain ranges were broken by traversable passes. No primitive tribe had grown to statehood in even partial isolation, and the cultural streams had flowed strongly in all directions, losing their narrow intensity and broadening out into what eventually became one universal lake. It made for dullness in the world picture, perhaps, because of a sameness in dress and language and custom, but it was steady, and it led to a conception of the individual as a world-citizen instead of a nationalist, which cut down rapidly on wars. Scientific progress seemed to have gone on with only normal hitches, without any Dark Ages to set it back, and at a time when the people of Earth were sunk in their blackest pit of ignorance since the Stone Age, Llyrdis had atomic power, an established commerce with her neighbor planets, and was building and launching the first starship, which brought the history to its initial chapter, and Orthis.

     “It is difficult for us now to realize what the first epic flight of man between the suns was like...”

     Not as it was now, swift and easy, far outrunning the velocity of light. Science had the techniques even then to build and power the fast ships, but they were useless. Man could not survive the ultra-speeds. They had to go as they went between the planets, slowly. Four generations lived and died within the close confines of that first feeble forerunner of the Vardda fleets, men and women dedicated in themselves and their children to the conquest of the greatest barrier humanity had ever crossed and they crossed it. Slowly, painfully, exposed to all the dangers of unknown radiations and unexplored, uncharted wilderness in its most ultimate sense, exposed to the most terrible loneliness and isolation that living beings had ever endured, they toiled their way to a landing on the world of another star and then—and this, to Trehearne, seemed the most incredible bravery of all—they took off again for Llyrdis, which to this intermediate generation was only a name and a tradition, and which they knew they would never live to see. Orthis was born during this return voyage, twenty-two years out from the planet he was taught to regard as home, though he had no knowledge of planets, nor of any life except that of the ship that moved apparently forever through the night of deep space. His ears must have been attuned only to that outer silence, his sight to the darkness and the far-off stars. To wind and rain, to sunlight and warm grass, to beasts and birds and the faces of many people, he was a stranger.
     And a stranger he remained. “He could not endure to be planet-bound, after living all his life in space. He built his laboratory ship and worked in it, cruising where he wished and almost alone, for another fifteen years. Then, when he was thirty-seven, he announced his discovery—the birth of Galactic Man, the inception of the Vardda.
     “Orthis refused to give to anyone the whole secret of his mutational process, believing that it was too dangerous in inexpert hands. He himself constructed the apparatus and used it, sowing with his own hands the seed of the Vardda race that would flower in the next generation. An at that time, he was revered by the people of Llyrdis almost as a demigod. But within the next year the troubles arose that almost split the Llyrdian State, and brought Orthis eventually into disgrace. He had given his discovery first to his own people, and now...”
     Trehearne read with the most intense interest, trying to pry between the stiff factual lines for whatever force it was that made men like Edri fly in the face of their own best interests. Orthis had no intention of limiting the Vardda race to his own world. He would share his mutational process with the other planets of Aldebaran, and eventually with the star-worlds the original expedition had visited, and which were highly civilized. He wished them all to share in the great new future of star-travel—they and all races that might be discovered in the galaxy with sufficiently high culture-levels to be worthy of it. But when this became known to the embryo Starmen it started a most violent reaction. All sorts of objections were raised, ranging from the selfish but, to Trehearne, quite sensible argument that the Llyrdians had the best right to the mutation, having taken all the chances and done all the work, and therefore they should keep it, at least for a while, to the solemn threat of war on a galactic scale. “Remember,” said the President of the Council, “how we helped the more backward worlds of our own solar system to achieve interplanetary flight, and how they repaid us. Remember the wars we have already fought! Let us take thought before we scatter this great power broadcast among the stars.”
     They took thought, and in spite of the impassioned arguments of Orthis and his followers they would not be hurried into a decision. The situation became so tense that Orthis' laboratory ship was sealed and impounded, and Orthis himself placed under virtual arrest. The battle in the Council Hall dragged on for years, and from the accounts it seemed to Trehearne that those fathers of the Vardda-to-be had not acted entirely from a selfish desire to hang on to a good thing. They were faced with a tremendous problem for which there was no precedent, nothing to go on but their own thoughts and feelings. Some of the Council members—the Llyrdian Congressmen—were obviously motivated by sheer hard-headed self-interest. But there were others who tried honestly to be just, and justice to their own people came first. They were afraid to share the mutation, and the control of it, with anyone. They were afraid to throw open all the unknown doors of space onto Aldebaran. The Orthists were defeated.
     Then came the end, the dramatic fireworks. The Orthist party arranged an escape for their leader. They helped him get his ship away. They saw him off Into the dark void beyond the sky, and they thought that after all he would be victorious. But by this time the new Vardda race had begun to flourish, and some of them were old enough, just barely, to fly. They went out after Orthis, believing intensely in their own right, as he believed in his. Orthis himself was undoubtedly able to endure ultra-speeds, for it was a long and bitter chase. The new young Vardda partially disabled his ship, but even so he managed to elude them. There was no ultra-wave radar or radio in those days, and after all, the old man had cut his teeth on the stars. They lost him, and that was the end, of Orthis and his ship—all except the message in the drifting life-skiff that was picked up more than a century later (‘You have not destroyed me. The peoples of the Galaxy will yet be given the freedom of the stars.’). And Trehearne thought, “Whether he was right or not, Orthis was the hell and all of man!”

From THE STARMEN by Leigh Brackett (1952)

(ed note: About two hundred years before the novel starts Terra used FTL starships equipped with the Godspeed Drive to establish a couple of hundred interstellar colonies. They set up a thalassocracy, a hydraulic state where the hydraulics they had a monopoly over was starships. And ensured that the colonies were not self-sufficient so they needed interstellar trade to survive.

Then one fine day the starships stopped working.

This was the start of the Isolation. The planet Erin sort of survives since it was more self-sufficient than most. Other colonies probably totally died out but nobody on Erin knows. And even Erin has problems, lack of certain trace elements have altered development such that the average age of puberty is about 18 years old. And increasing.)

“You know, Jay, I’ve thought a lot since we left Erin. About space, sure, but about Erin, too, and what we are. I used to think of the Isolation as some sort of pure accident, something that couldn't have been prevented. Now, I'm not so sure. I don’t think that humanity before the Isolation was just one big happy family. Maybe at one time, during the early, sublight colonization. But then I think that the people who developed the Godspeed Drive came to regard themselves as special, superior to planetary colonists and settlers. The Godspeed Drive was so powerful, it made them feel like gods themselves and they wanted to keep it that way. They left the colonies ignorant. And we’ve stayed ignorant. They placed their supply and maintenance facilities deep in space. No one on Erin knew how the drive worked. No one knew that Paddy ’s Fortune even existed. No one would know it today, if Paddy Enderton had gone overboard that night on Lake Sheelin.”

“You think the people with the Godspeed Drive stopped coming to the Forty Worlds on purpose?”

“Oh, no. That wasn’t planned. I'm sure there was a monstrous accident, a catastrophe of some kind. But Erin wouldn’t be in the mess it’s in today if the group who controlled the Drive hadn’t wanted to feel superior. It's a story as old as history, from water control to drug prescription to access to space: The people with the treasure want to keep the keys of the treasure-house to themselves. What they never dream is that one day they might not be around to use them. So they don’t plan for that."

From GODSPEED by Charles Sheffield (1993)

Macro Life

Macro Life is not a government so much as it is the next stage of societal evolution. It shares some similar qualities to a hive entity, but is not quite so drastic. It can however function as a sort of government for certain space nations, which is why I stuck it here.

The concept comes from Dandridge Cole, who was inspired by an article by Isaac Asimov titled Beyond the Phyla. Cole defined Macro Life as "life squared per cell", by which he means "Macro Life is to Man what Man is to the Cell".

In science fiction, Macro Life appears to be a huge space colony with a rocket engine. Sort of a cross between an asteroid bubble and a generation starship. But that is missing the point. The "Macro Life" part is the society living inside the asteroid.

Below is Asimov's essay that inspired Cole, and Cole's Macro Life essay. Asimov's essay is from Astounding/Analog Science Fact & Fiction, July 1960. Cole's essay is from an AAS presentation called "The Social And Political Implications of the Ultimate Human Society". This was later reprinted in a two-part article in the September and October 1961 Space World magazine.

You can find more than you want to know about Macro Life in George Zebrowski's epic eponymous series. It is interesting to compare and contrast Zebrowski's book with Alexei Panshin's RITE OF PASSAGE.

Please note that while in science fiction Macrolife is always associated with a mobile asteroid colony, that does not necessarily have to be the case. One could have a Macrolife organism living on a planet, or a Macrolife organism composed of a multitude of planet based settlements linked by an FTL radio or something. Scifi writers like to use mobile asteroid colonies so they can make cute analogies of the colony being akin to a giant one-celled organism. The colony travels to a fresh star system and reproduces: harvesting raw materials, building more colonies, and populating the new colonies with disaffected citizens who want to leave. The scifi writer smugly points out that the macrolife asteroid colony thus fulfills all the necessary attributes to qualify as a living organism.


      And so man is the lord of the universe and —
     Where do we go from here?

     It is possible to imagine a bigger and better man, a “superman,” but that need not be the answer. Bigger and better dinosaurs just ended in extinction. Bulk alone is not everything. Neither is brainpower alone.
     Actually, multicellularity may be played out. It may be that the multicellular organism has reached its limit. There has been no new phylum of organisms established in perhaps 600,000,000 years. Within the phylum of Chordata—the last-established—there has been no new class established in at least 250,000,000 years. Within the class of Mammalia—the most advanced of the chordates—nothing better than the placental mammal has been established in 100,000,000 years.
     The great experiments may be over. What we are now facing is merely a refinement and a re-refinement of existing experiments.

     But all this has happened once before.
     A billion years ago, one-celled life had reached its peak. After many victories, such as the discovery of food storage and of photosynthesis, cells reached their limits. Evolution came to a dead end, or would have but for an entirely new breakthrough. Cells developed into cell colonies and then into multicellular organisms.
     Now multicellularity has reached its dead end, too. Is there room for a new breakthrough? Can there be, once again, a new combination to a higher order of creature, a multi-organismic being. Such a combination must be more than merely physical, since physical combination would just make a larger multicellular organism. (In fact, the physical combination of organisms was tried, after a fashion, with the invention of segmentation. It was an advance but not nearly as fundamental a one as multicellularity.)

     Fortunately, we have examples of nonphysical combinations of multicellular organisms.
     Many varieties of creatures herd together in groups that act with a certain primitive co-ordination. They move together, feed together. If one is frightened, all flee. They may even combine for protection against a common enemy—though generally they merely nm and devil take the hindmost. Or they may combine to hunt prey and then, often, quarrel over the spoils.
     Such herds, or packs, or schools are the equivalent of cell colonies on the cellular level. Although it may be convenient for groups to keep together, it is not vital. Each individual in the herd can, if necessary, survive on its own.
     We must look for something more than that.

     In my last article, I used one main criterion to distinguish between a multicellular organism and a mere cell colony. In a multicellular organism, individual cells become so specialized that they can no longer live independently and the component cells are subordinated to the group to the point where only group-consciousness exists.
     No group of organisms display these characteristics to the full, but there are signs of beginnings. The clearest cases are among the phylum, Arthropoda, and in its most advanced and most recently established class—Insecta, the insects.
     The three main groups of “social insects” are the bees, the ants—both belonging to the order, Hymenoptera—and the termites—belonging to the order, Isoptera. All three display specializations among constituent organisms just as multicellular organisms display specializations among constituent cells. In the case of termites, the specializations go so far as to make life impossible for certain individuals outside the society—one of the hallmarks of a true multi-organismic creature. The termite queen cannot live without her attendants. Termite soldiers have mandibles so large they cannot feed themselves. They must be fed by workers.

     Furthermore, such societies are more advanced than any individual organism, not only of their own type but of any type. A society of even primitive individuals can beat even a very advanced individual who happens to be on his own. When the army ants go marching, there is only one way the big-game hunter—elephant-gun and all—can save himself. He has to get out of the way, and fast.
     There is a classic story called “Leiningen and the Ants” which tells of a plantation owner who found his land in the way of a marching column of army ants and decided to stand his ground and fight. Leiningen was a most superior individual, brave, resourceful, intelligent and he fought like a demon. He managed just barely to get out of the fight with his life.
     You might think the odds were terrific—millions of ants against one human—but you’d be wrong. The odds were exactly even numerically; one man versus one ant society.
     To be sure, lots of individual ants were killed but that didn’t affect the ant-society. Leiningen lost skin and blood, trillions of his individual cells, but he recovered and did not feel the loss.

     Outside the class of insects and the phylum of arthropods, there is only one example of a society that begins to be more than an organism-colony. That is, of course, the human society. It includes specialized individuals—not physically specialized, to be sure, but mentally specialized. Some of them are so specialized they cannot live outside the society—and there is the hallmark again.
     I, for instance, am city-bred and have lived—with moderate success as part of a complex society all my life. I eat only too well, alas, but I cannot raise food; I have no experience in gathering food, I cannot even cook. I drive a car, but do not even know how to lift the hood. I own a house, but cannot repair any part of it. I watch television and use a number of appliances, including an electric typewriter, but am helpless in the face of electrical wiring.
     Without the continuing and intensive help of other members of the human society, I would not survive long. Alone on Robinson Crusoe’s island, I could only hope for a quick death in preference to a slow one. I think there are millions like me.

     But now what is it that holds a society together; a true society where the component individual is willing to die for the good of the society. In the case of the insects, it is something we call “instinct” a compulsive, robot-like behavior that deprives the individual insect of choice of action. The individual insect is not only willing to die for the group, he cannot do anything else.
     But what holds together a human society? Certainly not instinct. The nearest thing we have to an instinct in the matter is one which says, “To hell with the others. Cut and run.” Often, this instinct is obeyed. The surprising thing is that often it is not obeyed.
     I said earlier that intelligence was not enough in itself. Obviously, if it is joined to other qualities that are disadvantageous, extinction will follow. An intelligent animal that is too limited in the climate it can tolerate, or the food it can eat, or the parasites it can resist, is not going to succeed. The elephant and the great apes are examples of intelligent failures.
     But when the first man-ape rose to his hind legs what made him a success when the gorilla was and is a failure?

     I say that for hundreds of thousands of years, the early ape-men were on the borderline of failure. It was the crucial breakthrough of the formation of a tribal society that really set him on the road to mastery. Not merely packs, mind you, after the fashion of baboons, but a true society in which the whole was something more than the sum of the parts.
     What made this possible, it seems to me, was the development of a means of communication that was complex enough and flexible enough to express abstract ideas—to be something more than a mere squeal of fright or a simple warning cry.
     By means of such communication—peculiar, as far as we know, to Homo-sapiens—the amassed learning of one generation could be passed on to another. A young man absorbed in his youth what had taken an old man all his life to learn, and then the young man went on to learn more on his own. A new and larger body of knowledge was passed on to the generation after.
     But with learning from the old came a reverence for the old; a new feeling that only human beings could have—tradition.
     “This is the way things are done; this is the way things have always been done; this is the way our ancestors said it should be done; and because their spirits watch us and must not be angered, this is the way things must and will be done.”
     There is no use belaboring the point. We all know the power of tradition. It will hold a society together almost as firmly as instinct will. Call it “duty” or “patriotism” or “altruism” and any one of us can bring himself or herself to the point where he or she will give up individual life for the good of the group—which might be a small one called the family, a larger one called the nation, or a still larger one called mankind.
     And if it was oral communication that launched the tribe and the first cultures; it was written communication that launched the cities and the first civilizations.

     But are the city and the ant-hill the final expression of the multi-organismic being? It seems to me most certainly not. Both are only at the beginnings of society-potential.
     The insect societies have succeeded, much more than has the human society, in physically specializing their members and in generalizing consciousness from the individual to the society. However, their method of doing this has cost them flexibility. Each individual insect in the society may make only the most limited responses to given stimuli (keeping in mind that you can do a heck of a lot with limited response to given stimuli).
     The human society has specialized far less and has retained far more of individuality, but it has compensated for that by retaining a most successful flexibility.
     The next step, it seems to me, would be the combination of the two—a society which combines an insect-like consciousness of the whole with a humanlike flexibility.

     What type of organism, then, will attain this next major step in evolution?
     To answer the question, let’s look at the overall record of evolution so far. All through evolutionary history, it seems, once a particular type of organism has made a major advance, it is a sub-type of that type and then a sub-subtype of that sub-type that makes the next major advances. There is no coming from behind in evolution.
     In other words, once the chordates are evolved and by dint of internal skeletons prove to be clearly more in control of the environment than are the mollusks, the die is cast. Further evolution merely increases the lead of chordates generally over mollusks generally. In the same way, land chordates increased their lead over sea chordates, mammals increased their lead over reptiles and humans over nonhumans. No group, having once relinquished the lead, ever gave rise to descendants that regained the lead.
     Thus, at the phylum level. Chordata and Arthropoda are clearly in first and second place, respectively, from the moment of first clear-cut development half a billion years ago or so, and have never relinquished those positions. They are less in danger of relinquishing the lead now, in fact, than they have ever been before ; a lead that is so secure that no new phyla have even been tried ever since the rise of the Chordates.
     Both phyla are divided into classes. Within Chordata, Mammalia lead all other classes. Within Arthropoda, Insecta lead all other classes. The mammals and insects have been increasing their lead ever since their first clear-cut development and are in less danger of losing it than ever before.
     This process continues, as shown in the accompanying figure, where the arrows do not indicate lines of descent but only the direction of increasing control of the environment. An underlining of a group of organisms symbolizes “dead end.”
     On the past record, then, it would seem that the next step would have to be taken by subdivisions of the “winners” of the last step; subdivisions, in other words, which are descendants either of the social insects or of man.

     Now it seems to me that insects must be ruled out In the first place, the insect societies are clearly in second place to human-society as far as control of environment is concerned and there is no coming from behind in evolution. (Remember I don’t say that insects may not out-survive man despite this.) Secondly, they are already too specialized and too inflexible to reverse their ground and gain the necessary flexibility for a higher multi-organismic society. In evolution, specialization is invariably a one-way street and moves only in the direction of more specialization.
     The only possible ancestor of the multi-organismic society, then, is man who is, physically, a relatively unspecialized animal except for his brain; and mentally, thanks to his relatively poor supply of instincts, is equally unspecialized.

     The possibility that man will be the ancestor of the multi-organismic society is strengthened by the fact that he represents, for the first time in evolutionary history, an organism which is consciously aware of the competition of other organisms and will surely make a special effort to wipe out any new group which threatens his own overall superiority. Superchimpanzees, unless overwhelmingly superior from the first, will almost certainly be erased as soon as they are recognized for what they are barring some individuals retained for scientific observation.
     So it might seem that eventually, a family of human beings that are joined together on a nonphysical level—psi forces?—into a multi-organismic society may be established—or, for all most of us know, has been. If they are not recognized for what they are too early, they will take over. In this magazine—which, for one thing, published the unforgettable “Slan”—there is no necessity to beat that particular drum.

     A more classic device for evolution is to suppose man to be divided into groups which are completely separated geographically, so that the gradual summing of mutations produces separate species no longer capable of interbreeding. One such new species may then develop the multi-organismic society and will then be to the remaining species as man is to the other mammals—or, perhaps, as man is to the amoeba.
     Of course, on Earth there is no longer any chance for a complete geographic separation of any group of men and women over a period long enough to make that work, barring a devastating nuclear war that leaves only remnants of survivors and a completely disintegrated technology.
     However, the time may be coming when colonies will be established on worlds other than Earth, on worlds outside the Solar system, perhaps. “Geographic” isolation may then be possible. Men venturing out into space may be like the crossopterygian fish venturing out onto land. They leave as experimenters and end as victors.

     It is, of course, repugnant to a human individual at the present stage of his development to think of himself as a mere unit in a multi-organismic society, without will of his own and, whenever necessary, liable to be sacrificed, cold-bloodedly, to the overall good.
     But is that the way it will be? It’s extremely difficult to imagine what being a part of a multi-organismic society will be like but suppose we consider the analogous situation of cells in a multicellular organism.
     Component cells cannot five apart from the organism, but within that organism they maintain themselves as biochemical units. They produce their own enzymes, conduct their own reactions, have membranes that separate them from their fellows, grow and reproduce on their own in many cases.
     In a multi-organismic society, the individual may well retain a good deal of mental and physical independence. He may think for himself and have his own individuality; and also be part of the greater whole.

     As for being sacrificed cold-bloodedly—not unless it were necessary. Skin cells die as a matter of course while the organism lives, but Americans die as a matter of course while the nation lives. Other cells may die on occasion for the good of the whole, but even in our own imperfect society, so must policemen, firemen and soldiers.
     We do not allow our cells to be killed for no reason. Thanks to a sensation known as “pain” we take good care of our component cells and would not as much as endure a scratch or a pin-prick if we could avoid it. A multiorganismic society would be as careful of its components and would undoubtedly feel something akin to pain at any harm to its components.

     And then there would be a positive gain. In passing from a cell to a group of cells, it becomes possible for the cell-totality to appreciate abstract beauties such as those of a symphony or of a mathematical equation that the cells separately could never conceive of. There may be the cellular equivalent of these beauties in the waverings of a water current or in the engulfing of a tiny organic fragment, but who can argue that a man does not achieve a more exalted rapport with the universe than an amoeba can. Or what man can imagine that the individual cells of his body—which must share somehow in the complexity of his relations to the universe—would rather return to being just so many amoebas?
     And, by analogy, who knows what unimaginable sensations, what new levels of knowledge, what infinite insights into the universe will become possible for a multi-organismic society. Surely there will be something then that will compare with a symphony as heard by a man, as that symphony compares with a wavering water current as felt by an amoeba.

From BEYOND THE PHYLA by Isaac Asimov (1960)

(ed note: Keep in mind that when this was being written in 1960, NASA's Project Mercury was winding down and Project Gemini was just getting started)

      In a sense society can be said to be pregnant with a mutant creature which will be at the same time an extraterrestrial colony of human beings and a new large scale life form.

     This concept of a new life form which I call Macro Life and Isaac Asimov calls “multiorganismic life” serves as a convenient shorthand whereby the whole collection of social, political, and biological problems facing the future space colonist may be represented with two-word symbols. It also communicates quickly an appreciation for the similar problems which are rapidly descending on the whole human race.

     Macro Life can be defined as “life squared per cell.” or more particularly as "multicellular life squared per cell." Taking man as representative of multicelled life we can say that man is the mean proportional between Macro Life and the cell, or Macro Life is to man as man is to the cell.

     Macro Life is a new life form of gigantic size which has for its cells, individual human beings, plants, animals, and machines.

     It is not too difficult to see that the members of an extraterrestrial colony will have to function as a closely knit team in order to survive. This cooperation and interdependence will not be just a haphazard marriage of convenience but at carefully-planned, optimized integration which can be all least suggested by the harmonious mutual efforts of the members of a symphony orchestra. It should therefore be apparent that the colony will take on many of the aspects of a true independent life form.

     Imagine for example, at colony of some 10,000 people living on at 50,000 to 100,000 ton space ship (a space Queen Mary). This vehicle or Macro Life creature can move — with rocket propulsion; it can grow — given a food supply in the form of natural resources from the asteroids and elsewhere; it can respond to stimuli received through its optical and electronic sensing devices; it can think with the brain cells of its human colony and its electronic computers, and finally, it can reproduce. The asexual reproduction or mitosis of Macro Life would be the result of construction, by human directed machines, of a complete new vehicle structure or exoskeleton — as you wish — and duplication of the human, animal and plant cells by normal biological reproduction. If we assume a period of say, fifty years, for the doubling of the human population, then it would be necessary to construct at complete new vehicle during that period.

     In every respect except possibly that of size this synthetic product of our civilization fits our current picture of what constitutes a life form. And size limit has never been part of a definition of life.

     Thus the ultimate human society is, in a sense, not it society at all but the next major step in evolution — a new level in the organization of living matter for more efficient transformation of energy, a new form of life as far advanced over human life as man is advanced beyond the single cell.

     Students of evolution may be led to speculate concerning the next step beyond the present highest form of life which is generally agreed to be man. It has usually been concluded that the next step would be in the same line of development which led to man, and perhaps as much above man in mental ability us the chimpanzee is below him. Thus we might imagine at superman who has, at over two or three years of age, the mental ability comparable to that of the most brilliant human beings in their prime. As the superman matured he would presumably develop powers far above anything of which we are capable — powers that we could no more comprehend than could a chimpanzee understand our ability to develop higher mathematics.

     While no one can prove that the emergence of such a superman is impossible. there are a number of reasons for believing that the next step in evolution will he a major organizational advance rather than a mere refinement in a type already at peak development. If a new mutant lifeform is about to appear it will be Macro Life rather than superman. Our great problems are social and political. not individual. We need an improved society, not a new form of man.

     The population explosion, or biodetonation, and the nuclear bomb, present life on earth with the greatest challenge it has faced in the last few million years. The rapid increase in numbers of the highest life form, one of the most direct and obvious expressions of racial purpose, will necessarily come to a halt because of vanishing living space, and may end in complete futility in a war of extermination, unless man can achieve sufficient understanding of himself and society to take his peaceful and useful place us a component of Macro Life.

     The rising curve of destructive capability when extrapolated only a short time into the future shows a serious threat to the continued supremacy of man and even to the existence of life on earth. A further refinement of the humanoid line of development would seem an inadequate response to a challenge of this magnitude.

     Before arguing for the replacement of social man or Macro Life by superman we should examine man's limitations and the possible advantages of a superior humanoid. What are the limitations of man, not as an individual but as part of the Macro Life team? It is difficult to conceive of anything which is physically possible which could not eventually be accomplished by the Macro being.

     One example of a possible superior power or class of powers often ascribed to superman is the psychic or paramental ability. With these magical powers superman will be able to communicate with his kind — telepathy; control the motion of material objects — psychokinesis; and move himself through space at will — teleportation. It is argued that these powers would help superman meet the challenges of nuclear energy, space travel, etc., and that they would represent a major advance over the feeble powers of homo sapiens. Anti yet the proof offered for the possible existence of such powers is that certain members of the species homo sapiens have exhibited them!

     If psychic powers are part of the real world then I think that homo sapiens, individually or collectively, will learn to master them. But whether real or imaginary, the Macro being could get along quite well without them.

     How much better is mental telepathy than radio? If any supposed advantages can be demonstrated then we will eventually learn to duplicate synthetically what nature has done through evolution. If one brain can receive messages from another, we will eventually learn to build receivers and transmitters with the same capabilities.

     If teleportation is possible, homo sapiens will learn to do it, probably with the aid of mechanical devices. If it is not possible, we may still approach these intriguing capabilities by developing the slightly more plausible matter transmitter.

     In short, there appears to be no theoretical basis for distinguishing between the future limitations on man his technology on the one hand, and his evolution on the other. Both may accomplish anything of which we can conceive and may accomplish much which we cannot now conceive. The only possible difference in limitations which appear are those which may be introduced by man himself. A superman may not appear for the simple reason that homo sapiens will not permit it!

     Asimov points out that no new phylum of organisms has been established in perhaps 600,000,000 years. Within the last phylum established — the chordata — there has been no new class established in at least 250,000,000 years. And within the most advanced class — the Mammalia — nothing higher than the placental mammal has appeared in 100,000,000 years. it may be that multicelled life has run out of possibilities for improvement, and that it is time for a new major organizational advance.

     It is difficult to define life except in a very loose way by listing properties generally exhibited by what we agree are living things. However, life seems to be associated with exceedingly complex combinations of matter. Extreme complexity is at necessary condition of life although it is not a sufficient condition. The complexity of a dead human body may be very much higher than that of a living snail.

     Organic chemicals in general are more complex forms than the inorganic molecules. And among organic forms the must complex is the protein molecule. And the protein molecule is generally assumed to be a necessary ingredient of life.

     While inorganic crystals growing in a solution of the proper concentration show most of the properties of life, we do not ordinarily class them as living creatures. The main difference between them and organic life is in their level of complexity. This general advance in the complexity of the organization of matter has continued since the beginning of the universe. It has pursued its inexorable course through the elaboration of the chemical elements, to the giant organic molecules, to single-celled and multicelled life, to man and finally to Macro Life.

     The first recognizable step in the organization of energy and matter was that from pure energy to the sub atomic particles.

     The second step in organization and in time was the combination of sub-atomic particles into atoms.

     After all possible stable atomic forms had been produced and the temperature of the primordial gas had dropped sufficiently, the next level of organization — atoms to molecules — began. This third step covered an enormous range of complexity from the simplest diatomic molecules to the giant protein molecules that form the basis for life.

     The fourth step, from molecule to single-celled life includes the grey area of the unimolecular viruses. Are they cells or molecules? Are they living creatures or lifeless chemicals? It is of consequence here, only that they are a further step in the organization of matter into more complex structures permitting more versatile behavior.

     Step Five is that from single-celled life to multicelled life. And this took place only after countless varieties of single-celled life had been developed and many experiments in loosely organized cell colonies had been tried.

     In every previous step the highest developments at a given level are used as the units upon which the next organizational level is erected. For example, the molecule reaches its highest organizational state when it uses as its basic unit, the most versatile combining form, the carbon atom. Likewise, some cells exhibited the versatility and adaptability to give up some of their individuality and specialize. The specialized cells could become part of a permanent colony or multicellular organism, but in so doing lost the freedom to live as hermits or isolated individuals.

     While the most perfect example of Macro Life which can he expected in the near future is the extraterrestrial colony or the giant space ship, other varieties will soon appear on earth. In general these preliminary and experimental steps toward the new category of life forms will lack the ability to move and will probably not be completely self-sustaining because of the ease of resupply from elsewhere on earth. Also, they will not have the ability to reproduce unless special provision is made for this function.

     While almost any isolated group of human beings has some of the attributes of the new life form, it is only in some very recent or near future developments that we begin to see the emergence of a new super entity.

     Transition forms between the loose colony and the deep space variety of Macro Life (which might be called Astro Life) are: the nuclear submarines, the Antarctic bases, the space simulators under study or development at several defense plants, the underground missile bases, and possible future underwater and underground bases which might be made more completely self sufficient for civil defense and research purposes.

     Space simulators have been studied at Martin and General Electric and at other government and industrial laboratories. Work at General Electric on closed ecological systems has produced a water recycling system which was recently used in a test of a full week's duration.

     It is now widely accepted that we must begin the task of learning how to live beyond the atmosphere rather than wait for the development of the big booster vehicles that will carry men to the moon. Waiting until transportation is available before starting studies of closed environments would cause unacceptable delays of several years. Thus, we can expect small simulated moon bases to he set up on earth during the next five years. (this was written in 1960, and did not come to pass)

     The crews of underground missile bases must receive the same elaborate protection as the missiles in their charge, if the bases are to have deterrent and retaliatory value. Protection against blast, heat, radiation, chemical, and biological weapons requires that the crews live in seated underground quarters with adequate provisions for spending the duration of the all-out war in isolation.

     Crews of nuclear submarines must also be prepared to spend considerable periods in complete isolation from the rest of mankind. There have already been cases where submarines remained submerged for as long as two months. Presumably, this time could be extended if necessary.

     Interest is growing rapidly in various aspects of oceanographic research on a wide variety of problems. The House Science and Astronautics Committee has called for a vastly expanded national effort in oceanography to meet the Soviet submarine threat, and to exploit the untapped resources of the sea. A need has been identified for “open ocean manned research platforms” which are stable and can remain in place so that time studies can be made. Considerable interest has developed in new types of research submarines and advanced underwater vehicles.

     A possible version of the underwater base could be somewhat similar in construction to the space simulator. That is, it might be a pressurized sphere or cylinder some thirty or forty feet in diameter. The structure could be made almost entirely of transparent plastic for maximum visibility, or of steel with numerous windows. It would be desirable to have a large opening in the bottom to permit entrance and exit of laboratory personnel using Scuba, and possibly of tame dolphins as well!

     If the bottom of the sphere is to be open, then the inside pressure must equal the pressure of the water at the depth of the opening. A reasonable compromise might be about fifty feet from the opening to the water surface. This would mean an internal pressure of twenty-five psi and a differential pressure at the top of about fifteen psi.

     The sphere would be divided into compartments according to functions, and would contain living quarters, laboratories. dining and recreation areas, etc. Hydroponic farms might be included if it was decided to operate the base as a closed and balanced ecological system (in reality, the creation of a closed ecological life support system has proven to be such a difficult problem that as of 2021 we still haven't figured out how to do it).

     Besides the scientific and military reasons for building underwater bases there is also to be considered the value of such a base for civil defense.

     It is generally assumed that the population could be adequately protected during all-out war by providing them with temporary blast and fallout shelters. Presumably a family or larger group after spending perhaps a week in such a shelter would emerge and return to their normal pursuits so rudely interrupted by the war. Unfortunately this common picture is far from the truth. If an all out nuclear war should be fought in say 1970, the survivors would emerge from their shelters to find themselves on an alien planet almost as inhospitable as the moon and perhaps even more inimical to life than Mars.

     During the short period of nuclear devastation, most of the above ground structures in the country would have been destroyed by blast or fire. Fire storms would have swept the country unchecked and destroyed practically all vegetation. All unprotected animal life would die from acute anoxia brought on by the fire storm, if not killed more quickly by blast, heat, or nuclear radiation.

     While the background radiation might fall below the danger point for acute radiation sickness in some areas in a few days or weeks it would represent a danger of chronic sickness for years. The danger of bone cancer, leukemia, etc. would be too great to permit a return to normal earth life for a very long time.

     In fact, it would be necessary for the survivors to live and grow their food in scaled shelters just as though they were on the moon.

     While it would not be practical to move the entire population of the U.S. underground in, say, the next ten years, it would be feasible to build temporary shelters which could house the population in the critical period during and following an attack. Also, a one year supply of food could be stored in the shelters and the necessary tools and equipment for building permanent shelters. In particular, large quantities of transparent plastic would be required for construction of airtight domes to cover living areas. Also, stores of seeds for all varieties of useful plants and trees would be essential.

     Research should be intensified on the problems of storing the fertilized eggs of fish and birds in suspended animation. We should also intensify our efforts toward learning how to raise the mammalian zygote artificially.

     An important fraction of an adequate national civil defense program should be devoted to the construction of a number of “Noah's Arks" permanently staffed with volunteer colonies. These “Arks” unlike other civil defense shelters would he completely equipped for an indefinitely long existence in complete isolation from the rest of the world. They would be a close approximation of Macro Life with all the capabilities for independent existence, growth, and reproduction of a true life form.

     The Arks could be constructed underground in natural caves or artificial excavations, underwater in fixed bases, or possibly in nuclear submarines. A large nuclear submarine adapted from a military vehicle or constructed specifically for this purpose, could become almost as good an example of Macro Life as the extraterrestrial colony although it would be dependent on a supply of nuclear energy rather than sunlight.

     The “Ark” should have a population of several thousand people plus the necessary plants and animals to provide a completely adequate and balanced diet. The underground colony should obtain energy for growing food, powering its tools, etc., from sunlight conducted from the surface through optical systems, nuclear reactors, or both. It should provide the requirements for work, education, and recreation normally available the surface.

     There are several obvious sources for populating these underground civil defense laboratories. One source was the “fanatic” religious group of the type which has already tried to set up such colonies on its own initiative. Such groups should receive encouragement and help in setting up a really worthwhile experiment in civil defense and sociology rather than the ridicule and opposition to their halfway measures which has been typical to date.

     Another and probably better source would be a government sponsored university for qualified students who could not otherwise attend college. The experiment would be more useful if a rather large percentage of the students were married couples. In addition. it would be desirable to select the faculty primarily from those who were not only married and had children but who both had at least one skill essential to the health of the colony. (For example, the wife of the college professor might herself be a teacher either in college, high school or grammar school.)

     Subterranean or submarine Macro Life could make two essential contributions to a realistic civil defense effort. It could provide insurance that at least a small nucleus of life and western civilization would survive and be prepared to begin the reconstruction of the country and it would provide a pattern for the survival of the rest of the population. Mere survival of human beings is not enough, anymore than survival of certain specialized body cells after an accident is sufficient to insure survival of a human being. All the vital organs must survive as well as major fractions of less vital parts such as skin, bone, etc.

     Modern society has moved too far along the path of evolution to expect its survival after a major cataclysm if only unorganized humans are protected. Machines, plants, animals, raw materials, and particularly knowledge must also be protected through the acute attack phase and for many years afterward. Each Macro Life unit should have as at part of its memory the Library of Congress reduced to microfilm. it should have supplies of all the basic tools and machines, and should have representatives of all the major professions, science and engineering specialties, and trades. Some of this could be handled by duplication of function since an expert in one field could also be a master of a second and work it as a hobby. A professor of history. for example, might enjoy gardening and make an important contribution to the colony food supply.

     Besides the primary functions of insuring the survival of at viable nucleus of society and in serving as a model for the survival of a much larger fraction of society, subterranean or submarine Macro Life would serve as a model of an extraterrestrial colony, would be an excellent laboratory for much needed sociological and political research, and fill an oft stated need for federal aid to higher education.

     In summary, it is proposed that in recognizing civil defense as a major aspect of the modern defense problem, that the government extend its policy of maintaining service academies into this new cold and hot war discipline. These civil defense academies (and there should be more than one) should be established underwater or underground in isolated areas far removed from military targets. They should have the capability for operating as closed and balanced ecological systems although they would not necessarily maintain this discipline continuously. There would be no need to exclude normal luxury items during peacetime just so the capability for providing all essentials from within the the colony itself was always held on “15 minute alert“.

     These civil defense forms of Macro Life could have all the major attributes of life exhibited by Astro Life itself except possibly that of motion, and even this might be provided in the submarine form. However, they would not have the independence of Macro Life and would always he under the control of the parent state. While they would have the inherent capability for growth and reproduction they would not normally be allowed to exercise these functions except in the unlikely event of war.

     The resemblance of an extraterrestrial colony to a living being might have some academic interest whether or not such colonies ever become it reality. However, our history and our present behavior both point to the early establishment of such colonies.

     The reasons for establishing space colonies go back to the two basic cosmic reactions which have apparently passed their critical points and are now in the detonation phase. These are the detonation of life or “biodetonation” in the form of uncontrolled human population growth, and “sophidetonation” or the explosion of knowledge. The latter term, derived from the Greek “sophia” for skill or knowledge rather than “sophos"—wise, represents an even greater threat to society than the population explosion, and is increasing at a much greater rate. This is fairly obvious since the expanding population is putting an increasing percentage of its effort into the acquisition of knowledge and is developing greater skill in this acquisition. Society is also just beginning to realize that the statement “knowledge is power” is literally true and that the “armament race" is just one aspect of the “knowledge race”.

     Population pressure and the drive for new knowledge are two of the primary reasons for space bases and colonies. A third reason, a consequence of the explosion of knowledge is the military need to avoid obsolescence of retaliatory armaments and to push constantly for decreased base vulnerability and increased warning time.

     The above reasons can be considered good reasons only if space bases can be constructed at reasonable cost. But sophidetonation and the corollary increase in technological skill can be expected to reduce costs at a very rapid rate. Increase in propulsion system performance, increase in space vehicle size, and recoverability will reduce space transportation costs to the level of present intercontinental air travel costs in twenty to thirty years. This may seem more plausible if we note that the actual velocity change required for a round trip to the Antipodes by ballistic is 52,000 feet per second (15.8 km/s) while the total for a round trip to surface of the moon is only 53,000 feet per second (16.2 km/s). While many many technical problems remain to solved and while I do not mean to minimize the difficulty of manned space flights, the energy requirements been greatly exaggerated. Theoretically an airplane could accelerate to orbital speed and altitude while burning less fuel than is now required a jet airplane of the same weight payload to halfway around the earth!

     Early development work has already started on systems which should reduce the cost per pound transported to orbit to less than one hundred dollars by 1970. With systems which look reasonable on paper this cost could be down to ten dollars per pound by 1975 and one dollar or less by 1980. (somewhat optimistic. As I write this in 2021, SpaceX charges about $590 per pound)

     Now on the other side of the coin is the cost of the payload itself. If payload is a rocket propellant for a deep space vehicle, it may cost less than a dollar per pound, thus there will be incentive to reduce transportation costs to this level. However, most space payloads will have a much higher value approaching several thousand dollars per pound for complex electronic hardware.

     The payload usually considered to be of the highest value is the human pilot and crew. However, they are not necessarily of any greater economic value to society than the electronic equipment.

     Suppose that a space pilot makes average of $25,000 per year for forty years (about $220,000 in 2021 dollars). Then one convenient measure of his value to society would be the product of these two numbers — one million dollars. If he happens to weigh 166 pounds, he is worth about $6,000.00 per pound. While this is a high price, it is of the same order of cost as some of our electronic equipment and also some of that high priced drugs.

     Applying this yardstick to Astro Life we may note that the human cells are not of uniquely high cost and cannot be distinguished in this way from some other vital organs or parts. However, the combined value of a colony of 10,000 humans in an Astro being would have an economic value of perhaps ten billion dollars and might exceed the entire remaining cost of the vehicle.

     Thus we can expect space transportation costs which now run close to initial high priced payload costs per pound, to drop down to values approximating initial propellant costs within the next twenty to thirty years. When this cost reduction has occurred it will be no more expensive for a family to emigrate to Mars or the asteroid belt than it now is to emigrate to Australia. By this time also, sophidetonation will have provided us with all the knowledge necessary to live comfortably almost anywhere in the solar system, and the emergence of true Astro Life will he technically and economically feasible.

Social and Political Significance

     The social and political implications of such basic alterations in our society as have been pictured here could not fail to be of major significance. Whole books could be written describing the nature of future societies resulting from the trends described earlier. Orwell's “Nineteen Eighty-Four” and Huxley’s “Brave New World” are good examples of what might be done in this field. However, at this time we intend only to make a preliminary survey indicating some of the most basic problems which can be expected to arise with the birth of Macro Life in space and on the earth.

     Some of the preliminary forms of Macro Life such as the subterranean and submarine civil defense colonies could appear in the next five to ten years. Initial space colonies may appear in ten to twenty years. True Astro Life will probably appear in twenty to forty years.

     During this period life on earth will take on more and more of the characteristics of the space colony and Macro Life, whether or not the fear of nuclear destruction drives large segments of the population underground. The population density of the whole earth will be at the maximum level represented by the efficient space colony in no more than a few hundred years and possibly less than one hundred.

     There is a rather strong implication in the preceding sections that the very high density, highly integrated and efficient society of the future must necessarily have a tyrannical rather than democratic form of government.

     Macro Life exemplifies the ultimate society. But we recognise this as a vehicle and a vehicle implies a captain with absolute authority over passengers and crew. It is generally agreed that the close knit, interdependent society of a ship or a military base could not function effectively with any form of government but a tyranny in the original sense of the word. A democratic government of a ship or a space colony would presumably lead to indecisiveness, confusion, and unacceptable hazard.

     However, this is not necessarily the case. We must become more efficient in our social, political, and technological operations as our living space on earth implodes around us and we attempt the colonization of interplanetary space. But increased efficiency does not automatically mean a necessity for relinquishing our basic freedoms. We will lose some of the freedoms we now enjoy, we could lose all of them, but we need not lose our most highly prized freedoms, if we make an effort to retain them.

     Our great danger is that we will fail to recognize present trends toward tyranny and will be only half conscious of the slow erosion of our most precious freedoms. The great pressures forcing our society into a more dense and more rigid ultimate form raise doubts as to the ability of the average man to govern himself, and give those seeking power the opportunity to steal a little more from the sleeping public.

     In order to have some hope of retaining any of our freedoms, we must do several things and do them soon. We must first of all define and elucidate what it is we want to preserve. We must compare our desires with present realities and future problems. We must order our desires according to preference. We must observe and analyze possible conflicts between freedoms. And we must determine the cost of preserving the most prized freedoms in terms of material welfare, danger to the survival of the race, and loss of conflicting freedoms.

     No one would claim that our existing society is perfect or that ours is the best possible form of government in all respects. In evaluating our present treasure of freedom and investigating possible dangers we should not ignore the possibility for improving our government and increasing some of the freedoms we already enjoy. Possibly new techniques of operations analysis could he employed to maximize our freedoms in certain areas and minimize government control.


  • The population explosion cannot be halted or even slowed down by talking about it, “educating the masses," or appealing to individual restraint. As a major factor in the global power struggle,it can no more he stopped than the armameut race, until the power struggle itself is ended. (Cole did not foresee the Demographic Transition)

  • The explosive growth of population and knowledge which will soon reach the chain reaction or detonation point will force the crystallization of society into permanent highly integrated structures constituting new super life forms.

  • Macro Life represents an “ultimate" or end form of human society, since further change will then be mere refinement of the Macro Being. Once the basic crystallization pattern has been found, growth, reproduction, and minor refinements are the only possibilities for change.

  • Much of our freedom and the cherished “sanctity of the individual" will be lost in this social molding process unless we make a supreme effort to first define our main objectives and then to attain them regardless of sacrifice of minor interests.

  • A nuclear war in 1970 would wipe out modern civilization and possibly all life on earth unless special efforts are made to protect both life and society.

  • Survival of individual non organized humans will not insure survival of society. Survival of body cells after severe injury does not insure survival of the whole body. Even survival of the germ cells is not sufficieut for rebirth unless elaborate provision is made for their nurture and protection.

  • Manned underwater bases are suggested for oceanographic and Naval research, submarine early warning, underwater defense, and research on the nature and problems of Macro Life.

  • Civil Defense Academics are suggested as underwater or underground survival colonies and research bases.

  • Space transportation costs will drop rapidly to the point where colonization of the planets will be economically feasible in twenty to forty years. These colonies will be early examples of the completely integrated ultimale society toward which all of our civilization is evolving. In the space colony we will have the opportunity to solve in small scale pilot models the fundamental human problems of our age and set the pattern for our ultimate social form. If we are aware of the full significance of the pattern which we select, then we can intelligently, objectively, and freely determine our social destiny in response to our most basic needs and desires.

by Dandrige Cole (1960)

Government Classifications

Star Hero Types

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

Traveller Types

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.

Tales to Astound! has an entry pointing out the above list is not a taxonomy of all possible government types (e.g., note the lack of "Monarchy").

Instead, it is an indication of what the Traveller players can personally expect to encounter directly when they interact with the local bureaucracy. When a player is trying to get a license to import Spican Flame Gems they could care less that the government is a unicameral legislature. The player just wants to know how much red tape they will have to cut through, which is what the above table tries to indicate.

Player rarely, if ever, interact with planetary governments directly.

The Sword & The Stars Types


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

Star Empires Types

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 Types

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 Types

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)

Miscellaneous Types


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

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

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

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

From THE QUIET WAR by Paul McAuley (2009)

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


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

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

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


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

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

Other terms

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

See also

From the Wikipedia entry for KLEPTOCRACY

Cyclical Governments

The idea is that an empire might not have the same type of government throughout its entire lifetime. The government type might evolve from era to era, much like ancient Rome.

The empire's society and culture might go through different stages as well.

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 for ANACYCLOSIS

The Kyklos (Ancient Greek: κύκλος, IPA: [kýklos], "cycle") is a term used by some classical Greek authors to describe what they saw as the political cycle of governments in a society. It was roughly based on the history of Greek city-states in the same period. The concept of "The Kyklos" is first elaborated in Plato's Republic, chapters VIII and IX. Polybius calls it the anakyklosis or "anacyclosis".

According to Polybius, who has the most fully developed version of the cycle, it rotates through the three basic forms of government, democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy and the three degenerate forms of each of these governments ochlocracy, oligarchy, and tyranny.

Originally society is in ochlocracy but the strongest figure emerges and sets up a monarchy. The monarch's descendants, who because of their family's power lack virtue, become despots and the monarchy degenerates into a tyranny.

Because of the excesses of the ruler the tyranny is overthrown by the leading citizens of the state who set up an aristocracy. They too quickly forget about virtue and the state becomes an oligarchy.

These oligarchs are overthrown by the people who set up a democracy. Democracy soon becomes corrupt and degenerates into ochlocracy, beginning the cycle anew.

Plato and Aristotle have somewhat different beliefs. Plato only sees five forms of government. Aristotle believes the cycle begins with monarchy and ends in anarchy, but that it does not start anew. He also refers to democracy as the degenerate form of rule by the many and calls the virtuous form politeia, which is often translated as constitutional democracy. Cicero describes anacyclosis in his philosophical work De re publica.

Machiavelli, writing during the Renaissance, appears to have adopted Polybius' version of the cycle. Machiavelli's adoption of anacyclosis can be seen in Book I, Chapter II of his Discourses on Livy.

All the philosophers believed that this cycling was harmful. The transitions would often be accompanied by violence and turmoil, and a good part of the cycle would be spent with the degenerate forms of government. Aristotle gave a number of options as to how the cycle could be halted or slowed:

  • Even the most minor changes to basic laws and constitutions must be opposed because over time the small changes will add up to a complete transformation.
  • In aristocracies and democracies the tenure of rulers must be kept very short to prevent them from becoming despots
  • External threats, real or imagined, preserve internal peace
  • The three government basic systems can be blended into one, taking the best elements of each
  • If any one individual gains too much power, be it political, monetary, or military he should be banished from the polis
  • Judges and magistrates must never accept money to make decisions
  • The middle class must be large
  • Most important to Aristotle in preserving a constitution is education: if all the citizens are aware of law, history, and the constitution they will endeavour to maintain a good government.

Polybius, by contrast, focuses on the idea of mixed government. The idea that the ideal government is one that blends elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. Aristotle mentions this notion but pays little attention to it. To Polybius it is the most important and he saw the Roman Republic as the embodiment of this mixed constitution and that this explained its stability.

From the Wikipedia entry for KYKLOS

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)

(ed note: this is an insightful analysis of Poul Anderson's Technic History series by Sandra Miesel. It gives interesting details about the rise and fall of the Terran Empire)

A thousand years before Flandry's time, the woeful twentieth century faded into the hopeful twenty-first. Widespread social upheaval triggered by war, famine, and other disasters had obliterated entire societies but the ultimate effect was to produce a freer international order. Rational solutions were found to old problems like energy and population. The emerging global society was firmly wedded to technology and largely—but by no means exclusively—Western in outlook. Although local tongues persisted, the universal language was Anglic, a simplified version of English enriched with many foreign loan words. The new cultural synthesis became known as Technic civilization, successor of Western as Western had been of Classical.

The prosperity of this new era provided the resources to explore and develop the Solar System. Colonies were placed in orbit and permanent bases were established on the Moon and planets. A less-than-successful attempt was made to terraform Venus. By 2100, these settlements were large enough to join Earth in establishing the Solar Commonwealth, an institution that was to endure for the next five centuries. At the same time, faster-than-light interstellar travel became possible. Exploration and then emigration proceeded with explosive vigor. ("Wings of Victory" and "The Problem of Pain" occur in this period.)

Colonies continued to be founded all during the Commonwealth age. Just like New World pioneers before them, colonists were drawn by the chance for adventure, profit, advancement, social and political experimentation, or the desire to preserve a unique cultural heritage. (The ethnic motive was paramount for the settlers of Russo-Mongol Altai, African Nyanza, and Slavic Dennitza, to name only a few examples.) This outflow of humanity to widely scattered independent worlds is known as the Breakup.

Furthermore, humans encountered numerous other intelligent races among the stars. Contact was generally peaceful and mutually beneficial. Mars was ceded to aliens suited to its environment, a precedent for the later cession of Jupiter to the Ymirites in Imperial times.) Many alien peoples could assimilate high technology and interact with men as equals. All had contributions to offer: arts, beliefs, information, goods, services, and so forth. These exotic stimuli sparked the creative energies of Technic civilization to new peaks of excellence because they broadened the range of options available to each individual.

Thus interstellar conditions in Commonwealth times approximated those of the European Age of Exploration during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Likewise, they bred the same boldness. Independent traders ranged across vast reaches of space discovering and exploiting new worlds. Daring merchant-adventurers amassed huge fortunes and enormous political power. Their resources surpassed those of whole planetary governments, enabling them to live as grandly and arrogantly as Renaissance princes.

In the twenty-third century, the merchants and other groups involved in trade formed the Polesotechnic League to foster their own interests. This "League of Selling Skill" was a voluntary, self-regulating mutual protection organization that sought to curb the worst excesses of unbridled capitalism and defend its members against outside foes such as governments. The League issued its own currency, conducted its own diplomacy, and, on occasion, raised its own armies. Overall, it resembled the Hanseatic League of mercantile cities which totally dominated northern European commerce and politics between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries.

But the League made fateful decisions at a meeting called the Council of Hiawatha in 2400 which turned it into a set of feuding cartels and left it open to Commonwealth interference. The inability of the League to discipline itself and maintain its independence doomed it in the same way as the Conciliarist Movement's failure to reform the Church had doomed medieval Catholicism a thousand years before.

Nevertheless, the League's sunset years were filled with glorious accomplishments as exemplified in the careers of flamboyant Nicholas van Rijn and his soberer protégé, David Falkayn. Stories featuring these men (see “Chronology of Technic Civilization,” included in this and other volumes of the Technic Civilization Saga) illustrate the positive effects of the League on human colonists and primitive aliens. The traders imparted useful knowledge, reconciled warring factions, thwarted outside aggressors, loosened internal repression, suppressed piracy, and brought new groups into interstellar society—earning profits all the while. With van Rijn's consent, Falkayn helped underdeveloped planets acquire essential capital which proved to be their margin of survival later on. Together they exposed schemes of subversion and conquest that threatened Earth herself (Satan's World and Mirkheim).

But the League had irreparably decayed by the end of van Rijn's lifetime because of its members' greed and ruthlessness—not to mention the overwhelming complexity of its operations. By then, the Commonwealth had become a weak but meddlesome bureaucracy whose fortunes were intertwined with the League's. Falkayn, who had married van Rijn's granddaughter, foresaw the end and eventually emigrated from Technic civilization's sphere. He founded the new colony of Avalon which was jointly populated by humans and the winged Ythrians and ruled by the Domain of Ythri. ("Wingless on Avalon" and "Rescue on Avalon" relate the early years of this important settlement.)

Falkayn retreated; others built barricades against the coming storms. The next two centuries were the Time of Troubles. Technic civilization was swept by continual waves of war, revolution, economic collapse, and all their attendant evils. Violent convulsions shook every society—some fatally. The nadir was the sack of Earth by the Baldic League, a pack of spacegoing barbarians who had acquired advanced weapons from irresponsible traders. Shortly afterwards, the alien Gorzuni began raiding Earth periodically for slaves to stock their budding empire. One of their captives, Manuel Argos, organized a successful slave revolt that began the liberation of Earth ("The Star Plunderer"). Argos was a charismatic—and pragmatic—leader of enormous energy. Once he had stabilized the ravaged Solar System, he proclaimed himself First Emperor of the Terran Empire. This was a symbolic title shrewdly calculated to appeal to exhausted beings' longing for order.

Stability was what the Empire promised; stability was what it delivered. Other systems and regions willingly united with Terra in order to enjoy her protection. The Empire's rule was mild and the benefits of security from attack, safe transportation, and easy communication were immense. Collecting only modest taxes for the support of her excellent Navy and Civil Service, Terra generally let member planets manage their internal affairs undisturbed.

This was the ideal which attracted the allegiance of sturdy old colonies like Dennitza. Although some worlds, such as Aeneas and Ansa, had to be annexed forcibly, their inhabitants soon recognized the value of provincial status. "Sargasso of Lost Starships" is an account filled with discrepancies, nevertheless it shows the early Empire defeudalizing stagnant Ansa to good effect.

The turning point in Terra's expansion was the costly war of aggression that she fought against the Domain of Ythri. "Rectification of borders" was the official excuse; the true motive was sheer territorial aggrandizement. Although some Ythrian planets were won, bicultural Avalon successfully resisted Terran conquest as related in The People of the Wind. Eventually the Empire grew to encompass a sphere 400 light years in diameter, englobing four million stars and 100,000 inhabited planets. Now its only desire was to preserve that dominion unmolested.

Although both the Commonwealth and the Empire were created after periods of universal chaos, note that a century of redevelopment had preceded the formation of the Commonwealth whereas the Empire sprang directly from the ruins of previous institutions. This difference in origins produced considerable divergence in operation and attitudes. The Commonwealth as a political entity never extended beyond the Solar System, yet its era was a time of new accomplishments, broad horizons, and healthy cross-cultural influences. Man's attention was focused outward on other worlds, other races. Colonies were scattered broadcast and the Polesotechnic League harvested trade across incredible distances.

The Empire, on the other hand, was founded for renewal rather than development. Terra's task was to restore and preserve Technic civilization, hence her citizens were often cautious, incurious, and reluctant to try anything really new. There was even a lack of initiative in adapting to conditions on other worlds (Llynathawr, Freehold). Technology, especially for military purposes, did advance but basic scientific research lagged. The arts were likewise stagnant, chiefly repeating ancient models. Terrans were now less responsive to alien influences than formerly although colonials like the Dennitzans continued cultural interactions with their resident aliens. Overall, the Empire's outlook was parochial and protective whereas the League's had been ecumenical and expansionist.

After two centuries, these negative traits had become cracks fissuring the Empire's structure. But although Terra and her most imitative subjects were crumbling, the weaknesses in the foundation did not necessarily touch alien complexes within the Empire or colonies with strong, indigenous cultures of their own. (The cleavage between urban and rural Freeholders in "Outpost of Empire" is a case in point.) Nevertheless, the sound and unsound parts of the Empire were in jeopardy together.

The once-efficient system of Emperor and executive Policy Board acting through Sector Governors and planetary Residents was breaking down under the weight of personal corruption and folly. The Imperial yoke grew heavier without any offsetting increases in benefits, making the provinces resentful. More and more often, Terra's rulers were either too short-sighted to recognize threats to the public welfare or too stingy to meet them. One contemporary civil servant said of the Empire: "'Its competent people become untrustworthy from their very competence; anyone who can make a decision may make one the Imperium does not like. Incompetence grows with the growing suspiciousness and centralization. Defense and civil functions alike begin to disintegrate. What can that provoke except rebellion?'" (A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows).

Unlike the working aristocrats on colonial worlds such as Aeneas, the Terran upper classes were largely composed of selfish parasites exploiting their position for private gain. Titles of nobility ceased to be rewards for excellence as society hardened into castes. Options dwindled for the lower classes. Slavery was revived as punishment for crime. Indifference to aliens cost opportunities for wonder and sometimes masked a casual racism. The position of women declined in practice if not in theory. Vigorous colonial women and female aliens continued the Commonwealth-era tradition of full participation in society but too many Terran women were simply menials, consorts, entertainers, or whores; (Compare the difference in feminine roles in nineteenth century frontier America and its contemporary, Second Empire France.)

Detachment, boredom, apathy, despair were the prevailing moods of the era. Terrans lost their confidence, their morale, their energy. As one observer remarked: "'We've given up seeking perfection and glory; we've learned that they're chimerical—but that knowledge is a kind of death within us,'" ("Honorable Enemies"). The world-weary sought consolation in vice or spiritual obsessions. Few even thought of resisting the Empire's inevitable fall. A nineteenth century historian's verdict on Byzantium is equally applicable to the Terran Empire: "It is a tale of what had reached its zenith, of what was past its best strength, a tale of decadence postponed with skill and energy, and yet only postponed."

Matters were far otherwise with Terra's fierce young rival, the Roidhunate of Merseia. This newer imperium would never have come into existence except for David Falkayn's intervention when Merseia was threatened by the effects of a nearby supernova ("Day of Burning"). But the League's high-handed relief tactics outraged the haughty Merseians so thoroughly, they were spurred to achieve global union. In due course, they entered space and emerged from the Time of Troubles ruling an interstellar empire composed of many peoples, including humans. However, since this was the Merseians' first turn on the wheel of galactic history, they were as energetic and ambitious as Earthmen of the early Commonwealth period had been.

Merseia's collision with Terra was another example of that old adage: "Two tough, smart races want the same real estate." Despite their green reptilian skins, Merseians were enough like humans to eat the same food and enjoy the same jokes. However, they were more ferocious than humans and could tolerate no equals whatsoever. To them, the Covenant of Alfzar they signed with Terra was no treaty of detente but an invitation to continue their struggle by covert means.

A Merseian conceived of life as a great hunt and found the meaning of his existence in the strength of the foes he overcame. The bellicose Merseians relished interspecies struggle but would not have hesitated to exterminate vanquished opponents afterwards. They were proud and severe by nature but the Roidhunate's acute xenophobia was a feature of the dominant, Eriau-speaking culture, not necessarily of their entire people. Merseian allegiance was primarily to the race, not to the Roidhunate as such. Their ultimate goal was nothing less than a Merseian-owned galaxy. Their governing Grand Council of Vachs (clan chiefs) headed by a landless, hereditary head of state (the Roidhun) had no direct aspirations to direct galactic rule but rather envisioned interlocking sets of autonomous Merseian realms. They believed their great vision justified any policy, however ruthless.

Although the warfare between Terra and Merseia resembles innumerable matches between weary old empires and brash new ones, the closest historical analogy is to the Eastern Roman Empire's duel with Sassanid Persia between the third and seventh centuries A.D. Both pairings were instances of disastrous, mutually exhausting struggles between enemies who regarded each other as their sole worthy opponent. The Eastern Empire was as preservationist, inward-turning, callous, and sophisticated as the Terran. It was perennially on the defensive against waves of enemies both civilized and barbarous. Key factors in its survival were devious intelligence agents and military officers who were hedonists in the capital but heroes in the marches. The Sassanids, on the other hand, were an aggressive, chauvinistic dynasty supremely confident of Persian cultural superiority. The intolerant state religion they ardently patronized justified their pretentions. Their obsession with hunting and their fiercely romantic masculinity were uncannily Merseian in flavor.

Within a few years he (Flandry) met and lost his great love in The Rebel Worlds. She was Kathryn McCormac, the wife of an admiral driven into revolt against the Empire by an Imperial Governor's brutal exactions. With Flandry's help she killed the Governor, thus preventing him from becoming the future evil power behind the Imperial throne. But she permitted her husband's rebellion to fail and followed him into exile rather than commit adultery with Flandry, whose disappointment became an excuse for libertine living.

Although this threat to the Empire's integrity was successfully countered, the ominous precedent of military revolt had been set. In the future it would be copied by other Navy officers hopeful of becoming "barracks emperors." Aeneas, focal point of the rebellion, was subsequently pacified and reconstructed despite Merseian attempts to reopen the wound (The Day of Their Return).

But Flandry was only manning the pump on a sinking ship. The Empire could stay afloat a while longer but it was no longer able to repair—much less rebuild itself. Destructive trends continued in Terran society despite the sacrifices of Flandry and others like him: "Too many mutually alien races; too many forces clashing in space, and so desperately few who comprehended the situation and tried their feeble best to help—naked hands battering at an avalanche as it ground down on them," ("Honorable Enemies").

Creativity never revived in the arts and sciences. Social barriers grew higher and the gaps between classes wider. Slaves increased in numbers while the conditions of their servitude worsened. Terra's fear of colonial disloyalty grew after McCormac's Revolt but her countermeasures, like forbidding Navy men to serve in their home systems, only weakened loyalty further. Colonies such as Freehold, Aeneas, and Dennitza began to plan for their post-Imperial futures. Despairing of Technic civilization, ripe for new religions and crazes, people withdrew from Terran society psychologically if not physically.

Thus it was with the Terran Empire as it had been with the Roman nearly 3,000 years before. Not enough is known about the Terran Emperor Georgios to compare him directly with the Roman Marcus Aurelius but at least he was an acceptable ruler. His son Josip, however, was every bit as degenerate as Marcus Aurelius' son Commodus and his impact on the Empire every bit as disastrous. The disorders that followed Josip's death tossed up Hans Molitor who was an exact counterpart to Septimus Severus, similarly provided with two incompetent sons, and likewise destined to die on an unruly frontier. After another round of civil wars, Flandry became the key advisor to a sound, Aurelian-like Emperor.

The Terran Empire was completing its Principate phase and beginning its Interregnum in Flandry's day. After his death, it became a Dominate, a static, repressive state with all the harshness of Diocletian's Roman Empire. All the negative tendencies of the previous era persisted unchecked. Not even a resort to divine kingship could save the Empire. The Fall, so slow, so long expected, was complete by the middle of the fourth millennium. Technic civilization was extinct. The Long Night had arrived.

Information about the Empire's Fall is inexact and largely speculative but the Byzantine-Persian historical model described earlier can usefully supplement the Roman one. It appears that Terra and Merseia wore each other out in fruitless wars of attrition, leaving each other too weak to resist other foes. Internal rebellions triggered by poverty, tyranny, and insecurity left both imperia even more vulnerable.

Perhaps the Betelgeusans, a race noted for long range planning, had decided to end their centuries of neutrality and prosper at their larger neighbors' expense just as the medieval Georgians had. Possibly the fierce Gorrazani (descendants of the Gorzuni) erupted in conquest like the Turks. Or else the precedents of the Scothani and Ardazirho inspired other barbarians to harry Terra and Merseia as border savages had raided Byzantine and Persian territory. Undoubtedly, these were the kinds of factors that ruined Terra and Merseia. It is not certain if either capital world was destroyed. But shorn of her possessions, heavily populated Terra had insufficient resources left to rebuild her might. Merseia would have suffered catastrophic culture shock when her glorious dream failed.

A few incidents recorded during the Long Night show old Imperial colonies trying to retain or regain lost knowledge ("A Tragedy of Errors"). It was hunger for knowledge more than for goods that stimulated civilization's revival. Leading planets in the reconstruction period like Nuevoamerica and Kraken had never been part of the Empire. They explored far beyond its old borders ("The Night Face" and "The Sharing of Flesh"): Eventually, an entirely new approach to interstellar relations evolved. This was the Commonalty, a galactic service organization that provided quasi-governmental services without itself actually being a government ("Starfog"). Perhaps the Commonalty will avoid some of the weaknesses inherent in empires but eventually it is sure to develop special problems of its own. Meanwhile, a new and brilliant cycle of history has begun.

What does the pageant of Technic civilization just summarized prove? (If indeed history can be said to prove anything.) First, its rise and fall demonstrates that governments operate under the social equivalent of Darwinian pressure: they must function within their environments or be replaced. Any kind of system that provides its citizens with an acceptable balance of opportunity and security is good. Pragmatic results count for more than political dogma. Initially the League emphasized opportunity and the Commonwealth security but finally neither could give either and so they perished. The best justification for the early Empire was that it spread a military umbrella over 100,000 unique cultural experiments. Once its ability to stimulate and defend its subjects faltered, its days were numbered.

Furthermore, these extant accounts of Technic civilization show history as a record of interlocking ironies arising from individual choices. For instance, if Falkayn had not aided Merseia, it would not have survived to menace the Empire. Yet if he had not also founded Avalon and his descendants not resisted Imperial conquest, no free Avalonian would have been available to save the Empire from a subtle Merseian plot in The Day of Their Return. If Flandry had treated his first two mistresses with greater consideration, he would not have lost his last chance for happiness. If Kathryn had not rebuffed Flandry's advances, neither the Empire nor her own descendants would have long survived. Each irresistible historic trend is actually the net product of separate acts which had not necessarily appeared significant at the time they occurred. Each key event "'is the flower on a plant whose seed went into the ground long before ... and whose roots reach widely, and will send up fresh growths,'" (A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows).

Finally, this temporal drama reminds us that everything in the universe is mortal. All things, institutions as well as persons, are born only to die. The lifespan of a galaxy or an empire is as limited as that of a man. The only proper response, in the face of entropy's inevitable triumph is to struggle as well and bravely as possible. As Flandry said in Hunters of the Sky Cave, "'I don't want to die so fast I can't feel it. I want to see death coming, and make the stupid thing fight for every centimeter of me.'" Existence is a pattern with no universally acknowledged goal or purpose other than to be itself, a doomed but lovely candle in the darkness.

Groups of Goverments

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.
Buffer State
A buffer state is small empire lying between two rival or potentially hostile greater powers, which by its sheer existence is thought to prevent conflict between them. In theory they curb the territorial expansion of a rival empire at your empire's expense.
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".


      The empty grave was a regulation hole, one meter wide, two meters long, two meters deep. I looked up into the sky through the gloomy overcast at the blue-and-white globe that hung there. It was there, on the planet Kennedy, that the tradition of the empty grave had arisen. There, during the Fast Plague, it had been rare to have a body to put in the ground. The corpses had been viciously infectious. The only sure way of sterilizing the remains was to destroy them in the fusion flame of a grounded spacecraft. That was what happened to my parents' bodies—I remember the patches of dim incandescence in the cleansing flame. There was a an empty grave there, on Kennedy, a meter by a meter by two meters; on top of it a granite cover slab that bore their names.
     There have always been a lot of funerals without bodies at the edges of civilization, I suppose. There still were. A ship doesn't come back. Somebody pushes the wrong button and a ship explodes. People get eaten. There are lots of ways.
     Silently, I bid our comrades a last farewell, and we went inside. Once in our quarters, it took us a while to get out of our pressure suits and into our dress uniforms, with the grim addition of an issue black armband. I struggled into the midnight-black, high-collared, rather severe uniform of the Republic of Kennedy Navy. Joslyn, a native of the Planetary Commonwealth of Britannica, was thereby a loyal subject of the King-Emperor of Great Britain. Her uniform was a deep navy blue, with a lower collar, far fewer buttons, and a better cut. Both of us wore the insignia of the League of Planets Survey Service, a starfield superimposed on a rectangular grid. Both of us were lieutenants, assigned to special training classes at the League of Planets Survey Service Training Center on Columbia.
     Joslyn checked her appearance in the mirror. She said she was five foot seven and I was six four. I said she was 170 centimeters and I was 193.

     We, the survivors, should have been able to gather quietly together, drawn to each other by the bonds of comradery that linked us one to the other, and to the dead.
     But the government representatives here had to be treated diplomatically. Some were from nations and planets that opposed the Survey, others from places that were footing the bill. Captain Driscoll had to invite them, and many had come. Joslyn went off in search of drinks. I stood there and scanned the crowd for a friendly face. Pete Gesseti caught my eye and came over.
     Pete works for the Republic of Kennedy State Department, and is one of those rare people who can actually make you believe that the bureaucracy knows what it is doing.
     "The wedding aside, at least you didn't miss a trip to someplace worth going," I said.

     "True, I guess. Though the League should have picked someplace a lot better than this to train you kids. And I have a sneaky idea that putting you in this hole was the deliberate policy of certain people who want the Survey to fail, if you're interested in a little paranoia."
     "Mac—tell me this: How does Columbia rate as a training base for a space-going operation?" Pete has a tendency to snap from one subject to another quickly. He takes some keeping up with.
     "Well, okay—not so great."
     "Make that terrible. You guys should be in free orbit. That way, if you want to train in your ships, you just hop out the hatch and go to it. Here, since your ships aren't designed to land on a surface, you lose a lot of time taking shuttle craft back and forth. Makes schedules impossible. Even having to fly through this atmosphere is worthless as training. It's a freak since the terraforming engineers started tinkering with it. It hasn't stopped raining here for years, which must be great for morale. The air would kill you, so you have to wear suits. The methane leaks in anyway, and stinks to high heaven. The whole atmosphere is in transition: All kinds of crud precipitates and ruins equipment…"
     "Okay, you've made your point. It's not such a great base. So who is it that got the base put here?"
     "You kids are lucky this is my third drink or I'd still be a fairly discreet diplomat. People who wanted the Survey to fail. Those people had friends who arranged for some misguided members of the Kennedy Chamber of Commerce to lobby for you to be based here—if you follow that. They would like the Survey to fail because the British donated the ten long-range frigates you'll be flying, because your commander graduated from Annapolis, and because the reports are to be published in English. They think the Brits and the Yanks are plotting to lay claim to all the best real estate out there. Note Britannica, Kennedy, and Newer Jersey are the prime planets so far—Europa, for example, isn't all that habitable. There are some grounds for being suspicious. Anyone you met at this reception speaking French, or German, or Japanese, for example, would probably be just as happy if you had all been on the Venera when she went poof."
     My head was whirling with confusion. I had never paid much attention to politics. It had never occurred to me that someone would think ill of the Survey, let alone try and throw monkey wrenches at it.
     And then there were the rumblings that the Survey Service was to be stillborn. We had yet to send a single ship out on a survey mission. Ours, the first class of the Service, had been about a month from graduation when the Venera was lost. I had figured the loss would slow us down to a crawl, but could it really stop us? With all that to worry about, it was a lousy party, even for a funeral.

     Around the beginning of the third millennium, the experiments were performed that took faster-than-light travel from an impossibility to a laboratory trick to a way to haul freight. Humanity, barely staggering into the third thousand years alive, found that the stars had been dropped in its lap. The explorers went out.
     Some of them came back. The settlers followed in their paths. More than once, settlers went out blazing their own trails. Very few of that number were ever heard from again.
     Yet, by the year 2025, the United States Census Bureau estimated the off-Earth population as over 1 million for the first time. Ten years later, the figure was twice that, and the pace accelerating. By 2050, rapid emigration and high birth-rates had pushed the minimum estimate to 10 million. Even to this day, the Census people try to keep track of it. At the moment, the best guess is 85 million people. That is, 85 million, plus or minus 20 million!
     The colonists went out, poorly organized, often toward nothing more definite than the hope that they might find a place to settle and live. Few managed that. One job of the Survey was to find these people, and to establish a reliable catalog of habitable planets, so the next generation of colony ships might go out with a better chance of survival.
     And we were to locate bounty, the incredible riches that literally hang in the sky. What new mineral, born in exotic heat and pressure, waited for uses to be found and a market established? Where were mountain-sized lumps of pure nickel-iron, orbiting in darkness, waiting for a factory ship to take possession? Where were the lovely green worlds waiting for people to come and live on them? What new plants, new animals, would be worth exporting?
     Surely it must have been obvious to everyone there was a need to explore. Just as obviously, it was a job for the governments of humanity to take on. Obvious to everyone except the governments, that is. Governments are supposed to lead, but they have been following the people ever since our race entered space in a big way.

     The first crunch came in the 2030s or so. By that time, there were a good half dozen colony planets—and a bad dozen. Nations and consortiums that certainly could not afford to do so established colonies anyway. True, the founding colonies had done great good for the nations that could afford the great capital expense. But a poor nation goes bankrupt long before its colony starts to pay any returns. The pattern was repeated many times. The nation, or the colony, or both, would collapse, and people would start to die. To the richness of space we brought war, riot, pestilence, and starvation. It happened in a dozen different ways on a dozen different worlds. The big nations, and the healthy colonies, many of them completely independent by this time, got tired of bailing out the failures after a while. The United States, the Asian and European powers, the strong colonies—Kennedy, Britannica, Europa, New Alberta, Newer Jersey, and the others—came to the conference table. By every means possible, they coerced the little and the weak to join them—The Estonian Republic, The People's Federal Protectorate of Chad, Uruguay, colonies like New Antarctica and High Albania, the O'Neill colonies, the self-contained (and self-righteous) free-flying colonies in orbit around Earth.
     Some big countries were part of the problem: China had pulled off some truly remarkable failures in space by this time. Many of the smaller nations and colonies were among the most responsible members of the conference: Sweden; Singapore, and her "daughter," the O'Neill colony High Singapore; Portugal; Finland; and New Finland were strong backers of the enterprise. The delegates bickered. They threatened each other. They indulged in back-room deals that are still causing scandals today. But they managed to come up with a treaty.
     So, on January 1, 2038, at 0000 hours GMT and Zero hours Accumulated Stellar Time (AST), the League of Planets came into being and its founding document, the Treaty of Planets, came into effect.
     By 0000 hours GMT on January 2, or 24 hours AST, the League was evacuating the hapless residents of New Antarctica and treating them for frostbite. The delegates came up with a system that works. Its basic tenet sets the right of a human being to live over the right of an idiot to run a government as if it were a family business.
     When the League came into being, ground rules were set up for the founding of colonies. Folks could still bug out and vanish if they wanted to, but fewer people did so by accident. Fewer people starved. When the Fast Plague came to Kennedy, the Interworld Health Organizations (which is one of the pieces of the League that actually predates it, somehow—like the International Court of Justice at The Hague) came in, and their aid saved us. There is no possible question on that point. That's why the Republic of Kennedy is very pro-League. There are other good things. There are fewer tinhorn dictators taking over small colonies with still-weak governments. Trade is reliable, not for gamblers anymore.
     I stood there and looked out at the gloomy night. It occurred to me that I must have been pretty naive to think that politics wasn't going to affect the Survey—not with a history like the League's.

From THE TORCH OF HONOR by Roger MacBride Allen (1985)

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.


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)


This section has been moved here.

Empire Stability


The structure of empire anatomized in last week’s post is a source of considerable strength for any imperial nation that manages to get it in place, and a source of even more considerable difficulty for anyone who opposes the resulting empire and hopes to bring it down. Nonetheless, empires do fall; every empire in history has fallen, with one present day exception, and for all its global reach and gargantuan military budgets, the American empire shows no signs of breaking that long losing streak. Thus it’s important to understand how empires fall, and why.

It sometimes happens that the fall of the last major empire in any given civilization is also the fall of that civilization, and a certain amount of confusion has come about because of this. The fall of Rome, for example, was the end of an empire, but it was also the end of a civilization that was already flourishing before the city of Rome was even founded—a civilization that had seen plenty of empires come and go by the time Rome rose past regional-power status to dominate the Mediterranean world. The example of Rome’s decline and fall, though, became so central to later attempts to understand the cycles of history that most such attempts in the modern Western world equated empire and civilization, and the fall of the one with that of the other.

That’s the principal blind spot in the writings of Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee, the two great theorists of historical cycles the modern Western world has produced. Both Spengler and Toynbee argued that the natural endpoint of what Spengler called a culture and Toynbee a civilization was a single sprawling empire—a Universal State, in Toynbee’s phrase—in which every previous movement of the culture or civilization that preceded it reached its completion, fossilization, and death. A barely concealed political subtext guided both authors; Spengler, formulating his theory before and during the First World War, believed that the German Empire would become the nucleus around which Faustian (that is, Western) culture would coalesce into the rigor mortis of civilization; Toynbee, who began his A Study of History in the 1920s and saw its last volumes in print in 1954, believed that an Anglo-American alliance would become that nucleus. In each case, national aspirations pretty clearly undergirded scholarly predictions.

Yet it bears remembering that a Universal State along Roman lines is only one of the options. Plenty of successful civilizations—the ancient Mayans are one example of many—never came under the rule of a single imperial power at all. Others—the civilization of ancient Mesopotamia is an example here—had empires succeeding one another every century or two all through the latter part of its history, so that no one empire put its stamp on the civilization the way that Rome did on the ancient Mediterranean world. Other civilizations had their own ways of dealing with the phenomenon of empire, and so a distinction needs to be made between the fall of empires and that of civilizations.

I’ve argued at length here and elsewhere that the fall of civilizations takes place through a process that I’ve termed catabolic collapse. This unfolds from the inevitable mismatch between the maintenance costs of capital—that is, how much economic activity has to be put into maintaining all the stuff that civilizations create and collect as their history proceeds—and the resource base needed to meet the maintenance costs of capital. Since capital tends to increase steadily over time, but resources are always subject to natural limits, every civilization sooner or later finds itself with more capital than it can maintain, and that tips it into a maintenance crisis: basically, a loss of capital, usually made worse by conflict over who gets to keep how much of their existing shares. If the civilization relies on renewable resources, it simply has to shed enough capital to get down below the level that it can maintain with the resource flows it has available; this is what drives the sort of repeated collapse and recovery rhythm that can be seen, for example, in the history of China.

If the civilization relies on nonrenewable resources, though, the depletion of those resources triggers a downward spiral—catabolic collapse—in which each round of crisis is followed, not by recovery, but by a brief reprieve before the declining resource base forces another maintenance crisis. Rinse and repeat, and pretty soon the capital you can’t afford to maintain any longer amounts to everything that’s left. That’s the extreme form of catabolic collapse, and there’s good reason to think that we’re already seeing the early stages of it in modern industrial civilization.

Empires suffer from the ordinary form of catabolic collapse, just like any other form of human social organization complex enough to accumulate capital. Still, they have their own far more specific version of the phenomenon, and it’s generally this specific form that brings them crashing down. To understand how empires collapse, two things have to be kept in mind. The first is the core concept of catabolic collapse just mentioned—the mismatch between maintenance costs and available resources, and the distinction between renewable and nonrenewable resources that determines the outcome of the mismatch. The second is the definition of empire introduced two weeks ago—that an empire is a wealth pump, an arrangement backed by military force that extracts wealth from a periphery of subject nations and concentrates it in the imperial core.

Imperial rhetoric down through the centuries normally includes the claim that the imperial power only takes a modest fraction of the annual production of wealth from its subject nations, and provides services such as peace, good government, and trade relations that more than make up for the cost. This is hogwash—popular hogwash, at least among those who profit from empire, but hogwash nonetheless. Historically speaking, the longer an empire lasts, the poorer its subject nations normally get, and the harder the empire’s tame intellectuals have to work to invent explanations for that impoverishment that don’t include the reasons that matter. Consider the vast amount of rhetorical energy expended by English intellectuals in the 19th century, for example, to find reasons for Ireland’s grinding poverty other than England’s systematic expropriation of every scrap of Irish wealth that wasn’t too firmly nailed down.

This sort of arrangement has predictable effects on capital and maintenance costs. The buildup of capital in the imperial center goes into overdrive, churning out the monumental architecture, the collections of art and antiquities, the extravagant lifestyles, and the soaring costs of living that have been constant features of life in an imperial capital since imperial capitals were invented. The costs of building and maintaining all this accumulation, not to mention the considerable maintenance costs of empire itself—the infrastructure of an empire counts as capital, and generally very expensive capital at that—are exported to the subject nations by whatever set of mechanisms the empire uses to pump wealth inward to the center. Over the short to middle term, this is an extremely profitable system, since it allows the imperial center to wallow in wealth while all the costs of that wealth are borne elsewhere.

It’s over the middle to long term that the problems with this neat arrangement show up. The most important of these difficulties is that the production of wealth in any society depends on a feedback loop in which a portion of each year’s production becomes part of the capital needed to produce wealth in future years, and another portion of each year’s production—a substantial one—goes to meet the maintenance costs of existing productive capital. In theory, an empire could keep its exactions at a level which would leave this feedback loop unimpaired. In practice, no empire ever does so, which is one of the two primary reasons why the subject nations of an empire become more impoverished over time. (Plain old-fashioned looting of subject nations by their imperial rulers is the other.) As the subject nation’s ability to produce and maintain productive capital decreases, so does its capacity to produce wealth, and that cuts into the ability of the empire to make its subject nations cover its own maintenance costs. A wealth pump is great, in other words, until it pumps the reservoir dry.

The wealth of subject nations, in other words, is a nonrenewable resource for empires, and empires thus face the same sort of declining returns on investment as any other industry dependent on nonrenewable resources. It’s thus predictable that the most frequent response to declining returns is an exact analogue of the "drill, baby, drill" mentality so common in today’s petroleum-dependent nations. The drive to expand at all costs that dominates the foreign policy of so many empires is thus neither accidental nor a symptom of the limitless moral evil with which empires are so often credited by their foes. For an empire that’s already drained its subject nations to the point that the wealth pump is sputtering, a policy of "invade, baby, invade" is a matter of economic necessity, and often of national survival.

The difficulty faced by such a policy, of course, is the same one that always ends up clobbering extractive economies dependent on nonrenewable resources: the simple and immovable fact that the world is finite. That’s what did in the Roman empire, for example. Since it rose and fell in an age less addicted to euphemisms than ours, Rome’s approach to pumping wealth out of subject nations was straightforward. Once a nation was conquered by Rome, it was systematically looted of movable wealth by the conquerors, while local elites were allowed to buy their survival by serving as collection agents for tribute; next, the land was confiscated a chunk at a time so it could be handed out as retirement bonuses to legionaries who had served their twenty years; then some pretext was found for exterminating the local elites and installing a Roman governor; thereafter, the heirs of the legionaries were forced out or bought out, and the land sold to investors in Rome, who turned it into vast corporate farms worked by slaves.

Each of those transformations brought a pulse of wealth back home to Rome, but the income from conquered provinces tended to decline over time, and once it reached the final stage, the end was in sight—hand over your farmland to absentee investors who treat it purely as a source of short term profit, and whether you live in ancient Rome or modern America, the results you’re going to get include inadequate long-term investment, declining soil fertility, and eventual abandonment. To keep the wealth pump running, the empire had to grow, and grow it did, until finally it included every nation that belonged to the ancient Mediterranean economic and cultural sphere, from the tin mines of Britain to the rich farms of the upper Nile.

That’s when things began to go wrong, because the drive to expand was still there but the opportunities for expansion were not. Attempts to expand northward into Scotland, Germany, and the Balkans ran headlong into two awkward facts: first, the locals didn’t have enough wealth to make an invasion pay for itself, and second, the locals were the kind of tribal societies that fostered Darwinian selection among their young men via incessant warfare, and quickly found that a nice brisk game of "Raid the Romans" made a pleasant addition to the ordinary round of cattle raids and blood feuds. Expansion to the south was closed off by the Sahara Desert, while to the east, the Parthian Empire had an awkward habit of annihilating Roman armies sent to conquer it. Thus Roman imperial expansion broke down; attempts to keep the wealth pump running anyway stripped the provinces of their productive capital and pushed the Roman economic system into a death spiral; the imperial government stumbled from one fiscal and military crisis to another, until finally the Dark Ages closed in.

The same process can be traced throughout the history of empires. Consider England’s rule over India, once the jewel in the crown of the British empire. In the last years of British India, it was a common complaint in the English media that India no longer "paid her own way." Until a few decades earlier, India had paid a great deal more than her own way; income to the British government from Queen Victoria’s Indian possessions had covered a sizable fraction of the costs of the entire British empire, and colossal private fortunes were made in India so frequently that they gave rise to an entire class of nouveaux-riches Englishmen, the so-called Nabobs.

It took the British Empire, all in all, less than two centuries to run India’s economy into the ground and turn what had been one of the world’s richest and most productive countries into one of its poorest. Attempts to expand the British empire into new territory were ongoing all through the 19th and very early 20th centuries, but ran up against difficulties like those that stymied Rome’s parallel efforts most of two millennia before: those areas that could be conquered—for example, eastern Africa—didn’t yield enough plunder to make the process sufficiently lucrative, while where conquest would have been hugely profitable—for example, China—British imperial ambitions ran up against stiff competition from other empires, and had to settle for a fraction of the take. Neither option provided enough income to keep the British empire from unraveling.

Another example? The short-lived Soviet empire in eastern Europe. In the wake of the Second World War, Russian soldiers installed Marxist puppet governments in every nation they overran, and the Soviet government proceeded to impose wildly unbalanced "trade agreements" that amounted to the wholesale looting of eastern Europe for Russian benefit. Much of the Soviet Union’s rapid recovery from wartime devastation and its rise to near-parity with the United States can be assigned to that very lucrative policy of pillage. Once the supply of plunder ran short, though, so did the Soviet economy’s capacity to function; efforts to expand into new territory—Afghanistan comes to mind—ran into the usual difficulties; and when the price of oil crashed in the mid-1980s, depriving the Soviet system of much of the hard currency that kept it afloat, collapse followed promptly.

From THE TRAJECTORY OF EMPIRES by John Michael Greer (2012)

      “Oh, we don’t fear their military power—yet,” replied Goram. “I should think you, as a psychologist, would know what sort of a danger Station Seventeen represents—a danger that can wreck civilization. They can become become a disrupting factor—the worst in all history.
     “Progress is disruption.”
     “Maybe. But the Empire is based on stasis. It’s sacrificed progress for—survival.
     “True—but here we may have a clue to controlled progress, safe advancement. Even stasis isn’t safe, as we well know. It’s a poor makeshift, intended to keep civilization alive while something else is worked out. Well—we’re working it out at Station Seventeen.”

     Valgor’s Star lay a good hundred parsecs from Sol, not far from the Empire’s border though sufficiently within the garrisoned marches to be protected from barbarian raids.
     “Nobody appreciates the border garrisons who hasn’t served in them,” declared Goram, “but I tell you, if it weren’t for them the Empire wouldn’t last a year. The barbarians would sweep in, the rival empires would gobble up all they could hold and go to war over the spoils, the Spirit alone knows what the Magellanics would do—but it wouldn’t be pleasant—and the whole structure would disintegrate—three thousand years of stability might as well never have been!”

     A high official would be used to open flattery. Heym disagreed just enough to seem sincerely to agree on all important points. “We couldn’t do without the border patrols,” he said, “but it’s like any organism, requiring all its parts to live—we couldn’t dispense with internal police either, and certainly not with the psychotechnicians who are the government.”
     “Spirit-damned bureaucrats,” snorted Goram. “Theoreticians—what do they know of real life? Why, d’you know, I saw three stellar systems lost once to the barbarians because we didn’t have enough power to stand them off. There was a horde of them, a dozen allied suns, and we had only three garrisoned planets. For months we begged—wrote to Antares and Sirius and Sol itself begging for a single Nova-class battleship. Just one, and we could have beaten off their fleet and carried the war to them. But no, it was ‘under consideration’ or ‘deferred for more urgent use’—three suns and a hundred thousand men lost because some soft-bellied psychotechnician mislaid a file.”
     “Robot-checked files don’t get mislaid,” said Heym softly. “I have friends in administration, and I’ve seen them weep at some of the decisions they had to make. It isn’t easy to abandon an army to its fate—and yet the power that could have saved them is needed elsewhere, to drive off a larger invasion or to impress the Taranians or to take a star cluster of strategic value. The Empire has sacrificed a lot for sheer survival. Humanness in government is only one thing lost.”

     “The rules! How can a general in the field keep track of every ship and turn in forms in quadruplicate on their condition?”
     “He can’t. Probably a million units a year are lost in recording. And yet, the vast majority of such forms are filled out and do get to the appropriate center, are recorded in electronic code and put on instantly accessible file, mathematically coordinated with all other relevant information. When Grand Strategy wants an overall picture of the military situation, it has one right there. Military planning would be impossible otherwise.

     “And it isn’t only in the military field,” argued Heym. “After all, you know the Empire isn’t interested in further expansion. It wants to keep civilization alive on the planets where it exists, and keep the nonhuman imperia out. Ever since the Founder, our military policy has been basically defensive—because we can’t handle more than we have. The border is always in a state of war and flux, but the Empire is at peace, inside the marches.
     “Yet—how long would the Empire last, even assuming no hostile powers outside, without the most rigid form of psychotechnocratic government? There are roughly three times ten to the fourteenth power humans in the Solarian Empire. The nonhuman aborigines have been pretty thoroughly exterminated, assimilated as helots, or otherwise rendered harmless, but there are still all those humans, with all the terrific variations and conflicting desires inherent in man and intensified by radically different planetary and consequently social environments. Can you imagine a situation where three hundred trillion humans went their own uncoordinated ways—with atomic energy, biotoxic weapons, and interstellar spaceships to back up their conflicting demands?”

     “Yes, I can,” said Goram, “because after all it has happened—for nearly a thousand years before the Empire, there was virtual anarchy. And”—he leaned forward, the hard black glitter of his eyes nailing Heym—“that’s why we can’t take chances, with this experiment of yours or anything else—anything at all. In the anarchic centuries, with a much smaller population, there was horror—many planets were blasted back to savagery, or wiped out altogether. Have you seen the dead worlds? Black cinders floating in space, some still radioactive, battlegrounds of the ancient wars. The human barbarians beyond the Imperial borders are remnants of that age—some of them have spaceships, even a technology matching our own, but they think only of destruction—if they ever got past the marches, they’d blast and loot and fight till nothing was left. Not to mention the nonhuman border barbarians, or the rival empires always watching their chance, or the Magellanics sweeping in every century or so with weapons such as we never imagined. Just let any disrupting factor shake the strength and unity of the Empire and see how long it could last.”
     “I realize that,” said Heym coldly. “After all, I am a psychologist. I know fully what a desperate need the establishment of the Empire filled. But I also know that it’s a dead end—its purpose of ultimate satisfied stasis cannot be realized in a basically dynamic cosmos. Actually, Imperial totalitarianism is simply the result of Imperial ignorance of a better way. We can only find that better way through research, and the project at Station Seventeen is the most promising of all the Foundation’s work. Unless we find some way out of our dilemma, the Empire is doomed—sooner or later, something will happen and we’ll go under.

     Goram’s eyes narrowed. “That’s near lèse-majesté,” he murmured.
     Heym laughed, and gave the marshal a carefully gauged you-and-I-know-better-don’t-we look. “The Imperium is tolerant of local gods,” he said, “but the divinity of the Emperor must be acknowledged and is taught in all schools. Why? Because a state church, with the temporal ruler as the material incarnation of the Spirit, is another hold on the imagination of the people, another guarantee of subservience. So are local garrisons, political indoctrination, state control of commerce and travel, careful psychotechnic preparation and supervision of amusements, rigid limitation of birth but complete sexual freedom as an outlet, early selection and training of all promising children for government service—with unlimited opportunities for advancement within the established framework—and every other thing we can possibly control. If you stop to think about it—the Empire is founded on mediocrity.”

     “That’s as may be,” muttered Goram, “but in that case a planet full of geniuses becomes doubly dangerous.”
     Heym went over to the wall of the officers’ lounge and touched a button. The telescreen sprang to life with a simulacrum of the outside view. An uncounted host of stars blazed against the infinite blackness, a swarming magnificent arrogance of unwinking hard jewels strewn across the impassive face of eternity. The Milky Way foamed around the sky, the misty nebulae and star clusters wheeled their remote godlike way around heaven, and the other galaxies flashed mysterious signals across the light-years and the centuries. As ever, the psychologist felt dwarfed and awed and numbed by the stupendous impact.
     “It was a great dream,” he whispered. “There never was a higher dream than man’s conquest of the universe—and yet like so many visions it overleaped itself and shattered to bits on the rocks of reality—in this case, simple arithmetic defeated us. How to reconcile and coordinate a hundred thousand stars except by absolutism, by deliberate statism—by chaining ourselves to our own achievements? What other answer is there?”
     “The early students of culture were struck by the similarity of development of different civilizations, as if man went along one inevitable historic path. And in a way he did—because one thing leads to another. The expanding units of culture clash, there are ever fiercer wars, old fears and grudges intensify, economic breakdowns increase the misery, finally, and usually unwittingly and even unwillingly, one nation overcomes all others to protect itself and founds a ‘universal state’ which brings a certain peace of exhaustion but eventually decays and collapses of its own weaknesses or under the impact of alien invaders. That’s exactly what happened to mankind as a whole, when he exploded into the Galaxy—only this time the fearful scale and resources of the wars all but shattered the civilization; and the Solarian Empire, the passive rigidity solving the problems of the time of troubles by force, has lasted immensely longer than most preceding universal states, because its rulers have enough knowledge of mass-psychologic processes to have a certain control over them and all the power of a hundred thousand planetary systems to back their decisions.”

     Goram looked a little dazed. “I still don’t see what this has to do with the Foundation and its stations,” he complained.
     “Simply this,” said Heym, “that though history is a natural process, like anything else, it is peculiarly hard to understand and hence almost impossible to control. This is not only because of the very complex character of the interactions but because we ourselves are concerned in it—the observer is part of the phenomenon. And also, it had long been impossible to conduct controlled experiments in history and thus separate out causal factors and observe their unhindered working. On the basis of thousands of years of history as revealed—usually quite incompletely—by records and by archeology, and of extrapolations from individual and mob psychological knowledge, and whatever other data were available, the scientists of the period preceding the Empire worked out a semi-mathematical theory of history which gave some idea of the nature of the processes involved—causal factors and the manner of their action. This theory made possible qualitative predictions of the behavior of masses of men under certain conditions. Thus the early emperors knew what factors to vary in order to control their provinces. They could tell whether a certain measure might, say, precipitate a revolt, or just what phrasing to use in proclamations for the desired effect. If you want a man to do something for you, you don’t usually slap him in the face—it’s much more effective to appeal to his vanity or his prejudices, best of all to convince him it’s what he himself wants to do. But once in a while, a face slapping becomes necessary. Why, even today the barbarians are held at bay more by subtle psychological and economic pressures dividing them against each other and putting them in awe of us than by actual military might.”

     “Well—go on. You’ve still not explained why the station and all this rigmarole of secrecy.”
     “I was laying the background,” said Heym, unable to keep all the tiredness out of his voice. Can I really talk this moron over? Can anyone? Reason is wasted on an ape. “It’s really very simple. The crude psychotechnology available made it possible for the early emperors to conquer most of the human-inhabited Galaxy, hold it together, and reach an uneasy truce with the Taranian and Comi Empires. Our military might can hold off the barbarians and the Magellanic raiders, and have sufficient power left over to police the three hundred trillion citizens.
     “Yet our science is primitive. On that vast scale, it can only deal with the simplest possible situations. It’s all we can do to keep the Empire stable. If it should develop on the colossal scale of which it is capable and with all the unpredictable erraticism of the free human mind, It would simply run away from us. We have trouble enough keeping industry and commerce flowing smoothly when we know exactly how it should work. If we permitted free invention and progress, there’d be an industrial revolution every year—there is never a large proportion of discoverers, but with the present population the number would be immense. Our carefully evolved techniques of control would become obsolete, there’d be economic anarchy, conflict, suffering, individuals rising to power outside the present social framework and threatening the co-ordinating authority—with planet-smashing power to back both sides and all our enemies on the watch for a moment’s instability.

     “That’s only one example. It applies to any field. Science, philosophy—we can control known religions, channel the impulses to safe directions—but a new religion, rousing discontent, containing unknown elements—a billion fanatics going to war—No! We have to keep status quo, which we understand, at the cost of an uncontrollable advance into the unknown.
     “The Empire really exists only to simplify the psychotechnic problem of co-ordination. Enforcement of population stability—good, we don’t have to worry about controlling trillions of new births, there’s no land hunger. Stable industry, ossified physical science, state religion, totalitarian control of the entire life span—good, we know exactly what we’re dealing with and our decisions will be obeyed—imagine the situation if three hundred trillion people were free to do exactly as they pleased in the Galaxy! Subjugation of nonhuman aborigines, or outright extermination—good, we only have to deal with human-type minds and needs, which are complex enough, not with a million or a trillion psychologies and past histories as wildly different as the planets of origin. Heym shrugged. “Why go on? You know as well as I do that the Empire is only an answer to a problem of survival—not a good answer, but the best our limited knowledge can make.”

     “What hope?” snorted Goram, “Personally, I can’t see what you want, anyway. For three thousand years, we’ve kept man satisfied. Who’d want to change it?”
     Heym bit back his temper. “Aside from the fact that the contentment is like death,” he said, “history shows that universal states don’t endure forever. Sooner or later, we’ll face something that will overwhelm us. Unless we’ve evolved ourselves. But safe evolution is only possible when we know enough psychotechnics to keep the process orderly and peaceful—when our science is really quantitative. The Stations, and especially Seventeen, are giving us the information we must have to develop such a science.”

     Goram sprawled back into his chair, crude and strong and arrogant. His little black eyes were drills, boring into the psychologist’s soul. “I’m listening,” he snapped.
     “‘Well”—Heym walked up and down the floor, hands clasped behind his back—“it’s evident from a study of history that all progress is due to gifted individuals. Always, in every field, the talented or otherwise fortunate few have led and the mass has dumbly followed. A republic is the only form of state which even pretends to offer self-government, and as soon as the population becomes any size at all the people are again led by the nose, their rulers struggling for power with money and such means of mass hypnotism as news services and other propaganda machines. And all republics become dictatorships, in fact if not in name, within a few centuries at most. As for art and science and religion and the other creative fields, it is still more obviously the few who lead.
     “The ordinary man is just plain stupid. Perhaps proper mind training could lift him above himself, but it’s never been tried. Meanwhile he remains immensely conservative, only occasional outbreaks of mindless hysteria engineered by some special group stirring him out of his routine. He follows, or rather he accepts what the creative or dominant minority does, but it is haltingly and unwillingly.
     “Yet it is society as a whole which does. History is a mass action process. Gifted individuals start it off, but it is the huge mass of the social group which actually accomplishes the process. A new invention or a new land to colonize or a new philosophy or any other innovation would have no significance unless everybody eventually adopted or exploited or otherwise made use of it. And society as a whole is conservative, or perhaps I should say preservative. Civilization is ninety-nine percent habit, the use of past discoveries or the influence of past events. Against the immense conservatism of mankind in the mass, and in comparison to the tremendous accumulation of past accomplishment, the achievement of the individual genius or the small group is almost insignificant. It is not surprising that progress is slow and irregular and liable to stagnation or violent setbacks. The surprising thing is really that any event of significance can happen at all.”

From GENIUS by Poul Anderson (1948)

(ed note: this is about colonies of bacteria, but I think the same principle could be applied to clusters of inhabited planets in an interstellar empire, or applied to several competing interstellar empires.)

A pair of researchers, one with The Simons Centre for the Study of Living Machines in India, the other with the University of Illinois in the U.S., has built a model to explain a paradox of plankton. In their paper published in the journal Physical Review Letters, Akshit Goyal and Sergei Maslov describe their model and how well they believe it portrays actual bacterial communities.

As the researchers note, for many years, biologists have wondered how it is that communities of bacteria can be so diverse and yet so stable. In most such communities, many of the populations should grow exponentially, which would throw a bacterial community off-balance (meaning one species eating food Alfa would take over the ecosystem and the other species eating food Alfa would die off)—but this does not happen. Instead, the community remains stable. This phenomenon has come to be known as the paradox of plankton. One of the leading theories to explain the paradox is based on two main ideas—one is that some of the bacteria consume the waste matter of another species. The other is that potential new members of a community can only survive by filling a niche unoccupied by others, or by better at filling that niche. In this new effort, the researchers created a mathematical model to simulate this theory.

To create the model, the researchers started with some basic "rules" for their theoretical community. Each member only ever consumes one type of resource, and consuming it causes the production of exactly two new resources. The pair also assumed that any new members could only survive if there was an open niche, or if they were better at exploiting a resource than a current member.

In using the model to create a computer simulation, the researchers found that their simple rules led to a virtual community that, like real-world bacterial communities, was both diverse and stable, and in fact became increasingly stable as the organisms became more diverse. They noted that in the early stages of community development, sometimes avalanches of die-offs occurred, during which a new, more efficient species got a foothold, causing existing members of a species to die off, which resulted in a die-off of those species that fed on its waste, and so on. But as time passed and a community grew more stable, avalanches became less common. The researchers also noted that their model explains why two communities under ideal conditions can develop so differently from one another—it all depends on the history of new membership.


(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)

      THEY HAD NOT named the age, in truth there were few words to describe it. The world had known times of plenty and times of famine, ages of freedom and years of dictatorship. There had even been brief, if localized, periods of near perfection but this was not one of them.
     This period took the worst, threw them together and made quite sure that nothing good got in.

     It was not really the world's fault, having been pitchforked into it. Mankind had just concluded its first interstellar war but the word "victory" was purely relative.
     True the enemy was flat on its back and quite helpless but Earth had come out of the encounter on all fours. Today, five years after the enemy's unconditional surrender, Earth was still licking its wounds and unable to climb to its knees.
     The race was sick, sick of its leaders and sick of each other. Its gut ached from over-doses of expediency and its sinews creaked with the bitterest cynicisms.

     Whether the men in the long conference room were products or victims of the age is an academic question and wholly irrelevant—it didn't make them any nicer. They were mean, hard men, uninfluenced by any consideration save advancement in their wholly personal rat-race.
     This was the age of dog-eat-dog, here the cheap chiseler, the terrorist and the extortioner blossomed like flowers on a refuse heap.
     First there was General Statten, a harsh little man with beady eyes and the face of an irritable peanut. The General wore a smart uniform, impressive rows of ribbons and decorations but he had flown a desk in an impregnable H.Q. two thousand feet under the Andes. He was a political general, a brilliant organizer with a singular ability for discrediting those immediately above him. Station's climb to the top had been a tour-de-double-cross.
     Facing him was Dowd, the industrialist, who had, during the years of sorrow, acquired a financial empire without parallel in human history. Dowd was insatiable, having grown drunk on power, he had developed an everlasting thirst for more. He would have liked to possess the world but Kaft wouldn't let him.
     Kaft represented the secret police. Kaft kept secret files but neither could bring the other down without his own collapse. Dowd had insinuated himself so deeply into the financial sinews of the race that he could not be removed without the collapse of the economy.
     Kaft, on the other hand, held those revealing files and his untimely death would bring them to light. Both took great care that the other stayed alive but they hated each other venomously.

     It was difficult to understand, even in war, how a police state had arisen from a loosely democratic government. People don't turn round and say: "Let's have a secret police," or do they?
     In an all-out war manufacturing plants are switched from luxury goods to war production and, inevitably, there are shortages and out of shortages grows the black market.
     In war the best food goes to the fighting men and there is rationing for the civilian population. A thousand and one petty criminals rush forward to bleed off this flow of supplies and the black market grows. Beside it spring up subsidiary rackets, grafting on government contracts, phony committees preying on the patriotic, forged papers for the draft-dodger.
     The government has to counter these activities under emergency powers and specially trained forces have to be created to deal with civil corruption. Maybe, after all, people do turn round and say: "Let's have a secret police."
     Kaft was it. He had borrowed the techniques of all the police systems which had preceded him and added a few of his own.
     After a twenty-five year war it had got so bad that people were afraid to be silent in case their lack of words be interpreted as sullen resentment against existing order. They were also afraid to speak.

     Hengist sat down and returned the gun to his pocket. "Seems you do need a bodyguard; one could hardly describe that little rough-house behavior as marked affection."
     Duncan was placing a lighted cigarette between his lips and inhaled deeply before he spoke. "You're asking me to accept that lynch-opera as an expression of public opinion? Really! In this day and age one hint of anything spontaneous and the secret police would be walking on peoples' faces."
     Hengist's eyelids drooped unpleasantly but, for the first time, his expression held grudging respect.
     "Duncan, you're a fool." His voice, although by no means friendly, was no longer actively hostile. "In this day and age the wise man plays it stupid." He sighed. "All right, the exhibition was not for you but the tele-mikes and the watching public."
     "My opinion didn't really matter?"
     "Off the record, no." He sighed again. "You get an all-out war and you get the race squeezed down tight for maximum production. Comes peace and there's no outlet for all that drive and energy. The ruling classes have got used to their power and don't want to let go. Worse they daren't. If they ease up, too much freedom will rise up and overwhelm them. If they press down too hard the whole damn planet can blow up in their faces. Ticklish, power in a bottle, hold it down, ease it off, needs a lot of skill to strike a balance."
     "Where do I fit in?"
     "Politically you're God's gift to the policy of divide-and-destroy. Get the people divided against each other, for and against, alien spy versus superman bearing blessings—follow?"
     "Ahead of you. Incidentally, in the interests of your own safety, aren't you being a little indiscreet?"
     Hengist smiled with one side of his mouth. "Not really, we're not registering spy rays at the moment. In any case, with your background and intelligence you would have reasoned it out for yourself soon enough. It's just possible you might have aired those conclusions at the wrong time later."

     He (designated newspaper reporter Gaynor) forced his mind grimly away from the subject and tried to concentrate on the coming interview. Be damned funny wouldn't it if Duncan started asking him questions. On second thoughts, however, not so funny. A casual question could be damned awkward these days and the only answer one could give was the polite official evasion. A man with Duncan's background should see through a smokescreen like that in a couple of minutes. Suppose, for example, Duncan said: "What was the war all about?"
     He'd have to give the official story of course. The story of a race of monsters descending on Earth's peaceful Empire. Empire of all five worlds and they'd been hanging onto two of those with their finger nails. The 'trouble was, of course, Earth wanted a stellar empire that looked and sounded like an Empire. When the exploration vessels had found the sixth they jumped on it with both feet. Survey—if you could call it that—was superficial. Hell, it was an E-type world, you could breathe there. There was no micro-life the bacteriologists couldn't handle. Number six here we come.
     Too late it was discovered that another stellar race had set up bases on the Southern continent.
     "Perhaps we should have fought anyway," thought Gaynor, tiredly. "We found each other mutually repulsive and we both thought we owned the galaxy."
     As it happened show of force led to show of force and the inevitable provocative incident. Earth destroyed the Vrenka bases and the enemy retaliated by clobbering hell out of world number two of the Earth Empire.
     It had been a ferocious war the early boasts of knocking the yellow-bellied monsters clean out of space within a month were soon forgotten. The Vrenka fought back with savagery and, it must be admitted, incredible indifference to odds.

     Gaynor frowned to himself. There was no doubt the Vrenka had guts and, much as the propaganda sought to detract the point, a rigid code of ethics. The Vrenka never killed the unarmed or wounded and, if possible, picked up survivors, but hell, in a straight battle…
     What had they got out of it all? While they had been fighting, a new and corrupt priesthood sat on its backside in a funkhole insidiously taking over the Earth.
     It was a government of brutal realism. It made no claims of virtue or leading the world to better things. This is the new feudalism: conform or else. There was no father-figure, no goal, and worse, no hope.
     In the upper echelons of the administration the jockeyings and double-dealings made the intrigues of the Borgias look like pleasant and innocuous games for very young children.

From THE PRODIGAL SUN by Philip E. High (1964)


The interstellar empire in which A Prospect of War takes place is feudal. It’s not the only political system you might find in a space opera novel, although it’s a relatively common one. But when the speed of communication is limited to the speed of travel – and travel itself is slow and often uncertain – local government needs a high degree of autonomy. However, if the throne is going to maintain control, it needs to know those running things locally have its interests at heart, and what better remote rulers than a group of people tied to the throne by chains of privilege, self-interest and obligation. They owe their position to the throne, and they’re well-rewarded for enacting the throne’s wishes. And, of course, should one get out of line, there’s always the threat of the throne organising the others to gang up on them.

Having said all that, such a political structure only works if everyone has clearly defined roles and responsibilities. And that includes the people at the bottom. They’re going to be the most numerous, so they need to be the most tightly-controlled. Such as, not letting them travel. Pretty much like serfs back in the Middle Ages. The serfs would be the economic resources in a fief, and in return are protected, and to some degree succoured, by the noble who owns their bond. But you can’t just have serfs and nobles, since the latter have enough on their plate without also managing the serfs. So you need a freeman or franklin class between the two…

One point to bear in mind is that these social classes are real to the people in them. Serfs – or, as I called them in A Prospect of War, proles – can’t just go gallivanting off on adventures just because some interesting stranger passes through their village. A franklin – or yeoman – arguably might, but they have their own responsibilities and obligations. As for the nobility… Well, the genre has enough stories about over-privileged oafs trampling all over the rank and file in defence of another group of over-privileged oafs – oh wait, that’s what my space opera is about… Or is it?

But back to the government side of things… When it comes to an interstellar empire, there’s another factor to take into account: anyone who rules the space between planets automatically has the high ground. No world is safe from orbit. This is where the navy comes in. They don’t so much enforce the throne’s rule as rattle sabres menacingly from orbit. Needless to say, space is big. Really big. Vastly, hugely, mindboggingly big. To borrow a phrase. Things can get lost, really lost, in space. So I cheated. In A Prospect of War, interstellar travel takes place using a sort of hyperspace, an alternate dimension, called the toposphere. This means there’s effectively no actual space between planetary systems, it’s completely out of the equation. It’s as if the countryside between city-states didn’t exist – though a journey still takes a certain amount of time. This makes the concept of an imperial navy much more plausible.

The Imperial Navy in A Prospect of War is one of three institutions which effectively rule the empire, alongside the civil government and the regnal government. In Dune, Frank Herbert writes “In politics, the tripod is he most unstable of all structures”, but since I can’t find any other reference to that sentiment I suspect he just made it up. Certainly for my space opera universe, I decided a tripod was no more and no less unstable than any other form of government. Besides, the nature of an interstellar empire and the history of that empire naturally inclined to a three-way balance of power – the navy to safeguard the space between worlds, the nobility to rule the individual worlds, and the throne as the ultimate recipient of fealty. However, in my universe past events had seen enfranchisement develop among the nobility, leading to a legislative forum, an electorate, and also an administration to support it – the civil government. And this despite the fact the throne already had an administration in place to enact its will – the regnal government. So, there’s some duplication of government institutions – like the Imperial Exchequer (regnal) and the Imperial Treasury (civil). Some of the plot of the trilogy is driven by the politics between these two governments, just as much as it is by the conspiracy which intends to overthrow either, or both, of them.


(ed note: Dr. Calhoun is a member of the interstellar Med service. The service is charged with overseeing the health of the various human colonized worlds. There really isn't anything like an over-arching interstellar government.

Anyway Dr. Calhoun makes a scheduled visit to the planet Maris III. When he arrives, the city is empty, the colonists are in hiding, a strange spaceship is on the landing pad, and a bunch of thugs try to kill him. He eludes them, travels into the country, and makes contact with the colonists. They are all suffering from some genetically engineered plague that is resistant to conventional medicine. The thugs are doing their best to hunt down and kill all the colonists.)

      When he woke, there was a small fire in the glade, about which the exhausted, emaciated fugitives consulted with Calhoun.
     Calhoun was saying bitterly, "The whole thing is wrong! It's self-contradictory, and that means a man, or men, trying to meddle with the way the universe was made to run. Those characters in the city aren't fighting the plague—they're cooperating with it! When I came in a Med Ship, they should have welcomed my help. Instead they tried to kill me so I couldn't perform the function I was made for and trained for! They're going against the way the universe works. From what Helen tells me, they landed with the purpose of helping the plague wipe out everybody else on the planet. They began their butchery immediately. That's why you people ran away."
     The weary, weakened people listened almost numbly.
     "The invaders—and that's what they are," said Calhoun angrily, "have to be immune and know it, or else they wouldn't risk contagion by tracking you down to murder you. The city's infected and they're not alarmed. You're dying and they only try to hasten your death. I arrive, and I might be of use, so they try to kill me. They must know what the plague is and what it does, because their only criticism of it seems to be that it doesn't kill fast enough. And that is out of the ordinary course of nature. It's not intelligent human conduct."
     "A plague's not pleasant, but it's natural. This plague is neither pleasant nor natural. There's human interference with the normal course of events—certainly the way things are going is abnormal. I'm not too sure somebody didn't direct this from the beginning. That's why I shot that man with the crossbow instead of taking a blaster to him. I meant to wound him so I could make him answer questions, but the crossbow's not an accurate weapon and it happened that I killed him instead. There wasn't much information in the stuff in his pockets. The only significant item was a ground-car key, and that only means there's a car waiting for him to come back from hunting you."
     The gaunt young man said drearily, "He didn't come from Dettra, which is our planet. Fashions are different on different worlds, and he wears a uniform we don't have. His clothing uses fasteners we don't use, too. He's from another solar system entirely."

     Calhoun squinted through the glass tube of the filter at the light of the sputtering torch.
     "Almost clumped," he said. Then he added, "I suspect there's been some very fine laboratory work done somewhere to give the invaders their confidence of immunity to this plague. They landed and instantly set to work to mop up the city—to complete the job the plague hadn't quite finished. I suspect there could have been some fine lab work done to make plague mechanism undetectable. I don't like the things I'm forced to suspect!"
     He inspected the glass filter again.
     "Somebody," he said coldly, "considered that my arrival would be an unfavorable circumstance to him and what he wanted to happen. I think it is. He tried to kill me. He didn't. I'm afraid I consider his existence an unfavorable circumstance." He paused, and said very measuredly, "Cooperating with a plague is a highly technical business; it needs as much information as fighting a plague. Cooperation could no more be done from a distance than fighting it. If the invaders had come to fight the plague, they'd have sent their best medical men to help. If they came to assist it, they'd have sent butchers, but they'd also send the very best man they had to make sure that nothing went wrong with the plague itself. The logical man to be field director of the extermination project would be the man who'd worked out the plague himself." He paused again, and said icily, "I'm no judge to pass on anybody's guilt or innocence or fate, but as a Med Service man I've authority to take measures against health hazards!"
     "There's no exact precedent for what's happened here," explained Calhoun. "A thousand years or so ago there was a king of France—a country back on old Earth—who tried to wipe out a disease called leprosy by executing all the people who had it. But lepers were a nuisance. They couldn't work. They had to be fed by charity. They died in inconvenient places and only other lepers dared handled their bodies. They tended to throw normal human life out of kilter. That wasn't the case here. The man I killed wanted you dead for another reason. He and his friends wanted you dead right away."
     The gaunt Kim Walpole said tiredly, "He wanted to dispose of our bodies in a sanitary fashion."
     "Nonsense!" snapped Calhoun. "The city's infected. You lived, ate, breathed, walked in it. Nobody can dare use that city unless they know how the contagion's transmitted, and how to counteract it. Your own colonists turned back. These men wouldn't have landed if they hadn't known they were safe!"
     There was silence.

     "If the plague is an intended crime," added Calhoun, "you are the witnesses to it. You've got to be gotten rid of before colonists from somewhere other than Dettra arrive here."
     The dark-bearded man growled, "Monstrous! Monstrous!"
     "Agreed," said Calhoun. "But there's no interstellar government now, any more than there was a planetary government in the old days back on Earth. So if somebody pirates a colony ready to be occupied, there's no authority able to throw them out. The only recourse would be war. And nobody is going to start an interplanetary war—not with the bombs that can be landed! If the invaders can land a population here, they can keep the place." He paused, and said with irony, "Of course they could be persuaded that they were wrong."
     But that was not even worth thinking about. In the computation of probabilities in human conduct, self-interest is a high-value factor. Children and barbarians have clear ideas of justice due to them, but no idea at all of justice due from them. And though human colonies spread toward the galaxy's rim, there was still a large part of every population which was civilized only in that it could use tools. Most people still remained comfortably barbaric or childish in their emotional lives. It was a fact that had to be considered in Calhoun's profession. It bore remarkably on matters of contagion, and health, and life itself.

     "You'll have to hide. Perhaps permanently," he told them. "It depends partly on what happens to me, however. I have to go to the city. There's a very serious health problem there."
     Kim said with irony, "In the city? Everybody's healthy there. They're so healthy that they come out to hunt us down for sport!"
     "Considering that the city's thoroughly infected, their immunity is a health problem," said Calhoun. "But besides that, it looks like the original cause of the plague is there, too. I'd guess that the originator of this plague is technical director of the exterminating operation that's in progress on this planet. I'd guess he's in the ship that brought the butcher-invaders. I'd be willing to bet that he's got a very fine laboratory on the ship."
     Kim stared at him. He clenched and unclenched his hands.
     "And I'd say it ought to be quite useless to fight this plague before that man and that laboratory were taken care of," said Calhoun. "You people are probably all right. I think you'll wake up feeling better. You may be well. But if the plague is artificial, if it was developed to make a colony planet useless to the world that built it, but healthy for people who want to seize it . . ."
     "It may be the best plague that was developed for the purpose, but you can be sure it's not the only one. Dozens of strains of deadly bugs would have to be developed to be sure of getting the deadliest. Different kinds of concealment would have to be tried, in case somebody guessed the synergy trick, as I did, and could do something about the first plague used. There'd have to be a second and third and fourth plague available. You see?"
     Kim nodded, speechless.
     "A setup like that is a real health hazard," said Calhoun. "As a Med Service man, I have to deal with it. It's much more important than your life or mine or Murgatroyd's. So I have to go into the city to do what can be done. Meanwhile, you'd better lie down now. Give Murgatroyd's antibodies a chance to work. One question, though. If the plague is artificial, it had to be started. Did a ship land here two weeks or a month before your workmen began to be ill? It could have come from anywhere."
     "There was no landing of any ship," said Kim. "No."
     Calhoun frowned. His reasoning seemed airtight. The plague must have been introduced here from somewhere else!
     "There had to be," he insisted. "Any kind of ship! From anywhere!"
     "There wasn't," repeated Kim. "We had no off-planet communication for three months before the plague appeared. There's been no ship here at all except from Dettra, with supplies and workmen and that sort of thing."
     Calhoun scowled. This was impossible. Then Helen's voice sounded very faintly. Kim made a murmurous response. Then he said, "Helen reminds me that there was a queer roll of thunder one night not long before the plague began. She's not sure it means anything, but in the middle of the night, with all the stars shining, thunder rolled back and forth across the sky above the city. This was a week or two before the plague. It waked everybody. Then it rolled away to the horizon and beyond. The weather people had no explanation for it."
     Calhoun considered. Murgatroyd nestled still closer to him. He snapped his fingers suddenly.
     "That was it!" he said savagely. "That's the trick! I haven't all the answers, but I know some very fine questions to ask now. And I think I know where to ask them."
     He settled back. Murgatroyd slept. There was the faintest possible murmur of voices where Kim Walpole and the girl Helen talked wistfully of the possibility of hope.
     Calhoun contemplated the problem before him. There were very, very few survivors of the people who belonged in the city. There was a shipload of murderers—butchers!—who had landed to see that the last of them were destroyed. Undoubtedly there was a highly trained and probably brilliant microbiologist in the invaders' expedition. One would be needed, to make sure of the success of the plague and to verify the absolute protection of the butchers, so that other colonists could come here to take over and use the planet. There could be no failure of protection for the people not of Dettra who expected to inhabit this world. There would have to be completely competent supervision of this almost unthinkable, this monstrous stealing of a world.
     "The plague would probably be a virus pair," muttered Calhoun. "Probably introduced and scattered by a ship with wings and rockets. It'd have wings because it wouldn't want to land, but did want to sweep back and forth over the city. It'd drop frozen pellets of the double virus culture. They'd drop down toward the ground, melting and evaporating as they fell, and they'd flow over the city as an invisible, descending blanket of contagion coating everything. Then the ship would head away over the horizon and out to space on its rockets. Its wings wouldn't matter out of atmosphere and it'd go into overdrive and go back home to wait . . ."
     He felt an icy anger, more savage than any rage could be. With this technique, a confederation of human beings utterly without pity could become parasitic on other worlds. They could take over any world by destroying its people, and no other people could make any effective protest, because the stolen world would be useless except to the murderers who had taken it over. This affair on Maris III might be merely a test of the new ruthlessness. The murderer planet could spread its ghastly culture like a cancer through the galaxy.
     But there were two other things involved beside a practice of conquest through murder by artificial plagues. One was what would happen to the people—the ordinary, commonplace citizens—of a civilization which spread and subsisted by such means. It would not be good for them. In the aggregate, they'd be worse off than the people who died.
     The other?
     "They might make a field test of their system," said Calhoun very coldly, "without doing anything more serious to the Med Service than killing one man—me—and destroying one small Med Ship. But they couldn't adopt this system on any sort of scale without destroying the Med Service first. I'm beginning to dislike this business excessively!"

(ed note: Calhoun manages to infiltrate the invader's ship and captures Doctor Death. Who predictably is a physically deformed sociopath who won't be happy until he makes the universe pay for all the abuse he was subjected to. From the chair he is tied to, Doctor Death tries to bribe Calhoun with visions of ruling entire planets)

     It was quite horrible.
     His captive went on. His tone wheedled, and was strident, and in turn was utterly convincing and remarkably persuasive.
     Once Maris III was occupied by colonists from the world that had sent the plague, nothing could be done. Dettra Two could never land its people in the city. They would die. Only the usurping population could survive there. For all time to come the world of Maris III must belong to the folk who had planted it with death. The permanent colonists here must be immunized like the members of the invading party themselves.
     "Who," said Calhoun, "are not as happy as they used to be."
     His captive licked his lips and went on, his eyes deadly and his tone reasonable and seductive and remarkably hypnotic.
     But Maris III was only a test. Once the process was proved here, there were other worlds to be taken over. Not only new colony-worlds like this. Old and established worlds would find themselves attacked by plagues their doctors would be helpless to combat. Then there would come ships from the world that had tried out its technique on Maris III. The ships would end the plagues. They would prove it. They would offer to sell life to all the citizens of the dying worlds—at a price.
     "Unprofessional," said Calhoun, "but probably profitable."
     The price, in effect, would be submission. It would amount to slavery. Those who would not accept the bargain would die.
     "Of course," said Calhoun, "they might try to back out of such a bargain later."
     His captive smiled a thin-lipped smile, while his eyes did not change at all. He explained convincingly that if there was a revolt, it would not matter. The countermeasure to a new defiance would always be a new plague. There were many plagues ready to use. They would build an interstellar empire in which rebellion would be a form of suicide. No world once taken over could ever free itself. No world once chosen could possibly resist. There would be worlds by tens and scores and hundreds to be ruled by men like Calhoun. He would rate a planet-kingdom of his own. His Med Service training entitled him to an empire! He would be absolute ruler and absolute master of millions of abject slaves who must please his most trivial whim or die!
     "An objection," said Calhoun. "You haven't mentioned the Med Service. I don't think it would take kindly to such a system of planetary conquest."
     Here was the highest test of the prisoner's ability to sway and persuade and convince and almost to hypnotize. He had a matter of minutes to make the Med Service ridiculous, and to point out the defenselessness of its Sector Headquarters, and then—without arousing ancient prejudices—to make it seem natural and inevitable and almost humorous that Med Service Sector Headquarters would receive special precautionary fusion-bomb treatment as soon as the Maris III task was finished. Calhoun stirred. His prisoner spoke even more urgently, more desperately. He pictured worlds on which every living being would be Calhoun's slave—
     "That'll do," said Calhoun. "I've got the information I wanted."
     "Then release me," said his prisoner eagerly. And then his burning eyes read Calhoun's no-longer-guarded expression.
     "You accept," he cried fiercely. "You accept! You can't refuse! You can't!" 
     "Of course I can," said Calhoun annoyedly. "You've no idea! I wouldn't want a million slaves, or even one. I'm reasonably sane! And such a crazy scheme couldn't work anyhow. Sheer probability would throw in so many unfavorable chance happenings that it would be bound to go smash. I'm proof of it. I'm an unfavorable chance happening right here, the very first time you tried the beastly business."

     "The first load of immunized, enthusiastic colonists are in orbit now, giving the gang aground a little more time to answer. I want you people to talk to them."
     "We'll bring their ship down," said the broad-bearded man hungrily, "and blast them as they come out of the port!"
     Calhoun shook his head.
     "To the contrary," he said mildly. "You'll put on the clothes of some of our prisoners, and you'll let yourselves be seen by the joyous newcomers in their spacephone screen. You'll pretend to be the characters we really have safely sleeping, and you'll say that the plague worked much too well. You'll say it wiped out the original inhabitants—that's you—and then changed into a dozen other plagues and wiped out all the little butcher-boys who came to mop up. You'll give details of the other kinds of plague that the real plague turned into. You'll be pathetic. You'll beg them to land and pick up you four or five dying, multiply diseased, highly contagious survivors. You'll tell them the plague has mutated until even the native animals are dying of it. Flying things fall dead from the air. Chirping things in the trees and grass are wiped out. You'll picture Maris III as a world on which no animal life can hope ever to live again—and you'll beg them to come down and pick you up and take you home with them."
     The broad-bearded man stared. Then he said, "But they won't land."
     "No," agreed Calhoun. "They won't. They'll go home. Unless the government has them all killed before they can talk, they'll tell their world what happened. They'll be half-dead with fear that the immunizing shots they received will mutate and turn them into the kind of plague victims you'll make yourself look like. And just what do you think will happen on the world they came from?"
     Kim said hungrily, "They'll kill their rulers. They'll try to do it before they die of the plagues they'll imagine. They'll revolt! If a man has a belly-ache he'll go crazy with terror and try to kill a government official because his government has murdered him!"
     Kim drew a deep breath. He smiled with no amusement at all.
     "I like that," he said with a sort of deadly calm. "I like that very much."
     "After all," observed Calhoun, "once an empire had been started, with the subjugated populations kept subdued by a threat of plague, how long would it be before the original population was enslaved by the same threat? Go and invent some interesting plagues and make yourselves look terrifying. Heaven knows you're lean enough! But you can make yourselves look worse. I said, once, that a medical man sometimes has to use psychology in addition to the regular measures against plague. The Med Service will check on that planet presently, but I think its ambition to be a health hazard to the rest of the galaxy will be ended."
     So they did. It was odd how they could take a sort of pleasure in the enactment of imagined disaster even greater than they had suffered. Their eyes gleamed happily as they went about their task.

     The passenger ship went away. It did not have a pleasant journey. When it landed, its passengers burst tumultuously out of the spaceport to tell their story. Their home world went into a panic which was the more uncontrollable because the people had been very carefully told how deadly the tamed plagues would be to the inhabitants of worlds that they might want to take over. But now they believed the tamed plagues had turned upon them.
     The deaths, especially among members of the ruling class, were approximately equal in number to those a deadly pandemic would have caused.

From THE MUTANT WEAPON by Murray Leinster (1957)

Energy-Shift Instability

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.


Ever since Asimov's Foundation novels, the Roman Empire was the model for the Galactic Empire. The fall of the Roman Empire was hastened by invading barbarians hordes from the empire's rim (mostly Goths). So of course the decadent Galactic Empire has to be threatened by Space Barbarians in their interstellar long-ships at the rim of the galaxy.

In science fiction, arguably the most well developed example of this theme is the barbarian Mercians in Poul Anderson's Dominic Flandry novels (though the Mercians became barbarians in Supernova, a David Falkayn story).

The traditional method to create barbarians is for some well-meaning but naive star-travelers to give starship technology to a primitive planet-bound species. The barbarians then proceed to raid all the civilized planets in range, like space-going vikings. The civilized military will (hopefully) eventually put down the barbarians but the war will be long, bloody, and costly. After the barbarian wars, the star-traveling civilization outlaws such technology transfers. Assuming the civilization actually survives the barbarian onslaught.

Of course after the Anti-Barbarian Act of 2500 passes, some criminals will be tempted to break it in exchange for barbarian gold.

However, the concept of primitive barbarians using starships has problems. One wonders about the tech assumptions. Either starships are relatively cheap (ponder the idea of "barbarians" fielding aircraft carriers as a comparison) or the smallest feudal units are pretty good sized. This is sort of addressed in the link above about barbarian gold, and more generally discussed in the section The Sword on the Starship.


In my canon, I assume that while it (criminals selling high-tech to barbarians) can happen, it's not a reliable way to create space barbarians for approximately three reasons:

One, your genuinely barbaric barbarians (in the common sense, not the 'verse-specific sense) tend to make lousy customers, which steers the aforementioned free traders and even the slash-traders (con-artists) away from them; and

Two, the intersection of the barbarian temperament and advanced technology, especially advanced military technology, is most likely to make them blow their own civilization up well before they trouble anyone else; and

Three, the barbarian (and specifically warrior-vs-soldier) temperament is unlikely to lead to studying all the subtle nuances of starship maintenance and combat tactics in the depth they require, resulting in the would-be rampaging space horde being blown to atoms by the first real navy they encounter.

(Space Romans, now, that's a little easier to get.)



Encyclopedia Galactica/Xenospecies Profile

Entry: Sentient Galactic Species 23931


Qesh, Qesh’a, Imperial Qesh, Los Imperiales, “Jackers,” “Imps”
Civilization Type: 1.165 G TL 20: FTL, Genetic Prostheses, Quantum Taps, Relativistic Kinetic Conversion
Societal Code: JKRS
Dominant: clan/hunter/warrior/survival
Cultural library: 5.45 × 1016 bits
Data Storage/Transmission DS/T: 2.91 × 1011s
Biological Code: 786.985.965
Genome: 4.2 × 109 bits; Coding/non-coding: 0.019.
Biology: C, N, O, S, S8, Ca, Cu, Se, H2O, PO4 TNA
     Diferrous hemerythrin proteins in C17H29COOH circulatory fluid.
     Mobile heterotrophs, carnivores, O2 respiration.
     Septopedal, quad- or sextopedal locomotion.
     Mildly gregarious, polygeneric [2 genera, 5 species]; trisexual.
Communication: modulated sound at 5 to 2000 Hz and changing color patterns.
     Neural connection equivalence NCE = 1.2 × 1014
     T = ~300° to 470° K; M = 4.3 × 105 g; L: ~5.5 × 109s
Vision: ~5 micrometers to 520 nanometers
Hearing: 2 to 6000 Hz
Member: Galactic Polylogue
     Receipt galactic nested code: 1.61 × 1012 s ago
Member: R’agch’lgh Collective
     Locally initiated contact 1.58 × 1012 s ago
     Star F1V; Planet: Sixth
     a = 2.4 × 1011m; M = 2.9 × 1019g; R = 2.1 × 107m; p = 2.7 × 106s Pd = 3.2 × 107s, G = 25.81 m/s2
Atm: O2 26.4, N2 69.2, CO2 2.5, CO 2.1, SO2 0.7, at 2.5 × 105 Pa
Librarian’s note: First direct human contact occurred in 2188 C.E. at Gamma Ophiuchi. Primary culture now appears to be nomadic predarian, and is extremely dangerous. Threat level = 1.

     We’d all downloaded the data on the Qesh, of course, as part of our Marine training. Know your enemy and all of that. Humans had first run into them fifty-nine years ago, when the Zeng He, a Chinese exploration vessel, encountered them while investigating a star system ninety-some light years from Sol. The Zeng He’s AI managed to get off a microburst transmission an instant before the ship was reduced to its component atoms. The signal was picked up a few years later by a Commonwealth vessel in the area and taken back to Earth, where it was studied by the Encyclopedian Library at the Mare Crisium facility on the moon. The Zeng He’s microburst had contained enough data to let us find the Qesh in the ocean of information within the Encylopedia Galactica and learn a bit about them.

     We knew they were part of the R’agch’lgh Collective, the Galactic Empire, as the news media insisted on calling it. We knew they were from a high-gravity world, that they were big, fast, and mean.

     And with the ongoing collapse of the Collective, we knew they’d become predarians.

     The net media had come up with that word, a blending of the words predators and barbarians. That was unfortunate, since in our culture barbarian implies a relatively low technology; you expect them to be wearing shaggy skins, horned helmets, and carrying whopping big swords in their primary manipulators, looking for someone to pillage.

     As near as we could tell, they were predators, both genetically and by psychological inclination. Their societal code, JKRS—which is where “Jackers,” one of their popular nicknames, had come from—suggested that their dominant culture was organized along clan/family lines, that they’d evolved from carnivorous hunters, that they considered themselves to be warriors and possessed what might be called a warrior ethos, and, perhaps the most chilling, that they possessed an essentially Darwinian worldview—survival of the fittest, the strong deserve to live. The fact that their technological level allowed them to accelerate asteroid-sized rocks to near-c and slam them into a planet was a complementary extra.

     These guys had planet-killers.

     The Crisium librarians thought—guessed would be the more accurate term—that the Qesh constituted some sort of military elite within the R’agch’lgh Collective, a kind of palace guard or special assault unit used to take out worlds or entire species that the Collective found to be obstreperous or inconvenient. But with the fall of the Collective, the Qesh were thought to have gone freelance, wandering the Galaxy in large war fleets taking what they wanted and generally trying to prove that they were the best, the strongest, the fittest—something like a really sadistic playground bully without adult supervision.

     That change of status must have been fairly recent—within the last couple of thousand years or so. According to the EG, they were still working for the Collective.

     And for all we knew maybe some of them were, way off, deep in toward the Galactic Core, where the R’agch’lgh might still be calling the shots. Our local branch of the EG Library hadn’t been updated for five thousand years, however, and evidently a lot had happened in the meantime.

     The Galaxy was going through a period of cataclysmic change, but from our limited perspective, it was all taking place in super-slow motion.

From BLOODSTAR by William Keith (under Ian Douglas pseudonym) (2012)

The Kzinti (singular Kzin) are a fictional, very warlike and bloodthirsty race of cat-like aliens in Larry Niven's Known Space series.

The Kzinti were initially introduced in Niven's story "The Warriors" (originally in Worlds of If (1966), collected in Tales of Known Space (1975)) and "The Soft Weapon" (1967), collected in Neutron Star (1968). A Kzin character, Speaker-to-Animals (later known as Chmeee), subsequently played a major role in Niven's Hugo and Nebula award-winning Ringworld (1970) and Ringworld Engineers (1980), giving considerably more background of the Kzinti and their interactions with human civilizations. Following Ringworld, Niven gave permission to several friends to write stories taking place in the time following "The Warriors" but before "The Soft Weapon"; these stories (including a handful by Niven) were collected in a number of volumes of The Man-Kzin Wars, which eventually reached fourteen volumes, the first published in June 1988. Kzinti also appear in Juggler of Worlds (2008) and Fate of Worlds (2012), novels within the Fleet of Worlds series (cowritten with Edward M. Lerner).

The Kzinti were also written by Niven into the Star Trek universe, appearing first in Star Trek: The Animated Series, also in Star Fleet Universe.

Background and history

Kzinti evolved from a plains hunting felid on a planet slightly colder and drier than Earth. The Kzin word for their home planet translates as Homeworld. The world is often known as Kzinhome by the Kzinti themselves. The Kzin home world is the third planet orbiting the star 61 Ursae Majoris.

The Kzin civilization was at an iron-age technological level when an alien race called the Jotoki landed and made stealthy first contact with a tribe of primitive hunter/gatherer Kzinti. The Jotok were interstellar merchants looking for a species they could use as mercenaries.

Once the Jotok had taught the Kzinti how to use high-technology weapons and other devices (including spacecraft), the Kzin rebelled and made their former masters into slaves, as well as the occasional meal. The crest of the Riit (Royal) family appears to be a bite mark, but is in fact a dentate leaf, with the words "From mercenary to master." written around it in Kzinti script.

From the Wikipedia entry for Kzin

(ed note: Terra had a pacifist society for about three centuries. Then they were invaded by the warrior Kzinti aliens. The Kzinti captured the human colony on Alpha Centauri about fifty years ago, and make periodic attack on the solar system. Flatlander General Early is briefing Captain Jonah.)

      The flatlander general cut off the scene with a wave. "So." He folded his hands and leaned forward, the yellowish whites of his eyes glittering in lights that must be kept deliberately low. "We are in trouble, Captain. So far we've beaten off the pussies because we're a lot closer to our main sources of supply, and because they're … predictable. Adequate tacticians, but with little strategic sense, even less than we had at first, despite the Long Peace. The analysts say that indicates they've never come across much in the way of significant opposition before. If they had they'd have learned from it like they are—damn it!—from us.

     "In fact, what little intelligence information we've got, a lot of it from prisoners taken with the Fourth Fleet, backs that up; the kzin just don't have much experience of war."

     Jonah blinked. "Not what you'd assume," he said carefully.

     A choppy nod. "Yep. Surprises you, eh? Me, too."

     General Early puffed delicately on his cigar. "Oh, they're aggressive enough. Almost insanely so, barely gregarious enough to maintain a civilization. Ritualized conflict to the death is a central institution of theirs. Some of the xenologists swear they must have gotten their technology from somebody else, that this culture they've got could barely rise above the hunter-gatherer stage on its own.

     "In any event; they're wedded to a style of attack that's almost pitifully straightforward." (charge into battle with no strategy nor tactics. "Scream and leap") He looked thoughtfully at the wet chewed end of his cigar and selected another from the sealed humidor.

From THE CHILDREN'S HOUR by Jerry Pournelle and S. M. Stirling (1991)

Giving Radio to the Romans: Tends to happen quite a bit, given the lack of any Prime Directive-equivalent and the large number of free traders around who are more than happy to sell anything to anyone who can pay – and that’s not even counting the “fell off the back of a starship, guv, ten bob to you for cash” crowd – and the desires of most people on most worlds for shiny toys.

Some of the real life consequences mentioned are prevented by the Empire’s also having a bunch of private organizations of various kinds, including professional civilization-uplift consultants, who go around helping people not to be total screwups under these sorts of circumstances… but not all of them. But, y’know, free will and all, and it’s not as if they made you invest in technologies granting you the capacity to be total d*cks and then use it in that exact manner, belike. That’s on you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From WAR AND HONOR by Rob Garitta (2016)

      His tone was genial. He had, in fact, been in a good mood ever since they escaped the Adderkops. (Who wouldn't be? For a mere space yacht, even an armed one with ultrapowered engines, to get away from three cruisers, was more than an accomplishment; it was very nearly a miracle. Van Rijn still kept four grateful candles burning before his Martian sandroot statuette of St. Dismas.)

     Torrance considered the total picture before framing a reply. As a spaceman of the League, he must make an effort before he could appreciate how little the enemy actually meant to colonists who seldom left their home world. The name "Adderkop" was Freyan, a term of scorn for outlaws who'd been booted off the planet a century ago. Since then, however, the Freyans had had no direct contact with them. Somewhere in the unexplored deeps beyond Valhalla, the fugitives had settled on some unknown planet. Over the generations, their numbers grew, and so did the numbers of their warships. But Freya was still too strong for them to raid, and had no extraplanetary enterprises of her own to be harried. Why should Freya care?

     Torrance decided to explain systematically, even if he must repeat the obvious. "Well," he said, "the Adderkops aren't stupid. They keep somewhat in touch with events, and know the Polesotechnic League wants to expand its operations into this region. They don't like that. It'd mean the end of their attacks on planets which can't fight back, their squeezing of tribute and their overpriced trade. Not that the League is composed of saints; we don't tolerate that sort of thing, but merely because freebooting cuts into the profits of our member companies. So the Adderkops undertook, not to fight a full-dress war against us, but to harass our outposts till we gave it up as a bad job. They have the advantage of knowing their own sector of space, which we hardly do at all. And we were, indeed, at the point of writing this whole region off and trying someplace else. Freeman Van Rijn wanted to make one last attempt. The opposition to doing so was so great that he had to come here and lead the expedition himself.

     "I suppose you know what he did. Used an unholy skill at bribery and bluff, at extracting what little information the prisoners we'd taken possessed, at fitting odd facts together. He got a clue to a hitherto untried segment. We flitted there, picked up a neutrino trail, and followed it to a human-colonized planet. As you know, it's almost certainly their own home world.

     "If we bring back that information, there'll be no more trouble with the Adderkops. Not after the League sends in a few Star class battleships and threatens to bombard their planet. They realize as much. We were spotted; several warcraft jumped us; we were lucky enough to get away. Their ships are obsolete, and so far we've shown them a clean pair of heels. But I hardly think they've quit hunting for us. They'll send their entire fleet cruising in search. Hyperdrive vibrations transmit instantaneously, and can be detected up to about one light-year distance. So if any Adderkop picks up our 'wake' and homes in on it—with us crippled—that's the end."

     She drew hard on her cigarette, but remained otherwise calm (ack! smoking inside a spaceship?). "What are your plans?"

     "A countermove. Instead of trying to make Freya—uh—I mean, we're proceeding in a search-helix at medium speed, straining our own detectors. If we discover another ship, we'll use the last gasp of our engine to close in. If it's an Adderkop vessel, well, perhaps we can seize it or something; we do have a couple of light guns in our turrets. It may be a nonhuman craft, though. Our intelligence reports, interrogation of prisoners, evaluation of explorers' observations, and so on, all indicate that three or four different species in this region possess the hyperdrive. The Adderkops themselves aren't certain about all of them. Space is so damned huge."

(ed note: They find an alien ship and overhaul it. It won't talk to them. Upon forcing entry they discover it is apparently a zoo collection ship, containing alien critters from many planets. Unfortunately the alien crew is hiding in cages with the critters. The alien's only contact with humans were the barbaric Attercops. Our heroes have to figure out which of the critters are actually the alien crew, and enlist their help to get to the planet Freya before the Attercop fleet finds and kills them all.)

     "They're afraid of us," decided Torrance. "And they're not running back toward the Adderkop sun. Which two facts indicate they're not Adderkops themselves, but do have reason to be scared of strangers." He nodded, rather grimly, for during the preliminary investigations he had inspected a few backward planets which the bandit nation had visited.
     "What do we do after we've established which species could possibly be the crew?" asked Torrance. "Try to communicate with each in turn?"
     "Not much use, that. They hide because they don't want to communicate. Unless we can prove to them we are not Adderkops… But hard to see how."
     "Wait! Why'd they conceal themselves at all, if they've had contact with the Adderkops? It wouldn't work."

     "I think I tell you that, by damn," said Van Rijn. "To give them a name, let us call this unknown race the Eksers. So. The Eksers been traveling space for some time, but space is so big they never bumped into humans. Then the Adderkop nation arises, in this sector where humans never was before. The Eksers hear about this awful new species which has gotten into space also. They land on primitive planets where Adderkops have made raids, talk to natives, maybe plant automatic cameras where they think raids will soon come, maybe spy on Adderkop camps from afar or capture a lone Adderkop ship. So they know what humans look like, but not much else. They do not want humans to know about them, so they shun contact; they are not looking for trouble. Not before they are all prepared to fight a war, at least. Hell's sputtering griddles! Torrance, we have got to establish our bona fides with this crew, so they take us to Freya and afterward go tell their leaders all humans are not so bad as the slime-begotten Adderkops. Otherwise, maybe we wake up one day with some planets attacked by Eksers, and before the fighting ends, we have spent billions of credits!" He shook his fists in the air and bellowed like a wounded bull. "It is our duty to prevent this!"


From Middle English attercoppe, from Old English ātorcoppe (“spider”) (> Old Danish etærkop, ederkoppæ > Danish edderkop (“spider”)), corresponding to atter (“poison, venom”) +‎ cop (“spider”). The latter is still to be found in the English word cobweb. Cognate to Dutch etterkop (“peevish or ill-natured person”).

1937, J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit:

Old fat spider spinning in a tree!
Old fat spider can’t see me!
Attercop! Attercop!
Won’t you stop,
Stop your spinning and look for me?
From HIDING PLACE by Poul Anderson (1961)

      "What I don't understand," (Space Viking) Harkaman said, "is why you support Duke Angus, Lord Trask, if you think the Tanith adventure is doing Gram so much harm."
     (Lord Lucas Trask said) "If Angus didn't do it, somebody else would. But Angus is going to make himself King of Gram, and I don't think anybody else could do that. This planet needs a single sovereignty. I don't know how much you've seen of it outside this duchy, but don't take Wardshaven as typical. Some of these duchies, like Glaspyth or Didreksburg, are literal snake pits. All the major barons are at each other's throats, and they can't even keep their own knights and petty-barons in order. Why, there's a miserable little war down in Southmain Continent that's been going on for over two centuries."
     "That's probably where Dunnan's going to take that army of his," a robot-manufacturing baron said. "I hope it gets wiped out, and Dunnan with it."
     "You don't have to go to Southmain; just go to Glaspyth," somebody else said.

     "Well, if we don't get a planetary monarchy to keep order, this planet will decivilize like anything in the Old Federation."
     "Oh, come, Lucas!" Alex Gorram protested. "That's pulling it out too far."
     "Yes, for one thing, we don't have the Neobarbarians," somebody said. "And if they ever came out here, we'd blow them to Em-See-Square in nothing flat. Might be a good thing if they did, too; it would stop us squabbling among ourselves."

     Harkaman looked at him in surprise. "Just who do you think the Neobarbarians are, anyhow?" he asked. "Some race of invading nomads; Attila's Huns in spaceships?"
     "Well, isn't that who they are?" Gorram asked.
     "Nifflheim, no! There aren't a dozen and a half planets in the Old Federation that still have hyperdrive, and they're all civilized. That's if 'civilized' is what Gilgamesh is," he added. "These are homemade barbarians. Workers and peasants who revolted to seize and divide the wealth and then found they'd smashed the means of production and killed off all the technical brains. Survivors on planets hit during the Interstellar Wars, from the Eleventh to the Thirteenth Centuries, who lost the machinery of civilization. Followers of political leaders on local-dictatorship planets. Companies of mercenaries thrown out of employment and living by pillage. Religious fanatics following self-anointed prophets."

     "You think we don't have plenty of Neobarbarian material here on Gram?" Trask demanded. "If you do, take a look around."
     Glaspyth, somebody said.
     "That collection of over-ripe gallows-fruit Andray Dunnan's recruited," Rathmore mentioned.
     Alex Gorram was grumbling that his shipyard was full of them; agitators stirring up trouble, trying to organize a strike to get rid of the robots.
     "Yes," Harkaman pounced on that last. "I know of at least forty instances, on a dozen and a half planets, in the last eight centuries, of anti-technological movements. They had them on Terra, back as far as the Second Century Pre-Atomic. And after Venus seceded from the First Federation, before the Second Federation was organized."

From SPACE VIKING by H. Beam Piper (1962)

The government of Yiktor was at the feudal stage.…Thus the existing balance of power was a delicate thing. This meant for us Traders brain lock, weapon lock, nuisances though they were and much as we disliked them.

Far back in Free Trading, for their own protection against the power of the Patrol and the wrath of Control (the galactic empire), the Traders themselves had realized the necessity of these two safeguards on primitive planets. Certain technical information was not an item to be traded, no matter how high the inducement. Arms from off-world, or the knowledge of their manufacture, were set behind a barrier of No Sale. When we planeted on such a world, all weapons other than belt stunners were put into a lock stass which would not be released until the ship rose from that earth. We also passed a brain lock inhibiting any such information being won from us. This might seem to make us unarmed prey for any ambitious lord who might wish to wring us hard for such facts. But the law of the fair gave us complete immunity from danger—as long as we stayed within the limits set by the priests on the first day.

From MOON OF THREE RINGS by Andre Norton (1966)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New instrumentalities—old, fierce ways—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From TIGER BY THE TAIL by Poul Anderson (1951)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For practical purposes they will pretty much do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miranid seemed anxious to stress the point.

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

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

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

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

From SHADOW ON THE STARS by Algis Budrys (1954)

      In the computation of probabilities in human conduct, self-interest is a high-value factor. Children and barbarians have clear ideas of justice due to them, but no idea at all of justice due from them (they know their rights but not their duties). And though human colonies spread toward the galaxy's rim, there was still a large part of every population which was civilized only in that it could use tools. Most people still remained comfortably barbaric or childish in their emotional lives. It was a fact that had to be considered in Calhoun's profession. It bore remarkably on matters of contagion, and health, and life itself.

From THE MUTANT WEAPON by Murray Leinster (1957)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can Galactic Empires Exist?

There are some practical question about whether a government on the scale of a galactic empire could function, mostly because bureaucracy has poor scalability.

For me, this is one of those gray areas in the writing of science fiction novels. Much like faster-than-light starships in fact. Yes, it may be impossible. But you want it, your readers want it, everybody's doing it.


There's one important precondition that needs to be understood before the question of a "galactic empire" can be addressed.

An empire is a predatory economic structure.

More precisely, one of the best definitions for present purposes comes from John Michael Greer's useful article The Nature of Empire:

An empire is an arrangement among nations, backed and usually imposed by military force, that extracts wealth from a periphery of subject nations and concentrates it in the imperial core. Put more simply, an empire is a wealth pump, a device to enrich one nation at the expense of others. [Emphasis added.]

From this perspective, it's easy to see that the traditions of Science Fictional worldbuilding have more often than not put the cart before the horse, concentrating on the trappings of imperial prosperity rather than the underlying wealth pump that provides the reason for the empire's existence, and that makes it all possible.

True, there are some thoughtful exceptions — Dune's commercial empire, for example, and the various interstellar states of Asimov's Foundation series — but usually we are shown mighty fleets, militaristic cultural tropes, dizzyingly wealthy stellar imperial capital cities, and so on. These interstellar empires are (especially in MilSF) often imagined as the pageantry and politics of some historical terrestrial empire (commonly British or Austro-Hungarian) transposed to the stars. The wealth pump is handwaved, or simply ignored.

However, HDE 226868, you are doing something that none of your imperial forbears in the field has attempted: you are investigating the feasibility of a lightspeed-bounded interstellar empire. Your list of concerns (communications, troop deployments, longevity & stability of distant civilizations etc) is a good start.

However, you are ignoring the elephant in the room: sublight travel even to a nearby star such as Proxima Centauri is shockingly costly. (See Charlie Stross's The High Frontier, Redux for a brutal but very well-founded description of just how hard and costly sublight interstellar travel would be. Also, scan the comments, and read the shrieking denunciations by fans. Most enlightening. When people are saying to Charles Stross — Charles Stross — "And you call yourself a Science Fiction writer!" you can almost taste the tears through cyberspace. A serious endorsement of the strength of his article: these people, emotionally dependent on the narrative of human colonization of interstellar space, are (understandably) losing their sh*t… which underscores my present point.

In sublight travel, you don't get to build a reasonable ship and send it through a wormhole, or engage warp drive; the thing has to be big and expensive. Even fuel for the trip is costly. You're building something large and specialized, that will take a lot of fuel for the trip. It might be a relativistic time-dilation vessel, a huge generation ship, or a large and difficult coldsleep ship - and we don't yet even know how to do coldsleep.

And then, no matter which type you build, it's a significantly long voyage, with severe challenges at the destination. (See James P. Hogan's A Voyage from Yesteryear for a rather nice exploration of the social/military disadvantages facing a sub-c expedition upon arrival.)

Which brings us to the core question. What kind of wealth pump can be constructed, sustained, and defended under these conditions?

More importantly, what possible kind of wealth could such a pump possibly transfer, to make such a huge and costly effort worthwhile?

These questions are fascinating and powerful, and very possibly disturbing. Great stuff for a story.

However, it won't be trivial to come up with Worldbuilding.SE-grade answers.


      “It was at the beginning of the Third Millennium that Oswald, the Great (otherwise known as The Usurper) founded the first Galactic Empire and declared grandly that it would last 100,000 years. Oswald, it turned out, was a time optimistic. As such will do, the first Empire grew strong, reached its zenith, and then declined — not in 100 Millennia, but in slightly more than two. While no event so all-encompassing as the fall of the first Empire can possibly be assigned a single cause or specific date, most historians officially mark the end to coincide with the spectacular sack of Aurora Prime, the last of the imperial capitals. So it was that in the year 2110 GE (5237 Old Calendar), the Empire finally succumbed to the rot that had been growing for a score of generations.
     “After an interregnum that was longer than it should have been, but shorter that many had predicted, humanity again decided to try its hand at collective government This time, however, they opted for a pseudo-republican form of parliament The origin of the Federation of Man was humble, it having originally been founded at the end of the Tripartite War in the Samara Cluster. The harsh economic conditions of the time drove others to join the federation until it findly eclipsed the first Galactic Empire in the year 685 FT (6137 Old Calendar). For awhile it seemed as though the F-o-M might actually have figured out how to make human beings live together in peace. There were those who predicted that it would last forever. Of course, nothing last forever…"

* From An Extended History of the Human Race, Thirty-third Volume: The first Consolidation and Its Aftermath, Smith, Mouhamet, and Chang Cyberfax, New Hebrides, Chandrushka VII, 17 Fabian 1572 GE2.

The one thing that sets science fiction apart from all of these is its lack of boundaries. A science fiction story can be set anywhere and anywhen. If one is writing in the fantasy sub-genre of SF. then you need not confine yourself to what we laughingly refer to as “the real universe.“ Any universe. parallel. fictional or mythological. will do. Since science fiction has no limits on its subject matter you often read passages written like the introduction to this chapter. These frequently take the form of fictional encyclopedia articles from the far future, a sort of Encyclopedia Galactica crib sheet as to “what has gone before.“ The technique is as simple as it is effective. It orients the readers while giving them the information they need to assimilate the underpinnings of the story.

Usually in science fiction, interstellar history culminates in the formation of some kind of Galactic Empire or Interstellar Federation. That this will be the fate of the human race seems to be taken as a given. We SF writers seldom ask ourselves if either of these two forms of government is even remotely suitable to a far-flung association of star systems, or if they could sustain themselves on a galactic scale once they were established. To what do we owe this seeming universality of opinion? Do we all believe that the human race is stuck in a rut and can invent no new form of government? Or are we being lazy and serving up something that the readers can readily understand? Or perhaps we are convinced that humanity will make the same mistakes over and over a gain, ad infinitum.

What then is our fascination with galactic empires and interstellar federations? To answer that question, we need to survey the possibilities in both history and fiction. We need to discover (if we can) which forms of government might be viable over interstellar distances. Indeed, is there any form of government that will be able to rule over trillions of individual human beings spread throughout millions of cubic light-years of space? To come to some conclusion as to future governmental forms. we will take a cursory look at what has worked well in the past and why.

Nation vs. Empire

There are as many views of history and categorization systems as there are historians. For this article. I would like to divide all human governments into two distinct groups. For the purposes of argument, I maintain that people form only two kinds of large-scale associations — nations and empires! If this seems simplistic. it probably is. but simplifying is how one often arrives at larger truths. So. to make sure that everyone is on the same page. let us define our terms. A NATION is basically a conglomeration of people who willingly associate with one another. They congregate together because they derive some benefit from doing so. An EMPIRE. on the other hand. consists of multiple groups held together by the domination of the central government. Empires. then. are involuntary associations of disparate populations where nations are voluntary associations of homogeneous populations. Nor am I referring to race. creed. previous condition of servitude. or sex when I call a nation‘s population “homogeneous.” Instead. I refer to a population whose members largely share the same aspiration. culture and ideals.

Despite their popularity in science fiction. empires are largely a thing of the past. The last real empire was the Soviet Union. and it hasn’t been with us since 1991. Before that there was the British Empire (which the Soviets were attempting to emulate. even though they refused to admit it). Unlike the Soviet Union. the British Empire broke up more or less amicably. although some musketry was involved in the early departures: i.e., the American colonies.

What has caused the empire to go out of fashion? Have we modern people become more intelligent. sensitive. or caring than were our forefathers? Not bloody likely! In fact. the root cause of the fall of empires has nothing to do with how we feel about one another. The cause is purely economic. Empires have ceased to exist because they are no longer cost effective.

In this respect empires are like slavery. In 1848, a field hand for a cotton plantation in the American South cost several hundred dollars; a considerable quantity of money in a day seventy years before you could buy an automobile for the same price. Once purchased, maintaining the slave required a continuous investment. He had to be fed whether or not there was work in the fields, cared for when he was sick, and given an old age pension, no matter how meager, when he grew too old to work. It wasn‘t practical to merely kill the oldest slaves because their descendants on the plantation would object — violently!

Most people believe that the American Civil War ended slavery. This is true, so far as it goes. However, the thing that caused slavery to die out began decades before the 1860s. What killed slavery was the Industrial Revolution. Britain was the first industrial nation, and as such, banned slavery in 1807. The institution was largely gone from the non-American world by the start of the Civil War. and only the lack of a suitable technology for picking cotton kept slavery operating in the South as long as it did. That is why the southerners often referred to slavery as “our peculiar institution.”

The tragic thing about the Civil War was that it killed hundreds of thousands and was largely unnecessary. The death knell for slavery had been sounded three decades earlier in 1831. That was the year Cyrus McCormick invented his mechanical reaper.

The difference in efficiency between mechanical harvesters and slave labor was startling. One of McCormick’s reapers could harvest the same agricultural product in a day as ten field hands in their prime. yet it actually cost less to buy than did a single slave! And harvesters didn’t require the continual investment in food. clothing. and housing that a slave did. You don’t feed a harvester or combine when it isn’t working. and it never gets old age benefits. When one considers life-cycle cost of a field hand versus that of an equivalent quantity of farm machinery: there is no contest. The machinery wins every time.

An empire is a form of slavery for entire populations. It is a system in which one people take control of another, usually because they have a better army or navy. The imperialist nation then exploits the natural resources and markets of the subservient nation for its own benefit. It is because of this inherently unequal relationship that “imperialist” has become a dirty word around the globe. The problem with empires is that those being exploited soon come to resent it and begin actively working to dissolve the relationship — as evidenced by the American Revolution, the formation of modern India, and the ongoing turbulence in Russia.

Because empires are involuntary associations of people, they are inherently unstable. Somebody is always working to overthrow the existing order, either to gain their independence or set themselves upon the throne. Nations, on the other hand are largely voluntary, and therefore, inherently stable. It is to the benefit of the people of a nation to maintain their association, and their enthusiasm for remaining in the group sometimes is so great that it gives rise to the sin of nationalism. Empires maintain armies to keep the subjugated peoples subjugated while nations raise armies to repel foreign invaders or to put down internal revolts by disaffected groups. If the revolt is unsuccessful, then the nation has a chance to heal the wounds and restore its unity. If it fails to do so, then it may well transform itself into an empire, a governmental entity where part of the population is held in subservience.

So why is it that, despite their proven unsuitability in the modern world, we science fiction writers continue to populate the stars with Galactic Empires? If they are unsuitable now, surely they will be even more unsuitable in the far future when we finally cross the interstellar gulf to other star systems! Or will they? There was once an empire that covered much of the planet and was surprisingly long lived. This year the United States is 222 years old (when measured from the Declaration of Independence). According to legend, the city of Rome was founded on the banks of the Tiber River in 753 BC. Over the centuries, the city grew in influence until it became a colossus bestriding the ancient world. Then, just as in our fictional example above, it fell prey to its inner weakness, suffered a long decline, and finally breathed its last in the west in 476 AD. The Eastern Roman Empire managed to stave off collapse for another millennium, finally succumbing to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 AD.

If empires are inherently unstable, how was it that this particular empire lasted longer than any modem nation now in existence? Indeed, though the Romans conquered by force, they had considerable success in turning the “barbarians” into citizens. How was this possible? The answer, of course, lies in the fact that the world is different today than it was 2000 years ago. Where the choice was once empire or chaos, our industrialized world offers people more options than were available when the legions marched triumphantly through every land that bordered the Mediterranean Sea. Conditions are no longer ripe for empires and therefore, empires have ceased to exist. But will it ever be thus?

As the fictional encyclopedia writer" noted above, “Nothing is forever…" Might a day come when empires will again be both fashionable and economical? To answer that, let us take a closer look at best example of an enduring empire that we have. Let us look to the center of the Italian boot, to the city of Romulus and Remus.

All Roads Lead To Rome

Shortly after his first science fiction story was published in 1939, Isaac Asimov was en route via subway to the offices of John W. Campbell, the editor at Astounding Science Fiction (now Analog Science Fiction, my old stomping ground) to sell him another story for pennies-per-word. Apparently (as the story goes), Campbell had rejected one of Asimov’s proposals and he was in a dither for something else to write about. Suddenly, it occurred to him to do Gibbon’s Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire in space. The result was a long running series of stories that eventually became The Foundation Trilogy.

Asimov wasn’t the first writer to transplant Rome to the stars, nor was he the last. He did, however, accelerate the process. After The Foundation Trilogy, Galactic Empires became de rigeur in SF. It was almost a given that humanity would go out to colonize the stars, and those colonies would come together in some form of collective government, probably a republic. Then, over time, the republic would transform itself into a galaxy-spanning Empire ruled by an emperor and a hereditary aristocracy who were maintained in power by the emperor’s Marines. In addition to Asimov, Poul Anderson and Jerry Pournelle have long made use of the Galactic Empire theme. It was also the background for that wildly popular 1977 rebellion tale that took place “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.”

The young Isaac Asimov’s instincts on that Bronx subway train were sound that morning in 1939. For Gibbon not only cataloged the rise and fall of an ancient empire, he gave generations of writers a handy, prefabricated plot with which to populate their stories. The story of Rome is one of the few in history that lends itself to the grandness and scope of science fiction. It covers generations of time and virtually all aspects of human governance. There were the heady years of the Roman Republic, when the legions marched out to victory after victory. There were the golden years of Julius and Augustus Caesar, when the republic was transformed into the empire, and the seeds of Rome’s destruction were sowed. There were the decadent years of the mad Caligula, when minority classes were doomed to wholesale slaughter in the Coliseum and the emperor married his sister. Finally, there were the final years when the once-mighty city was overrun by the very barbarians who had once trembled in fear at the tread of the legionaries’ boots.

Within the saga of Rome lie a million science fiction stories and a multitude of writers have mined that rich mother lode over the decades. So many people have gone to the Roman Empire for their source material, in fact, that it has become very familiar to the modern reader, even if he or she has not read a great deal of history. Is Rome the prototype for most galactic empires merely because writers are lazy? Or might there be some other reason, one possibly so deep in our brains that it is more subconscious feeling than conscious thought? Is it possible that history could well repeat itself? To explore the possibility, we need to delve into a subject of which most people are blissfully unaware. I refer, of course, to the effect of technological advancement on the course of human society.

Being both an engineer and a science fiction writer, I maintain that technology is one of the predominant factors that drive human history. In fact, I maintain that it is the most important factor of all! Don’t believe me? Then consider the following further example regarding the subject of slavery:

In the later Roman Empire, slaves actually outnumbered citizens. This interesting situation caused the Romans a number of problems throughout their history. In 73 BC, a Thracian slave named Spartacus led a slave revolt in what came to be known as the Third Servile War. Spartacus’s revolt scared the Romans as nothing else had done in hundreds of years. After they put down the insurrection, they crucified those slaves they captured, lining the Appian Way with their bodies for miles. (Contrary to the 1960 movie starring Kirk Douglas, Spartacus died in the final battle and was not crucified.)

After such a close call, you would think that Rome would give up the dangerous practice of enslaving their neighbors. They not only didn’t give it up; they increased the number of slaves in the empire! It wasn’t that they didn’t understand the danger. Rather, they couldn’t afford to end slavery. The Roman economy depended on slave labor, all because they somehow failed to discover one of the great inventions of all time — the horse collar.

“THE HORSE COLLAR!” you groan. “Surely you can’t be serious. What do horse collars have to do with slavery?”

They have everything to do with it. The Romans harnessed their horses by wrapping a leather strap around their necks. When the horses attempted to pull a heavy load, the strap cut off their supply of air, and the horses eased up enough to breathe. The result of using neck straps was to severely limit a horse’s pulling power. Human physiology allowed slaves to be harnessed such that they took the load through their shoulders and could use their full power without affecting their breathing. The result was that in Roman times, a slave could win a tug- of-war with a horse! Since human slaves were able to pull heavier loads, could be fed table scraps or garbage (horses eat grain), and are generally more intelligent than equines, they became the prime means for doing work in the Roman Empire. And like any other prized possession, the Romans worked to increase their numbers, despite the ever-present danger of a revolt.

(ed note: A horse eats five times as much as a man, but using a strap limits the horse to barely doing five times the work of a man. However, if you add the horse collar, the horse can do ten times the work of a man but only eats five times as much. So for a given kilogram of food the horse gives you twice as much work. This helps end slavery and the feudal system.)

There are numerous other examples of basic inventions the Romans did not have the foresight to invent, including the steel plowshare or stirrups for their saddles. A little known fact is that the Middle Ages were substantially more advanced from a technological standpoint than was the Roman Empire. What medieval man lacked, however, was the large-scale organizational ability of the Romans. No king, duke, or earl had control of a sufficient number of subjects to build anything approaching a Roman road, even if he had the knowledge of how to build a better one. Which brings us to the reason why Rome was able to conquer the known world and keep it in subjugation for more than a thousand years.

All roads really did lead to Rome! That was because it was the Roman army that built them.

A Roman road is basically a ditch that has been filled with gravel and stones, and then covered with carefully fitted cobbles. It is small wonder that they have lasted for two thousand years. Some of them have foundations that are more than a meter deep! The roads were military highways. They allowed quick communication between the far-flung reaches of the empire. A mounted courier could bring news of invasion or revolt as quickly as his horse could carry him. Then, having been alerted to the danger in days or weeks instead of months, the fast-stepping legions could concentrate their forces at the point of trouble before the barbarians had a chance to properly enjoy their loot.

The importance of the Roman road system can be seen in the boundaries of the Empire. The Romans conquered everywhere they built roads. Or rather, they conquered and then constructed the road to consolidate their conquest. Unfortunately, on their northern border was an impenetrable forest through which they could not drive a defendable highway. In that forest they finally met an enemy they could not conquer, and there the advance of the invincible legions halted.

All of this is interesting, but what does it have to do with galactic empires? Simply this. The Romans gained and held an empire because they had a better transportation and communications system than did their competitors. With their military highways and interior lines of communication, they could draw legions from across the empire and quickly amass a force strong enough to defeat any enemy.

The time when it took a year or more to cross the continents is long gone. Now we can get halfway around the world in a single day. In effect. the entire world has shrunk to the size of a single English county of old and no one has a monopoly on speedy communications or transportation. This is the reason that empires have become an artifact of the past. No longer is it necessary to conquer another people and hold them in bondage in order to obtain raw materials and possess markets to sell our products. The speed and ease of transportation makes the whole world one large marketplace. No longer must a nation maintain an army in some far off land, nor subjugate stubborn native peoples in order to prosper. Empires have fallen into disuse because the ease of transportation and speed of communication makes it cheaper to purchase raw materials than it is to steal them!

Nor is this inexorable shrinkage of our planet done yet. Sometime next generation we will start building sub-orbital transports, spaceships full of people that we lob from continent to continent in high ballistic arcs. There is a limit, of course, to how fast one can travel from Point A to Point B on the surface of the Earth. I maintain that the minimum travel time from one side of the planet to the other is four hours (when one includes the time it takes to retrieve one’s luggage and stand in line at the rental car counter). That fast and no faster!

But as a wise man in the far future will someday say, “Nothing is forever…” Travel time will not merely stabilize at a minimum of foru" hours. For shortly after we develop sub- orbital rocket liners, we will begin to colonize space. No longer will every human being alive occupy a sphere a mere 12,500 kilometers in diameter. Some day we will spread to the planets and then the stars. And when we do, travel destinations will again be weeks, months, or even years apart fi'om one another. That these places will bear the names of stars rather than the far-flung villages of the Roman Empire means nothing. Whether traveling by spaceship or ox cart, it isn’t the distance that is important, but rather the travel time.

So the day is coming when the conditions required for building a stable empire may again exist. Humanity will occupy a few hospitable islands amid the great black sea of space. Travel will once more take on the aspects of the word that is its root — travail! Out in the vast emptiness there may again arise a power with a better transportation/communication system than anyone else. Should that power prove to have an expansionist philosophy and an appetite for other people’s real estate, who knows? The situation may well return to that which existed some two thousand years ago, except this time the legionaries will be shod in space boots rather than leather sandals. They will ride starships, and not chariots; throw lightning bolts instead of javelins. And if they are successful, perhaps another great empire will someday span the “known universe.”

“Surely it must be more complicated!” you exclaim. “It can’t be as simple as merely getting there ‘the fuhstest with the mostest,’ can it?”

That is what we will explore in the next chapter. We will consider all of the conditions required to build a galaxy-spanning empire or a vast interstellar republic. Where that journey will lead is a question for the future. For empires may indeed be a thing of the past. Then again, Oswald, the Great (also known as The Userper) may be inevitable. Remember, nothing is forever…

…Except, of course, human nature. For if that ever changes, then we will have to redefine what it means to be human.

From THE ART OF SCIENCE FICTION, VOLUME 2 by Michael McCollum (1998)

Five Obstacles To A Realistic Interstellar Empire

1. Administration Would Be Unmanageable

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

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

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

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

How to Solve it

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

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

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

Alistair Young comments:

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

Rick Stump comments:

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

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

3. Warfare Would Be Impractical

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

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

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

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

How to Solve it

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

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

Rick Stump comments:

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

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

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

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

4. Trade Would Be Unnecessary

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

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

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

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

How to Solve it

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

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

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

Rick Stump comments:

     His Solution: Rare materials and economies of scale.

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

5. Energy Production Would Outmode All Conflict

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

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

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

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

How to Solve it

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

Alistair Young comments:

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

Rick Stump comments:

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

     His Solution: Don't do that.

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

Reaction Time

Imperial Border

As a point of terminology, the marches or boondocks of a galactic empire are generally called the "rim" or the "fringe." This represents the astrographical limit of imperial control.

If you are actually trying to make a full fledged interstellar empire, the maximum speed of starships and the maximum speed of communications limits the maximum size of the empire. Timelag creates Limits On Reaction Time. If it takes a year for news of a rebellion on the outer marches of the empire to reach the capital (or sector capital) and another year for a fleet to travel back, this means the rebels will have two years to win the rebellion and fortify in preparation for the arrival of the imperial starfleet.

The defining factor of whether a given planet was part of an empire or not is whether the time delay between the start of the rebellion and the arrival of the imperial punishment fleet is longer than the time required for the rebellious planet to manufacture enough defenses to take care of the punishment fleet.

In other words: if you cannot hold on to the planet, it ain't yours.

An auxiliary factor is the expected size of the punishment fleet. This will depend upon many other factors. A worthless rock-pile might only rate one warship, while The Planet Of Immortality Drugs could get a sky full of ships. An average planet in the middle of the empire could rate a sizable fleet since it could be a nucleus of rebellion for other planets, while the same planet out on the galactic marches of the empire might not get anything.

The expected size of the punishment fleet defines how many defenses need to be manufactured. And the amount of defenses is a big factor in determining whether it is possible to manufacture all of them before the fleet shows up.

Maximum Timelag

Historically on Terra, communication by travel came first (runners, horseback couriers, boat and rail-road train). Later non-travel communication was invented (telegraph and radio), and it was much faster than travel communication.

According to SpaceMike, historically we can use these as general rules:

The largest pre-telegraphy empire By Land was the Mongol Empire. The communication time from the central capital to the rim (or vice versa) was 12 weeks. The empire had a radius of about 5,000 kilometers, and a horse courier could travel about 60 km/day.

The largest pre-telegraphy empire By Sea was a toss-up between the Spanish and the Portugese, though arguably the Dutch went further. It took about 13 weeks to travel from the capital to the furthest colony of the empire. A good ship could cross the Atlantic ocean in about ten weeks, then a few more weeks to go over land to the colony.

So if the galactic empire has no FTL radio but does have FTL courier starships, the speed of the ships and the maximum allowed radius of the empire have to be adjusted so that the ship takes 10 to 15 weeks or so to travel from the central capital to the rim (or vice versa).

Early telegraph had an effective speed of about 1,600 km/hour. So it could send a message from the Mongol capital to the rim in about three hours. Which was a vast improvement over 12 weeks. Radio of course travels at the speed of light, for the Mongol empire it is effectively instantaneous.

Before the age of horseback couriers, information technology ranged from "coconut wireless" (gossip and rumors spread neighbor to neighbor), pigeon post and war pigeons (range 1,800 km, speed 80 km/h), smoke signals (on the Great Wall of China soldiers could transmit warnings 750 km in a few hours, Gondor Style ), and talking drums (160 km/hr).

Smoke signals and talking drums are hard to interfere with by enemy action. However, during World War I and II soldiers were trained to shoot at war pigeons and some actually kept hawks to intercept the pigeons. Stop that pigeon now! A pigeon named Cher Ami was awarded the French "Croix de Guerre with Palm" for heroic service by virtue of delivering messages that saved the lives of 194 US soldiers of the 77th Infantry Division's "Lost Battalion" in 1918. She delivered the message despite having been shot through the breast, blinded in one eye, and had a leg hanging only by a tendon.

Now, as a science fiction author, all you have to do is brainstorm an interstellar equivalent to smoke signals and homing pigeons.


      Liddell crossed both hands on a raised knee. “Kornilov made a mistake. It was a serious mistake, and it got people killed.
     “But he made it for the right reasons. He made it because he overestimated the loyalty of troops under his command.”
     “Tell that to the survivors.”
     “I will, once I’ve rehearsed it on you.”
     “Oh, God.”
     “I don’t have Her private number, and anything else gets you put on hold. Meanwhile, I promised you an answer. Do you want it or not?”
     “I’m not sure I should want it, but I suspect I’ll get it whether I do or not.”
     “Right. So here it is.

     “Kornilov made a mistake that any senior officer has to be ready to make, as long as the only ftl communication is by ship. If we get the round-trip time for a high-capacity interstellar link down to hours instead of weeks, it will be a different matter. But I'm not on the Benford Institute’s mailing list.
     “As we stand now, senior officers in isolated commands have to trust the people under them. One alternative is an independent surveillance force. That’s been tried under Stalinist/Hitlerian regimes. It usually ends in either civil war or paralyzed armed forces.
     “The other alternative is training senior officers to be paranoid about everyone under their command. Then you have to authorize them to be investigator, judge, jury, and if necessary executioner. You wind up giving an ambitious local commander more power, rather than less, and life under someone like that—
     “Becomes like General Colettta—‘dull, nasty, brutish, and short’?” Atwood finished.
     “Close enough.”

From DIVISION OF THE SPOILS by Roland Green (1990)

Imperial Sectors

Note the off-hand reference to "sector capitals" above. If your communications/warship speed dictate that your empire can be no more than X parsecs wide with central control in the capital then you can obviously make your empire larger if you delegate control to a series of sub-capitals at some distance.

In ancient Rome such divisions were called an Imperial Province. Ever since Isaac Asimov wrote his Foundation trilogy, divisions in a galactic empire are called "sectors" (though classic Star Trek messed up and called them "quadrants").

Asimov also popularized the naming of sectors after the brightest star contained. This meant that Sol was located in the "Sirius sector", since Sirius has an intense absolute magnitude of 1.4 and is a mere 8.6 light-years from Sol. Vega is much brighter with an absolute magnitude of 0.58, but is much farther away at 25 light-years. Poul Anderson's novels The Rebel Worlds and its sequel The Day Of Their Return are set in "Sector Alpha Crucis".

Of course sector captial rule runs the risk of an ambitious sector governor getting ideas about declaring independence from the Empire. On the other hand the sector governor had better be real sure of their chances for success. Empires consider breakaway sectors to be what you call "existential threats"; so the reaction tends to be swift, overwhelming, and harsh.


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

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

From FOUNDATION by Isaac Asimov (1951)

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

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

Planet will stay as a member of the empire if:

Ar * K < Ae


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

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

Maximum Strength Of Rebel Army

Ar = Pt * Pr


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

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

Production Time

Pt = (Nt + Ft) - Rt


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

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

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

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

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

Rebel Production Rate

Pr = ???

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

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

Nt = Rd / Cr


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

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

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

Ft = Dt + Gt + (Rd / Er)


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

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

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

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

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

Maximum Strength Of Imperial Army

Ae = ???

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

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

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

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


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

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

Jerry Pournelle

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

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

TRAVELLER BOOK 4: MERCENARY by Frank Chadwick (1979)

Bureaucratic Scale


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

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

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

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

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

Next consider a hundred thousand of them.

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

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

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

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

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

From OUTPOST OF EMPIRE by Poul Anderson (1967)

At this point, we will move the discussion on to a new level and deal with an obvious objection. Can we be sure that the velocity of light is indeed a limiting factor? So many “impassable” barriers have been shattered in the past; perhaps this one may go the way of all the others.

We will not argue the point, or give the reasons scientists believe that light can never be outraced by any form of radiation or any material object. Instead, let us assume the contrary and see just where it gets us. We will even take the most optimistic possible case, and imagine that the speed of transportation may eventually become infinite.

Picture a time when, by the development of techniques as far beyond our present engineering as a transistor is beyond a stone ax, we can reach anywhere we please instantaneously, with no more eflort than by dialing a number. This would indeed cut the universe down to size, and reduce its physical immensity to nothingness. What would be left?

Everything that really matters. For the universe has two aspects—its scale, and its overwhelming, mind-numbing complexity. Having abolished the first, we are now face-to-face with the second.

What we must now try to visualize is not size, but quantity. Most people today are familiar with the simple notation which scientists use to describe large numbers; it consists merely of counting zeros, so that a hundred becomes 102, a million, 106; a billion, 109 and so on. This useful trick enables us to work with quantifies of any magnitude, and even defense budget totals look modest when expressed as $5.76×109 instead of $5,760,000,000.

The number of other suns in our own Galaxy (that is, the whirlpool of stars and cosmic dust of which our Sun is an out-of-town member, lying in one of the remoter spiral arms) is estimated at about 1011—or written in full, 100,000,000,000. Our present telescopes can observe something like 109 other galaxies, and they show no sign of thinning out even at the extreme limit of vision. There are probably at least as many galaxies in the whole of creation as there are stars in our own Galaxy, but let us confine ourselves to those we can see. They must contain a total of about 1011 times 109 stars, or 1020 stars altogether.

One followed by twenty other digits is, of course, a number beyond all understanding. There is no hope of ever coming to grips with it, but there are ways of hinting at its implications.

Just now we assumed that the time might come when we could dial ourselves, by some miracle of matter transmission, effortlessly and instantly round the cosmos, as today we call a number in our local exchange. What would the cosmic telephone directory look like if its contents were restricted to suns and it made no effort to list individual planets, still less the millions of places on each planet?

The directories for such cities as London and New York are already getting somewhat out of hand, but they list only about a million—106—numbers. The cosmic directory would be 1014 times bigger, to hold its 1020 numbers. It would contain more pages than all the books that have ever been produced since the invention of the printing press.

To continue our fantasy a little further, here is another consequence of twenty-digit telephone numbers. Think of the possibilities of cosmic chaos if dialing 27945015423811986385 instead of 27945015243811986385 could put you at the wrong end of Creation… This is no trifling example; look well and carefully at these arrays of digits, savoring their weight and meaning, remembering that we may need every one of them to count the total tally of the stars, and even more to number their planets.

Before such numbers, even spirits brave enough to face the challenge of the light-years must quail. The detailed examination of all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the world is a far smaller task than the exploration of the universe.

And so we return to our opening statement. Space can be mapped and crossed and occupied without definable limit; but it can never be conquered. When our race has reached its ultimate achievements, and the stars themselves are scattered no more widely than the seed of Adam, even then we shall still be like ants crawling on the face of the Earth. The ants have covered the world, but have they conquered it-—for what do their countless colonies know of it, or of each other?

So it will be with us as we spread outward from Mother Earth, loosening the bonds of kinship and understanding, hearing faint and belated rumors at second—or third —or thousandth-hand of an ever-dwindling fraction of the entire human race. Though Earth will try to keep in touch with her children, in the end all the efforts of her archivists and historians will be defeated by time and distance, and the sheer bulk of material. For the number of distinct societies or nations, when our race is twice its present age, may be far greater than the total number of all the men who have ever lived up to the present time.

We have left the realm of comprehension in our vain effort to grasp the scale of the universe; so it must always be, sooner rather than later.

When you are next out of doors on a summer night, turn your head toward the zenith. Almost vertically above you will be shining the brightest star of the northern skies—Vega of the Lyre, twenty-six years away at the speed of light, near enough the point-of-no-return for us short-lived creatures. Past this blue-white beacon fifty times as brilliant as our sun, we may send our minds and bodies, but never our hearts.

For no man will ever turn homeward from beyond Vega to greet again those he knew and loved on Earth.

From SPACE, THE UNCONQUERABLE by Arthur C. Clarke (1962)

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

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

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

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

Comes up when a Galactic Superpower fails to govern.

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

For lots of examples, click here

From the UNGOVERNABLE GALAXY entry at TV Tropes

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

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

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

Peter B. Evans uses Williamson’s control loss model to show that higher efficiencies are possible when the Emperor switches to “multiple hierarchy” systems, such as the dual hierarchy. If the Emperor creates a complete second command hierarchy in parallel with the first, his effectiveness rises by nearly two-thirds. The superiority of dual hierarchies is well-known in business (line-and-staff) and in public administration (especially Communist bureaucracies). Lattice structure systems are a more sophisticated form, involving a complete lattice of hierarchial links providing a startling multiplicity of pathways to the top. Such novel system my not encourage galactic stability, but the opportunities for palace intrigue are legion!

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

The adhocracy.

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

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

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

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

Will it scale to an entire galaxy?

We’ll see.


(ed note: The League is a loose alliance of over a million worlds. The Patrol keeps war from breaking out. But they do not use large battle fleets. Instead they rely upon covert agents working behind the scenes, who use ever dirty trick in the book to bring about the desired end. Patrol agent Wing Alak is explaining the facts of life to Tranis Voal, leader of the planet Luan. )

      Voal sat down. His knees seemed suddenly to have failed him. But he looked up, it was with an expression that Alak found immensely cheering. He spoke slowly: “I can see why a reputation as formidable fighters would be a great asset to you—but why stop there? Why can’t you stand up and fight honestly? Why have you, instead, built up a record of such incredible villainy that the worst criminals of the Galaxy could not equal it?”
     Alak relaxed into a chair and sipped his cocktail. “It’s a long story,” he said. “It goes right back to the beginning of interstellar travel.”

     He searched for words a moment, then began: “After about three centuries of intercourse between the stars, it became plain that an uncoordinated Galactic civilization would inevitably destroy itself. Consider the problems in their most elementary form. Today there are over a million civilized stars, with a population running up over ten to the fifteenth, and exploration adds new ones almost daily. Even if that population were completely uniform, the sheer complexity of administrative detail is inconceivable—why, if all government services from legislators to postmen added up to only one percent of the total, and no government has ever been that efficient, that would be some ten to the thirteenth (ten trillion) individual beings in government! Robocomputers help some, but not much. You run a system with a population of about two and a half billion, and you know yourself what a job that is.
     “And then the population is not uniform, but fantastically diverse. We are mammals, warm-blooded, oxygen breathing—but there are intelligent reptiles, birds, fish, cephalopods, and creatures Earth never heard of, among the oxygen breathers alone—there are halogen breathers covering as wide a range, there are eaters of raw energy, there are creatures from worlds almost next to a sun and creatures from worlds where oxygen falls as snow. Reconciling all their needs and wants—
     “The minds and the histories of the races differ so much that no intelligence could ever imagine them all. Could you think the way the communal race-mind of Sturvel’s Planet does? Do you have the cold emotions of a Vergan arthropod or the passionate temper of a Goldran? And individuals within the races usually differ as much as, say, humans do, if not more. And histories are utterly unlike. We try to bring the benefits of civilization to all races not obviously unfit—but often we can’t tell till too late. Or even…well, take the case of us humans. Sol has been at peace for centuries. But humans colonizing out among the stars forget their traditions until barbarians like Luanians and Marhalians go to war!”

     “That hurt,” said Voal very quietly. “But maybe I deserved it.”

     Alak looked expectantly at his empty glass. Voal refilled it and the Patrolman drank deep. Then he said:
     “And technology has advanced to a point where armed conflict, such as was at first inevitable and raged between the stars, is death for one side and ruin for another unless the victor manages completely to wipe out his foe in the first attack. In those three unorganized centuries, some hundreds of planets were simply sterilized, or even destroyed. Whole intelligent races were wiped out almost overnight. Sol and a few allies managed to suppress piracy, but no conceivable group short of an overwhelming majority of all planets—and with the diversity I just mentioned such unanimity is impossible—could ever have imposed order on the Galaxy.

     “Yet—such order was a necessity of survival.

     “One way, the ‘safest’ in a short-term sense, would have been for a powerful system, say Sol, to conquer just as many stars as it needed for an empire to defend itself against all comers, without conquering too many to administer. Such a procedure would have involved the permanent establishment of totalitarian militarism, the murder or reduction to peonage of all other races within the imperial bounds, and the ultimate decadence and disintegration which statism inevitably produces.

     “But a saner way was found. The Galactic League was formed, to arbitrate and co-ordinate the activities of the different systems as far as possible. Slowly, over some four centuries, all planets were brought in as members, until today a newly discovered system automatically joins. The League carries on many projects, but its major function is the maintenance of interstellar order. And to do that job, as well as to carry out any League mandates, the Patrol exists.

     With a flash of defiance, Voal challenged: “Yes, and how does the Patrol do it? With thievery, bribery, lies, blackmail, meddlesome interference— Why don’t you stand up openly for the right and fight for it honestly?”
     “With what?” asked Alak wearily. “Oh, I suppose we could maintain a huge battle fleet and crush any disobedient systems. But how trustful would that leave the others? How long before we had to wipe out another aggrieved world? Don’t forget—when you fight on a planetary scale, you fight women and children and innocent males who had nothing whatsoever to do with the trouble. You kill a billion civilians to get at a few leaders. How long before the injustice of it raised an alliance against us which we couldn’t beat? Who would stay in a tyrannical League when he could destroy it?
     “As it is, the Galaxy is at peace. Eighty or ninety percent of all planets know the League is their friend and have nothing but praise for the Patrol that protects them. When trouble arises, we quietly settle it, and the Galaxy goes on its unknowing way. Those something times ten to the fifteenth beings are free to live their lives out without fear of racial extinction.”

     “Peace can be bought too dearly at times. Peace without honor—”
     “Honor!” Alak sprang from his chair. His red hair blazed about the suddenly angry face. He paced before Voal with a cold and bitter glare.
     “Honor!” he sneered. “Another catchword. I get so sick of those unctuous phrases—Don’t you realize that deliberate scoundrels do little harm, but that the evil wrought by sincere fools is incalculable?
     “Murder breeds its like. For psychological reasons, it is better to prohibit Patrolmen completely from killing than to set up legalistic limits. But if we can’t use force, we have to use any other means that comes in handy. And I, for one, would rather break any number of arbitrary laws and moral rules, and wreck a handful of lives of idiots who think with a blaster, than see a planet go up in flames or…or see one baby killed in a war it never even heard about!

     He calmed down. For a while he continued pacing, then he sat down and said conversationally:
     “Let me give you a few examples from recent cases of Patrol methods. Needless to say, this is strictly confidential. All the Galaxy knows is that there is peace—but we had to use every form of perfidy and betrayal to maintain it.”

     He thought a moment, then began: “Sirius and Alpha Centauri fought a war just before the founding of the League which nearly ruined both. They’ve managed to reconstruct since, but there is an undying hatred between them. League or no League they mean to be at each other’s throats the first chance they get.
     “Well, no matter what methods we use to hold the Centaurians in check. But on Sirius the government has become so hopelessly corrupt, the military force so graft-ridden and inefficient, that action is out of the question.
     “Now a vigorous young reformer rose; honest, capable, popular, all set to win an election which would sweep the rascally incumbents out and bring good government to Sirius for the first time in three centuries. And—the Patrol bribed him to throw the election. He wouldn’t take the money, but he did as we said because otherwise, as he knew, we’d make it the dirtiest election in even Sirian history, ruin his business and reputation and family life, and defeat him.
     “Why? Because, of course, the first thing he’d have done if elected would have been to get the military in trim. Which would have meant the murder of several hundred million Centaurians—unless they struck first. Sure, we don’t like crooked government either—but it costs a lot less in lives, suffering, natural resources, and even money than war.

     “Then there was the matter of an obscure barbarian system whose people are carnivorous and have a psychological need of combat. Imagine them loose in the Galaxy! We have to hold them in check for several generations until sublimation can be achieved. Fortunately, they are under an absolute monarch. A native woman whom we had educated managed to become his mistress and completely dominate him. And when the great nobles showed signs of revolt, she seduced one of them to act as her agent provocateur and smoke out the rebellious ones.
     “Immoral? Sure. But two or three centuries hence, even the natives will thank us for it. Meanwhile, the Galaxy is safe from them.

     “A somewhat similar case was a race by nature so fanatically religious that they were all set to go crusading among the stars with all the weapons of modern science. We wrecked that scheme by introducing a phony religion with esoteric scientific ‘miracles’ and priests who were Patrolmen trained in psychotechnology—a religion that preaches peace and tolerance. A dirty trick to play on a trusting people, but it saved their neighbors—and also themselves, since otherwise their extinction might have been necessary.

     “We really hit a moral bottom in the matter of another primitive and backward system. Its people are divided into clans whose hereditary chiefs have absolute authority. When one of the crown princes took a tour through the Galaxy, our agents managed to guide him into one of the pleasure houses we maintain here and there. And we got records. Recently this being succeeded to the chiefship of the most influential clan. We were pretty sure, from study of his psychographs, that before long he would want to throw off the League ‘yoke’ and go off on a spree of conquest—it’s a race of warriors with a contempt for all outsiders. So—the Patrol used those old records to blackmail him into refusing the job in favor of a safely conservative brother.

From THE DOUBLE-DYED VILLAINS by Poul Anderson (1949)

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

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

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?

(ed note: The key question which defines a political system. For example, if the government kills somebody it is Capital Punishment, if a person kills somebody, it is Murder.)

From THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS, by Robert's Heinlein

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 doesn't that mean the resulting chaos ain't an "empire" any more? Maybe, but maybe not. Let's talk about termites and ants.

Look at that picture of a splendid termite mound. It is comparable to Antonio Gaudí’s church. Surprisingly, the termite mound was not constructed under any sort of centralized control. In fact, the workers cannot even perceive the overall shape of the mound (worker termites are blind). Yet the mound is built including elaborate arches. It even incorporates galleries and chimneys to manage temperature and humidity. How is this possible?

Termites use "bottom-up" management instead of the "top-down" management used with central control. Even though a given termite only has a miserable 2-volt brain it still has just enough intelligence to perform specific actions (e.g., glue your grain of sand on that growing pillar there) when triggered by local cues (scent pheromones by other local termites, temperature and humidity conditions, etc.). A bunch of simplistic actions can achieve surprisingly sophisticated result by the magic of Emergent Behavior.

The point is: management by emergent behavior is infinitely scalable. There is no size limit. Galactic "empire," here we come.

Granted, this is not going to look like the empire from Star Wars or Asimov's Foundation. But it has the virtue of being actually workable. It might look more like a nomadic empire.

It also would be a very good fit for an alien empire that had a hive mentality, since they are traditionally portrayed as insect-like aliens to start with.

Yes, human beings are more intelligent than ants. That's not the point, in such an empire the operative units might be the equivalent of a division within a corporation. Such divisions often exhibit less intelligence than your average ant.

Taken to an extreme, a galactic empire could be modeld on your typical slime mold, which is actually a colony creature that is a congomeration of single-celled critters. in 2016 scientists were flabbergasted when they discovered a slime mold was capable of learning, even though the blasted thing did not have a brain.

Even the process of fighting off an enemy starfleet can be handled this way. The defense can be handled locally as an artificial immune system.

One of the draw-backs of emergent management can be seen in ant-hills. It is not unusual to see an ant-hill at war with itself. Since there is no central control, the various local groups have no way of knowing that the other group is part of the same hill.

There are several terms associated with this process, some of which overlap.

Emergent Behavior
Swarm Intelligence
Spontaneous Order

Self-organizing systems don't need managers

Another Way

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

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

How is this possible?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open Source Software

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

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

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

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


Many species of ants communicate with their nest-mates using chemical scents known as pheromones. Pheromones can be used in many ways by ants and other animals (including humans), but we are most interested in how ants use pheromones to direct each other through their environment — this particular task is closely related to the problem of directing the flow of information through a network.

Consider a colony of ants that is searching for food. Casual observation of an ant colony will reveal that ants often walk in a straight line between their anthill and the food source. The concept of an "army" of ants marching in file has permeated popular culture, and most people who live in ant-friendly locations (nearly every human-friendly place in the world) have seen this particular behavior first-hand. Marching in a straight line, which is usually the shortest route, seems like an obvious solution to the problem of efficient food transportation, and we might pass it off as uninteresting.

Of course, we humans would do the same thing, and in fact we do march in lines along direct routes when we travel in groups as caravans. When we look down at a line of ants from above, we might simply think "so what?" But we have huge brains compared to ants, along with extraordinarily complicated visual systems (over 25% of the human brain is devoted to vision), and we also have a more elevated view of the terrain. Even with these advantages, efficient route-finding, especially through an environment that is full of obstacles, is not an easy task for us. Given ants' comparatively simpler brains, we cannot pass their collectively intelligent route-finding off as trivial. So how do they do it?

Suppose that an ant colony starts out with no information about the location food in the environment. The human strategy in this case would be to send out a "search party" to comb the surrounding area — the scouts who find food can bring some back to the home-base and inform the others about where the food is. Ants do search for food by walking randomly, which is similar to the human "combing" approach, but two issues prevent ants from implementing a human-style search party directly. First, how can an ant-scout, upon discovering food, find its way back to the nest? Second, even if a scout makes it back to the nest, how can it inform the other ants about the food's location? The answers lie in a clever use of pheromones.

To solve the "finding home" problem, each ant leaves a trail of pheromone as it looks for food. In the following example pictures, the pheromone trail left by each wandering ant is shown in transparent red.

When an ant finds food, it can follow its own pheromone trail back to the nest — this is similar to leaving a trail of bread crumbs through the woods to find your way back home. On the way back to the nest, the ant solves the "telling others" problem by laying down more pheromone, creating a trail with an even stronger scent. In the following picture, ant A reaches the food first and then follows its own trail back to the nest, while the other three ants keep wandering.

When other ants run into a trail of pheromone, they give up their own search and start following the trail. In the following picture, ant D discovers the double-strength trail left by ant A and starts to follow it. Ant C encounters the single-strength trail left by D and follows that trail, which will eventually lead to A's trail as well. Ant B eventually discovers its own route to the food source that is completely disconnected from the routed used by A.

If a pheromone trail leads an ant back to the nest with empty jaws, it turns around and follows the trail in the opposite direction. Once an ant reaches the food, it grabs a piece and turns around, following the same trail back to the nest. On the way back, an ant reinforces the trail by laying down more pheromone. In the following picture, ant C joins A's trail but follows it it the wrong direction, reaching the nest empty-jawed. Ant B follows its own trail back to the nest — it never comes in contact with the more direct trail that the other ants are using. A and D carry food back to the nest along the established route.

Once they reach the food, they grab a piece and turn around, following the same trail back to the nest. On the way back, they reinforce the trail by laying down more pheromone.

We have explained how ants find food in the first place, but how do they find the shortest route to the food? One more detail helps to answer this question: ants prefer to follow the trails with the strongest pheromone scent. Shorter routes between the nest and the food are completed faster by each ant that takes them. For example, if ant X is traveling along a 10-meter path to the food repeatedly, and ant Y is traveling along a different 20-meter path repeatedly, ant X will make twice as many trips in an hour as ant Y. Thus, ant X will lay twice as much pheromone on its trail as ant Y. Given the choice, ants will prefer the strongly-scented 10-meter path over the more weakly-scented 20-meter path. The following picture demonstrates this point. When B deposits food at the nest and sets out for another trip, it discovers the strongly-scented path used by the other ants and abandons its own path. At this point, all four ants are using the path discovered by ant A to carry food between the source and the nest.

Over time, many paths between the nest and the food are explored, but the scent on shortest path is reinforced more than the other paths, so it quickly becomes the most popular path, and soon all of the ants walk in file along it.

Simple Rules

The ant approach to route-finding is quite different from the way humans navigate their environment. We would visually study the environment as a whole and try to "plan" the best route ahead of time. Of course, the ant method has advantages over our "high level" approach. For example, the ant method works fine in complete darkness. When it comes to navigating without visual cues, humans are comparatively helpless.

The ant method can be distilled into simple rules followed by each member of the colony:

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

Simplifying Nature

Though the table of "Simple Rules" above is relatively easy to understand, it still contains seven rules, which is not as simple as we might like. Also, there is a bit of sub-optimal behavior lurking: an empty-jawed ant may follow a pheromone trail in the wrong direction, all the way back to the nest. Of course, when an empty-jawed ant reaches the nest, it turns around and eventually makes its way back to the food, but this is still a wasted trip. The problem seems to be the lack of directionality in the trail, and it is certainly difficult to represent direction when all you have to work with are spots of chemical scents.

In the world of networking programs, we are not limited to directionless trail markers. By adding direction to the trail markers, we actually get a much simpler set of rules

Suppose that we augment the ants with two types of pheromone instead of just one, and suppose that we give these pheromones directionality. The first pheromone can be thought of as a "this way home" marker, and we will call it a home-finding pheromone. The second pheromone will be the food-finding pheromone, and it points in the direction of the food source. When ants leave the nest in search of food, they walk randomly, leaving trails of home-finding pheromone as they go. When an ant finds food, it picks up a piece and follows its home-finding trail back to the nest, leaving a trail of food-finding pheromone as it goes. If a wandering ant ever encounters a food-finding trail, it follows that trail to the food source, leaving more home-finding pheromone as it goes.

This simple modification reduces the complexity of our rule set:

Condition:Walk:Mark Ground With:
Not carrying foodon food-direction trail, or randomly otherwisehome-direction pheromone
Carrying foodon home-direction trailfood-direction pheromone


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


(ed note: about twenty-thousand years in the future, the human-supremacist Interim Coalition of Governance has conquered almost the whole Milky Way — all but post-singularity Kardashev-Type-IV Star-God Xeelee. Luru is taking protagonist Pirius to show him the horrible secret of the Olympus information archive on Mars)

      The hatch in the flank of Olympus opened at last. A wormlike tube slid out and nuzzled against the flitter’s hull.
     As they prepared to enter the Archive, Pirius thought of her stories of the lost starships, immense multiple-generation arks that had fled from Port Sol, most of them never to be heard from again. Perhaps they were still out there, arks of immortals, driving on into the dark. He felt an intense stab of curiosity. After twenty thousand years, what would have become of them? He supposed he would never know.
     He focused on the moment. As on his first visit, Luru insisted they both wear their skinsuit helmets.
     Once again Pirius found himself in a maze of tunnels and chambers. It looked much the same as where he had entered before. But in this section, the hovering light globes were sparse, as if it was less used.

     And here was Tek, small, compact, stooped, cringing. Once more he carried a set of data desks, clutched to his chest as if for reassurance. “I knew you would return, Ensign.” But then he made out Luru Parz, and Tek flinched back. “Who are you?”
     “Never mind that. Take us to the breeding chambers, whatever you call them here.”
     Pirius had no idea what she meant.
     He sensed Tek understood. But the specialist said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He huddled over his data desks. He was actually shaking, Pirius saw; whatever he had hoped to achieve by bringing Pirius back here, he hadn’t expected this.
     Luru Parz stepped up to him. “So you’re a clerk, are you?”
     “Yes, I—”
     “Then what are you doing out here, away from all the other clerks?” She snatched the data desks out of his grasp. “What do these contain?”
     “I don’t know,” he said.

     Pirius touched her arm. “Luru Parz, he’s only a clerk.”
     “He’s not even that. Are you, Tek?” She hurled the desks onto the rocky floor, where they smashed. Tek whimpered, covering his face with his hands. Luru Parz laughed. “Oh, don’t worry, Ensign. Those desks contained nothing of any value to anybody—anybody but him, that is. Tek, they were fakes—like you—weren’t they, clerk?”
     Pirius said, “What do you mean, fakes?”
     “He’s a parasite. He mimics the workers here. He runs around with data desks, he sleeps in their dormitory rooms, he eats their food. It’s a common pattern in communities like this (an innocuous inquiline or a dangerous social parasite). The genuine clerks are busy with their own tasks—and here, you aren’t supposed to ask questions anyhow. So Tek gets away with it. He’s just like a genuine clerk. Except that you don’t do anything useful, do you, Tek? And where did you come from, I wonder? Kahra, was it? And what forced you to hide here in Olympus?”
     “You don’t know anything about me.” Luru Parz said,

     “You sniveling creature, I don’t care enough about you to destroy you—but I will, unless you cooperate with me. So what’s it to be? Where are the breeding chambers?
     Tek shot Pirius a glance of pure hatred, apparently at the ensign’s betrayal. But he replied, “You mean the Chambers of Fecundity.”
     Luru Parz laughed again. “That’s better. Now—a clerk wouldn’t know the way to such a place, because she wouldn’t need to know. But you know, don’t you, Tek?”
     She sighed theatrically. “At last. Move. Now.”
     His mouth working, Tek led them along the corridor.
     Pirius said, “I don’t get any of this.”
     “You’ll see.”
     Tek brought them to a door, as anonymous as the rest. When he waved his hand, it slid open silently.

     The corridor beyond was packed with people. Pirius quailed. But Luru Parz grabbed his hand and shoved Tek forward, and the three of them pushed their way in.
     Pirius was taller than almost everybody here, and he looked down on a river of heads, round faces, slim shapeless bodies. As they joined the crush, he was forced to shuffle forward with small steps, through tight-packed bodies that smelled overwhelmingly sour, milky—he wondered if his mask had an option to shut out the smell as well as to filter the air. There were no lanes, no fixed pattern, but the crowd, squeezed between the worn walls of the corridor, seemed to organize itself into streams. But they all wore plain Commission-style robes, and they all seemed to have somewhere to go, an assignment to fulfill.
     He was touched, all the time, as slim bodies pressed against his; he felt the pressure of shoulders against his arms, bellies in the small of his back, fingers stroking his hands, hips, upper legs, his ears, his face mask—he brushed those curious probings away. Around him everybody else was in constant contact. He even saw lips touching, soft kisses exchanged. There was nothing sexual about any of this, not even the kissing.
     The constant shuffling went on, off into the distance, as far as Pirius could see. Light globes floated over the rustling mass. And nobody spoke. Oddly it took him some moments to notice that. But, though not a word was exchanged, there was a constant sibilant sigh all around him. It was the sound of breathing, he realized, the breathing and the rustling clothes of thousands of people—thousands in this one corridor alone, burrowed under the mountain.
     And they were all alike—all with the same pale, oval faces, the same wispy gray eyes. That was the strangest thing of all. Was it possible that they were all somehow related? It was a disgusting thought, a base, animal notion.

     He spoke to Luru Parz. “I had no idea it was like this. Our visit before—”
     “You were only shown the outer layers.” They were both whispering. “Where the Interface Specialists work: the acceptable face of the Archive. Everybody—I mean, every decision-maker in the Coalition—knows the truth of this place, that this is what lies beneath. But the smooth-browed interfacers allow them to ignore that fact, perhaps even to believe it doesn’t exist at all.” (the Coalition is human-supremacist. They want to hide the fact of how non-human the Archive is, under Coalition rules it should be destroyed but it is so darn useful!)
     “How many people are there here, under this mountain?”
     “Nobody knows—they certainly don’t. But they’ve been here for twenty thousand years, remember, from not long after the time of Hama Druz himself, burrowing away. This is our greatest mountain. I doubt they’ve exhausted it yet.”
     If every corridor across Olympus was like this, then surely the Archive must house billions. He tried to imagine the vast machinery that must be required to keep them alive and functioning: continents covered by nano-food machines, rivers and lakes of sewage to be processed. But what was the purpose of the effort, all these teeming lives?

     They walked on. As they pushed on deeper into the mountain, it seemed to Pirius that the character of the crowd was slowly changing. It was hard to be sure—there were so many faces, all so similar, it was hard to focus on any—but the people pressing around him looked smaller, smoother-faced, younger than those he had first encountered. But they seemed more agitated, too. They recoiled from him, their blank, pretty faces tense with a baffled suspicion.
     Pirius said, “We are disturbing them.”
     “Of course we are,” Luru Parz muttered. “We’re outsiders. We’re like an infection, penetrating a body. The Archive is reacting to us. It’s going to get worse.” (anyone entering a beehive, ant-hill, or termite-mound will be greeted by a similar reaction. Until the bee, ant, or termite warriors arrive to kill you)
     They came to a junction of corridors. Crowds poured into the center, which was filled with a single teeming, heaving mass of bodies. Somehow individuals found their way through the crush, for as many people poured out of the junction and into the surrounding corridors as entered it. Above their heads a broad tunnel cut straight up. Its wall looked smooth save for metal rungs pushed into its surface. Perhaps it was a ventilation shaft, Pirius thought.
     As they stood there, alarm spread quickly. The mob in the plaza became more disorderly, a tense, heaving mass from which scared glances were cast at Pirius and the others.
     Pirius said, “We can’t get through this.”
     “We have to,” Luru Parz said. She kept hold of Tek’s arm, ensuring he couldn’t get away. Then she put her shoulders down and shoved her way into the mass of the crowd.
     Pirius followed, flinching from every soft contact. People quailed away from him, but there always seemed to be more, and every step was a battle.
     “But how is the alarm spreading? I haven’t heard any of them speak a single word, not since we came through that first door.”
     “Ah, but they don’t need words,” she said. “They’ve long gone beyond that. Perhaps all that kissing has something to do with it. Or maybe it’s something in the air. That’s why you’re wearing that face mask, Pirius!”
     Communication through scent or taste? “It doesn’t sound human.”
     “Whatever. Just keep your mask sealed—look up.”

     They had reached the center of the plaza now, and were directly underneath the ventilation duct. Things moved over the lower walls. These creatures had skinny, spindly bodies and enormously long limbs. Their hands and feet were huge, and they clung to the vertical walls as if they were fitted with sucker pads. They looked like spiders, Pirius thought. But they each had just four limbs, two arms and two legs, and they wore orange jackets and belts stuffed with tools. They were working on systems behind opened panels in the walls. One of them turned to look down at Pirius. Despite the uncertain light, the spider-thing’s face was distinct: round, pale, with dark hair and smoky gray eyes, a human face.
     They came at last to another door. Tek, battered by the crush of the crowd, cowered nervously.
     “Twenty thousand years is a long time,” Luru Parz said to Pirius. “The human species has only been around a few multiples of that. It is time enough.”
     Pirius asked, “Time enough for what?”
     For answer, Luru opened the door.

     The chamber was huge. The light from the few floating globes was low, and Pirius’s view was impressionistic, of a domed roof, a vast floor inset with pools of some milky fluid through which languid creatures swam. Like everywhere else in the complex, the room was crowded. There must have been several thousand people visible in that one glance. Pirius marveled to think that all of this was concealed under the immense basaltic pile of Mons Olympus.
     He took a step into the room. The air was thick with steam, which his semisentient mask battled to keep from condensing on his faceplate.
     Luru Parz placed a hand on his arm. “Don’t crack your visor in here, of all places,” she said. “Don’t.”
     The people here were as small, rounded, uniform as they were everywhere else. As he walked forward they scuttled out of his way, but the sea of people closed behind him, and they hurried back and forth on their tasks. They all seemed to be women. They carried bits of food, jugs of water, clothes, what looked like medical equipment. It was like a vast, low-technology hospital, he thought.
     He paused by one of the pools. It was no more than waist deep, and filled with a milky, thick fluid that rippled with low-gravity languor. Women floated in this stuff, barely moving. They were naked, and droplets of the milky stuff clung to their smooth skin.
     And they were pregnant, mountainously so.
     But they were all ages, from very young women whose thin limbs and small frames looked barely able to support the weight of their bellies, to much older women whose faces bore more wrinkles than Luru Parz’s. Attendants, female, moved between the women, wading in the waist-deep milk. They stroked the faces and limbs of the pregnant ones, and caressed their bellies.
     “The breeders,” Luru Parz said grimly. “It’s always like this at the heart of the warrens. Breeding chambers are the most sacred places in the complex, the most precious to the drones. See how alarmed they are. But they won’t harm us.”

     Pirius was struggling to make sense of this. “And this is where the Archive is controlled from?”
     “No,” she said, sounding exasperated. “Do you still not see, Ensign? Nobody controls the Archive. These mothers are its most important single element, I suppose. But even they, perpetually pregnant, don’t control anything, not even their own lives…”
     At last Pirius understood what this was; he had been trained to recognize such things.
     The Archive was not a human society at all. It was a Coalescence. It was a hive.

     In the beginning it really had been just an Archive, a project to store the records of the Coalition’s great works: nothing more sinister than that.
     But its tunnels had quickly spread into the welcoming bulk of Olympus. Very soon, there was nobody left with a firm grasp of the Archive’s overall geography. And, with sections of the Archive soon hundreds of kilometers from each other—several days’ transit through these cramped corridors—it was impossible for anybody to exert proper central control.
     It was soon obvious, too, that that didn’t matter. People were here to serve the Archive—to record information, to classify, analyze, store, preserve it; that was all. You might not know what everybody was doing across the unmapped expanse of the library, but you always knew what the next guy was doing, and that was usually enough. Somehow things got done, even if nobody was sure how.

     Then times of trouble came to Sol system.

     For long periods, the Archive was left isolated. The corridors of Olympus were always crowded. No matter how fast new tunnels were dug, no matter how the great nano-food banks were extended, the population seemed to grow faster. And people were stuck in here, of course; if any of the librarians and clerks stepped out on Mars’s surface unprotected, they would be dead in seconds.
     There was a period of complicated politics, as factions of librarians fought each other over the basic resources that kept them alive. Strange bureaucratic kingdoms emerged at the heart of Olympus, like the ancient water empires of Earth’s Middle East, grabbing a monopoly on vital substances in order to wield power. But none of these “air empires” proved very enduring.
     At last another social solution was found. Nobody planned it: it simply emerged. But once it was established, it proved remarkably stable. In the end, it was all a question of blood ties.

     Despite the Coalition’s best efforts to establish birthing tanks, age-group cadres, and the rest of the homogenizing social apparatus it deployed elsewhere across the Galaxy, in the dark heart of Olympus, out of sight, families had always prospered. But now some of these clerkish matriarchs shifted their loyalties. The matriarchs began to produce more children of their own. They exerted pressure on their daughters not to have kids themselves but to stay at home, and help their mothers produce more brothers and sisters. It made sense, on a social level. These close ties kept the families united, and prevented ruinous squabbles over limited resources.

     And then the genes cut in. Organisms were after all only vehicles that genes used to ride to the next generation. If you remained childless yourself, the only way you could pass on your genes was indirectly, through the fraction you shared with your siblings. So, in these cramped, stifling conditions, as the daughters of librarians gave up their own chances to have babies in order to support more sisters from the loins of their fecund mothers, the genes were satisfied.
     It worked. The resource wars stopped. A handful of families grew spectacularly fast, spreading and merging, until at last the Archive was dominated by a single broad gene pool. Just five thousand years after the Olympus ground had first been broken, almost everybody in the Archive looked remarkably similar.
     The population swelled, united and organized by the peculiar new genetic politics. And there was plenty of time for adaptation.

     The peculiar society that had developed in the Archive was an ancient and stable form. Nobody was in control. People didn’t follow orders, but responded to what others did around them. This was local interaction, as the social analysts called it, reinforced by positive feedback, people reacting to their neighbors and evoking reactions in turn (in other words: swarm intelligence). And that was enough for things to get done. Food and other resources flowed back and forth through the warren of tunnels, the vital systems like air circulation were maintained, and even the nominal purpose of the Archive, the storage of data, was fulfilled—all without central direction (and infinitely scale-able). It was as if the Archive was a single composite organism with billions of faces.
     And that organism was bound together by genetic ties, the ties of family.

     “Beyond Sol system, other Coalescences have been discovered,” Luru Parz said. “Relics of the earlier Expansions. But all warrens are essentially the same. I think it’s a flaw in our mental processing. Anywhere the living is marginal, where people are crowded in on each other, and it pays to stay home with your mother rather than strike out on your own—out pops the eusocial solution, over and over. I sometimes wonder where the first Coalescence emerged: perhaps even before spaceflight, on Earth itself.
     “Of course the hives are terribly non-Doctrinal (remember the Coalition is utterly human-supremacist, that is The Doctrine). Are these women human, as you are? No. They have evolved to serve a purpose for the Coalescence. And there are many specialists. You’ve seen them yourself: the long-legged mechanic types, the runners, the archivists with their deep, roomy brains. Specialists, you see, adapted to serve particular purposes, the better to serve the community as a whole—but all diverging from the human norm. Officially, everywhere they are found, the Coalition cleans out Coalescences—”
     “But not here,” Pirius said. “They left this one to develop, here, on Earth’s sister planet. On Mars.” And they gave it mankind’s treasure, he thought, the Archive of its past.
     He probed at his feelings. He found no anger. He felt only numb. Perhaps he had experienced too much, seen too much. But this was even worse than finding a nest of Silver Ghosts in Sol system. To allow humans to diverge like this, here at the very heart of Sol system—it went against the basics of Hama Druz’s teachings.
     Luru seemed to sense his discomfort. “Nobody meant it to be like this, Ensign. And when it did happen it was simply too useful to discard, no matter what the Druz Doctrines had to say. In the end, the powerful folk who run the Coalition are pragmatists. Like you.”
     It was a relief to Pirius when a corpulent Virtual of Minister Gramm gathered in the air (a holographic image), shadowed by a nervous, barefoot Nilis. He and Luru Parz had been tracked down.

     Nilis grasped the situation much more quickly than Pirius. He didn’t have to fake his anger and repugnance.

     But Gramm was lordly, defiant. “So now you know about Olympus. Do you think I will apologize for it to the likes of you?
     “Listen to me. This Archive is essential to the continuance of the great projects of the Coalition. We humans are poor at the archival of information, you know. Paper records rot in a few thousand years at most. Digitally archived data survives better, so long as it is regularly transferred from store to store. But even such data stores are subject to slow corruption, for instance, from radiation. The half-life of our data is only ten thousand years. But all our efforts are dwarfed by what is achieved in the natural world. DNA far outdoes tablets of clay or stone. Some of our genes are a billion years old—the deep ancient ones, shared across the great domains of life—and over the generations genetic information has been copied more than twenty billion times, with an error rate of less than one in a trillion.”
     He sighed. “We are fighting a war on scales of space and time that defy our humanity. We need to remember better by an order of magnitude if we are to sustain ourselves as a galactic power. And so we have this place. This Archive is already ancient. Its generations of clerk-drones live for nothing but to copy bits of data, meaningless to them, from one store to another. Perhaps the hive will one day be able to emulate the copying fidelity of the genes—who knows? It’s certainly a goal that no other human social form could possibly deliver. Commissary, like it or not, hives are good libraries!”

     Nilis shouted, “And for that grandiose goal you will tolerate this deviance in the heart of Sol system? Your hypocrisy is galling!”

From EXULTANT by Stephen Baxter (2004)

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 (futuristic thumb drives). 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 (thumb drive) in existence.

It worked. More or less.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And some were just. Some weren't.

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

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

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

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

—and then it collapsed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From SPACE SKIMMER by David Gerrold (1972)
Swarm Problems

The good thing is that self-organizing swarm intelligence allows a galactic empire of any size. It is infinitely scaleable.

The bad news is that since is impossible to to have an administrator looking at the big picture, swarm intelligence is vulnerable to a critical flaw. I give you the so called "Ant Mill" aka "Ant Death Spiral."

Offhand, I only see two solutions:

  • Allow infinite scaleability by accepting the price that some galactic units are going to die in ant mills

  • Reduce scaleability by adding some sort of intelligent agents who can see the big picture and break up ant mills


An ant mill is an observed phenomenon in which a group of army ants, which are blind, are separated from the main foraging party, lose the pheromone track and begin to follow one another, forming a continuously rotating circle. The ants will eventually die of exhaustion.

It has been reproduced in laboratories and has been produced in ant colony simulations. The phenomenon is a side effect of the self-organizing structure of ant colonies. Each ant follows the ant in front of it, which works until something goes wrong, and an ant mill forms.

An ant mill was first described by William Beebe in 1921 who observed a mill 1200 ft (~370 m) in circumference. It took each ant 2.5 hours to make one revolution. Similar phenomena have been noted in processionary caterpillars and fish.

From the Wikipedia entry for ANT MILL

A while back this video was making the rounds:

It’s a self-reinforcing circular mill composed of—now here’s a change of pace! – army ants. I thought I’d reintroduce it in honor of this week’s festivities.

The species is Labidus praedator, a swarm-raiding army ant from Central and South America, and these circular mills are a common byproduct of army ant navigation. Labidus is completely blind, so ants in this genus get about by following the insect in front and laying down a chemical trail. The system works well enough in a straight line.

The trouble begins when the ants loop around and intersect their own path. The poor insects end up on a mobius strip of their own making, circling around and around until some either chance to leave the mill and the circle is broken, or they run of steam and perish. Thus, the Ant Death Spiral. The phenomenon was first noted by pioneering army ant biologist Schneirla, who published a paper on it in 1944 under the less sensational term “circular milling”. Schneirla’s detailed analysis is worth a read, not just for the natural history and a surprising amount of physics, but for a remarkable concluding sentence in which he asserts that people are clearly better than ants.*

In any case, youtube user l314kimo recently created a clever computer simulation showing how the mill arises. A simple set of behavioral rules given to digital ants is enough to recreate the phenomenon:

I used to see ant spirals all the time when I lived in Paraguay, and not just in the field. Labidus has no qualms about raiding through rural houses, and I’d come home to find circles of ants whirling about on top of my plates in the kitchen, or sometimes an intimate ring of 5-6 ants on a coffee mug. Unnaturally round objects, mostly.

You’d think spiral-induced mortality would be selected against, that ants would have evolved a counter-measure to such obviously maladaptive behavior. But army ant colonies are huge, their daily intake immense, their fecundity explosive. A few hundred spinning workers lost around the margins may not make all that much difference.

*”It may be observed that while army ants are constitutionally susceptible to the predominance of circular-column behavior and can be freed from it only by the incidental fact of environmental variation, man is by no means susceptible in the same sense, with his cortical basis for versatile corrective patterns which under encouragement may reduce milling to the minor role of an occasional subway rush.”

Empires That Ain't


      A few incidents recorded during the Long Night show old Imperial colonies trying to retain or regain lost knowledge ("A Tragedy of Errors"). It was hunger for knowledge more than for goods that stimulated civilization's revival. Leading planets in the reconstruction period like Nuevoamerica and Kraken had never been part of the Empire. They explored far beyond its old borders ("The Night Face" and "The Sharing of Flesh"). Eventually, an entirely new approach to interstellar relations evolved. This was the Commonalty, a galactic service organization that provided quasi-governmental services without itself actually being a government ("Starfog"). Perhaps the Commonalty will avoid some of the weaknesses inherent in empires but eventually it is sure to develop special problems of its own. Meanwhile, a new and brilliant cycle of history has begun.

     What does the pageant of Technic civilization just summarized prove? (If indeed history can be said to prove anything.) First, its rise and fall demonstrates that governments operate under the social equivalent of Darwinian pressure: they must function within their environments or be replaced. Any kind of system that provides its citizens with an acceptable balance of opportunity and security is good. Pragmatic results count for more than political dogma. Initially the League emphasized opportunity and the Commonwealth security but finally neither could give either and so they perished. The best justification for the early Empire was that it spread a military umbrella over 100,000 unique cultural experiments. Once its ability to stimulate and defend its subjects faltered, its days were numbered.

     Furthermore, these extant accounts of Technic civilization show history as a record of interlocking ironies arising from individual choices. For instance, if Falkayn had not aided Merseia, it would not have survived to menace the Empire. Yet if he had not also founded Avalon and his descendants not resisted Imperial conquest, no free Avalonian would have been available to save the Empire from a subtle Merseian plot in The Day of Their Return. If Flandry had treated his first two mistresses with greater consideration, he would not have lost his last chance for happiness. If Kathryn had not rebuffed Flandry's advances, neither the Empire nor her own descendants would have long survived. Each irresistible historic trend is actually the net product of separate acts which had not necessarily appeared significant at the time they occurred. Each key event "'is the flower on a plant whose seed went into the ground long before ... and whose roots reach widely, and will send up fresh growths,'" (A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows).

     Finally, this temporal drama reminds us that everything in the universe is mortal. All things, institutions as well as persons, are born only to die. The lifespan of a galaxy or an empire is as limited as that of a man. The only proper response, in the face of entropy's inevitable triumph is to struggle as well and bravely as possible. As Flandry said in Hunters of the Sky Cave, "'I don't want to die so fast I can't feel it. I want to see death coming, and make the stupid thing fight for every centimeter of me.'" Existence is a pattern with no universally acknowledged goal or purpose other than to be itself, a doomed but lovely candle in the darkness.

From THE PRICE OF BUYING TIME by Sandra Miesel (1979)

(ed note: Warning: spoilers for Starfog.

the Commonalty is contacted by an odd starship with a human crew. They are from the lost colony of Kirkasant. Over the thousands of years they managed to rise from medieval tech to starship tech. The Makt is their first FTL starship, but unfortunately it has gotten lost, and cannot find its way home. Laure, an agent of the Commonalty travels in his advanced starship along with the Makt to see what the problem is. Turns out Kirkasant is inside something bizarre, an unheard-of combination of globular cluster and titanic interstellar nebuala which is almost totally opaque. Laure can't find their home either.)

      “Suppose. Did you guess a quarter million suns in the cluster? Not all are like ours. Not even a majority. On the other coin side, with visibility as low as it is, space must be searched back and forth, light-year by light-year. We of Makt could die of eld before a single vessel chanced on Kirkasant.”
     “I’m afraid that’s true.”
     “Yet an adequate number of ships, dividing the task, could find our home in a year or two.”
     “That would be unattainably expensive, Graydal.”
     He thought he sensed her stiffening. “I’ve come on this before,” she said coldly, withdrawing from his touch. “In your Commonalty they count the cost and the profit first. Honor, adventure, simple charity must run a poor second.”
     “Be reasonable,” he said. “Cost represents labor, skill, and resources. The gigantic fleet that would go looking for Kirkasant must be diverted from other jobs. Other people would suffer need as a result. Some might suffer sharply.”
     “Do you mean a civilization as big, as productive as yours could not spare that much effort for a while without risking disaster?”
     She’s quick on the uptake, Laure thought. Knowing what machine technology can do on her single impoverished world, she can well guess what it’s capable of with millions of planets to draw on. But how can I make her realize that matters aren’t that simple?
     “Please, Graydal,” he said. “Won’t you believe I’m working for you? I’ve come this far, and I’ll go as much farther as need be, if something doesn’t kill us.”
     He heard her gulp. “Yes. I offer apology. You are different.”
     “Not really. I’m a typical Commonalty member. Later, maybe, I can show you how our civilization works, and what an odd problem in political economy we’ve got if Kirkasant is to be rediscovered. But first we have to establish that locating it is physically possible. We have to make long-term observations from here, and then enter those mists, and—One trouble at a time, I beg you!”

     When he had heard Laure out, though, he scowled, tugged his beard, and said without trying to hide distress: “Thus we have no chance of finding Kirkasant by ourselves.”
     “Evidently not,” Laure said. “I’d hoped that one of my modern locator systems would work in this cluster. If so, we could have zigzagged rapidly between the stars, mapping them, and had a fair likelihood of finding the group you know within months. But as matters stand, we can’t establish an accurate enough grid, and we have nothing to tie any such grid to. Once a given star disappears in the fog, we can’t find it again. Not even by straight-line backtracking, because we don’t have the navigational feedback to keep on a truly straight line.”
     “Lost.” Demring stared down at his hands, clenched on the desk before him. When he looked up again, the bronze face was rigid with pain. “I was afraid of this,” he said. “It is why I was reluctant to come back at all. I feared the effect of disappointment on my crew. By now you must know one major respect in which we differ from you. To us, home, kinfolk, ancestral graves are not mere pleasures. They are an important part of our identities. We are prepared to explore and colonize, but not to be totally cut off.” He straightened in his seat and turned the confession into a strategic datum by finishing dry-voiced: “Therefore, the sooner we leave this degree of familiarity behind us and accept with physical renunciation the truth of what has happened to us—the sooner we get out of this cluster—the better for us.”
     “No,” Laure said. “I’ve given a lot of thought to your situation. There are ways to navigate here.”
     Demring did not show surprise. He, too, must have dwelt on contingencies and possibilities. Laure sketched them nevertheless:
     “Starting from outside the cluster, we can establish a grid of artificial beacons. I’d guess fifty thousand, in orbit around selected stars, would do. If each has its distinctive identifying signal, a spaceship can locate herself and lay a course. I can imagine several ways to make them. You want them to emit something that isn’t swamped by natural noise. Hyperdrive drones, shuttling automatically back and forth, would be detectable in a light-year’s radius. Coherent radio broadcasters on the right bands should be detectable at the same distance or better. Since the stars hereabouts are only light-weeks or light-months apart, an electromagnetic network wouldn’t take long to complete its linkups. No doubt a real engineer, turned loose on the problem, would find better answers than these.”
     “I know,” Demring said. “We on Makt have discussed the matter and reached similar conclusions. The basic obstacle is the work involved, first in producing that number of beacons, then—more significantly—in planting them. Many man-years, much shipping, must go to that task, if it is to be accomplished in a reasonable time.”
     “I like to think,” said Demring, “that the clans of Hobrok would not haggle over who was to pay the cost. But I have talked with men on Serieve. I have taken heed of what Graydal does and does not relay of her conversations with you. Yours is a mercantile civilization.”
     “Not exactly,” Laure said. “I’ve tried to explain—”
     “Don’t bother. We shall have the rest of our lives to learn about your Commonalty. Shall we turn about, now, and end this expedition?”
     Laure winced at the scorn but shook his head. “No, best we continue. We can make extraordinary findings here. Things that’ll attract scientists. And with a lot of ships buzzing around—”
     Demring’s smile had no humor. “Spare me, Ranger. There will never be that many scientists come avisiting. And they will never plant beacons throughout the cluster. Why should they? The chance of one of their vessels stumbling on Kirkasant is negligible. They will be after unusual stars and planets, information on magnetic fields and plasmas and whatever else is readily studied. Not even the anthropologists will have any strong impetus to search out our world. They have many others to work on, equally strange to them, far more accessible.”
     “I have my own obligations,” Laure said. “It was a long trip here. Having made it, I should recoup some of the cost to my organization by gathering as much data as I can before turning home.”

     They were a warrior folk. They would not settle down to be pitied; they would forge something powerful for themselves in their exile. But he was not helping them forget their uprootedness.
     Thus he almost gave her his true reason. He halted in time and, instead, explained in more detail what he had told Captain Demring. His ship represented a considerable investment, to be amortized over her service life. Likewise, with his training, did he. The time he had spent coming hither was, therefore, equivalent to a large sum of money. And to date, he had nothing to show for that expense except confirmation of a fairly obvious guess about the nature of Kirkasant’s surroundings.
     He had broad discretion—while he was in service. But he could be discharged. He would be, if his career, taken as a whole, didn’t seem to be returning a profit. In this particular case, the profit would consist of detailed information about a unique environment. You could prorate that in such terms as: scientific knowledge, with its potentialities for technological progress; space-faring experience; public relations—
     Graydal regarded him in a kind of horror. “You cannot mean . . . we go on . . . merely to further your private ends,” she whispered. Interference gibed at them both.
     “No!” Laure protested. “Look, only look, I want to help you. But you, too, have to justify yourselves economically. You’re the reason I came so far in the first place. If you’re to work with the Commonalty, and it’s to help you make a fresh start, you have to show that that’s worth the Commonalty’s while. Here’s where we start proving it. By going on. Eventually, by bringing them in a bookful of knowledge they didn’t have before.”
     Her gaze upon him calmed but remained aloof. “Do you think that is right?”
     “It’s the way things are, anyhow,” he said. “Sometimes I wonder if my attempts to explain my people to you haven’t glided right off your brain.”
     “You have made it clear that they think of nothing but their own good,” she said thinly.
     “If so, I’ve failed to make anything clear.” Laure slumped in his chair web. Some days hit a man with one club after the next. He forced himself to sit erect again and say:
     “We have a different ideal from you. Or no, that’s not correct. We have the same set of ideals. The emphases are different. You believe the individual ought to be free and ought to help his fellowman. We do, too. But you make the service basic, you give it priority. We have the opposite way. You give a man, or a woman, duties to the clan and the country from birth. But you protect his individuality by frowning on slavishness and on anyone who doesn’t keep a strictly private side to his life. We give a person freedom, within a loose framework of common-sense prohibitions. And then we protect his social aspect by frowning on greed, selfishness, callousness.”
     “I know,” she said. “You have—”
     “But maybe you haven’t thought how we must do it that way,” he pleaded. “Civilization’s gotten too big out there for anything but freedom to work. The Commonalty isn’t a government. How would you govern ten million planets? It’s a private, voluntary, mutual-benefit society, open to anyone anywhere who meets the modest standards. It maintains certain services for its members, like my own space rescue work. The services are widespread and efficient enough that local planetary governments also like to hire them. But I don’t speak for my civilization. Nobody does. You’ve made a friend of me. But how do you make friends with ten million times a billion individuals?”
     “You’ve told me before,” she said.
     And it didn’t register. Not really. Too new an idea for you, I suppose, Laure thought. He ignored her remark and went on:
     “In the same way, we can’t have a planned interstellar economy. Planning breaks down under the sheer mass of detail when it’s attempted for a single continent. History is full of cases. So we rely on the market, which operates as automatically as gravitation. Also as efficiently, as impersonally, and sometimes as ruthlessly—but we didn’t make this universe. We only live in it.”
     He reached out his hands, as if to touch her through the distance and the distortion. “Can’t you see? I’m not able to help your plight. Nobody is. No individual quadrillionaire, no foundation, no government, no consortium could pay the cost of finding your home for you. It’s not a matter of lacking charity. It’s a matter of lacking resources for that magnitude of effort. The resources are divided among too many people, each of whom has his own obligations to meet first.
     “Certainly, if each would contribute a pittance, you could buy your fleet. But the tax mechanism for collecting that pittance doesn’t exist and can’t be made to exist. As for free-will donations—how do we get your message across to an entire civilization, that big, that diverse, that busy with its own affairs?—which include cases of need far more urgent than yours.
     “Graydal, we’re not greedy where I come from. We’re helpless.”

     “You wondered why I insisted on exploring the cluster center, and in such detail. Probably I ought to have explained myself from the beginning. But I was afraid of raising false hopes. I’d no guarantee that things would turn out to be the way I’d guessed. Failure, I thought, would be too horrible for you, if you knew what success would mean. But I was working on your behalf, nothing else.
     “You see, because my civilization is founded on individualism, it makes property rights quite basic. In particular, if there aren’t any inhabitants or something like that, discoverers can claim ownership within extremely broad limits.
     “Well, we . . . you . . . our expedition has met the requirements of discovery as far as those planets are concerned. We’ve been there, we’ve proven what they’re like, we’ve located them as well as might be without beacons—”
     He saw how she struggled not to be too sanguine. “That isn’t a true location,” she said. “I can’t imagine how we will ever lead anybody back to precisely those stars.”
     “Nor can I,” he said. “And it doesn’t matter. Because, well, we took an adequate sample. We can be sure now that practically every star in the cluster heart has planets that are made of heavy elements. So it isn’t necessary, for their exploitation, to go to any particular system. In addition, we’ve learned about hazards and so forth, gotten information that’ll be essential to other people. And therefore”—he chuckled—“I guess we can’t file a claim on your entire Cloud Universe. But any court will award you . . . us . . . a fair share. Not specific planets, since they can’t be found right away. Instead, a share of everything. Your crew will draw royalties on the richest mines in the galaxy. On millions of them.”
     She responded with thoughtfulness rather than enthusiasm. “Indeed? We did wonder, on Makt, if you might not be hoping to find abundant metals. But we decided that couldn’t be. For why would anyone come here for them? Can they not be had more easily, closer to home?”
     Slightly dashed, he said, “No. Especially when most worlds in this frontier are comparatively metal-poor. They do have some veins of ore, yes. And the colonists can extract anything from the oceans, as on Serieve. But there’s a natural limit to such a process. In time, carried out on the scale that’d be required when population has grown . . . it’s be releasing so much heat that planetary temperature would be affected.”
     “That sounds farfetched.”
     “No. A simple calculation will prove it. According to historical records, Earth herself ran into the problem, and not terribly long after the industrial era began. However, quite aside from remote prospects, people will want to mine these cluster worlds immediately. True, it’s a long haul, and operations will have to be totally automated. But the heavy elements that are rare elsewhere are so abundant here as to more than make up for those extra costs.” He smiled. “I’m afraid you can’t escape your fate. You’re going to be . . . not wealthy. To call you ‘wealthy’ would be like calling a supernova ‘luminous.’ You’ll command more resources than many whole civilizations have done.”
     Her look upon him remained grave. “You did this for us? You should not have. What use would riches be to us if we lost you?”
     He remembered that he couldn’t have expected her to carol about this. In her culture, money was not unwelcome, but neither was it an important goal. So what she had just said meant less than if a girl of the Commonalty had spoken. Nevertheless, joy kindled in him. She sensed that, laid her hand across his, and murmured, “But your thought was noble.”
     He couldn’t restrain himself any longer. He laughed aloud. “Noble?” he cried. “I’d call it clever. Fiendishly clever. Don’t you see? I’ve given you Kirkasant back!”
     She gasped.
     He jumped up and paced exuberant before her. “You could wait a few years till your cash reserves grow astronomical and buy as big a fleet as you want to search the cluster. But it isn’t needful. When word gets out, the miners will come swarming. They’ll plant beacons, they’ll have to. The grid will be functioning within one year, I’ll bet. As soon as you can navigate, identify where you are and where you’ve been, you can’t help finding your home—in weeks!”

From STARFOG by Poul Anderson (1967)

Civilization Clusters


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From AFTER DOOMSDAY by Poul Anderson (1962)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(ed note: full paper available here)


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

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

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