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We see tyrant galactic empires in SFF works all the time. Some examples off the top of my head:

  • Star Wars - original trilogy (1977)

  • Foundation series (1942)

Which SFF work first showed an empire spanning an entire galaxy?

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Short Answer:

In genre science fiction magazines, the idea of galaxy-wide federations and empires goes back to Edmund "World-Wrecker" Hamilton's "The Star Stealers" in 1929.

The first dedicated fantasy genre magazine, Weird Tales, started in 1923, and the first dedicated science fiction gemre magazine, Amazing Stories, started in 1926, so there was not a very long period when galactic empires could have been written about in genre sources before "The Star Stealers".

Though there may be some precursers in science fiction stories published earlier in more mainstream venues.

Long Answer:

According to some definitions, an empire is a state with large territory and a complicated form of government.

According to other definitions, an empire is a state which considers itself to be the rightful government of the whole world/solar system/galaxy/universe.

According to other definitions, an empire is a state which has "empire" in its official name.

According to other definitions, an empire is a state which has an emperor as the head of state and/or head of government.

And there are other definitions.

So a real or fictional realm which is an empire by some definitions might not be an empire by other definitions.

In movies, The first interstellar government might have been in The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) acording to user 14111, and the earliest galactic empire might have been in The Wizard of Mars, (1966) where the Martians once ruled an interstelar empire.

In television, Star Trek (1966-1969) features several interstellar governments ruling many star systems, including the United Federation of Planets, the Klingon Empire, the Romulan Empire, and others.

In the Lost in Space episode "The Prisoners of Space", Oct. 19, 1966, the Robinsons are tried by a court which seems to be an agency of an interstellar government, since there are members of several different species in it.

In written science fiction:

A.E. van Vogt's "Concealment" appeared in Astounding Science Fiction, September, 1943. It was the first of several stories set in the Lesser Magellanic Cloud that were later edited together in a "fixup" novel called The Mixed Men or Mission to the Stars.

https://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?46735

https://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?22964

Earth has had FTL interstellar travel for many thousands of years. 15,000 years before the story, a group of persecuted refugees from Earth traveled over a hundred thousand light years from Earth to a separate galaxy, the Lesser Magallanic Cloud, to form a new society. In the time of the story Earth has colonized most of the Milky Way Galaxy, and a space battleship from Earth, exploring the Lesser Magallanic Cloud, accidentially discovers the descendants of the refugees.

In "Concealment" The grand captain of the Earth ship explains Earth's imperial attitude:

"Know this, whoever you are, that you are aboard the Imperial Battleship Star Cluster, Grand Captain Laurr at your service. Know, too, that it is our unalterable will that you shall prepare for us an orbit that will take our ship safely to your chief planet."

She went on vibrantly: "It is my solemn belief you already know that Earth recognizes no separate governments. Space is indivisible. The universe shall not be an area of countless sovereign peoples squabbling and quarreling for power.

"That is the law. Those who set themselves against it are outlaws, subject to any punishment which may be decided upon in their special case.

"Take warning."

http://baencd.freedoors.org/Books/Transgalactic/1416520899___9.htm

In C.L.Moore's Judgement Nightc, Astrounding Science Fiction, August-September 1943, a human princess of a galactic empire faces the possibility of its imminent overthrow. As I remember, the planet setting has been the capital planet of many successive galactic empires, each founded by planets which rebelled against the previous empires. As I remember, she discovers that the first galactic empires to be based on her planet countless thousands of years before were ruled by non human beings.

https://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?41248

The first of Isaac Asimov's Foundatation stories, dealing with the predicted fall of the Galactic Empire and the plans of psychohistorians to modify the disaster, was "Foundation", published in Astounding Science Fiction, May, 1942.

https://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?46532

So together they show that the idea of galactic empires was common in written science fiction in the early 1940s.

Earlier science fiction storeis featured intestellar law enforcment agencies, which served interstellar governments. E.E. Smith's Galactic Patrol, Astounding Science Fiction, September 1937 to February, 1938, introduced the Galactic Patrol serving a government modestly called "Civilization" that ruled most of the Milky Way Galaxy, as well as the enemy society called Boskone which ruled most of the Second Galaxy - though Boskone was more like a totaliterian dictatorship than like an empire.

In an article called "The Epic of Space" Smith wrote about how he wrote the Lensman series. At one point he reread all the science fiction "cops and robbers" stories in his collection.

...from Constantinescues's "War of the Universe", which I did not consider a masterpiece, up to the stories of Starzel and Williamson, who wrote literature worthy of the masters they are.

So there were already a number of examples available while Smith was planning the Lensman series during the 1930s.

https://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?119149

Smith's earlier Skylark Three, Amazing Stories, August to October, 1930, introduced a species known as the Fenachrone, who have explored the entire galaxy and secretly studied the defenses of every other civilization there, and whose emperor decreed that they should now start their long term plan of sweeping out from their home planet to conquer the entire galaxy in one fell swoop. So it featured a plan to create a galactic empire.

https://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?1194

Edmund "World-Wrecker" Hamilton is credited by many with creating the genre of interstellar space opera. His story "The Star Stealers", Weird Tales, February 1929, introduced the Interstellar Patrol of the Council of Suns that ruled the Milky Way Galaxy.

https://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?71193

http://darkworldsquarterly.gwthomas.org/edmond-hamiltons-interstellar-patrol/

"The Star Stealers" might be the very beginning of the concept of galaxy wide federations, empires, and governments of other types.

Early modern astronomers abandoned the idea that the stars were stuck on the inside of a gigantic spherical shell, and considered them to be objects like the Sun, scattered through space in the Milky May. And some began to speculate that there could be similar groups of stars beyond the Milky Way.

Proof of the Milky Way consisting of many stars came in 1610 when Galileo Galilei used a telescope to study the Milky Way and discovered that it is composed of a huge number of faint stars.[227][228] In a treatise in 1755, Immanuel Kant, drawing on earlier work by Thomas Wright,[229] speculated (correctly) that the Milky Way might be a rotating body of a huge number of stars, held together by gravitational forces akin to the Solar System but on much larger scales.[230] The resulting disk of stars would be seen as a band on the sky from our perspective inside the disk. Wright and Kant also conjectured that some of the nebulae visible in the night sky might be separate "galaxies" themselves, similar to our own. Kant referred to both the Milky Way and the "extragalactic nebulae" as "island universes", a term still current up to the 1930s.[231][232][233]

In the early 20th century there was considerable debate whether the Milky Way was the entire universe, or whether there were other galaxies beyond the Milky Way.

Edwin Hubble's arrival at Mount Wilson Observatory, California, in 1919 coincided roughly with the completion of the 100-inch (2.5 m) Hooker Telescope, then the world's largest. At that time, the prevailing view of the cosmos was that the universe consisted entirely of the Milky Way Galaxy. Using the Hooker Telescope at Mount Wilson, Hubble identified Cepheid variables (a kind of star that is used as a means to determine the distance from the galaxy[25][26] – see also standard candle) in several spiral nebulae, including the Andromeda Nebula and Triangulum. His observations, made in 1924, proved conclusively that these nebulae were much too distant to be part of the Milky Way and were, in fact, entire galaxies outside our own, suspected by researchers at least as early as 1755 when Immanuel Kant's General History of Nature and Theory of the Heavens appeared. This idea had been opposed by many in the astronomy establishment of the time, in particular by Harvard University-based Harlow Shapley. Despite the opposition, Hubble, then a thirty-five-year-old scientist, had his findings first published in The New York Times on November 23, 1924,[27] then presented them to other astronomers at the January 1, 1925 meeting of the American Astronomical Society.[28] Hubble's results for Andromeda were not formally published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal until 1929.[29]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edwin_Hubble

So it was not until the later 1920s that science fiction writers could be certain that the Milky Way was not the entire universe, instead of merely speculating that there could be other galaxies (such speculation is mentioned in William Hope Hodgson's The House on the Borderland, 1908), and could make a clear distinction between fictional universal empires and fictional galactic empires.

Thus it is possible that the Council of Suns ruling the Milky Way in "The Star Stealers" (1929) is the first example of a galactic government, whether empire or not, in science fiction.

It has been pointed out that there is a interstellar empire, though far smaller than a galactic empire, in The Struggle for Empire: A Story of the Year 2236, by George William Cole, 1900.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Struggle_for_Empire:_A_Story_of_the_Year_2236

Earliest work showing an Empire of Mankind

The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World, better known as The Blazing World, is a 1666 work of prose fiction by the English writer Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle. Feminist critic Dale Spender calls it a forerunner of science fiction.1 It can also be read as a utopian work.2

The Blazing World does involve travel between worlds and/or other dimensions and significant battles, and a human woman does become empress ruling over non human beings.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Blazing_World

And of course the ultimate example of the prehistory of the space opera sub genre of science fiction is A True Story by Lucian of Samosata, written as early as the second century AD!

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_True_Story

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    The significance of 1926 as the year Amazing Stories was founded is not completely clear, seeing as Weird Tales (where Hamilton's "The Star-Stealers" appeared) was founded in 1923, and anyway there was lots of science fiction before those two magazines. As for the movies, wasn't some kind of interstellar government implied in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)?
    – user14111
    Dec 27, 2021 at 0:40
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    @user14111, note that 1923 would seem to have been too early for galactic empires as we Terrans did not become aware of galaxies until 1924, thanks to Edwin Hubble. Dec 27, 2021 at 13:34
  • @BenHocking That may be true, but we weren't unaware of the expanse of stars and that we live in a large collection of stars. We just weren't aware that nebula we had been observing or centuries were themselves, separate galaxies. Regardless, an early author could still imagine an empire spanning the stars of the "known universe", even if they didn't realize those stars formed a galaxy. If such a story exists, it's unclear if that counts towards the OP's question or not.
    – zephyr
    Dec 27, 2021 at 16:21
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    @Criggie If you noticed the heading "short answer" you should have noticed the heading "Long answer" a few paragraphs below it, showing where the short answer ended and long answer began. Dec 27, 2021 at 18:43
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    I have added a section to my answer about the history of the idea of other galaxies beyond the Milky Way. There was speculatation about other galaxies, but no proof until the later part of the 1920s. Dec 27, 2021 at 19:13

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