War! (Of Equals)

Eric Manwill asks:

I’ve really enjoyed reading (and re-reading) both Vignettes of the Star Empire and The Core War. I did end up wondering about something, though. In most cases, when the Empire and/or its citizen-shareholders faced down an enemy, they did so from a position of obvious technological and offensive superiority. The outcome rarely seemed in doubt. Have they ever had to go appendage-to-appendage with an opponent who was at least as strong or as dangerous as themselves? How would they handle it? What happens if they lose?

(Been noodling with this a few hours trying to find a good order to address the various factors at play here. Not sure I’ve found one. So I apologize if this seems a little disjointed.)

Well, the first part of this is a matter of doctrine. As the Thousand Wise Analects of the Supreme Warlord, Xian Anandonos-ith-Anaxios, put it, with regard to the question of how to go to war with a technologically or otherwise superior enemy:


“No, seriously, don’t.”

“Well, if you absolutely can’t avoid it, cheat. Cheat first, cheat second, and if that hasn’t worked yet, consider cheating.”

(I may be somewhat paraphrasing the elegant phrasing of the original 7th-century text, here.)

So, factor one: avoidance. There are powerful elder races and Powers in the galaxy: but even as the polity of the eldest of the younger races, the Empire doesn’t go around picking fights with them, because you don’t prosper by starting an ass-kicking contest with God.

(At least, not until you can reasonably claim to be a minimum of three times more God.)

As a side-note here, this is essentially doctrine for all circumstances, not just this particular.

To paraphrase the words of the Supreme Warlord in modern idiom, again, “There are people who seek out fair fights. Those people are gamesters. As an officer in the Legions, it is your responsibility to ensure that any battle you engage in is as hilariously unfair as possible, preferably to the extent that it’s mathematically impossible for the other side to win.”

Or, to put it another way, the Empire has never had the demographic luxury of playing silly buggers with straight-up fights or the We Have Reserves mentality. Their edition of The Book is the one that relies on seizing and maintaining every technological advantage possible, admixed equally with the gentle art of being sneaking, cunning, devious bastards whenever possible. Preferably, if at all possible, without actually having to engage in war at all – if a discreet assassination, meme campaign, or some militarized accounting will solve the problem for you, well, that’s a much bigger win.

Factor two, on the other hand, is very similar to Earth’s issues with superpower warfare: which is to say, we avoid the hell out of it. Brushfire wars and proxy wars, maybe some privateers and commerce raiding, etc., are one thing, as is trimming back the kinds of rogue states that might disturb the general equilibrium – but no-one wants to see two of the Great Powers actually throw down, because that’s the kind of thing that blasts entire regions of space, with devastated worlds, gigadeaths or worse, and all hell breaking loose. Everyone within the Worlds has a distinct interest in this sort of apocalyptic scenario not happening, and thus far enlightened self-interest has prevented anything major from breaking out between the big boys. It would be a much harder fight, I guarantee, if we saw the Empire facing off against, say, the Photonic Network, or the Consolidated Waserai Echelons, or the League of Meridian, or especially a combination per the doctrine mentioned here. But all of those four powers have a definite interest in not letting it, ever.

(This, incidentally, also applies to the Republic. The Core War is something of the exception that proves the rule: it was fundamentally more of a large deep-penetration raid than a generalized invasion, and was won by, essentially, strategic trickery: but also is an example of the Powers walking carefully around each other to avoid escalation. The Empire hit the enemy fleet in being with a hammer of just the right size to shatter it —

— but that’s because they weren’t looking at the full Republic fleet pouring over the Borderline, because while it’s technologically inferior, there’s a hell of a lot of it. The Republic isn’t larger than the Worlds, but it’s over twenty times the size of the Empire, which buys a lot of metal. They might not win if they invaded en masse, and the loss ratio would be spectacularly not in their favor, but they certainly would kill trillions and depopulate thousands of worlds trying.

No-one’s underestimating the danger of that. This is why people are gravely concerned about the instability of the Republic, because while the Empire et. al. may not like the Republic’s current government, they do credit them with not being actually insane. But if it comes apart, and doesn’t so so cleanly… well, that’s what we have people whose job it is to worry about existential threats for, yes?)

Now, having said all that, it’s not like there aren’t people worried about the possibility of other threats turning up, because the explored space of the Worlds isn’t the whole galaxy, not by a long shot. For which there are all sorts of codeword operations, like –

  • BERSERKER VOID, which concerns itself with why there aren’t more and older elder races (i.e., the hypothetical Great Filter);
  • BLACKWATER BISHOP, which researches Outside Context Problems and theoretical response patterns;
  • DEMIURGE ERRANT, which keeps an eye on elder races and seed AIs that might one day present an ex-threat;
  • EPOCH SHATTER, which investigates epistemological and extrauniversal threats;
  • GHOST WHISPERS, which tracks high-energy civilizations beyond the far horizon;
  • REWARMED MORBID, which makes sure sleeping perversions don’t wake;

and so forth.

And they also have a variety of response cases planned for this contingency, be it something minor or a full SKYSHOCK BLACK (“a full-scale invasion of the Associated Worlds or Imperial Space by an excessionary-level threat from beyond the far horizon”) – which in turn range from the relatively benign SVANEK WHITE (“make nice until we can get hold of their tech, reverse-engineer it, and build an equivalent or preferably better version”), up through medium-range strategic responses, and then high-level ones like destroying gate links, using relativistic kill vehicles, and blowing up suns, up to things like ADHAÏC CALYPSE (“unleash the swarm fleets from the depths of Armory’s well”; where a swarm fleet is what happens when you crossbreed a Rapid Offensive Unit with a von Neumann machine, and something normally kept entirely off the list of options because self-replicating autonomous war mechanicals with fast-burn capability scare the crap out of everyone) and NIGHTFALL ASUNDER (“take the specially-designed lurking-in-deep-space craft carrying a backup of our entire civilization and book it for the other end of the galaxy – or if necessary, another galaxy – exploding everything on the way out”).

So, y’know, there are plans.

Losing, though? That ain’t going to go well for anyone. Hypothetically. I mean, they can lose at daehain (which is basically a wargame used for arbitration), and have, or at teirhain (civilized war, between honorable gentlesophs). No disgrace, there, nor consequences likely to be unendurable.

But zakrehain (“barbarian war”) or seredhain (“blood war”, fought to extinction)? Not going to happen. They take their Live Free Or Die seriously ’round those parts. If it comes to that –?

The Galaxy’s going to burn.


5 thoughts on “War! (Of Equals)

  1. To possibly make for an interesting exercise: What if the Empire was facing off against its own shadow archetype: A society with an equivalent tech base, technepraxic mindset, and commitment to making war ruthlessly unfair for the other guy, but without the same moral commitments to the fundamental freedoms?

    (Or, to use an old cliche analogy, how would the eldrae equivalent of Star Trek’s “Mirror, Mirror” go?)

    • “Mirror, Mirror”, while a fun story, is not a useful narrative metaphor. I would argue that it is Not Possible for there to be an dark mirror civilization, because the tech base, wealth, technepraxic mindset, and ability to bring intelligence and cunning on point are because of the “commitments to the fundamental freedoms”.

      Remember, even in the context of the Star Trek narrative, the dark mirror Terran Empire was about to fall apart when it was rescued and invigorated by a very lucky outside context excision in the form of a UFP starship a hundred years advance falling out of a temporal rupture. And by the time they caught up to that unearned tech base, they were one gifted man away from being destroyed from within, again.

      To invoke yet another fictional dark mirror narrative, the Dominion of the Draka, the successful and wealthily reverse of every possible ideal that the United States of America has ever imperfectly tried to hold dear, even in-story, they know they are a singular lucky outlier, in that every single possible timeline next to their own, and extending out in probability space for quite some distance, the world is a blasted ruin from the war to the death between the DotD and the AfD.

      No, I think that if our Author here ever wants to come up with a civilization that can give the Empire an even fight but with a different philosophy, they are going to have to be really utterly alien, taking the black/white morality axis, rotating to the orange/blue of this setting, and then rotating it yet again around a couple of other dimensions.

      • Fair enough. It’s been a while since I’ve watched that episode, so a few of the specifics may have escaped me.

    • Well, the first and most obvious thing that came to mind is that if we’re talking an absolute equivalent, that’s pretty much by definition a double loss: mutual annihilation, moderated by blind luck.

      But on due and sober reflection, I conclude that Mark Atwood’s comment is on the money, and I’m pretty sure that Imperial clionomists and sociodynamicists agree. Enlightened libertism is the cause, not consequence, of their tech base and economy; and technepraxic, I note, is a philosophy of technology for sophont aspiration, which doesn’t play well with societies which place equality/conformity/obedience above aspiration. It even applies in matters of morale: free sophs work, play, and fight a lot harder than whipped orcs with political officers, and you certainly can’t have, say, the healthy universal mutual-defense pact in anything like the seething mass of resentment and advantage-seeking the latter type of society tends to be. It’d shred itself apart.

      tl;dr Evil is inefficient to the point of being disutile.

      +++REDO FROM START+++

      (As a side note, I’d add that the Stratarchy of Warrior Philosophy simply loves that kind of society, because in a society that has both resentment and advantage-seeking and a built-in instrumentality suitable for use for either implied purpose, there are consequentially any number of eminently suitable stress points where a light poke can destabilize the whole mess with consequences ranging from “momentary disarray” to “most die, oh the embarrassment”.)

  2. Thanks for the in-depth reply! In hindsight it really shouldn’t surprise me that the Empire would have departments assigned to think through potential outside context problems and eldrich horrors.

    I wonder if they call on some of their own sci fi and fantasy authors for scenarios.

Comments are closed.