Empire building is as old as time itself.
The first empires were built in the desert regions of the Middle East and spread outward. Other empires cropped up over time, popping up along rivers, important sea routes, and so on.
The empires we are all too familiar with are those of the early gunpowder age and the era following the downfall of Napoleon. These empires gobbled up entire continents, leaving no place untouched. The empires we are familiar with began to crumble during the twentieth-century, sparking decades-long decolonization wars in Asia and Africa.
During the twentieth-century, we saw the rise of massive bipolar empires: the Soviet Union and the United States and its allies. Unlike the multipolar world of the previous era of empires, the bipolar world was relatively stable, despite threats of nuclear annihilation. The bipolar world would crumble too. The Soviet system was not nearly as stable as many observers claimed it to be. In its stead, the bipolar world gave way to a unipolar world, with the United States dominating the international scene for the last part of the twentieth-century. However, this unipolar world too is built on shaky ground, and some experts suggest that the American Empire will falter in an era that is increasingly looking like a multipolar world, with China, India, the European Union, a resurgent Russia, and many other players soaking up influence in the international arena.
Now you might be wondering, why empire building? Why should we care about empire building when it comes to world building? My answers are simple.
Good world-building requires imagination and some good old fashioned common sense, along with a healthy dose of research on how things work, including the ins and outs of empire building and empires’ influence on the world stage.
If you are going to building a world, or even a universe, with empires, you need to remember a few basic things. First, empires are not monolithic entities. In other words, that means there are competing interests at home, which can get in the way of maintaining an empire abroad. Second, empires are bureaucratic nightmares, especially on large scales. Maintaining the American Empire, if it can be called that, requires millions of personnel, military bases around the globe, and trillions of dollars, and it still has problems with responses to threats, maintaining its influence, etc. Third, empires are, by nature, influenced by humans. Human beings make or break empires. If subjects of an empire do not want to be a part of that empire, then things get messy (think: Asia and Africa during the twentieth-century). Moreover, empires can be derailed by the actions of those in power or those at home and abroad. The more complex something is, especially when we consider empires, the more fragile the thing in question is. In other words, empires are fickle, fragile creatures. They are, by nature, constantly in flux and on the verge of being overthrown, outmaneuvered, or rendered obsolete. Lastly, it is best to remember that empires are rarely static, as stated above. Empires change with time. The British and French empires did not stay in a state of stasis over the centuries. Instead, they changed ideologically, economically, militarily, and socially. The same can be said of the so-called American Empire. The United States has gone from a racial apartheid to a pluralist democracy at home. It’s technological capabilities have changed with time as well. Moreover, its stances toward different players on the international stage have changed over time.
If we consider empire building in a galactic sense, the complexities become mind-boggling. Nevertheless, let’s assume that empire building in a galactic sense is possible. Your world-building needs to account for resource scarcity, blindspots, technological advantages, and the need to overcome the laws of physics, without the handwavium that comes with hyperspace travel, instantaneous communication, etc. Without accounting for the things mentioned above, one is left with unrealistic and even problematic empires. For example, think of George Lucas’s Star Wars. The Empire or even the Republic make very little sense outside of the help of handwavium technology like faster-than-light travel, instantaneous communication, and the like. If we follow a mundane world-building scheme, something that follows the laws of physics and the limitations of human societies and so on, I think we have a chance to build meaningful, realistic, and yet refreshing entities that will go beyond simple tropes and offer more to the genre’s general discourse.