How to make the good guys look bad…


I’ve recently finished reading the Family D’Alembert series by E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith and Stephen Goldin, which could be summed up as a not-particularly-high-quality but nevertheless mildly enjoyable science-fiction adventure series, in which the galaxy’s elite team of super-agents are a brother-sister duo from the ‘Circus of the Galaxy’, whose acrobatic training allows them to overcome their foes.

The books, as I say, are fairly entertaining light reading. The plot of each book essentially sees the main characters on a new planet foiling a nefarious plot to overthrow the ‘Empire of Earth’  which rules the galaxy, with the books connected by the characters themselves and an overarching story arc. One hilarious aspect though, is just how bad the empire that they’re working for is. Now, I’m not a reader who insists that every future or fantasy society has moral values that exactly parallel early 21st century liberal values – in fact, I often find such depictions a bit unrealistic. But even without such requirements, the Empire of Earth is really, really bad:

– It’s ruled by an absolute monarch who, it is frequently emphasised, literally has absolute power to do anything, including arbitrarily arrest or execute any citizen or use any amount of force on any planet.

– All power down to and including local level is exercised through a system of hereditary nobility. There appears to be no democratic involvement in government in any way, even in a consultative or local way.

– The nobles have extremely broad powers, up to and including the power of summary execution. Similarly, the emperor/empress has the ability to execute anyone, even a grand duke, without a trial (a trial is conventional but not necessary).

– On discovering an entirely peaceful, pastoral colonised planet not belonging to the Empire, the Empire’s response is to send a fleet of battlecruisers, ordering the planet to join the Empire or be blasted back to the stone age.

– There is a truth drug that it is impossible to resist, yet has a 50% fatality rate even if used correctly. The penalty for possession of this drug is death. Despite this, the Empire’s secret agents use this fairly freely, both on their own authority and, at other times, with the explicit permission of the emperor.

– The Empire seems to contain not just a large amount of crime and piracy, but entire planets that exist in states of absolute poverty/slums.

– The Empire possesses a surprisingly large navy for a nation that has literally no external rivals (humans or alien); its intelligence agency, the Service of the Empire also appears to act with impunity and have no checks other than the oversight of the emperor. Intriguingly, in the list of emperors/empresses, all three of those who are considered ‘great’ have as one of their principal recorded actions the establishment or strengthening of this intelligence agency.

Now, some settings might justify this by having it that the rulers are, though a family tradition or other means, universally good and benevolent rulers who act with the best of intentions struggling. This is implausible (unless enforced by magic, as in the Heralds of Valdemar series) but, hey, it’s fiction. Notably, the Family D’Alembert series doesn’t do this. Although the current emperor and his daughter are both capable and benevolent, many of the preceding nine rulers have, variously, been tyrants, assassinated their families to gain the throne, provoked civil wars or, in one case, embarked upon a reign of increasingly brutal and widespread Stalin-esque purges, only cut short upon her assassination.

Fortunately, one doesn’t read this series for the politics, the realism or even the science – they are effectively spy thrillers in space. But if one reads between the lines, one could equally read it with post-modernist eyes as propaganda put out by a despotic and tyrannical space empire…