Two of the most recent science fiction films and television series are adaptations of two of the most beloved and seminal works of Science Fiction literature. Dune, by Frank Herbert is about to be released in theatres all over the world, and Foundation by Isaac Asimov is currently streaming as a television series from Apple TV.
Both of these films are visually stunning and are made with cutting edge technology to tell the amazing stories of life for humanity among the stars and in the far flung future.
Why, then, are both of these works saddled with the most outdated and untenable form of government?
According to Miriam-Webster, an Empire is:
a major political unit having a territory of great extent or a number of territories or peoples under a single sovereign authority especially : one having an emperor as chief of state. (2): the territory of such a political unit. b: something resembling a political empire especially : an extensive territory or enterprise under single domination or control 2: imperial sovereignty, rule, or dominion
Now, this is not new for science fiction, particularly the brand of Sci-Fi that gets trotted out onto the silver screen. The original Star Wars dealt with a galactic empire that was in the midst of tightening its grip on the far flung space kingdoms of a galaxy far, far away.
Indeed, even literary science fiction is lousy with galactic empires. Bran Aldiss edited a collection of stories dealing with the concepts of Galactic Empires and it came out in two volumes.
So my question is simple: Why?
Why, in a future of faster-than-light travel, high level mathematics, incredible supercomputers, ‘droids, blasters, hovercars, thopters, personal force shields, and cloning, would you retain a political system as archaic as an empire?
Why do you need Emperors, or Princesses, or Counts, Dukes, or Barons when the guys who repair and/or invent all of the technology should be A#1 top of the heap?
Under our current capitalist system, the free market is the emperor. The only thing we have to debate is whether it should be regulated or, as the Randian Libertarians would prefer, completely unfettered by government oversight. The closest thing we have to kings or queens are the oligarchs (and those are merely side effects of corruption and nepotism the way that cockroaches are side effects of poor living conditions). The only royals in our modern world are merely vestiges of a by-gone age, allowed to persist in acknowledgement of the romance of the age of empire.
And that, maybe, is the point. Romance. Not as in Harlequin, but in the traditional sense of the word. The romance of the bygone era.
But that’s a frivolous thing to include in a science fiction novel, isn’t it?
Well, Asimov, with his Foundation Trilogy was, admittedly, retelling the Fall of the Roman Empire with a science fictional bent, so we can, perhaps, forgive the inclusion of the Galactic Empire. That was his whole thesis, that the Dark Ages need not be so dark. Having a Galactic Empire is essential to that thesis.
But what about Dune? Why the Empire? Why the Dukes and Barons and Princesses? Frank Herbert’s novel was inspired by the political situation in the Middle East with OPEC. Certainly the ruling class of the Arab world held on to power in a petty way, while being manipulated by the United States, a situation Herbert mirrors with the Spicing Guild and the CHOAM company.
His story, the story he wanted to tell, had to have those petty feifdoms squabbling for power and the Fremen and their Kwisatch Haderach eventually overthrowing the empire. Baroque was the way to go when constructing the world of Arrakis.
But why does it persist? The galaxy is indescribably vast. Even given the existence of faster-than-light travel, either through “Folding Space” or massive singularity drives or whatever, the logistics of administrating an empire over such vast gulfs of space is completely unworkable. Even just contemplating a supply chain for an imperial invasion force is unrealistic.
So why do we do it? Why do we posit the existence of Galactic royalty?
Aside from the romance, it’s experience. The sun set on the British Empire long ago but we still lionize the royal family. Former subject countries still celebrate their independence from the yoke of the empire, yet at the same time they fetishize the monarchy that once held them in thrall. Even the United States still defers to royalty despite the fact that they won their freedom from it through violent revolution.
We know Empire. Our history reeks of it either in opposition or support. The most recent and best example of a world conquering organization is the British Empire, whose ships and soldiers kept a network of trade afloat for centuries.
The audience, it seems, is able to relate to that older, venerated institution better than today’s world of high finance, political compromise, and supply chain logistics.
I guess it’s shorthand, but dammit if it doesn’t saddle a lot of science fiction with anachronism and unreality.