When I was a child, I read the Foundation series and it left a great impression on me. (It must have done; collapsing galactic empires is one of my favourite SF themes, both as a reader and a writer.) The sheer scale of the story impressed me, as did the concept of making a new start and forging a new world from the ashes of the old.
In hindsight, of course, the series has problems. Psychohistory stretches my suspension of disbelief past the breaking point – the Mule hardly needed to be superhuman to pose a significant threat – and the ethos of the Second Foundation is chilling. They are, to all intents and purposes, a ruling elite that intends to slip into power when the Second Empire is established, using psychohistory and mental manipulation to ensure that resistance is not only futile, but inconceivable. (Gaia, in Foundation’s Edge, charges that their Second Empire will be held in a kind of living death, a judgement I cannot help supporting.)
Historically, of course, it isn’t really that easy to preserve an empire. As I see it, Empires start off by taking advantage of their natural assets and then have to work harder and harder to maintain their position. The British Empire is a case in point; at birth, the British maintained their control of the sea, giving them a significant advantage over France and other European Empires. (The one time this slipped, during the American Revolution, the results were bad.) However, as the years wore on, the British had to work harder and harder to keep their position – and eventually gave up. Britain simply couldn’t afford to stay in the race.
This can be magnified by the governing system. Empires are generally run for the benefit of the rulers, rather than the ruled. Governments generally don’t want outsiders coming in unless they are fully integrated, which tends to ensure that the ruling class (however defined) decays into ignorance and incompetence. Imperial China is a good example of this particular problem; the Chinese Empire was completely unable to realise that the ‘Foreign Devil Barbarians’ were actually vastly superior to their empire. Indeed, the few Chinese who attempted to come to grips with this fact were defeated by their own people, not by the outsiders.
The fall of an Empire can be disastrous, no matter how unpleasant the Empire was or how many people welcomed its departure. Empires tend to maintain a monopoly of force in their territory and thus ensure peace; the sudden disappearance of that power can lead to civil unrest and outright conflict between the Empire’s former subjects. The collapse of the British Empire, for example, led to considerable bloodshed in India, Palestine and Africa. Even with prior preparation for the transfer of power (as in India) the process can be incredibly rocky and establishing new governments can take time. Indeed, the empire might not have established local governments that can take over. (To some extent, most of Africa was better off under the European empires than it is now under home-grown tyrants.)
A sudden power vacuum can also attract outside powers. To some extent, this happened to Imperial China; the decline of the Chinese Empire drew in the European, American and Japanese powers. It also happened with the USSR (an empire in all, but name); as it weakened, NATO moved westward, something bitterly resented by the Russian government. And, of course, the barbarian advance into the Roman Empire is perhaps the strongest example.
While some historians are fond of claiming that there was no real shift in living standards after the fall of the Roman Empire, much of the evidence suggests otherwise. As Rome withdrew from the outer territories (including Britain), barbarians flooded into the abandoned territories – a series of events that included the eventual Sack of Rome. Nor is this really true of any other Empire’s withdrawal from power. The decline and fall of an empire – and its replacement by a new order – can be hellish.
But it can make a great setting for a story.
In the universe of The Empire’s Corps, humanity has established a massive empire that stretches over a third of the galaxy. Humans are alone in the universe, but there are many different kinds of human; baseline humans, genetically-engineered humans, cyborg humans, all part of the Empire or living on the margins. The Empire, which has been in existence for over three thousand years (following its unification of the human race by force), is dying, a victim of its own success. And its leadership are unwilling to take the steps necessary to deal with the crisis before it overwhelms them.
This is a common historical pattern. To borrow (and probably misquote) a Japanese expression, the first generation of government is always supremely competent, the second is good enough … and the third is incompetent. This was certainly the pattern in the early years of the Roman Empire. Augustus Caesar was extremely competent, Tiberius was good enough … and Caligula was a mad incompetent. Bad luck certainly played its role; young men who Augustus groomed to take their place in government died with astonishing regularity, leaving Tiberius as the only remaining candidate. (The Romans blamed this on his mother, who was accused of poisoning the others, although the truth may never be known.)
Put in plain English, the first government was smart enough to take power and hold it; the second learned from the first … and the third, knowing nothing of the struggles of the first, allowed its understanding of power to slip.
This is partly the reason why aristocracy and monarchy are such poor forms of government. A lucky country may end up with a good monarch (a good monarch may not be a good man) and then discover that his son is a bad monarch. James I of England was capable; Charles I was so incompetent that he united much of the country against him, sparking a civil war that ended with his execution. (To some extent, Richard Cromwell also embodies this historical process.) Most importantly of all, there is no easy way to remove an incompetent monarch. Revolution is the only answer.
By the time of the series, it is already too late to save the Empire.
Instead, the story focuses on the people who struggle to keep some aspect of civilisation alive.
One group of Terran Marines is sent out to battle insurgents on a world called Avalon, where they are effectively abandoned as the final collapse begins. The Empire’s Corps, No Worse Enemy and Semper Fi follows their adventures as they struggle to defeat the insurgents, face pirates scavenging in the ruins of empire and face another successor state rising from the ruins to cast a baleful light over the galaxy.
When The Bough Breaks goes back to Earth and charts the final collapse of the planetary government and the end of Empire, despite all the heroes can do to prevent it.
The Outcast (newly released) focuses on a trader struggling to survive as interstellar trade slowly grinds to a halt, threatening to bring down galactic civilisation once and for all.
It is my intention to have the even-numbered books following the Marines on Avalon and odd-numbered books exploring different aspects of the universe. (Suggestions welcome.) I feel that the stand-alone books add depth to the series, instead of just focusing on the Marines (although When The Bough Breaks also features Marines, if on Earth rather than Avalon).
The series has its own page on my site where you can download samples (10+ chapters) of each book for free. And the Kindle books are DRM-free!