Galactic Empires

Tagged: Theme

In The Universe Makers (1971) Donald A Wollheim attempts to distil from the range of futuristic visions presented by magazine sf a basic pattern – a "cosmogony of the future" – in which stages three to five (there are eight in all) describe "the rise and fall of the Galactic Empire", which is thus enshrined as the central myth of Genre SF. ("Empire" is here used with a general, almost metaphorical meaning, rather than in its politically definitive sense.) The galactic empire was a necessary invention: an imaginative framework which could accommodate any number of "Earth-clone" worlds on which writers might deploy ordinary human characters in confrontation with any imaginable social and biological system. Very many modern sf stories are designed to fit into such a framework, taking advantage of the fact that it has become established as a convention which needs no explanation.

Much of the credit for the establishment of the convention must go to Isaac Asimov, whose Foundation series (stories May 1942-January 1950 Astounding; fixups 1951-1953) set the most influential example, although it is possible to trace the idea back to earlier roots. As long ago as 1900 Robert W Cole had imagined Victoria's glorious British Empire extending its dominion to the stars, so that ours should not be the only sun never to set upon it. Confederations of worlds within the solar system were common in pulp sf from its inception, and these were extended into the Galaxy in such novels as Galactic Patrol (September 1937-February 1938 Astounding; 1950) by E E "Doc" Smith. Asimov, however, was the writer who provided the essential historical framework for such a concept. He did so by relatively straightforward analogy with past empires, reversing the analytical historical perspective of such works as The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788) by Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) to produce the predictive science of Psychohistory. With a single flourish, a whole prospectus for the future of the human race – allowing virtually limitless possibilities so far as events on a finer scale were concerned – was established. Asimov used the convenient historical pattern himself as a background for other works, including The Stars Like Dust (1951) and The Currents of Space (October-December 1952 Astounding; 1952). Robert A Heinlein's painstaking attempt to develop a future History step by step became an empty endeavour after the Foundation series, and later efforts seem distinctly half-hearted. James Blish's Cities in Flight (1955-1962) succeeds more through its key image of the star-travelling Cities than through its framework, derived from the philosophy of cyclic history developed by Oswald Spengler. Poul Anderson, who developed his own scheme for use in his Technic History series and many other stories and novels, was able to take a great deal for granted because Asimov had prepared the way; it was Anderson who evocatively described the post-fall galactic era as the Long Night.

Writers of the 1940s who employed the galactic-empire framework include C L Moore, in Judgment Night (August-September 1943 Astounding; 1952), Edmond Hamilton, in The Star Kings (September 1947 Amazing; 1949; vt Beyond the Moon 1950) and – most extravagantly – A E van Vogt in such stories as "Recruiting Station" (March 1942 Astounding; in Masters of Time coll 1950). Van Vogt was not at all hesitant about borrowing the entire apparatus of historical empires, and replayed the most melodramatic phase of Roman history – presumably borrowed via Robert Graves's I, Claudius (1934) – in his Linn series, Empire of the Atom (stories May 1946-December 1947 Astounding; fixup 1957) and The Wizard of Linn (April-June 1950 Astounding; 1962). The background proved particularly useful in the colourful brand of adventure sf featured by Planet Stories, and it was very extensively used therein, notably by Leigh Brackett, Alfred Coppel and Poul Anderson (in his early Space Operas). During the 1950s Science Fiction Adventures, the magazine closest in editorial philosophy to Planet Stories, likewise made extensive use of it, particularly in stories written for the US version by Robert Silverberg and for the UK version by Kenneth Bulmer.

In addition to Anderson, several other post-World War Two writers have made consistent and elaborate use of a galactic civilization as a reservoir for unusual worlds. These include Jack Vance, notably in The Languages of Pao (1958), The Dragon Masters (August 1962 Galaxy; 1963 dos) and in virtually all of his work during the 1960s and 1970s, John Brunner, notably in Endless Shadow (1964) and The World Swappers (1959), Cordwainer Smith, in his Instrumentality series, and E C Tubb, in his Dumarest series. Few writers have, however, concerned themselves in any but the most superficial way with the sociopolitical structure of the galactic community. Anderson has done significant work in this vein, and so has Gordon R Dickson, notably in the Dorsai series, but most are prepared to leave the community in a state of disorganization or nebulous harmony. Only rarely do works appear in which there actually is a powerful, autocratic, imperial system of government – the most conspicuous modern example is the Star Wars sequence – and the word "empire" is often substituted by "league", "federation" or some other such variant. Most works of this kind are either US or (like the German Perry Rhodan series) products of cultural coca-colonization, and the political model employed for galactic civilization is very often the US system writ large – an ideal summed up by the final line of Asimov's The Stars Like Dust and conscientiously supported by innumerable episodes of Star Trek. It is interesting to note the relative unwillingness of genre-sf writers, even when they take the entire Galaxy for their setting, to create new political or economic modes, although Iain M Banks's galactic culture in Consider Phlebas (1987), The Player of Games (1988) and Use of Weapons (1990) is refreshingly alien to the US model. Galactic empires are almost always ruled by humans, and human empires are often involved in Future War with Alien empires. In Stephen Baxter's Xeelee series, roughly a million years of the Future History are occupied by such a prolonged, ultimately futile struggle between galactic humanity and the inscrutable alien Xeelee. Often in other sf the alien empire is long gone, leaving only the relics of mystery-shrouded Forerunners strewn about the galaxy. An amusing antidote to conventional human chauvinism is The Zen Gun (1983) by Barrington J Bayley, in which men become so effetely decadent that their erstwhile underlings, the Uplifted pigs, take over the reins of empire.

It is more or less taken for granted in post-World War Two works that any galactic federation will have a relatively untamed frontier, almost always called "the rim" (see Galactic Lens; Rimworld). First popularized by A Bertram Chandler's long-running Rim Worlds series, the galactic empire's equivalent of the Wild West features fairly prominently in modern Space Opera, notably in C J Cherryh's relatively sophisticated stories of that type, which include Merchanter's Luck (1982) and Rimrunners (1989). In Jack Vance's Demon Princes sequence the lawless frontier is termed "Beyond". In such stories freelance Starship pilots take the place of cowboy gunfighters; in the later twentieth century such roles were increasingly frequently filled by female characters, partly as a result of the influence of Star Trek in recruiting female readers and writers into the sf community.

Any list of post-World War Two sf novels using the galactic-empire framework is bound to be highly selective, but some of the more notable stories which actually deal with issues relating to the community rather than to specific worlds within it are: Star Bridge (1955) by Jack Williamson and James E Gunn, Citizen of the Galaxy (September-December 1957 Astounding; 1957) by Robert A Heinlein, Starmaster's Gambit (1957; trans 1973) by Gérard Klein, Way Station (June-August 1963 Galaxy as "Here Gather the Stars"; 1963) by Clifford D Simak, Empire Star (1966) by Samuel R Delany, The Ring of Ritornel (1968) by Charles L Harness, Rite of Passage (July 1963 If as "Down to the Worlds of Men"; exp 1968) by Alexei Panshin, Voyage to Dari (1974) by Ian Wallace, Beyond Heaven's River (1980) by Greg Bear, Light on the Sound (1982) by S P Somtow, Star of Gypsies (1986) by Robert Silverberg, the Hyperion books (1989-1990) by Dan Simmons, and Excession (1996) by Iain M Banks. The Dread Empire's Fall sequence by Walter Jon Williams, beginning with The Praxis (2002; vt Dread Empire's Fall: The Praxis 2003), deals with Future War in space between humans and other former vassal races after an Alien galactic empire collapses.

In film, the most famous of all Galactic Empires is the evil example which dominates the Star Wars saga. The definitive theme anthology is Galactic Empires (anth 1976 2vols) edited by Brian W Aldiss. [BS/DRL]

see also: Colonization of Other Worlds; Communications; Galactic Saga; Sociology; Traveller.

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