Monarchy and Science Fiction

Ok, so I’m currently re-reading the Honor Harrington series (author is David Weber) for some light reading and I was thinking…why do so many SciFi authors seem to think that, in our space faring future mankind will revert to fuedal monarchys with the whole aristocracy system? What about space travel and colonization of other star systems makes these guys think that we’d bring back the whole monarchy system, which is pretty well dead and gone now, save for a few holdovers?

I can see the dictatorships and totalitarian governments of other authors (like Michael Gears Requiem for the Conqueror series), as we still have those today, and I can concieve of more in the future myself, but why monarchys for gods sake?? Space Kings and Queens? Planitary Dukes??

This seems to be a pervasive way that SciFi authors look at things, though I’ll grant that other series have the governments being democracies (John Ringo’s Gust Front still has the US as being Democratic, sort of…of course, all the aliens are not, but what can you expect of aliens?? :)).

Maybe not a worthy subject for Great Debates, as Bush isn’t involved as far as I know, but I’d be interested in peoples thoughts and I’m tired of the constant Iraq wrangling. :slight_smile:


p.s. For anyone who likes SciFi and hasn’t read the Honor Harringtons…check it out. You won’t be disappointed. :slight_smile:

A long time ago, I started a thread on why virtually all classic tales for children do have kings, monarchs, etc. I don’t think we found a good example of one that had democratic ideals.

I figure that after several generations into the future, new classics will appear that relate to the democratic experience of the majority of the readers.

As for why we have dukes or princes in sci-fi? I think many science fiction writers use monarchy as a short cut and a metaphor, because it allows them to present a system of government familiar to many readers. For a writer that is creating a world that is key to the story, it is bad enough that he is introducing a new fantastic location to the readers, and then you expect him to create also a very complex futuristic social order?

I also think politics are sometimes a raw subject for many readers, using a monarchy allows writers the freedom of insurrection, with very few readers –and current democratic rulers (and some that pretend to be)- not felling upset reading about heroes plotting against old systems of government. (Dune is a good example)

This is gonna get moved to Cafe Society, I’m sure.

But yeah, all those alien “princes” have at times annoyed me.

In some cases it’s used as a facile contrast to the humans’ own form of government, which is often set up as being vaguely republican or parliamentary. And it’s not as if a parliamentary republic is somehow “natural” and was inevitable that it would become the dominant structure; history could just as well have wound up with all of us living under a Caliphate. But in other cases it seems like it’s just done because they’d rather not have to bother with the idea that the leadership may win a major galactic war yet get booted out of office 6 months later because the middle class is experiencing layoffs.

Also, the monarchy jibes with another theme in much of SF which contrasts meritocracy with having some sort of natural or artificial “special gift”. Sometimes that is considered A Good Thing: call it being The One, having the Force with you, coming back from Zahadhum(sic), some sort of extra-special annointment from the gods gives you that extra “ooph” to be heroic. Or else, it’s set up for the opposite effect: to show how plain old regular joes get ahead with just brains, guts and luck (e.g. Kirk/Picard vs. just about every superpowered being you could throw at them).

However, there is one important component in the evolution of our well-known peerage that developed back in feudal times, that may be shared by deep space colonization: isolation.

In late Roman times, you had the Imperial family in Rome, and various Patrician or Rich Plebeian families attempting to jockey for power, but you did not have a hereditary “Duke of Syria” or “Count of Lusitania” or “Marquis of Mauretania”. When it all fell apart, THEN it became the practice to have the guy that you, the King, tasked with defending some land be granted that land in fief so that he could pass it and its wealth to his children and thus have a reason to stand and defend. A humanity scattered across interstellar distances may lose cohesion of centralized authority, and revert to franchising private individuals or corporations, in exchange for exploring and exploiting a planet, with the right to BE the Law there, and with the right to pass that power on to their estates. Once that has been going on for a while, it’s hard to tell those heirs “OK, renounce your power” unless you are backed by a large fleet bearing WMDs.

OTOH, there are reasons you should not discount a resurgence of monarchy – including some examples from history:

Anecdotal 1: Examples in Western history of what on the books was still a Republic turning into a monarchical “Empire”: Rome and France. In the first case, after almost 500 years of republican rule.

Anecdotal 2: Hereditary presidencies: the Kim Ils in North Korea, the Assads in Syria… but it need not be limited to dictatorial regimes, an ostensibly democratic process can still result in dynasties, e.g. the Nehru/Gandhi family in India.

So it’s not that hard to revert to “dynastic” rule even in nominal republics. Specially if the society is or became stratified along class or tribal lines. AND/OR if you have a society that has become convinced that only a clear, rigid hierarchy of strong men, on their own right OR having been annointed by untouchable, undisputed holy figureheads, but in any case unconcerned with winning votes, can really keep people’s meaner instincts at bay.

Anecdotal 3: Succesful restorations of monarchy? Spain, which went from fascist dictatorship to constitutional monarchy in 1975-78

Still all of this does not necessarily require a full feudal construct. After all, the Assads continue to call themselves “President”; the Kim Ils are outright monarchical, but they have at least the discretion to change the title to “Great Beloved Leader” and make everyone below that rank fully expendable so there’s no competition. The thing is, it’s simpler to assume that a reversion to dynastic rule will take place using the familiar terminology from royalties past, rather than develop a new one. After all many of our hereditary titles (Duke, Marquis, etc.) once upon a time actually had a meaning related to what these persons actually DID in the Roman/Frankish/Saxon power structure.

Hypothetical 1: Say that the world economy evolves in such a way that it’s the corporations who eventually rule the world to such an extent they dispense with the fiction of nation-states. Then you could have a "noble class’ of the kinds of people that end up in boards of directors, and a "royal class’ of the kinds of people who are founders, President-CEOs, Chairmen, Majority Owners, etc. People like the Forbes, the Fords, the Disneys would be the “Great Houses” – within which there could be coups and usurpations, e.g. Disney just these last days. maybe the word “Ceo” would become a word for a rank or station in society that attaches to you by virtue of, for instance, being the eldest son of the eldest son of the eldest son of Bill Gates.

Another possibility is that the people may decide that “politicians are corrupt” and the State is better run contracted out to a corporate technocracy, and eventually that becomes a self-perpetuating nondemocratic state.
Now, the most famous series that has taken the whole space feudalism/monarchy to its highest exppression is, of course Dune and its apparently inexhaustible progeny of sequels, prequels and sidequels. But at least in that universe they try to come up with a sort of justification in the backstory and understory.

Also, Space Opera is much more Operatic if you have typical Opera props in it, kings and queens.

And David Weber particularly is a military history specialist who is using the Harrington series for well written historical analogies to the eighteenth century British navy I believe, I may be wrong though.

Anyway, fantasy writers use history for the vast majority of their source material, and the vast majority of history had kings, queens, and aristocrats in it.

Heck, you probably couldn’t describe the British role in WWII unless you mentioned the royalty, and thats within the past sixty years.

A future history that Jerry Pournelle created and which was used in The Mote in God’s Eye was based on “the Empire of Man” with its capital on the planet Sparta.

This was a colony which patterned itself roughly after the Greek polis Sparta, with two co-kings as heads of state with restricted powers, ephors, and the whole nine yards of Spartan government. By a series of plot “coincidences” the young co-king ended up in a leadership role in the crisis that brought an end to the American-Russian joint hegemony over Earth and its colonies, and ended up with real power over the remnants of stable interstellar civilization in consequence. Pournelle goes into detail on why he evolved this particular form of government in an essay in his collection A Step Further Out – which is worht reading.

In Heinlein’s Double Star, a Parliamentary democracy with monarchial trappings is assumed; the heir to the House of Orange is the King-Emperor, though most of the system corresponds more nearly to the British system than to the present Dutch one.
I think generally the usefulness of assuming a governmental system with which people are familiar as “landscape” for the plot line of a story set in the future makes SF authors assume either a democracy with details omitted, an Evil Dictatorship against which Our Heroes struggle, or a monarchy of the modern Western European type, those being the three things they can expect their readers to be familiar enough with to allow assumptions. Certainly a neofeudal technocracy, or a multi-corporate state with interlocking directorates, might make an interesting backstory – but they’d have to spend time “filling us in on how it works” – and losing readers in the process. It’s more convenient to have us assume something we have a passable acquaintanceship with already, and ring any changes needed as the story progresses.

Argh, got disconnected and couldn’t log on to reply for over an hour, but here’s my 2cents:

Mainly because feudalism/nobility is the other main type of society that has existed in historical times, as opposed to our society based on (officially) classless republics dominated by a central state and a market economy. About the only other alternatives would be nomadic tribalism, or humanity living under the dictates of a non-human authority.

Also, from a purely dramatic standpoint, feudalism introduces a lot of room for plot devices. The existence of a nobility allows for some characters to have the personal power to challenge the status quo. For example, the evil Baron/Count/Duke plotting to sieze the reins of government: the only modern equilvalent is the CEO of the Evil Corporation, or the Power-Mad General. The polarization of society into classes allows for the Young Princeling to learn about How The Peasants Live. Throw in a preisthood that is powerful enough in it’s own right to form a third branch of society, and you have potentially limitless scope for intrigue.

I don’t know about that. The third title in the series “A Short Victorious War” has a certain resonance with current events.

p.s. Several of the books from the series are available online here, and the hardcover of the last one contains a CD with ALL the books on it.

Couldn’t get back on the board for some reason. Hampsters must be tired I suppose.

It just always seemed odd to me that so many SciFi writers posited that the future would be a return to the past. Its a good point about Weber and 18th century England, myles…I also noticed a distinct similarity to the Horatio Hornblower series. I think thats actually what he was going for in the series…sort of a female Horatio Hornblower in space kind of thing.

There are certainly very few SciFi stories that have the main governments as a democracy. I can think of a few examples off the top of my head (A Hymn Before Battle series, and that series by Piers Anthony, Bio of a Space Tyrant) but they are definitely in the minority.

Thanks for the input guys.


It’s all Asimov’s fault …

or Zsa Zsa Gabor’s.

I suspect it is laziness more than anything. Having a US or European democracy would not be alien enough, while a king is both familiar and a bit exotic. I agree that it also focuses the action in a small place. Few writers ever bother to consider the difficulties of administering a galactic empire. It’s a classic failure of nerve - with the whole galaxy as your canvas, you set almost everything in a single palace.

I think its all about the literary allowances of a monarchy over a democracy, and has nothing to do with whether or not it would really happen that way.

Its more dramatic to have the Emperor release the entire fleet of star fighters on the rebels than have the president meet with the representatives, have several hours of debate, and finally decide they should send out several divisions of the star fleet, but maintain a specific home defense, and ultimately cut military spending.

Its more heroic to have the lowly space drifter rise so many social ranks as to win the heart of the fair queen of Omicron-Persei 8, than to have the lower middle class merchant catch the eye of a interstellar senator in a purely democratic soceity.

Take the original Star Wars vs the Prequels. There was something so ominous and threatening about Emperor Palpatine. Vader being a dark “Lord,” a knight, a champion of the evil ruler. Then you have Maul, and “Darth Sidious” who don’t have titles, but are barterring deals like any common person. Where’s the power? the fear? Count Dooku brings some of it back with his title. He’s a ruler, he gives some idea of a manifest destiny. He’s born into leading, and its s terrifying thought that there’s no control by the comman man to peacefully impeach nobility.

Since the OP has been fairly well answered, I’d like to address something a little more specifically:

Mr. Weber explained why and how the Star Kingdom of Manticore became the Star Kingdom of Manticore.

Essentially, the Manticore colony began as a sort of mutual fund joint-capital venture colonial investment thingy. The more one invested, the more assests one held, the greater “share” of corporate assets one held, then the more “votes” one had.

Unfortunately, Manticore had an indiginous virus, one of the extremely rare extraterrestrial strains that affected humans, which nearly wiped out the Manticore colony before it was brought under control. However, the colony’s population had slipped below sustainment levels, and the only way for them to survive was to get massive waves of new immigrants to move to Manticore.

The survivors decided to change the political structure of their corporate venture to a constitutional monarchy as a means of preserving political power in the hands of the few original colonists, as a means of preserving the original “vision” of the Manticore charter.

Those new immigrants who brought substantial “capital” (either critical skills or hard capital assets) with them were granted lesser patents of nobility, as well as having their passage to Manticore paid for.

Those new immigrants who brought merely important skills (day-to-day necessary, but not immediately critical to the colony’s survival) usually had their passage paid for as a “loan” which they then worked off.

Some paid their own way there, and as a “reward” of sorts were granted the title of “Yoeman” and a plot of land (I don’t recall a specific acreage being mentioned); this includes the Harringtons.

Any Manticoran noble automatically has a seat in the House of Lords, unless the House votes specifically to exclude them (a nasty slap-in-the-face), and until recently (as of the end of War of Honor) the power of the purse resided in the House of Lords.

The High Ridge government, recently dissolved after the Haven Crisis exploded in their face, abused the purse for purely political and self-serving ends so badly that Lord William Alexander, the new PM, ran the finance reform bill giving the power of the purse to the Commons through the Lords virtually unopposed.

This act moved the Star Kingdom of Manticore a lot closer to actual democracy (the Commons stand for public election) than their name might imply.

Weber is amusing. The Havenites are like a flashback to the French revolution with Robespierre(sp?). It is just a colorful and historically educational backdrop for Honor Harrington.

I find the military psychology rather interesting since I’ve never been in the military. I would probably frag somebody in a matter of weeks. LOL!

Dal Timgar

I think Weber does an excellent job of portraying combat at fractions of lightspeed. While I’m no where near a physics expert (my physics is at least 10 years out of date…and I wasn’t all that good with it then) I’ve seen no glaring flaws in his work. Maybe some time one of the physics types that have read the series could discuss the glaring problems they see…I think its pretty tight (IF you conceed that travel at such speeds, i.e. .5c or less, is even possible at all, that inertia compensators are possible, artificial gravity, etc).

I’ve found it facinating to read how he thinks combat between fleets happens…how slow everything is, how difficult it is to manuver, how long everything takes…and how absolutely appalling the casualties are when capital ships go tits up. Even in the ‘smaller’ battles, thousands or even tens of thousands die every time a fusion plant lets go on a capital ship.

I was thinking it was more like the Napoleonic wars, dal_timgar, though it doesn’t exactly match that either. Its more like a combination of the Napoleonic wars AFTER a period of socialist/communist government folding (the legislaturists/dolists, then the Committee on Public Safety…then the NEW Republic in the last book). Manticor is, of course, the British Empire fighting the Evil French.


Mr. Weber’s work is intended to move the Napoleonic conflicts out into space. He is writing Horatio Hornblower novels in a science fiction milieu. Perhaps an even more apt comparison would be the literature on which the current “Master and Commander” movie is based. He does so quite well, though as usual for a successful novelist, he now writes novels more than twice as long with half as much action. <sigh>

Thus, his use of a monarchy was done not because he necessarily believes it would develop but because England in the early 1800’s was a monarchy with a monarch in the process of losing power to the hands of the ministers.

Moving to Cafe Society. – The Galactic Overlord

The only two other monarchies in Weber’s universe that I can think of are the Protectorate of Grayson and the Anderman Empire.

Grayson was founded by anti-technology religious fanatics analogous to the Mormons in their “trek to find a home,” and they landed on a pristine, beautiful and toxic world (natural concentrations of heavy metals are almost too high for human habitation). They were already accustomed to a heirarchy by their religious practices, so I’m guessing that when the needs of simple survival took hold, a sort of “lifeboat rule” benevolent dictatorship was natural, or at least palatable, compared to the alternative of slow painful death from a toxic environmant.

The Andermani Empire was founded by an eccentric yet extremely sucessfull mercenary who believed that he was the reincarnation of every great general. Ever. The planet he came to rule (later called New Berlin) was an agriculturally devastated colony of Chinese settlers, who welcomed him with open arms for the cash and expertise he bought to save them and their (now his) world.

The Republic of Haven (legislaturalist regime) was a monarchy in all but name, but they came to their situation through a lazy electorate, sheer apathy, and a vote-buying scheme dressed up as a welfare-state system.

So: three out of four examples stem from catastrophic events either leading to a need for strong central authority (Grayson and Manticore, arguably New Berlin) or allowing a strong central figure to sieze power (definitely New Berlin).

The last stems from an apathetic electorate gorging itself from the public trough w/o regards to when and where the “bottom of the barrel” lies.

Do yas think Mr. Weber is trying to actually say something throughout these tales of his?

ExTank, there are other monarchies in the Honor Harrington series as well…but they are mostly lesser powers. The powerful Solarian legue is a mixed bag, where they don’t really go into the political structure in detail, though its implied that they are democracies of some stripe or other. They are set up rather like city states, with each planet being its own ‘city’, and each one having absolute veto rights to any external treaty or decision. They are also expansionist, and I expect Weber to have them clash with Manticore in subsequent books. The beginnings of such a clash are already being set up in the last two books as Manticore finds another wormhole juncture…right in a region of space that the legue is planning on expanding into.

As to what Weber is trying to say…I honestly think that, like me, he was a big C.F. Forrester fan (I can’t remember the author, but there was another one that was very similar to Hornblower in space, with the main character Nick Seafort), and simply wanted to have a space Horatio Hornblower. Double HH, just like Honor Harrington. :slight_smile: A lot of the early books have links back to Hornblower books, with even similarities (or outright the same) names for characters and such. The only thing Honor lacks is a persistant Mr. Bush to beat to quarters and clear the decks for action. :slight_smile:

On the larger question though, I think that some of the earlier posters may have hit on why authors use monarchy in SciFi. Its still odd to me…seems more the place of Fantasy works than SciFi.


Weber freely admits Forrester’s strong influence on him. One of the books even has a scene with Honor reading and praising one of the Hornblower books. I do think he was being a little too unsubtle, though, in naming one of the chief Havenite revolutionaries “Rob S. Pierre”.

And is Manticore’s monarchy really all that different from even the modern British system? Elizabeth III holds a lot of power, but it’s mostly in the form of figurehead-type influence and her own personal wealth, both of which are channels open to the monarch of England. She can make inspirational speeches and present official guidance, but when she’s stuck with a government which doesn’t agree with her on policy, there’s frustratingly little she can do about it, short of setting off a constitutional crisis.

Simply put, without near-instantaneous communication and travel, I can’t imagine a far-flung space empire being run any other way than through a feudal system. Regional developments, in say one planet or solar system, proceed at a very advanced pace, and it could take so long for a centralized government to respond to regional issues, especially if one has to go to vote on an issue.

When the possibilities for destabilization are rampant, a feudal system provides the best mechanism to keep everyone honest. The lord keeps the peasants in line, the overlord keeps lords in line, and the monarch keeps the overlords in line.

I’m not going to take any longer to explain it.

I can certainly imagine better systems…several in fact. Off the top of my head, how about: The loose federation of autonomous states model (like the US was after the revolution)…I think THAT would work nicely. Say each planet is its own republic (or 'state), in one form or another…or even each solar system. They are semi-autonomous or even fully autonomous entities in their own right. Now, each republic would ALSO be part of a larger federation…maybe they pay taxes to a central federation, have a court system to arbitrate between systems, and have a loose set of codes and laws and an over all president. Picture it like the US, a collection of semi-autonomous states, but more far flung, like it was in the early days. In the HH universe, star travel is either a matter of seconds (if there is a wormhole juncture) or perhaps weeks (if they have to ride the grav waves between systems or wormhole junctions)…so it would basically be like the early days of the federation of the United States in that respect too, no? WE certainly didn’t NEED a monarchy.