Setting: Galactic Empire, part 2

In part 1, I wrote about the enormous scale of a galactic empire.  If we’re going to turn that empire into a decent setting for a story, we’ll need to understand its economics.

The first thing we need to know is what type of FTL (Faster Than Light) technology it has. Without FTL, the planets of the empire would diverge culturally, and have little reason to follow directives from the capital. Even a ship’s crew might ignore imperial orders on a generation ship, so a slower-than-light empire would prefer a crew in stasis, or a crewless AI ship.

Assuming our empire has FTL, we need to understand its parameters. An empire that takes two years to cross will have a different structure from one that can be crossed in two hours. If there’s a direct relationship between distance and travel time, then there may be regional governors / power centers. If travel time is a function of the cube root of distance, there may be little difference between the capital and worlds on the fringes.

Next, we have to decide how expensive our FTL ships are. Can only the government and/or megacorporations afford ships, or can Joe Spaceman take out a loan and pick up a ship at Bubba’s discount FTL warehouse?

What about ongoing costs? Is some kind of fuel consumed? If this fuel is expensive, a transport will have to make a profit on every voyage, or risk being stranded (or in debt to a loan shark). Can the ships run for hundreds of years on automated maintenance, or do they need an army of menial workers to scrape corrosion off the flux capacitors? Does a FTL navigator need a lifetime’s experience, or can a six-year-old choose a destination from a menu? (Weee, let’s go to Space Monster Planet!)

The economics and politics of our empire will be driven by the combination of FTL speed and FTL expense. With slow and/or expensive ships, we will look to the spice-trading empires of Earth for ideas. With fast, cheap ships, modern trans-pacific trade is our model.

What will our trade ships transport? Fast, cheap ships can transport nearly anything. Asimov’s imperial capital of Trantor produced nothing, not even food, so everything was imported. The entire population of the planet was government bureaucrats. Now that’s a dystopia!

Slow, expensive ships can take a cue from the spice-trading empires by visiting alien ecosystems with unique biological products.  The capital’s industry might need rare elements or isotopes.  Traders can fool consumers into thinking that coffee or champagne or caviar produced on other worlds tastes better.

If our capital enforces a monopoly on interstellar trade (all voyages must be to or from the capital) there will be a concentration of wealth never seen on Earth. With fewer restrictions, wealth might concentrate at regional centers that trade with their local area and with the capital. Or, trade could be wide-open everywhere.

What about intellectual property? Today on Earth, writers, musicians, actors, and designers (of software, medical devices, fashionable clothing, soft drinks) amass fortunes selling to a portion of one planet. What if they were collecting money from millions of planets? Bill Gates’ current wealth wouldn’t even make him middle-class in our empire. If intellectual property owners concentrated at the capital or on a few planets, the only thing in short supply would be land. Wealthy people could build city-sized orbital homes, or they could live on planetary estates, buying up acreage and forcing working-class people to live in overcrowded space stations. They could genetically engineer a zoo full of bizarre animals. They could move away from the capital and buy an entire planet. Even with those extravagances, I’m thinking too small.

What would you do with the wealth of millions of planets at your disposal?  Let me know in a comment below.

Update: Part 3 has been posted


  1. ” can Joe Spaceman take out a loan and pick up a ship at Bubba’s discount FTL warehouse?”
    What a great line!

    I think I would go into the used ftl business.
    “Honest Bookstooge only sells you ships that Granny drove to mars, once a month. Honest!”

    1. Now I’m imagining a ship whose AI is programmed to kill the crew, then return to the dealership for another sale.

      1. Dang, that is a GOOD business model. Very little overhead, lots of profit. Just so long as the ai doesn’t have it in for me 🙂

  2. I’ve never read a galactic empire story where someone actually considered intellectual property laws. Good catch.

    Another consideration is even if starship travel is fast and cheap where does the fuel come from? Is there a Saudia Arabia equivalent of, say, antimatter production or whatever fuel is used?

    I think, even if land was cheap on habitable planets, the really rich would have to have some way of showing their status. Build asteroid habitats? Space stations? Really big ships? Terraform worlds to spec?

    On the flip side, maybe it’s an empire with weak cohesion and they impose sumptuary laws to prevent social unrest with the lower classes or try to control technology to preserve the status quo.

    1. A lot of sci-fi universes have their ships collect the fuel from gas giants. The Dune universe had its spice, which didn’t really fuel the starships, but had the economics of being a necessary consumable with a constrained location.

      An empire which puts too much effort into controlling its merchant class, or its technology, is likely to be outpaced by competitors, but if the empire truly rules the galaxy and has no competitors…

    2. Robert Reid’s comic novel Year Zero is built partly on intellectual property laws and the problem when humans are the only species in the galaxy that can make music worth anything. But it’s all played for absurdity. (It worked for me, but I read it quickly, and don’t expect to re-read it.)

      1. I remember seeing the title offered for review, but I passed. To be honest, I probably read no further that it was a comic novel and passed on it. But I’ll keep it in mind.

      2. I remember some older sci-fi (can’t remember any titles) where aliens wanted to listen to whale song recordings.

  3. I think most good tales think that stuff out along the fringe, but concentrate on the characters. I wrote one once where the fuel was simply called “element.” It was a rare thing and sources of it were protected. The story was about the people though.

    1. Yeah, I can think of two good ways to use a galactic empire setting. The first would be to have characters at the center of power: the heir to the throne, the evil vizier, the banker the emperor has to beg for money. The second would be a backdrop for a smuggler or homicide detective or whatever to run around in while they do their thing.

      1. Part of Han Solo was his past and the bounty hunters. That could be a decent story. Then you have the rebellion as the focus characters. I’ve said before that I like to write science fiction a bit closer to home. There could be a great story about inventing the FTL engines. Something like the Tucker story modified into science fiction. (Admit, this is off the Empire topic.)

        1. There are several interesting angles where FTL invention could tie into the galactic empire.

          Star Trek and some other sci-fi had humans ignored by aliens until they invented FTL, then the galactic empire introduced itself.

          A corporation could invent the FTL engine and start trading with the galaxy, keeping it secret from the government, and having to use increasingly complicated financial shenanigans to explain where all the products and profits are coming from.

          A government could invent the FTL engine and keep it secret while they deal with aliens across the galaxy. Then, they have to explain what they’re spending money on to the new budget-cutting president. Stargate SG-1 did this.

          1. Those are great angles, and give something unique to read about.

  4. Brilliant post and comments. As you point out, even though spice wasn’t fuel, it still served the economics you mention due to its limited supply.

  5. […] part 1, I described the enormous scale of a galactic empire.  In part 2, I discussed the economic impact of FTL technology on itseconomy.  Now I ask:  what is the point […]

  6. […] part 1, I described the enormous scale of a galactic empire.  In part 2, I discussed the impact of FTL technology on the empire’s economy.  In part 3, I wrote about […]

  7. […] the second and third parts of Planetary Defense Command’s posts, the following topics are discussed: the […]

  8. […] via Setting: Galactic Empire, part 2 — Planetary Defense Command […]

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