Monday, 29 February 2016

Why Empires?

Why are there so many interstellar "Empires" in American sf? Notable examples are the works of Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Frank Herbert, H Beam Piper and Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle. Although James Blish's Cities In Flight features an interstellar "Hruntan Empire," the main emphasis of this series is on trade by the flying cities.

Empires resonate with much past Terrestrial history. The word "empire" evokes a realm both vast and powerful - although also oppressive and militaristic. It seems both implausible and unimaginative as a future form of social organization.

Poul Anderson wrote well about interstellar empires, then moved on to other kinds of fictional futures. "The Star Plunderer" makes the founding of the Terran Empire by Manuel Argos seem plausible and the Dominic Flandry novels make interstellar Imperial administration seem credible.

Greg Bear wrote:

"...Rome has been much abused. Lay off Rome for a while. And give me no spaceships in feudal settings...unless, of course, you are Poul Anderson, but you are most likely not."
-Greg Bear, "Tomorrow Through The Past" IN SFWA Bulletin, Fall 1979, pp. 38-41 AT pp. 40-41.

I agree that Poul Anderson made even feudalism with spaceships work. I can accept Niven and Pournelle's Empire of Man as part of a literary tradition and as the setting for their First Contact novel but sf must move on, as Anderson did.


David Birr said...

Greg Bear married PA's daughter ... four years AFTER he added that provision.

Sean M. Brooks said...

Kaor, Paul!

Just a few thoughts here. First, in Dave Drake and S.M. Stirling's "Raj Whitehall" series, set on the planet Bellevue, the events in those books occurred long after another empire, the Terran Federation, fell. So, I think Drake/Stirling's "Whitehall" books belong in your list.

Second, I truly don't understand why you find "empires" to be "...both implausible and unimaginative as a future form of social organization." I could argue that, considering how FREQUENTLY empires have risen and fallen in our real history, then it is as least as plausible as any other socio-political form. Nor do I think all "empires" have to be oppressive.

Moreover, as I have argued before, "empires" don't always have to take a monarchical form. Given a FTL drive, I can imagine federations and confederations also arising.

It's in Anderson's THE HIGH CRUSADE that we see him working out most thoroughly how an interstellar feudalism might actually succeed. I would add, as well, that such a "feudalism" might also be described as a Federation--because most actual governing seems to be left to the individual planets of the realm founded by Baron Roger de Tourneville.