In August of 2012 I asked you why your villain is bent on world domination. Just as villains need motivation—we need to understand why that character is doing what he, she, or it is doing—governments don’t operate in a moral, ethical, or political bubble either. So if you’re designing an evil empire—or a kingdom of peace and plenty—that same question stands: why?

What motivates the empire, the kingdom, the interstellar federation, etc.?

This is a scan of the actual book I’m reading: an Ace edition, ©1959.

This is a scan of the actual book I’m reading: an Ace edition, ©1959.

Technology has moved rapidly forward in the last hundred years or so, and so has politics, though arguably at a slower pace. Some of us are old enough, for instance, to remember the Cold War and Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire,” the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. As a fan of “golden age” science fiction, I tend to read a lot of SF that came out of the Cold War years, and though I’ve encountered a few examples of authors who found a way to rise above the propaganda of their day to take an at least slightly more liberal view, most tend to work from the prevailing “them vs. us” thinking.

In the February book pulled from my SF grab-bag, The War Against the Rull, author A.E. Van Vogt imagines a future in which humanity is locked in a perpetual war with the eponymous Rull, and the hero struggles with recruiting other intelligent aliens to help in the fight, before they’re recruited by the Rull.

Though I’ll admit I’m still a couple chapters from the end, it doesn’t seem as though Mr. Van Vogt was willing to break out of the Cold War mentality prevalent in the mid 1950s, when the original stories that were later combined to make this novel were written.

Here’s how Van Vogt describes this future Cold War from human hero Jamieson’s point of view:

Like all highly developed human beings who had a galactic outlook on life and the universe, Jamieson knew that for a hundred years “civilization” had had a slanted definition: a race was civilized to the extent it was able to participate in the defense against the Rulls.

From a practical point of view, no other definition could be considered.

To me that feels eerily similar to former President George W. Bush’s September 20, 2001 statement: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

Though that had some traction in the days immediately following 9/11, America’s allies—and other countries—more or less ignored that toothless declaration.

So if Van Vogt’s future Earth mirrors the U.S. then what of his version of the USSR?

The first time we actually get into the head of a Rull is in Chapter Twenty-two of twenty-five chapters, or page 191 of 221 pages. Up till then it’s been a one-sided struggle against an enemy as faceless as it is remorseless. But finally we see what brings the Rulls in contention with humanity:

He had come in his great anger to discover what was wrong. Many years before, the command had been given: Expand into the Second Galaxy. Why were they-who-could-not-be-more-perfect so slow in carrying out these instructions? What was the nature of the two-legged creatures whose multitudinous ships, impregnable planetary bases and numerous allies had fought those-who-possessed-Nature’s-supreme-nervous-system to an impasse?

This makes the Rull more like the Nazis than the Soviets in that they clearly see themselves as better than their enemy on a primal level. They are the perfect sentient being, so all the rest of the sentient beings are pointless. This is a sociopathic culture.

But I hope now, in our more enlightened age, we can be a bit more discerning, more thoughtful in our creation of empires, evil and otherwise.

Yes, Nazi propaganda was full of the superiority of the Aryan master race, and US propaganda during the Cold War saw the Soviets as a faceless, intractable enemy that sought to eliminate individuality—to turn us into “pod people” like we saw in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

But the fact is that the Nazi regime, the Soviet Union, and the United States of America in their various incarnations, grew, spread, and operated for reasons that rarely if ever matched either their own propaganda or the anti-propaganda of their enemies.

Governments exist in the name of money.

They control money, raise money, spend money, steal money, horde money, print money, and so on. Sometimes they do that in subtle and even benign ways, sometimes they march us off to war in order to go get someone else’s money (in the form of oil, property, gold, salt, spices, etc.).

Governments don’t just go to war because they’re “evil.” They don’t just go to war to “destroy evil,” either. Sometimes, as happened in World War II, America managed to take the place of the British and French Empires as the global trade leader and defeat a force of horrifying, genocidal evil. Win-win.

But then what was accomplished a couple decades later in Viet Nam?

So your evil empire has spanned the galaxy . . . why? They squeeze every last resource out of occupied systems . . . but why? What is it that the aliens invading Earth actually want? In some stories we’re told they’ve come here for water, but there’s water all over the place in the universe, and it certainly seems as though it would be easier to melt a Kuiper Belt object than to invade an inhabited world, especially one inhabited by a habitually warlike species. In one movie they came here for gold.

Why would they want gold?

Frankly, we don’t really even want gold anymore—not enough to go to war over, anyway.

So then . . . why?

And just as with villains, it’s not nearly enough to just say that an empire is “evil.” If a villain is someone whose motivations we understand but whose methods we find abhorrent, that same criteria should be applied to an evil empire.



—Philip Athans



About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Sometimes a good enough reason seems to be fear. Just the perception of a threat can be enough to begin hostilities, although you could argue that even these are rooted in economics. In SF, I suppose that any particular resource you might think of will be in higher quantity anywhere else. However, it’s not clear that habitable planets are in particularly high supply. Land disputes are at the center of so many wars. Of course, these are economic at their root, and so it circles back around to that. In my current project I concluded that that it’s unnecessary to have a world-dominating villain or empire. Plenty of excellent stories exist without. In my case the ‘bad-guys’ are motivated by something between economic reasons, and also a bit of revenge. That is, the good guys have what the bad guys do not. War ensues. Anyhow, thank you for this article, I enjoyed it.

  2. Ian Dennis says:

    Having a good motive for the “evil empire” is important- as well as realizing that most “evil empires” don’t consider themselves to be “evil empires”*. There’s something to be said for giving the “evil empire” a reason to think that they, themselves, are the good guys.

    *Three evil empires in one sentence! I feel like I’ve set a record! 😉

  3. James says:

    Human empires will no doubt be as sociopathic as the Rull. Oh, we’ll have our favorite friends, the interstellar dolphins and dogs, and our preferred enemies, whom we treat like wolves. But others will be considered plagues, and treated with a ferocity not matched by the average Nazi in his worst, drug induced rage.

    Not every human action is understandable by humans. E.G.: why does one person devote himself to God and another to heathenism: do we really know, or have we just accepted it as fact? Aliens perceive things we cannot possibly imagine, and so are many orders-of-magnitude harder to predict. As intelligence increases, this increases geometrically. Yet so long as their weirdness doesn’t solve the dramatic question for our heroes, I’m more than willing to allow for inscrutable sentient beasts.

    So, I have many arguments why it’s not necessary to have a motive for the evil empire. It is, however, nice any time you can. We really need stories where we face an evil empire and discover that they are devoted, not to stupidity and destruction, but to an objective which we can empathize or even help with!

    Because that’s an insight that we really need. Maybe their motive is nothing more than “I thought you were the evil empire out to destroy everything good in the universe!”

  4. Sean Durity says:

    I think you introduce an interesting metaphysical question here. Are people/aliens inherently good or evil or some kind of blank slate? If we are, as Christian theologians would say, fallen creatures, then an evil empire is not so hard to imagine. It is a society that has just followed its natural tendencies. It seems as though you implicitly understand this because you see the love of money as the root of all kinds of evil (as the Scriptures say). Thus, we need a hero to come along and confront such evil (and their own shortcomings) in order to win the day. It echoes back to our original design and purpose.

    Of course, if you want to say that we are inherently good, then you really need to work at the motivation for evil. It either needs to be a different way of looking at good…or some kind of perversion.

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