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.
If you are actually trying to make a full fledged interstellar empire, the maximum speed of starships and the maximum speed of communications limits the maximum size of the empire. If it takes a year for news of a rebellion on the outer marches of the empire to reach the capital (or sector capital) and another year for a fleet to travel back, this means the rebels will have two years to win the rebellion and fortify in preparation for the arrival of the imperial starfleet.
As a point of terminology, the marches or boondocks of a galactic empire are generally called the "rim" or the "fringe."
The defining factor of whether a given planet was part of an empire or not is whether the time delay between the start of the rebellion and the arrival of the imperial punishment fleet is longer than the time required for the rebellious planet to manufacture enough defenses to take care of the punishment fleet.
In other words: if you cannot hold on to the planet, it ain't yours.
An auxiliary factor is the expected size of the punishment fleet. This will depend upon many other factors. A worthless rock-pile might only rate one warship, while The Planet Of Immortality Drugs could get a sky full of ships. An average planet in the middle of the empire could rate a sizable fleet since it could be a nucleus of rebellion for other planets, while the same planet out on the galactic marches of the empire might not get anything.
The expected size of the punishment fleet defines how many defenses need to be manufactured. And the amount of defenses is a big factor in determining whether it is possible to manufacture all of them before the fleet shows up.
Note the off-hand reference to "sector capitals". If your communications/warship speed dictate that your empire can be no more than X parsecs wide with central control in the capital then you can obviously make your empire larger if you delegate control to a series of sub-capitals at some distance. Of course this runs the risk of an ambitious sector governor getting ideas about declaring independence.
There are the various types of government. These can be the governments of continents on a planet, goverments of an entire united planet, or governments of groups of planets. Go to The Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy and read the entries "NEOFEUDALISM" and "THEOCRATIC NEOMEDIEVALISTS".
Needless to say, there is no lack of ambitious individuals who have a burning desire to be the absolute ruler of a nation or empire. This is why the mechanism of succession must be rigidly defined. If for any reason the mechanism does not function properly when a ruler is removed, lots of people die.
For example, if in a monarchy the crown passes to the former king's eldest son, a king who has no son will start an instant civil war when he dies. Anybody who has a driving ambition to be king and some pathetic scrap of a claim to the throne will gather an army and attack all the other claimants. A famous example is the War of the Roses. Over thirty years of battles because there was just enough vagueness over who should succeed King Richard II.
From the Star Hero role playing game by James Cambias, published by Hero Games. A valuable sourcebook for anybody designing a science fiction universe. From stellar dynamics to types of interstellar governments, this book belongs on the shelf of serious SF authors. This is also a great book to quickly get an author up to speed on the science behind science fiction.
- Who Rules?
- Nobody (anarchy)
- Individual Rule
- Dictator (Emperor, Warlord): rule by force
- Monarch (Chiefs, Barons, Princes, Kings, Emperors): rule by virtue of heredity. May have to delegate power to appointed bureaucracy, elected parliament, or feudal hereditary nobles.
- President (Chancellor, Premier, Governor): rule by merit, appointment, or election.
- Computerized Government
- Small Groups
- Junta: rule by force
- Oligarchy (Aristocracy): rule by virtue of heredity.
- Council (Senate): rule by merit, appointment, or election.
- Large Groups
- Conquering Army: rule by force. Unstable, generally quickly becomes a Junta or Dictator. If situation lasts for a generation it generally becomes Feudal.
- Feudal: rule by virtue of heredity. A large hereditary group may become a Ruling Caste.
- Legislature (Congress, Assembly): rule by merit, appointment, or election.
- Athenian Democracy: everybody rules by voting on all issues.
- How Is The Ruler Chosen?
- No Ruler (anarchy)
- Appointment: the key is who gets to do the appointing. A colony or conquered planet has ruler appointed by controlling planet. Sometimes officials get to appoint their replacements. Sometimes one branch of government appoints the members of another branch.
- Merit. Depends upon what is the measure of merit. Competency = Bureaucracy. Religious Faith = Theocracy. Scientific Knowledge = Technocracy. Wealth = Plutocracy. Sheer Age = Gerontocracy.
- Total Participation (Athenian Democracy)
- Random Selection (similar to jury duty)
- Omens or Oracles (in religious or superstitious societies)
- Computerized Government
From the Traveller role playing game:
- No government structure. In many cases, family bonds predominate.
- Company/Corporation. Government by a company managerial elite; citizens are company employees.
- Participating Democracy. Government by advice and consent of the citizen.
- Self-Perpetuating Oligarchy. Government by a restricted minority, with little or no input from the masses.
- Representative Democracy. Government by elected representatives.
- Feudal Technocracy. Government by specific individuals for those who agree to be ruled. Relationships are based on the performance of technical activities which are mutually beneficial.
- Captive Government. Government by a leadership answerable to an outside group; a colony or conquered area.
- Balkanization. No central ruling authority exists; rival governments compete for control.
- Civil Service Bureaucracy. Government by agencies employing individuals selected for their expertise.
- Impersonal Bureaucracy. Government by agencies which are insulated from the governed.
- Charismatic Dictator. Government by a single leader enjoying the confidence of the citizens.
- Non-Charismatic Leader. A previous charismatic dictator has been replaced by a leader through normal channels.
- Charismatic Oligarchy. Government by a select group, organization, or class enjoying the overwhelming confidence of the citizenry.
- Religious Dictatorship. Government by a religious organization without regard to the needs of the citizenry.
From THE SWORD AND THE STARS wargame by SPI.
- 10 TRIBALISTIC SERIES
- 11 Fraternalism
- 12 Sororalism
- 13 Ancestralism
- 20 UNIQUE SERIES
- 30 ABSOLUTIST SERIES
- 31 Totalitarianism
- 32 Monarchism
- 33 Feudalism
- 34 Despotism
- 40 REPUBLICAN SERIES
- 41 Democracy
- 42 Parliamentary
- 43 Republicanism
- 50 THEOCRATIC SERIES
- 60 COLLECTIVIST SERIES
From Space Opera role playing game by FGU.
- Multi-government (Balkanization)
- Subjugated (conquered by another government)
- Oligarchy (aristocracy or dictatorship)
- Religious Dictatorship
- Corporate State
- Athenian Democracy (no representatives, everybody votes)
- Republican Democracy (representatives)
- Confederacy (not a government, a group of governments)
- Personal Dictatorship
- Empire (not a government, a group of governments)
From GURPS: Space role playing game by Steve Jackson Games.
- No world government: diffuse (hundreds of factions)
- No world government: factionalized (tens of factions)
- No world government: coalition (several factions)
- Caste (as Clan, but each clan has pre-set profession)
- Dictatorship (King, dictator, or warlord)
- Representative Democracy
- Athenian Democracy
- Corporate State
- Technocracy (rule by computer programmers and engineers)
SUB-TYPES (additional conditions and modifications applied to the government type, e.g., "Matriarchal-Socialist Athenian-Democracy")
- Subjugated (government has been conquered militarily or economically)
- Slave State (slavery is legal)
- Sanctuary (will not extradite criminals wanted off-world)
- Military Government (totalitarian if single officer, feudal if junta)
- Socialist (citizens heavily taxed but taken care of by the nanny-state)
- Bureaucracy (un elected bureaucrats have the real power)
- Colony of another government
- Oligarchy (leadership in the hands of a small self-perpetuating clique)
- Meritocracy (government jobs require aptitude tests)
- Patriarchy/Matriarch (all rulers are male/female)
- Utopia (everything is perfect)
- Cybercracy (rule by computers)
As far as political movements within a government are concerned, Jerry Pournelle has an interesting classification system.
The X-axis is "Statism" or attitude towards the State. The extreme positive X-axis represents the movement's belief that the State is a positive good, nay, worthy of worship. The negative X-axis is the belief that the State is the ultimate evil.
The Y-axis is "Rationalism" or attitude toward planned social progress. It is the belief that society has "problems," and these can be "solved." The extreme postive Y-axis represents the belief that all social problems have findable solutions.
There are some other amusing X-Y classification systems. The Political Compass is similar to Pournelle's, but with a Libertarian bent.
The Dungeons and Dragon game had each character choose their "alignment" from the alignment chart. This chart had an "ethical" X-axis between Chaotic and Lawful, and a "moral" Y-axis between Good and Evil. If you believe that "the good of the many outweights the good of the few", you are Lawful, otherwise you are Chaotic. If you believe that "the ends justify the means" then you are Evil, otherwise you are Good. On either axis you could be "Neutral".
Another interesting axis classification system is the Inglehart-Welzel Cultural Map of the World. The Traditional/Secular-rational values dimension reflects the contrast between societies in which religion is very important and those in which it is not. The second axis is linked with the transition from industrial society to post-industrial societies -- which brings a polarization between Survival and Self-expression values.
The authors note that each axis actually contains many related values which vary in lock step. For instance, the Traditional/Secular-rational is specifically for measuring religion. But in practice it also measures such things as the importance of parent-child ties and deference to authority, along with absolute standards and traditional family values. Cultures with a high religion value reject divorce, abortion, euthanasia, and suicide. They also have high levels of national pride, and a nationalistic outlook. Cultures with a low religion value also have the opposite preference in all those topics.
SF authors and game designers who want to invent believable cultures for their various interstellar nations can use this graph to explore both the outer limits and the finer nuances.
David Maurer's Explanation of history shows how the values and philosophy of a culture relate to the question of "where is the food going to come from?" As the answer changes, so does the culture. This more or less corresponds to the Survival -- Self-expression axis in the Inglehart-Welzel graph.
Linear-actives — those who plan, schedule, organize, pursue action chains, do one thing at a time. Germans and Swiss are in this group.
Multi-actives — those lively, loquacious peoples who do many things at once, planning their priorities not according to a time schedule, but according to the relative thrill or importance that each appointment brings with it. Italians, Latin Americans and Arabs are members of this group.
Reactives — those cultures that prioritize courtesy and respect, listening quietly and calmly to their interlocutors and reacting carefully to the other side's proposals. Chinese, Japanese and Finns are in this group.
|Talks half of the time||Talks most of the time||Listens most of the time|
|Does one thing at the time||Does several things at once||Reacts to partner's action|
|Plans ahead step by step||Plans grand outline only||Looks at general principles|
|Polite but direct||Emotional||Polite, indirect|
|Confronts with logic||Confronts emotionally||Never confronts|
|Sticks to facts||Feelings before facts||Statements are promises|
|Sticks to agenda||Roams back and forth||Often asks for "repeats"|
|Written word important||Spoken word important||Face-to-face contact important|
|Restrained body language||Unrestrained body language||Subtle body language|
Plastic Bag has the Pirate-Ninja/Elf-Dwarf chart. Pirates are loud and flamboyant, gregarious and unrestrained, life-loving and vigorous, passionate and strong. Their opposite, the Ninjas are skilled and proficient, elegant and silent, contained and constrained, honourable and spiritual. Elves are Thinkers, elegant and timeless, conceptual and refined, abstract and beautiful. Dwarves are Doers, practical and structural, hard-working and no-nonsense, down-to-earth smiths and makers.
And the chart in the report on the Laws of Stupidity will repay careful study.
If you are creating a "future history generator" program, or something like that, you will need ways of quantifying the various factors.
For nations, the state of the citizens's well-being can be measured by the Human Development Index. This factors in life expectancy, literacy, education, and standard of living into one number. Among other things it can indicate whether a country is a developed, developing, or underdeveloped country.
The economic Misery index is found by adding the unemployment rate to the inflation rate. This tends to predict the relative crime rate of one year in the future.
And the Gini coefficient is a measure of inequality of a distribution of income. If the difference in income between the rich and the poor becomes too absurdly large, the society becomes increasingly unstable. Historians often point to a large Gini coefficient and the disappearance of the middle class as two of the warning signs of the downfall of the Roman empire.
Another important principle is Jerry Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy.
And in Robert's Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, he gives the opinion that the key question which defines a political system is:
For example, if a person kills somebody, it is Murder, if the government kills somebody it is Capital Punishment.
The terminology for groups of governments gets complicated. Go to The Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy and read the entry "TRADE FEDERATION".
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".
Arthur C. Clarke insists that large galactic governments are impossible because of their intolerable complexity. This is based upon a simple truth: As population grows arithmetically, the number of possible interactions rises geometrically.
...But all such attempts to showcase the "numbing complexity" of galactic government are unconvincing because information flows in interstellar empires needn't be all that serious, though we'll obviously need computer-bureaucrats to handle most of the red tape.
... Since silicon microcircuits can theoretically process ten billion times more data than human neurons, pound for pound and bit for bit, then maybe with computer help humans could run empires ten billion times larger than the historical imperial scale. The pre-computer Roman and British Empires ruled 30 million and 300 million people, respectively, before becoming too large. Perhaps a galactic empire using electronic administrators could handle 1019 people before it got too cumbersome. That's a billion planets with ten billion inhabitants each!
...According to Mosca's Rule: "The larger the political community, the smaller will be the proportion of the governing minority to the governed majority." Roberto Michels' "Iron Law of Oligarchy" goes still farther; asserting that growing political systems, especially empires, invariably evolve into more oligarchic (rule by the few) forms of government. So while democratic or republic empires are possible, as they grow they will slowly but implacably drift towards autocracy.
...Specialization leads to hierarchy and span of control. Hierarchy means levels of increasing managerial specialization, each level having supervisors of equal responsibility. Span of control is the number of subordinates administered by each supervisor.
Studies of government and private organizations show that the number of hierarchical levels and the span of control tends to increase as the whole system expands, but also that the two are complementary. For a given size, a wider span of control means fewer levels are needed above and below each span, producing a broad "flat" organizational pyramid. More levels means small spans suffice, giving a narrow "tall" organization with tighter control from the top. Humans seem naturally to prefer rather tall organizations, perhaps partially due to our simian heritage of vertical troupe dominance chains. Sentient extraterrestrials evolved from carnivorous cats or intelligent octopi, solitary creatures by nature, would favor flatter organizational structures.
...The best human organizations have spans of five subordinates per supervisor. Using this figure, a galactic empire controlling ten billion planets having ten billion inhabitants each would require at least 21 hierarchical levels. It is well known that human organizations with more than 6-8 levels become excessively bureaucratic.
...If we optimistically assume that a control span of 100 subordinates can be achieved for, say, human policymakers, then the number of hierarchical levels can almost be halved - from 21 down to 11. The structure of Sir Roger's bustling empire might then look something like Figure 1.
Sir Roger's Galactic Empire
(Span of control ~=100, Hierarchical Levels ~=11)
1 Emperor 1 1010 1020 2 Cabinet Minister 100 108 1018 3 Peer 10,000 106 1016 4 Royal Magistrate 106 10,000 1014 5 Starkeeper 108 100 1012 6 Planetary Governor 1010 1 1010 7 Continental Regent 1012 108 8 Knight 1014 106 9 Burgess 1016 10,000 10 Gentry 1018 100 11 Commoners 1020 1
Even with all this mechanized assistants, the Emperor will have absolutely no contact with non-interstellar personnel. His relationship with his magistrates would not be unlike those between the United States President and the mayors and city managers of American cities. To the Galactic Emperor, the starkeepers, each responsible for 100 worlds, will seem much as U.S. citizens appear to their President - with only a very rare audience being granted. Planetary governors are "the rabble."
Organizational specialist studying "control loss theory" say that in tall, human-like galactic organizations, memos would have to travel down through so many channels that most orders from top to bottom levels could be almost totally degraded to noise by they time they arrive. Economist Oliver Williamson devised a simple model to predict how goals generated at the top of a hierarchy are implemented at the bottom after passing down a number of levels in the chain of command.
If each message, on average, passes through a level 95% intact, then Williamson would claim that since orders must change hands 10 times, Sir Roger's Empire is (0.95)10 = 60% effective in carrying out its aims. At 85% per level (Williamson's lower limit based on studies of actual human organizations), effectiveness drops to 20% and only one-fifth of the Emperor's plans for the commoners ever reach fruition.
Peter B. Evans uses Williamson's control loss model to show that higher efficiencies are possible when the Emperor switches to "multiple hierarchy" systems, such as the dual hierarchy. If the Emperor creates a complete second command hierarchy in parallel with the first, his effectiveness rises by nearly two-thirds. The superiority of dual hierarchies is well-known in business (line-and-staff) and in public administration (especially Communist bureaucracies). Lattice structure systems are a more sophisticated form, involving a complete lattice of hierarchial links providing a startling multiplicity of pathways to the top. Such novel system my not encourage galactic stability, but the opportunities for palace intrigue are legion!
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 the all the males within smelling distance suddenly start acting like sexually frustrated 16 year old boys.
When Frank Herbert wanted to write his novel Dune, he did not want his future society to be some sort of cyberpunk future. He wanted something medieval in space. So he postulated in his future history a period where people revolted against computers and related technology in the "Butlerian Jihad", which outlawed all thinking machines. This justified Herbert's desired medieval future.
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.
In the short story "Shadow on the Stars" by Algis Budrys (1954), Miranid of the Farla empire has just finished explaining to Henlo why conventional theory holds that a decisive interstellar war is impossible. Now he explains the sneaky trick they are going to do in order to avoid conventional theory and destroy the upstart barbarian Vilk empire.