Setting: Galactic Empire, part 4

In 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 the purpose of the empire, and ways it could be managed.

Now, I ask:  how does our empire maintain military and political control?  Feudal systems are popular in sci-fi stories, because they make interesting family/intrigue stories, but are only likely if an empire is fracturing, or if there’s a border area in need of protection.

Our empire could maintain a monopoly on warships, or all spaceships, and threaten to drop rocks on dissenters from orbit and/or blow away their orbital cities. If imperial ships are rare and/or slow, the planet can return to ignoring imperial directives once the ship leaves.

If our empire doesn’t want to fill a planet’s atmosphere with dust, it sends in the troops. With fast ships, it mobilizes a Normandy-style invasion. With slower ships, it puts out a call across the galaxy, and wave after wave of raiding parties land and trash the place until the planet gets tired of it and submits.

Is it possible to invade a planet with billions of inhabitants? The defenders are spread out across the surface — they’re not all protecting New Beijing (if they tried, they’d starve to death). Take away the third of the population who are toddlers, pregnant women, and the elderly. If the defenders don’t let women fight, cut their remaining numbers in half. The emperor can order a paltry ten thousand of his planets to each provide their ten thousand most capable soldiers. That’s a highly-trained one-hundred-million-man invasion force. Raise those numbers to twenty thousand, and the invasion force has 400 million troops. Raise them to thirty thousand, and you’ve got almost a billion invaders. Raise them to fifty thousand, and the defenders may be outnumbered. If the first landing fails, the transport ships go home and load more soldiers. Those single-planet rebels never had a chance.

Maybe our empire thought ahead when it was colonizing all those planets. It settled each of them with two or three ethnic or religious groups (or alien species) that hate each other. If imperial troops decide to step in, they’ve already got an allied force on the ground.

Maybe our empire is held together through non-military means. Local media programming is outlawed, and imperial news and entertainment reinforces a common culture. The capital is a giant university, indoctrinating upper-class kids from the subject planets. Conveniently, the kids are also hostages during their studies.

Maybe the governor of each planet is a clone of the emperor. Anyone who killed the emperor to seize the throne would be facing millions of angry planetary governors, and what kind of speech could a rebel governor give about how awful the emperor was?

One option to cut down on rebellions would be to let planets do whatever they want on the surface, and only control interstellar trade and prevent interplanetary warfare. I don’t think this would work under an empire with democratically-elected leaders. Today’s democracies don’t seem capable of staying out of any aspect of their citizens’ lives, and what if a planet did something reprehensible, like instituting slavery (or abolishing it, in a slave-holding empire)?

The concept might work in an empire where every habitable planet had its own species, or where a technologically advanced alien race rules over many others, as the emperor could say “That’s just how those wacky Eridians do things.”  The concept might also work in an empire run by an incomprehensible AI and its robot army.  The AI could rule benevolently, or the organics could live in terror, not knowing when their actions would cross the AI’s line from “ignore” to “genocide”.

Would a hands-off trading cartel sit by while two armies on the ground devastated and looted a planet without decisively engaging each other? Would it sit by while a planet instituted communism, reducing economic output by 95%?

One final topic:  if our empire is multi-species, what role do humans play?  I’ve seen many variations.  Sometimes, humans conquer the galaxy (see my review of Mike Resnick’s The Olympians for his take on this).  I read one story where humans conquered the galaxy, and the aliens said ‘Tag, you’re it.  Now, it’s your turn to manage this whole mess until another primitive species discovers interstellar travel.’  (Leave me a comment if you remember that story).  Other stories have humans as one of several major powers, humans as a minor species with some symbolic/historical significance, or humans as completely insignificant.

Unless I have another brainstorm, this is my last post in the series.  Now, get out there and write some galactic empire stories!  Also, leave me a comment about how I’m thinking too small.


  1. […] part 4 of this series, we’ll see how the empire can prevent planets from overthrowing its authority, […]

  2. Whew. Major thought food.

    1. I told you science fiction was easy!

  3. Apologies, I haven’t read the earlier posts, but I have a question re communications: is there something similar to an ‘ansible’ that makes interplanetary/star system communications possible?

    1. These are just things for authors to think about. You can have ansibles in your stories, or make messages have to come in on ships. In my opinion, it’s more fun not to have ansibles, because there’s more room for people to not know things, and to get away with things before someone else finds out.

      1. Agreed re the possibilities, but I just can’t see an empire of any sort being possible without instant communications. Even assuming FTL, that still leaves a ship with intra solar travel, and that could take years. 😦

        1. The British and Portuguese had empires on Earth where round-trip communication could take a year, or even two…

          Good point about in-system travel. Most SF writers just have the ships navigate from hyperspace right to their destination, or take some mini-hops with their FTL drive to get there.

          1. lol – I don’t write that kind of SF because the science just doesn’t support even the possibility of FTL, at least so far. Ditto re the ansible, although quantum entanglement does hint at interesting possibilities. But I have read an awful lot of sci-fi over the years. 🙂

  4. If you postulate settlements outside of the Empire, you might recruit faithful servants from talented but oppressed groups. Or you could go the slave-soldier route — kidnap them from an extra-Empire world when they’re young and make them like the Janissaries.

    If you go with some sort of monarchical/parliamentary mix, you could try to bribe troublesome populations — but then you run the risk of alienating the other groups paying for it or losing their privileges.

    Maybe you try to go the humane route — giving rebel groups the option of either getting their planet bombarded or moving outside the empire (maybe as impoverished colonists).

    Maybe you concoct some retirement utopia for the good citizens. Just behave and you’ll eventually get to live on a pleasure planet — or go into the box for some really great VR or get uploaded from the meat.

    You could kind of go sidewise and imagine some Mongol-style Empire: we don’t care what you do for the rest of the year. But on tribute day there had better be something waiting or there’ll be trouble.

    1. Those are all interesting ideas.

      I like the idea of an empire dropping off all the troublemakers at a Botany Bay type colony, but once they’ve filled up the entire galaxy, then what do they do? Interesting crisis point for a story.

      1. Well, obviously, that’s a chance for spy and sabotage stories. And maybe some of these colonial rejects can work their way back into the Empire by military service — far from their home.

  5. I like the idea of a ghetto type neighborhood. The Projects seem like a great breeding ground for rebellions and such. The kind of places Han Solo would hang out. There should be a couple of solar systems like that too.

    1. I like SF with masses of poor people who are willing to work for lower wages than robots. Otherwise, all of humanity would just sit on beaches sipping fancy drinks while robots did all the work, and there would be fewer interesting conflicts.

      1. Have to have conflict. Even a utopian story needs to be about power and greed to make it interesting.

  6. The idea of splitting things into “space” and “planet” is currently being done in Joel Shepherd’s The Spiral Wars trilogy. It makes for some very interesting political permutations…

    1. Yeah, looks like the spacers are about to go full evil, telling the planet people ‘give us whatever we want whenever we want it, or we’ll obliterate you.’

      The third book didn’t get into this, but I’m sure a later book will circle back around to it.

      1. Wait, the third book isn’t the final book? I haven’t read it yet, but I thought it was the end of the story.

        1. No, he posted something on goodreads about more books to come.

          1. Ahhh ballz. Well, thank you for the heads up…

  7. I think in one of the Foundation prequels Asimov had a character explain that part of Trantor’s hegemony was its enormous set of fantastic universities, which would draw the best-and-brightest to come to the planet, work out their youthful rebellion in a harmless place, and develop the loyalties and attitudes of the Capitol World before going back home to be leaders of society. It had a very credible sound, as one of those things that naturally develops in a successful government and also as something that the sociologically-minded person would notice the society had built up.

    1. I can’t remember if I read the foundation prequels, and my memories are a bit hazy of the whole foundation series, so I may re-read it at some point.

  8. I’ll put all my comments here at the last post, but i’ll add some thoughts for each section.

    The Imperium of Man of the Warhammer 40k universe is a Galaxy spanning empire with over one million worlds, but is marked by constant warfare with dozens of enemy alien species, inter-dimensional demons and human mutants. A bit different from a more hard science human focused setting. It is a great example of pulpy fiction aimed at young men though. One of the few examples that still exist. (Though I have seen some newer things coming in fits and starts…)

    Peter F. Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn Trilogy considers the impact of piracy and interstellar travel on IP and creative works. A major character is a performance artist. However it is not truly galaxy spanning.

    The Lensman series by Doc Smith ends up being galaxy spanning, Held together by incorruptible men with psychic powers protected by alien artifacts. You can’t fight that though the Eddorians give it a go.

    The Dumarest novels by E.C. Tubb is in the ruins of a galactic empire.

    John Brunner wrote a series of stories set in the aftermath of the fall of a Galactic Empire. So technologically advanced that their ancient starships still work, being self repairing, fool-proof and easy to command if you reach the control room.

    James Blish’s Cities in Flight series ends in a galaxy spanning culture eventually I think.

    Edmon Hamilton wrote The City at World’s End which has a Galactic Federation. The purpose of which is to find human colonies at lower levels of development and raise them up to the brotherhood of civilisation.

    David Brin’s Uplift Universe has a culture spanning 5 galaxies. Each new species found is held in service to the species that uplifted them to intelligence.

    The Culture of Ian Banks isn’t Galaxy spanning itself, though the series could be considered so. The Culture deals with time and space issues by using AI.

    Brian Aldiss edited a two volume anthology of galactic empire stories in 1976. Helpfully titled Galactic Empires.

    Poul Anderson has a few galactic empires up his sleeve. – My favorite is the galactic kingdom created by English crusaders in The High Crusade.

    The old Star Wars Expanded Universe was of course about a Galactic Empire and some of the short stories set away from the main characters and not primarily about war consider some ramifications of running a galactic empire. Many of them in the pages of the old magazines that supported the d6 RPG.

    Of general interest might be the Three Galaxies RPG setting of Palladium Books

    There is a Japanese series of novels called Legend of the Galactic Heroes, the animated TV show of which is probably more accessible.

    1. Thanks for all the references – I haven’t read many of them. I read the Uplift series, and I think I might have read High Crusade long ago.

      Several of the other titles you mention are on my to-read list, and I’ll consider the rest as well.

  9. Of course, in an empire spanning billions of planets only tenuously held together there may well be a million of them in open revolt at any given time. That ought to make it a bit more challenging for the central government to squash them all in a timely fashion.

    And of course there is always the regional rebellion rather than planetary one (because, let’s face it, when was the last time a hamlet rebelled against the emperor?)

    It may be that a galaxy spanning empire just isn’t feasible unless it is to counter a threat so massive that banding together is the only hopefor survival. After that threat ends the empire begins to fracture. Which in and of itself is probably the more interesting backdrop for a story or series of stories.

    1. A million planets in open revolt? Sounds like our empire needs a department of rebellion-quashing. Great agency for our main character to work for!

  10. […] book touches on something I mentioned in my last galactic empire post.  Humans are third-tier, bit players in the galaxy, and the “Vultures” are humans who […]

  11. […] on long enough, and I kind of already addressed the main topic of Planetary Defense Command’s fourth and final part of the series on Galactic Empires/intergalactic civilizations. I’ll most likely make a quick […]

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