Setting: Galactic Empire, part 3

In part 1, I described the enormous scale of a galactic empire.  In part 2, I discussed the economic impact of FTL technology on its economy.  Now I ask:  what is the point of our galactic empire? Why do some of the characters in the story support it and defend it?

The empire’s purpose may be to enrich the “core” of the empire. This could be a geographic core: a single city, a planet, or a group of planets which founded the empire. They funnel the wealth of the empire to the home region. The core could instead be a group of wealthy families or a cartel of space-trading corporations, who make sure the deck is always stacked in their favor. If the empire is made up of many alien races, it is easy to imagine the most technologically-advanced among them exploiting the others.

The empire may exist purely as an expression of power. It might be run by a strongman military officer who just wants to be in charge. When he dies, two or three of his subordinates muster their forces and fight it out to become the next strongman. Or, aliens might conquer and rule over the galaxy so that every sentient being can be exposed to their poetry.

The empire could be dedicated to peace. A terrible conflict in the past used weapons which cracked planets apart, or sterilized them with bursts of stellar radiation. The winning side said “never again”, and no competing spacefleet will be allowed. Whether massacres are still allowed down on the planets is a separate issue.

The empire could be dedicated to war.  Genocidal aliens or robots roam the empire’s borders, and only the might of the empire can keep them at bay.

The empire may have been founded to solve a political problem. Star Trek’s “Prime Directive”, where technologically-advanced societies weren’t allowed to mess with lower-tech societies, might have been an example of this.

Imagine a galaxy where farmers on sparsely-populated agricultural worlds didn’t want to be overrun by immigrants, while industrialists on densely-populated worlds didn’t want to lose their impoverished labor pool. An empire enforcing immigration and emigration restrictions solves both problems.

Our empire’s purpose will change what is going on in the background, and may even become the driver of the story.  Are smugglers trying to cut into the cartel’s trading monopoly, or illegally trafficking in people or technology?  Is someone building up a fleet in secret, to challenge the existing government, or to gain the upper hand in a future succession struggle?

Once an empire has a purpose, how will it be managed?  The strongman could put a military governor on each planet, but he couldn’t keep an eye on hundreds of millions of them.  He could put a sector governor over every 30 planetary governors, and a regional governor over every 30 sector governors, and would still have hundreds of thousands of people reporting to him.  He’d have to be six levels away from the planetary governors for the system to be manageable, and at that point, is the bureaucracy carrying out his orders, or pursuing its own agenda?

Instead of a hierarchy, an AI could determine which issues to bring to the emperor’s attention each day. This might be a heartless form of government, only analyzing short and long-term threats to the empire.  Veterans being mistreated at hospitals?  No problem.  Military enlistment is down 15%, and there’s a significant probability of riots and insurrection on troop-providing planets?  The government swings into action.  Maybe the bad guy in the story is intentionally making a problem worse, because he wants the problem to come to the emperor’s attention and get solved.  Or maybe someone (or the AI itself) decides the only way to manage the empire is to cut the emperor out of the loop.

An empire could fund itself by auctioning off the emperor’s time.  If you’re the high bidder, you get to present your problem to the emperor.  That corrupt planetary governor won’t like it when his subjects are putting together money for a bid…

What about a galactic senate, with one senator per planet? With hundreds of millions of senators, every decision might look less like a back-room deal, and more like a contentious US presidential election.  If the empire’s FTL communication is fast, maybe senators can phone in their votes from home.  With slow communication, the senate might meet in person — in a senate complex the size of Tokyo, Osaka, Jakarta, Delhi, Mumbai, Karachi, Manila, Seoul, New York City, Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Sao Paulo, and Mexico City combined.  Let each senator bring just one staffer, and double the size of the complex.  Let the senators bring their spouses as well, and triple it.  That’s a minimum population, assuming robots do all the cooking, cleaning, and other non-senatorial stuff.  If the empire doesn’t want to fly in food, set aside a continent to feed the complex.

In part 4 of this series, we’ll see how the empire can prevent planets from overthrowing its authority, and discuss the role of humans in a multi-species empire.


  1. These are good thoughts, and can drive a story or serve as background.

    1. A lot of these things might fit with today’s “morally ambiguous” literature, as both the “good guy” and the “bad guy” could think they’re doing the right thing.

  2. Your thoughts on a senate describe exactly the Star wars prequels and the political side of things.

    1. yeah but star wars is very reductionist, they have pretty much instantaneous communication from virtually anywhere in the galaxy which makes governance incredibly simple in comparison to universes where governments have to rule the hard way

      1. If I remember correctly, in the clone wars tv show, that instant communication was pretty vulnerable.

    2. Well, democracy is the worst form of government … except for all the others.

      1. Well, except for a Bookstoogeocracy. That would be the perfect blend of benevolent, enlightened dictatorship and the personal freedoms we all know we need. And by “we”, I obviously mean me 😉

      2. The aliens in Heinlein’s Have Space Suit–Will Travel described it as “pretty good for beginners.”

  3. Surely I’m not the only one screaming, “no, not alien poetry” upon reading this…

    Seriously, though, great post. I am reminded of Andromeda, with the opening seasons dealing with the task of recreating a fallen empire. Very Fall of Rome that one.

    1. Yes, mandatory poetry readings three times per day. Or, even better, loudspeakers blaring poetry 24/7.

      I don’t remember too much about Andromeda, as I missed many of the episodes due to international travel, but I did really enjoy that opening setup.

      1. I found the so-called “Andromeda: Coda” online; a post by the series’ original author with the ending he envisioned for the series. It’s a shame they grabbed the series from him. Seasons 3-5 were nothing but Hercules-In-Space.

  4. Wow, I am actually very surprised because you have hit on a lot of the things I’m planning to include in the book series I’m writing. I just finished a rough draft of my first book with lots of editing ahead but hope its the kind of work you’ll be interested to read.

    1. Good luck with your book.

      In February, I’m planning to type up something about Joel Shepherd’s “Spiral Wars” series, which involves some galactic-scale stuff. He does several things really well, and one or two things not so well, that you might be interested in reading about.

      1. Now that I am looking forward to!

  5. Whoa. Makes me glad I only have to write thriller fiction. Nice job in scoping out what could be an interesting political infrastructure. I like the idea of paying to pitch the Emperor.

    1. I wish I had the skills to write thrillers set in a galactic empire.

      1. Ha ha ha. We are all envious of others. Amazing. I would like to write Sci-fi but as I have said, too scared.

  6. […] empire.  In part 2, I discussed the impact of FTL technology on the empire’s economy.  In part 3, I wrote about the purpose of the empire, and ways it could be […]

  7. I envision some sort of powerful, dual-use technology (life extension, drugs to enhance intelligence, weapon/energy generation technology, nanotechnology) that most of society wants to ban or limit for practical or idealogical or religious uses.

    Most, but not all — hence the empire has to crack down, with varying degrees of effectiveness and severity, on somebody. The people need a big organization to do this. (I mean, really, are you going to trust multiple parties in a confederation or federation?)

    You have two fields of operation: internal to the empire and any settlements outside the empire that can make or use the technology. (Or, if there are no such settlements, stopping them from happening.)

    So you can have stories of historians and researchers trying to find the tech, spies, soldiers, politicians (who can argue about changing policies), and scientists all centered around controlling the tech. You can even throw in artists propagandizing for both sides.

    1. Yeah, if you have a tech which gives a major advantage, but you want to ban it for ideological or safety reasons, then you’d have to make your empire galaxy-wide, or those outside the empire would use it and become stronger than the empire.

  8. “Aliens might conquer and rule over the galaxy so that every sentient being can be exposed to their poetry.” Couldn’t help but think of the Vogons from Hitchhiker’s Guide.

    1. I read that in middle school, a long time ago, so I can’t remember the Vogons. What was their deal?

      1. They write bad poetry. Also they’re the bureaucrats of the galaxy.

        1. Almost too evil to comprehend.

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

  10. I think that at this level of scale, things would have to be run, at least in part, by AI. There’s simply just too much to do otherwise. Although I think that when you have an Empire that spans millions of planets, most of them will be content to just live their lives as long as things remain reasonably fair and balanced. The act of moving out to an uncharted planet will entail sending people with the utilitarian mindset of survival in a potentially dangerous world.

    I think you run into issues in the time before the expansion really gets moving. I’m talking about the point in the expansion that a series like “The Expanse” occupies. People still can see how much better things are on Earth and so there is resentment. For people who live millions of planets away from the Capital, the class discrepancy is so far removed from their day to days that it becomes easier to just live how you can and try and make it on your own little planet.

    Look at the Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. Mars wants autonomy as it develops. I think the smart way to go about interstellar expansion would be to grant that autonomy from the get go so that people would be more inclined to work together. It would feel less like a demand, and you could foster the idea that we are all working together for the good of a race. Both sides can profit off the other, and when that exchange is mutual, it feels like oppressive.

    1. If people on far-off colonies were watching media from the Capital, they might feel that same discontent, I suppose.

      1. Maybe. Again, I think it depends on just how different things are. If it’s just a sort of urban/rural divide then maybe it’s more of a longing as opposed to disdain. Youths on an agricultural planet might feel the desire to move towards the core worlds, but if like isn’t actively dystopian for them, I think there would definitely be people who were fine with what they had.

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