Friday, April 20, 2012

The Warrior Race

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.


  1. You are a scary, scary individual.

    When is the movie coming out? ;)

    1. Funny enough, I'm listening to "the Wal-Mart Effect" and it covers how doing business with them can be a faustian deal. You end up doing so much volume you can't say no even as they pressure you to cut costs to the point where you're losing money on every item you sell them.

      The only goals of Wal-Mart has is on increasing market share and cutting costs. It's operating like a scary AI stuck in a loop but with defenses sufficient enough to prevent being taken offline.

      I'm struck by how similar the Aztec business model is to Wal-Mart. The Archdruid Report has been doing a series about the course of empire and how wealth pumps are essentially put in place to rob the new conquests of wealth to support the imperial core. It's another way of looking at the dynamics of imperialism. It's always good to understand the gap between what they say they're doing something for and why they're really doing it.

  2. Warning: TVtropes links have been used. You have been warned.

    Using the Aztec's as the basis for the Proud Warrior Race is a rather interesting and almost original idea (pretty sure I've heard of this one before, just not the top of my head). However, before we continue, might I remind the audience that the concept of Bushido is actually more modern than many would actually believe?

    Moving on, though the idea of New World diseases being more virulent and lethal than Old World diseases is interesting, but would that not also be a kind of double-edge sword of an idea. It simply states that New World diseases are more lethal, but it doesn't really decrease the lethality of Old World Diseases so there still might be a post-apocalyptic like population. Just that there is still a superior population ratio between the Aztec Suzerainty and the European Kingdoms.

    As for the priesthood schism traditional and experimental factions in bullet point 8, well it may just be me but I think that due to the basic idea to their paradigm that they should be more of the "Secular" rather than "Experimental" in their name. Maybe even renaming the traditionalists the "Conservatives" (no republican jokes please) or even the "Sacred" but then again, that's just me.

    Though for some odd reason, the idea of the Aztec's abusing resources kind of reminds me of Captain Planet....

    1. I'm shooting for least change and biggest bang for the buck. It's not so much of a reach to have an alternative history where Imperial China conquered half the world rather than the Romans or Brits because the only thing holding them back was a cultural mindset. That's easy to what-if. Having Hitler win WWII requires a lot of work. Having Japan win WWII is pretty much an impossibility.

      You are correct that European diseases could prove just as deadly but if the Europeans end up getting killed on sight, it could serve as a buffer. And if the contact is sporadic at the very first, local indian populations could die off dramatically enough that leaders quarantine the population. Anyone who has contact with Europeans is killed and the corpse purified with fire.

      I do find it interesting that we didn't see die-offs like in the Americas in Asia or Australia. I suppose there was enough mixing of populations between the Indian sub-continent and the far east but the Aborigines were supposed to be cut off from the rest of humanity for tens of thousands of years. I don't recall reading of any mass die-off.

    2. Well I can only assume that due to the continent's proximity to Indonesia and the other islands of south eastern asia provided enough contact for a build up of illness resistance.

      Though then again, considering number of poisonous and other such lethal fauna in Australia, perhaps the Aborigines are just made of stronger stuff.

  3. I think there are two other explanations as to why the European conquest of the Americas was so decisive:

    1. Better technology. There is pretty clear evidence the Vikings were in North America in the 1100's, but swords and axes are not really a clear advantage over arrows and war clubs. It is also quite possible for Europeans to have been coming to North America prior to the 1490's (Basque whalers were operating off the Grand Banks and may have come ashore, and there are mythical accounts of the Knights Templar or Scottish clans seeking less crowded territory sailing west as well), but they would have been limited by the technologies of the Middle Ages, while by the 1490's there was a clear advantage in European technology.

    2. Organization. The Vikings and presumptive Europeans were coming to North America during the Dark Ages and Middle Ages, so had very inefficient social, political and economic organizations. The amount of support they could have gotten from home, or even the numbers they could send over at any given time were very limited. A presumptive European settlement in the 1300s would need about 15 "workers" for every fighting man, and each fighting man's estate would be separated from the next, so a 400 person colony would have 26 or 27 "knights" scattered over a wide area.

    By the 1490's, Europeans had reliable ships, firearms, navigation instruments etc. and the sort of organization that could raise and equip large numbers of men, and send them by the hundreds, advantages that only improved at over time. Couple that with offering these advantages to tribe "a" over rival tribe "b" and the Europeans could still have made a huge dent in a heavily populated American continent.

    Not to say your scenario isn't interesting or invalid, but some of the starting assumptions might have to be tweaked a bit. Perhaps the Black Death in Europe killed 50% of the population rather than 30%, so people were busy resettling Europe, or the wars of the Reconquista hadn't gone well at all for the Christians, limiting the amount of manpower available for exploration (tiny exploration parties got annihilated, and eventually everyone lost interest). Under these conditions, MesoAmerican civilizations would have had centuries of breathing room to expand and evolve.

    1. What you say sounds good. Plausible breathing room as well as the incentive to adapt the new technologies and become industrialized, those are the only two assumptions the scenario should require. Everything else would then flow logically from that.

  4. Incidentally, are comments coming through as threaded for anyone else?

  5. I imagine serious studies of Aztec society, culture and religion is needed to describe such an empire, so I can't comment on the 'realistic' part of things.

    But realism aside, I wonder if it wouldn't be more interesting to have the scientists and the religious more separated.
    One one side, the bloodthirsty religious seek to maintain order with their extremely brutal rules and rituals, and stay in control of the society.
    On the other side, the amoral scientists seek to expand their knowledge, capabilities and therefore power, to climb the ranks of society and sit on top.
    Many religious would be wary of the scientists because they tend to have no respect of the order in place, and their ambitions are seen as a menace.
    Many scientists would resent the religious because they try to control and contain what the scientists can do, and because they want to take their place.
    But the two groups wouldn't always be separated, and a brilliant enough scientist-priest would be a formidable power figure.
    And, of course, the population is caught between the merciless rituals and the amoral experiences (as in unit 731-amoral).
    IMHO, this may be more interesting than two religious factions, precisely because some people could be part of both, or have links with both, and both would have important and separated roles in running the Empire despite the inevitable rivalry.

    (Oh, and the Imperial Japanese probably didn't imagine having a mandate from Heaven as seen in the West; it was more nationalistic than religious fanaticism. In fact, Japanese tend to have a pretty open mind about religion, people practising several religions at once is far from unheard of.
    Not that it made much difference for the Chinese, though.)

  6. As far as the Japanese example goes, I know that there was certainly a religious component to go along with their national myth. They're descended from the sun goddess and all, gotta be better than all those foreign savages, right?

    As for the exact nature of the power factions within the Aztec society, I'm quite amenable to playing around with them. I thought I'd keep the science closer to the religion because a) that's now how we did it in the West and b) it might help explain how the society can remain both primitive and advanced at the same time.

    I'm also thinking of Japan in the 30's where radical junior officers would kill moderate politicians and then commit seppuku to atone for their impertinence. A sufficiently violent minority can cow many who might otherwise choose the reasonable course of action.

    I'll have to do some more reading on Meso-American cultures to get a good guess as to how they might develop through industrialization.

  7. It is more of a Japanese national myth than a religious dogma, I'd say. Also, if we look at the earlier wars of the XXe century, Westerners captured by the Japanese were very well treated, to the point that some decided to stay in Japan afterwards; despite having a religion still more or less forbidden there.
    (Later, the army recruited massively and often poorly educated people, so the culture of the officers was mostly lost, and prisoners were horribly treated because 'someone who surrenders instead of dying in battle has no honour', made worse by simplistic propaganda...)
    On the other hand, Chinese and Koreans had often the same religions than Japanese, but were treated line inferior human beings at best.
    Similarly, the Japanese militants who chose to help Chinese against the Empire were more called 'traitors to their race/country' than to any kind of god.
    It would require more research, but I think that our Westerner take on religion is nowhere near as universal as we think.
    But I digress...

    Back to the Aztec, I think that having non-religious scientists would work better, because it would define two better separated roles : the religious keep the Empire stable, the scientists make it evolve. Both are necessary for it to maintain itself, and while they are not exactly opposite, they will generate lots of friction (and thus interesting things); but one can be from both sides if good enough.
    Also, the problem with a religion-controlled science is that you are more limited to what the empire can or can't have as a scientific fields due to their dogmas. On the other hand, having competing amoral scientists, they are limited by their own rivalries (both between themselves and with other groups of power), meaning that any scientific field can expand or be restricted depending on the needs of the story.
    The religious don't have to believe in the need for the sacrifices to keep the Sun shining (though some may), neither the population (though the powers may want they do), because it's the sacrifices themselves who maintain the order, their justification is secondary. IIRC, studies showed that reminding people of the fear of death make them root more for the system, and whether you believe in the Sun thing or not, you won't say anything against it because if you do, you will be the next with your heart ripped out....
    And the scientists are not prevented from studying astronomy and then develop starships (though the religious, or the biologists may conspire against them if you don't want them to have starships).
    Put another way, both can be as ruthlessly pragmatic as you want, and thus make for a more efficient (and more threatening) system, that you can decide where it goes more easily.
    This is just a suggestion, of course, it would still work either way.

    Your parallel with the 30's Japanese officers is interesting, it shows how a society can reward ruthlessness and extremism, while making moderation both ineffective and suicidal.

    I'm very curious to see what stories can be made with such enemies, an evil Empire both completely ruthless, effective and believable enough make for great villains.

  8. I'll admit that wanting to make the scientists part of the religious order was a way of trying to make it different from our own experience. Science was an amateur affair for quite some time in the west and participated in equally by the clergy and the layman. Astronomers had suffered the most push-back from the Church but later geology and biology started showing just how wrong the dogma was and became new fronts in the war.

    I'd also like to play around with the idea of nostalgia ain't being what it used to be so there's some glaring differences between the national mythology and the actual history.

    One thing I'm looking at is how the Europeans appeared to the Romans when they were just barbarians and how they later developed. What changed, what didn't, what were the outside influences? Just like industrial-era Brits weren't running around in blue facepaint and the French weren't hacking people to death with axes, industrial Aztec will look a lot different while still being culturally removed from what we're used to in Europe.

    Good stuff on Aztec society.

    There's a lot of room for interpretation and also extrapolation between where they were then and where they'd be as an industrial state. But it looks like families have clans, clans make up the ruling factions of city-states, city-states form alliances between equals and subjugate inferiors. In Europe we saw shared culture as the nucleus around which greater states eventually congealed. German states became Germany, Italian states became Italy, Frankish states became France. The lines were not always clean so you could end up with states like Belgium which are an ethnic hodgepodge with no clear majority. And ethnic ties could be a convenient casus belli like the Sudetenland.

    So, if we indulge in some speculation... the competing religious flavors would probably consolidate into two or three big factions shared across multiple city-states.

    External threat from Europe could make some alliances of convenience last for generations whereas things might have balkanized if the Aztec were left to their own devices. The big question is why does the European fall apart while the United States somehow stays intact? Books have been written on that. Some claim there's a shared cultural identity in the US that Europe lacks but there's a compelling argument that there's multiple nations of North America and the US really isn't homogeneous at all.

    So, perhaps we can postulate that the centuries of threat represented by Europe and foreign powers fosters a sense of national identity across the entire Aztec society. So while they might feud internally to establish the pecking order, all disputes cease instantly at the border. "Me against my brother, my brother and I against that city-state over there, all of us Aztec against the foreigner."

  9. And with the constant cycle of conquest, it helps keep military glory hounds and avaricious clan elders looking outwards. You want a bigger piece of the pie, you either make the pie bigger or take someone else's piece. Adding new lands for conquest keeps making the pie bigger. The moment that ends, the threat of internal warfare becomes a lot more real.

    There's a strict division in society between nobles and commoner with the clans sometimes specializing in a craft or in commerce. The Japanese have keiretsu which are interlocking business relationships. They were the successor to zaibatsu which were family monopolies. The Koreans operate under a similar fashion.

    In the US, a weak federal government caused the Articles of Confederation to fail and the new Constitution made the feds far stronger. Perhaps the Aztec could make the simple fed work. Their federal government would fit the libertarian model with the main priority being the common defense. But the military forces would likely belong to the city-states. Probably the difficulties of military technology made an arsenal system impossible, where each city-state furnished their own weapons and field kit according to a common standard. You can bang out muskets and boots and uniforms that way but not tanks and aircraft.

    The other thought is that the pressures of industrial-scale war would require massive recruitment from the commoners which meant that the warrior nobility would pretty much have to serve as officers over a far greater number of conscripts. Warfare would no longer be the poetic adventure of capturing enemy noble-warriors for sacrifice in flower wars like their fathers did. (Conveniently forgetting that flower wars hadn't really been fought since the start of the wars against the paleskin invaders.)

    It would be more complicated than just arguing science vs. religion vs. nobles. You have competing noble houses and varying degrees of religiosity between the houses. The commoners have a very literal belief in the blood religion and the nobles have a personal responsibility for blood sacrifice -- they really have to do their part. Doing otherwise could see the people rebel. If we look at America, there's the Republican and Democratic parties. Both serve the plutocratic interests of the ownership class but the Republican leadership is losing control to their own true believers. No educated man could doubt evolution but not a single Republican presidential candidate would raise their hand to support it. The most radical fringe of the Republican base is setting the tone, the people who believe the president is a Muslim Kenyan socialist with a radical christian pastor who will turn this country over to the communist devil. (We know he's communist since he's red.) How many of these people exist nation-wide? Enough to control a party and the party is big enough to steer the national agenda.

    The most prominent nazi supermen turned up to 11 in scifi are SM Sterling's Drakka, alternate history South Africans who end up conquering the entire human race. The biggest criticism of the scenario is that they are completely perfect in their strategy and advance tech faster than their enemies who can't seem to do anything right. It's been said that wars are won by the side that make the fewest mistakes so, to make the Aztec death cult feel real, they need to have a lot of flaws and make a lot of mistakes but still be at a significant competitive advantage versus everyone else on their planet.

  10. One other thought is that guilds tend to a) guard their ideas jealously so there shouldn't be a broad sharing of ideas to spur scientific development and b) would potentially have greater political clout to suppress new developments, luddites with teeth. A culture too enamored with tradition and rejecting change seems like it would suffer the fate of China, surpassed by neighbors and conquered.

    If there's a complicated status system, then perhaps one guild could share a proprietary secret with the others, the same way modern companies license their patents. Only to keep it still feeling like foreign ideas, the fee isn't paid in money, it's paid in status. A guild whose inventions are used by all the other guilds in that field has the most honor. Say the Tecah guild that specializes in metal-working invents the blast furnace, it's now the Tecah furnace. All other metal-working guilds have to travel to the Tecah's city-state to learn the process. The Tecah's prestige among metal-working guilds increases, prestige among all the guilds in its own city-state increases, and a mixture of jealousy and ambition spurs the other guilds to come up with new ideas to compete. Net result, economy grows and prospers.

    I'd want to go with the China model if the story would be invaders who are vastly outmassed by size, population, and wealth of the giant empire but who nevertheless conquer it because the empire is inefficient, dysfunctional, and coasting on inertia.

  11. "and became new fronts in the war"

    I have to say I don't care much for the 'war' term, here. It reminds me too much of the people trying to create it today, and if there is such a 'war', as an agnostic I'm the neutral guard/future collateral damage right on the frontline...
    (I tend to use George Lemaître as a defence, but I fear that it misfire as the anti-theists attack him for being a clergyman and the fundamentalists for inventing the Big Bang theory.)

    You seem to have a nasty far right in the US. Here (in France) I doubt our political class as a whole is better, but we don't have much of a religious far right. In fact, Catholic priests are even instructed to not mix religion and politics, so the Church can keep a stance as neutral as possible.
    In fact, that a few Muslim imams called to vote for one of the two candidates left (we are in the middle of the presidential elections) caused quite a polemic.
    No, our far right is only the nationalist/isolationist kind. We do have a far left though, often revolutionary and very anti-religious (we invented the revolutionary far left, after all), to the point that the CRIF (a national Jewish organisation) just declared that they were not concerned by far-right anti-Semitism, but they were by far-left anti-Semitism.
    So I don't know if it is better.

    But I digress again...

    1. Whatever you want to call it, there is a conflict between religion and science. You don't need everyone to be in on it; a few bomb-throwers ruin it for everyone else. There's a lot of money to be made by stirring the shit.

      You might have a more jaundiced view when you see matters fully in the realm of science and fact that should be debated as such nevertheless having to mount an additional defense against religious attacks.

      "If the troubles from environmentalists cannot be solved in the jury box or at the ballot box, perhaps the cartridge box should be used."
      --James G. Watt, Reagan's Secretary of the Interior

      Other choice quotes.

      "We have every mixture you can have. I have a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple. And we have talent."
      Speaking before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on September 21, 1983, in reference to members of the U.S. Commission on Fair Market Value Policy for Federal Coal Leasing

      "My responsibility is to follow the Scriptures which call upon us to occupy the land until Jesus returns."


  12. The religion-controlled scientists are not that unheard of here, particularly with the image of the Church controlling the Sciences during the Middle Ages and after. Charlemagne precisely used the Church and its monasteries as global deposits for science and knowledge.
    On the other hand, amoral and highly politicised scientists competing in games of power would be closer to what happened in the USSR and to an extent the Third Reich (but up to eleven), which is less familiar to us.
    The idea of having guild-based intellectual propriety sounds like an interesting twist of the corporations game we know today. We could see the same kinds of lobbying (in far worse), creating both a dynamic economy/research and a merciless setting.
    Also, a guild-based system would allow for a quite stable state-alliance setting to work : not all city-states would build tanks, only one or two guilds (possibly trans-state) would build them and the states would buy from them. Then, you can have standards and a strong industry without political unity (a little like the European Union). It would work because politically, the states still go in the same direction (invading the rest of the world) and probably because one or two states would be dominant (forming a sort of hegemony, like the Aztec Empire was).
    Then, you could keep the city-state the Aztec had and make it work in the industrial age.

    1. That's what I was thinking. Because we have an end goal of "imperial death cult with high technology, high-efficiency, and a fanatic drive to win," we have to default towards the ideas that support it. The biggest argument against that idea is that expanding empires usually mellow, grow decadent, and hit natural limits of growth and stability. Many of the most notable empires in history were assembled by cult of personality types and no successor could keep the ball rolling. Alexander's empire fell apart immediately upon his death, royal France probably peaked with Louis XIV and there's a whole host of reasons why the revolution eventually came. The argument I've heard that makes sense is a healthy state is like a living body with the agents of decay in place but held at bay by the healthy immune system; only when the body is sick can it succumb. Likewise with the state you will always have revolutionaries and malcontents but only when a state is weak and sickly can they can enough leverage to overthrow it. Lenin would have made no headway against Peter the Great.

      If we get less dramatic than world empires, just looking at human organizations in general, there's a marked tendency towards greater incompetence through time. Peter Principle, bureaucratic bloat, scaling problems with size. A rigorous system of internal competition might help weed out incompetent leaders. Or maybe the connected ones will just rig the game to keep cronies in power.

      Still, many empires have had a good run. The Roman Empire was founded in 27 BC, lasted in the West until 476 and persisted as the Byzantine until 1453. The Republic was founded 509 BC, the Kingdom in 753 BC. So over two thousand years if you measure from the founding of the kingdom to the fall of Constantinople, under two thousand if you only measure from the Republic. That's one hell of a stretch of time.

      When I write up the revised premise for Into the Void I'll explain how I imagine us to have a tech plateau which will make for some relatively consistent technology over long periods of time.

  13. About their strengths and weaknesses, on top of my head :

    - They have a very dynamic economy and science, meaning that when things work, they will have extremely fast technological development, and an enormous industrial power.

    - On the other hand, it makes things unstable : they can have violent economic crisis, even droughts. But as they can both fall and recover quickly, the enemies can't keep up in the long term.

    - Their science may be advanced, what is developed depend of show-off, politics and shady conspiracies more than pragmatic effectiveness. So they may tend to have ill-adapted, over-engineered or even non-functional stuff (a problem the Third Reich had). The pissed off military guys may pressure the scientists to not do that too much, though.

    - This one is a little cliché, but could work : in case of drought (because of economic crisis or in the battlefield), they will be less reluctant to use cannibalism to survive. I could even see some nations or indigenous tribes using that against them, voluntarily poisoning themselves or getting sick before surrendering if they think they will be eaten, though next time the Aztec may be even more brutal to make an example.

    - Diplomatically, they are at disadvantage : even if someone wants to discuss with them, they would have to convince the state separately, and one state accepting to discuss with foreign powers would be seen as 'weak' by the others...

    - Related, people facing them would be more desperate and prone to use desperate means. If one ever develops nukes, they would use it without hesitations...

    - If they kept compulsory education, it's a big advantage : their population is more educated (better soldiers, more scientists...), but also indoctrinated in their childhood. And every male having a military training, they can massively draft if they need it.

    - With how they work, if some time pass without any conquest, internal distensions may grow very fast, so they could be prone to civil war, until one group manages to dominate the others, but they would have to begin conquests again right after that, or new dissensions would appear. This weakness may be quite a problem, because if they loose their forward momentum, the entire system could crumble. So they probably only have short periods without any successful conquests. It would probably be better to have several fronts at any given time, then, so at least one of them is always successful.

    - Seeing how they enslave/sacrifice conquered populations, they will have to send their own population to replace it : while the end result is better 'assimilated' new territories, there will be more time where massive military occupation and only low-level productions (slave labour isn't the most efficient, even more for high-skill work). So they may easily overextend, particularly with their appetite of conquests.

    - To repopulate those conquered places, they have to have a high demographic rate. Which means both easiness to send massive armies and chronic problems of overpopulation. Those problems would call for conquest (to send the extra population), war and mass sacrifices (to kill the extra population).

    - Their value of human life being probably very low, their scientists probably use many human experiments, which may help them greatly for some fields of research. The implications of this one could be quite unfortunate, though.

    Here are some of the strengths I can think of, hope my ramblings can give you some more ideas.

    1. I'll take your points in order.
      --Dynamic economy and science, agreed.

      --Unstable, agreed. But one thing I'm thinking of is for them to use flower wars internally to settle disputes. The flower war is a matter of capturing enemies for sacrifice. In history it was not exactly ritual warfare but internally it could become such. "Fight the warrior, don't break the infrastructure." Of course, it's possible something like this could break down and become all-out war. I think it would be realistic to have this happen once or twice in the past and for the damage to be severe enough that there's a very strong inclination to avoid it in the future.

      --Show-off science. Possibly. I'm thinking that there will be competing schools of thought between "awesome yet somewhat impractical" and "simple, boring, effective." The original culture certainly had a lot of pageantry but I can't help but think constant serious warfare against enemies that know how to fight would keep them practical. I think ornamentation and ostentation would be more the result of long periods of peace or ineffectual enemies. Granted, the Third Reich's blunder designs came about in the middle of a world war but were also the result of having a complete idiot in absolute control. Seeing as the Nazis lost, they're probably not the best model for an effective evil empire.

      --drought cannibalism. Possibly. The initial empire was all about food security. Even if there is a drought, food can be imported from areas with good production.

      --Diplomatic disadvantage. Depends on how they treat their federal government. I like the idea of following the Godfather model: "Fredo, I love you but don't ever take sides against the family again." I'm thinking internally they could be as fractious as the Greeks but they'll set aside all differences for the public face. The inner workings of Aztec society should be a black box mystery for everyone outside, thus making them scarier. I think the biggest disadvantage is that they'll have no subtlety to their diplomacy. It'll be like the Mongols: "You may submit now and live as vassals or we'll kill you, burn your city to the ground, then divert a river through the ruins so there will be no trace left. No pressure, take your time, we'll wait." This aggression will push them into fights early, often, and regardless of whether they're ready. It just usually comes out in their favor due to fanaticism.

      --Compulsory education and military training, yes.

  14. --Lack of conquest = civil war. Yes. That's the dynamic I'm thinking of. The Empire must have war, must have new territory, cannot abide peace. And if we imagine that a healthy food supply encourages fecundity and there's not a corresponding price penalty for additional kids that we see in the west that limits parents to one or two kids, we could see their population numbers exploding like India and China. Lots and lots of people that need proper killing in good, old-fashioned wars.

    --Over-extent in conquering new territories. Possible, but also desirable. The civil war pressure would build when there's a lot of ambitious young men and no place for them to direct their interests. You have a freshly depopulated land, go forth, young man, and claim your territory. Move forward a generation or two where the land is populated and younger sons have no prospects, they're going to want a new war.

    --Overpopulation comment. Yes, exactly what I'm thinking, you said it first but I only read it later. :)

    --Value of human life being low. They value it, just not in ways we would agree with. "What are you saying we don't value human life? Are we sacrificing cats and dogs to the gods? No! We'er offering still-beating human hearts to the gods. When you care enough to send the very best..." There could be religious proscriptions with experimentation on Aztec even as they have no problem with using vassals and slaves.

    --One other thought I had was with just how far they'd take tribal decorations. We've got modern primitives in the body-modding community. FREAKS. They're getting inspiration from the primitive tribes around the world. Ear plugs, tongue-splittings, piercings with hoops, spikes, sub-dermal implants to create bumps and ridges beneath the skin, full-body tattoos, etc. Zombie Boy got his whole body tatted to look like a corpse, his face done up to look like a skull. How far would the warriors go with this?

    Funny thought. If I wanted to try to figure out the kind of alien culture that could produce the Predator, this could be pretty close. High technology with primitive savagery.

    One other thought -- the priests are going to have to do some juggling to explain how the physical world isn't literally also the religious world. We can believe the sun is a god right up to the point where the scientists are looking at the spectrographic lines and can tell you god consists of three quarters hydrogen, one quarter helium and 1.69% assorted heavier elements. I'm thinking that the priests will have to come up with a metaphoric dualism along the lines of Catholic transubstantiation. "Yeah, it's bread and wine. I mumbled some magic words, it's still bread and wine if you use your devil science to analyze them but it's really the blood and body of Christ!" That way they can recognize things in the natural world for what they are while still retaining the religious significance.

    Thanks for the reply! Good conversation. :)