Galactic empires

I am currently reading Forward the Foundation by Isaac Asimov. However, I won’t review the book here, but I would like to discuss the topic of “galactic empires” – a common trope in science fiction. Though galactic empires are meant to be impressive, I question both the feasibility and desirability of such political configurations.

Let for the sake of the argument assume that both faster than light communication and travel is somehow possible – without these any discussion of galactic empires is meaningless anyway. Even with this assumption then the feasibility of a galactic empire is questionable.

In Asimov’s description of the galactic empire, it consists of 25 million inhabited planets and 500 quadrillion people, 20 billion per planet on average. It is hard to even imagine a planetary empire, and no such thing has ever existed in human history, let alone such enormous empire.

The fundamental issue with an empire of this size is effective control by the central government. Its sheer size makes it inevitable to delegate many administrative powers to “local” planetary official. But the more power is transferred to individual planets, the less power remains with the central government. The question is then what is the proper function of the imperial government?

There is no evidence in the foundation series, that the galaxy and humanity is subject to an external threat and hence the most obvious reason for the existence of the empire collapses. What other benefit does the empire provide to its citizens and is the empire really the best way to achieve this?

One could argue that the empire brings peace and stimulates interstellar trade. Honestly, I am not convinced this is really the merit of the galactic empire. First planetary governments will have to spend most of their efforts to appease their own populations, which reduces the likelihood of war. And secondly if a planetary government would be tempted to wage war, it will be limited to neighbor planets. Also I am very skeptical whether the empire can actually promote peace given the sheer size of its territory.

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7 responses

  1. Robert Reed says pretty much this in one of his short stories. Impossible to have an empire.

    1. Robert Reed? I will look him up 😉

      1. You’ve not read his Great Ship books? I cannot get enough of him. To me, he’s the best writer out there.

      2. Well, the fantasy&science fiction section of my local library is mainly fantasy with a little science fiction. And if I had to buy every interesting book, I would run out of money within no time.

  2. Michelangelo Landgrave | Reply

    I’ve always thought the role of the galactic empire, besides countering external threats*, was to keep trade routes open.

    On average most planets are well populated, but I suspect that the median population is on the lower end and there are probably colonies on asteroids and such. These groups probably do not have the resources to maintain a fleet capable of supressing piracy.

    The empire also likely upholds some basic rights across the galaxy. Due to economies of scale it can likely maintain a military force large enough to subdue rogue planetary governments.

    Likewise the empire seems to share intellectual advances with the marginal planets. Nuclear technology in particular seems to be only well understood in the major planets. The construction and upkeep of universities and other institutions of higher learning is not cheap.

    In summary the empire serves to (1) maintain internal peace from piracy and rogue planetary governments and (2) promote technological advance.

    *In Foundation and Earth it is hinted that hostile aliens exist outside the galaxy and will appear soon. Plus, you have the Solarians.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, quite interesting!

      >>On average most planets are well populated, but I suspect that the median population is on the lower end and there are probably colonies on asteroids and such.

      You’re probably right here, though we have insufficient data to calculate the median. And it’s not entirely clear how “planet” is defined here, do moons -if inhabitated- counts?

      >>These groups probably do not have the resources to maintain a fleet capable of supressing piracy.

      Fair point. But does this requires a force the size of the galactic empire? Could a smaller entity not do the same?

      >>The empire also likely upholds some basic rights across the galaxy. Due to economies of scale it can likely maintain a military force large enough to subdue rogue planetary governments.

      That seems to be a proper function of the empire. But there’s also something as the “diseconomies of scale”, i.e. an organization can become too large to be run efficiently.

      >>Likewise the empire seems to share intellectual advances with the marginal planets. Nuclear technology in particular seems to be only well understood in the major planets. The construction and upkeep of universities and other institutions of higher learning is not cheap.

      Again a fair point. But does actually requires something like the empire? Could an alternative type of structure -more something like the UN- achieve a similar sharing of knowledge. After all terrestrial scientist are able to cooperate internationally despite the lack of a global government.

      I know the Solarians are quite nasty. Anyway I have always found it suspicious the lack of intelligent aliens inside the galaxy in Asimov’s foundation novels.

      1. Michelangelo Landgrave

        My understanding is that part of the failure of the first galactic empire is that it did suffer from diseconomies of scale and scope. The point of the Foundation was to create a more decentralized empire that did not suffer from the same mistakes, and it seems to have done that.

        The Foundation never conquered any planets. In Foundation’s Edge/Earth we learn that several non affiliated systems exist and that the Foundation has purposefully sought peaceful incorporation. In that sense the Foundation/2nd Empire is very much like the UN, albeit with significantly stronger and able ‘peacekeepers’.

        The weird thing about the empire is, imo, that it isn’t really an empire. Even in the 1st empire we see the emperor really only controls his estate. Otherwise its the bureaucracy that runs day to day matters. Even the Foundation/2nd empire never has a proper emperor. The closet we get to an empire is under the Mule, and that is because of his mind abilities to directly control people.

        This isn’t isolated to Asimov’s galaxy. In Dune the Emperors before Leo the 2nd are largely ceremonial and restricted by the landsraad, the guild, and the bs witches.

        There is a case to be made for a galactic government, but I do agree a proper empire seems unlikely unless we’re dealing with a superhuman of some sort. A normal human would be forced to delegate much of his power to the bureaucracy and/or local elites and likely end up just a ceremonial figure.

        In regards to the aliens, there are hints that the robots removed any aliens in the Milky Way.

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