In Elite Dangerous, I play an Imperial citizen. That is, I’m a subject of the Empire of Achenar, and of Her Majesty Emperor Arissa of the House of Duval – she in whose glory we bask, et cetera and so forth.
I got asked a question today by another player, and it’s one that has two slightly different answers to it. The question was from a citizen of the Alliance of Independent Worlds, and it went:
“What attracted you the Empire?”
Well, answer number one is a simple one, which I will answer in character:
I was born there, and I’ve never felt drawn enough by anywhere else to move.
Which is not to say I’m in total, 100% admiration of the Empire. I mean I wouldn’t say it out loud, obviously, but there are a lot of ways in which I think the Empire could… you know… improve. Like, for e.g, the way it’s run by hereditary nobles and the whole thing is an exercise in back-scratching/stabbing and currying favour. In that, it’s not that dissimilar to the Federation – except that the Empire does it out in the open and doesn’t hide it behind a flimsy veneer of democracy.
A lot of Imperials point out that actually our system has worked just fine for nigh-on a thousand years – and, depending on your metric, it pretty much has. It’s not been pretty. It’s not been particularly moral. But it has worked – and for many people throughout the Bubble that’s justification enough for a state to do what it does. As long as it’s their state…
Now me, I’ve never been particularly besotted with flags and banners, with borders and the various other mechanisms humanity uses to keep itself divided and fighting. I have no truck with all that rubbish. You’re born where you’re born – doesn’t necessarily make the nation that controls where you’re born a good one, a moral one, or a justifiable one. The Empire, on the whole, isn’t a particularly great example of a moral state.
Which kind of raises the question of why I’ve remained (relatively) loyal to it all these years. That is, why I’ve never moved despite being freer to do so than most Imperial subjects could ever dream of being. Well, it’s not so much a case of wanting to be where I am as not really wanting hard enough to be anywhere else.
Where would I go?
Obviously if I were to move, I wouldn’t waste my time on the Federation: I’ve no especial desire to sacrifice myself to some ravening corporate machine. If I’m going to live under an oppressive, controlling regime I’d rather it be one that wears its tyranny proudly, on its sleeve, than one that tries to disguise it with banal and brain-melting media chaff and the constant drone of consumerist compulsion.
“But you should at least go and visit Earth! It’s the cradle of humanity!”
Let me think…
Fuck Earth. I don’t see what’s so special about it. Sure, for a while, between the original spark of life in that… supo primitiva? That ‘primordial soup’… and me, there was a period where humanity hadn’t yet worked out how to fly between the stars. And by all accounts it was a godsdamned benighted several thousand years: constant war, plague, famine, injustice, war, crime, environmental destructiveness, war, injustice and finally WAR. The WAR that nearly exterminated us before we got anywhere near me.
Anyway the point is there’s nothing on Earth that I want to see or spend time thinking about.
Still, though – that’s hardly a good reason to stick with the Empire. What about the Alliance?
Well, I’ve been there. It’s nice. Some of it. They at least make an effort to be democratic. Seeing a lot of individual, independent nations working together in voluntary cooperation does, actually, make me feel quite… What’s the opposite of disheartened? Heartened? Doesn’t sound right. Enheartened? Fuck, I don’t know. Anyway, that.
But honestly, the main reason I don’t leave the Empire is simply this: I don’t feel any compelling reason to. Yes, it’s a crapsack of privilege and fawning, obsequious-yet-backstabbing fuckery. But so’s the Federation, and honestly, from what I’ve seen of humans thus far, I don’t see any reason to suppose that the Alliance, or any of the non-aligned independent worlds, is any better. At best it’ll just be better hidden. People gonna people, you know? Far better to just take my little ship and vanish off into the Black, and stay out there as much as I can. I set foot on land, or on space station decks, only to sell shit, make repairs, buy food, pick up jobs, get paid, buy things. That’s it. This is not loyalty, it’s true. It’s kind of inertia. I just can’t be bothered with the hassle of defecting.
And besides, when I do arrive at space stations and settlements in the Empire – and even in some worlds of the Federation if they’re feeling diplomatic enough – they call me “Your Grace” and I get a little bit of fawning for myself – even though we all know my particular title means shit in the formal social order of the Empire.
Yeah, maybe it’s pathetic and shallow. But I’ve never claimed to be anything else.
I live in the Empire, after all.
Out of character, this was an interesting question for me too. Much of my second answer relates to the general theme of my previous post.
The reason I picked the Empire is because it’s most consistent with that theme of characters – or real people, for that matter – who are raised and conditioned into a certain society or tradition, but on growing older or reaching a particular point in their lives, or undergoing a certain experience, come to realise that the structure they’ve been brought up into, or designed into, or built into, or whatever – the nature that’s become an otherwise ingrained part of them – is not what they thought it was. And the person (entity, being) they’ve come to be is not the person they want to be.
In this case, the Empire is not ‘bad’, as such. It is, of course, morally nebulous, as it’s presumably intended to be. Yes, it is an absolute monarchy – but its citizens in many cases are still treated quite well. Yes, it has a system of ‘slavery’ – but dig in and you find that the system the Empire chooses to call slavery… isn’t. Not really. It’s more a kind of debt-management and criminal penal system that uses (usually temporary) indentured labour – but demands a pretty high standard of care for said labourers from those ‘owning’ them. I mean you may well still be morally opposed to any such system, and I could see why – but the point is the Empire isn’t designed to be ‘the bad guys’. Each of the superpowers in Elite Dangerous is designed to be attractive in some ways and repellent in others – even if in the case of the Alliance the objections can only really be that it’s disorganised and riven with bickering and disputes. Still, the Empire is probably – just – the furthest away from the kind of state I could support in the real world; very closely followed by the Federation. Doubtless the ideal ‘Elite Home’ for my real-world self would be a mature democracy somewhere in the Alliance – but that’s why the Empire is so interesting. It puts me somewhere that’s familiar to me – I grew up in, or at least close alongside, a world of what C3PO calls ‘etiquette and protocol’, and it formed a certain part of my upbringing – albeit still fairly peripherally. But in my adult years I’m not at all blind to the privilege of that world and find myself, admittedly with a degree of regret because of that connection in childhood, quite fiercely opposed to the basic principles on which that world is built. And although I might not choose to take up torches and pitchforks to overthrow the remnants of that world, I certainly would gladly see it fade away – even if it did so with help.
So playing an Imperial is interesting to me. The world of the baskers is at once familiar yet alien, it creates a certain sense of nostalgia, but at the same time conjures a sort of grotesqueness that the adult me would like to distance herself from.