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.