Decentralization of Political Structures Beyond the Planetary Level in Dune and Left Hand of Darkness

Copyright 1986, 1998 by Leigh Kimmel

For permission to quote or reprint, contact Leigh Kimmel

One very common question advanced in science fiction concerns the forms which future political structures will take, especially those which deal with large numbers of planets. Many works of science fiction feature galactic empires or federations which unite thousands or milions of worlds. These structures may vary in surface form, but there is one essential similarity among all of them: they are all unions of planetary governments. This points to a strong tendency to decentralization in political structures beyond a planetary level. Any political structure beyond a planetary level will tend to become a decentralized union of planetary governments because of considerations of communication, transportation and the sheer volume of space and size of population involved in any supraplanetary political structure.

First, because rapid, effective, communication, which is essentialfor any centralized political structure, becomes extraordinarily difficult when it must be carried out over the distances between planets, centralization of political structure will extend only so far as effective communication can be carried out, and any structure beyond that limit will necessarily be decentralized. There is the obvios problem of the light-speed limit, which makes communications between solar systems so slow that messages may be outdated by the time they arrive from the central government.

Although this is circumvented in Left Hand of Darkness by the ansible, a device which supposedly permits instantaneous communication across interstellar distances, this device is still a very impersonal mode of communication, and is thus still a very limited mode of communication. It is good for transmitting information, but is not an effective system for the communications required for a centralized political structure.

In Dune communication is regulated by the Spacing Guild, which is independent of the control of the Padishah Emperor, and thus cannot be used as a method of controlling a centralized political structure. Since communication beyond a planetary level is difficult, it will hinder any attempt at running a centralized government and encourage a decentralized political structure in which each planet is centralized but beyond that level the government is a loose union of planets.

Second, transportation, which is also essential to aa centralized political structure, also becomes exceedingly tenuous over the distances involved in a supraplanetary political structure. This will also serve to encourage a trend to decentralization because centralized government can extend only so far as one can travel rapidly. In The Left Hand of Darkness the limiting nature of the speed of light, which cannot be exceeded by the Ekumen's spaceships, forms a very effective encouragement to keep centralized political structures limited to the planetary level. InDune there is faster-than-light travel, but it is controlled by the Spacing Guild, and thus cannot be effectively used to control a centralized political system. Since transportation beyond the planetary level is difficult, it will also tend to encourage a decentralized supraplanetary political structure.

Third, the sheer volume of space involved in a supraplanetary political structure will tend to encourage decentralization. Because the population of a supraplanetary union will be concentrated on individual planets separated by vast amounts of interstellar space, they will tend to have an archipelago mentality, in which planets are seen as the essential units of political structure and any larger political organization is merely a network of those essential units.

In Dune, this frame of mind is exemplified by the feudal structure of the Galactic Empire, in which the Great Houses have nearly total control of their planetary fiefs, which form the primary units of government. Each Great House then owes fealty to the Padishah Emperor, who theoretically is Overlord of the entire galaxy, but in practice directly rules only a few planets, especially Kaitain and Salusa Secundus. Because this feudal system is essentially a very loose, decentralized system, there can exist some groupse whose ties to the system are tenuous at best. Among these are the Fremen, the Tlelaxu, the Ixians and the Spacing Guild, all of which have only minimal ties to the feudal system of the Padishah Emperor and the Great Houses.

In Left Hand of Darkness the archipelago mentality takes a different form, but is essentially the same idea of the planetary government being the essential unit of political structure. The Ekumen serves only as a co-ordinator of the worlds of humanity, while the functions of governing and control are left to each individual planetary government. Since the most obvious unit in a supraplanetary political system will be the individual planet, it is therefore very likely that the planetary government will form the primary center of government and any organization beyond that level will be very loose and decentralized.

Finally the sheer numbers of the population which would be involved in any supraplanetary political structure would tend to encourage decentralization by making any sort of centralized administration thoroughally unmanageable. A centralized political structure governing a union of thousands or millions of worlds would require a bureaucracy so enormous that it might require a world-city like Trantor of Asmiov's Foundation to house it, and even then it would not be able to properly run the government. Far easier to simply allow each planet to run its own affairs and have the supraplanetary government concern itself only with matters which involvemore than one planet, especially the relationships between planets.

In Dune the feudal system of the Galactic Empire reduces the bureaucracy involved in running the Empire by allowing much of the work of governing individual planets to be left to the Great Houses to which they belong. Even so, there remains a considerable bureaucracy on Kaitain to administer the relations of the Great Houses with one another and the Padishah Emperor.

The Ekumen of Left Hand of Darkness serves only to facilitate trade and intellectual exchange between the individual planets, and leaves the matter of government in the hands of individual planets. This system of leaving the task of administration to the individual planets involved serves to keep bureaucracy down to a managable size. Thus the consideration of the administrative tasks involved in centrally governing the vast numbers of people who will be a part of a supraplanetary political structure will serve to encourage a decentralized political structure.

Because of considerations of communication, transportation, and the sheer volume of space and size of population involved in any political structure beyond a planetary level, it will tend to become a decentralized union of planetary governments. Such a union may take many forms, but the essential unit of centralized government will invariably be planetary. Beyond that, any political structure will be loose and decentralized.

Copyright 1986, 1998 by Leigh Kimmel

For permission to quote or reprint, contact Leigh Kimmel

This paper was originally written for a class in Science Fiction Literature, taught by Professor U. Milo Kaufman, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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