Five Obstacles to a Realistic Interstellar Empire

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

This is actually the line for the space bathroom. This is actually the line for the space bathroom.

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

LennonWallImagine Lennon Wall by Adam Zivner used under CC BY-SA 3.0

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

Sadly, this is the fate of our favorite YT-1300 Freighter. Sadly, this is the fate of our favorite YT-1300 Freighter. Old Carissa by Misserion used under CC BY 2.0

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

800px-Preamplifier_at_the_National_Ignition_Facility Preamplifier at the National Ignition Facility by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory used under CC BY-SA 3.0

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. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?

Read more about



  1. Jehovazilla

    A lot of these can be gotten around by power imbalances. Using historical colonialism, for instance, makes long range governance more possible (albeit chaotic). It also helps with the trade problem, since colonies probably wouldn’t be as self-sustaining as a fully developed world.

    This is furhter helped if most worlds aren’t Earthlike, and terroforming is hard/impossible, which would allowed power to flow naturally to the more habitable worls.

    In the setting I’ve been playing with, I’m also using the “ancient FTL” trope, to get around energy problems, or at least a variant of the theme. FTL is a resource that can be controlled, and who ever controls the transport lanes, has, basically, all the power.

  2. Tyson Adams

    Is it just me, or is this article just an excuse to praise how awesome The Expanse books are?

    I think one of the main problems with sci-fi trying to be futuristic is that it keeps thinking of things in terms of today or yesterday’s ideas and problems. Which is why I think sci-fi is often best as allegory or satire or concept exploration.

  3. GeniusLemur

    “Warfare Would Be Impractical”
    Uh, warfare has ALWAYS been impractical, but there’s never been any shortage of it.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      While warfare is almost universally awful, it has also proven a very practical method of various groups and countries to acquire resources and build power. In the Mexican American War, for example, the US seized most of what’s now the western half of the country, and California alone has contributed hugely to making the US as powerful as it is.

  4. Wheel

    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.

    My first thought was, are they delicious? How are the eggs? Could they be fitted with a saddle.

    • Juan

      Yeah that’s slavery…

  5. Jesterr

    War is often fought for other reasons. Religion and power are two common issues. Culture conflicts, misunderstandings, taboo violations, politics, philosophy/wiring/mental issues… Ender’s game where the aliens don’t understand we’re intelligent until they start a war, and we can’t communicate til its to late. Bugs like in Starship Troopers, who mentally aren’t wired how we are. The Posleen from Gust Front, genetically made locusts…

    Plenty of ways to justify warfare.

    Trade is justifiable… If capital investment is expensive enough, or difficult enough, you’ll get trade. If resources are unique or scarce you’ll get trade. If investing in an antimatter factory is expensive enough, you’ll only get them on easily defended planets and in concentrations (econonic clustering… think silicon valley, hollywood, or Detroit during it’s hey-day.) If nothing else, _people_ can be a commodity too.

    With sufficient energy, fighting the gravity well and/or FTL are trivial expenses. Given those, there’s no reason trade won’t flourish in space.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I think you’ll find that with almost any major war, the conflict is actually over resources, and the religious or cultural justifications are added afterward. Or at the very least, that there are always major resource issues present along side cultural and/or religious justifications.

      As for trade, the issue is that as technology advances, we’re discovering more and more that fabrication is just a matter of energy. With enough energy, almost anything can be produced locally, and any society that can cross the vastness of space will have energy indeed.

      • Krssven

        Not sure you have a good argument there. Neither World War was over resources – the first was a complicated series of treaties that pulled everyone into a war they didn’t actually want, all because of one assassination. The second was because of the totalitarian, empire-building and racist hatred of largely one man, which influenced and entire nation (no, the economic situation of Germany between the wars does not count – economic problems alone don’t cause wars, people have to want them).

        There’s also the Korean War, which was as ideological a war as you’ll ever get. The US and China were only involved because of Capitalist/Communist loyalties on either side. Vietnam, where the US was only interested in one thing (that the Communists didn’t win).

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          While it isn’t talked about as often, both WWI and WWII were in fact largely over resources. John Green does a great job explaining the complicated resource issues of WWII, but the short version is that both Japan and Germany were relatively isolated nations that wanted the resources other nations had by virtue of empire or territory, and decided to seize them by force. WWI was similar. Germany had only recently come into existence as a country, and they were chomping at the bit to have a piece of the colonial empire that other European nations enjoyed. That was why so many European powers were entangled in treaties to begin with. The complicated treaty situation in 1914, and Adolf Hitler’s extreme xenophobia certainly contributed and made for good flash points, but resources were the root cause.

          Korea and Vietnam were outgrowths of the much larger conflict between the US and the USSR, in which resources were certainly very important. Both the US and USSR governments saw it to their benefit to have a friendly regime in Korea and Vietnam, and so they were willing to fight over it.

  6. Krssven

    A few of these ‘issues’ are a little weak. Warfare being ‘impractical’ and conducted by robots at interstellar distances is a very tired trope now, and doesn’t appear in most sci-fi these days. Why exactly would ships fight at such huge distances that anti-ordnance would be laughably easy? That rules out anything like a conventional missile or torpedo. High-velocity lasers would be shorter ranged, as photon emissions disperse rapidly over distance. Accelerated rounds might work, but all the enemy ship has to do is make a tiny course correction and the margin of error would widen to the point the rounds would miss by thousands of kilometres or more. No, fighting in space really would be fought at visual or near-visual ranges, simply because we are VERY good at stealth tech. The key tech in space will be cloaking emissions so that you could be sure of hitting your target only via eyeballing (or gravitic measurements). It’s this tech that makes Western naval and air power so effective. You have to detect something in order to shoot it.

    It’s also incredibly naive to assume that interstellar civilisations would have no reason to fight (this is also a trope from older works that doesn’t crop up much these days). As you tried to assert above, there’s always something someone wants. All it takes is for two peoples to encounter each other in the wrong way for interstellar war to break out. Humans are very unlikely to be the only, or even the most powerful, interstellar power in any given work. There’s also the possibility an alien race would rather have the nice real estate we have rather than search for years for another one. All possibilities.

    When creating my own setting, I simply answered these questions directly. War hasn’t died out just because we’re in space, and the first interstellar war is caused by humans assuming a (assumed to be) unmarked, unclaimed planet was just that (it was actually a border world of a territorial and much more advanced species). Communication is largely superluminal but requires a network of gigantic platforms to sustain and amplify the signals. Travel is at FTL speeds and requires enormous power, but not so large that it would power whole civilisations simply because the technology doesn’t ‘brute-force’ relativity. It rather bypasses it in a vaguely similar way to the Mass Effect drives from the games of the same name. Trade is entirely necessary, because some colonies are not self-sustaining and some are set up purely to generate income for more ‘civilised’ worlds. A lot of things such as food are grown locally (and even some of those produce surplus that is sold offworld), but unless the computer you want is specifically made on your planet, it has to be shipped.

    • LordMunchkin

      Don’t want to burst your bubble but stealth is impossible in space. IR signatures can’t be cloaked. Just leaving on Life Support would be enough for people with today’s technology to spot you from across the Solar System. It’d be liking trying to hide from someone while wearing flashing neon lights.

      Please do some research before you start making proclamations about stealth. On Earth, stealth technology reduces but does not eliminate radar/IR signatures. Even then, it is a very specialized form of technology that has only really been tested in combat against third world dictators with crumbling arsenals.

      • JGrey

        In my setting, true stealth is practically impossible in space. The main hero ship has it, but that’s due to being able to take advantage of the paranatural powers of the setting, along with misdirection techniques and radar-scrambling. (A technique partially replicated by one of the main villains for her forces.)

  7. Nicole Montgomery

    I enjoyed the article a great deal, but I have to agree with a few of the critics–human beings, and by extension have always engaged in “impractical” warfare. The article seems to see the other reasons for warfare, whether ideological or religious, as the excuse, and resources as the reality, but often it’s just the opposite, or these things work in tandem. Which one is used as the justification depends on the spirit of the age. When people tell their government to only go to war over tangible benefits or threats (America fightng in Afghanistan, for example–terrorists!), then those become the justification, even if the reality is more complex and nebulous. But if the people support a war for a “cause” then that becomes the “reason.”

    Sometimes, of course, it really is that resources are the reason and the rest is smokescreen. The British holding onto India so long is a key example here–“We’re doing it for their sake,” when really something like 40% of the British economy was dependent on India buying cotton.

    I guess what I’m trying to caution against is depending solely on what’s reasonable or logical as motivations because sentient beings are too complex to be solely motivated by reason or logic.

    Except the Vulcans, of course.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      If you’re interested, I would love to discuss how the current conflicts in the Middle East are about resources, because it’s a fascinating subject.

    • LordMunchkin

      You’re not really disproving the authors point. All your proving is that the common people are excellent at deceiving themselves about the atrocities their leaders do in theirs names. I’m sure you’re familiar with the military industrial complex? War is a big industry in the United States and many of its wars have made its rich even richer. These rich men, and yes men because they’re mostly men, then go on to use that wealth to help elect politicians who are more favorable to more wars. Rinse and repeat.

      Wars are almost certainly fought for resources. It is just that the people who are receiving lion-share of the those resources usually aren’t the ones doing the fighting

      Ultimately, however, the authors conclusion that war would disappear because an abundance of resources is flawed. There are many other resources besides material. Time. Information. Social Currency. If you have casual FTL and easy spaceflight, you’ll have people who think its easier to seize the resources someone else have gathered rather than spend that time themselves. Opportunism is mother of all wars.

    • Cay Reet

      The current American wars, while officially fought against terrorism (which is actually impossible to fight with an army) would not be around, if it weren’t for the fact that the region is rich in oil and America needs huge amounts of the stuff.

      A simply fact of life is that war is extremely expensive, which is why the first chapter of “The Art of War” includes the point that the best way to wage a war is not to wage a war – whatever you gain through it, you will have paid an extremely high price for in money, materials, and life. War isn’t only expensive for what you need to wage it (soldiers, weapons, armour, food to feed everyone, material to build the camps, etc.), but it’s also expensive for what at the same time is missing back home. Soldiers who should be working at home and creating wealth that way, materials and money which could be used for other, more rewarding, causes. War is only fought if the outcome, if that which can be taken from the country you fight with, is worth it for those deciding on war.

      Take for instance the eastern expanse of Germany at the beginning of WWII: Officially, Germany said they were attacked first (which they weren’t). At first glance, they seemed to be thinking that the eastern Europeans were worth less than them and could just be killed at will. In reality, they wanted to expand their country (and later on, only the constant moving of the borders and the spoils taken from the conquered areas could keep things going back home, because the administration never managed to balance the budget, but didn’t want to cut corners back home in fear of an uprising). They didn’t attack the east because of any religious or ideological reasons, but merely because they needed the spoils and wanted the land. And they kept moving, because everything else would have bankrupted them (which, of course, happened in the end, anyway).

  8. RJ Moore II

    All of this is why my science fiction setting has everything between the Earth and the Moon, including all space wars and space stations and trade. Even Mars is so far away that it would cost more to get there than anything you could ever find there, and if you had enough power and technology to get there cheaply you’d have no reason to go. Most science fiction/space stuff is utter bullshit written by people who don’t understand engineering and physics and just think lazers and WW2 IN SPAAAACE are cool.

  9. Bubbles

    First time I sent this, it didn’t appear for some reason… Well, trying again!

    I think this is an interesting article, especially as I am thinking about a story set in space, and I have some things to say.

    1 and 2: These are good. I don’t have much of a problem with those statements.

    3. As some have stated before, this largely assumes that all wars are about resources. However, the causes of wars are still controversial, even among scholars. If you really want to say that there is just one cause of war, there needs to be a lot of good evidence and specific examples, to say the least.

    4. Is antimatter found in high quantities anywhere in the universe? Just wondering.

    5. I was thinking of some other possible solutions that could allow for a lot of energy (and raw materials, as stated in some of the other points) to be available, but still allow for conflict. Perhaps if there are a lot of species, the empires have expanded a lot, and a long time has passed, energy and matter could start running out, so there could be conflict. If FTL (or some other futuristic technology, for that matter) really does take up a lot of energy, then perhaps, even with huge energy production, there wouldn’t be so much available for the other applications you mentioned. Maybe a conflict would be about how to allocate energy and materials! Maybe powerful rogue AIs harm other beings because they enjoy suffering – or are simply uncaring. Maybe some beings dislike the AIs that run future civilizations and strike out on their own – but have to face problems due to lack of resources or guidance. (By the way, the last two ideas, I think, were used in the “Orion’s Arm” science fiction universe, which can be found online. It’s actually supposed to be based on science, which, although often very speculative, still never outright contradicts known physical laws. Nevertheless, it’s still interesting and original). That said, I haven’t done much research on the amount of energy and matter available in the universe, nor how much is needed for FTL – and of course, these things are highly speculative and uncertain.

    If someone can find something wrong with any of my reasoning, I hope they tell me.

    • Bubbles

      Well, no one has responded. I’ll put some stuff I forgot to add last time in my comment above and wait for a response.

      3. Furthermore, even if all known wars were due to resources, who can say that it won’t change in the future? Perhaps, as resource problems decrease, ideology and morality come to the forefront. Should all suffering be eliminated, as David Pearce states, or is some necessary? Should AI be trusted, or does it always have the potential to be dangerous? Should beings live to minimize entropy, and should they be compelled to do so? (I’ve seen things along the lines of the last statement in various places, such as “Xenology,” found online, and the Orion’s Arm science fiction universe). Would aliens with different mentalities from humans have wars for different reasons?

      4. Antimatter was just an example. Is there any reason to think that there would be any rare resources at all in the universe?

    • American Charioteer

      3. Without scarcity, survival isn’t at stake and war becomes a high risk/low reward scenario, not to mention petty.

      Even if scarcity of resources isn’t a direct cause of war, it usually is a hidden cause. For example, energy security is almost never the direct cause for any action the United States takes in the Middle East. (In fact the US frequently embargoes oil producing nations to satisfy other foreign policy goals.) But even though energy rarely drives individual strategic actions, the US and other nations wouldn’t have any grand strategic interest in the region if not for energy demands (compare our general disinterest in most of Africa).

      For another example, American independence from Britain wasn’t precipitated by economic concerns (the colonies had a lower tax burden than the British Isles, and a lower tax burden than they would after independence). Nonetheless, it took an economic crisis to precipitate rebellion (we weren’t about to go to war because the British spell things wrong), and Britain only cared about colonies in the first place because they needed raw materials and expanded markets.

      • Bubbles

        Hmm… I think the article actually mentioned the possibility of war becoming petty and utterly pointless in the future, with The Culture example. Also, perhaps there could be dangers other than survival. Altering nature, religious rules, fears of the “nanny state,” fear of danger even if it doesn’t exist… I hope I’m not being annoying, but is there any proof that the causes of war must always remain the same?

        I’m not completely sure of much, I was just throwing out ideas. Also, I mentioned my ideas about how to have resource scarcity in the future earlier. I still wonder whether any of those would work so scarcity would remain in the story.

        • American Charioteer

          I think that if we were able to comprehensively prove why wars occur we’d probably be able to avoid them.

          As for resource scarcity, I tend to think that if there are battles in space, they will be fought over terrain. Langrian points are the ultimate “high ground,” meaning that they could be fought over for the same reason the Golan Heights are fought over: even if there is no trade that passes by a highly defensible location or no resources there, who ever controls it may have the power to destroy their neighbors if they want to. The fear that someone *may* eventually destroy you for no other reason than mutual fear is explored in the science fiction series “The Three Body Problem” by Liu Cixin.

          • Leon

            I’ve heard convincing arguments that post scarcity has been possible for quite some time.
            The reason we are still at war over resources is simply to keep resources scarce for the poor and maintain the status of the wealthy.
            Or; It’s not what you have that makes you wealthy, it’s what you have that others don’t.

    • American Charioteer

      3. (cont)
      There is one scenario in which I could see a post-scarcity economy leading to increased warfare, and that is if every region learns how to maximize resource exploitation, and the global (galactic?) economy again becomes zero-sum.

      Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the global economy barely grew at all and thus resource ownership (which really meant land ownership) was zero-sum; one person’s gain was always another’s loss. This changed with industrialization, when owning capital became more important than owning land and every nation had a chance to become unbelievably wealthy by investing in its own growth. The idea that domestic investment can make you wealthier than conquest can has only become ubiquitous in the past few hundred years. For about a hundred years after the end of the first industrial revolution, Europeans still fought some completely pointless interstate wars because they still had a zero-sum mindset. That began to change after WW1 proved just how high risk/low reward wars had become. WW2 happened because Hitler still had a zero-sum philosophy and because Japan was unique in being a heavily industrialized nation with almost no resources. WW3 didn’t happen (in part) because the communist states eventually saw how much they could benefit by opening borders to trade.

      If humans or another species spread through the galaxy, for a long time it won’t matter if someone else sends their Von Neumann probes to a certain system before you do; there will always be another system. Until, far in the future, all resources have been mapped and claimed. Since capital and trade probably won’t exist in an era of replicator-esque technology, ownership of land (space) will once again be the primary source of wealth and we may once again be in a situation where the only way to get richer is if someone else gets poorer.

      I don’t know how likely this outcome is; after all if you have the capability to colonize a chunk of the galaxy you could probably support trillions of people for billions of years at a standard of living far above our own. If such people still want to fight, it will be quite difficult to make them likable or sympathetic.

      • Bubbles

        That’s what I was thinking about! You mentioned that such a situation may not happen for billions of years, so perhaps you could set the story after those billions of years. Also, perhaps there could be limitations on some technologies that make scarcity happen faster.

        Maybe replicators in the Star Trek sense can’t exist because it’s hard to manipulate very small things due to quantum effects. Maybe there on limitations on how far or how fast you can go
        even with FTL travel. For instance, there is only a predetermined “highway” system which only goes between some areas, or if you have wormholes, you need to travel slower than light, bringing along a wormhole end, before you start going very far very fast to a new place, or anything more than a certain trip takes, say, whole solar systems worth of energy or something. Then, there could be limits on how much of the resources is accessible at a given time.

        • Bubbles

          Well, I forgot to add some things again before, so I’m writing them now…

          When I mentioned “quantum effects” I’m not saying that I know a lot about them. It’s just something I thought of but am not sure about at all.

          Perhaps, even if wars per se stop happening, maybe there could still be different kinds of conflict. Maybe there could be conflicts, even violent conflicts, between groups of beings with different ideologies, as I mentioned above, without being an actual “war.” I mean, it happens today.

  10. Leon

    Moving comodities wouldn’t be that expensive compared to moving people. All that would be required is a drive, a computer and scadfalding. Comodities can simply be fired into space on a mag-rail, to RV with the freighter, which can simply drop the comodities into an ocean at rhe other end of the trip.
    People will always want hard to find or one of a kind items, like stone and shell igo stones or that fabric your mum wants or that lego tie fighter – And if they mine asteroids or dead planets where the surface is still covered with heavy metals. They can definately afford the postage.

    • Cay Reet

      There is a little problem with that, however: People. Piracy. Easy access to a lot of resources someone else worked for or even already paid for (depending on how trade is structured – are wares transported to a market or are wares traded virtually and shipped once they’ve been bought). You keep eyes on the trade route, you board the freighters (easy enough with the simple automated AI systems you suggest), you take all the freight, perhaps even all parts of the ship you can make use of or sell, and simply leave the rest to float in the void until it’s either found or drops into a black hole, crashes on a planet, or is pulled into a sun. We still have a lot of piracy on earth’s oceans, there’s no reason to assume space would fare better.

      That means adding guards to the transports. Either living beings or robots/androids/something similar. That makes things more expensive again. If, on the other side, production everywhere is possible through technology and raw materials can be gained more locally (same solar system, perhaps just the asteroid belt two planets off), it doesn’t pay to do trade on a larger scale. Apart from the fact that the difference in price won’t be worth the trading, there’s also the question of being forced to rely on someone else, of not having control about when and even if the next delivery will arrive. People don’t like that.

      There might be small-scale trade of very rare items (or things like antiquities), but trade on a large scale, on a ‘spanning an empire’ scale with trade routes and a large movement of materials, is highly unlikely under the circumstances. Those highly-expensive and very rare items won’t just be thrown on a mere AI-controlled transport put together from a few resources. They’ll be on a high-tech, first-rate-security, top-of-the line transport with armed guards. Transport will be very expensive in that case, but for the object transported, that will be worth it for the buyer.

      • Leon

        Sorry for the late reply;
        I think, like to day, importers would aquire stockpiles of items they believe will be popular while also recieving special orders. For instance, antique plastic toys would be a hard sell on most worlds, but if a game suddenly becomes fassionable you would be a fool not to import as many game sets as you can get.
        Piracy is easily solved. Tamper switches. Cover the drones and their cargo with graphics that clearly show tamper switches and explosives so that no alien salvage crew is at risk of blowing themselves up. Pirates may try their luck but you would only lose a few freighters before it becomes clear that steeling freight drones is a fools game.
        With very expensive items, a drone would still be your best option – The limiting factor in all of our current high tech war machines is the human component – put an advanced AI on a rig with a very powerful engine with a tiny payload and i doubt you would find anything that could catch it – other than the best military hardware, which is not normally available to to those who need to resort to piracy to survive.

  11. Bubbles

    There might be a possibility for wars to occur – over resources – even if there are vast quantities of resources in space. I mentioned this in the comments here and in another article called “Why Aliens Wouldn’t Be Hostile.” There are some more factors I found to consider:

    There is a lot of inefficiency. Despite the best efforts of environmentalists, energy and resource consumption are increasing on Earth – even though it is known that there is a very real possibility they could run out relatively soon. Imagine – societies get into space, and it is known there are so many resources that at the current rate of usage, it would take, say, the lifetime of the universe before they ran out. Beings then take this as an opportunity to increase resource consumption…
    Wars can be fought even if resources aren’t technically “scarce,” due to greed, with nations simply trying to grab as much as possible. I’ve heard this happened in the colonization of the New World, which allowed Europe to gain a surplus of resources – yet nations still fought, trying to overcome each other.

    One more thing to note; the “coordination problem” is a thing. Different groups might have different goals, including expansion. Even if a society needed to be able to make sure its members didn’t do anything too destructive (like use up all resources available) to become spacefaring in the first place, I’m not sure whether this control could last perpetually. Especially if faster-than-light travel isn’t possible, divergence and perhaps conflict would be expected due to the difficulty of controlling a wide area, and, if aliens are present, mental differences among species. (If FTL is possible, some of this problem might be reduced, but there is still the fact that a civilization needs to take into account everything in a region far bigger than a single planet. Not to mention that FTL would probably require vast amounts of energy, as you mention, which could be the reason why resources are running out).

    Some of these possibilities are mentioned in this link (note that Neil DeGrasse Tyson has less optimistic views on whether space colonization would end warfare than he had when he was younger):

    Unfortunately, I still haven’t been able to find many papers about the likely total energy usage of a far-future civilization (understandable, since the whole topic is extremely speculative), only, at most, discussions of specific technologies.

    • Bubbles

      Interestingly, the Orion’s Arm Universe is a far future setting with highly advanced technologies, and there is still conflict and even a few wars. I was interested in it because it is hard sci-fi (or at least supposed to be); although it uses speculative technologies such as wormholes, strong AI, nanotechnology, and so on, the people there try not to include anything that has been outright disproven. I recently managed to communicate with a few of the people there, and I believe some proposed that in the future, ideology could simply be important enough to lead to wars pretty much by itself. After all, part of many ideologies is deciding how to use the resources you have and trying to stop other people from doing things counter to that ideology (this is something I thought of independently too). For example, some strict utilitarians want to alter ecologies to turn carnivores into herbivores, while some conservationists want to preserve ecosystems in their natural state. (Note: These are actually ideas a few real-life people believe in). There are a few other examples of similar ideological conflicts I can think of that can’t be settled solely by resources. And even if you argue that an outright war would be too costly, there is certainly potential for some kind of conflict.

  12. Kree

    As for trade, goods don’t always have to be raw materials, we live in an age were information is a commodity. Maybe Centauri prime has the best ship VR software with top of the line anti piracy suites, or Sirius B synthesizes the best hand grown marijuana (luxury good) guaranteed to get you high as a kite with nanoparticles that degrade the proteins if you try to run a mass spec in order to find out the composition. Yes eventually those things might be pirated, but then you’ll have to deal with QC issues.
    As for war, I find it highly unlikely that there would be whole interstellar civilizations going to war with others, but you’re forgetting that skirmishes or corporate theft or espionage or pirate raids would probably be on the scale of what’s depicted in most space battles on Star Trek, involving dozens it hundreds of ships.
    As for administration, it would be a bureaucratic nightmare, but that’s where AI adminstrators could come in, or maybe the elites, are transhumans who govern the rest of society, I can easily see that tech being passed down in families, so it’s an empire of mundane humans being ruled by Supermen. Resource availability doesn’t mean equal distribution.

  13. McvChaos

    I think you missed out the greatest problem of time. It’s a problem enough on Earth that we have times zones and people stay awake and sleep at different timings.

    In a cosmic scale, different planets will have different rotations and orbit, we can already see this in our own Solar system, one Mars day is a bit longer then a Earth day but Mars years is twice as long, and lets not even bring months in, many planets might have many moons. Civilizations on moons instead of planets makes things even more complicated.

    That’s just within a solar system. When we go between solar systems. Time dilation will come in, as time flow around a massive star will be slower. The speed at which that system rotates around it’s galactic core might also effects it’s flow of time, in relative to other systems. Even if we have instantaneous communication, some planets’ leaders will other planets’ to always speak at turbo speed, which will in turn see time ad always in slow motion.

Leave a Comment

Please see our comments policy (updated 03/28/20) and our privacy policy for details on how we moderate comments and who receives your information.