I'm building a world with an interplanetary empire (with an emperor as head-of-state), but I wonder how realistic it is for one to even exist.

An empire, according to Google, is defined as:

an extensive group of states or countries under a single supreme authority, formerly especially an emperor or empress.

But there does seem to be a limit as to how big an empire can functionally be before it implodes/fragments. For example, restrictions based on relativity make it incredibly difficult for an empire to function in an interstellar and especially intergalactic level (assuming no technology could circumvent the proverbial speed limit). But what about an interplanetary level? That is, could a solar system realistically be organized as an empire with an emperor?

Here a list of what arguments against the likelihood of an interplanetary empire ever existing:

  • Humanity's need for the illusion of self-governance: while certain nations in existence today are obviously not free, they maintain the illusion of democracy and free elections to justify their right to rule. Emperors and empresses cannot conceivably exist in the future as it is so ingrained in the modern psyche that the individual/common citizen provides consent to rule.
  • Size matters: this is a very logical argument. The bigger an empire becomes, both in size of land and population, the harder it becomes to manage. A single, solitary emperor cannot possibly rule tens of billions of his citizens in an interplanetary empire across potentially diverse habitats
  • Exorbitant administration costs/corruption: this feeds into the prior point, although this can be a significant issue for any government save for a loose confederacy of interplanetary empires. Law enforcement, tax collection, bureaucracy, and basic public services are inherently difficult to implement at a grand scale for an interplanetary empire. It is nigh impossible to not have the government collapse or be abused to the point of ineffectiveness.
  • Communication and transportation time-limits: let's say on a remote colony, that an uprising sprouts up and spreads to adjacent colonies. How long could it realistically take the emperor in his palace to be notified, formulate a response, and act upon his response? This hinges on the state of technology, of course, but is a factor nonetheless.

However, I've observed some tropes/characteristics in fantasy empires that justify the inception and maintenance of empires. And to some extent, this applies to sci-fi empires as well. They are the following:

  • Divine Right: a trope not entirely outside the realm of possibility. In ancient times, emperors would proclaim that God or the Gods or Heaven has provided them the right/mandate to rule. If the candidate for emperor is charismatic, skilled in diplomacy and war, and has strong military/economic/religious backing, he could rightfully seize power and rightfully keep it. If the emperor manages to cultivate a cult of personality (whether by outright worship or extreme reverence), many citizens would be averse to plan revolting against him. Note: this doesn't mean that people are necessarily irrational, but myths and legends still play a part in many people's belief systems and therefore their decision making.
  • The inevitable lapse into autocratic rule: a democratic government comes with its own issues, and many artists/historians can attest to this. The fall of the Wiemar Republic and rise of Nazi Germany, Julius Caesar and the fall of Roman Republicanism, Babylon 5's President Clark, Star Wars' Emperor Palpatine... these are some of the examples where democracy dies and it is done legally and sometimes even by the consent of the ruled.
  • Control through fear and dependency: a strong military that ruthlessly crushes opposition, a secret police that turns you against your neighbor, and economic slavery (e.g. dependent upon a welfare state that enables you to subsist) are sufficient de-motivators to keep people from rebelling. Note: while historically speaking, empires don't generally last long through fear and intimidation, it is a common trope.
  • Control through pleasure and prosperity: Conversely, Aldous Huxley, in Brave New World, painted a dystopian future where the use of sex, drugs, and recreational activities placates the masses. This would be a more generalized version of "Bread and Circuses". Also, if the vast majority of an empire's citizens live comfortably under an emperor's rule, why would they feel the need to rebel? Indeed, it seems that the health of an economy sets the mood for its populace.
  • Control of information: this one is a bit obvious. How could people be outraged at the emperor's brutal crackdown of such-and-such protest if they never hear about it? How could people reliably communicate and organize themselves to resist the emperor if the emperor's government controls all means of long-range communication?
  • Overdose of information: Another salient point made by Aldous Huxley was the "overdose of information". Ancient and modern dictatorships rely on strict control of information in order to maintain control. But, if the populace is inundated with meaningless information non-stop, they would be too distracted and tune any important information out. For example, an article discussing corruption by the emperor, will be tuned out as they read about a certain celebrity's extra-marital affair, or watch amusing cat videos. People aren't necessarily apathetic to government abuse/corruption. But people could remain "unaware" or too distracted because any useful political article is among hundreds of articles that talk literally about nothing.

But based upon this reasoning, could an interplanetary empire realistically exist in the future? If you have anything to add in the for or against argument, please share!

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    $\begingroup$ I wonder if people once argued similarly that an empire could not be too large... before Alexander the Great showed them just how big it could be. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 0:08
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    $\begingroup$ "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet" (W. Shakspere). "Nomina nuda tenemus" (all we have are empty names) (Bernard of Morlay, quoted by U. Eco). "Emperor" is just a word, no better and no worse than president. What makes the emperor of Japan more of an emperor than the queen of Australia? Why are the heads of the American, Chinese and Russian empires called "presidents" and not "emperors", when they rule over larger and more diverse states, and have vastly more power, than the emperor of Japan of the queen of Canada. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 0:27
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    $\begingroup$ CGP Grey's Rules for Rulers could actually be a good resource for this, as it tackles the fundamental requirements of being a ruler, whether it's a democratic or dictatorial: youtube.com/watch?v=rStL7niR7gs $\endgroup$
    – Basher
    Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 0:39
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    $\begingroup$ @BrettFromLA Physics is not about belief. Current quantum theories all find FTL comms via entanglement impossible. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 5:30
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    $\begingroup$ @StephenG: More importantly every experiment we’ve done backs up those theories. $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 7:48

8 Answers 8


I think it's possible for such empire to exist within a solar system. I would say that having both military might and control of information is the key of creating such a huge empire.

Right now, we can say China's CCP could be a prime example of a modern empire. They have very strict control of information. No privacy is given, as they're required to have their actual ID to be able to access online. So if someone wanted to say something bad about the government, they know who it was. Not only that, propaganda is everywhere, as China's government also controls the TV networks and newspapers. They can always point their flaws to the enemy, and without any comparison with other media, will believe that it is true.

Undeniably, having a huge military force would be an essential factor to have control of the empire's citizens. The empire needs an organization to enforce the rules that it has, and the military would be the best for that. Coupled with controlling information, and the emperor can just bring down any of its citizens due to [insert false info here].

To be a living God may not fully work in a futuristic setting. With instant communication and surveillance, any emperor or it's family being treated as divine beings will be monitored continuously throughout their lives. Any flaws or mistakes will be pointed out by the masses, and at the end of the day, recognize them as any other human being. So unless an emperor lives for a huge lifespan that no other humans can achieve, I doubt it is possible.

Communication is definitely a factor, though with an interplanetary setting, it may not be a huge one. For example, it will take about 43 minutes for a radio transmission to be sent from Earth to let's say Jupiter (Europa is a possible moon to colonize). While not instantaneous, we've survived longer delays in communication back in the 90s (Cuban Missile Crisis, negotiations between US & Soviet Union), so adjustments can definitely be made. Besides, with a huge military might, there will be stations in every major colony to "keep the peace".

Transportation on the other hand, is a bigger problem. Colonized planets could or must be self-sufficient that it produces it's own food and resources, rather than being depended on a "farming planet", unless technology has reached the point where it only takes days or weeks to arrive on another planet instead of years. At that point, very specialized planets would arise. Would be cool to see an industrial planet with a huge hole at the center, as it is being used to construct massive spaceships at the very center, and launch them once done. Or, a planet rich with heavy metals being surrounded by harvesters, eating the planet bit by bit and have a network of ships going back and forth, delivering said harvest to other planets.

Probably a big way for an interplanetary empire to form is to have a common goal.. or enemy. What if there's another empire or colony threatening the lives of the solar system? Humanity will likely band together to fight a common enemy and will voluntary join a part of an empire that will guarantee their safety.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I agree that in a modern context, it may seem impractical to have an Emperor stand in as a divine being. But what do you think of an Emperor that doesn't have a public life to speak of? For example, the Chinese historically always had an Emperor that was cut off from public life altogether (e.g. see Forbidden City). It's a practice along something the lines of "always present, but invisible". It's a common theme in ancient Chinese architecture/culture to build a mystique around an Emperor as omnipresent, but unseen--much like gods. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 17:31

Using history as a guide, an empire could exist in the future as large as the solar system (Kardashev level 2). Time more than distance would be the limiting factor - how quickly (or slowly) can information be disseminated and reacted to. It could consist of hundreds if not thousands of independent and interdependent habitats, colonized asteroids, and terraformed worlds. How would the Emperor maintain control- through IA, brain washing and appealing to enlightened self interest of his governors and/or controlling corporations (think modern day royalty or an equivalent to medieval guilds (forget labor unions - too much of empire would be automated that they would not have a voice). The empire would employ a propaganda machine the likes of 1984 Orwellian could only dream of. Would there be decenters? Absolutely and would also be encouraged in limited ways to keep the civilization from becoming stagnant. I don't see it as being dystopian and the fringe would develop with unique customs and cultural identities.


If you look at British Empire, especially during 19th century, you would see that:

  • It could manage different regions which were so far away that it took months while any help (army and/or goods) from metropoly would reach a colony. I agree with @Mice Wilco that time of travel is more important than just miles or parsecs.
  • Some distant areas (Austalia, India etc) were managed by local Governor which had:
    • Local army which had local divisions along English
    • Local laws relevant to traditions of each region
    • Local taxes and local goverment system which also was relevant to culture of region
      Distant colonies trasformed to independed states
      So we could say that English Empire consist of different states under authourity of a Queen (King/Emperor)
  • It suffers from corruption and inefficient Governors
  • It existed for decades, even centuries.

So we could see that empire could exist on large scale when direct ruling fails. It could be not so dynamic and efficient as other form of goverment but it's possible.

By the way, some people say that Empire still alive in another form: Commonwealth of Nations and less public but powerful Five Eyes and other semi-formal international organisations. It looks like conspirology but in scope of this question you may say that many countries could be secretely united by secret Emperor ;-)

Long time ago I read from a sci-fi book sentention which I still like: Emperor like democracy: He suggest that it's essential part of any empire. Sadly, I can't remember nor author nor accurate citate.


Imperial powers have existed in the past with many of the constraints analogous to the time/distance factors an interplanetary empire would have. The Delian League was essentially an empire of island city states held together by Athenian rule, an extended to the grain growing regions on the shores of the Black Sea. Transportation and communication was via ship, either "round ships" for trade and triremes for military control. This was a highly efficient and successful setup done in the classical era, lasting from 487-404 BC.

An Imperial system could easily be established in space through the simple control of vital trace elements which are difficult to find in bodies outside of the Earth. Control of phosphorus might be a critical factor, since this is a key element for life. Limit the amount of phosphorus available and you limit the maximum size of any polity outside of the Earth.

Other reasons to exert imperial control involve energy. Even a small cargo pod moving at interplanetary velocity will have the kinetic energy of a small nuclear weapon. The Chelyabinsk meteor was estimated to be only 20m in diameter and a mass of 12000 tons, but had a yield of about 500 KT, similar to a strategic nuclear warhead on an ICBM. Spacecraft and other objects will need to be strictly controlled at all times, or they will become deadly hazards to planets, moons, space stations and other spacecraft.

Expanding on that idea, there are good reasons to believe that self propelled rockets will be a minority option in the future. Beamed propulsion using lasers or high intensity masers or particle beams could be the norm, since you can bypass the [rocket equation][3 (https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/expeditions/expedition30/tryanny.html) and no longer have to fuss over every gram (and carry a lot more usable payload). The downside is there are now mega or gigawatt energy beams crossing the Solar System, and this must be carefully coordinated and controlled.

So there are historical reasons to believe that such a political system is possible, and several factors specific to the space environment which suggest that there are good reasons for such a system to be established.


Only based on your arguments: the favorable characteristic you list are not enough to offset the three first obstacle you give ("Humanity's need for the illusion of self-governance", "Size matters" and "Exorbitant administration costs/corruption").

Although as mentioned by others history shows Empires are mantained through centuries, without better arguments to explain it, the Empire is not viable.


It's plausible enough. To address some of your concerns:

Humanity's need for the illusion of self-governance: There's no reason to think the empress couldn't be elected; consider the Holy Roman Empire.

A single, solitary emperor cannot possibly rule tens of billions of his citizens: They're allowed to delegate. There's also no reason to assume that an interplanetary empress would be human.

Exorbitant administration costs/corruption: History would seem to support the notion that humanity's tolerance for corrupt governments is astonishingly-high.

Communication and transportation time-limits: The British managed to work around it 150 years ago in India; surely we've learned a few tricks since then.

In conclusion, there's nothing here that humanity hasn't overcome before.


Yes, it can. It certanly can be worked to seem plausible, and it can be forged as a natural development from the right cirscunstances. And the strongest argument seems to be hidden whithin your "Control through [fear and] dependency" argument.

I believe that even the most advanced civilzation or the most expansive empire can be wrote as depending on "something" controled only by the emperor or his clan, family, aristrocracy. That special resource must be unique, possible to contain and indispensable to life for the people of the empire.

A good example of this implemented is the Dune series, where they have the substance know as the Spice or melange which can be produced in only one planet in the entire extension of the Empire:

In the series, the most essential and valuable commodity in the universe is melange, a drug that gives the user a longer life span, greater vitality, and heightened awareness; it can also unlock prescience in some humans, depending upon the dosage and the consumer's physiology. This prescience-enhancing property makes safe and accurate interstellar travel possible. Melange comes with a steep price, however: it is addictive, and withdrawal is fatal.


Relevant info:

Leto II Atreides, the God Emperor, has ruled the universe as a tyrant for 3,500 years after becoming a hybrid of human and giant sandworm in Children of Dune. The death of all other sandworms, and his control of the remaining supply of the all-important drug melange, has allowed him to keep civilization under his complete command.



A political union can take any form or many simultaneously. Not all agencies within any given polity act with the same fundamental rules or philosophy, rather what determines the fact of a political union is the subscription of those with power to that fact.

Observers with differing assessments and points of view will have different views as to the attribution of acts. That is to say, whether they are attributed to humanity itself, a given nation, an ethnic group

A Tujia British Muslim CFO of a US registered corporation acts. So inclined observers will alternately describe the act as the act of a Tujia, of a Briton, of a Muslim, of a Capitalist, of an American corporation. Some of those the observer will have no problem also including under umbrella categories 'Human,' 'Western,' 'Eastern,' 'Northern,' etc etc an. What matters to us is that those who oppose the view that x is part of y polity have insufficient power to make that an operational fact.

People still consider themselves 'Swedish' or 'Saxon' or 'Chinese' generations after another Swede or Saxon or Other might say any real connection was severed. Neither opinion defines any objective fact.

The Mechanics

What particular role and form any given political union might take is almost as boundless as human imagination, we might set arbitrary bounds for what amounts to a union or correspondency, but they are arbitrary.


Life on Earth could be all but extinguished by one person with access to propulsion systems capable of carrying mass cargo interplanetary distances. One would imagine that should such a scenario as an interplanetary empire occur, survival of the species would, one imagines, be built upon a rather more deliberate and comprehensive approach to child-rearing than the lackadaisical approach currently accepted in the names of diversity, laziness and freedom. Unity of upbringing would inevitably (even if not a deliberate aim) be conducive to 'accepting the fact' of racial unity.


An interplanetary empire built on any terrestrial model would probably end with the disappearance of humanity. Today we have a tendency to believe that MAD prevents major wars.. which if true, means that extensive colonisation of space will allow for major wars again if done under existing(or existed) cultural models, being as such a conflict can be fought and 'won' from space-borne vehicles that are not nearly so vulnerable as planetary populations.


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