A [recent comment] on Reddit by Fyeo addressed the question within the Star Trek universe “How do the Romulans, Klingons, Cardassians match our numbers militarily?” Fyeo’s answer came really down to two things:
> One of the big things to be aware of is one of quality and purpose. Going back to what I said earlier about science ships, that our ships are built for science as well of defence does mean that the vast majority of our fleet units have a disproportionate amount of internal volume committed to non-combat purposes as compared to combatants from other species. Does that mean our ships are inferior in combat? No, it simply means we carry into combat significant flexible capabilities that may not be applicable to all combat scenario.
> The best example of the above is that our ships have sensor and data processing (i.e. fire control) capability that are generally far better than ships of similar size, but those advantages are not always decisive in combat and our ship suffer a mass penalty from carrying that extra capability vis-a-vis more weapons. On the other hand, our focus on exploration also means that even our smaller ships generally have much, much longer endurance, better shielding, redundancy and self-repair capability than their non-Federation peers, which makes our units less logistically dependent.
> The other big thing to consider is that even though we are numerically superior to the other major powers, we are also by far the largest in terms of size of space. To exercise space control over such a large region and to support our scientific and exploration mandate means that even a fleet of our size is very thinly stretched, not to mention the demands diplomatic and crisis response events place upon us.
> The combination of our multi-purpose fleet and quantitative advantage means that we tend to match the larger, combat oriented vessels (so-called warships) of our opponents by bringing more ships to the fight when feasible.
To Fyeo’s comment PubliusPontifex added:
> The overall economic superiority of the Federation due to their larger size is what led to the many indirect Romulan and Cardassian strategies levied against them. In a 1-to-1 fight no other power could match them over the long term
What I was struck by was just how closely this description, of a diverse and large economy that is thus able to overwhelm (eventually) all comers mapped onto Iain Banks’ [Culture]:
The Culture is characterized by being a post-scarcity society (meaning that its advanced technologies provide practically limitless material wealth and comforts for everyone for free, having all but abolished the concept of possessions), by having overcome almost all physical constraints on life (including disease and death) and by being an almost totally egalitarian, stable society without the use of any form of force or compulsion, except where necessary to protect others.
Banks makes this point in the first novel of the series, [_Consider, Phlebas_], when the Idarans make the mistake of thinking that their early battle successes means they are winning the war when in fact the Culture is simply delaying them while they crank up their war machine. Most readers of Banks will recognize that this historical moment is referenced several times across a number of the Culture novels. It acts as a kind of caveat to those who might mistake the Culture’s openness and *laissez faire* attitude for weakness. It’s a version of “you won’t like me when I’m angry.”
In that regard, it echoes Admiral Yamamoto’s, apocryphal it turns out, observation at Pearl Harbor: “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” (There is no definitive documentation to attribute this quote to him, though there are two bits of evidence that bear this out as an accurate reflection of his thinking: first, that after the successful attack, he was in fact depressed; and, second, after the war he rebuffed those who thought that a military victory “in a protracted war against an opponent with as much of a population and industrial advantage as the United States possessed” meant anything. [See the Wikipedia [entry] on the quotation for more.])
Both the Star Trek and the Culture series begin with this great economy already in place. We get occasional bits of back story, but there is no real sense of how it formed, and it also seems to be the case that once it reaches a certain size, a certain mass and momentum, it is perpetual. It can be shaken, but in the end it will always right itself, patch its holes, and be stronger and wiser for the experience.
Many of us like our fiction that way. In am uncertain world it’s nice to imagine a place where not only is there certainty, but that certainty is, well, certain. Even permanent in some fashion.
I draw in the analogy to the United States purposefully, and I was tempted to draw in the British Empire as well, but I was not prepared to do the kind of research that that gesture would have required. Instead, I only note that the only things that seems certain, when it comes to time, is change. And that perhaps one reason to like the Star Trek universe and the Culture universe is that they are reflections of us, but the reflections distort in two dimensions: first, they reflect mostly our better qualities, and, second, they make us longer lived than we really have any reason to expect.
This last point makes me wonder about the *other* end of these eras: the end. One of the things to be admired about _Babylon 5_ was that it tried to imagine what the end of an era looked like and how confusing the transition must be.
[recent comment]: http://www.reddit.com/r/AskScienceFiction/comments/16vuqm/star_trek_how_do_the_romulans_klingons/c7zuypm
[_Consider, Phlebas_]: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/031600538X/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=johnlaudun-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=031600538X