Classic Sci-Fi: Asimov’s Galactic Empire

Post by Nic Quattromani:

All right, a few weeks ago I discussed the anthology Galactic Empires, and now I shall talk a bit about the trope behind it: the galactic empire. It is one of my favorite tropes of all time. Few other sci-fi backgrounds offer such rich possibilities for adventure and intrigue on an epic scale, as the imperial setting demands a certain size, a certain level of mobility between planets, and a certain measure of conflict—it’s hardly an empire if it isn’t using military or political force to achieve its ends, sometimes against fierce opposition. Empires can be diplomatic or warmongering, prosperous or crumbling, as the author wills. They can run the gamut from enlightened despotism to the boneheaded, mustache-twirling villainy of the Empire in Star Wars. Today, let’s take a look at the example that defined the subgenre: the quintessential Galactic Empire, from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy.

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My copy of the Foundation trilogy, complete with a badass cityscape and a contemplative Hari Seldon. I’ve had it for years and the binding’s pretty close to coming apart. For copyright purposes I believe this counts as fair use.

Foundation is centered around the three books Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation, which span seven hundred pages and maybe four centuries of in-universe time. Yes, there are several more works besides, but I haven’t read them and doubt that they’re particularly good. In any case it was the first three that defined the setting.

The basic idea of Foundation is as follows: thousands upon thousands of years in the future, in a distant era when Earth has been all but forgotten, the Galactic Empire rules the entire disk of the galaxy from its urban capital world of Trantor (think of it as a proto-Coruscant). This state endures, but all is not well within it. The imperial court grows decadent and increasingly detached from the realities of running a bloated swath of territory, while the systems at the periphery begin to break away. Only one visionary, the psychohistorian Hari Seldon, can see the collapse coming, through the power of statistics wedded to mass psychology, and he establishes two secluded Foundations on opposite ends of the galaxy to ensure that the light of civilization is carried forward…

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Destruction, from Thomas Cole’s series of paintings The Course of Empire. The Galactic Empire’s collapse would look something like this. Note that Cole and Asimov worked about a century apart, but used the same source material. Painting is in the public domain.

Drama and intrigue ensue. It’s an intriguing if sometimes frustrating series of books—I might give further details in a dedicated review. What’s most notable about the Galactic Empire, though, is its overwhelming similarity to the Roman Empire. This doesn’t have so much to do with its cultural details, because Foundation is as dry as books come and has no cultural details, as it does with the broad arc of its history, which by Asimov’s own admission was pulled straight from the works of Edward Gibbon. It’s all there: the sack of Rome has an analogue in the sack of Trantor, the withdrawal from the galactic periphery is like the Roman withdrawal from Britain, the tensions between successful generals and their ruling emperors are the same in both, and in the end, among ruins spanning the galaxy, there’s even a tiny little successor state that carries on the imperial title, like Constantinople in 1453.

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Space Augustus shakes his space head, despondent at how far his space empire has fallen.

Foundation is the perfect example of taking things from history and transplanting them directly into space. I, personally, am guilty of this in my own writing, with so many spacefaring states based off of Rome or the Soviet Union or what have you, and I largely have Asimov to thank for that—I started the series back in seventh grade, though with my pitiful attention span I didn’t finish, and it has stuck with me ever since, leaving an impact perhaps out of proportion to its quality. But whatever its failings, it is spot-on in portraying the sweep of imperial history on a cosmic scale.

Now, as a side note, I would like to point out perhaps the craziest thing about Foundation’s setting: according to Wikipedia, the Galactic Empire has a population of 500 quintillion human subjects. China is staggeringly vast already, with its billion-and-a-half subjects, and I can’t fathom how the population dynamics would work in a state 350 billion times larger. Just… holy shit. Even Warhammer 40K can’t fight that. A single human being among all those people would be utterly insignificant, and it gets even more depressing when you consider that, for millennia on end, Asimov’s empire has been running on the same retro-1940s atomic tech. One wonders if humanity has long ago exhausted the well of human scientific and artistic potential, with any creator among the multitudes doomed to find out that someone else had his brilliant idea three thousand years ago.

Anyway. This Galactic Empire set the pattern, and vast swaths of the sci-fi genre have borrowed its Romanesque themes in the years since. It does break the mold in one regard, however. Unlike certain others, this Galactic Empire is downright cushy for the populations under its control, as it isn’t in the business of slavery or genocide against subject planets. I might get to some of those empires in a later post…

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