There are those who in the realm of science fiction literature wonder if galactic empires are the new "Middle-Earth". But interstellar empires never seem to go out of style, and regardless of their practicality they remain a powerful meme. The terrorist organization Aum Shinrikyo found inspiration in the galactic empire of Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy. And concerns about how realistic galactic empires are will just send George Lucas laughing all the way to the bank.
Like all nations, interstellar empires will have an over-all society and culture (which is probably not true for sub-empire groups of governments such as suzerainties, confederations, etc.). And the culture may not only evolve with time, it may even go through cycles.
David Maurer's Modern Transformation tries to explain the evolution of society and culture in terms of subsequent answers to the burning question of "where is the food going to come from?" That is, the mechanisms of food production and food distribution. Tribal society was based on a subsistence economy, where most people hunt, gather, herd, or grow their own food. The relatively small amount of distribution was handled by sharing or barter between family and neighbors. Aristocrat-peasant society was fed by a subordinate class of peasants who worked the land and delivered a substantial part of the harvest to their aristocratic lords, without being paid. This was a command distribution system. Modern society depends on markets for food production and distribution, in other words it all revolves around something called "money".
Some characteristics of future societies can be extrapolated from their origins. The tired old example is the "Wild West" society from the United State's pioneer period. When one is living on the frontier rim where the government and the law is a distant and tenuous thing, often the only law is what one makes oneself, i.e., "taking the law into ones own hands." As civilization and development washed over the West, society became more stodgy.
In the Albedo Anthropomorphics universe of Steve Gallacci, one has a cluster of planets colonized by slower-than-light starships (yes, the colonists are furry anthropomorphic animals, but that is beside the point). The planetary cultures that were founded as a consequence have a "shipboard discipline mentality."
Consider, on a spacecraft, if a civilian saw something like an air leak in the hull, and didn't report it to anybody, they would be endangering not only their own life but also the lives of everybody on the colony ship. So that is a crime.
In the United States on the other hand, if a person sees somebody lying injured on the side of the road, and they try to help the injured one, more often than not they wind up being sued by the injured person. Hands off, do not get involved, it is not your problem.
In the Albedo universe, with the shipboard discipline mentality, it is a crime not to try and help somebody who is injured, and there are "Good Samaritan" laws to protect the helpers.
Obviously matters of practicality can also affect the shape of a society.
The Albedo universe is not colonized by human beings, instead the various planets are populated by various species of Terran animals genetically engineered to intelligence.
Now with most Terran mammals, the female is only sexually attractive to the male when they go into estrus (aka "in heat"). At other times the males could care less (similar to the attitudes of young pre-adolescent boys who think that girls are stupid and icky, an attitude that undergoes a marked change when puberty strikes). Consequence: in the Albedo universe there are no nudity taboos, and mixed-gender washing and toilet facilities are the norm.
But when estrus occurs the females must go into seclusion and/or use powerful deodorants. Otherwise all the males within smelling distance suddenly start acting like sexually-frustrated 16-year-old boys.
When Frank Herbert wanted to write his novel Dune, he did not want his future society to be some sort of cyberpunk future. He wanted something medieval in space. So he postulated in his future history a period where people revolted against computers and related technology in the "Butlerian Jihad", which outlawed all thinking machines. This justified Herbert's desired medieval future.
In Piers Anthony's Cluster series he postulated that there were five cultural types, labeled by the five suits of Tarot cards (Anthony's minor arcana has a fifth suit instead of the customary four). All the galactic aliens fall into one of the five categories. Anthony apparently had a lot of fun creating the characteristics of each of the five types, and illustrating the cultural clashes inherent when different types interacted. Highly unlikely to be true in reality, but it gave the author something to work with.
In the classic Battlestar Galactica TV series, there are twelve human colonies with names like Sagittaron, Gemenon, Caprica, etc. Like the rest of the "Chariots of the Gods" schtick in the show, this is supposed to be the ancient high-tech ancestor of some mystical occult Fortean stuff from Terra's alleged history. In this case it is the astrological signs of the zodiac. According to astrology, the sign of the zodiac the sun is occupying at the instant of your birth foretells your major personality traits. According to Battlestar Galactica, these are actually major personality traits of citizens living in the colony in question. The personality of the sun-sign Sagittarius is the same as the Sagittarons, sun-sign Gemenon is zodiac sign Gemini, and so on. Total felgercarb, but at least it gave the episode writers some quick-and-dirty guidelines when creating characters.
Note that the critical part of both Anthony and BSG's cultural classifications is that they cover the entire spectrum of possible cultures, with no holes. This means that Anthony's five-category system is very low-resolution, and BSG's twelved-category system is only slightly better. Which is a liability for a scientist but may be an advantages for an author.
Partnership culture is characterized by:
- Organization according to the ideals of a democratic structure
- Equal partnership between men and women
- A lack of tolerance for abuse and violence
- Belief systems that validate an empathetic perspective
Dominator culture is characterized by:
- Authoritarian social and family structure
- Rigid male dominance
- A high level of violence and abuse
- A system of beliefs that normalizes such a society
|Symbol: Gatherer's Bag||Symbol: Hunter's Flint Knive|
|Power comes from the creation and nurturing of life||Power comes from the coercion and killing of life|
|Reveres Life||Reveres Death|
|Sex is good||Sex is bad|
|Violence is bad||Violence is good|
|the ultimate sexual taboo is Incest|
(because it harms the family)
|the ultimate sexual taboo is Homosexuality|
(because it harms masculinity)
|Life is a Non-Zero Sum game||Life is a Zero-Sum Game|
|Obtain new items by creating them yourself||Why bother making things when you can steal them at knife point?|
When worldbuilding a galactic empire, a wee bit of thought should be expended on the empire-wide system of food production and transportation. Since it is a truism that any civilization is only three missed meals away from anarchy.
Although I've seen that truism with the number of meals varying from three to nine. And the end result of hunger being anarchy, barbarism, chaos, revolution, or other collapse of civilization. Don't even bother to try and determine who originated the quote: I've seen attributions ranging from Larry Niven, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Plato, Red Dwarf, Lenin, and Leon Trotsky. Robert Heinlein observed that any person who finds it hard to believe that somebody would kill for a can of tomatoes, has never been truely hungry.
This is why the food supply has a major influence on the society and culture of a civilization. It is also why one form of Long Night Insurance is some genetically engineered food like a Protage.
For empire government and social psychologies, the powerful "Interesting Holes" technique is always good to use. The initial problem is one has to invent or research a classification system to use. There are some that are readily available. These often take the form of axis charts, which are scatter plots of two variables.
Jerry Pournelle has an interesting classification system for political movements within a government.
The X-axis is "Statism" or attitude towards the State. The extreme positive X-axis represents the movement's belief that the State is a positive good, nay, worthy of worship. The negative X-axis is the belief that the State is the ultimate evil.
The Y-axis is "Rationalism" or attitude toward planned social progress. It is the belief that society has "problems," and these can be "solved." The extreme postive Y-axis represents the belief that all social problems have findable solutions.
There are some other amusing X-Y classification systems. The Political Compass is similar to Pournelle's, but with a Libertarian bent.
The Dungeons and Dragon game had each character choose their "alignment" from the alignment chart. This chart had an "ethical" X-axis between Chaotic and Lawful, and a "moral" Y-axis between Good and Evil.
If you believe that "the good of the many outweights the good of the few", you are Lawful, otherwise you are Chaotic.
If you believe that "the ends justify the means" then you are Evil, otherwise you are Good.
On either axis you could be "Neutral".
Another interesting axis classification system is the Inglehart-Welzel Cultural Map of the World.
The Traditional/Secular-rational values axis reflects the contrast between societies in which religion is very important and those which are more secular.
The second axis is linked with the transition from industrial society to post-industrial societies — which brings a polarization between Survival and Self-expression values. Translation: the -2 side is where you have to spend all your time and energy just to get enough food and money to live. The +2 side is where it is easy to get all you need to eat and live, so you have plenty of free time to do whatever you want.
The authors note that each axis actually contains many related values which vary in lock step. For instance, the Traditional/Secular-rational is specifically for measuring religion. But in practice it also measures such things as the importance of parent-child ties and deference to authority, along with absolute standards and traditional family values. Cultures with a high religion value reject divorce, abortion, euthanasia, and suicide. They also have high levels of national pride, and a nationalistic outlook. Cultures with a low religion value also have the opposite preference in all those topics.
SF authors and game designers who want to invent believable cultures for their various interstellar nations can use this graph to explore both the outer limits and the finer nuances.
David Maurer's Explanation of history shows how the values and philosophy of a culture relate to the question of "where is the food going to come from?" As the answer changes, so does the culture. This more or less corresponds to the Survival — Self-expression axis in the Inglehart-Welzel graph.
Linear-actives — those who plan, schedule, organize, pursue action chains, do one thing at a time. Germans and Swiss are in this group.
Multi-actives — those lively, loquacious peoples who do many things at once, planning their priorities not according to a time schedule, but according to the relative thrill or importance that each appointment brings with it. Italians, Latin Americans and Arabs are members of this group.
Reactives — those cultures that prioritize courtesy and respect, listening quietly and calmly to their interlocutors and reacting carefully to the other side's proposals. Chinese, Japanese and Finns are in this group.
|Talks half of the time||Talks most of the time||Listens most of the time|
|Does one thing at the time||Does several things at once||Reacts to partner's action|
|Plans ahead step by step||Plans grand outline only||Looks at general principles|
|Polite but direct||Emotional||Polite, indirect|
|Confronts with logic||Confronts emotionally||Never confronts|
|Sticks to facts||Feelings before facts||Statements are promises|
|Sticks to agenda||Roams back and forth||Often asks for "repeats"|
|Written word important||Spoken word important||Face-to-face contact important|
|Restrained body language||Unrestrained body language||Subtle body language|
Plastic Bag has the Pirate-Ninja/Elf-Dwarf chart. Pirates are loud and flamboyant, gregarious and unrestrained, life-loving and vigorous, passionate and strong. Their opposite, the Ninjas are skilled and proficient, elegant and silent, contained and constrained, honourable and spiritual. Elves are Thinkers, elegant and timeless, conceptual and refined, abstract and beautiful. Dwarves are Doers, practical and structural, hard-working and no-nonsense, down-to-earth smiths and makers.
If you are creating a "future history generator" program, or something like that, you will need ways of quantifying the various factors.
For nations, the state of the citizens's well-being can be measured by the Human Development Index. This factors in life expectancy, literacy, education, and standard of living into one number. Among other things it can indicate whether a country is a developed, developing, or underdeveloped country.
The economic Misery index is found by adding the unemployment rate to the inflation rate. This tends to predict the relative crime rate of one year in the future.
And the Gini coefficient is a measure of inequality of a distribution of income. If the difference in income between the rich and the poor becomes too absurdly large, the society becomes increasingly unstable. Historians often point to a large Gini coefficient and the disappearance of the middle class as two of the warning signs of the downfall of the Roman empire.
There are the various types of government. These can be the governments of continents on a planet, goverments of an entire united planet, or governments of groups of planets. Go to The Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy and read the entries "NEOFEUDALISM" and "THEOCRATIC NEOMEDIEVALISTS".
Needless to say, there is no lack of ambitious individuals who have a burning desire to be the absolute ruler of a nation or empire. This is why the mechanism of succession must be rigidly defined. If for any reason the mechanism does not function properly when a ruler is removed, lots of people die.
For example, if in a monarchy the crown passes to the deceased king's eldest son, a king who has no son will start an instant civil war when the king dies. Anybody who has a driving ambition to be king and some pathetic scrap of a claim to the throne will gather an army and attack all the other claimants. This is why one of the royal duties is to procreate a male heir as soon as possible just in case. And a second son, as a spare.
This also leads to unromantic requirements, such as various officials watching the marriage be consumated in person so they can be legal witnesses. And why the monarchy was so fanatical about the queen being a virgin, otherwise there is some question about the legitimacy of the son to assume the crown and it is suddenly instant civil war time.
A famous example of shaky succession is the War of the Roses. Over thirty years of battles and 50,000 deaths because there was just enough vagueness over who should succeed King Richard II.
When the peasants shout "Long Live The King!" they are not proclaiming niceties to the ruler. They are selfishly hoping to delay the time before a messy dynastic battle comes raging through their backyard. Or as the ancient proverb of the Kikuyu people puts it: "When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers"
Things get rather tense if the queen gives birth to no (live) babies, or worse if there are only daughters. The latter case allows yet another faction to join the bloody civil war: those who say what's wrong with making the eldest daughter a queen? Genetically the "problem" of inability to sire sons is probably the fault of the father, but in medieval times it was Always The Woman's Fault.
This leads to all sorts of dangerous strategies, such as getting the queen secretly impregnated via a male who is not the king but does have male-baby making ability (and hoping nobody discovers the infidelity and the illegitimacy). Or, for instance, breaking away the Church of England from the authority of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church just so you can get a divorce from a queen who produces only dead or wrong-gendered babies. Another inhuman strategy is for the king to secretly engineer a tragic fatal accident for the barren queen, in the hopes that the new queen will be a better broodmare. This probably won't work if the problem is a series of girl babies. As previously mentioned the problem there is usually the father, changing the mother is not going to fix that. It will just cause a hideous string of dead queens.
Matrilineality has the advantage of removing legitimacy from the list of problems. Short of genetic testing, there is always a question of whether the child being born was sired by the king or not. But there is no question that the child came from the queen, you can witness whose birth canal the child came out of. Traditionally matrilineal governments do not care who the father was, only the mother matters. But of course such a system is by definition incompatible with patriarchy.
In representative democratic systems of government, succession is handled by elections. These are sort of legal institutionalized coup d'états. As a political system it has problems, but so do all the others.
A hydraulic empire (AKA hydraulic despotism, or water monopoly empire) is where the rulers of the empire maintain control by a monopoly on one or more critical resources. In history the resource was generally water for irrigating the crops. Such empires arise because managing such resources is such a monumental task that it requires central control, which naturally evolves into political control.
In Larry Niven's Destiny's Road the controlling resource is access to vital dietary potassium, a rarity on the colony planet. In Frank Herbert's Dune novels the controlling resource is the spice Melange, which allows faster than light starships.
If the rulers of the empire have no large planetary holdings but have a monopoly on space travel and interstellar trade, the empire is called a Thalassocracy
A common problem is that the rulers of the Hydraulic state make quite sure that their monopoly is absolute, so that all the regions have no alternatives for the resource. Which means if something kills the rulers or otherwise cuts off access to the resource, the regions are in big trouble. The rulers generally are either selfish or short-sighted enough so as to not have any contingency plans. The rulers think that they will always have the resource to offer. Or figure that if they die, then the proletariat has some nerve thinking they deserve to outlive the rulers.
For example, in John Scalzi's novel The Collapsing Empire the interstellar trader megacorporations use The Flow, which is a naturally occuring system of faster-than-light "streams". The traders have a monopoly on interstellar trade.
The Empire is called The Interdependency, because all the colonies are not self-sufficient on purpose. None of the colonies can revolt and split off from the empire because without interstellar importation of vital resources the colony will die. The rulers and the megacorporations planned this to ensure their iron grip on power over the colonies.
Then scientists realize that The Flow is gradually altering to the point where FTL starships won't work any more. All the colonies will be cut off from each other, and there is no way to stop it. OMG we're all gonna die!
A Nomadic Empire is a non-sedentary polity, i.e., the bulk of the citizens are of no fixed address. Such empires are sometimes called a Khanate. The main real-world historical example is the Mongol Empire
From a galactic empire standpoint, the main advantage is the system is scaleable. It avoids the "empire grown too huge to govern" problem since functionally a nomad empire is a mild form of swarm intelligence. Hordes that are part of the empire can operate without central control. The main problem is ensuring that the various hordes maintain their allegiance to the Khan of the empire.
In some cases the hordes live in clan ships.
There are some kinds of unorthodox interstellar empires where the rulers do not live on planets. Instead they live in orbit, and control planet dwellers by virtue of the military advantage of the gravity gauge, and by a monopoly on interstellar trade. This is called a Thalassocracy, from an ancient term for a seaborne empire.
Sometimes the monopoly is by the Thalassocracy the sole owner of transport starships, planet dwellers have to contract the Thalasso-starships if they want to ship anything interstellar.
Sometimes the monopoly is by the Thalassocracy having a monopoly on the manufacture and sale of interstellar FTL propulsion units. The technical details about the units are top secret. In SPI's game Freedom in the Galaxy all stardrives are built by the Empire, and contain a thermonuclear booby-trap to discourage attempts at reverse-engineering. The empire takes its monopoly on stardrives very seriously.
Macro Life is not a government so much as it is the next stage of societal evolution. It shares some similar qualities to a hive entity, but is not quite so drastic. It can however function as a sort of government for certain space nations, which is why I stuck it here.
The concept comes from Dandridge Cole, who was inspired by an article by Isaac Asimov titled Beyond the Phyla. Cole defined Macro Life as "life squared per cell", by which he means "Macro Life is to Man what Man is to the Cell".
In science fiction, Macro Life appears to be a huge space colony with a rocket engine. Sort of a cross between an asteroid bubble and a generation starship. But that is missing the point. The "Macro Life" part is the society living inside the asteroid.
Below is Asimov's essay that inspired Cole, and Cole's Macro Life essay. Asimov's essay is from Astounding/Analog Science Fact & Fiction, July 1960. Cole's essay is from an AAS presentation called "The Social And Political Implications of the Ultimate Human Society". This was later reprinted in a two-part article in the September and October 1961 Space World magazine.
Please note that while in science fiction Macrolife is always associated with a mobile asteroid colony, that does not necessarily have to be the case. One could have a Macrolife organism living on a planet, or a Macrolife organism composed of a multitude of planet based settlements linked by an FTL radio or something. Scifi writers like to use mobile asteroid colonies so they can make cute analogies of the colony being akin to a giant one-celled organism. The colony travels to a fresh star system and reproduces: harvesting raw materials, building more colonies, and populating the new colonies with disaffected citizens who want to leave. The scifi writer smugly points out that the macrolife asteroid colony thus fulfills all the necessary attributes to qualify as a living organism.
From the Star Hero role playing game by James Cambias, published by Hero Games. A valuable sourcebook for anybody designing a science fiction universe. From stellar dynamics to types of interstellar governments, this book belongs on the shelf of serious SF authors. This is also a great book to quickly get an author up to speed on the science behind science fiction.
- Who Rules?
- Nobody (anarchy)
- Individual Rule
- Dictator (Emperor, Warlord): rule by force
- Monarch (Chiefs, Barons, Princes, Kings, Emperors): rule by virtue of heredity. May have to delegate power to appointed bureaucracy, elected parliament, or feudal hereditary nobles.
- President (Chancellor, Premier, Governor): rule by merit, appointment, or election.
- Computerized Government
- Small Groups
- Junta: rule by force
- Oligarchy (Aristocracy): rule by virtue of heredity.
- Council (Senate): rule by merit, appointment, or election.
- Large Groups
- Conquering Army: rule by force. Unstable, generally quickly becomes a Junta or Dictator. If situation lasts for a generation it generally becomes Feudal.
- Feudal: rule by virtue of heredity. A large hereditary group may become a Ruling Caste.
- Legislature (Congress, Assembly): rule by merit, appointment, or election.
- Athenian Democracy: everybody rules by voting on all issues.
- How Is The Ruler Chosen?
- No Ruler (anarchy)
- Appointment: the key is who gets to do the appointing. A colony or conquered planet has ruler appointed by controlling planet. Sometimes officials get to appoint their replacements. Sometimes one branch of government appoints the members of another branch.
- Merit. Depends upon what is the measure of merit. Competency = Bureaucracy. Religious Faith = Theocracy. Scientific Knowledge = Technocracy. Wealth = Plutocracy. Sheer Age = Gerontocracy.
- Total Participation (Athenian Democracy)
- Random Selection (similar to jury duty)
- Omens or Oracles (in religious or superstitious societies)
- Computerized Government
From the Traveller role playing game:
- No government structure. In many cases, family bonds predominate.
- Company/Corporation. Government by a company managerial elite; citizens are company employees.
- Participating Democracy. Government by advice and consent of the citizen.
- Self-Perpetuating Oligarchy. Government by a restricted minority, with little or no input from the masses.
- Representative Democracy. Government by elected representatives.
- Feudal Technocracy. Government by specific individuals for those who agree to be ruled. Relationships are based on the performance of technical activities which are mutually beneficial.
- Captive Government. Government by a leadership answerable to an outside group; a colony or conquered area.
- Balkanization. No central ruling authority exists; rival governments compete for control.
- Civil Service Bureaucracy. Government by agencies employing individuals selected for their expertise.
- Impersonal Bureaucracy. Government by agencies which are insulated from the governed.
- Charismatic Dictator. Government by a single leader enjoying the confidence of the citizens.
- Non-Charismatic Leader. A previous charismatic dictator has been replaced by a leader through normal channels.
- Charismatic Oligarchy. Government by a select group, organization, or class enjoying the overwhelming confidence of the citizenry.
- Religious Dictatorship. Government by a religious organization without regard to the needs of the citizenry.
Instead, it is an indication of what the Traveller players can personally expect to encounter directly when they interact with the local bureaucracy. When a player is trying to get a license to import Spican Flame Gems they could care less that the government is a unicameral legislature. The player just wants to know how much red tape they will have to cut through, which is what the above table tries to indicate.
Player rarely, if ever, interact with planetary governments directly.
From THE SWORD AND THE STARS wargame by SPI.
- 10 TRIBALISTIC SERIES
- 11 Fraternalism
- 12 Sororalism
- 13 Ancestralism
- 20 UNIQUE SERIES
- 30 ABSOLUTIST SERIES
- 31 Totalitarianism
- 32 Monarchism
- 33 Feudalism
- 34 Despotism
- 40 REPUBLICAN SERIES
- 41 Democracy
- 42 Parliamentary
- 43 Republicanism
- 50 THEOCRATIC SERIES
- 60 COLLECTIVIST SERIES
From Space Opera role playing game by FGU.
- Multi-government (Balkanization)
- Subjugated (conquered by another government)
- Oligarchy (aristocracy or dictatorship)
- Religious Dictatorship
- Corporate State
- Athenian Democracy (no representatives, everybody votes)
- Republican Democracy (representatives)
- Confederacy (not a government, a group of governments)
- Personal Dictatorship
- Empire (not a government, a group of governments)
From GURPS: Space role playing game by Steve Jackson Games.
- No world government: diffuse (hundreds of factions)
- No world government: factionalized (tens of factions)
- No world government: coalition (several factions)
- Caste (as Clan, but each clan has pre-set profession)
- Dictatorship (King, dictator, or warlord)
- Representative Democracy
- Athenian Democracy
- Corporate State
- Technocracy (rule by computer programmers and engineers)
SUB-TYPES (additional conditions and modifications applied to the government type, e.g., "Matriarchal-Socialist Athenian-Democracy")
- Subjugated (government has been conquered militarily or economically)
- Slave State (slavery is legal)
- Sanctuary (will not extradite criminals wanted off-world)
- Military Government (totalitarian if single officer, feudal if junta)
- Socialist (citizens heavily taxed but taken care of by the nanny-state)
- Bureaucracy (un elected bureaucrats have the real power)
- Colony of another government
- Oligarchy (leadership in the hands of a small self-perpetuating clique)
- Meritocracy (government jobs require aptitude tests)
- Patriarchy/Matriarch (all rulers are male/female)
- Utopia (everything is perfect)
- Cybercracy (rule by computers)
The empire's society and culture might go through different stages as well.
The terminology for groups of governments gets complicated. Go to The Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy and read the entry "TRADE FEDERATION".
With most of these labels, all you have to do is add a weird noun and you have your empire's name, e.g., the Unitech Polity, the Dominion of the Technomorphs, the Romulan Star Empire, the Rigel Covenant, etc. Go to The Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy and read the entry "EMPIRE".