Barbarians you want, barbarians you get. My last post left itself open to a threadjacking, and the commenters were quick to oblige. Barbarian hordes 1, temperate and indecisive, 0.
First of all, what do we mean by 'barbarians?' There turns out to be more than one definition. In comments on the last post I used it in a quasi-technical sense to mean nomadic or semi-nomadic peoples who lived on the fringes of the agrarian age world, and periodically invaded and laid it waste, or so the 'civilized' survivors claimed. But there turn out to be two other relevant definitions, at least.
A second meaning is gross violators of civilized norms, a sense of the word in which the last century produced more and worse barbarians than any before it. This is relevant to conflict because it gave us World War II, enough said.
In the beginning the word means simply people who did not speak Greek, and applied equally to Egyptians and Thracians. The late Romans applied it to all those people who made border security difficult and finally impossible, and whom the Romans viewed, well, barbarians.
In the popular culture this image comes right down, via Gibbon, to Conan the Barbarian. Because from Tacitus on, the 'barbarians' were seen not just as savages but also at times Noble Savages, free of the constraints and artifices of urban civilization. This third meaning - essentially 'barbarian' as a trope - is the one that concerns Romance, so that is the one I will concentrate on here.
This is why I set aside 'barbarian' in the sense of civilization gone bad. No matter now much a rogue state traps itself out like a heavy metal band, if you are filing weekly reports of how many people you massacred, you are not a 'barbarian' in the sense that Conan is.
(Having said that, I admit a Hollywood tendency to conflate 'barbarian' and 'totalitarian' elements that would hardly go together in real life - think of the original Klingons on Trek TOS.)
I will say a bit more, though, about the sense of 'barbarians' as warlike nomadic peoples, by quoting another eminent 18th century Briton, Adam Smith:
A nation of hunters can never be formidable to the civilized nations in their neighbourhood. A nation of shepherds may. Nothing can be more contemptible than an Indian war in North America. Nothing, on the contrary, can be more dreadful than Tartar invasion has frequently been in Asia.From my 'Murrican perspective the likes of Andrew Jackson, not to mention George C. Custer, could have a word or two about this, but on the grand strategic level Smith is right. By sometime around 1700 the First Nations lost any prospect of stopping the European incursion. There just weren't enough of them. Even if they had learned to be shepherds, or cowhands, gunpowder had closed that window of opportunity. Compare to the fact that the Norse - Vikings, no less, the scourge of Europe for 300 years - found the local Skraelings more than they wanted to deal with.
In any case, nomadic peoples got into the history books as 'barbarians' because their ordinary way of life made most of the adult male population warriors. There's no obvious futuristic counterpart. People who have spaceships have a huge advantage over people who don't, but the advantage is in mobility, not fighting as such (other than the ability to throw kinetics).
This does offer a tempting analogy to the Vikings, and the rather similar Homeric sea rovers who helped finish off Mycenaean Greece. Seamanship provides no inherent advantage in a fight on land, though a ship's crew is already a cohesive unit, a big advantage over hastily assembled militia. But the raiders' advantage in actual fighting came more from practice than from their previous way of life.
Hastening a bit through Step Two, here is a scenario, as hackneyed as it deserves to be. The Empire is collapsing. This is actually one of the easier pieces of space opera to justify - just combine post-Apollo funk with the real estate bubble, and scale up. It would be the least of surprises if a period of spectacular space expansion were followed by retrenchment, and when Earth sneezes the outposts get pneumonia.
A 'pre-collapse' could be developing in the Back of Beyond even as the Empire is still growing. As in a classic bubble, sound enterprises - colonies, mines, whatever - give way to bubblicious ones, local shortages and crises develop, and law and order can begin to fray. This can go on for a long time before anyone on Earth really grasps the implications. (When they do grasp the implications is when collapse goes into high gear.)
A scavenger subculture plausibly develops, starting with surplus equipment sold for scrap prices and moving on to equipment that has been abandoned outright.
Scavenging permits some classic mining tropes that otherwise are hard to justify. The problem with mother lodes and claim jumping in space has always been that if you can reach one mother lode in the vastness of space you can probably reach many others. But there are only so many abandoned space stations to go around.
The next step, for some scavengers, will be not waiting for abandonment. If a struggling colony cannot defend its orbital station it is yours to salvage.
Really this is just Mad Max with spaceships instead of bikes, and the reason it works is that it doesn't really need to work - the scavenger subculture does not need to be a sustainable way of life. It is, after all, part of a collapse process. The Homeric sackers of cities ran out of cities to sack, except in Egypt where they ran into Rameses III. The scavengers will, in time, run out of stuff to scavenge.
In the meanwhile some of them might learn to do more with less, learning to maintain a high techlevel with a much smaller population base - replicators, nanotech, whatever - while others evolve from scavengers (and sometimes raiders) to traders. So the scavenger subculture has its positive side as well, and best of all it gives you three classic SF tropes for the price of one.
Are the scavengers 'barbarians?' Obviously not in the narrow historical sense of being Eurasian steppe nomads, but their way of life implies a sort of nomadism while it lasts. Some may well qualify as 'barbarians' in the moral sense, the worst of them robbing struggling habs and colonies of their means of survival.
And even the best of them might be 'barbarians' in their disconnection from large formal institutions. Their progenitors worked on contract for large firms or other institutions; later they are working just to keep going, sometimes trading, sometimes raiding, mostly scrounging and patching.
For practical purposes they will pretty much do.
There are variations on this theme. As commenters have suggested, parts of a space economy could slide into decline and collapse while the rest of it thrives - rustbelt worlds of declining industries. And we see in the present day world that world trade interests find it cheaper to pay off the occasional Somali businessman than to pay for a massive naval mobilization to suppress piracy.
Like the Wild West, or the great age of Caribbean piracy, or the terrible and grand 12th century BC that Homer sang, the era of scavengers will not last long, not in historical terms (though it might persist for decades). But it will cast a long shadow as a formative experience of the new, rising worlds.
Sort of hard to resist, isn't it? These tropes do exist for a reason ...
This pop-culture barbarian image graces the Interstellar Empire page header at Atomic Rockets, which I have not linked to enough lately.