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Is a polity with a radius larger than a light-day unreal...
Posted: Posted June 16th, 2010 by chiarizio
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Assuming faster-than-light travel remains impossible:
Is a polity with a radius larger than a light-day unrealistic?

Related question:
Once it became possible to travel from any big city on Earth to any other big city on Earth in a single day or less, did it become realistic to hope for an Earth-wide government?

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This question draws two answers for me:

Could it happen: In theory, yes, but in reality, no. It would be feasible, but only if all other issues that divide the society were resolved. So, for starters you'd need to have no ethnicities, religions, or socioeconomic classes (good luck with that). You'd need to eliminate discrimination and political borders (good luck with that, too), but in theory it's possible.

Should it happen: From a reality standpoint - it could be beneficial if all of the above happened first, otherwise it's a powder keg waiting for civil war. From a writer's standpoint... by god that would be boring.

Posted June 16th, 2010 by Tharivious
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I'm assuming that we are discussing a hypothetical sci-fi government/municipality that spans multiple planets that are more than one light day distant from each other. I'm also assuming that this setting would have no magic and that human behavior would conform to historic precedents and that human psychology has not been drastically altered with psychopharmacology, biological manipulation or whatever.

With those assumptions in mind, yes, I think it would be entirely possible, and, in fact, is a probably outcome of space exploration. After all, empire building has generally followed most advances in transportation from domesticated horses to seafaring to automobiles and aircraft.

Faster than light communication would certainly be helpful, but I don't see why it would be necessary, as there were many empires that existed when news needed to travel hundreds or thousands of miles by foot or house or ship, taking well over a day (or a week) to reach their destination. However, communication would have to be efficient enough that information would still be relevant and useful when it arrive, so probably no more than several weeks to a month or two, depending on how rapidly social change is occurring.

The same can be said of faster than light travel. It would be useful, but is hardly necessary. However, as with communication, it cannot be so slow that it fails to keep pace with significant social changes.

The type of polity would also be significant. For example, an empire with a strong centralized government based on one planet with territories on less developed planets would be easier to hold together than a massive Coruscant-esque municipality with urban sprawl radiating onto multiple planets.

Is a one Earth government possible? Some would argue that it is not only possible, but necessary, given that we already have corporations and organizations that are global in scope and which currently are beyond the power of governments to fully regulate. According to such an argument, a global government might be the only way to protect ourselves from the abuse of the free, worldwide flow of capital.

Also, it's worth noting that there are several governments--the United States, the People's Republic of China, Great Britain (to a lesser extent), Saudi Arabia--whose actions and policies already have global significance. They may not be able to issue laws that officially bind all nations, but they do, effectively, legislate globally.


Could it happen: In theory, yes, but in reality, no. It would be feasible, but only if all other issues that divide the society were resolved. So, for starters you'd need to have no ethnicities, religions, or socioeconomic classes (good luck with that). You'd need to eliminate discrimination and political borders (good luck with that, too), but in theory it's possible.


I don't see why. Any and every society larger than a single homogeneous tribe has dealt with all of these divisions. I guess you could argue that such divisions will dissolve a society eventually, but eventually could mean hundreds, or perhaps even thousands, of years.

Yes, religious and ethnic strife may be inevitable in an pluralistic society, but that strife is hardly inevitably fatal. In fact, societies that seek ethnic/religious purity/homogeneity have a far worse track record, as they must deal with an ever-diminishing pool of followers. Meanwhile, pluralistic societies devour new peoples, digest the inevitable strife and contention, excrete extremism and factional violence and leave the table fatter and healthier as a result.

Socioeconomic strife is another matter, as it is arguable that a nation with too great a divide between rich and poor may invite revolt, particularly if the poor are living below subsistence level and yet still have access to the morale and means to challenge the government's legitimacy. However, societies with huge socioeconomic divisions--like, for example, nearly every one currently in existence--can survive without totally dissolving into rebellion and civil war.

Posted June 16th, 2010 by Nugan
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Nugan
 

It does seem possible, however distant colonies would probably be semi-autonomous.

Posted June 16th, 2010 by intermundi
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This question draws two answers for me:

Could it happen: In theory, yes, but in reality, no. It would be feasible, but only if all other issues that divide the society were resolved. So, for starters you'd need to have no ethnicities, religions, or socioeconomic classes (good luck with that). You'd need to eliminate discrimination and political borders (good luck with that, too), but in theory it's possible.

Should it happen: From a reality standpoint - it could be beneficial if all of the above happened first, otherwise it's a powder keg waiting for civil war. From a writer's standpoint... by god that would be boring.


You realise the US has all those problems, has had a civil war and is still intact. If that can happen to such a large country I'm sure it can happen on an interstellar scale.

Posted June 17th, 2010 by Avjunza
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Avjunza
 

... it's a powder keg waiting for civil war. From a writer's standpoint... by god that would be boring.

First of all:
Thanks, @Nugan, for clarifying the assumptions.
And, @Avjunza and @Intermundi, as well as Nugan, gave good replies, which I second.
And, @Tharivious, thanks for your response.

I do want to ask, though; why would "a powder keg waiting for a civil war" be "boring" from a writer's standpoint?

... there were many empires that existed when news needed to travel hundreds or thousands of miles by foot or house or ship, taking well over a day (or a week) to reach their destination. However, communication would have to be efficient enough that information would still be relevant and useful when it arrive, so probably no more than several weeks to a month or two, depending on how rapidly social change is occurring. ...

As I understand it -- and I could be wrong -- a centrally-governed polity is very hard to put together or to keep together if any of the territory is further than a day's travel away from the center. (In fact, note that Constantinople's initial boundaries were a day's walk in circumference.) That's why a Medieval European unit of government tended to be "seven leagues" in radius; seven leagues was an average day's horseback ride.
But, naturally, if local and regional diversity and quasi-indepence was tolerated and accepted and expected, the problem would be one of knitting together those smaller polities into a united or confederated "whole". Whether or not that problem could be solved, would govern whether or not such a collection of polities could be considered as a unit.
And I'm not one of those who knows the answer.

---------------------

In case anyone's wondering:
A light-day is 86400 light-seconds, or 1440 light-minutes. An Astronomical Unit (or AU) is about eight light-minutes (480 light-seconds), and is about 93,000,000 miles. A light-day, then, is about 180 AU. It's about 1/365 of a light-year.
Which planets in our solar system are within a light-day of Earth?

Posted June 22nd, 2010 by eldin raigmore
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I do want to ask, though; why would "a powder keg waiting for a civil war" be "boring" from a writer's standpoint?


I think what Tharivious meant to communicate was that it would be boring writing about a world where ethnic, economic and religious strife did not exist.

I don't particularly agree with that assumption, as it seems like a thought experiment that might provide a good topic for a piece of speculative fiction. Certainly it would be more interesting than writing about a setting with contrived or simplistic social tensions (ex. "all the orcs hate all the humans" or "the scientists hate the mages" or "all the members of the Cult of Thareetaz the Six-Eyed hate the Paladins of Barraduum, God of the Sacred Hearth).

Posted June 22nd, 2010 by Nugan
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Nugan
 

All the planets (or what are currently being defined as planets :P ) in our solar system are within about 30 AU of the Sun. Kuiper belt objects range from about 30 to 55 AU, while things in the Oort cloud are easily outside 1,000 AU. So, even getting to the outside of our solar system would take over five days at the speed of light. If we had worm holes that were under our control, stable and allowed travel to other solar systems, then humans or other intelligent beings might be able to have empires of a few solar systems each. At that point, having a longer day period on one's home world might be an advantage since one could hold and control larger solar systems.

Posted June 22nd, 2010 by bloodb4roses
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I do want to ask, though; why would "a powder keg waiting for a civil war" be "boring" from a writer's standpoint?


I think what Tharivious meant to communicate was that it would be boring writing about a world where ethnic, economic and religious strife did not exist.

This. I prefer to use those things as plot devices, rather than sweep them under a rug.

The powder keg waiting for civil war would be interesting, but that's not exactly a functional governing body. It's a house of cards in a wind-storm, just a question of when it's going to collapse and create all manner of chaos -- that, to me, is interesting. There's no certainty there, and there's no sense that this massive, bloated governing body has a real sort of control. God help me (as odd as it is for me to say that -- this is going to be moreso), the various Gundam series do this quite well: massive governing body with a tenuous grasp on unity, opposed by a rebelling faction that wants to break that hold because it's gotten too powerful. The problem is, most people that write about a governing body of that size, and put enough effort into detailing how and why it works don't want to just smash it with a hammer. They want to preserve the creation for the duration of the piece, and that to me is boring. Worse yet, they tend to fall into the Star Trek trap of the Federation, where it's so unified that they have to run headlong into other cultures and deal with that conflict in order to find any sense of that basic tension -- something that can be done perfectly well without the massive government as a setting piece.

A peaceful and unified government of that size wouldn't be interesting to me, as a reader and especially as a writer, because there's no sense of internal conflict. Yes, there would most certainly be individuals within that government that didn't get along and would work to hinder each other, but there's nothing that can't be done on a much smaller scale. Political intrigue doesn't demand an entire solar system, it can happen on a county or state level, let alone the global scale (which, in my opinion, is only interesting because of the number of different cultures balanced precariously on the edge of alliance and opposition). It just strikes me as a needlessly large backdrop for what can be done on a smaller stage.

Of course, I'm also starting to lean toward a more minimalistic phase when it comes to what I want to write, so that could have something to do with it. :P

Posted June 22nd, 2010 by Tharivious
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A peaceful and unified government of that size wouldn't be interesting to me, as a reader and especially as a writer, because there's no sense of internal conflict.


But I think there are still three false assumptions here:

(1) religious, ethnic and socioeconomic strife are worse in a large heterogeneous society than they are in a small homogeneous society.

(2) the only (or best?) way to resolve ethnic and religious strife is to create a homogeneous society.

(3) a society without religious, ethnic or socioeconomic strife would be peaceful.

Assumption (1) imagines that prejudice is a concrete thing that is directly related to the object of prejudice. So, say, if a group of elves has a strong hatred of orcs, it imagines that removing the orcs (or the elves) would remove the root cause of hatred. Thus, a purely orcish or purely elven society would have the least ethnic strife, since removing the object of prejudice would also remove the prejudice itself.

However, this doesn't hold up to history. Historically, it turns out the racial, ethnic and religious strife are highly malleable, and one tribe will quickly find reasons to resent or fear another, even if they are incredibly similar in genetics, customs and religion, given that contact between the two tribes is relatively limited. So remove the orcs, and the high elves will decide they have a problem with the gray elves. Remove the gray elves, and one high elven city will decide that the city three miles away is the enemy.

Also, groups that once hated each other will often become allies, if a new object of prejudice arises. For example, look at Evangelical Christians and Orthodox Jews following the founding of Israel and conflicts with Islam. Look at nativist Americans and Irish immigrants following the Emancipation Proclamation. And on and on and on.

(2) also doesn't match historical reality. I mentioned this in a previous post, so I won't go into much detail, but sufficed to say, it's pluralism and diversity that gradually erode prejudice, not isolation and purification. Isolation just leads to greater isolation. Purification just leads to greater purification. Smaller and smaller differences become new classes or races or ethnicities. See the example of the elves above.

I think you can figure out what I'm going to say about (3). Since this desire to create new sources of strife and prejudice is psychological, not physical, no amount of purification will create a peaceful society. We can remove ethnicity and religion and class and we will still have strife on other grounds, because prejudice and social conflict comes from projection of personal fears and inadequacies, not from social reality.

And this is why I think that such a society would make a good thought experiment for a spec fic writer. It would allow said writer to get at root causes of social dysfunction, instead of leaning on easy answers or accepted causes.

I had more I wanted to say, but it's noon and I need a shower, so I'll return to this later.

Posted June 22nd, 2010 by Nugan
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Nugan
 

(1) - I think the issue here isn't so much that I perceive it as being worse in a larger mixed society, so much as I see it being more difficult to regulate and mitigate the conflicts. When you open up the population to the extent that it spans so much distance, you increase the odds that like-minded people will find ways to gather, separate, and form opposing factions that would hinder/combat/otherwise cause problems for the massive government. Militant cells can cause enough trouble on a small scale, but when the population has expanded (or even just dispersed) sufficiently for a systemic government, those cells are either going to be large enough to wage a small war on isolated colonies, or be isolated enough that their activities will outpace authorities and let them move on to the next target.

(2) - Not hardly. Unless you're talking about an ideologically homogeneous society where they all pursue the same general goal. I definitely oversimplified that in the first post. It's more a question of removing the perception of those differences as being important that would enable that kind of societal evolution in my view -- ie, recognizing that skin color or religion or nationality aren't really worth waging war over, which would almost certainly be a foundation of expanding a government to that scale in the first place (inclusion vs. extermination). It's hard to build a successful mega-government while you're busy throwing stones at that black guy or that other guy with the funny hat (unless you eliminate that minority, potentially bringing in more conflict in the form of humanitarian military intervention).

(3) - I think I've pretty well disagreed with that already. That's more of a reason why I don't think such a government is likely. It's hard to build a successful government without a reasonably peaceful foundation. It's a question of logistics for me. I find it highly illogical to expect such an inherently flawed species as humanity to be capable of creating a government of that size when we have enough obstacles as it is.

What you're proposing -- a society where the focus is mostly on how flawed the culture is and how flawed humanity is -- is a far cry from just setting up the massive government and having that run its course. Most writers won't look at those options. And that's a shame, because those options are what would save such a concept for me.

Posted June 22nd, 2010 by Tharivious
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