Created By: Goldfritha on June 8, 2013 Last Edited By: Goldfritha on July 20, 2013
Troped

Ungovernable Galaxy

The galaxy is too large for feasible government

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Trope
The larger a government gets, the more bureaucracy it accretes, the easier for things to slip between the cracks, the harder for things to get done.

And that's on earth. Imagine a galaxy full of inhabited planets, with billions of people on each one, and probably not a Planet of Hats. Even an FTL drive and form of communication would not decrease the disadvantages of scale. Without the communication, difficulties would be increased -- massively so if only STL travel is possible.

Worse yet, mix in aliens with their alien thought paths -- but it would be impossible even with a wholy human galaxy, or a substantial portion of it, or even a solar system well filled up with inhabitable locations.

Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale, but sometimes, they realize that human government can not reach that far.

This may lead to An Aesop about Pride and how man's reach exceeds his grasp in trying to control such a massive space. Often the cause of Vestigial Empire...IN SPACE!

Examples

Film
  • Serenity mentions offhand that despite the Anglo-Sino Alliance having jurisdiction over the entire star system in which the Firefly franchise takes place, they don't have the manpower to provide effective security everywhere. On a lot of the more sparsely populated planets and moons they contract out to private companies.

Literature
  • In Poul Anderson's "Starfog" Laure explains that they are too large and disorganized to provide assistance to the spaceship. True, they have the money, here and there, but they do not have the focus to gather it up.
  • In Michael Flynn's Spiral Arm series, two sections of the galaxy are nominally controlled. It is observed that the Ardry's authority really runs to wherever his Hounds are operating and no farther. In On The Razor's Edge, a character makes a point that the Ouroborus Circle means that the Ardry has more control.
  • In the Worlds of Shadow series, the Galactic Empire has telepathic mutants for communication, but outback worlds, such as the asteroid that the protagonists land on, can pretty much do what they like including keeping slaves, since it takes months to get anywhere by ship.
  • In the Honorverse the exodus from Earth lead to the creation of several star nations, most prominently Manticore and Haven. The oldest and largest is the Solarian League, which eventually becomes so large and bureaucratic that it begins to collapse under its own weight.

Tabletop Games
  • Warhammer 40,000:
    • In the Imperium of Man individual planets are normally self-governing, with taxes and men for Imperial regiments being gathered by an administration stiff and bureaucratic, operating on its own and not controlled from the top.
    • 40K has another example with the Tau Empire, which consists of well-regulated, disciplined and highly organized planet systems where every citizen does his part without hesitation. This is possible for two reasons: the Tau operate on Happiness in Slavery where no citizen will ever try to do less than their rigidly-defined part for the Greater Good (possibly via pheromonal mind control of their ruling class), and their empire is very restrained (their form of FTL travel is something like five times slower than Warp travel, which can often take months of real-time).
  • The Third Imperium of Traveller can best be described as a "feudal confederation", individual planets are typically left to their own devices so long as they don't attempt to secede, withhold taxes, interfere with interstellar trade, or make war with other planets. Wars between factions on the same planet are allowed if they don't use nukes or violate any of the other rules. The Imperial Nobility primarily administrate the Imperial Ministries operating within their domains, and have hereditary posts because the Imperium is too large to advance upwards within one lifetime. And the Imperium doesn't govern anywhere near the entire galaxy, or even all of Humaniti, they're bordered by five other empires that are similarly decentralized (save for the K'kree, whose system of government was so inflexible they had to stop at 2,000 worlds).

Video Games
  • ''Halo: As humanity expanded, insurgents began to spring up on colony worlds away from the central government, prompting the UNSC to take action and eventually lead to the creation of the SPARTANs.
  • Mass Effect: The galaxy is, according to the Codex, barely 1% explored, let alone governed. Even among the settled worlds, there are territories that the Citadel Council has no authority over, such as the terminus systems, and others where there is no law at all.

Web Original
Community Feedback Replies: 42
  • June 8, 2013
    crazysamaritan
    Huh... we don't have a Galactic Empire trope.
  • June 8, 2013
    Chabal2
    40K has another example with the Tau Empire, which consists of well-regulated, disciplined and highly organized planet systems where every citizen does his part without hesitation. This is possible for two reasons: the Tau operate on Happiness In Slavery where no citizen will ever try to do less than their rigidly-defined part for the Greater Good (possibly via pheromonal mind control of their ruling class), and their empire is very restrained (their form of FTL travel is something like five times slower than Warp travel, which can often take months of real-time).
  • June 8, 2013
    zarpaulus
    Tabletop Games
    • The Third Imperium of Traveller can best be described as a "feudal confederation", individual planets are typically left to their own devices so long as they don't attempt to secede, withhold taxes, interfere with interstellar trade, or make war with other planets. Wars between factions on the same planet are allowed if they don't use nukes or violate any of the other rules. The Imperial Nobility primarily administrate the Imperial Ministries operating within their domains, and have hereditary posts because the Imperium is too large to advance upwards within one lifetime. And the Imperium doesn't govern anywhere near the entire galaxy, or even all of Humaniti, they're bordered by five other empires that are similarly decentralized (save for the K'kree, whose system of government was so inflexible they had to stop at 2,000 worlds).
  • June 8, 2013
    DracMonster
    Hey Goldfritha, I REALLY think you should remodel this into Galactic Empire or Space Empire. That's a HUGE case of How Did We Miss This One, and it could still encompass your original idea, sometimes as aversions or cases of Dystopia Is Hard. It would also get a crapton more examples - I thought of half a dozen while typing this.
  • June 8, 2013
    StarSword
    ^And most of those would already be covered by The Empire, or be misused for it.
  • June 8, 2013
    DracMonster
    ^I think it qualifies as a legit Sub Trope
  • June 8, 2013
    MorningStar1337
    ^ Agreed,
  • June 8, 2013
    zarpaulus
    ^ If he doesn't want to make a Galactic Empire trope I will. Might be able to make this a subtrope if there are enough examples.
  • June 8, 2013
    StarSword
    ^Still would require a different name to clarify the distinction with The Empire.
  • June 8, 2013
    Arivne
  • June 8, 2013
    arbiter099
    I think the description could benefit from a line about man's reach exceeding his grasp in trying to control such a massive space and how this is sometimes meant to be An Aesop about Pride. Often the cause of Vestigial Empire...IN SPACE!
  • June 9, 2013
    aurora369
    The important bit in that is the amount of travel, communication and information processing technology available. This is what determines governability. The most important bit in that is, perhaps, the timescale of a message traveling from capital to the farthest rim of the empire, and the second most important bit is the timescale of military force traveling from capital to the farthest rim.

    The space empire becomes ungovernable when the message travels from capital to colony for years, and military force for tens of years. In this case, the capital will learn of a colony's secession when that colony already has a functional, stable independent government, and a punitive expedition will arrive when a generation of non-imperial-born citizens grows up in the ex-colony. This is what stopped the expansion of the Mongolian Empire and forced Russia to sell Alaska to USA.

    Information processing technologies and complexity of government are also important factors, but speed of comm and travel is more important. Federalism or pseudo-federalism (installing viceroys and vicegerents in remote parts of the empire) could expand the range, and such an empire can grow larger than a centralized empire. However, it's more likely to fragment as viceroys declare themselves full royalty.
  • June 9, 2013
    aurora369
    Let's analyze some examples.

    In Traveller, there is no Subspace Ansible, and starships cannot travel faster than six parsecs a week. So this empire cannot grow more than a tiny fraction of the galaxy, and even at that point it becomes clumsy. Think a pre-railroad, pre-telegraph, pre-steam European colonial empire, where a sailship could spend a year carrying mail from London to the Raj.

    In Star Wars, on the other hand, there's an effective Subspace Ansible with high bandwidth (the Holo Net), and the ships can travel anywhere within the explored portion of the galaxy within hours. Here, the empire can effortlessly control what it holds, and has further potential of expansion. The closest analogue is perhaps 1970s USSR, with airlines and telephone ensuring that no Union Republic is out of range for an instantaneous telephone call, or for a near-instantaneous VDV airdrop.
  • June 9, 2013
    aurora369
    In any case, decay of central authority leads to the empire becoming ungovernable and fragmenting. However, a federal, pseudo-federal or feudal empire can teeter on the brink for a long, long time (think Holy Roman empire), and a centralized one collapses more or less instantly (think USSR).
  • June 9, 2013
    Lumpenprole
    See The Atomic Rockets page on Galactic Empires for an exhaustive analysis of the logistics of governing an interstellar empire.
  • June 9, 2013
    zarpaulus
  • June 23, 2013
    Duncan
    In the Worlds Of Shadow series, the Galactic Empire has telepathic mutants for communication, but outback worlds, such as the asteroid that the protagonists land on, can pretty much do what they like including keeping slaves, since it takes months to get anywhere by ship.
  • June 25, 2013
    StarSword
    Film:
    • Serenity mentions offhand that despite the Anglo-Sino Alliance having jurisdiction over the entire star system in which the Firefly franchise takes place, they don't have the manpower to provide effective security everywhere. On a lot of the more sparsely populated planets and moons they contract out to private companies.
  • June 27, 2013
    zarpaulus
    ^ An "Ungovernable Solar System" then? Thanks to the limitations of STL.
  • June 30, 2013
    StarSword
    Yeah. Granted, it's a really big, really complicated solar system (five smaller suns with attendant planets and moons, collectively orbiting a red supergiant).
  • June 30, 2013
    aurora369
    I've never seen mentions of the red supergiant in any Firefly/Serenity canon. Only the five component stars, of which White Sun appears to be the centralmost.
  • June 30, 2013
    StarSword
    ^It's in the RPG sourcebook.
  • July 4, 2013
    FrodoGoofballCoTV
  • July 4, 2013
    zarpaulus
    ^ In fact they don't rule anywhere near the entire galaxy. On this map all the Sephirotic Empires are within that fuzzy green dot (it's been only 10,500 years, and they don't have FTL drives).
  • July 4, 2013
    StarSword
    Did some draft cleaning (namespaces, formatting, Example Indentation) and clarified zarpaulus' note.
  • July 4, 2013
    StarSword
    Expanded the 40K example based on some data I got from Star Destroyer Dot Net's resident expert on the setting.
  • July 4, 2013
    Goldfritha
    Star Sword, is there a particular reason why you don't add your comments on the bottom like everyone else but have to go hide in your edits of the YKTTW? I don't appreciate having to clean up your natter.
  • July 4, 2013
    StarSword
    ^Sorry. I just thought having reasons the trope is in effect would be useful.
  • July 4, 2013
    Goldfritha
    Then you would have put them in comments like everyone else.
  • July 5, 2013
    aurora369
    Star Sword: I have that sourcebook but still cannot remember the supergiant.
  • July 5, 2013
    StarSword
    ^Well, frak. I dug through the whole book and I couldn't find the image I was thinking of. For all I know it was a different setting altogether and I got it conflated with Firefly.

    Still, I was half-right. I count seven stars orbiting White Sun, though I may be misreading a couple of planets as stars (map on page 208).
  • July 10, 2013
    QuantumReality
    Inverted, but lampshaded in Psychohistorical Crisis: "The Galaxy is a big place". If it weren't for effective superluminal travel the Milky Way would fragment badly.

    Also inverted in Asimov's science fiction.
  • July 10, 2013
    Goldfritha
    Inversions should go in the Galatic Superpower YKKTW listed above.
  • July 11, 2013
    zarpaulus
    ^ I have no idea how to format that for Galactic Superpower.
  • July 11, 2013
    StarSword
    ^Strikes me as a justified example.
  • July 15, 2013
    Earnest
    • Star Wars is a subversion. Despite periods of dysfunction and the possibility of becoming taken over by the inside, the galaxy has been fairly effectively governed by a Republic model for thousands upon thousands of years.
  • July 15, 2013
    zarpaulus
    ^ Not too sure about that. The Republic had been competing with the Sith for most of that time, it was only the last 1,000 years that they had peace. And it was nowhere near the entire galaxy, the Empire annexed Tatooine for instance and there's a rather large "Unknown Regions" on the maps.
  • July 15, 2013
    StarSword
    ^That's not helped by two things: the writers have never been consistent on how much of the galaxy is explored (the UR varies from a fifth to a third of the galaxy and from a swathe on one side to several sections), and there are vast swathes of SW history we know very little about (for example, almost the entirety of the period from 25,000 BBY to within a few centuries in either direction of 4,000 BBY, which is when Tales Of The Jedi, KOTOR and SWTOR take place).

    Still, at least in the lead-up to the prequels, the Republic is a justified example: much of their territory is very poorly governed if at all due to government corruption on Coruscant, pushed along in secret by the Banite Sith.
  • July 16, 2013
    Tallens
    • ''Halo: As humanity expanded, insurgents began to spring up on colony worlds away from the central government, prompting the UNSC to take action and eventually lead to the creation of the SPARTANs.

    • Mass Effect: The galaxy is, according to the Codex, barely 1% explored, let alone governed. Even among the settled worlds, there are territories that the Citadel Council has no authority over, such as the terminus systems, and others where there is no law at all.

    • In the Honorverse the exodus from Earth lead to the creation of several star nations, most prominently Manticore and Haven. The oldest and largest is the Solarian League, which eventually becomes so large and bureaucratic that it begins to collapse under its own weight.
  • July 20, 2013
    zarpaulus
    ^ I'm not too sure the Solarian League is falling due to bureaucracy so much as being manipulated into picking a fight with an Empire with far superior technology.
  • July 20, 2013
    Specialist290
    This trope is often used to justify a Feudal Future, as it's easier to leave "local" planetary matters to a governor who is (in theory) loyal to a higher lord and given broad powers within his jurisdiction than to try to administer every planet directly.
  • July 20, 2013
    zarpaulus
    Five hats, would I need to launch Galactic Superpower before this one do you think?
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