Realism. In this case I am not referring to making a story realistic; or maybe there’s a confluence? No, the realism I would like to discuss today is that theory of international relations that values power.

Realism is somewhat of a broad term, as their can be many distinct variations underneath it. But the thing that ties together realism with neoclassical realism and all the others is the value of power. If power and the pursuit of power is absolute, it will drive many different actors to behave in similar ways. Today we are going to break down one of my personal favorites, John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, and look at the geopolitics of his universe. But before we can do that we need to define a few terms.

We’ve already touched a bit on realism, but I’d like to flush it out. Yes it’s true that realism values power above all else, but there are some other assumptions that go into it. For example realism assumes that at the state level, and by this I mean nation state, there is anarchy. Not “Anarchy in the UK,” but simply the absence of a higher power that holds authority over them. So basically, you go up the chain until you find nations interacting with each other. At this point, there is no higher authority and so there is anarchy.

And now to the fun part. How does realism drive the actions of humanity in John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War? First you have to understand the main premise of the story. And fair warning, I’m not going to try to remove a lot of spoilers.

Imagine! It’s some large indeterminate time in the future, humanity has expanded to the stars. And not just expanded slightly, but expanded to the point where we are colonizing planets as soon as we have bodies to put on them. The human Empire spans thousands of light years and we are very much not alone in those light years. Around every star lurks danger. The number of colonizable planets is much lower in comparison with the species that are vying for those planets.

Humanity’s approach to this has been to declare war on pretty much everyone. As long as they can get ahold of the planet and populate it and keep it, it becomes theirs. This is a pretty much textbook application of realism. In this case the role of nation states in international relations theory have been elevated to species, but everything else is the same. Control over habitable planets is power, and so a large standing army is necessary to keep it. But where do you get that large of an army?

In Scalzi’s books, they have managed to learn how to reduce the effects of aging even on someone who is quite old. In this way, they can send somebody who has lived a long and full life out to the stars as a soldier. This neatly side steps the issue of having an experienced troops, however opens up a morass of moral and ethical questions. Mainly, because Earth is kept in the dark. That’s right, Earth is not the seat of humanity, but is in fact a resource of fresh and willing bodies. Either a garden or an oil deposit, depending on your outlook.

Throughout the series humans run into many other alien civilizations. Some are downright incomprehensible and wildly advanced. Others are more competitive as peers. Let’s call them Space China and Space Russia, for lack of a better modern day example. They are more than capable of denying humanity access to planets and even provide a few pointed military encounters to prove it.

Humanity’s efforts to secure more planets and more growth result in them aligning with some alien species, but generally doing whatever they need to to continue to expand their power and influence. Because I don’t want to spoil the entire story, let’s just say that there are many different forces at play both within the human government as well as the aliens that they are at various times allied with or fighting against.

The most interesting geopolitical piece to this is an alliance of species. Basically, Salzi has created space NATO. And thus, we see an interesting collision with another great school of international relations theory; constructivism. Now whether you draw the line between this league of species and constructivism or liberalism, it is fundamentally different from the realist approach that humanity takes.

In constructivism, the underlying assumption is that the interactions between nation states take on the form and character of interactions between people, because people are in fact what makes up the nation. Constructivism is a powerful explanatory tool, as interactions between people can be seen to explain things like the Arab Spring, trade relations between China and Russia resulting in the one belt one road initiative, and many other areas are all explained by human interaction. The only thing that constructivism does not do is provide a solid basis from which to predict future behavior.

John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War is a fantastic and high-speed romp through the icebergs of politics from a great point of view. I hope that this breakdown and application of some basic theories of international relations has given you a window into what makes the worlds and universes of science fiction truly compelling. Whether your story is about a person or a nation, remember that they should act in a way that is logically consistent with their values. Luckily, whether they value power, cooperation, or personal interaction, you can lean on the shoulders of some giants to make it as realistic as you can. Happy storytelling, and let me know what you think in the comments below!