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“Hell, we don’t even let humans wander around the universe until they’ve got planetary governments.” — Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, The Mote in God’s Eye

 

It’s something of a given in science fiction that any race or civilization advanced enough for faster-than-light interstellar travel will have a single central government per planet.

When science fiction presents people on a planet without a unifying global organization, it often depicts them as backward and primitive, scarred by battles between warring tribes, or otherwise not quite as civilized as those of us who’ve overcome petty prejudices and jealousies to unite our worlds for the leap across solar systems. The only exceptions are beings who have evolved so far beyond such base urges as the hunger for planetary conquest that they don’t need much government at all.

But why?

In real life, the great leaps into space haven’t come from the United Nations or any other worldwide organization. Our own space race began as a competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. After the Cold War began thawing and the U.S. and U.S.S.R. reached a détente, we coincidentally — or not so coincidentally — saw a decline in the most ambitious space missions.

I think that something more is involved in the bias toward one-world government: snobbery. A planet that’s unified seems so civilized. For people like you and me to pursue  our lives on a planet that still has independent nations — squabbling, jealous, grabby, easily provoked nations — well, goodness gracious me, my dear, it’s simply not done.

Is planetary government necessarily more advanced and civilized than local or national rule? Most governments that have aspired to rule the world, or even large chunks of it, have gone about the job by bloody conquest. Any of their subjects uppity enough to rebel against their far-off emperor’s domination in order to rule themselves have suffered vicious suppression.

So no planetary government for me, thanks. I’ll just have to find another way to the stars.

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