I recently read the article, Five Obstacles to a Realistic Interstellar Empire, on the wonderful Mythcreants site (if you’re into SFF and you’re not reading Mythcreants, you’re missing out). It’s a good article, seriously considering issues that should confront worldbuilders of all stripes but particularly pertinent to science fiction—especially space opera.
The article is broken down into sections:
- Administration Would Be Unmanageable
- Accommodations Would Be Complicated
- Warfare Would Be Impractical
- Trade Would Be Unnecessary (and lastly)
- Energy Production Would Outmode All Conflict.
Each section proposes both the problem and a solution, which is wonderful, but underlying these statements is a very simple idea I have to argue against: that people do things for (mostly, if not solely) logical and rational reasons.
Or at least not the people I’ve studied in history. And I’m not just talking about individuals, I’m talking about aggregates of people, like nations.
All of this has direct bearing on the Unbound series because empire, an interstellar empire, is at the heart of it. Warning: this is going to be a two-parter post in and of itself.
Why Have an Empire at All?
Well, the most obvious reason—so obvious I have to actually explain it to my students, because we’ve all been fed enough propaganda about that subject to completely miss it—is to benefit the “Mother Country.” And, yes, in my books it’d be the Mother Planet, or maybe it should be Mother Polity, but I’m not going to get into that here.
Now, how it benefits depends on what kind of empire it is (it also depends on what kind of colonial territory we’re talking about, which I’ll get to).
But the kinds of empire are key. Here’s what I mean: there’s formal empire and informal empire and combinations of the two.
When we think of “Capital-E” Empires, we tend to think of the first: formal.
That’s when the mother country (henceforth: MC) rules outright. They send governors or viceroys. They write the laws. They use their own currency, and generally they impose their own customs and/or religions. They are generally ruling very different peoples than themselves, and they generally draw a fairly insurmountable distinction between themselves and those conquered territories—not always, and I’ll look at a couple of those, but generally.
They are usually the result of a military action (read: war), and are a form of “formal annexation.”
They are also the very most expensive way to have an empire. You, the MC, has to pay for everything. You have to defend it, you have to set up or maintain infrastructure, you have to administer it, etc., etc. If the locals resist, then you have to pay for an army of occupation, which, as we Americans figured out recently (or again), is very, very expensive. At some point, I’ll post on guerrilla or counterinsurgency warfare, but for now that’s like a squirrel. . . focus. . .
Now you usually tax the bejesus out of the locals to help defray those costs, but you’d better really want something that can only be obtained there to bother. What that might be will be clear later, and depends on a lot of factors, but briefly, a few are strategic location, resources, investment opportunities, markets (in an industrialized world, markets are probably the biggest reason), and less concrete things, like national image (at the turn of the 19th century, you weren’t considered a real, grown-up country if you didn’t have at least some overseas territory), or diplomacy (taking a territory not because you wanted it but to keep it away from somebody else). More on this to come. Patience, grasshopper.
To a certain extent, this is the kind of empire that the Mythcreants’ article’s author, Oren Ashkenazi, is arguing wouldn’t make sense in an interstellar age. Too expensive and difficult to maintain. And he’s not wrong, necessarily. He’s just not seeing (at least in that article) all the different kinds of empire that can exist.
This is the kind of empire that Kor is a representative of in Insurrection. He’s the imperial viceroy, after all. He’s been sent in to fix the mess made in the last rebellion by the natives, and certainly perceives his predecessor to have been at least partially at fault for the mess he finds. In this case, it’s been too lax a rule (from the imperial perspective), and he intends to impose some order.
For most people the formal empire that springs to mind (y’know, in casual conversation when you’re sitting around the BBQ) is Rome, who conquered and ruled most of the known (to Westerners) world. But even the Romans maintained more than one kind of empire, at the same time, mind you. So, along side outright conquered territories that were ruled by a provincial governor, you also had tributary states, which are more the other kind of empire: informal.
This is a much better—to the MC’s perspective—kind of empire to have. You make friends with the local ruler. You convince the local ruler to follow or support your policies (usually economic, but occasionally other kinds of policies), even when doing so is not in their people’s interests.
Sometimes it’s easy—you, the MC, help them, they help you. They get your support, for instance, to help them stay in power. Which can be really important if those policies aren’t popular among the people. Sometimes it’s as simple as greed: the Reza Shah Pahlavi, in Iran, for instance, made multi-millions of dollars on oil revenues that were supposed to be shared with his country, but weren’t. When his people protested, he sicced his truly abominable secret police, SAVAK, on them, and we, the US, helped. And that’s not even the worst example that springs to mind. (But there’s a reason they don’t like us and it’s not our Constitution).
Remember this, by the way–I will return to this in the second post in this series.
An example of this kind of thing with what we could call a positive outcome would be the British (you knew I’d circle back to them, didn’t you?) and the Sultan of Zanzibar. The British were truly dedicated to eradicating the slave trade, and had urged their “ally,” the Sultan, to outlaw it on Zanzibar for decades. He hemmed and hawed because it was a major income source for his island nation and its people. Eventually, the British got tired of it all, pulled a warship up and fired on his palace from the bay.
We call that gunboat diplomacy, by the way. It’s very effective, as long as it doesn’t turn into a PR mess. There were also other reasons, like an inheritance dispute, but the slave-trade issue was a prime-mover in that dispute.
These people, whether they’re the Shah of Iran, the Sultan of Zanzibar, or any other kind of important figure (they don’t have to be the ruler—often they’re a class of people, like the pro-American South Vietnamese in our war there), are called “collaborating elites,” and they have usually benefitted from the MC in some way, whether financially, educationally, or politically. They are predisposed to be friendly to the MC.
In studies of decolonization, the importance of the role of the collaborating elites is just beginning to be really examined (although, that, too, like guerrilla warfare, is a topic for another post—possibly the same post, because they go together like springtime and sunshine. Yes, that was irony.)
But this is a MUCH cheaper way to run an empire. The Romans knew it, and practiced it. They got what they wanted for very little expense—they didn’t have to rule or administer the territory.
Now, with this kind, you, still the MC, do most likely have to defend it. If it had the military might to defend itself, it probably would have done so against you. The Romans in the Germanies are a case in point.
The pattern was encroach on an area, which would incite the local tribes. Defeat them, and extract tribute. Said tribute was usually a combination of some kind of monetary payment AND a promise to defend that area, possibly with Rome’s help, against their fellow tribes. Sometimes defense was more the tribe’s responsibility, and in those cases, the tribute, in the form of “gifts” (we call it “foreign aid”) went in the other direction.
And, every few years, the “favored” tribe would rebel, or another tribe would defeat them, and then Rome would have to start all over again. But this was still less expensive than going in and building their famous roads, educating people they considered uneducable, and making them really a part of Rome, like they’d done in Gaul (France) or southern Britain, among other places. It was also a way to secure borders that they simply did not have the troops to patrol–another issue that connects to the Unbound. The lack of personnel and the use of native troops. More on that later.
I could go on, but I think you get the point. Let’s round this out with a brief discussion of when one becomes the other.
Back to Britain, India, & the “Jewel in the Crown”
There used to be a saying in Britain, “Trade follows the flag” (I hope you hear an upper-crust British accent when you read that). This is patently untrue, or at least putting the cart before the horse, when it comes to India.
Britain, back when it was just plain old England, went to India for the same reasons the French and the Portuguese went there—access to spices, silk and other goods. Each polity set up little trade enclaves with various Indian rulers—India was not one thing, by any means, rather a bunch of smaller political entities, very feudal in structure, mostly left over from the Mongol invasion (hence Mughals).
So the English and the other Europeans who’d figured out how to get there by sea, made all these little agreements and treaties with various rulers. Which was fine until one group came into conflict with another. It could be European vs European, or rajah vs rajah or some combination of those and others, but what it worked out to was a piecemeal taking over more or less outright of territories militarily to protect trade (all the while, the British were kicking other Europeans out of India, as well).
By the time you get to the mid-1800s, Britain (yes, now it’s Britain again), controls outright several Indian states, and dictates policy to several others—all loosely under the rubric of, not Parliament, mind you, but the British East India Company.
Yes, a corporation ruled territories at least as large as most of the US, in one way or another. It even had its own military, separate from the British Army, called John Company, with its own rank structure, mostly made up of Sepoys, or native troops, under British officers. About 200,000 of them!
Admittedly, Parliament had made several laws regarding things the BEIC was allowed or not allowed to do, and required them to act like a government at least in some respects (like setting up schools and irrigation projects), often doing more harm than good, as we’re about to see. But Britain had never wanted to rule India; they’d really never wanted an overseas empire (empire was something the French had, and was therefore suspect in all manners), which meant that unlike the Romans, the British just didn’t quite know what to do once they’d acquired one.
So, like most of us, they made it up as they went along.
And the whole “imperial project” had worked better earlier on, when it was strictly about trade. Once the British began to realize, oh, crap, we have an empire and are now responsible for these people, they got all, well, British on them. Started mixed-sex schools, in the British model, started trying to actively convert them to Christianity, etc., etc. Lots of other things happened, and I’ll reference some good books at the end of this, if you want more, but what it boiled down to was, well, a boiling pot of resentment, which eventually spilled over violently in the Sepoy Mutiny, or First Indian Revolution, or whatever name you want to give the tragic events from 1857-1859. In über short form, (some of) the Sepoys rebelled, the rebellion spread to the countryside, several formerly pro-British Indian rulers switched sides and a lot of people died.
Even more people died when the British were able to bring in the regular army, and the reprisals began. It was very, very ugly!
In the end, the British “solved” the problem by dissolving the East India Company, and taking over outright, naming India the “Jewel in the Crown,” and Queen Victoria the Empress of India. This is what I was alluding to in the first article in this series.
This, too, was an inspiration for Insurrection. Iridel starts with a fairly loose version of imperial control under Kor’s predecessor, Khovrecin. It goes wrong, and you get the First Insurrection, wherein Khovrecin is killed, and in the aftermath, the iridelli discover you can’t go back to what you were. Kor arrives to implement closer imperial control in the form of a military occupation, then that goes off the rails, and in the end you get a locked-down, utterly oppressive regime. (Ok, British rule in India wasn’t that bad, but you get the idea)
This is a direct case, for me, of “write what you know.”
Now in India’s case, Britain had a very concrete reason for being unwilling to just give up (because at that point, they needed a very good reason to stay), and that was a rational decision, no matter how they justified it: money.
India had had a thriving cotton weaving cottage industry before the British came. But over late 1700s and early 1800s, they made most of their money by taking first American cotton, until our Civil War messed up their supply, then cotton grown in Egypt and India itself, back to Britain where they turned the raw stuff into finished cloth and then sold it back to India. Indians weren’t allowed to have cotton factories or even hand weave it; the British economy depended on selling their cotton fabric to India—like 40% of their economy depended on it. So staying in was vital and rational.
It’s never stated outright, in Insurrection, why the ir’drakhon are on Iridel to start with, although Kor’s and Khovrecin’s personal interests are highlighted. The reason why for the Ir’drakhon Empire to be on Iridel is a major issue in the novels, and I don’t want to spoil it, so I’ll just say a good reason for the expense and difficulty does exist, and really is a truly rational reason. But there are some less rational reasons, too, that keep them hanging onto various territories long after they should have thrown in the galactic towel, so to speak–you’ll just have to read the series, when it comes out, to see. Hint, hint. . .
But the British staying in India and trying to turn the Indians into copy-cat Brits? Less rational. . .
And that is as good a segue to Part Two (coming
next week soon) as any I can think of. And, yes, I’ll tie this (which truly grew in the telling) all back to the Mythcreants article, I promise.
Some of My Favorite Books on Empire
(Note: I have zero affiliate relationship with Amazon at this time. I just linked to it because I buy everything on Amazon, and it seemed the thing to do)
The British Empire
Bernard Porter: The Absent-Minded Imperialists
David Cannadine: Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire (this book is a direct refutation of the one below, but you don’t have to have read that to get his point)
For a very different perspective – Edward Said’s Orientalism (warning: incredibly dense and thick with jargon, but it’s a classic in imperialism studies!)
And if you *really* want to torture yourself, while still being greatly entertained (or be entertained while subjecting yourself to torture), there is always Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I made it to 68%, largely because of Gibbon’s subtle yet cutting critiques of other historians–and someday, I’ll finish it!
On the Indian Rebellion
Wikipedia’s Article – pretty darn thorough.
On Syed Ahmad Khan (the dignified fellow pictured above, who was amazing)
And a whole site dedicated to him: Sir Syed Today
His wonderful On the Causes of the Indian Revolt of 1858 can be found here, although not the lovely early edition with plates that I read, and even buying it used, it’s really expensive. I’m still regretting not stealing that one from my college library. Oh, did I say that out loud? Ahem. Ignore that.
Clearly, I love talking about Empire! You know you want to, too. C’mon, you know you do… wink