Space cultures are all GREAT…right? John Scalzi, author of The Last Emperox, might have to disagree with you there. Check out his full argument below!
By John Scalzi
My book The Last Emperox comes out soon, and with it, the resolution of a story about The Interdependency, a light-years-spanning human empire featuring dozens of star systems connected by a faltering faster-than-light transport system. I’ve had some people say to me that they thought that The Interdependency would be a decent place to live—that is, except for that whole “the way we transport people and goods is disappearing and soon we’ll be stranded and doomed” thing that the books have going.
And, I guess, maybe? As the architect of that particular universe, I know where its flaws are—not even counting the doomsday scenario I put it in—and I know those flaws are significant. Like most empires, its livability is contingent on how close you are to the top of the social pyramid. I think most people think they are indeed going to be somewhere near the top, which is ambitious but isn’t how social pyramids work.
But this did get me thinking about other science-fictional civilizations—empires, federations, and what have you—and how livable they would actually be, if you were the average citizen or subject. How would they do? I’m going to grade a bunch of them now.
The Empire, from Star Wars
The movies and TV shows and all the other media don’t really spend a whole lot of time looking at The Empire from the perspective of the average person—we’re mostly dealing with rebels or bounty hunters or what have you on the fringes of day-to-day life, with a heavy dose of people who have supernatural bugs in their blood waving around laser swords. But what we can see of the workaday empire isn’t all that great: a highly stratified culture with the galactic 1% acting pretty terribly while the rest of the people scrape by in homespun clothes, moisture farming or what have you. Plus there’s always a risk that stormtroopers will use you for target practice, or the Empire will straight up vaporize your planet for abstruse political reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with you. Overall, not a great place, avoid if possible.
The Federation, from Star Trek
On the surface a pretty great place to live for the average citizen: It has fully automated luxury space communism where you can play around in sense-fulfilling virtual rooms and anything you want to eat will be magicked into existence by a computer that you talk to. That’s pretty great! On the flip side, however, the Federation’s very existence is threatened on a depressingly regular basis: If it’s not a civilization of assimilating cyberpunks flying around in cubes made of plumbing supplies, then it’s uplifted 20th-century spacecraft, or angry Romulans, or inscrutable cylinders that will destroy you and everyone you love if they’re not allowed to talk to whales. Honestly, who needs that kind of stress hanging over you all the damn time.
The Padishah Empire, from Dune
Again, we spend most of our time hanging out with emperors, and rebel leaders who become emperors, and also emperors who become sandworms, and so on, but what we can see of the daily life of the empire is… highly variable, depending on who your local noble is. If you have someone like the Duke Atreides, eh, it’s not so bad! He rules (mostly) justly and is concerned with the welfare of his subjects, soldiers and retinue. If you have someone like the Baron Harkonnen, well, then, it kind of sucks, because he and his family are terrible people doing terrible things terribly. Do you want to roll those dice? Oh, and when Paul-Muad’ib becomes emperor, things don’t get any better, because now there’s a bunch of Freman spilling out of Arrakis to get your ass in line with the new orthodoxy. Have fun with that!
The Alliance, from Firefly
This civilization is like a bullseye—not so bad for the average person near the center, deeply squidgy the further out you get, and also, the civilized veneer of the Alliance scrapes off pretty readily if you piss it off. Plus! Reavers, i.e., very angry space zombies! Which were made because the Alliance just wanted everyone to calm the hell down, and were willing to try to make that happen pharmaceutically. That’s how you get angry space zombies, people.
The Colonial Union, from Old Man’s War
What, you thought I’d let myself off the hook here? Lol, no, friends. Like the Alliance, if you happen to be in the established colonies, it’s not bad at all. If you’re in a new colony, however? Expect aliens to try to scrape you and your family off that planet as soon as possible, and maybe eat you as well. This is the excuse the CU has for being on a xenophobic war footing 24/7 (and also for being basically fascist, in flavors ranging from mild to, well, not, depending on the day). But could it be that the reason the aliens all hate the CU is that the humans are just plain bigoted paranoids? Could be! Also, if you’re from Earth, they’ve mostly kept society looking like the early 21st century, which, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, is not going all that great for anyone. Maybe skip?
The Culture, from Iain M. Banks’ “Culture Series”
Finally, a light-year-spanning civilization that doesn’t entirely suck to live in! Sure, there are not-great parts, which Banks’ details in his Culture novels, but it’s understood that those really are the exception rather than the rule. Most everyone else actually lives in that fully automated luxury space communism that Star Trek aims for but often misses, schlepping around the stars in vast spacecraft with delightfully obscure names, which seem mostly amused by the humans that live in and among them. If I have to live in a space civilization, this is the one, please and thank you.