Space Opera: World-Building, Planetary Politics, and Competency of Villains

Today’s topic is something near and dear to my heart: space opera. As an avid fan of the genre since the time when I first discovered science fiction, I have always enjoyed reading such works… and, eventually, writing them. With my current novel project very much within the confines of the space opera style, I thought I would revisit my notes on the topic (previously posted at the Counter-Factual.Net forum some months ago), and discuss creating believable universes – and believable villains.

I will talk about how I would write a science fiction space opera, and hopefully develop an idea or two that can be later reused to write a novel (or three). I will do it in the context of pitfalls common to many SF stories and/or novels. And hopefully it would result in a universe that makes sense, and is still entertaining to read about (we are not talking Warhammer 40,000 with its utter abandonment of anything resembling realism, but also not something so logical and boring that it might as well be non-fiction).

So, space. The final frontier. La-deeh-duh-dee-dum. I don’t think many writers have a slightest idea of how big it is. Hell, in most stories you could probably replace spaceships with cars, and different planets with different parts of town, and you wouldn’t know the difference.

Therefore, in order for a space opera to truly work, a writer needs to take into account that space is huge. Ginormous. Massive. Ridiculously oversized. More than that – it needs to be integral to the story. The size must somehow be incorporated into the narrative, or it would end up a gimmick at best. And this brings up the next point – variety. We have no idea what is out there. There are probably things in space that we have not even invented words to describe, let alone understand. I doubt that every planet we encounter will be Earth with slightly different continents, or an example of a single biome we see on this planet. We have so much variety just on this one planet, that many writers show a distinct lack of imagination when trying to come up with memorable worlds. Yes, let’s make it an ocean/ice/desert/jungle world, without understanding for how a biosphere operates, and how certain homeostatic equilibrium must be reached. It worked for Arrakis because Herbert thought out his ecology, and it made internal sense. It worked for Hoth, because we only saw it for a few minutes, and we only saw small portion of a planet. It does not work when your entire galaxy is filled with Earth Juniors and single-biome planets.

Now, populations. Variety in planetary environments is bound to give rise to a variety of people living there. Even if we exclude phenotypes, there will be differences based on where people choose to (or are forced to) live. There are pronounced cultural differences between people who live in an inner city and people who live in the suburbs – of the same city, speaking same language, quite possibly even same ethnic group (although not always). And these people may only live few miles away from one another. If you have an entire planet to settle, who is to say that the group living in the next river valley may not be radically different from your own, let alone the group on the next continent? A Texan and a New Yorker may be culturally different despite identifying as a part of the same nation. A settlement pattern on a colony world, especially if given enough time, may result in differences as vast as those between Han Chinese and an Amazon Rainforest tribe.

From here, I am thinking planetary politics. Yes, it is possible that planets may maintain some form of unified government, especially when populations are low and resources are concentrated in few hands. However, given enough time, and assuming outward migration and population growth, such governments may end up heavily decentralized at best, barring technologies that allow a centralized government to maintain its grip on an entire planet. It is worth considering that for all the world powers on Earth, we don’t have one world government now, and the reach of each political entity is severely limited by the possibility of overstretch. Considering how much of financial and logistical endeavor it is to deploy US or British military against a target in, say Middle East, I am shuddering to think how much logistical effort a true world government must maintain to project force or to send aid in case of disasters globally.

Therefore, unless we are talking major breakthroughs in technology, availability of virtually unlimited manpower (robotics, clones, etc) for infrastructural operations, or centralized control of technology (i.e. hydraulic despotism or similar), a typical colonial world government is unlikely to look much different from, say, United Nations or Holy Roman Empire, depending on how dystopian the author may make it (and I can definitely see forms of feudalism making a comeback). And that is on the level of a single planet – we are not even talking about systems, star clusters, or stellar polities.

Next, industrial base. If such base is easy to build and maintain (again, robotics, advanced technologies, etc), then each planet is likely to be essentially self-sufficient in terms of producing its own equipment, looking to its own defense, etc. In order for a stellar polity or a system-wide civilization to exist, there must be an imbalance of power and a monopoly on power exercised by the government. This means the government must control some advantage that none of its potential rivals have, be it powerful military, large loyal population, control over rare resources, industrial base, or some combination of these and other factors.

This is where I am heading with this. If an industrial base is easy enough for any colony to produce on its own, such colonies may be hard for any outside government to control. If you are a leader of a colony, and word came from the homeworld that they want to tax you, your response will be different depending on whether or not you are in any way dependent on the homeworld. Considering the distances involved, and the importance of self-sufficiency, I am willing to bet that most colonies will be able to produce decent amount of space-based and technological defenses to make the homeworld think twice about making demands, unless the tech disparity is large. After all, if you can produce aircraft carriers on your own, you are not really threatened by the mother country… but if all you can produce is a canoe, then chances are the power disparity will be large.

This creates a dilemma from world-building standpoint. Do you create colony planets capable of surviving on their own, knowing that they will probably be hard to keep in line? Do you create planets that are barely surviving and therefore pliable to central government’s demands? If latter, one may wonder what benefits are there in colonization, since colonies would be greatly dependent on subsidies and may not be profitable enough to warrant development… but might be restless and costly to maintain. And then there is the fact that each individual colony is a political balancing act, as any large congregation of people would be.

As a science fiction writer, I would probably lean towards giving the central governments control over some rare technologies or means of production that cannot be easily reproduced elsewhere. Perhaps the government is the only faction with significant enough resources – after all, anyone can build a yacht, but only few nations can create an aircraft carrier from scratch. Perhaps space travel is so advanced that even the furthest colonies are only weeks away at most, and central government is able to react to crises quickly. Perhaps central government rules over such large population and tax base that it is the only entity able to afford acting in this capacity. After all, a little town in Montana may be self-sufficient and boisterous, but any borough in New York would have more people than half of the state, which should silence the hotheads who would seriously attempt secession.

This brings up my next point – why colonize? There must be some tangible benefits, lest colonies become prestige projects. This goes hand in hand with how easy or difficult it is to establish colonies. If it is a massive financial endeavor, it will only be open to governments and possibly some of the bigger businesses. If it gets sufficiently cheap (relatively speaking) where very wealthy private individuals might be able to found colonies, we might be getting to the point where colonies might become plentiful.

If colonies are out of price range of all but wealthiest governments/organizations, then there would have to be some kind of financial or other incentive for such colonies to be established. If colonies are cheaper, they may become a population safety valve, or otherwise a way for anyone with enough resources to create his own private utopia. It is the latter scenario which is more conducive to true space opera. In this scenario, it is feasible to imagine colonies that do not have anything particularly valuable, and that may escape the central government’s attention by the sheer virtue of flying below the radar. After all, if you are the US federal government, you probably don’t care about what a small commune in Idaho does, as long as they don’t cause trouble and pay their taxes (and if they are sufficiently far off, even taxes may be overlooked).

Now, this latter scenario of many worlds with low entry barriers can create conditions for a space opera setting. You may have planets with wildly differing levels of development, especially if you don’t have to bring in massive infrastructure or population to get started and to maintain your lifestyle. And because of different levels of capital and resources, you may have stellar polities established in which more populous/wealthier worlds (and by “worlds” I really mean whatever political entities establish prominence there) boss around less established ones.

I suspect that such relationships may look a lot like XIXth century colonial empires more than anything else. Depending on the expense of transporting troops, colonists, and personnel, outright conquest may not always be practical, especially if the stronger polity’s primary advantage is technological and organizational, not demographic (i.e. European takeover of China or India between XVIIIth and XIXth centuries as an example). Even then, a typical stellar polity would be more likely to have a core territory where its power is relatively centralized, and quasi-colonial periphery, at least until technology makes transportation between worlds an easy and an inexpensive affair. I would not be surprised to see many such stellar kingdoms as essentially a single-planet hegemon with formal or informal influence over weaker neighbors.

A good example would be a hypothetical Republic of Examplia, based on eponymous planet. While the Republic claims control of Examplia proper and perhaps ten or so other worlds, the Republic is really a conglomerate of Examplia’s national blocs, dominated by one political alliance with technological, military, and economic advantage over others. The relationship between national blocs on Examplia could be described as the relationship between, say, the United States (the dominant national bloc) and multiple countries that range in power and influence from the likes of Australia to the likes of Kazakhstan or Mexico. One is clearly dominant, but others maintain a degree of independence, and all other nations united may present a problem for the dominant bloc, forcing Examplia’s internal politics to be… interesting, and even somewhat unstable.

The planets claimed by Examplia range from what is essentially a homesteading environment with few thousand people to populous worlds that are so politically divided that the Examplians could play local power blocs against each other (think India during European conquest). Most of the Republic’s proper military and economic power is concentrated on Examplia, with other worlds primarily used as sources of cheaper labor force or perhaps resource producers (providing that such resources cannot be obtained from space, cheaper, without the problem of gravity well).

Now, on to larger scale.

As I mentioned before, space is huge. The amount of resources necessary to fully claim a large enough amount of it is enormous. In order to truly have a galactic empire, a civilization must be many levels of magnitude above “Examplia”. It must be able to react swiftly to threats and crises, and it must be able to mobilize sufficient resources without such mobilization being cost-prohibitive. It must gain constant financial and resource benefits from colonization. It must either be much stronger than all potential challengers to its authority, or the central government of such empire must provide benefits that colonies want (i.e. defensive pact, economic advantages, etc, if threat of force alone is not sufficient to keep them in line). And it must be at least semi-competently run.

Too many writers go for a lazy “idiot boss” routine. You know the drill. Plucky hero (a.k.a. “the only sane man/woman”) mobilizes existing resources simply because he or she is better at it than the people already in charge. Political decisions are made in a dumb, short-sighted manner, and characters are willing to stab their own foot for short-term or misguided advantage. The people in power are too blind to do the right thing, and the hero is the only one who can remove those obstacles before ultimate triumph.

Well, I got news.

Chances are, most bosses got to their position for a reason. Yes, for some it might be sycophancy, birth order, or good fortune, but more often than not, maintaining power requires at least some basic competency. Sometimes, it even requires a vision. True, this vision may not match our hero’s, but it is a vision nevertheless.

People are more likely than not to be rational actors. There will be stupid decisions made due to emotional rashness or irrational beliefs, but more often than not, there will be a reason behind every decision made by characters. I see no reason why I should make my characters into idiots – if I think about what socks I put on in the morning, surely my characters will spare a thought or two about how they will save the galaxy!

As a result, that malicious, incompetent, cretin in a position of power who stands in our hero’s way? There is probably a good reason why that character will not just step aside and go along with the program, and that reason does not end with “King/Captain/General Joe Bob is evil,” or some such nonsense. After all, very few people see themselves as evil, or in the wrong.

My point is, if Joe Bob the ruler was driving a country/planet/starship/etc into ruin, he would only be allowed to go so far. Joe Bob’s own superiors, for example, may take note, because it would make them look bad – for example, there were plenty of incompetent generals who got “promoted” out of combat and into a safe, comfortable place where they will never do any harm. An idiot king would not last long without support for his position, because his predicament benefits someone – without support base, no absolute monarch will last, let alone someone with more limited authority. Compare someone like the Kims of North Korea (whose rule is backed by military power, and benefits military-industrial complex) to someone like Egypt’s Morsi (whose rule ticked off the powerful military). The former, despite all damage they did to their country, are able to muster large amounts of support from the groups benefitting from their rule (who clearly see this situation as sustainable). The latter could not build a power base, and was removed from power.

Chances are, if our hero is a “lone sane (wo)man,” he or she is not so alone, and there is a good reason things look pear-shaped, but may not actually be as desperate. This is not to say that every star kingdom will be competently run – far from it. But sheer, blatant incompetence on the scale often described in science fiction will probably be as rare as true genius.

What does this mean for our characters? Simple – if the Evil Empire is run by an incompetent or by a maniac, there would be no shortage of collaborators (including those close to the seat of power) willing to unseat the Big Bad. If the Big Bad maintains at least some degree of loyalty from his or her underlings, then there is probably a reason for that (a.k.a. someone or something benefitting from the Big Bad’s reign), and that reason needs to be addressed lest the story drifts into fairy-tale realms of believability.

And that concludes today’s musings on the topics of space empires, competence of villains (and that of protagonists), and governance of distant worlds.

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