World States and Mega Empires in SF

Many SF novels feature a World State encompassing the entire Earth. Such imagined states can have various origins. This is not surprising, since advocacy for World States (from persons on the Left, Right, and entirely outside that framework) goes back centuries and more.

Sometimes, as in Star Trek, it is “a dream that became a reality and spread throughout the stars.” Sometimes it is formed out of desperation: in Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero, humanity united under Sweden on the grounds that Sweden was

big and modern enough to make peace-keeping a major industry; but not big enough to conquer anyone else or force its will on anyone without the support of a majority of nations; and reasonably well thought of by everyone.

…And because the first general nuclear war left the impression that the next nuclear war could be the last one ever. Handing a single authority the keys to all the nukes seemed the best solution.

And sometimes, as in Vernor Vinge’s The Peace War, it’s a naked power grab: a small group of people setting themselves up as the world’s supreme power.

Regardless of their motivating ideology, one common thread in many works featuring World States (of whatever kind) is that World States are considered, as a class, fairly stable. The record holder might be Niven’s A World Out of Time’s State, which might have survived millions of years.

How stable would a World State be, in practice? Sure, one could argue (and people have) that without external enemies there’s no particular reason for a world-spanning government to fall apart. That was the argument in A World Out of Time: the state controlled all the apparatus necessary to sustain Earth’s vast population, making rebellion suicidal.

The problem is that one can point to historic polities that managed to dissolve into independent regions without much help from the outside. Gran Columbia lasted twelve years. The West Indies Federation lasted about four years. The United Arab Republic lasted three. All that’s needed is for the divisions driving people apart to be slightly greater than the ones binding them together.

Indeed, peace might exacerbate internal divisions, since there is no common enemy against which to unite. Canada might have escaped the West Indies Federation’s fate only because of the perception that a moment’s inattention would allow our hegemonic neighbour to invade (again), burn our cities (again), commit affronts against our Catholic population (again ) and leave the letter “u” out of some words for some reason (still).

Historical models might help. There haven’t been any world governments, but there have been some empires that encompassed a surprisingly large fraction of the world’s population. I admit solid information seems a little thin on the ground, but one possible answer to “which empires had the largest fraction of the human population” might look like this:

One source I found gave the following numbers for largest empires (in terms of fraction of the human population at the time) as follows (ordered by duration). If anyone has a better source, please point me to it.

Empire

% World Population

Duration
(Years)

Roman

26

1400

Han

27

426

Mughal

25

331

Song

34

319

Tang

35

289

Ming

28

276

Qing

36

270

British

24

141

Yuan

25

97

Sui

29

38

Average 359
Median 283

 

There’s a lot of room to argue here, not least over treating Rome as one long running thing but not China. If we toss Rome, though, it doesn’t affect the numbers all that much. Average becomes 243 and the mean 276. (Unless, ha ha, I screwed up the math…)

Interesting conclusions to be drawn:

A) You don’t need modern telecommunications to stitch together surprisingly large fractions of the human population. As my editor pointed out to me, literate bureaucrats, good roads, and fast horses seem to have been essential to the larger empires. Sometimes all you need is a dream and a dozen or so well-armed, well-trained tumen. One could imagine a pre-industrial unitary World State existing in some alternate history, a conclusion that surprised me somewhat. The Sahara might isolate southern Africa, the Americas might be too distant, but there are such things as ships.

B) You do pretty much need Asia if you’re going to have a World State. 60% of humans can be found there today. Thanks to various factors I am sure will get hashed out in comments, Asia has been home to the majority of humans for a long time. A World State might start with Asia. In fact, if one accepts for the sake of argument that a state could make a legitimate claim to being a World State before it encompasses the entire planet, then a proto-World State could exist within the borders of Asia.

C) Perhaps your World State will last ten thousand years! But I wouldn’t bet on it. In fact, I think two or three centuries before the regions decide they’re better off on their own (at least for a bit) is more likely.

Sure, it probably didn’t help that a lot of the states listed above dominated their subjects by force. Empires are often exploitative; it is no surprise that their subjects might not like to spend their lives making other people rich. But even democratic states are prone to secessionist movements and other disruptions.

A global government of whatever kind would eventually find itself facing some alliance of regional factions bent on doing their own things without the impediment of a shared government. This could happen via existing exit clauses, or factions could just start shooting at each other.

Still, even if World States prove as mortal as any other human institution, it’s not all bad. Nobody would want the unpleasant sorts of World States to last forever, and the idealists can get lot done in two or three centuries. Plus, the example of China and Egypt suggest that as long as people believe in the concept, utility, and legitimacy of a World State, periods of disunity might be followed by periods of unity.

This last is, of course, only as good or bad as the World States in question. Aside from Olaf Stapledon, I cannot recall offhand any fictional examples of an Earth where over the course of millennia, multiple World States have risen and fallen. My memory is notoriously flawed, so feel free to remind me in comments of all the examples I may have forgotten.

In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is surprisingly flammable.

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