Invariably, when the topic of galactic empires comes up, someone will reference Star Wars—the muddy details of the Empire’s economy and structure, maybe a few pointed jokes about trade disputes. Yet as cool as some of the principal officials of the Empire’s vast bureaucracy are (do we ever find out Darth Vader’s official title? Does he get a pension?), the Empire is actually only the eighth or ninth most interesting galactic empire in science fiction. Which ones are more exciting? Glad you asked: Here are the six of the most interesting empires stretching across time and space in SF lit.
The Galactic Federation in The Lyhhrt Trilogy, by Phyllis Gotlieb
Gotlieb’s Lyhhrt Trilogy is the perfect combination of the author’s incredible imagination and her talents as a poet and wordsmith, bringing a lyrical style and a dense compositional approach to a story that explores the awful underbelly that must exist in any vast empire. The Galactic Federation is not as comically evil as some you’ll encounter in space operas—it is, in fact, simply a governing organization, and its functions swerve from noble to evil depending entirely on who is carrying them out. The real meat of the story of a GalFed Judge who happens to see an instance of cruelty and slavery is how she envisions all the technological and economic power of a future empire focused on satisfying the same base urges that humanity spends so much energy on today. The complicated, messy universe she imagines is endlessly fascinating—and rewards re-reads.
The Union in The Lightship Chronicles, by Dave Bara
Bara’s Lightship Chronicles deftly imagines a future that is far removed from our own present—yet firmly connected to it. Long after humanity stretched outward into the galaxy, long after an empire rose and collapsed, a Galactic Union emerged in its place. What makes the Union interesting are the threads that can be traced back to Earth (which is still part of humanity, but in a much different role than you might expect). The planet Quantar retains the Old Earth corporate structure of the company that founded it, with the titles transformed into noble and royal positions. A prince of the planet Carinthia brags that his noble family can trace its history back to the royal families of Europe. These details, combined with the ever-widening array of interesting details Bara manages to unearth in just about every sequence, make his vision of humanity’s future hegemony over various planets one of the best-realized in recent years.
The Galactic Empire in the Foundation series, by Isaac Asimov
When you talk about a “galactic empire” you are legally required to name-check Asimov’s creation. The sheer scale of the fictional future history Asmiov describes is breathtaking in its detail, encompassing several disparate novels set in the same universe at vastly different times. Reading the books is like watching a time lapse video of history: you see an empire rise, swell outward, stabilize, destabilize, fall, experience a Dark Age that lasts 30,000 years, and then rise again. Asimov based many of the details of his empire on the Romans, giving the Galactic Empire a recognizable and familiar shape, but filling that shape with beautiful flourishes and sci fi brilliance. It’s still one of the most interesting future empires ever committed to the page.
The Empire in Dune, by Frank Herbert
The unnamed empire in Herbert’s Dune offers so many interesting and original ideas, it’s difficult to know where to begin. From the mysterious Butlerian Jihad led against artificial intelligence, to the rise of the ancient line of Padishah Emperors, this empire is one of plotting, skullduggery, and unexpected twists. Even after the prophesied Kwisatz Haderach Paul Atreides rises to become emperor, the complexity never flags, and over the course of thousands of years, god-emperors fall, humanity scatters into unknown space, and the empire folds and re-folds into new patterns, bringing fascinating new details to an already dense universe.
The Sh’daar Masters in The Star Carrier series, by Ian Douglas
While Douglas’ Star Carrier series is hard military sci-fi, his concept of the Sh’Daar is incredible: not only are they a ruling empire that controls much of the universe through oppressed client races—using those clients to make a proxy war on humanity—they also work to stop other races from achieving technology beyond a certain point. The reason for this is goes far beyond simple tactical considerations (spoilers ho!): they are, in fact, the rump of a race who achieved “transcendence” long ago, leaving behind the “Refusers.” The Sh’daar fear any other episode of Transcendence and seek to stop any other race from experiencing it. Complex, surprising, and mysterious, the Sh’daar are among the best empires ever imagined.
The Solarian League in the Honorverse, by David Weber
The Solarian League in Weber’s long-running series of Honor Harrington novels is, in a word, huge. So huge that few, if any, can actually comprehend just how large it is. It’s so large that there are many assumptions about its true stability and might, and when those assumptions—particularly about its ability to wield power in the form of military force—are proven wrong, it instantly becomes one of the most interesting imagined empires in fiction. The idea that a civilization can be so large that it actually loses track of itself is one of the most striking and logical (consider the vast distances involved!) I’ve ever encountered. When you toss in Weber’s exciting action and explosive plotting, you have a galactic empire we can’t learn enough about.
The Radch in the Imperial Radch trilogy, by Ann Leckie
It’s hard to choose the most intriguing element of the galaxy-spanning governing body in Leckie’s award-winning trilogy. Is it the fact that it expands by annexing entire worlds by force, swallowing their unique people and cultures whole and forcing them to become “civilized”? Is it the fact that the entire thing has been ruled for two millennia by Anaander Mianaai, a single human consciousness, existing endlessly across thousands of cloned bodies? Or is it the intriguing detail (mentioned only in a single paragraph) that the true Radch Empire exists within an impenetrable Dyson Sphere at the center of the universe, a barrier no one has breached in living memory (not even in immortal clone memory)? Take your pick: all are sufficient to earn it a place on this list.