From Star Wars’ aptly named Galactic Empire to Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets, interstellar civilizations are a pillar of science fiction. Somehow, humanity breaks the light-speed barrier and reaches the stars. Maybe we’ll meet some aliens along the way, maybe not. Either way, our civilization is destined to spread through the Orion Arm, across the Milky Way, and perhaps even further.
But has anyone thought through what an interstellar nation, empire or otherwise, would entail? Even assuming you had the necessary technology to make one, would it really turn out the way science fiction promises? Several obstacles stand in the way.
1. Administration Would Be Unmanageable
The larger an organization, the more difficult it is to run. Top leadership can’t manage everything, so they delegate authority to lieutenants, who in turn delegate further. Every level adds another delay in communication as orders and directives are passed from person to person. Every person in the chain of command adds another chance for someone to make a mistake, and that’s assuming everyone is playing by the rules. The larger an organization, the more chances people have to hide corruption. Even small things, like a security guard taking $20 to bump someone up in line, will add up eventually and hurt efficiency.
Consider the European Union. As an organization, the EU has its pros and cons, but even the most ardent Euro-supporter won’t deny how unbelievably complicated the whole thing is. With 28 member states, many of which don’t even share a language, anything important takes a long time to resolve. Even something as simple as rescuing shipwrecked refugees is a huge endeavor. Now consider that the EU countries represent most of one small continent on one planet.
Scale that up to an entire planet, then dozens of planets, if not hundreds, and you see the problem. Any such entity would have to juggle a myriad of different, possibly competing interests. At first, this might not seem so bad. The residents of Alpha Centauri III are convinced the space government should invest more in asteroid-mining subsidies, but Epsilon Indi IV is strongly opposed. Solve the disagreement, and you’re golden, right? Not so fast. Can you imagine anyone talking about the people of Earth as a single, united group? When have the people of Earth agreed on anything? Unless it is recently settled, every other planet in your space government will have the same problem.
This is all assuming your setting even has the technology to sustain regular contact between scattered worlds. Empires survive on communication; otherwise they’re impossible to coordinate. There’s a reason so many empires of the past are known for their long lasting roads.
How to Solve it
First, make sure your setting has instantaneous, or near instantaneous, communication. Even if it’s not available to the general public, leaders should be able to speak to each other without delay. Once that’s done, you might introduce a special ability that allows the leaders of your empire to keep everything running despite all the layers of bureaucracy. If it’s a democracy,* consider a neural implant that allows representatives to get through endless debates at lightning speed. That would be excellent fodder for a story, as well. Your character wants to join parliament to serve their world but isn’t sure they can bring themselves to give up full autonomy of their thoughts.
Another option is to have one center of power in your empire. The homeworld or seat of conquest dictates the actions of everyone else. That way it doesn’t matter what people on other planets think. This works best for young empires, as it’s not a very stable form of government, but it can easily work long enough for your story.
2. Accommodations Would Be Complicated
Imagine that, in addition to humans, Earth was home to a species of sapient ostriches. They’d walk on two legs and use opposable thumbs, but that’s where the similarities to humanity ends. Like their mundane cousins, these ostrichians lay eggs, have feathers, and easily grow up to nine feet tall.
Now imagine designing facilities for both humans and ostrichians. Hallways would need to be taller, for one thing. Since ostrichians have completely different dietary needs, feeding everyone would get complicated, too. What about disease? Are there any illnesses one species carries that can wreak havoc on the other? Let’s not even get started on toilet facilities.
That’s the reality for any interstellar civilization. In fact, the ostrichians are a minor example. They’re only one species, and at least they evolved on the same planet as humans. If your story is set in a crowded galaxy, there could be dozens or hundreds of alien species to contend with. Will they breath the same air as humans? Are they even made of the same type of matter? Unless you go the Star Trek route, where every alien is actually a human in forehead makeup, the answer is likely no. This is assuming humans and aliens are enough alike to communicate.
But perhaps you can avoid this obstacle by only populating your world with humans. That will help, but it won’t solve the problem. Once humans have lived in a new environment long enough, they’ll start to adapt, intentionally or not. Humans living on low-gravity worlds will find Earth gravity painful, perhaps even deadly. Humans who engineer themselves for hotter worlds may find normal Earth temperatures frigid.
How to Solve It
Instead of sweeping the issue of differing biology under the rug, embrace it. In The Expanse, the story centers around the diverse needs of humans from different parts of the solar system. Belters chafe under Terran gravity, while Earthers complain about the artificial lighting everyone else in the system is accustomed to.
You don’t have to go that far; simply acknowledging the issue is often enough. When the captain of your starship calls a senior officers’ meeting, include someone from the department of interspecies relations. Such an officer would make a great main character for a story about tension-fraught first contact.
You could also sidestep the issue with a universe like Babel 17, where alien civilizations exist but are too different from humans for meaningful interactions.
3. Warfare Would Be Impractical
Most space-opera stories include some interstellar war or at least the threat of it, which makes sense. War is a great source of conflict and an exciting way for authors to show off their cool scifi tech. It’s unfortunate, then, that interstellar civilizations have little reason to fight one another.
First, there’s the immediate practicality of fighting a space battle. Short version: they’re not very exciting. Instead of X-Wings and TIE fighters duking it out, we’d get robot ships firing at each other from so far away that the enemy is little more than a dot on a screen.
Taking over a planet through military invasion, another staple of the genre, would be incredibly difficult. The logistics alone are staggering. Just invading the six beaches at Normandy took more than 150,000 troops. Scaling that up to an entire planet would require transporting millions, possibly billions, of soldiers across space. Then factor in how destructive science-fiction weapons can be, and you have a situation where invaders would have to devote massive amounts of resources to an attack that’s likely to destroy the very target they hoped to capture.
More pressing than the how, though, is the why. What reason would interstellar civilizations have for going to war with one another? At their heart, most wars are fought because one or more groups believe they can gain something material from the fighting. But what is there to gain in interstellar war? It’s unlikely to be resources. Even in settings with lots of inhabited planets, there are bound to be even more uninhabited ones. Almost any raw material we might need can be found in abundance just within our own solar system. Anyone with faster-than-light (FTL) capabilities could easily harvest whatever they need without having to fight for it.
What about food or livable real estate? You can’t find those on the barren rock of Mars. Surely that would be worth fighting over. Not really, because any species that can cross interstellar distances has already mastered living in space. That means they can create whatever food or breathables they need on their own. Why go to all the trouble of fighting another space nation over something you can easily make yourself?
How to Solve It
An easy option is to borrow from the Culture series. In those books, war is no longer a necessity but something a handful of species engage in out of habit. It doesn’t gain them anything, but they do it because that’s how they’ve always done things. In this type of setting, war is a tragic farce.* The only heroic acts to be had are in service of ending a pointless conflict.
Another option is to fudge your setting’s technology so that living in space long term simply isn’t viable. Maybe they never solved the problem of bone marrow loss or figured out how to protect people from long-term exposure to cosmic rays. In either scenario, it’s still possible to cross the vast distances of space on a good FTL drive, but actually living in space isn’t an option. At that point, invading another inhabited planet to set up a colony might seem like a good idea.
4. Trade Would Be Unnecessary
Trade binds nations, or even groups of nations, together. Without strong economic ties, there’s little reason to remain part of a large group.* The modern world is awash in trade, so it’s only natural to assume that any interstellar empire worth the name would be as well. Unfortunately, this might not be the case.
Trade is all about efficiency. If the UK produces tea for $100 a pound, and Canada produces the same tea for $150 a pound, it makes sense for Canada to import tea from the UK. Things get more complicated when you consider the cost of transportation. If it costs $75 dollars per pound to ship tea across the Atlantic, then it no longer makes sense for Canada to import from the UK.
Now, consider the cost of shipping goods across interstellar distances. That’ll add a lot of overhead. Even in really high-tech settings, it’s difficult to imagine spaceships cheap enough to make interstellar trade viable. Much easier to produce whatever a planet needs locally. Raw materials are unlikely to be profitable either, considering the vast stores that exist within just the Sol system.* Using that up would require a scale of technology most authors aren’t interested in.
Of course, there is another kind of trade. Sometimes, people will trade for something because they are incapable of making it themselves. For a long time, if you wanted porcelain of decent quality, you needed to trade with China.* However, in the modern age and beyond, that kind of monopoly is unlikely to last. Reverse engineering is much easier than it used to be.
How to Solve It
One option is to create new resources and then make them rare. While sending freighters across the Milky Way to pick up a load of iron ingots would be a huge waste, the same trip for cheap antimatter might be worth it. If only a handful of planets have access to the exotic matter that makes FTL possible, that would do a lot to facilitate trade.
You might also embrace an economy of scale. Trade gets cheaper the more you can transport per trip. Massive super-freighters, some the size of small moons, would do a lot to bring the shipping and handling fees down. This might even lead to entire planets with economies specialized in creating a single type of good for export.
Finally, you could introduce a strong reason for not duplicating off-world technology. Aliens might come to Earth with wondrous devices to trade, and their main condition would be that no one ever attempt to reverse engineer the new ET-Phone. Terrified of offending their new benefactors, the Earth government cracks down hard on anyone trying to pry open the alien tech to see how it works.
Sadly, none of these scenarios make it practical for Malcolm Reynolds to transport a herd of cattle aboard Serenity. We’ll just have to suspend our disbelief for that one.
5. Energy Production Would Outmode All Conflict
It’s amazing how many of our world’s problems come back to energy. For example, we have technology to remove salt from seawater or even condense water out of the air. But we still have water shortages, because both those technologies are energy intensive, and our current methods for generating energy are limited. Fossil fuels give off greenhouse gasses. Nuclear fission can be dangerous, and it creates radioactive waste that we have no good way to store. Solar power has a lot of potential, but as of this writing, it isn’t efficient enough to fill all our needs.
Faster-than-light travel, if it’s possible at all, will require vast amounts of energy. Physicists still debate exactly how much, but it’s a very high number. Perhaps a mind-bogglingly high number.
Any interstellar civilization that has already cracked the problem of FTL travel means they are capable of producing energy far beyond anything on Earth. How they do it isn’t really that important: Nuclear fusion, building a Dyson Sphere around the sun, harvesting Hawking radiation from a black hole, or a host of other options, any of it can work in your setting. The important thing is what else people would do with all that energy.
Even without Star Trek’s replicator, production capability would go through the roof. Not just synthetic production, either. Food takes energy to grow, but energy isn’t a problem any longer. Unlimited nitrogen fixing and fusion-powered grow lamps would vastly improve world food production. Meanwhile, the cost of making luxury goods would plummet. Trade and warfare become things of the past, and most meaningful conflict would cease to be. That’s great for anyone living in such a setting but not the writer trying to tell a story.
How to Solve It
Spoiler: Book three of The Expanse.
The key is to somehow lower the threshold of energy required for FTL travel. Perhaps in the future, an incredibly brilliant physicist discovers a trick that allows for hopping across lightyears without all the mass-energy expenditure of today’s theories. That allows for spaceships to zip between your worlds without creating the technology that would solve all their problems.
The Expanse features an interesting solution. In this series, humans haven’t figured out FTL travel, but they’ve stumbled onto an ancient system of warp gates left behind by a much more advanced civilization.* This allows the characters to explore new worlds then come back to a solar system that’s still plagued by shortages and conflicts any modern human would recognize.
Civilization is a complicated thing, interstellar or not, and building a convincing one will always be a challenge. Fortunately, these obstacles need not stop your story in its tracks. Instead, they can take your story in a new direction, turning it into something the audience has never seen before. That’s exactly what science fiction strives for.
P.S. I just published my first game. In it, the PCs have to figure out who they are, solve a supernatural mystery, and avoid their doooooom. Get it here.