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.)


      Can there be barbarians in an interstellar civilization? Many of the best science fiction writers have thought so. H. Beam Piper postulated several ways that planets could "decivilize." Isaac Asimov's Foundation series was built on the premise.
     Even so, at first thought the notion is absurd. Star travel requires high technology and complex equipment; how could ignorant savages have all that?
     But of course the savages need not invent high technology, nor even be able to build or maintain it; it is enough that they could obtain it and make it work. One needs no understanding of electronics to operate a television or video cassette recorder; one need not understand very large scale integrated circuits to use a computer; few automobile drivers can explain the theory of internal combustion engines, fuel injection, or even Kettering ignition.
     Indeed, we can think of contemporary examples. Consider terrorists, whether ideological or religious fanatics. All seem perfectly capable of obtaining and using high technology. Perhaps the notion of "space barbarians" is not quite so silly as we thought.
     For that matter, those who do understand technology may not much care for other aspects of civilized behavior. "When I hear the word 'culture' I reach for my revolver." said Reichsmarshal Goering; yet Goering was an air ace, successor to von Richthofen as commander of the Flying Circus, and quite at home with what was then quite advanced technology. Nor were his education and background any bar to his amassing as large a collection of pure loot as has any human in history.
     One should not forget: the sailing ships of the Napoleonic era were highly complex, considerably more difficult to operate properly than most modern ships. It would be easier to learn how to operate a space station than a 100-gun ship of the line. Obsolete doesn't mean simple.
     Finally, of course, new designs continue to make really complex equipment easier to use without understanding. Artificial intelligence and computer systems may well make it possible for savages to operate star ships. Poul Anderson majored in physics; but he has long been an avid student of history. This story was written before sputnik; long before the first men went to space; decades before computers. It's surprising just how well Poul's technology holds together. It's not a story about technology anyway.
     Communications change. Weapons change. The nature of man may not keep pace.


(ed note: John W. Campbell, jr. is a giant in the field of science fiction. He more than any other molded the the form of modern scifi, and helped shape the careers of virtually every important science-fiction author to debut between 1938 and 1946, including Robert A. Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke.

Having said that, he was a raging bigot.

As editor of Astounding Science Fiction magazine, he was fond of writing controversial editorials. He may not have fully endorsed the opinions he expressed therein, but he did enjoy the controversies they engendered.

Here are some excerpts from one of his most controversial ones.)

      In studying history, there are three general, and quite distinguishable levels of culture we can identify. Our own we naturally call "civilized" or "civilization," with the implication of "completely matured and fully developed." It happens to be as far as cultures on this planet have gone; what the fourth, fifth, nth levels of culture may be we can't guess, of course. But judging from history, we can make one pretty high-probability guess—the next stage of development will yield a cultural system that will appear, to us, utterly abhorrent—a system founded on Evil and practicing degradation and repellent immoralities.

     That's the characteristic of every level so far … as seen from the immediately preceding level.

     To define what I mean by the three so-far known levels, I distinguish Tribal, Barbarian, and Civil cultures; the natives of the three we call Tribesmen, Barbarians, and Citizens. Preceding all three is the pre-organized-culture level of the "primate horde"—the sort of quasi-organized group found among baboons and monkeys, in the present time.

     The Tribal culture—in its never-actually-existent theoretical pure state—is a system of pure ritual and taboo. "Everything that is not forbidden is compulsory." The objectively observable system stems from an unstated philosophy—which is unstated because the Tribesman doesn't know philosophy exists, any more than a dog knows logic exists, or a fish knows that biochemistry exists. The philosophy is, essentially precisely that of the Absolute Totalitarian state … minus the familiar dictator. That is, in the Tribe, the individual exists for the service of the state. The individual has no value whatever, save as a replaceable plug-in unit in the immortal, ever-existent machinery-organism of the Tribe. No individual exists as an individual—neither Tribal king nor Tribal slave; each is a unit plugged in—temporarily, for all these units wear out and are discarded in a score or two of years—to the eternal Traditional System of the Tribe. The cells in a living organism wear out and are discarded; the organism is, relatively speaking, immortal. So, in the Tribe, the individual is nothing; the Tribe is eternal.
     In return for a practically absolute loss of self-identity, the Tribesman is rewarded with security and peace of mind. The Tribal Traditions have The Answers to all possible real problems; nothing can happen that the Tribal Traditions, in their ancient and time-tested wisdom, have not already solved. There are no doubts; there are answers which involve "these tribesmen must die," but Death is not intolerable. Uncertainty—Doubt—these are the Terrors that live in the Unknown. And against those horrors, the ancient wisdom of the Tribal Traditions stand a strong, sure defense.
     The Tribesman has an exact, clear-cut, and perfectly understandable definition of Evil. Evil is Change. Any Change whatever is Evil. The correlation is absolute—perfect one-to-one.

     The Barbarian represents the Ultimate Horror from the viewpoint of the Tribesman; he is the Pure Individual. The Barbarian does not put his faith, his sense of security, in the ancient wisdom of the Traditions—but in the wisdom and strength of a Hero, a living demigod-man, a Leader who solves all problems.
     Barbarism, in other words, is the Dictator, without the Totalitarian State. There is a Hero, who is a strong, and unusually clever leader—an individual who stands out above the men around him.
     Tribalism is "a government of laws, not of men," with the minor change that "traditions" replace "laws."
     Barbarism becomes a government of Men, not of traditions.
     It is the first development of human culture which recognizes the value of the individual. It is not true that only civilized people respect the dignity of the individual; any Barbarian will assure you that Citizens have no dignity, that Civilization does not respect the individual. That only Barbarians understand what it means to be an individual.
     The Barbarian, in essence, "has too much Ego in his Cosmos."
     It's perfectly true that all men seek security—but necessarily, that means they seek what they believe is security. A superstitious Tribesman, fleeing a ghost, would happily climb a 100,000 volt power-line tower because he knows that ghosts can't climb.
     The Tribesman's security is his conviction that the Tribal Traditions have sure answers to all real problems.
     The Barbarian's security is in his absolute conviction that he can handle any problem—and if he can't, why, of course his Leader-Hero can, and will.

     While the Barbarian leader-hero corresponds with what we think of as a Dictator, the implication we attach is entirely wrong; the Barbarian's leader-hero is followed out of conviction, not out of fear. Oh, there's always the Fear of the Outer Darkness—the fear of the Unknown and Unknowable—but the Barbarian follows the Hero because he admires, respects, and adulates, not because he fears the power of the Hero.
     When Barbarism first arises in any area, Tribalism is doomed. The two are mutually exclusive, and there is no possible "peaceful coexistence" between them. To the Tribesman, the Barbarian is Evil Incarnate; the Barbarian has utterly rejected all Good, Moral, and Ethical values. He has rejected the Sacred Traditions, and glories in his absolute defiance of them. He blasphemes not casually, but as a way of life.
     To the Barbarians, the Tribesman is a slave, a spineless, gutless coward, a disgrace to human shape. He has no self-respect, no courage to take a risk, no faith in himself. He doesn't respect himself, or any man. He won't fight for any reward, no matter how great and shining! He's a stupid, lazy slug, a disgrace to humanity.
     The Tribesman won't fight for reward, he won't take a risk for great gain—because that is not in the Traditions. A Tribesman can't fight an enemy tribe for that enemy tribe's land; his tribal traditions refer to his tribe's land. If he did take the neighboring tribe's land … there would be no traditions to tell what to do with it. It would, in fact, be a Change, and therefore Evil.
     The "battles" between two ritual-taboo tribes, anthropologists have long since observed, are practically pure rituals, and actually have a vanishingly small casualty rate. Not greatly different—for all the use of spears!—than in modern college football clashes. The spears are hurled while at a range so extreme that it's sheer accident if someone gets hurt. When Barbarism appears—that situation changes in a hurry.
     The Barbarian army isn't going through a ritual; they're out for blood and loot. They don't have traditions as guides, nor as limiting fences about them.
     When Genghis Khan appeared, the Mongols, who had been ritual-taboo nomads were converted to Barbarians—and it was only the sheer overwhelming mass of geography that finally stopped them.
     Barbarism is one of the great breakthroughs in cultural evolution; for the first time, it establishes that the individual has great value, that the individual must be respected. That it is not true that all men are interchangeable plug-in units.
     Barbarism introduces the idea that Man can, and should, make his fate, rather than accept it. That Man can accomplish, that Change comes in two varieties, Good and Bad, and that the correlation Evil-Change: Change-Evil is not a one-to-one system.
     Of course, it horribly complicates the problems of life; where before it was only necessary to show that X was a Change to prove conclusively that X was Evil, it now became necessary to decide whether X was Progress or Degeneracy.
     Like most fundamentally sound and necessary ideas, the importance of the individual, which Barbarism first discovered, was very promptly overdone. The Barbarian respects only the individual; his respect for self becomes the only effective respect he has. He does not respect Gods, Demons, or other men. He will swear a mighty vow that will endure "so long as the sun shines, the rivers flow, and the grass grows," but which will, in fact, endure until his personal inclinations veer, and he decides he was tricked into the vow.
     A democratic vote means nothing whatever to a Barbarian, in consequence. He is a Free Soul, and he spits on sniveling cowards who allow themselves to be compelled to do what they don't want to. Crawling slaves!
     So, of course, to accept a vote that goes contrary to his own ideas is impossible; only a whimpering slave lets other people determine what he shall do!

     When the Barbarian encounters Civilization, therefore, he is going to be enormously confused and baffled. The Barbarians of North Europe, meeting the Citizens of the Roman Republic, were meeting men who allowed others to order them about, to tell them what to do and when to do it. Who obeyed commands they didn't, themselves, agree with. Obviously, a pack of servile slaves!
     But these cowardly Roman Legionnaires, for some incomprehensible reason, did not collapse in battle. These Legionnaires, who had no self-respect, who did not fight man-to-man, but used short swords so that no one of them could say, when he returned home, "I killed Urhtoth!" but only, "I am a member of the Fourth Legion,"—these Romans strangely didn't flee before the fiercest Barbarian charges.
     To the Barbarians, the Citizen shows the symptoms of all the things the Barbarian rejects as vile and degrading—the essence of cowardice. The Citizen yields his will to the demands of others. He allows himself to be limited, and allows himself to be compelled against his own desires.
     To the Barbarian, the Citizen shows the same loathsome abnegation that the Tribesman does.
     Which makes it all the more incomprehensible that these sniveling Citizens win battle after battle. They who have sacrificed their Manhood, have given up their right to individual dignity, somehow prove able to fight like maddened demons!

     At each stage of cultural evolution, the preceding stage appears loathsome … and the succeeding stage appears to partake of those same loathsome characteristics.
     As a rough guess, it's highly probable that the next stage of cultural evolution will appear, to us, to be Barbarism, and be a horrible, degenerate, loathsome system indeed.
     Just as the Civil system appears, to the Barbarian, to be the Tribal system, in which the individual has no dignity, and a man is not a Man, for he lacks the courage to express his individual worth and will.

     In a previous editorial, I discussed the effect of the cultural system of the local natives on the type of relationship that grows up between colonists and natives. Notice that the root philosophy of the ritual-taboo tribesman is such that it is inherently impossible to cooperate with him in establishing a colony. So long as the natives are true Tribesmen, Change is Evil—and the colonists are introducing change. There is no such thing as "a good change" in a pure-tradition system: "Change is Evil; Evil is Change."
     More immediately, the Tribesman's sense of security stems entirely from having a sure source of Answers. The Tribesman has no answers himself, and has no sense that he can be a source of answers. His sense of security, his defense against the Unknown, is a Source of Answers. He expects to be told what to do, when, and how; if his Tribal Traditions don't do so, then some other source of Answers must. He has no expectation or desire to be responsible for his own acts; that way lies the terror of the Unknown.
     If some colonist comes in and overthrows the Tribal Traditions—then the Colonist must be the Source of Answers. The Tribesman cannot cooperate on a man-to-man basis with the colonist, no matter how the colonist may seek to establish such a system. The Tribesman doesn't know he's a man; he knows only that he's a Unit of the System—that he has to be a unit of some system.
     You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink. And you can lead a Tribesman to Liberty … but you can't make him free.
     If the colonists move in to an area where there are Barbarian natives … again, cooperation is strictly impossible. Barbarians can't cooperate among themselves; they do not operate as a cross-linked, integrated team in any operation, but as individuals heading toward the same goal, and hence incidentally traveling parallel paths. Like the pellets from a shotgun charge, they produce a net group effect, but not by reason of being in a cooperating system.
     The colonists, seeking to set up a civilized colony, are presenting the Barbarians with an irresistible challenge; the colonists are showing the weakness, the spineless cowardice, the slave mentality, of allowing themselves to be pushed around by their masters. And they're demanding that the Barbarians give up their self-respect and crawl among them!
     He'd rather die in honorable battle, than knuckle under, than crawl before masters, like that!
     Of course, if the natives have already reached the Civil level of culture themselves, cooperation is not only possible, but practically inevitable. When there are free men who can and will work, slaves invariably prove too expensive.
     The Citizen can be enslaved; on that, the Barbarian is right. The Barbarian cannot be enslaved; he'll either kill himself trying to rebel, or die of psychosomatic illnesses brought on by hopelessness if rebellion is impossible. He loses the will to live, if he cannot live as a Free Barbarian.
     A Citizen can be enslaved, because, with him, freedom is not an absolute thing, as it is with the Barbarian. But such men are more efficiently productive as free men than as slaves—and they will, therefore, wind up free-in-fact, whether slaves-in-name or not.
     If the natives in an area being opened for colonization by a civilized people are themselves civilized—the result will be a hybrid civilization, with mutual respect between natives and colonists.
     If the natives are Barbarians, they cannot be enslaved, and it is impossible to cooperate with them, or establish any form of peaceful co-existence. But the Barbarian is only a short step from civilization himself. After those "sniveling, cowardly slaves" of Citizens have repeatedly defied all the certainties of Barbarian ideas by shellacking every Barbarian attack, the Barbarian—who is not stupid!—starts re-evaluating his ideas.
     At this point, cooperation may set in—because the Barbarians have ceased to be Barbarians.

     The Spanish Conquistadors represent a very unusual sort of "Colonization"; they were, actually, typical Barbarians themselves! Like the Barbarian, each of them was a force unto himself. He may not have thought that he was, himself, God, but he definitely acted on the basis that he was God's Chosen Instrument. They had unlimited faith in themselves—right up to the instant of death. Nothing had ever been able to kill them; they were invulnerable! Death and disaster was something that happened to others.
     The resultant personality made possible a level of achievement that was, quite clearly, far beyond any reasonable man's level. Their self-will and self-importance absolutely dominated anything else.
     They came from a Civil system, and had many aspects of the Civil system—but they were, individually, Barbarians.
     The Barbarian is not a worker; he's a looter. He's a high-risk gambler. He will never develop a land; he will only loot it. For him, vast, rich farm lands, just waiting for an industrious population to develop them, are of no value whatever.
     The Spanish Conquistadors never achieved anything whatever in the United States area; all the natives in this area were Barbarian-level themselves—and nothing is less profitable to a Barbarian than getting into a clawing match with other Barbarians.
     The Conquistadors did just fine in Mexico and in the Inca empire; there, the natives had recently developed a civilization—they were very-late-Barbarian early—Civilization. They could be enslaved … and were.
     Spain never established a foothold anywhere where there were no enslaveable natives.
     Wherever the enslaveable natives were early-civilization level people … the slavery lasted just long enough for the natives to learn the higher-order techniques of mid-civilization. Whereupon the now-educated natives dumped the conquerors: the result is a hybrid civilization.
     It's interesting to wonder what would have happened if the British, instead of the Spanish, had been first into those areas. In the areas where British colonists met natives of early-Civilized level—the Polynesians in New Zealand and Hawaii, for example—hybrid cultures grew up from the start.
     It's also interesting to wonder what will happen if we go in to some planet, and find what seems to be a Barbarian culture … which isn't. It would certainly be baffling, and almost certainly be disastrous in a way we cannot dimly imagine.
     It would mean the destruction of our very souls. Just as Civilization, by merely contacting Barbarians repeatedly, brings about the corruption and degradation of their dignity, their self-respect—their very souls. And turns them into cowardly, weakened, crawling things that actually cooperate with another human being.
     We can't, of course, guess just what form of loathsome corruption of our selves, our dignity, looms before us.
     It doesn't really matter; we're going to get it anyway, whether from outside, or from our own unwanted, yet inescapable, evolution.
     But we won't like it. Any more than a Tribesman likes becoming that essence of corruption and evil, a Barbarian. Or a Barbarian likes becoming that sniveling thing, a Citizen.

From TRIBESMAN, BARBARIAN AND CITIZEN by John W. Campbell, jr. (1961)


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)

Science fiction writers are supposed to be imaginative, right? If so, why is there such unanimity when it comes to prognosticating the development of human civilization out among the stars? Typically, once the colonization stage is over, star traveling humanity joins together to form interstellar associations. While individual planets may be either democracy or monarchy, these larger associations are generally built on the model of the United Nations. They are assemblies where the governments of whole star systems contend with one another, and they are usually described as an amalgam of republican democracy (US. model) and parliamentary democracy (British model). These larger associations are often described as “interstellar federations," although there seems to be a competition among SF writers to come up with new and clever monikers to hang on the government they imagine.

Star Trek's isn‘t the first “federation" in science fiction. The “federation" of Heinlein's Starship Troopers predates Jim Kirk‘s by nearly a decade. Other interstellar “democracies” include Niven and Pournelle’s CoDominion, my own Communion (a corrupted form of "Community of Nations"), and various hegemonies, republics, oligarchies, and technocracies. Whatever they are called, they are essentially a parliament of stars that spans everything from a small bubble of “known space“ to an association that stretches all along our particular spiral arm of the galaxy.

Whatever their name, as these democratic “federations" continue to expand, they seem to grow less democratic. More often than not, as they become truly large, they take on the aspects of medieval Europe. Where voting was fine for the citizenry when the associations were small suddenly feudalism begins to flower. Prime ministers and senators give way to dukes and counts. Presidents become kings, and congresses become courts. Nor does this evolution halt at the “kingdom” stage. The autocracies grow ever larger, until finally, encompass a sufficiently large portion of the Milky Way to justify having "galactic" added to their names. And no matter what form of government a science fiction writer begins with, when writing about a government that is "galactic" in its span, it always comes out the same way. I can think of no “Galactic Republic" in all of science fiction, although there may have been one or two. No, there are some words that make natural pairs. Just as “bureaucratic” just begs to have "bullsh*t" tacked on in its wake, one can hardly say the word "galactic" without the tongue immediately following with “empire."

What is it about galactic empires that so fascinate science fiction writers? Is it logical that humanity has in its future a vast star-spanning autocracy with the trappings of royalty and power beyond anything dreamed of by the Greek gods on Mount Olympus? Are we really destined to be ruled over by an emperor, a mere man who will be acknowledged as the supreme sovereign of trillions of sentient beings inhabiting millions of planets orbiting stars too numerous to count?

There are difierences in the treatment each writer gives the subject, of course. There are good emperors (Leonidis IX in The Mote in God's Eye), there are bad emperors (the fop who rules Dominic Flandry‘s decadent star-spanning civilization) and there are evil emperors (the green-faced horror from Star Wars). Whatever their personal failings, however, emperors are always supported by the Imperial Fleet. Space Navy, Marines, or Storm Troopers. These fanatic soldiers will stop at nothing to bring every planet in the galaxy under the emperor's dominion. Sometimes. this is viewed as a good thing (as in the works of Pournelle and Niven) and sometimes it is viewed as a bad thing (again Star Wars).

Whether the empire be good or bad however; whether the emperor wise or insane; whether the citizenry homogeneous human or heterogeneous human/alien, there is a similarity between all of these galactic empires that is difficult to miss. In fact, they are all sufficiently alike that we can easily identify the real-life empire after which they are modeled. Whether the author calls his or her capital planet Trantor, Arcadia, or simply Capitol we readers know them all by a difierent name. We know that they are, in reality, Rome!

As we discussed in the last chapter, it isn’t surprising that that Rome is the prototype for the galactic empires that have graced science fiction these past 75 years. Rome is unique in the history of western civilization. Indeed, it is Roman culture handed down through the generations that provides us with the very definition of what we mean when we say the words, "western civilization."

For example, much of our mythology comes to us from the Romans. That is why we name the planets after the Roman gods (Jupiter, Mars, and Venus) rather then the Greek originals (Zeus, Ares, and Aphrodite). Our language is peppered with Latin words and sayings. “Mediterranean“ is purest Latin, as is "e pluribus unum!" and "Semper Fidelis". Other words are also descended from the speech of the Romans, such as "viaduct" and "testify" (The derivation of the latter comes from the fact that swearing an oath in Rome required men to grab their family jewels in what today would be judged a rude gesture. Women couldn‘t swear an oath in Roman court. It wasn‘t that they weren't allowed; they just weren't equipped!)

Science fiction writers like the Roman Empire because it is uniquely suited to the sweep and breadth of science fiction. For like SF, it was bigger than life, having lasted some 1200 years in the West and nearly twice that long in the East. It is difficult for a modern person to grasp what it means for a nation or empire to hold suay for sixty generations! The United States has been a nation for only ll generations. Of all the modern nations, only the United Kingdom of Great Britain can stake its claim to continuity going back 932 years, although the English government has changed hands numerous times since the Norman Conquest. The oldest nation that can make the claim of being a continuous political entity is, I believe, Switzerland.

We reviewed the reasons why Rome was so successful in the last chapter. The reason can be summed up in a single word: roads. By maintaining a military road system that was not equaled until nearly the twentieth century, the Romans were able to rush overwhelming force to every part of their empire whenever trouble broke out. This, plus their highly disciplined fighting style, made them more than a match for their barbarian neighbors. Their longevity was helped, of course. by their custom of turning the captive peoples into Roman citizens within a few generations, thus building loyalty where previously none had existed. But without the roads on which to move the fast-stepping legions. they would not have lasted one-tenth as long as they did. Wherever the Roman roads ran, Rome ruled. Only when they encountered a natural barrier they could not penetrate (such as the Black Forest of Germany) did they not prevail.

Yet, despite science fiction writers‘ fondness for rewriting Gibbons Rise and Fall of the Romam Empire out among the stars, the very concept of "empire" seems anachronistic to our modern age. After all, the Soviet Union, the Earth‘s last, great empire, has been in its grave for seven years now. In fact, the red flag of the hammer-and-sickle was last lowered on Christmas day, 1991, hopefully never to be raised again.

The greatest of the modern empires was the British Empire. At its height, Queen Victoria‘s ministers boasted that "the sun never set on the British Empire." And, by the standards of the 18th and 19th Centuries, the British ruled with enlightened self-interest. At least, their former colonies seem to be more stable than the former colonies of say, France or Spain.

There were strong, practical reasons for the rise of empires, and equally compelling reasons for their downfall. Those reasons all involve economics. Rome and Britain both built their empires at a time when travel was difficult and lengthy, and bulk transportation either limited or nonexistent. The greater size of the British Empire is explained by the fact that 19th Century transportation was vastly superior to its 1st Century counterpart. Still in both eras the world remained a patchwork of villages, cities, and small, weak political entities. There were eras when a single nation with a technologically advanced (for the time) army could conquer their more backward neighbors. Putting down rebellions, what the British disparagingly called ‘wog bashing," was much easier when the “wogs" were armed with shields and spears. It is more dangerous in an age when the natives all have AK-47 assault rifles and heavy artillery at their disposal.

What killed empires was the same thing that allowed them to exist in the first place, namely the ever-accelerating pace of communication and transportation. For an empire to exist at all, it must be able to communicate with the far-flung marches that are its borders. Lose that communication, as the Romans did in Britain, and you lose the province. The fast horsemen that were Ghengiz Khan's couriers who dreaded “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night" were the communications apparatus that knitted his empire together.

Empires work when the ability of people to communicate and trade is limited. They work because the exploiting culture derives raw materials for their industries from the colonies and provinces, and enjoy a captive market in which to sell their products. The Boston Tea Party, for instance, was the result of a long series of restrictive trade laws kriown as the Navigation Acts, the purpose of which was to make sure that only English ships carried cargo to and from the American colonies.

But empires, being a collection of captive nations held together by naked force, are also unstable. This fact runs counter to the movies we all grew up with, movies in which the "thin" red line" advances in perfect order with bayonets fixed in the service of the King. And being unstable, empires can only exist so long as the emperor and his minions control the lines of communication. Give the “common folks“ the ability to communicate and trade freely, and cracks begin to form in the façade of togetherness.

Once transportation improves and millions of people can travel between continents as easily as they once journeyed to the nearest big city, then suddenly empires are no longer cost effective. With giant cargo ships crossing the ocean in a matter of days or weeks, their holds brimming with cargo and bulk commodities, suddenly it becomes cheaper to purchase a product for money than it does to have your army steal it.

Empires are less efficient than commerce because of the infrastructure costs involved in maintaining political domination over a captive people. If you are going to be in the empire business, you will need to pay the salaries of the occupying army and the colonial civil servants. There is also the cost of the fortresses, seaports, railroads, and other capital improvements required to extract the raw materials and to deliver finished goods. If you are merely purchasing raw materials such as oil, you incur none of those costs. You tie your supertanker up to the petroleum terminal and say, "fill her up!"

There is another cost to empire that people often overlook. It is the "opportunity cost" inherent in doing business only with one’s own colonies. What if natural rubber is cheaper in Indonesia than it is in your colony in Malaysia? Too bad. You still have to buy your rubber in Malaysia. Why? Are you telling me that after making all of those investments in infrastructure, you are going to let them sit idle? I think not. You will use what you have built in your colony, even if doing so costs you money. A commercial buyer, on the other hand has none of these concerns. He merely goes where the prices are cheapest and doesn't worry whether or not the Malay docks are empty.

The foregoing discussion yields an interesting point. It was improvement in communications and transportation that originally created empires (Rome with its roads, Britain with its navy). However, it was these same two factors that made empires go out of fashion as communications approached instantaneous and transportation grew to the get-anywhere-in-a-single-day system we enjoy today. This is known in science as the “too much of a good thing" paradox. If one aspirin will cure your headache, just think of what an entire bottle will do for you! And since we are about to have even more of the good thing that killed empires, what chance that we will see their like again anytime soon?

ln the near term, empires are likely to stay dead. However, the far future may be another story. Why? Because the speed of communications and transportation are about to reach minimum. Soon it will be possible to travel to any point on the planet in four hours or less. But that will remain true only so long as we confine our activities to this one small world. When we finally go out to the solar system, and then to the stars, the time required to travel to the farthest inhabited point in humanity‘s realm will increase dramatically. No longer will journeys be measured in hours, but rather in days, weeks, months, or years.

Starships will resemble sailing ships far more than airplanes — in terms of travel time, accommodations, and operating procedure. And empires, it turns out, are a distinct possibility in a universe of "sailing ships." So, let us evaluate what conditions will be like out among the stars. Will those conditions once again make galactic empires feasible’? Indeed, will they make them inevitable?

The Stars Are Ours, If Only We Can Figure Out How to Claim Them

We have discussed the subject of interstellar distances before in this series so we will not go deeply into that subject again. Let us merely say that the stars are far apart … damned far apart!

Flying at the speed of a jet airliner, it would take 5,000,000 years to reach the nearest star, and the prime real estate is a great deal farther away than that. So the future of spacefaring humanity (if it has a future), will parallel the past of seagoing humanity. First we will have to learn to paddle our canoes, then to sail, steam. and finally, to race around in gas-turbine-powered hydrofoils. And just as the Roman and British Empires were reflections of the speed of travel and communication in their day, so too will be the governments of our future interstellar possessions. Let us then go through the phases of interstellar exploration and colonization, to see whether the old forms of governinent may indeed obtain a new lease on life. We will start at the very crudest technology that might get us to the stars, then work our way up the technological (and science fiction) ladder.

Generation Ships, Slow Boats To The Stars

As you all should know by now. scientists believe that faster-than-light travel is impossible. That you find so many ftl ships in science fiction is less the result of our greater scientific knowledge than our fervent hope that Einstein was wrong in some small aspect of his Theory of Relativity. For if he is right, this is going to be a dull universe!

Not too far ahead of our current level of technology, however, is a time when we be able to build a ship that will actually travel to the nearer stars. The only problem is that it will do so at speeds substantially less than that of light. In science fiction diese are called generation ships because their crews live for generations aboard while they plod slowly across the black gulf between the stars. Those who arrive at the destination are the descendents of the original crew, all of whom are long dead. Generation ships are sometimes called “slow boats" for obvious reasons.

What kind of an interstellar government would form in a society that relied on slow boats to colonize the stars? Frankly, none whatever. Even if the central government on Earth demanded that the colonists of Alpha Centauri III swear allegiance to the flag, how could they possibly force the issue? If it takes two hundred years to travel from Sol to Alpha Centauri. even a punitive military expedition would be meaningless. By the time it arrived, the government that sent it on its way would be long dead, as would the colonists they were trying to punish.

So, the initial stellar colonies will have to be entirely self-sufficient. They will set up any kind of government they choose and Earth will be powerless to stop them. Likewise. any association of different star systems would be doomed to failure for the simple reason that those sent to attend the opening session of the Interstellar Parliament would all die of old age en route.

This doesn‘t sound to be a very desirable state of affairs, does it? Why would anyone go to the expense of setting up a colony that will provide the home society no benefits for generations? The people on Earth can't tax the colony, they can‘t sell it goods, and they can‘t very well retrieve its raw materials for their own use. It sounds like a losing proposition so why bother setting up such a colony in the first place?

Altruism is one motivation. So long as the human race remains clustered on a single planet in a single star system, we are vulnerable to the vagaries of Mother Nature. A really large asteroid or a small hiccup from the sun would be all that is required to exterminate us. With thriving colonies around several of the nearer stars, we would at least have spread the human gene pool far enough that a single disaster wouldn't get us all.

However, save as a species insurance policy, colonizing the universe by slow boat holds little attraction for the science fiction geo-politician. Fiction is about conflict and war is the ultimate in conflicts. So, let us see if we can't get something started by improving our starships a bit. Let's build the Einstein Flyer, a ship that can exceed the speed of light by as much as a factor of two!

Speeds A Little Faster Than Light

Actually, Einstein didn’t say that you couldn‘t fly faster than the speed of light. What he said was that you can‘t accelerate through the speed of light. The reason for this is that strange things happen at light speed. Mass becomes infinite, time stops dead in its tracks, and everything material is spread out in a wavefront with infinite width and zero thickness. The speed of light, denoted as c by physicists, is a discontinuity in the laws of physics. None of the familiar laws hold there, and since a ship moving at c has infinite mass, no amount of energy will serve to accelerate it 1 mm/sec faster.

However, the conditions that exist at speeds above c are currently undefined by our physics. Perhaps there is a loophole that says we can jump from a dead stop to a speed of twice the speed of light, 2c. What could one do with a starship that could reach the stars at speeds up to two lights? (The light being the obvious unit of measurement for multiples of c.)

An ftl ship capable of speeds up to two lights would be millions of times faster than anything we have yet built. Even so, the scale of the universe is such that setting out for Alpha Centauri in one would be like trying to cross the Pacific Ocean in a rowboat. Actually, that analogy is not an apt one. To reach Alpha Centauri at two lights would take slightly more than two years. You can row your way across the Pacific much more quickly than that!

Still it‘s an improvement. Suddenly, the nearer stars are in reach and ready for colonizing — assuming of course, that we can find suitable planets circling them. In this context “suitable” has a broad meaning. Since we would be limited to searching the stars within about a dozen light years of Sol, we couldn‘t be too picky about where we settled. That means much of our effort to plant human colonies in alien star systems would involve moving life support equipment there. Domes, cold weather gear, breathing apparatus to keep the chlorine atmosphere at bay, all of these would be in great demand.

At twice light speed, local space begins to resemble the Earth in the days of Magellan. Having convinced King Charles I of Spain that he knew a way around South America (he was lying), Magellan set off to the west on a voyage of discovery. The few surviving members of his expedition returned some three years later. Magellan wasn't among them. He died in the Philippines after sticking his nose into something that was none of his business.

Still, taking a few years to reach the nearer stars makes interstellar travel somewhat feasible. Interaction between the home system and the colonies would become possible, although commuting would be severely restricted. Colonies would grow slowly, and eventually some form of interstellar government would arise. The history of the Age of Discovery proves that even with commerce limited to a few ships each year, interaction between colonies and homeland would continue.

What sort of governments would tend to arise if we had slow ftl drives? Pretty much the same sort that sprung up in the Western Hemisphere in the years following Columbus's discovery of America. Within a dozen light-years or so of Sol, those governments would have ongoing trade and relations with Earth. Perhaps economic, political, or religious refugees would settle stars much more distant — with the intent to get as far away from their oppressors as possible. But most of the colonies would be built within ten-travel-years of Sol. That would limit us to Alpha Centauri, Procyon, and the few other F and G class stars within our reach.

The colonial governments would owe allegiance to their benefactors on Earth, if for no other reason than that they would be highly dependent on the yearly supply ships from home. Governments would probably be run by representatives of the home nation or company, with governor-general a popular title for chief executives. Local affairs would largely be run locally, because even a two-year journey in one direction would make soliciting instructions from home too cumbersome to be effective. Nor would it be feasible to receive instructions by laser or radio. Remember that the ships are twice as fast as electromagnetic radiation!

The number of suitable candidate stars for colonization within l2 light years isn‘t very large, so there would be nothing resembling a large Interstellar Federation. Again, the prototype would be the New World in the Sixteenth Century, a few colonies set up by the major powers (whoever they might be at the time), and owing allegiance to their founders. After a few generations, the locals would begin to lose their reverence for the “old country,” and independence movements would begin, ending in their breaking away from Earth's control.

War in a universe where ships are limited to low multiples of light speed would very much resemble the duels between sailing fleets that took place during the Napoleonic Era. It would be a universe where the report of a single warship in a star system would send a panic through the populace, and where starships might raid planets for loot. Piracy would again become possible. and maybe even profitable — depending, of course, on how much it cost to get from star to star.

Commerce would be light and scattered, with no more than a few ships arriving each year at any given colony world. Perhaps the liners that plied the interstellar lanes would set out on a great circuit of the colonies, a journey that would take a decades to complete. These ships would be manned by people who owed no allegiance to any nation or governrnent. Like the Gypsies or the Bedouin, they would be the nomads of space, free traders needed by everyone, but also at odds with those they served. Their allegiances would be reserved for their individual ships and crews.

Obviously, then, a universe in which ftl is limited is not one where either a wide-ranging mterstellar federation or galactic empire is possible. So, let its continue our journey up the scale of speed. Next stop, the era of fast ftl travel!

FTL Speedsters

Before one can seriously consider building a star-spanning civilization, the top speed of starships must be dramatically improved. A viable starship must make the journey from Sol to Alpha Centauri in months rather than years, and preferably in a matter of weeks. The Milky Way Galaxy is a collection of 200 billion stars in the shape of a flattened disk some 100,000 light years in diameter. Even a ship capable of speeds up to 1000 lights (1000 light-years traveled per year of time consumed) would take a lifetime to transit from one side of the galaxy to the other. Sol is 28,000 light-years distant from the center of the galaxy, and about 20 light-years above the galaxy’s equatorial plane. This means that an expedition to the Galactic Center would take 28 years going out and an equal time coming back. That’s a long time to wait to get pictures from the core.

As for reaching the nearest large neighboring galaxy, Andromeda, forget it. A 1000-light speedster would have to be in transit from the time Rome was founded until well into the next century. Obviously, invaders from another galaxy are not going to be a problein if 1000-lights is their upper speed limit.

Still, a ship that fast (in Star Trek parlance, 1000 lights is Warp Factor 10) would be highly useful to anyone wanting to build a respectable interstellar civilization. Instead of being limited to a globe of space a dozen light-years around Earth, a l000-light ship would extend that globe to a respectable 3000 light-year radius around Sol. There are literally millions of stars within 3000 light-years of the sun, with at least an equal number of planets. An FTL speedster would eliminate the need to settle for any old piece of real estate we happened to come across. We could afford to pick and choose, limiting ourselves only to Earth-like planets with oxygen atmospheres and well-developed biospheres.

A Warp Factor 10 starship would make the science fiction dream of an Interstellar Federation feasible. It would also allow for the prosecution of modern-style wars. At 1000-lights velocity, war would be far ranging and indescribably violent. Fleets of ships could leave hidden military bases and strike out against their enemies across a vast region of space. Billions would die in any large-scale conflict, and whole planets would be left uninhabitable … just the sort of situation we science fiction writers love to write about!

However, even at 1000 times the speed of light, our ships are too slow to build anything on a truly galactic scale. Most likely, human space would end up a distorted pancake shape, with starships visiting many of the stars in our local arm of the galaxy. Perhaps we would explore farther, crossing over to the next arm, and maybe even send an expedition toward Galactic North far enough to get a picture of the Milky Way from the outside. But a galactic empire would be out of the question. An interstellar federation (or kingdom) would be about the best we could manage.

Galactic Clippers

Before a civilization can truly spread throughout the galavy, it will require starships capable of at least 10,000-lights velocity (Warp Factor 20+). These ships would only require ten years to cross the galaxy, and three years to reach its center. At 10,000 lights velocity, the galaxy “shrinks” to about the size of the Earth at the time of Magellan, and the stars of local space are as close as the neighborhood convenience market. At 10,000 lights, there is no place in the galaxy a starship cannot go, although Andromeda continues to be inconveniently far away. An expedition to our neighbor galaxy would have to use a generation ship. Or possibly, if we assuine that a society able to build a Galactic Clipper will have made similar advances in medicine, perhaps the intergalactic gulf might be crossed in a single lifetime. Even so, three centuries is a long tiine to spend aboard the same ship.

Human civilization would spread quickly with Galactic Clippers, quickly and thinly. For if we are able to reach every star in the galaxy, we will become hypercritical about the real estate we settle. With more than 200-billion candidate systems from which to choose, why not? Before any planet is judged acceptable for colonization, it will have to possess lush green forests, a pliant population of beautiful native women, and waterfalls of champagne cascading down the sides of picturesque peaks. Anything less and we will pass it by as unsuitable.

It is the Galactic Clipper that will make a galaxy-wide government work. There may someday be millions of ships flitting hither and yon, so many that their aggregate mass might actually produce a measurable perturbation in the galaxy‘s gravitational field. Also, people being the way they are, there would likely be several wars raging across the great pool of stars at any given moment.

That is the downside of the Galactic Clipper. It will make destruction on an unimaginable scale possible. Thousands of ships will someday slash and parry across ten-thousand-light-year-wide fronts, destroying planets and stars in their futile quest for victory. Because of the vastness between the stars, a wide-scale war might take centuries or even millennia to win. Ships would appear from nowhere to launch their planet-busters, then disappear into the blackness before anyone could react. The number of artificial novas that might result from an extended human conflict could well make the galaxy twinkle visibly from afar.

Nor is war the only thing a Galactic Clipper would make possible. The sheer size of the galaxy will inevitably lead to endless variations in culture and governmental forms. Every hair-brained scheme of governance ever imagined will be tried somewhere. So, too, will every vice we have yet discovered and several not yet imagined. Crime is likely to run rampant across the spaceways. And why not? The perpetrators of any crime or atrocity will have so much black vacuum in which to hide that their apprehension will be nearly impossible.

Anarchy and chaos are the natural result of any civilization spread as thinly as humans will likely be when we fill the galaxy. Yet, human beings have a built-in defense against anarchy. Whenever we feel collectively threatened, we band together to confront the threat. These ad hoc alliances will likely coalesce into an association of free worlds. essentially, an Interstellar Federation. One of the first acts of such an alliance will be to establish a "force in being," a Federation Starfleet.

Keeping the peace will only be part of the Starfleet's mission, however. For in a universe of Galactic Clippers, when a lone ship can strike a world with little or no warning, planets outside the federation will always represent a continuing security risk to those within. It will not take long before the association of free worlds decides that the benefits of membership will be extended to all worlds everywhere — whether they like it or not. Persuasion will be the preferred method of recruitment, of course, but force will be used when necessary.

As it expands, it will become more autocratic, and imperceptibly, the Interstellar Federation will give way to the Galactic Empire.

Would such an “empire" be an empire in reality, or merely a giant-size nation? Even with Galactic Clippers, the distances and travel times involved ensure that arguments will abound in a galaxy inhabited by ornery human beings. Arguments inevitably lead to wars unless there is a force such as the Imperial Starfleet to keep the peace.

This isn’t to say that a galactic empire will rule the member worlds with an iron hand. Quite the contrary! The same distance that makes unity difficult also prevents pettifogging bureaucrats from directing everything from the galactic capital. Individual planets will likely run themselves as they see fit. There will be democracies, autocracies, plutocracies, monarchies, theocracies, and a dozen kinds of “-ocracy" that we have yet to imagine.

The Galactic Empire‘s central government will primarily be in charge of moderating the individual star systems’ baser instincts. It will, presumably, stop one star system from blowing up another merely because they have different political philosophies. Failing that, it will punish the transgressors. And, of course, it will make sure that everyone pays his or her taxes on time.


So now we know why science fiction Writers are nearly universal in their belief that hmnankind will eventually coalesce into a galactic empire! In a universe where travel times allow for the basic orneriness of human beings to flower, some form of autocratic central government seems unavoidable. For despite the fact that they have gone out of style here on Earth history shows that the empires are one kind of government able to handle the divergent political views of a heterogeneous population. That there is a certain degree of compulsion involved in the process is unfortunate. but probably necessary. Those of us who fought the Russian Empire for our entire lives are not totally happy to see it go. We are just now becoming aware of some of the ancient hatreds that were suppressed by Joe Stalin‘s army. A good example is the current state of the former Yugoslavia.

Obviously. it would be better if we could meld the galaxy into a single, homogeneous culture, to make it a Galactic Nation rather than a Galactic Empire. However. with millions of star systems separated from one another by weeks or months of travel time, that isn‘t likely to happen. Divergence of opinion is inevitable. and to the extent that a world's practices don‘t bother its neighbors, tolerance will likely reign. But there will be certain attitudes and acts that will be judged to be inimical to the collective good, and prohibiting these will be the job of the Imperial Starfleet and its Marines!

Thus it has always been. Thus it shall ever be.

All Hail the Galactic Emperor!

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)

Calculating Control Radius

So, given a maximum timelag and the speed of your FTL warships and/or radio, the maxium radius of your empire can be calculated. This assumes that the imperial capital is located at the center of the sphere, but see below. Alternatively, given the maximum timelag and the desired radius, the speed of the FTL warships/radio can be calculated. It comes down to the ancient equation Distance equals Rate time Time.

ControlRadius = FTL_Lightspeeds * Maximum_Timelag

FTL_Lightspeeds = ControlRadius / Maximum_Timelag


ControlRadius = distance from Imperial Capital and the rim of the empire (light-years)
FTL_Lightspeeds = velocity of FTL starships and/or FTL radio (multiples of lightspeed, or "c")
Maximum_Timelag = maximum allowed time for a message to travel from the capital to the rim (years)

According to the above estimates, this is around 0.19 years (10 weeks) to 0.29 years (15 weeks), averaging to 0.23 years (12 weeks). Take your pick.


In Poul Anderson's Dominic Flandry series, the Terran Empire has a radius of 200 light-years (400 ly diameter). If the maximum timelag is 0.23 years (12 weeks), how fast must the FTL courier starships be?

FTL_Lightspeeds = ControlRadius / Maximum_Timelag
FTL_Lightspeeds = 200 / 0.23
FTL_Lightspeeds = 870 times the speed of light

At 870c, a Terran Empire courier starship can travel from Sol to Alpha Centauri in less than two days (1.8 days).

Say your empire's subspace radio travels at 70 lightspeeds. If the maximum timelag is 0.29 years, what is the control radius of your empire?

ControlRadius = FTL_Lightspeeds * Maximum_Timelag
ControlRadius = 70 * 0.29
ControlRadius = 20 light-years

There are approximately 100 stars within 20 light-years of Sol.

What if you want a true galactic empire which includes the entire Milky Way Galaxy? Assume a maximum timelag of 0.19 years. Assume the galaxy has a radius of 50,000 light-years. Further assume that the Imperial Capital is somehow located at the center of the galaxy, even though that is a most unhealthy place to be. How fast must the starships/ftl radio be?

FTL_Lightspeeds = ControlRadius / Maximum_Timelag
FTL_Lightspeeds = 50,000 / 0.19
FTL_Lightspeeds = 260,000 times the speed of light

At 260,000c, the starships/ftl radio can travel from Sol to Alpha Centauri in approximately eight and a half minutes.

Sample Radii
1Radius of solar system Oort Cloud
15Sol's interstellar neighborhood
20Nearest 100 stars
30Average half-light radius of typical globular cluster
200Local Bubble, radius of Poul Anderson's Terran empire
1000Approximate thickness of galaxy centered on Sol
25,000Distance from Sol to galactic core
50,000Radius of the galaxy

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 than X if you delegate control to a series of sub-capitals at some distance. For maximum safety, the sub-capitals should be no further from the capital than X. If the empire wants to push its luck, it can trust the sub-sector governors a bit more and located the sub-capitals further than X. This allows the empire to be wider, but more unstable.

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.


      Take the proficiency of fungi at problem-solving. Fungi are used to searching out food by exploring complex three-dimensional environments such as soil, so maybe it’s no surprise that fungal mycelium solves maze puzzles so accurately. It is also very good at finding the most economical route between points of interest. The mycologist Lynne Boddy once made a scale model of Britain out of soil, placing blocks of fungus-colonised wood at the points of the major cities; the blocks were sized proportionately to the places they represented. Mycelial networks quickly grew between the blocks: the web they created reproduced the pattern of the UK’s motorways (‘You could see the M5, M4, M1, M6’). Other researchers have set slime mould loose on tiny scale-models of Tokyo with food placed at the major hubs (in a single day they reproduced the form of the subway system) and on maps of Ikea (they found the exit, more efficiently than the scientists who set the task). Slime moulds are so good at this kind of puzzle that researchers are now using them to plan urban transport networks and fire-escape routes for large buildings.

     Mycelium not only grows into economical networks, it also reshapes itself in response to its environment. From a block of colonised wood, teeming hyphae initially grow out in all directions in search of more food. But when one part of the network finds something new to consume – another block of wood, for instance – the rest of the mycelium stops searching, withdraws from fruitless areas and begins thickening the links to the new food source. What’s more, if the hyphae that connect the original block of wood to the newly discovered one are stripped away, and the two blocks are placed in a new container to prevent the re-establishment of old pathways, the regrowing mycelium will nevertheless start out of the original block in the direction of the other one: it appears to ‘possess a directional memory, although the basis of this memory is unknown’.

     ‘Solving mazes and complex routing problems are non-trivial exercises,’ Sheldrake writes. ‘This is why mazes have long been used to assess the problem-solving abilities of many organisms, from octopuses to bees to humans.’ Fungi ace these puzzles because ‘solving spatial and geometrical problems is what they have evolved to do.’ They are diffuse, plastic beings: they reform themselves around the problem at hand. ‘Mycelium’, says Sheldrake, is a body without limits: ‘a body without a plan’.

     With a decentralised body that grows independently at every extremity, how does a fungus know when to change itself? When a hyphal tip discovers a tasty block of wood, how is this information conveyed to the rest of the network-body? Through chemical transport, perhaps? Fungi are known to produce and respond to chemicals that can act as cues, and mycelial networks transport water and nutrients rapidly through their hyphae in ‘micro-tubules’, which function hydraulically and are highly pressure-sensitive. They can also direct the flow towards particular areas: when it is time to produce a mushroom, for instance, the mycelium propels water into the growing fruit, sometimes under great pressure. A fruiting stinkhorn mushroom can crack through asphalt, exerting a force sufficient to lift about 130 kg.

     However, as methods of communication go, chemical plumes and microflows of pressurised liquid aren’t very fast – and the mycelium of some fungi can extend for kilometres. Would electricity fit the bill? In the 1990s, the Swedish mycologist Stefan Olsson began to investigate. Adapting techniques used to research the brains of insects, he inserted glass microelectrodes into the body of the honey fungus, a species that creates huge mycelial networks. Sure enough, the mycelium was producing electrical impulses ‘at a rate very close to that of animals’ sensory neurons’, which travelled through the network along the hyphae. When a block of wood – a food source – was placed in contact with the wired-up mycelium, the rate of firing doubled; it returned to normal when the wood was removed. Controls with a plastic block of similar size showed that the fungus was identifying the wood, rather than merely responding to weight or contact. Olsson repeated the experiment with other species of fungi, obtaining the same results: he concluded that fungi use electrical signals for internal communication, reporting on what the hyphae find or what is happening around them. They are, Sheldrake writes, ‘fantastically complex networks of electrically excitable cells’.

     Some researchers compare mycelial networks to brains, others to computers. Both images are seductive: the first suggests fantastical beings, extending themselves in contemplative ingestion through forest and field; the second invites speculation that mycelium’s ability to sample and report on its surroundings might somehow be harnessed as a kind of ‘biocomputing’, capable of providing finely textured real-time reports on the health of the environment. Sheldrake cautions that neither metaphor truly gets close to the reality of mycelial lives, but he seems quite taken with them nonetheless. Likewise, Olsson dismisses the brain analogy, yet when observing that hyphal branching creates junctions that could act as ‘decision gates’ to integrate the streams of impulses from the foraging tips, he can’t resist wondering if mycelium might indeed act like ‘a “brain” that could learn and remember’.

FROM ITS MYRIAD TIPS by Francis Gooding (2021)

(ed note: In the same way, interstellar traffic networks could be created using the same algorithm that slime molds use, and without a central controlling intelligence.)

      Since the best city planners around the world have not been able to end traffic jams, scientists are looking to a new group of experts: slime mold.
     That's right, a species of gelatinous amoeba could help urban planners design better road systems to reduce traffic congestion, a new study found.
     A team of researchers studied the slime mold species Physarum polycephalum and found that as it grows it connects itself to scattered food crumbs in a design that’s nearly identical to Tokyo’s rail system.
     Slime mold is a fungus-like, single-celled animal that can grow in a network of linked veins, spreading over a surface like a web. The mold expands by dividing its nuclei into more and more nuclei, though all are technically enclosed in one large cell.
     "Some organisms grow in the form of an interconnected network as part of their normal foraging strategy to discover and exploit new resources," wrote the researchers in a paper published in the Jan. 22 issue of the journal Science. Slime mold has evolved to grow in the most efficient way possible to maximize its access to nutrients.
     "[It] can find the shortest path through a maze or connect different arrays of food sources in an efficient manner with low total length, yet short average minimum distance between pairs of food sources," wrote the scientists, led by Atsushi Tero from Hokkaido University in Japan.
     To test whether slime-mold networks behave anything like train and car traffic networks, the researchers placed oat flakes in various spots on a wet surface so that the resulting layout corresponded to the cities surrounding Tokyo. They even added areas of bright light (which slime mold tends to avoid) to correspond to mountains or other geologic features that the trains would have to steer around.
     The scientists let the mold organize itself and spread out around these nutrients, and found that it built a pattern very similar to the real-world train system connecting those cities around Tokyo. And in some ways, the amoeba solution was more efficient. What's more, the slime mold built its network without a control center that could oversee and direct the whole enterprise; rather, it reinforced routes that were working, and eliminated redundant channels, constantly adapting and adjusting for maximum efficiency.
     To take advantage of what nature and evolution have spent millennia perfecting, the researchers fed information about the slime mold's feeding and growing habits into a computer model, and hope to use it to design more efficient and adaptive transportation networks.
     "The model captures the basic dynamics of network adaptability through interaction of local rules, and produces networks with properties comparable to or better than those of real-world infrastructure networks," Wolfgang Marwan of Otto von Guericke University in Germany, who was not involved in the project, wrote in an accompanying essay in the same issue of Science.
     "The work of Tero and colleagues provides a fascinating and convincing example that biologically inspired pure mathematical models can lead to completely new, highly efficient algorithms able to provide technical systems with essential features of living systems."


A synthetic cell with life-like properties reveals fundamental principles of morphogenesis and perception

     Nature is full of fascinating patterns. Plants show beautiful spiral growth, regularly arranged leaves and petals, animals impress us with their striped and dotted furs and social insects build complex nest structures. These almost perfectly arranged patterns seem to arise without a blue print, like the emergence of cellular shapes during embryonic development called morphogenesis. A team of interdisciplinary researchers led by Philippe Bastiaens, director at the Max-Planck-Institute of Molecular Physiology in Dortmund, has created a life-like proto-cell energized by chemical potential, which is capable of translating external signals into shape changes in dependence on its own self-organized morphology. With this, the team has revealed how the collective dynamics of nanometer-sized macromolecules self-organize into micrometer patterns that affect the cellular perception of shape-changing extracellular cues in our own cells. This interdependence between shape and information processing that is mediated by the deformable plasma membrane is a fundamental feature of living cells and enables them to respond to an ever changing environment in dependence on their prior experience.

     Seemingly headless, thousands of termites crawl over the ground carrying and dropping sand grains. And although the termites do not have a construction plan, a regular pattern of sand pillars emerges as if from nowhere. In this termite-sand system the termites provide the energy to restructure the sand into a living, dynamic building that is in continuous coupling with an ever changing environment.

     Bastiaens’s interdisciplinary group of biochemists and applied as well as theoretical physicists has now shown that a very similar situation occurs in our cells that use chemical potential as an energy source to generate dynamically maintained structures consisting of molecules instead of sand grains. The out-of-equilibrium, energized state that enables this collective behavior is a property of living matter to generate and stabilize a dynamically maintained identity in an ever changing world.

How Apparent Coincidence Becomes Form

     One characteristic of self-organizing processes is random fluctuations that can be amplified by local interactions between agents. When termites make their random walks for example, they pick up and drop sand grains, which leads to fluctuations in the density of sand. However, during the reshuffling of the sand, the termites leave a pheromone scent on the sand grains that they have carried around that increases the drop chances of another loaded termite randomly passing by. This leads to a self-amplification of sand piles that depletes the free sand grains. The process of amplification and depletion leads to a regular pattern of sand pillars that forms the fundament of their nest.

     This phenomenon, called stigmergy, which means ‘leaving a sign on work in progress’ was first described by the French zoologist Pierre-Paul Grassé in 1959 and explains how the indirect communication of social insects via sand leads to a collective behavior that generates dynamical structures such as sand pillars, that are organized in a regular way. The termite queen communicates with this self-organizing termite-sand system by emitting a pheromone gradient. This functions as a template to have a dynamic building being built around her that adapts to her growing size.

Molecular Self-Organization Gets Cells into Shape

     In order to study if the principles of the stigmergic collective behavior of the termite-sand system also apply for the self-organization of biomolecules in cellular morphogenesis, Bastiaens’s group build a synthetic cell with life-like properties by encapsulating lifeless biological building blocks within a deformable lipid membrane and put life into them by energizing the system with ATP/GTP chemical potential. This now out-of-equilibrium encapsulated system consisted of a dynamic microtubule cytoskeleton as well as a light responsive molecular signaling module that operates akin to natural morphogen signaling.

     In cellular morphogenesis the emergence of new structures occurs by the deformation of the plasma membrane by dynamic rearrangements of the cytoskeleton. Extracellular morphogens guide this process by binding to receptors on the cell membrane. Information is transduced inside the cell by rebalancing intracellular phosphorylation reaction cycles. This generates intracellular chemical signaling gradients that locally promote growth of the cytoskeleton. The scientist have recreated this process by engineering a light responsive signaling system that translocates a bioengineered kinase to the membrane, which rebalances phosphorylation reaction cycles of the tubulin sequestration molecule Stathmin. They could thereby show that what actually promotes cytoskeletal growth is that these phosphorylation cycles operate like a molecular machine that continuously pumps microtubule building blocks towards the membrane.

Stigmergic Principles in Cellular Morphogenesis

     The ideas of the scientists turned out to be true as their life-like proto-cells revealed that both the cytoskeleton as well as the signaling system self-organize into different patterns by interaction with the membrane according to the same stigmergic principles as the termite-sand system. In case of the cytoskeleton, a small protrusion of the membrane formed by the local growth of a microtubule captures more microtubules, thereby amplifying the growth of the protrusion that depletes the free microtubules. In case of the signaling system, the recruitment of the kinase to the membrane results in self-amplified clusters that deplete the free kinase.

     Even more, the researchers could show that indirect communication between the signaling and cytoskeletal system was mediated by the deformable membrane leading to self-organized shapes such as star-like or polar structures. They could also demonstrate that localized extracellular signaling cues operate akin to the pheromone emitting termite queen, providing a chemical template that directs the self-organizing termite-sand system to have a dynamic building being structured around her. In case of the proto-cells, the signaling gradient constrained the self-organizing solutions of the bi-directionally communicating signaling and cytoskeletal systems to reorganize the life-like cells in the direction of extracellular cues. However, this response to extracellular cues was very much dependent on the initial, self-organized shape of the proto cells, which makes their response subjective to their prior experience that shaped them.

Cellular Perception Emerges from the Interdependence of Shape and Signaling

     The balance of the two recursively interacting stigmergic systems turned out to determine the basal morphology of the proto-cell, for example if it had a polar or star-like shape. When basal signaling dominated over microtubule-induced membrane deformation, proto-cells exhibited star-like morphology whereas when microtubule-induced deformations dominated over signaling, the proto cells became polar. Changing the balance between the stigmergic systems by an extracellular signal can reshape a star into a polar shape but not the other way around. This shows that morphing of cells is not solely guided by an unidirectional information flow from extracellular cues, but is also determined by the morphology of the cell itself as shaped by prior events.

     “Whether cells in a developing healthy or diseased tissue respond to their environment in dependence on prior experience is a big question in the field of cell and developmental biology. Our work shows, that cells do not behave like simple input-output machines but integrate previous experiences in their response to an ever changing environment. In a developing tissue the environment of cells consists of other cells and our self-organized proto-cells have the potential to establish recursive communication among them via the property of mechano-sensing that emerges from the recursive coupling between the signaling and cytoskeletal system. This could thereby enable us to investigate how recursive communication between self-organized molecular systems within cells leads to self-organized tissue formation at the higher scale”, concludes Philippe Bastiaens.


(ed note: the Xul rose about ten million years ago, and have been the scourge of the galaxy ever since. They are the answer to the Fermi Paradox, the one labeled The Beserker Hypothesis. In the series, the Human empire has been fighting the Xul for almost a thousand years.

The only reason the humans have managed to survive so long is because the Xul assault is strangely uncoordinated. One Xul dreadnought found Earth and managed to devastate most of the surface. But after the dreadnought was destroyed, no other Xul forces showed up in the Solar system to finish the job. It was almost as if the other Xul forces forgot about humans. Or had never been told.

At a senate hearing, Lieutenant General Martin Alexander (the leader of the US Marines) is attempting to explain to the idiot politicians the facts of the matter.)

      (General Alexander said) “No, sir. And that is a problem, not being able to talk with them.
     “But since we can’t talk to them, it may be that military actions of the type we’ve been employing—quick, sharp raids against targets small enough to give us a good chance of short-term success—that those give us our best long-term option in dealing with the Xul, and for protecting ourselves. We’ve been saying all along that to be able to talk with them, we need to get their attention. But, just maybe, we’ve been going about it in completely the wrong way. It may be that, so far as the Xul are concerned, there’s no one there for us to talk to. The Xul, as a collective entity, are not intelligent….

     Several senators came to their feet, shouting.
     “What are you talking about?”
     “What the hell does that mean?”
     “General Alexander! Explain yourself!”

     He’d already put his conclusions into a written report, but doubted that many here in this chamber had actually bothered to read it.

     “For centuries,” Alexander went on, “we’ve been dealing with the Xul on the assumption that they are intelligent, rational beings. We’ve learned, slowly, that they’re quite different from us, that they think differently, that they react differently to various stimuli. But because they are a technological species, building spacecraft and colonizing worlds, we’ve assumed that they are intelligent…meaning that they are capable of reason and of rational discourse, the same as us.
     “We now believe that we were wrong in making that assumption.”

     Alexander waited for a moment, as shouts echoed through the chamber. Gradually, the noise died away; he had their full attention now.
     “Our most recent probes of Xul ships, and of their complex at the heart of the Galaxy, has convinced the xenosophontologists with the MIEF that the Xul are, in fact, a CAS.”
     There was a long pause. “Can you explain that term, General?” Senator Tillman ventured.
     “A CAS, ladies and gentlemen, is a Complex Adaptive System. We’ve known about them for a long time—since the dawn of our relationship with artificial intelligences, in fact.
     “A CAS is any system made up of many independent operators, or agents. Each agent operates on a fairly simplistic level, doing one or two things independently. A good example is a termite nest.”

     “We’ve already determined that the Xul do not have a hive mind, General,” Senator Ralston said.
     “I’m not talking about a hive mind,” Alexander said. “At least, not in the sense that most humans understand the term. Most people think that an ant hill or a termite mound are analogues of human cities…that there are soldiers to defend them and workers to build and, somewhere down inside the mound, there’s a queen termite telling all of the other termites what to do.
     “Termite nests do have queens—and kings as well, unlike ant hills—but their sole contribution to the colony is reproduction. They don’t give orders or control the nest. In fact, no one ‘gives orders.’ Each termite goes about its daily life, doing termite things. Thousands of termites—certain species of them, anyway, together build incredibly complex ‘cities’ six meters high, which regulate the internal temperature to within one degree Centigrade over the course of a day. A colony of a million termites working together creates the impression of a single organized and intelligent mind.
     “In fact, each termite is a CAS agent with a very simple set of behaviors. The termite colony has its own pattern of behavior—far more complex, interesting, and apparently intelligent than that of a single insect. One termite is rigid in its behavior, and it dies when its surroundings aren’t appropriate for that behavior. The entire colony, however, is highly resilient and adaptive, can survive a wide range of threats and conditions, and in some ways mimics what we humans think of as intelligent behavior.” (in other words: Swarm Intelligence. Which explains how the Xul can control most of the galaxy, since swarm intelligence is infinitely scaleable)

     “General Alexander,” Senator McLeod, of Ontario, said, “are you saying the Xul are termites?”
     Alexander sighed. How to get through to them? Senators were as rigid and as predictable in their behavior, in some ways, as individual termites.

     “No, sir. I’m saying they are a complex adaptive system. Nature is full of them. A hurricane is a CAS, with numerous chaotic agents that work together to create a storm that appears to have conscious volition. Individual agents can be anything. Termites in a termite colony. Humans in the Commonwealth. Machines. AIs or more simplistic software. Corporations spread across the Commonwealth and in other nation-states. Cancer cells are CAS agents. The Commonwealth economy…that’s made up of hundreds of billions of individual agents, from banking laws and the rules of supply and demand to individual Commonwealth citizens earning and spending credit. We have government bureaucracies tasked with maintaining and regulating our economy, but no one is in charge. It just happens. City air traffic in a congested environment like New Chicago. Schools of fish in the Atlantic sea farms. Antibodies in the human body. They work together because they grew and evolved together, and what they do was streamlined along the way until it appears to be a seamless, an intelligent whole.

     “Ladies and gentlemen of the Senate, we’ve been puzzled for a long time about Xul behavior…about why we couldn’t communicate with them, about why they didn’t seem to show curiosity about us or anything else in the cosmos. They seemed to react to us in a simplistic fashion—as radical xenophobes—but we couldn’t understand why their efforts to hunt us down and exterminate were so sporadic and more or less ineffectual. We assumed they were a machine intelligence…and yet our own AIs show more intelligence than a Type IV huntership carrying billions of Xul uploaded minds.
     “Now we understand. Or we’re beginning to. Their behavior is starting to make sense. Individual Xul, we think, are the conscious minds of once-organic beings uploaded into computer networks. Maybe the original organic Xul, a few million years ago, were xenophobic and built starships and wiped out other species…or maybe those behaviors developed later when individual Xul stopped thinking for themselves.
     “But they did stop thinking. Groups of Xul arrive at a consensus by echoing thoughts back and forth—what we call ‘singing’ or ‘choruses.’ But the evidence suggests that they are only rarely aware of what’s going on in the larger world around them. They may have created the Xul equivalent of paradise-simulations inside their computer networks, and don’t bother with what we think of as the ‘real world’ any longer.
     “In our culture, we have people who are addicted to simulations—game sims, simulated sex, simulated relationships. I submit that the Xul, the real Xul, have taken this process several steps further. They interact with reality around them as rarely as possible. And the blind interaction of trillions of Xul ships and nodes scattered across the Galaxy takes on a life, a personality of its own.”

     “What are you saying then, General?” Senator Ralston asked. “That they’re not a threat?”
     “Oh, no. They’re very much a threat. When buildings were made primarily of wood, termites could destroy them. The best-regulated national economy can react to market forces in unexpected ways to unexpected conditions and collapse. For millions of years, the Xul CAS has more or less systematically hunted down and exterminated emerging sentient species, star-faring cultures, alien intelligences. And there is a distinct possibility that the CAS is reacting in a startlingly high-tech way at GalCenter to erase Reality, thereby insuring that the Xul survive in their tight little electronic paradises. We can’t permit that to happen, because to do so would mean our extinction…and quite possibly the extinction of every sentient species in the universe.”

     “Then what are you suggesting, General?” Ralston said, pushing. He spread his hands. “You’re saying we can’t talk to them, we can’t fight them…”
     “We can learn more about them, Senator. Information, right now, is our most precious asset. We have set events in motion at the Galactic Core that may well fundamentally change Xul behavior, because the Xul CAS has never in its existence faced a threat quite like this. If we’re lucky, we’re going to eliminate so many of the individual Xul agents that the total number may drop below some critical mass, some necessary level below which their CAS doesn’t function. To continue the termite analogy, if you reduce the number of termites from a million to a few hundred, the mound will stop acting as though it’s got a mind of its own. I can’t promise this, now, but I do promise that Xul behavior is about to change.
     “If we want to have it change in our favor, we need to be there.”

     “General,” Senator Tillman said, rising, “we’ve seen the records you brought back. A thousand Xul hunterships were coming toward your squadron. The entire MIEF, a fleet consisting of every warship in human-controlled space wouldn’t be enough to stop them all. You acted rightly in breaking off the action and returning here. To take our only defense against the Xul back into that…that cauldron would be to squander it, to throw it away. An unthinking militarist response is not what is called for now.”
     “No, sir, but perhaps a thinking militarist response is what’s necessary. Let me go back in there, with enough ships to make a difference. We will recover our people from S-2/I before the world is destroyed…and we will be in place to take action should we see an opportunity to make a positive difference.
     “Maybe, Senator, when the Xul stop reacting as a non-sentient CAS to external stimuli, maybe the real Xul intelligence will poke its head up, look around…and try to talk with us. Isn’t that worth a try?”

From GALACTIC CORPS by Ian Douglas {William H. Keith, Jr.} (2008)

(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.”

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