Interstellar Empires

One of the guys from my D&D group sent me this. It’s a collection of ideas, quotes, tables, definitions, and examples of interstellar empires.

His timing could not have been better, as I’ve just recently finished reading several of LeGuin’s Hainish novels.

One of the greatest difficulties in maintaining an Interstellar Empire is, of course, distance. Distances in space are unfathomably, impossibly great. Consider that when Voyager took the famous Tiny Blue Dot photo of earth, it was 1.7 billion miles from earth and still not in interstellar space.

Any empire is going to be limited by its ability to react to situations on its fringes, and, even with light-speed travel, the fringes of an interstellar empire might be several decades away from main worlds. In the Hainish books, which largely take place on fringe and backwater worlds, the Federation of Worlds often appears distant, useless and incompetent, because the significant distances between worlds means that any actions taken involve such great lag times that it is an impractical body whose main impact on its member planets is exaction of taxes for a brewing galactic war (which it loses).

Even with instantaneous communication across space, being able to send response forces to deal with any sort of conflict situation is nearly impossible.

Interstellar political bodies are therefore problematic. There are difficulties in governance, difficulties in enforcing laws and difficulties in asset protection. How do they come about, then, if they are so impractical? Eventually, perhaps, technology would exist to shorten the temporal distances between worlds, but at what point would that make a federation practical?

Probably the hardest science fiction work I’ve read was Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, which chronicles the initial colonization of Mars, the process of its terraformation, and resulting political crises of a whole new world that is beyond the effective governing control of earth. Even the relatively short distance between Earth and Mars results in vastly divergent cultural ideas, identities, and political solutions to the practical problems which they face. Isolation, in effect, means independence.

In an interstellar setting, what one would most likely find is a series of tributary worlds, whose status as tributaries is the result of an initial large show of force. Eventually, the tributaries, which, unless left under the control of some autocrat in the name of an empire, would realize that it was more or less independent, test its independence, and cease becoming a tributary, at which point the empire would decide whether or not it was worth the time and resource investment to re-establish its tributary status. And even under an imperial autocrat, the world might become independent under the autocrat who realizes that he can keep the world’s wealth to himself and the empire will only challenge him if he is particularly egregious in his defiance of imperial will.

Anyway, you’ll find more and better ideas than I can articulate here in the article I linked.


I’ve consumed a lot of media over the weekend, some of it good, some of it bad.

The good: I finished reading the original Hainish cycle and am half-way through one of the new ones. It’s been fascinating to see it morph from what could’ve been a highly entertaining, but rote, sword and planet series into something completely different. And again I’m reminded of how strange it seems that LeGuin’s materials are rarely adapted for film and how awful the results have been when they were.

The bad: I watched the first season of X-Men Evolution with my girlfriend. First run, I’d completely avoided this show because X-Men High just sounded like an awful and dumb idea. And turns out I was completely right. There was no fate of the world or even fate of the neighborhood stuff going on here. Just Prof X and Magneto playing Gotta Catch ’em All* with mutant teens, whose problems range from dealing with being colossal dorks (this show makes being in the ButterCream Gang seem more hardcore than being an X-Man) to dealing with petty bullies. The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants has always been kind of a mediocre villain force (they always seemed like less of a brotherhood than a collection of thugs with low self esteem that could be easily bullied by Magneto), but putting them in Highschool and doing some ultra low stakes villainy makes this iteration one of the least compelling rogues galleries I’ve ever seen. At least in Static Shock, they took the petty-ass villain-bs that you’d expect from highschool kids given superpowers and had some fun with it (like the fat kid who flew around ripping off hot-dog carts).

Anyway, I’ve had a bit of a revelation on the next project I want to try (one that I actually plan on making publicly consumable), though it’ll take some time. I’ve got an idea for a CYOA book. It will be a Cirsova book. It will take place in the distant past, pre-empire, and center on a city far to the north of Polaris during the decadent hey-day of Northern Kingdom. I’ve got a few of the choices mapped out, but after I start writing, who knows where it will go. If I can get it to hyperlink correctly, I’ll release it as a PDF but I also want to put out a paperback.

*:Magneto and Mystique are like Team Rocket only less effective or entertaining.

The Balance Between Story-telling and World-building

I’m coming to realize that I have a difficult time with combining world-building and story-telling. Whether it’s in my game or in my personal writing, I find myself failing to successfully fuse the two.

In the case of Cirsova, I’ve done a lot of world building, but never figured out a Narrative to put there to the point where there is no story other than the implication of a decaying empire obsessing over a dead empire.

In the case of the game I’m running, I feel like I have a story to tell of a wicked king who intends to reclaim his kingdom from beyond the grave, but, in part because of borrowed setting, my world-building feels sparse and lacking.

It helps, though, to know that I’m not entirely alone, and even some of my favorite authors have had the same problem. I just finished reading the first novel in LeGuin’s Hainish cycle, Rocannon’s World. The worldbuilding (a 4 mooned backwoods planet in the intergalactic federation is inhabited by warrior humans riding flying cats, telepathic cave-dwelling troglodites, their above-ground cousins, and giant insect-men) is great. The story (an ethnologist’s expedition is destroyed by bad-guys wanting to use the planet as a badguy base, so he and his native friends must find the badguy base so they can get the federation to drop a bomb on it) is kind of meh. Still, it’s an enjoyable book.

Seeing that even my favorite authors sometimes struggle with fusing story and world-building, if anything, makes me feel less alone.