Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Why Empires? II

I said here that "empires," by which I meant the interstellar empires of much sf, seemed implausible and unimaginative. Sean Brooks replied that empires have arisen frequently in the past so they might again in future and that they might be federations rather than monarchies.

It is the monarchical form with an Emperor that I consider least likely. If such a form were ever to be adopted, as by Poul Anderson's Manuel Argos or by Jerry Pournelle's Leonidas I, then it would not occur spontaneously but would have to be a conscious piece of social engineering. Someone would have to think, as Argos does, "This archaism suits current conditions and will work better than any alternative."

Larry Niven's Known Space future history avoids a human interstellar empire but presents a kzinti one. But military conquest makes sense for kzinti.

Three questions about any futuristic sf:

Is it enjoyable to read?
Is it a plausible future?
Does it combine the plausible with the fantastic?

With much of the sf discussed here, I think that the answers are yes, no and yes, respectively.


  1. Kaor, Paul!

    In their essay "Building The Mote In God's Eye" (A STEP FARTHER OUT (Ace: 1980, pages 113-141) Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle made many shrewd and relevant comments about how "empires" might arise. On page 134, responding to critics attacking their choice to use a monarchy in THE MOTE IN GOD'S EYE, they replied: "That depends on what they mean by "believe in." Do we think it's desirable? We don't have to say. Inevitable? Of course not. Do we think it's POSSIBLE? Damn straight." The authors wrote they took the politics seen in MOTE from C. Northcote Parkinson's book EVOLUTION OF POLITICAL THOUGHT, with Parkinson often drawing on Aristotle. Next comes a long quote from page 135:

    Look at another trend: personal dictatorship.
    There are as many people ruled by tyrants as
    by "democracy" in 1979, and even in the demo-
    cracies charges of tyranny are not lacking.
    Dictatorships may not be the wave of the
    future--but is it unreasonable to suppose
    they might be?

    And on page 136: "...the trouble with dictatorship is that it itself generates a succession crisis when the old man bows out." The say a bit later: "How to avoid succession crisis? One traditional method is to turn Bonapartist: give the job to a relative or descendant of the dictator. He may not do the job very well, but after enough crises people are often uninterested in whether the land is governed well. They just want things settled so they can get on with every day life."

    Last, also on page 136: "Suppose the dictator's son does govern well? A new dynasty is founded, and the trappings of legitimacy are thrust onto the new royal family. To be sure, the title of "king" may be abandoned. Napoleon chose to be "Emperor of the French," Cromwell chose "Lord Protector" and we suppose the US will be ruled by Presidents for a long time--but the nature of the Presidency, and the way one gets the office, may change."

    And of course Manuel Argos was not only a formidably able and charismatic leader who BEGAN as a dictator, he was able to found a lasting state. The Founder had able descendants in both the Argolid and Wang dynasties whose work strengthened and solidified the Empire he founded and the policies he initiated.


    1. Sean,
      Somewhere once I saw a copy of N-SPACE by Niven although I do not have a copy. In there, he discussed the Empire in MOTE and made interesting points which go beyond what appears in the novel. On the face of it, the Empire of Man looks like an imitation of Asimov's Galactic Empire and Anderson's Terran Empire but Niven and Pournelle had obviously put more thought into it than that.

    2. Kaor, Paul!

      Your mention of Niven's N-SPACE rang a bell and I did a quick search for it among my SF books but did not find it. I'll try again to see if I have a copy.

      Yes, the CoDominium and the First and Second Empires of Man were not mere imitations of Asimov and Anderson's work. Niven and Pournelle put real and serious thought into the politics and sociology of their Second Empire.

      One point you have repeatedly made, to my puzzlement, is saying you find the idea of hereditary monarchy existing in the future implausible and unimaginative. I would point out that like "empires," monarchies of various types are among the most frequently seen forms of government in human history. I would not be in the least surprised if monarchies still existed a thousand years from now.

      So I'm puzzled why monarchy should be thought implausible and unimaginative when that form of government has existed for literally thousands of years.


  2. Sean,
    But will it persist thru a high tech, maybe interstellar, future? Well, maybe. But there are strong tendencies towards greater social participation and democracy.

    1. Kaor, Paul!

      I see no reason, per se, why we should not find a VARIETY of political forms being used in the future. Because that has been the ACTUAL case in real history.

      And I am not as confident as you are about "strong tendencies towards greater social participation democracy." The rise of the oppressive bureaucratic state and the threat from militant Islam contradicting your optimism.