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What I hate about galactic empires

Teramis's picture

I love galactic empires. Adore them. I think they're great settings for conflict and character driven stories, and give us the space to explore things at a remove from the cultural here/now of our own time and space and 21st century society.

But that's what I hate about most of the galactic empires I read about: too many authors don't really go there. They don't take the bold step, don't jump off the precipice into the unknown or risk exploring the place where one must be truly inventive. Instead, they cling to the Mae West that is 20th or 21st century (usually American) society transported to the stars.

Ok, fine, yes, we all love stories about ourselves, the people we know, the places we live, but I'm really tired of staring endlessly into that same so overtly narcissistic mirror when it comes to empire-spanning science fiction.

Slip the Surly Bonds of Earth

I have another take on the galactic empires I love to live in and explore, and they are what I call Star Warsian science fiction settings: not because they contain the story elements of Star Wars, but because they lack what SW also lacks: namely, any intentional, explicit ties to 20th/21st century Earth.

Although I'm using Star Wars here as a self-defined adjective, I acknowledge all the Earth-referential subtext that so many fans and critics have read into the SW saga. Nevertheless, when we watch that movie, we are not, in point of fact, watching a story about, say, the descendents of Earth colonists who won a civil war with technology refined from 21st century American military weapons, against a backdrop of greedy corporations running the universe. For example. That's the sort of Terran thing that permeates this sub-genre, and it is the absence of that which I celebrate in SW, and all kinds of Star Warsian (in my specialized use of that word) fiction.

And what a relief, I say, to get away once and for all from our projections and interations of us here/now extrapolated into the umpteenth generation.

The Empire of the Other

When you visit Palpatine's Empire, or my Sa'adani Empire, or Catherine Asaro's Skolian Empire, you are going someplace decidedly different. You are entering the empire of the Other: i.e., they who are not Terrans, transliterated. True, there may be earth analog elements present (we are after all still dealing with homo sapiens, and parallel development is always a possibility), but these settings have their own cultures, their own histories, and they are not rooted in specific "descendent of Terran man" issues.

This can completely reframe the story opportunities and what the reader experiences in the book. Can, and should. (And hitting that target is another challenge, as well, and the subject no doubt of another post.)

I'll be writing about this in greater depth here in February. I had started a brief post on this for this group area, but it's growing like a weed. So this post is the seedling instead of the plant. I'm going to nurture this weed for a bit, and see what I can harvest from the overgrowth.

More later.
-Teramis

paulbhartzog's picture

Galactic Empire for Sale

nice post!

Galactic Empires can be sci-fi (even hard if done right) OR fantasy "scifi" of which Star Wars is the exemplar.

Sherwood Smith and Dave Trowbridge's Exordium series is a good example of doing the setting right. YES, they are earth humans, but they've been transported to far away, long long ago, and there is little or no connection to Earth itself. Asimov's Foundation of course is also well-done with the added mystery of why humans never found any aliens "out there" whilst building their Galactic Empire.

I must confess that I'd like to read more Galactic Empire type-stuff, but so much of it is just BAD (Sturgeon's Law: 99% of everything is crap, I guess).

Any recommends?

-p

Teramis's picture

Catharine Asaro's Skolian

Catharine Asaro's Skolian Empire series is tasty. Non-Earth humans, psionics. Great storytelling.

And of course there are my books that take place in the Sa'adani Empire, although the series is only starting to burgeon. :) Mainline in used books stores; Splintegrate on the way to publisher imminently. More are planned for that setting as well.

Deborah Teramis Christian
Novelist
Website/Blog
Feed: Notes From the Lizard Lair

paulbhartzog's picture

will read

I will read yours and Asaro's. thx.

Storn's picture

Hmmm... interesting

Hmmm... interesting thoughts. I guess I've run into my share of galactic empires, but I think that CJ Cherryh's stuff concentrates on the "different" so much, that the Earthling connection is used as a contrasting lens. Sure, we know where earth is, it isn't lost in her Trader series, but the focus is on the Chanur.

Dune is a galactic empire that in my mind proves all politics are local, it all comes down to one planet... but the galactic society seems pretty intricate and woven society that takes bits and pieces from earth culture, but is so byzantine, I think it is it's own animal.

However, I hear your point. There is something unimaginative of America in space.

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paulbhartzog's picture

Cherryh is good stuff

Yes, I love Cherryh and have been enjoying Chanur as well as her other works.

Here, here!

I concur sir! Speaking purely as a writer who dwells in a universe replant with empires and not set in a future Earth; it is so much more difficult to write than future Earth stories.

I've been saying this for some time, and I have enormous respect for writers who can pull it off. You have to be more creative and willing to put in the energy required to make your universe real. Not to mention the fact that you can't fall back on Earth history or use literary references.

But I love it and I love Space Opera style galactic empires and federations and the like.

Ken McConnell
Author of Starstrikers
http://starstrikers.ning.com

Teramis's picture

What you said

Ken,

I'm a female-type person, but I appreciate your enthusiasm. :)

I've heard the obvious point argued that we can never be really shed of our own sociocultural perspectives born of the milieu we live in, and that therefore anything we write will inevitably be some version of "present day earth-man over yonder." I think that is so only in such a broad manner, or on such an irreducible psychological level, that there is no way to engage with that argument. It's like someone pointing out a fish is wet. Yeah, okay, so we swim forever in water. Where do we go while we're swimming? That's what I want to know.

It does take extra effort and skill to craft cultures and histories from the ground up, or even to do that more ambitious thing, which is to let the reader get a sense of how an alien thinks. A very tricky thing, thinking outside the box like that, and some few writers actually do achieve it, I believe.

At any rate, I think this kind of ground-up "foreign" empire building is very fertile ground, and remarkably little explored (relatively speaking)in the genre. I'm glad to see other folks - like you - share an interest in this area like I do.

-Teramis

Deborah Teramis Christian
Novelist
Website/Blog
Feed: Notes From the Lizard Lair

My apologies on

My apologies on miss-guessing your gender, but I had no clue from just your last name. ;)

Ken McConnell
Author of Starstrikers
http://starstrikers.ning.com

Teramis's picture

pic

It's funny to me that the sig blocks only appear automatically at the end of comments, not posts, or aren't evident in post headers.

Oh well. Problem solved. I uploaded a picture.

-Teramis

Deborah Teramis Christian
Novelist
Website/Blog
Feed: Notes From the Lizard Lair