I'll preface this by saying it's a thought experiment that fits within the "Into the Void" setting, something I've mentioned on Rocketpunk. I'll write that up in more detail later.
A scifi staple has been the warrior race. Klingons, Predator, Kzin, the Clans from Battletech, violence is their hat. Sometimes they’re noble warriors, sometimes they’re space Mongols.
The current fashion is to consider them unrealistic. The SF utopians would argue that any race capable of the level of sophistication needed for proper space travel would be post-scarcity and have no need for conquest. Empire-building simply doesn’t make any sense when every material want is free. I would have to agree with that. Even if we don’t run with the “all advanced aliens are peaceful and nice,” it’s hard to escapes the Angels and Apes argument put forward by Arthur C. Clarke which states that any encounter between civilizations separated by millions of years of development would not be between equals; "we will find apes or angels, but not men." Any hostile race that wants the planet won’t have to ask nicely. We probably wouldn’t even be aware we were under attack until the end. See the Screwfly Solution, a classic scifi take on the subject.
the Void setting is a special case where we’re deliberately trying to allow for the classic scifi tropes in a believable fashion. Aside from the spaceships and FTL travel, any of the proud warrior races in typical scifi are pretty much using 20th/21st century technology or direct extrapolations thereof. So my specific challenge is creating a plausible warrior race with a 21st century technology base. This is not so difficult a task.
The Western powers have been violent and imperialistic. The British could be all delicate and cultured when having tea amongst peers of good breeding but could be monstrous to their own citizens of lower classes, not to mention what they did to brown people in need of a good Christian education. Still, this isn’t rising to quite the warrior culture ethos I want.
Imperial Japan is my favorite example and the model I intend to follow. Here we have a feudal culture based on violence, domination, and veneration of a dedicated warrior class. When Commodore Perry opened Japan to Western commerce, the Japanese leaders embarked on a crash course of industrialization. The Japanese may have trained their best and brightest abroad for a proper western education and thoroughly adopted American and British standards for their military but the culture still remained decidedly Japanese in flavor. The samurai status was no longer limited to social class but could be shared by any peasant conscripted by the military. Between bushido, emperor worship, imperialism and religious convictions, you have the perfect stew to make for an imperial death cult. Die for the Emperor, death before dishonor, everyone not Japanese is inferior, and we have the mandate of heaven on our side. And the levels of brutality that went along with this mentality would be right at home in Warhammer 40K.
Of course, it’s very cheap to just rip off the Japanese. So my imperial death cult warrior race moves across an ocean and starts with a simple premise: what happens if New World diseases proved far more lethal than Old World diseases?
So, we start with the Aztecs. What have they got going for them as a potential industrialized imperial death cult in the making?
1. A death cult religion. Oooooh yeah. Pyramids of human skulls, ritual cannibalism, blood sacrifice to keep the sun circling the Earth. These guys have it in spades.
2. Warrior tradition to support the capture of slaves for the sacrifices. Yup.
3. Cultural ability to assimilate new ideas and not simply get steamrolled by more advanced neighbors. We never got to see this because they were killed off too quickly.
So, how would things progress?
1. First contact. Columbus returns from his first voyage. New World discovered, Europe is interested.
2. Subsequent voyages establish the wealth of the New World but also the lethality of their diseases. Conquistadors try to dominate with horses and firearms but succumb to disease before they can destroy the existing social order.
3. If we accept the premise of the book 1491, the Americas were heavily populated by vast numbers of Indians. Disease caused a 90% die-off and so the depopulated lands encountered by Europeans over the next hundreds of years are not the way things were but post-apocalyptic. Therefore Europeans in this setting coming to the Americas are more in the situation of the Brits trying to conquer China or India -- they may have better weapons and technology but there are millions and millions of locals.
4. Europeans will try to throw their weight around in the Americas and make some significant advances but the native power structures will remain in place. They will not be displayed, supplanted, or destroyed.
5. Prolonged existence will allow for cultural and technological diffusion. The Mesoamerican cultures will eventually be able to confront the Europeans on equal terms, building sailing ships, making guns and swords, adopting draft animals and the wheel. The Aztecs get a first-mover advantage with science presented in the context of their own religious idiom. To those still coming to terms with the new learning, it’s all seeming like magic and therefore a practical demonstration of the inferiority of their own gods. So even as the religion and culture of the Aztecs is adopted, political and economic rivalries will ensure that there is still a vigorous competition between the factions. Pretty similar to the way Europe can be all Christian and yet the various nation-states continued to war and all believe God was on their side and not the other guy’s.
6. Not all of the American native cultures should be strong enough to resist European incursion so there should be a number of colonies that establish footholds. However, the intensity of native resistance would see them less like what occurred in our own history with the Americas and more like the Crusaders in the Middle-East. The Crusader kingdoms all failed in time.
7. The Aztec culture led the war against the Europeans and becomes the dominant influence. Just as Hellenistic culture spread across the ancient world and made converts of those whose cultures were not as strong, Aztec thinking spreads through the Americas. Given the continued existential threat represented by Europe, what eventually forms is a continental military alliance. To European eyes, the Americans would all be one giant, undifferentiated Indian Horde but they are in fact an alliance of nations.
8. Science was practiced by the religious caste and so two branches descended, traditional and experimental theology. The traditional branch ran the society, propitiating the gods, directing sacrifices and other superstitious, magical bullshit. The experimental branch used science but the gods got all the credit. Used science to heal the sick? Praise the gods. Experimentally develop superior methods of agriculture? The blessing of the gods. While the experimental theologians lost the magical appreciation of the gods, they accepted an abstracted and idealized interpretation. Sort of like deists who did not believe in a literal and personal god as did most Christians but still accepted the concept of a Divine Architect of the Universe.
9. Some historians described pre-Crusade islamic culture as having mellowed from the original conquering hordes, developing science and learning. The crusades forced the Muslims to return to militancy, destroying a peaceful and enlightened way of existence. While the Aztec cultures were already warlike, hundreds of years of conflict with the Europeans made them even more imperialistic.
10. By their late development the Aztec cultures had accepted the concept of domination and submission. Those that did not conquer would be themselves conquered. It is the role of the dominant to dominate all. Those who are weak are to be dominated. There is no other way. The faithful might believe in the literal need of human blood to propitiate the gods while the educated know there is no demonstrable proof that this works but appreciate the psychological effects of mass human sacrifice in keeping the vassal states subjugated.
11. With the European powers kicked out of the Americas, the different cultures basically broke down into two categories -- peers and vassals. Peers were too strong to be conquered by one or the other while the vassals could be subjugated and ill-treated. At this point you had the elite families and everyone else. The power centers were the priesthood, military, farmers and craftsmen.
12. Eventual political developments made it clear that foreign territories must be conquered or else the demands of the warriors for glory and the priesthood for sacrifice would tear the empire apart.
The empire as it currently stands is not a happy place but it’s unclear if it will fail any time soon. It has become an engine of conquest and internal power struggles seem to keep the leadership sharp and prevents the development of decadence and incompetence rather than tear things apart with infighting.
It is difficult to describe the interplay between power bases in this culture. When looked at from one perspective you see the priesthood, the military establishment and the producers who build, manufacture, and grow things. When looked at another way there are the elite families whose members comprise the leadership positions within the priesthood and military as well as the major production centers. The priesthood is the smallest of the triad but seem to hold the greatest power. But the priesthood is divided between the traditional and the experimentalists. The traditionalists ally with the military because they both believe in conquest and blood and still-beating hearts offered to the gods. The experimentalists tend to favor the pursuits of industry and pure experimentation and work closely with the producers to keep society going. The elite tend not to be devout fundamentalists but the common man in the empire is a true believer. Rough figures, priesthood is 5% of the population, military 10%, the rest are producers (factories, farms, bureaucracy, etc.) Numbers subject to change. Overall they should have population pressures similar to China. Prosperity means way too many people. Fortunately, they have places to send them.
At the end of the day the religion calls for conquest and blood and so the faithful believe in achieving exactly that. The priests are happy. A warrior without a war is a fairly useless thing. Wars provide glory and honor and opportunity for advancement and lots of sacrificial victims. The military is happy. The producers know that they need the raw material provided by conquest to keep the empire going; they need new territory to deploy their wealth pumps in. And the elites know that the constant cycle of war and expansion keep the inherent cultural violence focused outwards. If they stop it will turn inward and begin an orgy of destructive violence. The noble families are fecund and there can only be one firstborn. All the other sons tend to go into the priesthood or the military. Endless wars are the safety valve for a surplus population.
Warfare for the industrial Aztecs is either ceremonial or practical. Practical warfare is the policy of conquest where they use the most efficient weapon for the job and are fighting for keeps. Ceremonial warfare is just as deadly but operates under a host of rules and is used to settle internal disputes, much like trial by combat with picked champions in feudal Europe. Some bloodletting would be purely religious in nature and warriors offered up for this sort of ceremonial combat would be considered sacrifices.
So while not everybody in the race is a warrior, obviously, the whole culture buys into the ethos which is a mix of religion, martial enthusiasm and national myth. Kicking ass is righteous and the gods approve. Anything that aids ass-kicking is righteous.
What does this look like in practice? These guys will destroy you. They will obliterate your military capacity. They will happily destroy a city or three as an object lesson. They will recruit locals to be quislings and are Darth Vader-style ruthless about going through underlings until they find people who can make things happen. There’s no soft talk about this being for the best or betterment of mankind. You exist to be used. A regular tribute of sacrificial victims will be used locally and others will be shipped to the capital city to die on the great temple pyramids. Quisling representatives are guests of honor so that they can be impressed with the full power of the Aztec and how utterly fucked they are. Resistance is futile. You think that you can go along with the plan and survive. This is wrong. Your resources will be taken at a ruinous and unsustainable rate. Flagging production will see ultimatums and killings until there’s nothing left to give. You will then be exterminated in a giant ritual sacrifice to the last man, woman, and child and you are too broken by this point to resist. Aztec settlers will be moved in to colonize and take over production. The whole cycle might take two or three generations.
Access to fresh tributary worlds via the void have kept the empire expanding. It’s an evil but highly successful system and shows no sign of internal rot. If it’s going to be destroyed, it will take significant outside pressure. You do not want to get into a serious war against them.