I used to think science fiction was all about the future, but I’m not so sure anymore. Speculating about the future is what got me addicted to science fiction, but that was back in the 1960s when the future was all shiny. I think the future has tarnished over the years and science fiction has reinvented itself many times over with new fictional destinations. Rereading old science fiction has shown me that science fiction wasn’t all about the future in the past either. Science fiction is a never never land for adults. Settings for science fiction don’t always have to be the future, they can be any time, place or dimension, just as long as it’s not here and now. And like Dorothy’s visit to Oz, it’s all about learning our heart’s desire.
I recently read The Currents of Space by Isaac Asimov, a rather enjoyable standalone novel that didn’t involve robots or psychohistory, but was set in a galactic empire like his Foundation stories. More than anything it reminded me of the Star Wars universe and I wondered if George Lucas had been a big Asimov fan growing up. There are lots of galactic empires in science fiction, and readers seem to love the kind that has the political structure of medieval or renaissance Europe overlaid on a vast structure of many-world interstellar space. Are we seeking the future, or the past?
We’re reading two galactic empire novels in the Classic Science Fiction book club this month, The Mote in God’s Eye by Niven/Pournelle and Risen Empire by Scott Westerfeld, and both of them have an aristocracy. So does Dune, and oh yeah, Star Wars. What is it with monarchies and emperors ruling the galaxy in the future? Is good old fashioned democracy just too boring? Why do readers want social orders and class structures of the past in their stories of the future?
Readers love big sprawling fantasy novels, with heroic men, beautiful women, fantastic creatures, magical powers, swords and horseback riding. J. R. R. Tolkien defined that archetype with his books about Middle Earth. No one believed his fairyland existed. When I was growing up the difference between science fiction and fantasy was science fiction was supposed to be speculation about potentially real futures – that SF authors were extrapolating about days to come. But I think that’s no longer true, I think stories of galactic empires are the new fantasy archetype for modern times – that galactic empires have become the new Middle Earth.
Is science fiction really about the future? When it comes to galactic empires I don’t think so.
Asimov eventually attempted to tie his science fiction series into one epic view of the future, and even suggested a reading order you can find here. The Currents of Space is a fun read, but it made me think about how science fiction is evolving. As a kid discovering science fiction back in the 1960s I’d sometimes discover books that seemed quaint and very out of date, but still fun to read, like the Edgar Rice Burroughs Martian series, and the epic space opera of E. E. “Doc” Smith. The ideas in them were obviously superseded by science of the day, yet they were fun stories, just unbelievable. That sort of puts the kibosh on calling those stories science fiction in my mind. Does time and the march of knowledge turn all science fiction into fantasy?
Even the Heinlein I was reading in the 1960s, that was written in the 1950s, like Red Planet and Stranger in a Strange Land, that featured an ancient Martian civilization, had been converted to fantasy by the Mariner spacecraft photos. This revelation was sad because I had wished for a Martian civilization, or at least some kind of life on Mars. I was reading science fiction believing it was foretelling the future of mankind, and all too often it was wrong.
At 13 I assumed interplanetary travel would unfold in my lifetime and I would die knowing that interstellar travel would arrive in the 22nd century. That doesn’t look like it’s going to happen now. Yet modern science fiction is full of galactic civilizations. Has science fiction become Oz books for adults? Is science fiction just another kind of magical fairy land to visit with our minds?
I have grave doubts that galactic empires will ever be possible – but they are a powerful meme. What’s so appealing about galactic empires? The deep, spiritual response to Star Trek and Star Wars suggests almost a Jungian desire for elements of the galactic empire. Could it be that it’s not about the potential realism of future manned exploration of the galaxy, but tuning into desires for certain kinds of experiences?
- Speed of travel. Most galactic empire stories involve trips between stars taking days and weeks, which would be comparable to ocean travel back in the old days. If we ever travel between the stars it’s going to take years or even centuries. However, in most galactic empire stories people travel between the stars at the speed of old sailing ships. I think weeks on a boat (starship) is romantic to people.
- Effort. Most stories involve spaceships requiring no more maintenance than our cars or speedboats. We seldom see stories with even the hint of maintenance like we see for commercial aircraft, and never for something like we see for navy vessels. In Star Trek, the Enterprise was far easier to maintain than a Gulfstream jet. I can’t think of any interstellar transportation system in science fiction that even approaches the support structure of the space shuttles, or even the Russian rockets. But the technology of these interplanetary ships seem no more complicated than old sailing ships. What we really want are ships about the complexity of pirate ships.
- Cost. NASA can only be funded by the federal government, but in galactic empire novels, space travel seems no more costly than commercial ships in Victorian England. The Millennium Falcon looked no more costly than an ancient ketch from the Bahamas.
- Weapons. Galactic empire novels tend to have very high tech weapons, but whenever the story can, it will bring back the sword. Light sabers are high tech swords. Often on primitive worlds in galactic empires, people travel by horse, or something akin to one. You get the feeling that deep down many readers would love a world where dueling is both honorable and accepted.
- Mysticism and Magic. You’d think that science would be the only system for understanding reality in the future, and religion and magic would be long forgotten. But again, how often have you read a galactic empire series were metaphysical powers come into play? Readers love humans that have powers and talents. These may come from tech enhancements, or ESP, or some mystical mumbo-jumbo like The Force.
- Diversity. You got to say this for galactic empire stories, we seem to want tremendous diversity in the human body. Just read some of Samuel R. Delany’s early books like Empire Star, Nova or The Einstein Intersection, which are set in galactic empires, and think about the body types in Tolkien.
- Gender Roles. The 1974 Mote in God’s Eye is downright paternalistic about women, whereas thirty years later, in Risen Empire, women are liberated to be combat soldiers. However, I think in the future where mankind has spread across the galaxy, readers still prefer strong men and beautiful women, and maybe even damsels in distress.
- Fantastic creatures. Are aliens really any different from the fantastic creatures we find in fantasy fiction?
Why are our science fictional futures so much like our real histories? Asimov said he patterned the Foundation series on Roman history. I felt The Mote in God’s Eye was patterned on the British Empire. I often feel military science fiction is inspired by American grunts of WWII. I thought Dune riffed on Arab and Australian aborigine cultures. And many people have compared space opera with westerns.
The practical scientific prospect of human galactic empires is next to nil. Or about the same as Middle Earth being real. So aren’t many epic science stories really just another kind of fantasy epic? What does that say about reader psychology? If galactic empires are a kind of mental comfort food, a romantic setting for our deepest desires, what does that say about what we really wish life was like? Do we all have genetic programming to go on quests? Would we like to bring back the class system with aristocrats and peasants? Just look at fantasy based computer games where players get to design their characters and how they are typed and categorized – not very egalitarian. Isn’t there a lot of overlap between fantasy games and sci-fi games? How different is a fantasy warrior from a futuristic mech warrior? And don’t people prefer a princess over an ordinary girl both in fantasy and the future? And how do we analyze something like The Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin?
Despite the success of science fiction in popular culture we’s stopped believing in the shiny future we wanted in the 1950s. Our new fantasy/SF worlds have become Baroque hodgepodges of past and future. Readers for the most part don’t enjoy dystopian visions of the future, nor do they like gleaming promises that are closer to utopias. They seem to love down and dirty complexities where good and evil still battle it out – doesn’t Tolkien show a lineage with John Milton? Doesn’t Star Wars reveal DNA from Sir Walter Scott, Alexander Dumas and Rudyard Kipling?
Personally, I used to believe in galactic empires like Christians and Muslims believe in heaven, but now I’m completely skeptical of them ever existing. However, they make for a delicious fictional destination. As and I get older I’ve come to appreciate the comforts of cherished fantasies.
JWH – 6/9/11 – Table of Contents
25 thoughts on “Are Galactic Empires the New Middle Earth?”
Great article. It seems like the harder we examine science fiction that more unbelievable it seems. However, I think we have to remember that unbelievable does not equal un-enjoyable.
Even if Galactic Empire stories will never be a reality, they’re still a lot of fun.
And your idea that they talk to something deep within us is a fascinating thought.
I think science fiction describes our dreams, ambitions, nightmares, fantasies, as well as our predictions for the future. We live rather small lives but dream really big dreams. I think the restrictions of the physical world are overcome in our fictional and virtual worlds. Galactic empires are what we imagine when we think really big.
That is why I am a Space Opera buff!
I think the caste system appeals to us because it provides immediate boundaries. Immersing ourselves in the story, we want to know our place in life, to have structure, but at the same time to know that we could advance if we really wanted or had to. It also defines explicitly the relationships between the characters, giving us an understandable background against which to gauge the actions of those characters. A soldier is expected to behave differently than an officer, a commoner differently than a noble and each case provides a way to make the character more immediately believable without the reader having to figure out the social interactions. It also adds behavioral traits, further fleshing out the character in our minds.
Would we like it in real life? I doubt it. In our fiction? Definitely, since it’s romanticized.
A galactic empire would not only require FTL travel, that travel would have to be easy and cheap. Today even low-value items (think dollar stores) are shipped across the pacific ocean in cargo containers. It would be interesting to imagine a story about a galactic empire without FTL. How does the fact that the “imperial navy” could take 100 years to arrive to suppress an local insurrection change how such a society would work?
I think the class structure and super-naturalism in science fiction novels is due to the escapist nature of most science fiction. People want to read stories where people are special or have special powers and fantasize that they are special (despite significant and repeated counter-examples in their daily life). Re-using historical ways of making people are special is easy. Imagining something genuinely new is hard.
People no longer have a blind belief in technological progress because they have seen that it has not changed basic human nature, which lends itself to greed, cruelty and violence. Many people believe every advancement we make will ultimately be used to harm us.
Excellent article. I write about the “how” of an author creating an interstellar empire, but you write about the “why?”
I could not agree more. Both SF and fantasy are, IMHO, subgenres of Romance – the old time Los Angeles of hardboiled fiction is as much a fantasy world as Middle-Earth or Trantor.
Though perhaps part of the fantasy element in SF, at least ‘hard SF,’ is the illusion that it might someday, somehow happen, however dubious that premise is when closely examined.
Oh, I see. No, what you have observed here is not what you have wrote in this article. Basically american SF and most of its counterpart around the world is entertainment. This is purpose of most of SF. It is a strong tradition of writing space-based adventure novels. And that’s it. But SF isn’t about that. SF was never about entertainment or predicting future-thinking outherwise is just silly. You can’t predict future and SF authors never did. Even the gretest of them were just mumbling some nonsence about technology. No. SF is all about philosophy. Find philosophical topic and clash it with our concpet of rigth and wrong using science as pretense and plot to expose it. The best novels and SfFstories are about that. They are philosophical. They ask questions like “are we alone” “is there a God” “what is life?” “is there morality?”and so on. True essence of SF lasy there. Not in ability to predict-that’s nonsense.
Oh, I never expected SF to predict anything specific, it’s more of a tool for thinking about all the possible futures we might have. And I agree, I think the best SF, or the best fiction, is philosophical.
By the way, I just got from watching Super 8, and it’s quite retro and nostalgic for the 1970s. It’s rather metafictional, in that it’s a science fiction movie about making science fiction movies. It adds to the growing genre of recursive science fiction. But more than that, it’s a kind of comfort food, a recognition that we grow up loving science fiction, and we need to keep the science fictional belief alive.
>However, I think in the future where mankind has spread across the galaxy, readers still prefer strong men and beautiful women, and maybe even damsels in distress.
While I concede that many readers prefer fictional futures that are populated by Beautiful People (including myself at times), I am one of those readers who does *not* prefer damsels in distress.
Too often, damsel in distress equals Too Stupid To Live. I’m female, and I can not relate to the traditional damsel in distress character. Frankly, I thought we were past that, especially in a futuristic setting. Technology is the great equalizer.
Now, if we’re talking about having variety, where heroines get to save the hero as well as vice versa (sometimes in the same story!), then that’s something I can get behind.
I’m turned on by heroic heroines like Ripley, Sarah Connor, and AVATAR’s Neytiri. Not to mention the loads of such heroines in science fiction romance.
James Cameron can’t be the only man turned on by smart, strong, capable heroines who can save the day.
The action heroine has almost become a standard, so that modern stories allow equal rights in fighting for women. But I wonder if Star Wars was made today, how would Princess Leia be portrayed in 2011. But then we have Queen Padmé Amidala as her modern example. I guess in current times we have a kind of equal rights, women can be damsels in distress or their rescuers.
I think that this article says more about the author’s changing view of the future than it does about science fiction. Maybe he is upset because he doesn’t have a flying car yet.
He just sounds very old.
That’s true Chris, I just turned 60. I assume you are young. Let’s see when you get old if the world is as science fictional as it promises to be to you now.
I think that science fiction writers who deny or obfuscate the reality of global warming (IYKWIMAITYD) bear a heavy burden and should be called to task. Also, their publishers should not be allowed to make money by distributing their propaganda. Each of us needs to weigh personal sacrifice against the suffering of untold generations to follow.
I would appreciate SF writers that envisions various futures to let us see what might happen if we don’t act. No individual can think of all the ramifications, so reading lots of novels will help us see further.
“Do we all have genetic programming to go on quests? Would we like to bring back the class system with aristocrats and peasants?”
Of course we do. (To both questions, but especially the first.) You mentioned Jung’s collective unconscious; you might also find it interesting to read Mitscherlisch’s Society WIthout the Father.
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This is a very meaty and useful article! I’ve held off commenting until I had a spare moment. So…
I think I’ve observed something similar – I’ve been reading a lot of Edmond Hamilton and EC Tubb (Dumarest) and of course the futures are not remotely plausible, but still mesmerizing. It’s also worth noting that popular screen SF – SciFi – is closer to the old school SF than anything extrapolative. For example, Firefly is beloved by tech-obsessed geeks but really could be an adaption of something written in 1960.
I also agree that these – let’s call them – SciFi stories tap old tropes about princesses and robber barons and pirates and so on. I like your point that this is basically what we’re wired to read about.
However, from a storytelling point of view, I see the dated SciFi futures not so much as Middle Earth but as the Wild West.
The Wild West used to let you talk about normal people – farmers, school ma’ams, doctors – in collision with a heroic world (Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), or heroes in collision with the normal world which however still needs them (High Noon). It also let you write about adventurers whose cultural and technological reference points were not so different from that of the reader (or viewer).
Dated SciFi futures let you do something similar, with the added bonus of being able to pillage archetypes from history.The crew of Firefly is a good example, containing both exotic/heroic types and normal ones. The Captain is a 19th century figure, the Engineer a 21st century one, the Preacher is a Dark Ages saint, the courtesan comes from the Ancient world, the Doctor is 20th century and his ninja Super Waif sister is an escapee from a super hero movie. The Reavers, meanwhile, belong in the 5th century.
I don’t think you could could do quite the same thing with Middle Earth, though I guess Hobbits are a stand in for ordinary English folk…
Maybe you’re on to something here. I love westerns, so I can see your point. But maybe it’s not just westerns, but the 19th century. Nearly all genre story types were perfected in the 19th century, including many of the archetype character patterns – detective, scientist, cowboy, etc. And it was probably then that writers discovered all of history as settings for stories and characters, and even mixing it up with fantasy and science fiction.
Yes. SciFi lets us tell all sorts of stories with some modern reference points and or characters. E.g. Babylon 5 – a costume drama in space.