Better Together?

The decline and fall of an empire. This edition published by Panther Books 1969.

Federations of planets are a popular theme in science fiction.  Numerous worlds, possibly occupied by a wide range of different alien species, all working together in harmony to achieve mutually beneficial goals – it’s an attractive prospect for a race which, like us, currently feels rather alone.

In What Role Will Extraterrestrials Play In Humanity’s Future? (JBIS, November 1986), Allen Tough of the University of Toronto argued that advanced ETIs are already unobtrusively monitoring us, with the possibility that they might contact us in future should they deem it appropriate.  One reason for doing so could be that they consider us to have become sufficiently worthy to be included in some form of interstellar federation, or perhaps because our desperate need for help becomes apparent.

More recently, in The Nature of ETI, Its Longevity and Likely Interest in Mankind: The Human Analogy Re-examined (JBIS, January 1999), Peter Schenkel held that ETIs will have progressed to a superior political and ethical order, and may wish to integrate us into an association of galactic civilizations.

The underlying assumption is that any self-respecting race will want to join such a group of like-minded species, provided they meet the entry criteria.  In Attached, a 1993 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Picard muses that every planet in the Federation has joined “as a unified world, and that unity says something about them – that they have resolved certain social and political differences and they were now ready to become part of a larger community.”  So he faces a problem when only the majority community on the planet he is visiting wants to join, and the minority wants nothing to do with it.  Not everyone sees a vast integrated community as desirable.

The obstacle may well be that federations, even when initially joined voluntarily, can all too easily become empires.  And someone has to pay the huge costs of Starfleet and the other administrative burdens of a far-flung interstellar organisation.  So there is no doubt taxation and the consequent enforcement mechanisms.  And when the first federal bureaucrat turns up on your world, you know that you are now part of something much greater, but you have also lost some of your autonomy.

Many empires in our past have disintegrated because people in their far-flung reaches have wanted their independence, and the desire to be independent can often supersede any arguments that sticking together could be, say, beneficial financially – a message which may have been lost on some who regarded a recent referendum result as a foregone conclusion.  Britain’s American colonists expressed their feelings on the subject strongly in the late eighteenth century.  And there’s nothing new about it – writing around the same time in his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon explained how that ancient empire collapsed as it fell apart from within.

Isaac Asimov was inspired by Gibbon’s work to write his Foundation science fiction series, beginning with his 1951 novel of that name.  The Galactic Empire which has existed for thousands of years is rotting away and is predicted by the science of psychohistory – using mathematics to assess future possibilities in society – to be in danger of imminent collapse.  On the surface, the empire appears strong and stable, but inside it is decaying, and those who know must prepare for independence.

Our images of galactic federations tend to be coloured by the idea that advanced extraterrestrials must have resolved any obstacles to living in peace and prosperity.  And so we must hope they have.  But that still does not extinguish that deep desire in humans, and possibly other species as well, to be in control of their own destiny and to run everything exactly as they want to.  It could be that any federations waiting out there among the stars may not entirely appeal to us – or indeed us to them.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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