As part of a story idea, I'd like to create an alien civilization that colonized different solar systems in a manner similar to how European nations colonized other continents here on Earth. This civilization would have the technology to make travel between solar systems feasible, though certainly not without risk. At the same time, their political and economic systems resemble those prevalent in 16th century Europe. In particular, institutions such as democratic republics and corporations would be in their early stages while concepts like consumerism and environmentalism would be completely unheard of.

There are many works of fiction where alien civilizations have similar discrepancies in technological and social development. However, none of the works I'm familiar with providing a plausible explanation as to why; if any explanation is provided, it's due to some dramatic device or extenuating circumstances; I'd prefer an explanation that seems natural and logical.

The alien species needs to resemble humans in most respects, both physiological and psychological; humans would be able to interact and relate to them on a meaningful, personal level.

Any suggestions on plausible explanations? Are there any works that I could refer to for inspiration?

EDIT: To clarify, my chief concern is that I don't want this space faring civilization to have conceived of (or at least remember developing) many concepts that are essential to modern life. Here are some the concepts that I definitely don't want this alien civilization to be familiar with:

  • Corporate person-hood: The idea that a business can be an entity separate from those operating it.
  • Mass Marketing & Advertisement: The idea of promoting and selling a specific item to a broad national or global audience instead of catering to a niche market.
  • Specialization: The idea that individuals learn very specific skills and work in professions that tackle very specific needs as well as the idea that individual businesses would only produce part of a final product or only play a limited role in providing a service.
  • Automation: The idea that technology could be leveraged to perform tasks without direct interaction or oversight.
  • Conservation & Sustainability: The idea that a civilization can consume resources at such a pace that it could exhaust them and that special measures are needed to prevent this.

Though the political and economic systems of the 16th century aren't necessarily inferior, I fail to see how they could support the sophisticated industrial complex needed to for our current space programs, let alone intergalactic travel. Even if the aliens eventually develop the necessary technologies, would they be able to put it to use? Also, how would the new opportunities and challenges associated with more sophisticated technology not inspire them to explore more modern concepts?

EDIT 2: Thank you everyone for your responses. I've selected rideoutcolin's answer because I feel it best addresses how to maintain technological progress without dramatically changing the social order.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't understand the difficulty - why do you think there is a fundamental incompatibility between space-faring technology and things like constitutional monarchy or mercantilism? Sure, technological progress might be faster with democracy and capitalism, but I don't see why a monarchy couldn't get technology (just ask the queen of England), and plenty of people today still scream for protectionist measure and mercantilist policies (though I doubt they have ever learned the term) $\endgroup$ Sep 21, 2016 at 1:20
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    $\begingroup$ I was trying to write a response, but there is too much there. There are so many plausible explanations I couldn't even begin to summarize. A good explanation would just be a decoupling of technological and political progress. Lets say and industrial revolution happens in Roman times, then there is a 'Dark Ages' with loss of political order, but no backwards technology movement (great steampunk themed universe!) then a 'High Middle Ages Renaissance' that leads directly into an Enlightenment without a Black Plague in the way. 300 years from steampunk dark ages to space, monarchy intact. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Sep 21, 2016 at 3:38
  • $\begingroup$ scifi.stackexchange.com/q/138233/12857 $\endgroup$ Sep 27, 2016 at 23:26
  • $\begingroup$ Read en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Road_Not_Taken_(short_story) $\endgroup$
    – Robin
    Apr 19, 2017 at 12:59
  • $\begingroup$ Corperate personhood can be dated back to Roman legal concepts that existed by as early as 527 BC. Specialization is older than civilization... and if you want to be technical dates back to the evolution of multi-cellular organisms. $\endgroup$
    – hszmv
    Dec 8, 2022 at 15:01

10 Answers 10


It's fairly simple. Just have political ideologies evolve along different lines than they did in our history. Technology may progress in a similar fashion, and corporations could even develop (think East India Company instead of Apple or Ford).

The thing that drove Monarchs out of business was the set of ideas promulgated by thinkers like John Locke et al. These drove the American and French Revolutions, and later the revolutions of 1848. Now, it's not so simple as a linear correlation between those ideas and the fall of monarchies, but it certainly influenced the direction that they toppled in, so to speak.

Economic stagnation will usually lead to political upheaval, and the revolutionaries were there with their new ideas to fill the void in the late 18th century. However, there is plenty of room throughout human history for scientific progress that is compatible with aristocratic pomp and circumstance. For example, look at the Northern Rennaissance in Europe as contrasted with the Italian Rennaissance. Two different political environments both undergoing rapid adoption of the scientific method and artistic creativity.

Simply have your society of aliens develop political philosophies more based on those of Plato and Thomas Hobbes than those of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson.


There is some preformed bias in your question, which I would like to address here in my answer. You are considering the political systems of sixteenth century Earth inferior to the political systems we have active today. Then you are making an assumption that technological and political evolution must always occur at the same speed as it has occurred here on Earth.

Neither of the assumptions is correct. For the first, a political system is required by a state in order to:

a- protect it against foreign invasion

b- provide a socioeconomic framework for the state so that all parts of the state can be compatible to one another

c- provide a judicial system for the citizens so that disputes can be resolved

Is One Political System Better Than The Other?

While a political system is necessary for a state, it would be utter ego and ignorance to claim that the current western form of democracy is somehow superior to a well balanced monarchy or aristocracy. In fact India has had a more prosperous time under monarchies such as Ashoka and the Mughals, instead of now or under the british rule. China is no different. When we think of monarchies today, many of us immediately think of a megalomaniac emperor with a huge inflated ego and disregard for his people. That is an absolutely incorrect generalization. Just like people of a democracy can elect a supremely dumb and idiotic head of state (watch America's forthcoming elections for a live example), so is the case with monarchy, too. However, a state will function much, much better under a wise, considerate monarch instead of a group of wise considerate ministers. Take the case of Islamic caliphate in the days of first four caliphs (Abubakr to Ali R.A.). While not technically kings, their reign does fit under monarchy as they alone were the heads of Muslim states. And the standard of life for their citizens was much higher than the citizens of those states today (economically, that is).

Hence it is a ghastly erratic approach to think that the political systems in effect now are somehow better or more sophisticated than those of the 16th century. The only important point is, monarchs of 16th century Europe were the egotistical, disregarding lot, otherwise the region would have lived happily under monarchy.

Are Political And Technological Development Interrelated?

The second fallacy in your question is that you are assuming that political and technological advancements are somehow interrelated. This is incorrect. While a safe, economically stable society is a prerequisite for long term technological advancement, a change from one type of government system to another (while the prosperity of the people remains the same) has little effect on the technological evolution of the state.

Just consider how many advancements were made by the Chinese during their years of peaceful monarchy. Also consider the technological advancements of Arabian Muslims during their golden ages. The evolution of technology in Islamic world was stalled because of a series of political upheavals and change of priorities. If the political system in Islamic world had remained stable, Arabian peninsula would probably have been the technological hub of today's world. In China, the technological advancements halted time and again as a result of the economic crisis produced due to civil wars as the monarchs gradually lost authority.

In short, it is highly erratic to assume that the political evolution of a state is related to its technological advancements. If there is economic prosperity and security in the state, the technological development would continue, regardless of which political system is in place.


Yes, a spacefaring race can have highly advanced technological status with 16th century political system in effect. There is nothing erratic or incompatible in the scenario.

Edit To Add

Though the political and economic systems of the 16th century aren't necessarily inferior, I fail to see how they could support the sophisticated industrial complex needed to for our current space programs, let alone intergalactic travel. Even if the aliens eventually develop the necessary technologies, would they be able to put it to use? Also, how would the new opportunities and challenges associated with more sophisticated technology not inspire them to explore more modern concepts?

The error here is not in your question, but your approach for the answer. The question should not be how they could support the sophisticated industrial complex, rather it should be how they could not support the sophisticated industrial complex. As in, what is the flaw in the political system of 16th century which would hinder the development of industry and technology?

Maybe you are thinking that 16th century European states at all did not have the wealth or resources required for developing major industrial complexes. That is correct, they definitely did not have. But that is because the technological progress back then was almost zero as compared to the technological progress of modern times. Those states did not have the technology to mine and refine aluminum. Modern types of steel were unknown. Ultra-strong alloys of titanium were unheard of. Even electricity and internal combustion engines were not discovered/invented. Remember that all these are technological prerequisites, not political or economic.

The main point is that it is technological advancement that power economical development and not vice versa. While huge funding is indeed required for ground-breaking research projects, the economical advantages of those projects are far, far greater than their funding. That is what keeps the technological progress running.

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    $\begingroup$ Saying that 1 type of government isn't superior to another is just completely wrong. Governments are a type of system. There is always a best system for a given paradigm made up of any given set of constituent parts. There are many way to produce less than optimal result that may or may not be equal, but there are very clear ranking of historically used government, largely based trade, tech progress, knowledge progress etc, that all reinforces each other which ends usually producing better technologies and such. So that also means your second point is also wrong. $\endgroup$
    – Durakken
    Sep 21, 2016 at 3:25
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    $\begingroup$ As you can read in my answer, I clearly stated that it is not the type of government, but the person(s) at the top which matter. Would you rather have a dumb delusioned jackass as a president or a wise, observant, caring emperor? And yes, there is as much chance of electing a delusioned jackass in democracy as there is to have one named the next heir to the throne. $\endgroup$ Sep 21, 2016 at 6:43
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    $\begingroup$ As to the disparity of evolution of political system and scientific progress, I am still waiting for a refutation of the progress made by Muslims, Indians and Chinese under monarchy. How could these peoples make such astonishing (as compared to the other parts of the world) innovations and discoveries while living under monarchy? Any explanation? $\endgroup$ Sep 21, 2016 at 6:45
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    $\begingroup$ +1 for this, as i think the answer is fully justified. Europe in 17th century (yes, 100 years later), was still primarily under monarchical systems, and europeans were far ahead technologicly. They had widespread use of firearms, the first prototypical industrial production lines, land mines, hand grenades, cannons, but also civil inventions like the first reliable civil mail system (i think sweden introduced that during the 30yrs war)... while i think it's true that our modern systems have a faster tech output, i see no reason why a monarchy couldn't achieve space flight. Also: easier funding $\endgroup$ Sep 21, 2016 at 6:52
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    $\begingroup$ Certain moderate progress of technology will always be possible, but large scale technologies require the right governments and while that progress is possible one is more conducive to another, because to be hyper simplistic, because 1 person or a small group making large differences are negated, especially bad changes. This allows for constant progress rather than a generation or 2 of progress and generation or two without. $\endgroup$
    – Durakken
    Sep 21, 2016 at 8:18

You say that you want a 1600s sort of society and government. So let's get into a little bit more detail about what exactly European empires did in that time period, and how this can apply to an interstellar empire.

I would call that system of government in this time period "colonialism and the economic system "merchantalism". The general idea was that empires would look for resources around the world and then ship them back to the homeland. First, an empire would take control of an area. This could be done by bringing their own settlers or by bringing the existing inhabitant into their empire, either diplomatically or by force. A colonial government would be set up to manage that area and the inhabitants would be put to work harvesting resource. The empire would then connect the colony to the rest of their empire through trade companies that were owned by the state.

The usage of trading companies is particularly interesting. These companies were indeed separate from those operating them, but they were owned by the government, not privately. They didn't just move goods around either, they did basically everything. These companies were very vertically integrated: they owned everything it took to make a product from the mines to the factories to the stores. They were so large, in fact, that they could even make their own currencies and wage war. However, it would be a bad idea for them to act against the interests of the empire that owned them. The Dutch East India Company is a fascinating example as is the British East India Company.

The reason these companies made sense is the same reason your space empire could work: it was difficult to travel large distances. Maybe only a colossal empire-owned company can afford to travel between system. Even if the civilization makes advances in economics, such as banking and holding shares in a company, it would be in the empire's best interest to only allow their companies to take advantage of them.

Another question to direct your thinking is: how empty are the planets this empire is taking over? If they are starting from scratch, their methods will involve settlers and North America provides a (mostly) good example. If they are invading existing civilizations, look to Africa and India for examples.

To wrap up, I'll address your points:

  • Corporate person-hood: Technically this idea did exist in colonial times, but large companies were not considered something that regular citizens could make on their own.

  • Mass Marketing & Advertisement: Advertisement did exist in colonial times, but it was limited by the technology of the time. Presumably your space empire would have television, internet, etc. However, if these colonies can't communicate with each other easily, it would be hard to develop global advertisements.

  • Specialization: Individuals have specialized in specific skills since the invention of agriculture. I'm not sure why they wouldn't do so under colonialism. You could probably prevent specialized companies from existing since anything of value would be gobbled up by the empire's company.

  • Automation: This is an interesting point of contention. The industrial revolution didn't happen until late in the life of these empires. However, it would be pretty strange for a space-faring civilization to not have automation. I don't see why you can't have the two but you may have to come up with some way the empire keeps control on automation.

  • Conservation & Sustainability: If space travel is difficult, but possible, I could see the civilization developing a pattern of: settle a planet, take anything good from it, trash the place and move to the next. They can simply leave a waste heap behind and not have to worry about it.


Are there any works that I could refer to for inspiration?

Obligatory short story where FTL travel is super simple question. If the technology is so simple that it is discovered early, an "earlier" (assuming similar development to our timeline) socio-political paradigm makes more sense.

If you'd prefer not to have a unique scientific breakthrough (or super simple FTL), then my suggestion would be a culture hearkening back to an earlier "golden" age. An example from Western civilization would be homages (architecture, toga parties, scientific nomenclature) to Greco-Roman culture. If this were taken to a further extreme, you might see a civilization that simple does things the "old way" - but better (in their minds).

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you. This is definitely an avenue worth considering. $\endgroup$
    – Ohndei
    Sep 23, 2016 at 2:24

Simple answers...

  • Fashion. If a culture simply wants to look like it's from the 16th century there is no reason they couldn't live that way without a problem.
  • Some people LARP or go to Renessaince fairs or do re-enactments. Some people, that's their entire life.
  • Or maybe some people live as close to a certain life style as possible like the Amish.

If any of these are true and then enough time passes or something happens it easily can result in a culture that has interstellar travel while living generally in the 16th century. This is especially the case when you have machines that do everything for you which may be a common thing for advanced cultures. We might develop robots to run everything and then a majority of us might want live in a living RPG which would result in us appearing to have a lower tech level. Now if the robots get destroyed and enough generations of people are removed from the technological civ they might not even realize it and just continue on as a 16th century civ with a 22 century civ technology in some places.


What about if advanced space travel was given to them by an alien race. The alien race is not into conquest and more into trade and has no qualms with trading ships and technology.


There are some important assumptions of the human condition that would need to be significantly altered in your aliens in order to discourage the developments you specificied.

The way I look at it, all of the modern developments you mention are modern responses to the same old problem of limits that has faced humanity since its inception. Just how much can any one human being reasonably perceive or achieve? It's little secret that the scope of the answer to that question relies largely on humanity's intensely social nature, which is largely responsible for our species's (sp?) success in survival and reproduction (http://www.nature.com/nrn/journal/v4/n3/full/nrn1056.html)

Corporations and specialization are highly efficient forms of cooperation that (usually) foster group cohesiveness and survival, enhancing group strengths while covering individual weaknesses. Mass advertising is also an efficient method of social communication. Automation answers for some of the limitations of human cognition by taking over mundane tasks that would otherwise cumber limited human attention and energy. Sustainability is a response to the limitations of Earth's ability to sustain a large, modern society.

Most of these would be difficult to avoid in some form, given that a spacefaring society would face similar limitations and require similar sophistication. However, if you were to find a way to tweak these parameters (increasing cognitive capacity and optimal life spans, giving them telepathy, or decreasing the sophistication necessary to sustain a spacefaring culture) then you might be able to project the renaissance into space. A race of telepathic Da Vinci-like polymaths might be a fun concept to explore.


If their space travel came from something natural that developed on their home world e.g. Something like Moya from Farscape. Then they don't need to have developed space travel and can get to other places with almost any level of political development from Viking clan, through 16th century expansionist, corporations, to futuristic dictatorships. Their planet happens to be the spawning ground for these "space turtles", and with just enough tech you can find a way to piggy back a ride and even control their direction.


remove karl marx. and britain.

or better said, remove the thought base of the ideology known coloquially as socialism or leftism.

i think you are telling about late 17th to early 18th century culture. e.g. 1600s. which is 17th, not 16th century. e.g. 1500s.

what you don't want your alternative humans to have can be described as being of the leftist ideological doctrines, better known as cultural marxism. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Left-wing_politics

a right wing, libertarian world resembles 16 to 17 th century culture is primarily because of the french revolution, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_Revolution which have happened in late 18th century, which was orchestrated by socialists, sent the history of later nations constant leaning to leftism, giving the illusion of libertarian and right wing being old or outdated. in reality, a late 1600s culture is just a world before socialism.

without karl marx, there will be no socialism, therefore no communist/liberal ideas like corporate personhood or environmentalism, nazism would be nonpresent , therefore no propaganda/mass advertisement. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nazism https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Goebbels

remove marx, then you remove the soviet union and the idea of "alienization of man", therefore there will be no liberalism directed act of directed marketing, globalization or automation replacing workers (which require political materialism) https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marx%27s_theory_of_alienation

generally, the post 18th century suicide of the intellectual populace to progressive thought and behavioral sink https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Behavioral_sink is primarily related to marxism, communism and the rise of a malvolent, neoauthouritarian political idea, which have striped humanity this present timeline of nearly all potential for space expansion, or expansion in general.

a world where socialism never developed would be honest, henst no corporate dirty jobs or bogus mass advertising, little exploitive specialization/slave labor, and with concept the human soul not broken by the materialist doctrine of socialist evolution, artificial intelligence will be distrusted, hence no unsupervised automation. and definitively no environmentalism or conservation whatsover, which the nonpresence of conservation ideas is necessary for true spacefaring civilizations, as leaving planets unexploited or protected is indifferent from suicide when you always need maxumum amount of matter to continue the move or proliferate, an given fact that the useful lifetime of a key resource is normally less than the time it needs for it to ne depleted.

be careful marxists, because whatever aliens up there that would come to earth, probably would not be happy with you, or be friendly at all.

  • $\begingroup$ This answer, while very poorly typed and factually questionable at points, does suggest an interesting notion. It has the potential to be much better. $\endgroup$
    – Dan
    Nov 10, 2018 at 21:26
  • $\begingroup$ If this answer means what it seems to mean by "mass advertising", there very much does seem to have been "mass advertising" before the Nazis. Alarmist newspaper adverts for patent medicines, for instance, go back to the 19th century - mass advertising has possibly been around at least as long as there have been newspapers. $\endgroup$
    – A. B.
    Dec 8, 2022 at 6:59

The other possibility: Merchantilism associated with 16 to 17th century culture is related to the availability of new land and resource outside of europe. which negated much of the Enlightenment, and delayed the advant of socialism and all it's ires.

therefore, it's perfectly concievable, that once a civilization have reached space, the abundant resource would result in a second colonial rush, reviving merchantilism and colonialism. therefore quickly removing any trace of Enlightenment cultural phenomena from the culture, returning the civilization to the 17th century cultures.

Who need specialized market when more resources is easier than designer products? who need corporate personhood when endless colonial possibilities exists for everyone? who need complicated automation when one does not face too much competition nor large stock market? and why sustainability issues would exist if there is literaly 100000 earths worth of resources just in the solar system?

so even when a culture initially starts with 20th century ideological doctrines, it quickly resumes 17th century culture once it have reached it's own solar system.


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