A Space Opera Setting

Posted: 2021-06-22
Word Count: 3821
Tags: settings space

Introduction

While watching/reading some space opera, I began musing on how certain forms of government have certain connotations:

Most of these connotations come from history, notably Rome, Greece, and the United States.

But are these connotations necessary? An afternoon of brainstorming came up with ideas that defy the tropes:

  1. An interstellar federation/confederation that used to work, but had decayed into a quasi-feudal system.

  2. A “republic” that was good for its citizens, who comprise less than 10% of its inhabitants, and pretty terrible for everybody else.

  3. A dystopian, isolationist “alliance” founded on direct mind-control and reinforced by more subtle forms of psycho-social conditioning.1

  4. A neo-libertarian “dominion” settled by post-human biomechanical life that regards conventional bioforms as little more than pets.2

  5. An empire that wasn’t good, but wasn’t terrible.

I tackled this last one first. As I tried to explain how it worked, though, my attempts to gloss over or improvise assumptions about the larger setting made the exposition more complicated than it needs to be.

This article steps back and explains the structure, technology, and history of the setting for these large-scale governments. Inspirations for this setting include The Expanse TV series3, Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series, Charles Stross’s Neptune’s Brood, the Coriolis RPG, the Diaspora RPG, the Imperium from the Traveller RPG, and the “Dominion of Man” setting I wrote up well over a decade ago.

Star Wars is a sort of anti-inspiration. Characters in Star Wars can escape pursuit by “jumping to hyperspace”, to the point the Empire invented Interdictor-class Star Destroyers to stop them, which makes disabling the Interdictor(s) itself a side quest. Also, Lucas and his heirs drew inspiration for space battles from WW II dogfights. If anything battles in space more closely resemble WWII battleships firing torpedoes and unguided projectiles across vast distances, or modern submarines surrounded by a lethal medium and navigating on instruments. Nearly every written science and science fiction source notes that ships cannot hide in the void of space4, that by the time a hostile ship is within unaided visual range it’s too close, and therefore space battles might take hours or days as combatants in space must plot trajectories that bring them within weapons range. Alas, days of tedium with seconds of terror makes for terrible cinema.

Star Travel

The sections below details how space travel works in this setting. The salient points, however, are these:

Space Ships

“Primitive” vessels travel between the stars using Newtonian mechanics: propel something out the back with sufficient force, and move forward a bit. Most species originally got into orbit and beyond with thrusters using chemical, fission, fusion, ion, or (sometimes) antimatter energy. In the modern Galaxy, however, ships generally use ion thrusters only for adjusting orbits, docking in space, and landing on planets. Suits and one-man ships performing E.V.A. use either ion thrusters or gas jets, depending on available power.

Interplanetary craft use a sort of “gravitational space warp” or g-warp that propels the ships at velocities inconceivable in conventional physics while keeping the contents (and crew) safe from the effects of acceleration and tidal stress.5 While more compact than the fusion rockets of a prior age, the power requirements and g-warp effect emitters preclude the sort of “star fighters” famous in other franchises. Only planetary defense forces use single- or two-man fighters.

The same effect deflects everything from interstellar debris to weapons fire. However, a precisely targeted projectile or beam of energy or a missile with a g-warp drive can penetrate the field and damage or destroy a ship. Unlike the “shields” of other franchises, however, the effect is part of the g-warp drive, not a “force field” that can be enhanced or knocked down separately. Such systems have been tried, but consume far too much power. Even the largest star ships use a combination of countermeasures to fool targeting systems, anti-missile systems to knock out missiles and large projectiles, and neutronium armor to resist beam weapons and small projectiles.

Star Ships

Humans (and other species) traverse the gulf between stars using the Jump Effect, created with a Jump Effect Generator or, colloquially, a Jump Drive.

However, Jump Drives have limits:

A space ship with a Jump Drive, a.k.a. a starship can travel unaided between the stars. Because of the limitations above, starships necessarily need large and powerful reactors and large engines to move the Jump Drive and the rest of the ship. The Jump Drive sits as near as possible to the ship’s center of mass, and is rated for a Jump Effect well within the ship’s maximum dimensions and maximum mass. Because of their size, starships cannot land on planets directly, and even docking with an orbital space station can get tricky. Starships carry one or more smaller ships for planetfall or short-range trips.

Some of the earliest starships were Star Ferries, vast transport ships that carried passengers and limited cargo from one star system to another. Because of the massive Star Drives, reactors, and engines required, only Star Ferries could bring colonists to new planets, or transport galactic dignitaries between worlds. For a time an apolitical Guild that operated Star Ferries. However, the Guild splintered into factions, and improvements in technology, including more compact Jump Drives and Star Gates, made them obsolete.

In the modern Galaxy, starships fall into three broad groups:

  1. Warships carry arms and armor to protect the assets of interstellar governments. They seek out new worlds and new civilizations, and typically conquer them.

  2. Colony Ships carry colonists and essential cargo to a new star system. A typical colony ship makes only one trip; the colonists cannibalize its components to build a space station and its Jump Drive to construct a Star Gate.

  3. Couriers ignore efficiency and energy costs to transport small amounts of cargo – or V.I.P.s – between planets, when a Star Gate is too public, too far, or too inconveniently located. Only an interstellar government can afford a Courier.

Starships are typically too expensive for individuals to own. Only interstellar corporations can afford to maintain them. Everyone else must make do with Star Gates.

Star Gates

In the current age, most traffic between stars uses a Star Gate. A Star Gate is a sphere roughly half a kilometer in diameter that creates a Jump Effect with a diameter of a few kilometers but doesn’t include the Star Gate itself. Ships or other objects caught in the Effect appear within a few kilometers of an arbitrary destination within another star system.6 This could be near other Star Gates, or not.

Systems typically place their Star Gates in orbits trailing a planet; the planet sweeps interstellar dust and debris away from the gate and provides an obvious target for navigation. The distance between the Star Gate and the system’s most populous planet(s) depends on the planetary government’s attitude toward ships leaving the system. Nearly every Star Gate has a manned station outside its Jump Effect to coordinate traffic, to activate the Star Gate if it’s not automated, and to defend the gate if necessary.

Most Star Gates send ships to a single star system, usually one with a Star Gate for the return trip. Automated gates activate when a ship or a convoy of ships approaches within a pre-set distance and fits wholly within the Jump Effect. Other gates may require a signal, perhaps a secure encrypted key known only to the owners of the gate, before they will activate. Less common “Universal Star Gates” can send ships to any requested system, although the traveler must then find a return Star Gate on their own. According to rumor, some smugglers and interstellar organizations have hidden Star Gates at the edges of a star system, although where criminals could get such an expensive and finicky piece of equipment is unknown.

Space Communications

Within a star system, ships and settlements use conventional electromagnetic (EM) communications. To reduce the power required, even ships use lasers to narrowcast messages to the nearest planet or relay station. Over interplanetary distances, a transmission may take minutes to arrive. Synchronous, real-time conversations happen only in orbit or on a planet’s surface, where all but the most primitive planets have global communications nets. Comm-nets have built-in security for most purposes, but anyone with corporate, military, criminal, or other clandestine business uses extra layers of encryption at either end.

A variation of the Jump Effect can send faster-than-light messages between starships or Star Gates, or to deep space stations with special receivers. While the technology can narrow-cast to a particular star system, any receiver in that system can pick up the message, so ships use an address system and the best possible encryption.

Most interstellar communications are short asynchronous text messages7, which require comparatively little power. Sending even a compressed data burst requires more time and power than a starship can spare. Star Gates and stations with specialized “non-jumping” Jump Drives can transmit with higher bandwidth, but it’s incredibly expensive and the data burst would arrive no faster than a ship would. Most private individuals and corporations use couriers instead.

People of the Galaxy

While not directly related to the Empire / Confederation / etc., this section addresses some common science-fiction tropes.

  1. The majority of the people of this Galaxy are considered “human”, even if they don’t look like humans we 21st century people know and mostly tolerate.

  2. Common robots and computers, despite being more advanced, lack true human intelligence.

  3. Non-humans and “true” artificial intelligences exist, but are rare, enigmatic, and mostly apart from Galactic society.

Mostly I’m trying to avoid the constellation of common space opera tropes with Unfortunate Implications, while still honoring ideas introduced in the decades after Hugo Gernsback.

Humanity

Most people in the Galaxy are “human”. However, that designation encompasses a large number of beings of tetrapodal form, bipedal gait, bilateral symmetry, endothermal metabolism, and broadly compatible genetics. According to most theories, all “humans” descended from a single species (or a few closely related species), from a single planet in prehistory, i.e. before the discovery of the Jump Effect.8 Individuals and entire societies further reshape themselves with biological and/or cybernetic modifications, further confounding simple definitions.

In any case, despite superficial differences in size, shape, coloration, degree of body hair, forehead ridges, and other factors, every humanoid being in the Galaxy is essentially the same diverse species. Cultural identities still exist, but across an entire Galaxy a specific set of physical traits doesn’t mark one as universally “other”. Except for a few primitives long isolated from Galactic society, all can interbreed and produce children.

“Aliens”

A minority of sapient beings in the Galaxy don’t come from the sprawling family of humankind. Most have some biological similarity to humans. Genetic markers indicate those ancestors may have been non-sapient species “uplifted” with human-like intelligence. Relatively few sapients, mostly on worlds with minimal human presence, have biologies so radically different from humanity that their ancestors can only have evolved on a completely different world.

Because of physiological obstacles or cultural factors, few of these so-called “aliens” involve themselves in larger Galactic society. Unfortunately, because humans meet true non-humans so rarely they mistake individual quirks for psycho-social constants. The Glyconian who called herself “Nagini”, for example, single-handedly created the common stereotype of Glyconians as con artists, when in fact Glyconia exiled her because authorities could no longer cope with the scale and audacity of her scams.

Artificial Intelligence

While most technology incorporates what pre-spaceflight primitives would consider “artificial intelligence”, modeled after aspects of a human (or alien) mind, none in human-dominated space are truly sapient. However, non-sapient machines with verbal interfaces are common. (As common as the frustration of conversing with a machine as if it were human and suddenly hitting its cognitive limits.) Interplanetary treaties forbid creating artificial sapients, and doing so “accidentally” is for all intents and purposes impossible.

Starships occasionally stumble on “Machine Worlds”, colonies of self-replicating artificial sapients on airless rocks that cannot support conventional biological life. While some “Machines” have had minimal interaction with human life, most of them would consider biological intelligence a nuisance to ignore, a curiosity to examine, or an existential threat to destroy. The Confederation quarantined all know Machine Worlds, and none have active Star Gates.

Post-Humans

So-called “Post-Humans” have human-like minds in artificial bodies far better designed for the rigors of space than humans. Despite the name, evidence suggests they began as artificial sapients rather than humans somehow translated to a higher state of being. They can “back up” their minds onto specialized storage media9 and “resleeve” themselves into new bio-mechanical forms.10

Post-Humans occupy a cluster of worlds at the edge of the Galaxy. Humans find Post-Human culture bizarre and unsettling, while Post-Humans regard humans with a mixture of pity and horror. Save for a few non-conformists on both sides, humans and Post-Humans keep any relations purely economic and at as long a distance as possible.

The Old Confederation

The Old Confederation is older than currently recorded history. Even its founding belongs more to myth and legend than accepted fact. All myths, however, begin with the Ancients.

The Ancients

In the beginning, the Ancients traveled between the stars. In most stories they had yet to discover the Jump Effect; a few insist they had not even discovered G-Warp and relied on fusion drives, solar sails, and similarly archaic methods. Who these Ancients were and why they traveled is still hotly debated. Some stories paint them as explorers and scientists, others as refugees fleeing the destruction of their home world, still others as conquerors.

Likewise historians argue incessantly about who these Ancients were. The consensus believe that the Ancients were an unknown “alien” species, far older than current humanity and probably now extinct. Their motives for spreading Humanity to other worlds is obscure. A minority of historians, mostly sympathetic to the “Humanity First” movement, argue they were humans from the ancestral world. The counterargument cites the many Ancient artifacts whose purpose and operating principles remain unknown. Even the “known” technologies for interplanetary and interstellar travel rely on principles that scientists don’t fully understand.

For whatever reasons the Ancients carried “humanity” to world after world. Most worlds required terraforming projects that spanned generations and consumed vast resources to make them comfortable for human life. A sizable portion of humanity still lives in “habitats” or habs, sometimes called arcologies or “arks”. A Hab maintains a wholly self-sufficient artificial environment on a hostile planet, a moon, an asteroid, or deep space, using technologies virtually unchanged since the Ancients.

The Confederation Age

Over a period of centuries the Ancients retired from an active role in governing the Galaxy. (Or, as some believe, a coalition of free peoples toppled their oppressive rule.) In their place arose the Galactic Confederation.

The Confederation relied on a distributed form of government that emphasized self rule. The Confederation Congress never met in one place. Instead, delegates in each sector gathered at a Sector Capitol for regular Conclaves to discuss matters affecting the sector and issues that affected the entire Confederation. Each Sector Capitol resided in a star system with several Star Gates. Nearly all had been settled since the time of the Ancients and bore at least one world whose population exceeded a billion.

Colony worlds that had paid off their debt to their home world and which met a few other self-sufficiency requirements could send prospective delegates to the nearest Sector Capitol and petition the next Conclave for recognition. If accepted, the prospective delegates would receive full voting rights in future business.

Decisions and motions of each Conclave circulated to other Conclaves, to be similarly debated, voted upon, and either enacted or voted down. Laws ratified by one Conclave but disputed by another required years or decades of committees to resolve. In the meantime, worlds enforced whichever version of a law had more local support.

Confederation’s End

In theory, the Galactic Confederation represented all “civilized” worlds, and all the citizens on those worlds, equally. In practice certain worlds were “more equal” than others: Sector Capitols, other populous and/or technologically advanced worlds, those that trade in essentials like food and ship parts, and those with rare but critical resources like meta-stable neutronium ore.

The imbalance of power and the Confederation’s painfully slow decision-making process eventually led to a hegemony of the most powerful planets. Some worlds use economic or “soft power” to get their way; others have subverted governments or resorted to outright military conquest. In any matter that somehow manages to come before a Conclave, all vassal planets vote in the interest of their hegemon … or else. The end result resembles more the feudal states of Mythic Europe or the tangled political alliances of later legends than a confederation of free and equal worlds.

Emerging Powers

During the Confederation’s slow collapse, a few interstellar powers have begun to emerge:

  1. The Kante Empire: Barely a century old, the Empire has brought hundreds of worlds under its banner. Advocates describe it as a mutually beneficial defense pact that has no interest in meddling in member worlds' internal affairs. Critics denounce it as a military dictatorship that siphons resources from conquered worlds to enlarge its ever-growing space fleet and enrich its shadowy “High Command”. Both perspectives are mostly correct.

  2. The New Etanoi Republic: The former Confederation Sector Capitol of Etanoi declared its independence centuries ago. While it promised to cut through bureaucracy and grant all its member worlds full representation, its Parliament has added no new worlds since its founding. Even on its original member worlds, only true “citizens”, determined mainly by genealogy, have full legal rights.

  3. The Post-Human Dominion11: While Post-Humans control only a few dozen systems, their exports of advanced technology give them power over the whole Galaxy. Most G-warp and Jump technology comes from their foundries. The rest of the Galaxy fears them for their seeming immortality, their strange and aloof ways, and their growing economic power.

The so-called Alliance of Free Worlds is more of a threat than a power. Its Supreme Council claims that its member worlds voluntarily joined, and conducts carefully managed tours of model colonies full of happy citizens. Every former citizen or outside observer that has escaped the Alliance describes a central state that controls information, suppresses dissent, and keeps the vast majority of its people as serfs on collective farms and factories.


  1. OK, Firefly sort of did this one, but my inspiration here was the Nebari from Farscape and, ultimately, Brave New World and 1984↩︎

  2. Transparently ripped off from Neptune’s Brood. (With some inspiration from the later chapters of Accelerando and Marvel’s mutant nation of Krakoa.) ↩︎

  3. My setting is pretty short on “hard science”, but I try to avoid the “shields and rays” clichés found in many works from “Doc” Smith and Cordwainer Smith (no relation) to Star Trek and Star Wars↩︎

  4. Contrary to Empire Strikes Back, even in the “asteroid belt” asteroids are typically a million kilometers apart (source), so there’s almost nothing to hide behind. Also, space ships would radiate heat as electromagnetic energy, so even without sunlight another ship could detect it. It’s not certain whether the Firefly/Star Wars: Rebels trick of shutting down the engines would help very much. ↩︎

  5. Mostly. A damaged or badly maintained drive will leak a fraction of acceleration and gravitational forces … enough to kill the crew if they push the ship too far. ↩︎

  6. Thus there’s no end-point to blockade or destroy, and no way to “trap” ships between destinations. ↩︎

  7. Comparable to the “telegrams” or “texts” of primitive cultures. ↩︎

  8. Scientists differ on whether the current diversity is a product of natural evolution over tens of thousands of years or later genetic manipulation before the Confederation Era. Pointing to the latter is the observation that, unlike most planet-bound life forms, modern humans feel no ill effects from prolonged microgravity. ↩︎

  9. Attempts to “download” a post-human mind into standard information systems or hardware produces at best an extremely large and inert chunk of data. Even Post-Humans dwelling in virtual worlds require a brain of their own. ↩︎

  10. Attempts to “upload” a human consciousness into a post-human body result at best in a new Post-Human with fragmentary memories of a (very dead) human’s life. Most jurisdictions consider it murder. ↩︎

  11. The Post-Humans call themselves a “Commonwealth”, since innumerable factions and micro-nations share political power, and only their economic system – and post-human status – binds them together. ↩︎