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 wholly human galaxy, or a substantial portion of it, or even a solar system well filled up with inhabitable locations.
Comes up when a Galactic Superpower fails to govern.
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! This is at least partly built into the assumptions behind the Standard Sci-Fi History.
- Albedo: Erma Felna EDF: The first extrasolar colony seceded 22 years after its founding. The Confederation of Planets wasn't even founded until the first war with the Independent Lapine Republic (two systems that attempted imperialism), and in the period between wars a number of Rim systems broke away from the ConFed, and even more during the second war.
- In Fractured, a Mass Effect/Star Wars/Borderlands crossover and its sequel Origins, the galaxy surrounding Pandora fits this trope, being that the "government" is a sham and the strongest actors are corporations. Downplayed with the Trans-Galactic Republic, though it may be a bureaucratic nightmare, it still functions as a legitimate-if-incompetent state unlike the Economic Development Group.
- 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.
- Star Wars: Even in a galaxy apparently controlled by superpowers such as the Galactic Republic and Galactic Empire, the Galaxy still proves to be quite ungovernable. Even before Palpatine carried out his master plan, the Republic was crumbling due to corruption, and no one would bat an eye when Naboo was being held hostage by the Trade Federation. The Republic also seems to be unable to establish any sort of government in the Outer Rim, where slavery still exists!
- Support for the Separatist Movement partially came out of many opinions on the Republic's lack of effectiveness.
- In Episode IV, it's mentioned that after the Senate has been dissolved "regional governors" will have direct control, implying that the Galactic Empire is an empire in the actual sense (semi-autonomous client states ruled by a "metropole", a mother city) rather than a vast, micro-managed bureaucracy. Even then, they hope to use "the fear of this battle station" to keep the local systems in line.
- Even with the Empire's military might, they were still unable to stamp out the seemingly thousands of crime syndicates that flourished in the galaxy; some space was even ruled by crime lords! And let's not forget how the Empire was unable to exterminate the Rebels or crack down on Rebel Sympathizers. After all, it is very difficult to track down offenders in the vast void of space.
- Star Wars Legends takes this even further. In Legends, every major government that tries to get established after the fall of the Empire is short-lived. Every government formed in the post-Imperial era falls due to anarchy, rogue Imperial warlords, extra-galactic religious fanatics, new Sith lords, and civil wars which nearly turn the Star Wars galaxy into a Warhammer 40,000-ish Crapsack World.
- In Mikhail Akhmanov and Christopher Nicholas Gilmore's novel Captain French, or the Quest for Paradise, the same trope applies but with Absent Aliens and lack Casual Interstellar Travel. Over 20,000 years of space exploration, humanity has colonized thousands of worlds, but the lack of FTL travel means that only several hundred ships regularly travel between them. The only way to travel between stars is to use a near-light STL drive that instantaneously accelerates to relativistic speeds, meaning the journey takes only a second to the traveler but can take decades or even centuries for the rest of the universe. Under these conditions, and with no Subspace Ansible to facilitate communication between worlds, each world is on its own. The authors explain that no interstellar government is possible, as a rebellion on one world could not be put down by a Space Navy because it would take years for the ships to arrive. Even sending signals across interstellar space is a costly venture without any benefit. The only real means of spreading news between worlds is via the space traders.
- The Overlords in Childhood's End give this as the rationale for keep humans confined to the solar system (and even then, largely confined to Earth). Of course, since the human race is going to be joining The Overmind in a generation anyway, the idea of humanity expanding outwards into the cosmos is moot to them.
- In A Deepness in the Sky, there is no Faster-Than-Light Travel or FTL communication, so solar systems are effectively isolated. Coupled with the extreme cost and next to zero returns from constructing the Ram Scoop interstellar spacecraft, there are only two interstellar societies - the largely fragmented Qeng Ho traders, and the Emergents (who have only been around for a short time). Most societies break down after a few hundred years from stagnation courtesy of the physics of the inner Milky Way preventing high-tech equipment like nanotechnology, faster than light travel or true artificial intelligence from working - all of which make interstellar empires possible in the A Fire Upon The Deep which is set near intergalactic space, where physics are more forgiving.
- In the Foundation series, it is stated that Trantor'snote entire population was dedicated to bureaucracy, and that it collapsed due to the impossibility of efficient governing. Seldon's Plan is intended to create a Second Empire, but it's stated that, in addition to being psionically governed, it will be more of The Federation. There are also a couple of alternatives offered, although the option of an actual Empire tends to be viewed rather skeptically.
- In the Hammer's Slammers universe Earth's first wave colonies broke away from their home countries quickly. And most of their colonies in the second and third waves seceded as well. There are some multi-planet governments like the Terran World Government and Marvellan Confederacy, but the majority of polities encompass a single planet or region of a planet. The result is an environment where mercenaries rarely go unemployed for long.
- In Andrey Livadny's The History of the Galaxy books, the Confederacy of Suns is created in the aftermath of the First Galactic War to provide mutual defense and trade of the victorious Free Colonies. From the beginning, the set-up is not equal, as the five Core worlds have more power than the worlds making up the far larger Periphery. While the Confederacy lasts for a surprisingly long time, after about 1000 years, the internal strife and the desire for self-control of many worlds (not to mention corruption) results in the break-up of the Confederacy. Only a crippling attack by a previously-unknown alien race decades later bands the now-separate worlds together, re-forming the Confederacy on new terms (i.e. equality for all worlds, including a few alien ones). A later novel has the Confederacy military brass and the high-level politicians (including alien representatives) discuss the impossibility of the Standard Sci-Fi Fleet to adequately patrol and protect the 200+ worlds in the Confederacy. Either they build 10 times more ships (an economic and logistical nightmare), or they adopt a radically new defense doctrine. Naturally, they go for the latter, relegating the standard fleet to the Core worlds, while designing a new type of hyper-capable modular fighter/bomber, capable of being refitted within an hour for a given task. The new fighters are to be based on new types of fighter-carrying cruisers that patrol the Periphery as well as static outposts. Word of God is that there were over 7000 colony ships sent out from Earth during the 50-year period following the discovery of hypersphere. Only a tiny fraction of them have been discovered. Granted, a good number of them may not even have found a habitable world to settle, but it's likely that many Lost Colonies are still out there, waiting to be discovered.
- In Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the galaxy is supposedly a single state, but government control is minimal at best and the civil service is corrupt and ineffective. The Vogons, the principal bureaucrats in this universe, think nothing of blowing up populated planets to make way for bypasses that may never actually be built. The President's main job is to distract the population from the real rulers, who, it turns out, all take their advice from a man in a shack on an isolated planet.
- In Harry Turtledove's Homeward Bound, after humans prove that FTL Travel is possible, Fleetlord Atvar suggests to the 37th Emperor Risson (Emperor Risson XXXVII using the human naming system) that colonization of hundreds of worlds is necessary in order to keep the Empire from being vulnerable to humans. Since the Empire now consists of 3.5 worlds (Home, Rabotev 2, Halless 1, and half of Earth), Mutually Assured Destruction is a real possibility. In response, Risson replies that there is no way the Empire would stay together under these conditions, even accounting for FTL travel. Atvar agrees but claims that the Race will survive.
- In the Honorverse the exodus from Earth led 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.
- In House of Suns, no interstellar society has persisted for more than a few hundred thousand years courtesy of there being no Faster-Than-Light Travel or Subspace Ansible technology; empires have formed then slowly started to unravel and break apart from internal pressure and have done so for the past six million years. The only constant in the galaxy are the Lines such as Gentian Line: one thousand clones of a woman that lived in the 31st century at the start of humanity's interstellar colonization via Sleeper Starship, who gather every 250,000 years.
- Although ostensibly governed by the Commonwealth authorities and overseen by the United Church to reduce corruption, very little seems to stop ruthless trading House executives, Quarm assassins, or intruding AAnn expeditions from doing pretty much what they damned well please within the Humanx Commonwealth. If would-be Planet Looters make it obvious enough, they'll get run off by Humanx stingships, but cutting off all communications from some backwater colony-world and then stealing, kidnapping or destroying whatever you wish is well within the ability of even a second-rate Corrupt Corporate Executive or bush-league terrorist group. Slavery is practiced on Moth under a mere nominal cover of "contractual adoption", and governors assigned to "protect the interests" of developing worlds' natives have carte blanche to block said natives' bids for full Commonwealth membership as long as they can profit by their personal authority.
- 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.
- One of Asimov's short stories (Star Light) is built around The Perfect Crime made possible by this trope - there are millions of inhabited planets, but there is no way to even maintain any law enforcing cooperation with any but the closest. As such, a man can steal something that's valuable on any world, make a Blind Jump, land on the nearest inhabited planet, and there is effectively a zero chance he will ever be caught.
- Downplayed in the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Though the Republic (and then the Empire, and then the Republic again) lay claim to the vast majority of the (known, inhabited) galaxy, keeping it is another matter entirely. The New Republic was especially prone to nearly coming apart at the seams, only to be united by a new, greater threat (usually the Empire, which both sides were prone to pointing out). The Empire kept somewhat better control of its territory, at the cost of vastly increased military expenditure and curtailed rights (and we all know how that ended).
- 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.
- Averted in Harry Harrison's To the Stars trilogy, where the dictatorial Earth government (minus several "rogue" nations such as Israel, the last democratic state) has a number of colonies on other worlds. In order to avoid insurrections, they are deliberately kept dependent on something that only Earth can provide. Usually, this means Crippling Overspecialization in colonies. Even after La Résistance manages to win, it's clear that something will need to be done about the colonies in order to make them more self-sufficient in order to prevent this from happening again.
- Also in the Vorkosigan Saga, FTL travel is accomplished using space-folding jumpships traversing a complex network of natural wormholes. Direct travel between star systems is limited to those that have wormhole connections between them. Some, including Earth itself, sit in cul-de-sacs in the Nexus and require travel through other systems to get to. There are no FTL communications. Instead messages are relayed to ships that carry them through the wormholes and then retransmit them to other ships traveling to the destination system. The result is that most colony worlds are independent, although a few multi-system space nations, such as the Barrayaran and Cetagandan Empires, exist. But these generally only control a handful of systems at best (the examples given have three and eight, respectively).
- 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.
- The DoOon empire in Piers Anthony's Mode series is either an aversion or a downplaying. It appears to have very good policies in terms of Bread and Circuses, and of course the elite does even better in terms of living a comfortable and stable lifestyle. It helps to have bioengineered servants who are extremely content to serve the ruling class. But they're far from perfect: in particular, they harvested a sentient species of snail for several years simply because they didn't know they were sentient. The Emperor put a stop to this once he found out, but this is exactly the kind of problem that is going to come up in any galactic-scale empire.
- The greater cosmos of Animorphs is largely this. While we do see a lot of wars, they never seem to be for conquest of the planet themselves (just the population) and no great imperial space empire is ever described (The Yeerk's describe themselves as an empire, but they largely abandon the invaded worlds or leave them as military outposts). This is helped by the fact that FTL travel is wildly unpredictable and the distance between two worlds is not static. A trip between two planets could take hours one time and years another time.
- The Four Horsemen Universe: In theory there's a galactic Union that provides some measure of law and order, a successor state to The Federation which collapsed in a civil war thousands of years ago. In practice this purported Fictional United Nations is little more than a weak guild system and wars over planets and resources are near-constant (providing plenty of business for the merc industry). In Winged Hussars, merc commander Alexis Cromwell once wryly remarks to herself that this nigh-on anarcho-libertarianism isn't the best form of government the Union could have picked, it's just the only one that works even this well.
- Kris Longknife: Due in part to Culture Clash between the overpopulated urban core worlds such as Earth and New Eden and less-developed rim worlds such as Kris's homeworld Wardhaven, and also because of the lack of convenient FTL travel or communication (it's done by means of static jump points and travel within a star system is light-limited), the first book of the series ends with the dissolution of the Society of Humanity. In its wake a number of smaller polities form, the two largest being the Wardhaven-led United Sentients (later renamed the United Society, an elective constitutional monarchy) and its rival the Greenfeld Confederation (really People's Republic of Tyranny, later turning into the Greenfeld Empire and finally becoming a Hegemonic Empire under Grand Duchess Vicky Peterwald). The most powerful alien race and the only one bordering human space, the Iteeche, are similar, being ruled in theory by a God-Emperor but with their many satrapies really being realms unto themselves in all but name.
- Zig-Zagged in Aeon 14. At the beginning of the series each star system is an independent polity since Faster-Than-Light Travel has yet to be invented. After the Time Dilation-induced Time Skip to Destiny Lost, humanity has been embroiled in near-constant infighting since the onset of the FTL Wars a couple thousand years ago, especially in the Inner Stars (approximately a 1,500 light-year radius of Sol), with many, many expansionist polities and shifting alliances. In The Scipio Alliance, Empress Diana remarks that her own Scipio Empire of roughly a thousand stars is probably already as big as it can get without undergoing Balkanization. However, the Transcend and Orion Guard nominally control swathes of space on the coreward perimeter of the Inner Stars that are each about as large as the entire central region (though their areas are much less densely populated). That the two terraformer factions have jump gates they can use in place of dark layer travel, which is relatively slow, probably contributes.
- Babylon 5 examples:
- the Centauri Republic once controlled more than half of local space, but after the Pyrrhic Victory in the Centauri-Orieni War they started hemorrhaging worlds, and now are reduced to twelve systems, with many worlds of their former empire being now half of the League of Non-Aligned Worlds or belonging to the Narn Regime (itself former Centauri subjects);
- the League of Non-Aligned Worlds is in theory a strict alliance bent on becoming The Federation. In actual practice, however, they are only unified by the common threat of the Centauri (even if they are ultimately overwhelmed by them. Turns out that as they shrunk, the Centauri advanced their technology enough that they can fight the whole League and win) and common commercial bonds with Earth Alliance;
- the Earth Alliance is apparently unified, but the Expanded Universe makes clear that there still are independent nations on Earth itself (the Vatican for the same reasons they are still independent from Italy, and Israel with their own colony world and the Republic of Korea because they never joined the Alliance for their own reasons), even if they strongly feel Alliance pressure (Israel's independence is mostly nominal), and as Earth Alliance expanded in space two different sets of separatists slipped out and formed their own states, the Sh'lassen Triumvirate (two worlds, they join Earth Alliance during the series when the government starts losing a civil war and calls Earth for help, with joining the Alliance as condition) and the Free Human Union (three worlds, still independent).
- The TV film A Call to Arms suggests that some Earth nation-states have their own warships, as indicated when the captain of an Omega-class destroyer specifically identifies himself as from the Russian Consortium, despite clearly wearing an EarthForce uniform. It's possible it's a backlash in the aftermath of the totalitarian control of the Clark regime.
- As touched on in Film above, The Alliance in Firefly either can't or won't do much more than collect taxes and suppress dissent in the poorer and less populated planets on the outer edges of its territory. Various wealthy industrialists and landowners are effectively a law unto themselves, and attacks by homicidally-insane cannibal Reavers are hushed up and officially denied. Though the last one is justified by the fact the Alliance created the Reavers with a botched Government Drug Enforcement trial, and is going to enormous lengths to keep this fact on the down-low.
- Star Trek is probably one of the best examples of a governable galaxy, The Federation and all that jazz, but Star Trek: Enterprise takes place before the Federation appears leaving Earth unable to control anything outside of the Sol System with even cargo-ships ignoring the authority of Starfleet. (And even once the Federation is established, it only governs a portion of one quadrant of the galaxy.) In Star Trek: Voyager, huge swaths of the Delta Quadrant appear to be lawless or contested territory, beset by interstellar plagues, within-species tribal feuds, extra-dimensional incursions or sheer chaos (which is probably mostly due to the Borg assimilating any polity in the area that could approach the size and power of the Alpha/Beta Quadrant nations or the Dominion).
- BattleTech: The Terran Hegemony and the Star League had tough times in their glory days; not only do they have to govern thousands of worlds, but they also have to hunt down pirates, and stamp out rebellion hundreds of light years away from each other. And the Successor States following the fall of the Star League have been unable to form a unified government for the past 400 years.
- 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).
- 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. Whether your planet is a democracy or a neo-feudal dictatorship, the Imperium doesn't really give a toss as to how you run your planet as long as you pay the tithes the bureaucracy sets, hand over the pyskers when the Black Ships come by every few decades, and ensure the Imperial Cult is followed (and even the smarter Ecclesiarchs realize the Creed is going to be slightly different from one planet to another and tolerate this, the more common ones declare everyone else heretics).
- 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) compared to the Imperium (it helps that most don't realize just how vastly outnumbered they are). To see how small (and surrounded) they are compared to the Imperium, see the bottom right of this map◊: the Tau are only allowed to survive by the surrounding Absolute Xenophobe Imperium because they're strong enough to make wiping them out an unsustainable expenditure of resources, and can counterbalance less-reasonable local threats such as Orks and Tyranids. And even then the Tau have their separatists, such as the Farsight Enclave.
- One of the biggest setting changes was the fall of Cadia which allowed the forces of Chaos to spawn a series of Warp storms that essentially cut the galaxy in half, making it even less governable.
- 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 leading to the creation of the Spartans.
- The situation is even more tenuous after the end of the Covenant War; as the UNSC struggles to reassert authority over its pre-war domain, many colonies have become effectively independent from Earth, due to Mega Corps, Insurrectionists, and rebellious politicians alike all being increasingly able to establish their own spheres of control. Also not helping stability is a thriving black market in both Covenant technology and ex-Covenant mercenaries.
- Additionally, the collapse of the Covenant post-Halo 3 has caused a major power vacuum in the vast number of systems formerly under its rule, resulting in ex-Covenant space becoming a free-for-all as various factions vie for power or seek to profit from the chaos.
- 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.
- Even in the regions it controls, the Systems Alliance is, well, an alliance rather than a federation; colonies can choose to opt out of the Alliance, and many do. Those who stay do so as much or more for the economic and military benefits as any particular loyalty to Earth. The Salarian Union is implied to have a similar arrangement, and the Asari Republics are even more chaotic (they are the only major species whose homeworld lacks even a de facto unified government). Only the turians exert any real control over their colonies, and they have the fewest of anyone, despite having no competition (only the quarians can compete with them for dextro-based worlds, and they have severe limitations on where they can colonize).
- Despite having much more reasonable ambitions than an entire galaxy, the United Earth Directorate of StarCraft fame finds the Koprulu Sector untameable; their fleet manages to take over the sector in a matter of weeks, but loses it just as quickly. Short reigns characterized the other Koprulu governments, with both the Terran Confederacy (less than a generation after moving from The Alliance to The Empire) and Emperor Arcturus's Dominion (roughly 4 years) falling just in the span of the games.
- A game mechanic in Stellaris, empires have a limit to the number of "Core Systems" they can directly govern (usually 5), to have more without taking severe penalties to resource production they need to assign excess systems to semi-autonomous "sectors", which are somewhat prone to forming secessionist factions. When the sector limit is reached an empire may need to create almost completely autonomous vassals which are even more prone to rebellion.
- In the Orion's Arm galaxy, not even Sufficiently Advanced Artificial Intelligences prove able to rule an entire galaxy. This synopsis explains some of the difficulties any space empire would likely encounter. 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 the setting does not have FTL).
- See the Atomic Rockets page on Galactic Empires for an exhaustive analysis of the logistics of governing an interstellar empire.