There is a long history of SF novels about interstellar free traders eking out a marginal existence on the fringes of the huge trader corporations, from Andre Norton's Solar Queen novels to the Space Angel series by John Maddox Roberts. Go to The Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy and read the entries "ECONOMY", "FREE TRADERS", "PIRACY", "REPLICATOR", "TRADE" and "TRADE FEDERATION". Don't forget the entry in this website about Cargo Holds

As mentioned below, if you want to play around with interstellar trading, or even try doing a full simulation (to do worldbuilding for creating the background of your new novel), I'd suggest getting a copy of GURPS Traveller: Far Trader. Written with help from a real live economist, this allows one to model interplanetary and interstellar trade with equations and everything. It has detailed analysis of the economics of interstellar trade, and a system of equations to model trade routes and economic demands.

Sometimes the traders live in large "clan-ships", developing a "trader culture." Each ship is a world, carrying the entire clan. Novels include CITIZEN OF THE GALAXY by Robert Heinlein, STAR WAYS aka THE PEREGRINE by Poul Anderson, the Cities in Flight novels of James Blish, MERCHANTER'S LUCK and FINITY'S END by C. J. Cherryh, RITE OF PASSAGE by Alexi Panshin, A DEEPNESS IN THE SKY by Vernor Vinge.

Economics of Starships

This section is basically a rough outline of Rick Robinson's Interstellar Trade: A Primer. You'd probably be better off reading the full article but some people want executive summaries. Rick starts with certain assumptions and follows them to various conclusions about the interstellar economy. You can alter some of the assumptions yourself to tweak the economy to suit your science fictional background.

Merchant Starship Costs

Assumption: starships in the interstellar empire are equivalent to present-day jet airliners. They go fast, can carry lots of people and cargo, and are the most advanced technology that can be massed produced.

The ticket prices will not be similar between airliners and starships because FTL interstellar travel will probably take more than a few hours for the trip. Therefore the starships will do fewer trips per year than airliners, so the starship passenger ticket price (and cargo waybill) will have to cover a larger share of the starship's yearly expense.

For comparison purposes we need an airliner's average cost of running, but the corporations are remarkably closed-lipped about that. Using a long series of estimations whose details can be found in Rick's article he concludes that the annual operating cost for an airliner is about $30 million (not counting fuel, landing fees, and taxes). An airliner's purchase price is $100 million so one year's uses costs about one-third of the purchase price.

A cargo jet can carry 50 tons so its purchase price is about $2 million per ton of cargo capacity.

Assumption: starships are strictly orbit-to-orbit, they use space ferrys to transfer passengers and cargo between the starship and the planet.

Assumption: starship purchase price will only be about $1 million per ton of cargo capacity instead of $2 million, because starships are orbit-to-orbit, need no landing gear, need no wings, can use lighter structure because they accelerate under 1 g, and we will assume they can carry twice as much cargo per deadweight (inert mass) as a cargo jet.

Assumption: cargo starship operating cost is similar to cargo jet. Therefore it costs $300,000 per ton of cargo capacity per year to run a cargo starship. This ignores taxes, station docking fees, and fuel. Assumption: starship fuel is cheaper than cargo jet JP-4 fuel. Big assumption since JP-4 is about $1.39 per gallon.

Assumption: the service life of a merchant starship is 30 years. So the starship initial purchase price is about 1/10th of the overall lifetime service cost ($1 million / (30 * $300,000)). Actually it will be closer to 1/5th due to the interest on the purchase loan. With creative maintenance, the service life might be longer than 30 years, see below.

Question: how many cargos can a merchant starship carry in 1 year? That is, assuming a full cargo turnover at each port of call, how many one-way runs can the ship make?

Assumption: a one-way trip takes three months. From departure planet orbit to FTL flight to arrival planet orbit. This is comparable to the Age of Sail.

Assumption: each trip requires one month for servicing, maintenance, selling the cargo, buying new cargo for the next run.

This makes each trip four months from departure to departure, or three cargos per year. This means the ship owner must earn $100,000 of profit per ton of cargo. That is, selling price at destination MINUS purchase price at origin must be $100,000 or more. Therefore if the cargo was available for free at the origin the minimum selling price at destination is $100,000 per ton, or $100 per kilogram. The implication is that only very high value cargo can be profitably shipped interstellar.

Assumption, average of 1/2 of retail price goes to shipping cost. Therefore the minimum price of interstellar imported goods are $200 per kilogram.

The implication is that the only things shipped interstellar would be luxury goods, items with a very high value per weight. Jewelry, spices, fine liquor, designer-label clothing. Maybe some high value per weight industrial goods, such as microchips. Not high mass items such as sports car, not with a $100,000 shipping charge added to the car's price. Bottom line is that you are not going to ship bulk goods like wheat, not at $100,000 per ton you ain't.

Assumption: the Gross Planetary Product (GPP) of a colony planet is $100,000 (about three times that of present day USA). If 2% of citizen income goes to imported luxuries and high-value capital goods, it comes out to $2000 per capita, with $1000 going to shipping cost.

Assumption: Colony planet population is 10 million. Therefore the total shipping cost of imported goods is $10 billion.

Calculating backwards, this implies that 100,000 tons of interstellar cargo arrives at the colony planet annually. The colony must export the same amount or it will run a trade deficit and import prices will rise. This is because if they don't export, the cargo starships cannot find cargoes to transport and sell at the next destination. Starships with empty cargo holds cost nearly as much to run as with full holds. They will have to make up the shortfall somehow, so they will raise the price of what they sell at this planet.

Take simplest model: two planets trading with each other. Each year, 100,000 tons moves in each direction, or 200,000 tons total.

Assumption: average cargo starship carries 1000 tons. This is less than seagoing cargo ships, but more than cargo airplane. This means there has to be 200 annual cargo loadings and unloadings to accommodate 200,000 tons.

Since each ship can make 3 one-way legs per year, then each ship will do three loadings. The implication is that the two planet's combined merchant fleet is between 65 to 70 ships.

Of course if each ship carries more than 1000 tons then fewer ships are needed. If the ships can carry 5000 tons then you would only need 13 or 14 ships. In practice this would not work very well, since the larger the cargo hold, the more difficult it is to find enough cargo on the planet to fill it.A trade network of a dozen colony worlds will support a few dozen to a few hundred cargo ships depending upon cargo hold size.

Passenger Traffic

Airliners carry about four to five passengers per ton of equivalent cargo capacity. However airliner trips are only a few hours. Interstellar passengers cannot live in their seats for three months.

Assumption: Each interstellar passenger berth equals one ton of equivalent cargo capacity. This includes the passenger, their baggage, the berth, apportioned galley/diner space, and food.

The direct result is that the cost of the passenger ticket is the same as the cost of one ton of cargo: $100,000. You are not going to get much tourist traffic, not at those prices. A few rich people and business travellers.

Problem: you must have large scale passenger traffic for the colony network to exist at all. In a word: Colonization.

$100,000 per colonist is prohibitive. Probably several times that for extra stuff like tractors and horses. Even worse, since the new colony will not have any exports, the cargo starship will have not cargo buy for the next trip. So the starship captain will have to charge round-trip prices for a one-way trip. It could total to around $1 million per colonist.

The problem is that our assumptions have made it so that only millionaires can afford the ticket, but millionaires do not want to go live on some jerkwater frontier world. Sending 10,000 colonists to a new world could cost $10 billion, which is a huge amount for private industry or governments to spend, regardless of the potential value of the planet.

Our price schedule has made interstellar colonization unlikely in the first place.

We will have to change some of the assumptions. Lucky for us, there is some room to bring the costs down. We can make the merchant starships cheaper, or make them faster. We shall do both.

Assumption: annual starship service cost is $100,000 per ton of cargo capacity, not $300,000. This is reasonable, since starships are not stressed as much as airliners (at least not orbit-to-orbit starships).

Assumption: starship purchase price is $500,000 per ton of cargo capacity instead of $1 million, since starships are build for long-haul reliability.

With the 30 year service life, the purchase price is now 1/6th of the total lifetime service cost instead of 1/10th. Within interest payments this may be closer to 1/3th.

Assumption: a one-way trip takes 35 days instead of three months. This means the cargo starship can deliver 10 cargoes per year instead of three. Assume 27 days is transit, 8 days is for servicing, maintenance, selling the cargo, and buying new cargo for the next run.

Crunching the numbers, the minimum profit per ton of cargo or passenger ticket is now $10,000 instead of $100,000.

The cost for colonists (provisions and no return cargo) is probably about $100,000 or less. That's more like it. In the reach of the middle class. This price schedule makes interstellar colonization viable.

Note that the same ten-fold cost reduction can be had by making the one-way trip 12 days but keeping the original $300,000 annual cost.

Our colonization-viable starships will also increase interstellar trade. Shipping cost of $10,000 per ton means the threshold cost of imported goods is about $10 per pound. Only $10,000 shipping cost for a sports car. But no bulk cargo, not when oil's shipping cost will be $1500 per barrel. As with all freight the rates will vary. Higher value merchandise will support higher shipping charges. A long-term fixed contract (allowing ship owner to have dependable regular cargoes) will get a lower rate. Standby cargo will get a better rate, if the ship is making a run anyway, it is better to have full cargo holds.

If imports are still only 2% of CPP, the volume of goods will increase ten-fold. The shipping capacity will only have to increase three-fold since starships now deliver three times as much cargo per year. Since shipping costs ten times lower (so a wider range of goods are worth importing) then the import-export sector can expand in total value of goods shipped as well.

Assumption: an inverse square-root rule applies here, so reducing the shipping costs by a factor of 10 will increase spending upon imported goods by a factor of 3.

This means 6% of CPP now goes to imports. High, but not out of reach for a mature trading zone. So a colony of 10 million will have an annual export and import of 3 million tons per year.

Each trade starship can pick up and deliver 10 cargoes per year, so they need a net cargo capacity of 300,000 tons. For a trade network of 12 colonies, the combined merchant marine needs a capacity of some 3.6 million tons. Most ships will still be small (but bigger than jumbo jets) to facilitate filling their cargo holds, but the heaviest-traffic routes will support some bigger ships.

Assumption: say the trade network's merchant fleet is:

Type of shipNumber
of ships
Cargo capacity
of one ship
Total cargo capacity
Large7520,000 tons1,500,000 tons
Medium3005000 tons1,500,000 tons
Small4001500 tons600,000 tons
TOTAL7753,600,000 tons

If there is no FTL radio, then some of the small freighters will sacrifice cargo capacity for speed (i.e., acceleration), in order to become something like an interstellar FedEx or pony express. The idea is to reduce the normal space transit time. Actually this might be a better job for an unmanned drone, they can take higher acceleration than human beings.

Passenger traffic is only a fraction of total cargo volume (unless there is a colonization effort underway). Freight makes a profit for somebody, passengers are pure expense to whoever pays their ticket. Perhaps passengers are 1% of total volume, makes 360,000 passengers per year. A few routes may support scheduled passenger service (probably in small ships). But most will ride in cargo bays (like railroad sleeping cards), in freighters, or in spare crew quarters.

Ship mass and size

Full load mass and physical size depends upon assumptions about fuel mass ration, fuel bulk, etc.


Deadweight (inert mass)117%
Cargo (payload)233%
Fuel (propellant)350%

Note that total mass is three times the cargo capacity. As you can see, deadweight is the ship proper, structure, engines, anything that is not cargo or propellant.

With this assumption, the big freighters will have a fully loaded mass of 60,000 tons. The largest ships might be twice as big: 120,000 tons.

Our building cost is $500,000 per ton of cargo capacity, the mass assumption makes a building cost equal to $1 million per ton of deadweight. Annual service cost is $100,000 per ton of cargo capacity, the mass assumption makes the annual service cost equal to $200,000 per ton of deadweight. The starship hulls are not cheaper, but they can carry more cargo in proportion to their structural mass.

Type of shipCargo capacityPurchase price
Large20,000 tons$20 billion
Medium5000 tons$2.5 billion
Small1500 tons$750 million

At $500,000 per ton of cargo capacity, largest giant freighter cost $20 billion to build, but it it has a cargo capacity of 200 Boeing 747 jets, and accounts for over one percent of whole fleet's cargo capacity all by itself. Small freighter costs $750 million, and has seven time the capacity of 747.

With a 30 year service life, the combined shipbuilding yards of the 12 planet trade network will turn out about 25 ships per year.

Hulls will last longer than 30 years but the equipment wears out and has to be replaced. Ships go back to the yards for an overhaul every decade or so, but eventually the cost of stripping everything and replacing it will exceed the value of the ship. Depending upon overhaul costs the shipyards may make more money on rebuilding than on constructing brand new ships. Some ships will stay in service for many decades. Others will be retained as the futuristic equivalent of naval hulks or the old passenger equipment that railroads use as work trains. Every big commercial space station will have a bunch of these old ships in the outskirts.

If modular design is taken to its limit, "ships" will have no permanent existence. Instead they will be assembled out of modules and pods specifically for each run, much like a railroad train. In that case, a ship's identity is attached to a service, not a physical structure. Example: the Santa Fe "Chief" was identified by a timetable and reputation, not a particular set of locomotive and cars.

Starship Performance

The analysis up until now focused on money and economics. Businessmen only care about how long it takes to deliver the cargo and how much transport costs, they could care less about the scientific details of the ship engines. But authors care.

As with everything else, it all depends upon the assumptions. Your assumptions will be different, so feel free to fiddle with these and see what the results are.

Assumption: the time spent in FTL transit is zero (jump drive). For the FTL segment of the transit you can use whatever you want, as long as the details do not affect the analysis. The main thing is that the required time spent in FTL transit will add to the total trip time, and thus the number of cargoes a starship can transport per year.

Assumption: starships use reaction drives for normal space travel.

We know that the mass ratio is 2.0. So the Tsiolkovsky rocket equation tells us that the starship's total delta V will be the propulsion system's exhaust velocity times 0.69 (i.e., ln(2.0) ). Since starships accelerate to half their delta V, coast, then decelerate to a halt, their maximum speed is half their delta V, or exhaust velocity times 0.35 (i.e., ln(2.0) / 2). In practice you would accelerate up to a bit less than half their delta V in order to allow a fuel reserve in case of emergency.

It will be even less if the FTL drive happens to use the same type of fuel that the reaction drive does. Basically part of the fuel mass will have to be considered as cargo, not propellant, which will alter the ship's mass ratio.

Reaction driveExhaust velocity
rule of thumb
Nuclear powered Ion~100 km/s
Fusiona few thousand km/s
Beam core matter-antimatterabout 100,000 km/s
( 1/3 c )

We have assumed that the ship spends 27 days in route (with an instantaneous FTL jump), so the outbound and inbound legs are 13.5 days each (1.17 million seconds).

Assumption: the acceleration on each leg is constant. In reality at the same thrust setting the acceleration will increase as the ship's mass goes down due to propellant being expended. The thrust will probably be constantly throttled to maintain a constant acceleration. Makes it easier on the crew and easier on our analysis. The implication is that obviously the average speed will be half the maximum speed (which is half the delta V)

Reaction driveExhaust velocity
rule of thumb
leg distance
Advanced Ion
or Early Fusion
400 km/s130 km/s75 million km
(1/2 AU)
0.01 g
Advanced Fusion10,000 km/s5000 km/s20 AU
0.44 g
c0.3 c350 AU
(x5 Pluto's orbit)
8 g !!!

These figures will be lower if time is consumed in FTL flight, maybe be only Terra-Luna distance

Propulsion system's thrust power is thrust times exhaust velocity, then divide by 2. To get the thrust, we know that thrust is ship mass times acceleration. The ship mass goes down as fuel is burnt. As a rule of thumb for ship mass, figure that it only has 2/3rds of a propellant load. That is, multiply the total ship mass by 0.83. So our 120,000 metric ton ship would have a rule of thumb mass of 120,000 * 0.83 = 100,000 metric tons (100,000,000 kilograms).

Reaction driveExhaust velocity
rule of thumb
ThrustThrust power
Advanced Ion
or Early Fusion
400,000 m/s
(400 km/s)
0.108 m/s
(0.011 g)
1.08×107 N2.16×1012 W
(2 terawatts)
Advanced Fusion10,000,000 m/s
(10,000 km/s)
4.3 m/s
(0.44 g)
4.3×108 N2.15×1015 W
(2,000 terawatts)
3.0×108 m/s
76.5 m/s
7.65×109 N1.15×1018 W
(1 million terawatts)

Where does fuel come from and who does it get into the ship's fuel tanks? Easiest if it is obtained locally at the destination's solar system. The economics of interplanetary transport is same as interstellar (since we did a lot of work making interstellar a cheap as interplanetary).

if fuel from a gas giant at a distance comparable to Terra-Jupiter and round trip is to only take weeks, interplanetary tankers will need speeds of around 1000 km/s. So tankers will be almost as expensive as starships. If tankers use low speed (to make them cheaper), the round trip balloons to a year or more. To service the starship fleet's thirst for fuel, tankers will need to be huge or there will have to be a lot of them. Either way, fuel shipped from gas giants ain't gonna be cheap.

If we forgo interplanetary tankers and instead have starships make extra leg to the local gas giant to refuel, it will cost you more than you will save.

The alternative is shipping fuel up from destination planet. Yes, we know about how surface to orbit is "halfway to anywhere" in terms of delta V cost. But in order to colonize space at all, surface-to-orbit shipping cost will have to be cheap anyway. The industrialization of space will start with using space based resources, but eventually surface-to-orbit will have to be cheap or there is no rocketpunk future. Laser launch, Lofstrom loop, space elevator, something like that.

Assumption: surface-to-orbit shuttle economics are equivalent to current day airliner economics. Round trip to LEO and back is about two hours (not counting loading/unloading). With loading/unloading and maintenance, figure 4 flights a day. Implication is that a round trip passenger ticket is $250 and round trip freight service is $1000/ton (which is +10% added to interstellar transport costs)

Fuel is not round trip, it only goes from surface to orbit, but shuttles have to go orbit to surface in order to get the next load. You will have to streamline the process. High capacity pumps to minimize load/unload times, crew-less shuttle. You might be able to squeeze fuel lift cost to $500/ton. So if starships carry 1.5 tons of fuel per ton of cargo, surface-to-orbit fuel lift costs adds $750/ton to interstellar shipping cost.

So total surface-to-orbit overhead is $1000/ton + $750/ton = $1750/ton or 17.5%. This is an ouch but not a show-stopper.

Back to starships. How big are they?

Present-day maritime tonnage rule: 1 registered ton = ~3 cubic meters.

Assumption: 1 ton = 3 m3 applies to fuel and hull (e.g., crew quarters, engineering spaces, etc) as well as cargo. Therefore, if the absolutely hugest cargo starship in service has a cargo capacity of 40,000 tons (twice that of a large cargo starship), then:

Wet Mass
Payload mass to total mass ratio is 3. So wet mass is 3 * 40,000 = 120,000 tons
Starship Volume
1 ton of total ship mass = 3 m3 of volume. 120,000 * 3 = 360,000 cubic meters.

Volume of a sphere is 4/3πr3, so the radius of a sphere is 3√(v/(4/3π)) or

radius = CubeRoot( v / 4.189)

diameter = (CubeRoot( v / 4.189)) * 2

Assumption: a "cigar-shape" for a spacecraft is a six times as long as it is wide, with the proportions indicated in the diagram above. The center body is a cylinder 1 unit in diameter (0.5 units radius) and two units high. The two end caps are cones of 0.5 units radius and 2 units high.

If the monstrous cargo starship is spherical, it would have a diameter of 88 meters. If it is cigar shaped then length = 300 meters and diameter of 50 meters.

A 1500 ton cargo capacity tramp freighter would have a wet mass of 4500 tons and a volume of 13,500 m3. Spherical shape would have a diameter of 30 meters, cigar shaped length = 100 meters long and diameter of 17 meters.

Modular ships dimension would be similar but a bit larger due to being assembled out of component parts.


This is very difficult to estimate.

Since each crew has same berthing requirement as passengers, each crew represents one ton = $100,000/year in lost revenue capacity. Therefore crew will be kept as small as practical.

Operating crew: pilot-navigator and engineer for each watch. Plus life support specialist/medic, cargo-master, and captain. Total of nine. Small ships might squeeze this to four or five. Big ships might double up with assistants and trainees for 20 to 25.

Maintenance technicians will be needed. Ships are en route for a month or so at a time. Unlike aircraft, maintenance can't all be done during layovers. Time is money, you do not want to hold off departure because station tech has not finished some routine servicing. So techs will be carried to do maintenance during the flight. Assume (conservatively) 1 tech embarked per $100 million in construction cost (i.e., stuff to be maintained). So small ships will have a maintenance crew of seven or eight (total crew of ten or twelve). Largest ships in service might have total crews up to 250. Scut work (swabbing decks and peeling potatoes) will be done by junior crew. As has been the case since time began.

Hotel Staff: passenger-carrying ships will need crew for hotel-type services (stewards, chefs, etc.), but not if passengers are colonists (fend for yourselves, steerage scum!). Coach class could make do with one for every 10 passengers. First class would have one for every 2 or 3 passengers (and the ticket price would reflect this). If a typical ship has 1 percent of cargo given over to passengers, the required hotel staff could increase the crew by about a third. Naturally the hotel staff will be looked down upon by the operating and tech crew members. On a passenger ship the hotel staff will vastly outnumber the rest of the crew by some 30 to 1.

Orbital high ports

These are primarily starship ports and service bases, though they may have other functions.

With our current assumptions, at a given time 3/4ths of the ships are en route, the rest are in port. So at the stations of the dozen colony worlds there will be docked about 15 cargo ships. One or two would be large cargo ships. A cargo ship will arrive and depart about three times a day.

Orbit-to-surface traffic is heavy. If each shuttle can carry the load of a 747 jet, about 100 arrive and depart each day. If starship fuel is shuttled up from surface, some 150 daily tankers arrivals are needed as well (if 4 daily flights per shuttle, about 65 physical shuttles are needed).

This is for a typical station. The busiest station in the trade network might have twice the traffic volume.

At any one time we might expect to find 200 to 300 off-duty starship crew at a typical station (probably all in bars). Unlike airports, passenger traffic is small. 200 or so arrive and depart each day. Passenger shuttles will also carry station crew, ship's crew going sightseeing, so there will be a few daily passenger flights.

A station is a ship without a drive engine, so its capacities can be estimated the same way.

If 10% of the overall cost of the merchant fleet goes to support the stations (since the stations maintain the ships) then the stations taken together will have about a tenth of the fleet's deadweight mass, or 180,000 tons all told. A typical station would then have a mass of 15,000 tons, not counting cargo awaiting loading, fuel in storage tanks, etc. But stations are likely to grow by accretions over the years and become sprawling structures extending hundreds of meters in all directions.

Using same estimates for cargo ships, the maintenance crew of an average station would be about 150. However, stations provide the major ship maintenance, so they probably have about as many technicians altogether as the ships themselves do. They alone will multiply the station population by tenfold; support staff and miscellaneous services might double it again, so a typical station could have some 3000 workers. The largest stations might have two or three times as many.

Living quarters will be nearly as expensive ship quarters, but frequent shuttle fare also add up. The income from shuttle fare can be used to subsidize living quarters rent, so many people could live on board, even with families. Station could be a cosmopolitan orbiting town.

The entire space-faring population of the trade network, ship crews and stationers, come to well over 50,000, maybe as many as 100,000 (out of a total population on 12 colonies of some 120 million). The space economy as a whole however employs many times more. If the merchant marine industry accounts for 3% of the economy it will also employ 3% of the workforce, 2 million people. With a similar number employed in the import/export industries.


The expense of a trade-protection navy is an insurance premium charged against trade.

Assumption: the insurance premium to fund the navy is 10% of total value of trade.

Say the 12 colony network is a trade federation and the insurance premium for defense is 10% of total value of trade (this setup could just as well be one planet monopolizing trade, in which case the navy protects the franchise. We will call it a federation anyway). Half the value of trade goes to support the merchant fleet (the other half is initial purchase cost of shipped goods) therefore the cost of the war fleet will be about 1/5 of the merchant marine

Assumption: warships have the same relationship to cargo ships as cruisers do to ocean liners or jet bombers to airliners.

Instead of cargo, warships carry weapons, sensors, armor, more powerful engines, and greater fuel capacity. Ton for full-loaded ton they are more expensive than trade ships (maybe x2) but cost per deadweight ton is about the same since technology going into it is similar. (some present day warplanes have higher cost-to-mass ratio than jetliners. This is due partially to "gold-plating" of weapon systems and partial due to false economies such as small orders that reduce production efficiencies. We will assume that a navy funded by merchants will not allow such expensive stupidities)

Assumption: For first approximation, scale down merchant marine by factor of 5 to get war fleet.

  • 1 battlecruiser per 5 heavy freighters
  • 1 cruiser per 5 medium freighters
  • 1 corvette per 5 small freighters

This will give the following order of battle:

  • 15 battlecruisers
  • 60 cruisers
  • 80 corvettes

This may or may not be balanced, substitute as needed.

(ed note: for a discussion of what Rick Robinson means by those three ship classes see his analysis here)

Space navy combat starships will require auxiliary starships to support them: food supply ships, ammo and missile supply ships, repair ships, hospital ships, fuel ships, etc. So some of the cruisers and corvettes in the order of battle will have to be traded for auxiliaries of various kinds. Some civilian cargo ships can be requisitioned in wartime for auxiliary missions (such as tankers). Depending upon technology and threat level, it might be feasible to fit cargo ships with weapon pods instead of cargo and use them as armed merchant cruisers. And warships might be fitted with cargo pods to become very well-armed transports.

Assumption: a warship's deadweight mass is 1/3rd (0.33) of loaded mass (propellant always dominates a reaction-drive spaceship's mass). You could call the deadweight mass the Washington Treaty Mass.

Assumption: the following deadweight mass values in the following table.

Assumption: warships are always cigar shapes because Hollywood hates spheres

We have already assumed that purchase cost of a spacecraft is $1 million per ton of deadweight. We have also assumed that each ton of loaded mass equals 3 m3 of volume.

Result of assumptions:

Warship typeLoaded
Battlecruiser30,000 tons10,000 tons$10 billion90,000 m3200m × 30m
Cruiser7500 tons2500 tons$2.5 billion22,500 m3120m × 20m
Corvette2000 tons700 tons$700 million6000 m375m × 12.5m

Corvette are the length of a 747 or C-5 Galaxy but larger diameter. Very close to space shuttle in launch configuration. Since corvettes will have a surface landing module (for gunboat diplomacy) they may even look like space shuttle stack (with a big winged thing stuck on the side). Merchant express mail couriers might be a civilian version of courvette.

During peace time war fleet has lower operating tempo than merchant marine. May spend half their their time docked instead of the one-quarter that merchants do. This saves operating expenses. The savings allows greater procurement, so they are replaced and retired from active duty after 20 years instead of 30. Then they go into a mothballed reserve force for another 20 years, so reserve is the same size as active fleet. As with cargo ships, warships might undergo top-to-bottom overhauls and remain in service longer.

Crews are larger in proportion than for cargo ships. Operating crew will be augmented with offensive and defensive weapon controllers, scan/ECM, and communication/intelligence; larger ships will have in addition a command staff.

The maintenance technicians will be larger per unit cost because they have to repair battle damage, during or after the battle.

Of course there is no hotel staff.

Some warships will carry a landing force of marines or espatiers. Due to berthing cost and limited space (mass ratio of 2.0, remember?) there won't be many marines, but they will be highly trained (SEALS).

Warship typeCrew

Crew numbers will be higher if they have a landing strike team embarked

This is not a huge crew force. about 10,000 for the entire fleet, with probably a similar number on shore duty at any given time. Add in the marines and the total wearing uniforms is still no more than 25,000 to 30,000. Perhaps with a similar number of civilian employees.

Defense spending for running the fleet (by far the largest budget item) is a modest $72 billion, 0.6% of trade federation's combined GPP. In a prolonged major war this would expand greatly. But this is supported by trade. If the cost of trade protection (the insurance premium) approaches or even exceeds the value of trade itself, there will be a collapse of political support.

Operations in a trade war will be primarily in space. If large scale planetary landings are required, cargo ships can be pressed into service as troop transports. Light infantry is roughly equivalent to civil passengers: 1 ton equivalent cargo capacity per soldier. However heavier equipment, shuttles to carry troops/gear/provisions to surface, armed shuttles for close air support, will all be required. So for an invasion force, 3 ton equivalent cargo capacity per soldier, not counting the naval escort.

If 1/10th of the entire merchant marine is gathered as an invasion force it can transport and land 120,000 light troops, less if heavy equipment is required. But 120,000 troops is a pretty big force to invade a planet of 10 million people.

Middle-period Empire

Suppose instead of 12 worlds, the empire had a thousand worlds, each with a population of 100 million. Then all the above can be multiplied by a factor of over 800. Improved technology will increase size and number of ships. If typical ships is x3 in linear dimensions they will be x27 greater in mass, and fleet can have x30 as many of them.

Large cargo starships: if spherical 300m diameter, if cigar 1,000 km long. Cargo capacity 1 million tons. Full-load mass of 5 million tons each. Empire will have about 1000 ships of that size (and some larger). It will have 50,000 medium cargo ships with cargo capacity of 20,000 tons, and hundreds of thousands of smaller vessels.

Great hub-route stations will have population in the millions.

Navy battlecruisers will be 1 km long, full-load mass of 3 million tons. Build cost $1 trillion. Crew of 30,000. Empire will have 125 battlecruisers in the fleet. It will have thousands of cruisers with a full-load mass of 100,000 tons. Naval budget can be held down to $60 trillion.

Galactic Empire

100,000 worlds with average population of few billion each. The scale factor is another x3000. You can do the math yourself.


Naturally, to make interstellar trade work, you need the cost of interstellar transport to be incredibly low, or the value of the trade item to be incredibly high. Or both.

Raw minerals probably are not valuable enough, it will probably be cheaper to synthesize rare elements instead of shipping them in. As for manufactured goods, why not just send the blueprints by radio or by your Dirac Poweredtm FTL Ansible communicator? In a future where everybody has 3D printers and rapid prototyping machines, the economy would be based upon trading intellectual property.

Since there does not seem to be any real-world trade item worth interstellar trade (unless it is cheaper to ship from another star than it is from another city), you will probably be forced to invent some species of MacGuffinite.

In Larry Niven's PROTECTOR, asteroid miners prospect for magnetic monopoles (which are great for constructing compact motors and generators). Dr. Robert Forward proposed prospecting for Hawking black holes. In the old SPI game StarForce, the only valuable commodity is "telesthetic" women, who are the sine qua non of FTL travel, and who cannot be mass produced by genetic engineering. In Vernor Vinge's A FIRE UPON THE DEEP, some of the main characters are traders contracted to transport part of a huge one-time pad for secure cryptographic transmissions (such a pad cannot be transmitted without compromising security). Sometimes humans and aliens discover that one man's trash is another man's treasure. And in Charles Stross' IRON SUNRISE, the most valuable things are packages of entangled quantum dots, used for FTL communication via Bell's Inequality (with the fascinating twist that the dots must be transported slower than light or they are ruined. They are shipped by Starwisp).

"You've got your own causal channel?" Frank asked, hope vying with disbelief...

..."Tiny — it's the second memory card in my camera." She held her thumb and forefinger apart. "Looks just like a normal solid state plug. Blue packaging."...

...Alice looked over the waist-high safety wall, then backed away from the edge. "I'm not climbing down there. But a bird — hmmmm. Think I've got a sampler head left. If it can eject the card . . . you want me to have a go? Willing to stake half your bandwidth with me if I can liberate it?"

"Guess so. It's got about six terabits left. Fifty-fifty split." Thelma nodded. "How about it?"

"Six terabits —" Frank shook his head in surprise. He hated to think how much it must have cost to haul those milligrams of entangled quantum dots across the endless light years between here and Turku by slower-than-light starwisp. Once used they were gone for good, coherence destroyed by the process that allowed them to teleport the state of a single bit between points in causally connected space-time. STL shipping prices started at a million dollars per kilogram-parsec; it was many orders of magnitude more expensive than FTL, and literally took decades or centuries of advanced planning to set up. But if it could get them a secure, instantaneous link out into the interstellar backbone nets..."

From IRON SUNRISE by Charles Stross (2004)

The reason trade exists is that different groups are efficient at doing different things. For example, let us say there are two countries, A and B. A takes 15 man-hours to make a widget, but only 5 to make a thingummy. B takes 5 to make a widget and 15 to make a thingummy. Suppose each country produces as many thingummies as widgets, and each has 100 man-hours to allocate. Each will then produce 5 thingummies and 5 widgets ((5*15) + (5*5) = 75 + 25 = 100 man-hours). If A and B now open trade, each may concentrate on producing the item which it produces more efficiently; A will produce thingummies and B widgets. Since a thingummy costs A 5 man-hours, it can produce 20; similarly, B produces 20 widgets. They trade 10 thingummies for 10 widgets, since each wants as many thingummies as widgets. The final result is that each country has 10 thingummies and 10 widgets and each is twice as well off as before. (Indeed, trade is even in the best interest of both when one party has an efficiency advantage in both products, because trade will allow him to shift production into areas where his efficiency is greater.)

One problem not taken into account in the above analysis is the cost of transportation (and other barrier costs, such as import and export duties) which raise the cost of doing business with another group.

From The 11 Billion Dollar Bottle of Wine by Greg Costikyan (1982)

But all we collected in years of fringe-running was a reputation. The cargoes we carried never made a fortune, but they created rumours. The stories we could tell about ourselves were impressive, and contained enough truth for later voyagers to confirm that we might actually have done what we said. Lapthorn liked people to talk about us.

After the fringe, I tried to come back into the really big markets, in search of a killing. Guns, cosmetics, jewellery, and drugs were all hot markets, with constant demand and irregular supply. Anything in which fashion rules instead of utility is a good market for the trader — and that includes weaponry as well as decoration and edification. I reckoned that we had the initiative to dig out the best, and I was right, but times had moved on while we were out on the rim with the dropouts, and we failed at the other end — the outlets. We couldn't get a fair price, with the middle-men moving into the star-worlds in droves, quoting the Laws of New Rome, and the ordinances of wherever they happened be, and never moving their hands from their gun butts. It was enough to sour anyone against life in the inner circle. I began to sympathise with Lapthorn's dislike of the human way of life.

We stuck with it for a while, because I thought Lapthorn’s genius for digging out the best gems and the most exciting drugs might see us through. But it was useless. The little people seemed to take an excessive delight in cheating us and leaning on us because we were known. The other free traders talked about us. We were the best, by their lights. But we weren't system-beaters. We weren't equipped for dealing with that kind of problem, we had no alternative but to return to small trading, alien to alien. Lapthorn wasn't sorry, of course, and my sorrow was more for the evil ways of the world in general than for our own small part in the human condition.

From THE HALCYON DRIFT by Brian Stapleford (1972)

“We must study them.” Bury’s Motie sipped contemplatively at his dirty water, “We spoke of coffees and wines. My associates have noticed—how shall I put it?—a strong cultural set toward wines, among your scientists and Navy officers.”

“Yes. Place of origin, dates, labels, ability to travel in free fall, what wines go with what foods.” Bury grimaced. “I have listened, but I know nothing of this. I find it annoying and expensive that some of my ships must move under constant acceleration merely to protect a wine bottle from its own sediments. Why can they not simply be centrifuged on arrival?”

From The Mote in God's Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (1975)


The main mechanism for trade is what is called "Arbitrage", the practice of taking advantage of a price difference between two or more markets. In this context it boils down to "buy cheap and sell dear", that is, purchase goods that are cheap at Planet A, then transport and sell them at Planet B where the goods are expensive. The money you make selling at Planet B, minus how much you spent purchasing at Planet A yields your gross profit. Subtract from that your transport expenses and other expenses and you'll find your net profit (if any).

There is also the problem of price convergence. The profit is from the price difference between the two markets. The difference tends to shrink over time, which eliminates the profit. Sometimes the market at your destination becomes saturated (as the manufacturers of Beanie Babies found out), sometimes the supply at the origin dries up (like petroleum).


In H. B. Fyfe's little classic "In Value Deceived", a alien exploration starship is searching for a way to alleviate the famine on their homeworld. They make first contact with a human starship on some barren little world. On a tour of the human's ship, they are thunderstruck when they see the hydroponic installations. It's the key to salvation for their people!

But of course they feign disinterest. They ask for one as a souvenir. They don't notice the similar disinterest with which the humans ask for an alien heating unit. The one that produces all that pesky ash. Stuff like uranium and gold nuggets.

Both aliens and humans are surprised when both parties make quick good-byes after the trade and take off before the trade is regretted. They both think "gee, the other guys act like they cheated us."

This gives the sky merchant a grasp of economics rarely achieved by bankers or professors. He is engaged in barter and no nonsense. He pays taxes he can't evade and doesn't care whether they are called "excise" or "king's pence" or "squeeze" or straight-out bribes. It is the other kid's bat and ball and backyard, so you play by his rules — nothing to get in a sweat about...

...By the Law of Supply and Demand a thing has value from where it is as much as from what it is — and that's what a merchant does; he moves things from where they are cheap to where they are worth more. A smelly nuisance in a stable is valuable fertilizer if you move it to the south forty. Pebbles on one planet can be precious gems on another. The art in selecting cargo lies in knowing where things will be worth more, and the merchant who can guess right can reap the wealth of Midas in one trip. Or guess wrong and go broke...

...The trade routes for a two-way swap show minimum profit; they fill up too quickly. But a triangular trade — or higher numbers — can show high profits. Like this: Landfall had something — call it cheese — which was a luxury on Blessed — while Blessed produced — call it chalk — much in demand on Valhalla ... whereas Valhalla manufactured doohickeys that Landfall needed.

Work this in the right direction and get rich; work it backwards and lose your shirt.

From TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE by Robert Heinlein (1973)


Traditionally, the unit of currency in science fictional futures is called the "credit". This is the futuristic equivalent of a dollar, Euro, or whatever. Using metric, one megacredit is a cool million credits. In some science fiction, physical money is illegal since the Police State cannot trace such transactions. Nowadays we have Bitcoin (BTC), symbolized by , Ƀ, or ฿. You can find an amusing list of the names of various fictional currencies here

  • In SPI's RPG Universe and Star Trader, the unit of currency was the "Tran" or "transaction", where 1 Tran was equal to about $500.
  • SPI's Star Force had "LaborCredits".
  • In Philip E. High's The Prodigal Sun money was literally hours of work.
  • In James Blish's Cities in Flight the OC Dollar was based on the Germanium Standard, because of its vital use in transistors and computer chips. This worked fine, until some joker figured out how to synthesise germanium and thus destroyed the economy of the entire galaxy.
  • In George O, Smith's "Pandora's Millions", the invention of a replicator crashed the economy of the solar system. Replicators mean there are no longer any rare metals to base your money on, and all material goods become basically free. The only thing of value are personal services (such as those of a surgeon or doctor). The only thing that prevents utter disaster is a synthetic element that cannot be replicated (because replication causes it to explode). The element allows one to create cheques, legal tender, and other critical items that cannot be counterfeited by a replicator.
  • In the Star Trek universe, the Federation is a post-money society that uses replicators. The Ferengi use "gold-pressed Latinum" as the basis of their currency, since Latinum is the one element a replicator cannot create.
  • EVE Online has a little more complex a take on things. The currency, known as ISK (Inter-Stellar Kredits), is not so much a global currency as it is a global exchange currency. Planetary economies and sometimes individual planetary nations almost all have their own currencies, ISK was merely setup as an exchange medium to manage the obscene amounts of money being used at the interstellar level
  • In the Micronauts series of comic books, the evil Baron Karza has a monopoly on lifespan prolongation technology (the "Body Banks"). He issues his own currency called "Life Credits", with which a person can purchase extended lifespan. The underclass waste all their credits in gambling institutions, and can sell personal organs and other body parts in exchange for more life credits. The aristocracy is firmly under control of Karza, since they know he literally has the power of life or death over them.
  • In the Demon Princes pentology by Jack Vance the currency 'SVU' or Standard Value Unit was a printed note equal in value to one hour of common labor. A device called a "fake meter" is used to detect counterfeits. In the second novel the protagonist discover how to fool the fake meter, and hilarity ensues.
  • In The Great Explosion by Eric Frank Russell, the planet K22g is a post-money utopian society, but they still have a medium of exchange. They use favor-exchange based on "obs" (obligations). This might explain the value of the poker chips you see in all those Star Trek poker games.
  • In John Morressy's Del Whitby series, the unit of currency was the cash-cube. These were cubical coins of precious metal.
  • In Diane Duane's My Enemy, My Ally, the Romulan's currency is in the form of chains of precious metal.
  • In John Brunner's Intersellar Empire series, the currency is in the form of rings of preciouis metal.
  • In Frank Herbert's novel DUNE, the Fremen's currency is based on liters of water, symbolized by metal rings. They tie the rings in strips of cloth so as to not make noise when they are sneaking up on an enemy.
  • In the Battletech universe, a common unit of currency was the C-Bill, redeemable for a certain amount of data transmission on Comstar's FTL communications network.
  • In the simulation game High Frontier, the unit of currency is "the most valuable thing in the universe", namely water. Water can be used for reaction mass, as a source of hydrogen and oxygen, radiation shielding, and a host of other uses. The unit is a 40 metric ton tank.
  • In Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars Trilogy, calories of heat were used as the basis of the Martian economy.
  • I am somewhat dubious about the Quasi Universal Intergalactic Denomination. Apparently it is intended to be safe in the space environment and will survive the space environment. This means it is constructed out of a space-qualified polymer, emit no toxic fumes, has no sharp edged, be resistant to high temperatures, and not use a magnetic strip like a credit card since cosmic radiation will render them inoperative.
  • Of course nowadays most people use credit cards and PayPal.

Note that while Planet A and Planet B may both internally use a barter system instead of money, they might use arbitrary money (a nonstandard medium of exchange) when trading between each other. Using a medium of exchange avoids the problem of ensuring there is a double coincidence of wants, which is a problem inherent in the barter system.


Floyd the guitar player lives in a culture that uses barter. At his job at the local bar, he is paid with booze and food. Unfortunately Floyd's landlord will not accept booze and food for the rent. In this case there is no coincidence of wants: Floyd wants his apartment for the month but the landlord does NOT want booze and food. However, in that happy double coincidence of wants, if Floyd's landlord happened to be throwing a party and wanted some guitar music, and Floyd wanted his apartment for the month, the barter system works.

The point is that a double coincidence of wants does not happen very often, which makes the barter system rather awkward and impractical. If however you create some arbitrary money-like medium of exchange, you can avoid the whole mess. It also avoids the problem of when one of the things you are bartering has a shelf-life or is seasonal.

Sometimes you will see traders using Trade Tokens. These are basically money that is not issued by a government, but instead by a private company, group, association or individual. From the 17th to the early 19th century these were used by merchants because the local government was not up to the task of issuing enough coins to allow business to operate. Nowadays you generally see them in the form of casino chips, in video arcades, and car washes. But a hypothetical interstellar trading company might issue their own trade tokens if there were no local government in the trade area, or at least one single government recognized by all the trade planets.

And scrip is an even more localized form of trade tokens. You often see this in old time mining or logging camps. The employees were not paid in money, but instead in company scrip. The company scrip could only be spent in the company store. Due to this Truck system, the employees more often than not wound up owing their soul to the company store.

Historically coins were disc shaped because that's what you get when you roll out a measured ball of precious metal and flatten it with a stamp bearing the King's face. They are also convenient to carry, especially if they have a hole in the middle for stringing. You should mill the edges to prevent crooks from engaging in the crime of coin clipping. Though nowadays most US coins are composed of such worthless metal that the milling is purely decorative or as a aid to the visually handicapped.

In medieval times there were so many currencies that merchants had to carry coin pan balances in order to determine the worth of a given coin.

Unless all the planets you trade with are members of the same interstellar govenrment, or there exists some sort of interstellar money-changing organization, the money used on one planet is worthless on another planet.

If you have a group of planets that share a common currency, for the planets sake it is vitally important that they share a common fiscal policy. The ongoing Eurozone crisis has been made much worse by the fact that while the Eurozone has monetary union (i.e., one currency, the Euro) it does not have fiscal union (e.g., different tax and public pension rules). This ties the hands of European leaders, making the crisis almost impossible to solve. When the Eurozone was proposed, the various nations were persuaded to surrender their currency, but reluctant to surrender control of their fiscal policy (give up their national sovereignty? Never!). The proponents figured to get around the problem by doing the Eurozone union in two stages, which in retrospect was an insanely bad decision.

Labor time as money

“This is where we begin.” Relling pointed to a small box-like device attached to the far side of the table. “Most of this will be more or less familiar. Pick up the printed menu, select your dish, note the number of your selection and dial it—simple enough. The meal will come up through the delivery chute in the centre of the table.” Relling paused and beckoned him closer. “Now we come to the tricky part. Having selected our meal, the device expects us to pay for it and will not serve the meal until we do. Right. Now, on top of this box you will note the following—a calibrated dial with a double set of figures, a small slot for an economic key and three blank dials. The first blank dial is marked STANDARD CHARGES that will show the cost of the meal; the second is marked BALANCE—which is obvious; and the third, ADJUSTED BALANCE, will be made plain when I pay for the meal. Now watch.” He leaned forward and inserted his economic key into the small slot and immediately the three dials lit. The dial marked STANDARD CHARGE showed 4.07 and the second dial marked BALANCE showed 6y-282d-19.08.

Relling smiled. “Yes, it looks confusing but really it is quite simple. Our economic system is based on a time/work unit system. The cost of the meal is 4.07 while my credit balance at the bank is 6 years, 282 days and 19.08 hours. Follow? I then set the pointers on this calibrated dial to the cost of the meal or the figures under STANDARD CHARGE, which act gives the bank authority to deduct that amount from my credit balance, as you will see Look”

Gaynor saw the dial marked ADJUSTED BALANCE suddenly display the figures: 6y-282d-15.01.

“Simple, isn’t it?” Relling withdrew his key. “Now let’s sit down and enjoy this meal while it’s hot—you can ask questions as we eat.”

Gaynor had so many questions that he never remembered the substance of the meal.

“What’s to stop me using your key?”

“Each key is exactly tuned to the personality of the owner. Use mine and your order will not only be rejected but the device will call the police.”

“I could hold a gun to your head while you used it.”

Relling grinned. “All these mechanisms incorporate an hysteria index of acute sensitivity. You’d still get a rejection—and the police. Sorry, Gaynor. We have all the answers—you can’t beat this thing. All these devices are hooked to the Robotic Bank, which retains and records the entire credit of every individual in the community. You go to work, you clock in and immediately the Robotic Bank begins ticking in your credit until such a time as you clock out. All the time you are working you are adding to your abstract credit balance, a balance which can never be lost or stolen.”

Relling pushed aside his empty plate. “You’ll find work rates only mildly confusing. For instance, the publishing houses offer you this reporting job at rates of six-to-one or, more aptly, six hours’ pay for one hours work—which, if not riches, brings near-affluence.”

From THE PRODIGAL SUN by Philip E. High (1964)
Problem of germanium as money

There was money aboard the (starship) city, but no ordinary citizen ever saw it or needed it. It was there to be used exclusively for foreign trade—that is, to bargain for grazing rights, or other privileges and, supplies which the city did not and could not carry within the little universe bounded by its spindizzy field. The ancient herdsmen had accumulated gold and jewels for the same reason. Aboard Scranton, the equivalent metal was germanium, but there was actually very little of it in the city’s vaults; since germanium had been the universal metal base for money throughout this part of the galaxy ever since space flight had become practical most of the city’s currency was paper—the same “Oc dollar” everyone used in trading with the colonies.

They were also to use city facilities to refine the necessary power metals, chiefly thorium, of which Heaven had an abundance beyond its ability to process. After the economy was revamped, the Archangels hoped to have their own refineries, and to sell the pure stuffs to other planets. Curiously, they also had enough germanium to be willing to pay for the job in this metal, although it too was notoriously difficult to refine; this was fortunate for them, since without any present interstellar trade, they were woefully short of Oc Dollars.

The other factor was economic: The rise of the metal germanium as the jinn of solid-state physics. Long before flight into deep space became a fact, the metal had assumed a fantastic value on Earth. The opening of the interstellar frontier drove its price down to a manageable level, and gradually it emerged as the basic, stable monetary standard of space trade.

(ed note: Mayor Amalfi and the starship city of New York return to the civilized part of the galaxy, after being away for a bit more than a hundred years)

"Why?" Amalfi asked, in a reasonable one. "You shot at us first. We've done nothing wrong."

"Nothing but pass a bum check! Around here that's a crime worse than murder, brother. I checked you with Lerner, and he's frothing at the mouth. You'd damn well better pray that some other squad gets to you before his does!"

"A bum check?" Amalfi said. "You're blowing. Our money's better than anything you're using around here, by the looks of you. It's germanium—solid germanium."

"Germanium?" the dockman repeated incredulously.

"That's what I said. It'd pay you to clean your ears more often."

The garageman's eyebrows continued to go higher and higher, and the corners of his mouth began to quiver. Two fat, oily tears ran down his cheeks. Since he still had his hands locked behind his head, he looked remarkably like a man about to throw a fit. Then his whole face split open.

"Germanium!" He howled. "Ho, haw, haw, haw! Germanium! What hole in the plenum have you been living in, Okie? Germanium—haw, haw!" He emitted a weak gasp and took his hands down to wipe his eyes. "Haven't you any silver, or gold, or platinum, or tin, or iron? Or something else that's worth something? Clear out, bum. You're broke. Take it from me as a friend, clear out; I'm giving you good advice."

He seemed to have calmed down a little, Amalfi said. "What's wrong with germanium?"

"Nothing," the dockman said, looking at Amalfi over his incredible nose with a mixture of compassion and vindictiveness, "It's a good, useful metal. But it just isn't money any more, Okie. I don't see how you could have missed finding that out. Germanium is trash now—well, no, it's still worth something, but only what it's actually worth, if you get me. You have to buy it; you can't buy other things with it.

"It's no good here as money. It's no good anywhere else, either. Anywhere else. The whole galaxy is broke. Dead broke."

"And so are you."

He shelved it to consider what he had learned about his own bad check. Germanium never had had the enormous worth in real terms that it had had as a treasure metal. It did have properties which made it valuable in many techniques: the germanium lattice would part with an electron at the urging of a comparatively low amount of energy; the p-n boundary functioned as a crystal detector; and so on. The metal found its way into uncountable thousands of electronic devices—and, it was rare.

But not that rare. Like silver, platinum, and iridium before it, germanium's treasure value had been strictly artificial—an economic convention, springing from myths, jewelers' preferences, and the jealousy of statal monopolies. Sooner or later, some planet or cluster with a high technology—and a consequently high exchange rate— would capture enough of the metal to drive its competitors, or, more likely, its own treasury, off the germanium standard; or someone would learn to synthesize or transmute the element cheaply. It hardly mattered which had happened now.

What mattered was the result. The actual metallic germanium on board the city now had only an eighth of its former value at current rates of sale. Much worse, however, was the fact that most of the city's funds were not metal, but paper: Oc dollars, issued against government-held metal back on Earth and a few other administrative centers. This money, since it did not represent any metallic germanium that belonged to the city, was now unredeemable—valueless.

From Cities in Flight by James Blish (1970)
Asteroid mining crashes the gold market

"So what,” a rather harsh voice declared. “I'm T. Semyon Braunstein, Administrator of NAUGA-State, and we want to talk to you about our gold which you have been dispensing in a very cavalier fashion."

"You want it back, I take it?"

"Damn straight! We know you made a big haul when you took over NAU-Ceres I and we do indeed want it back."

"Well, now,” Cantrell said, “how much of your treasure am I supposed to have plundered?"

"We frankly don't know,” Braunstein replied, “and the presumption is that all the gold you have is ours in absence of proof to the contrary."

"That would appear to be arguable,” said Cantrell. “Let's stick to the facts."

"How much did you take?” Braunstein asked.

"One million four hundred and eighty thousand ounces. That's what, five tons? The entire lot was minted into Ceres d'Or and put into local circulation."

"You issued gold-backed paper, too,” McQuayle said, “a lot more than any one and a half million ounces, by damn!"

"So what? Gold-backed paper is paper, not gold."

"We want the gold that's backing it up,” Braunstein said. “That's our gold, you pirate!"

"Don't be such a (expletive deleted) fool,” Cantrell snapped. “Ceres—all the mines on Ceres—never produced more than about twelve million ounces a year. That's what—maybe forty tons. Today, here at Castillo Morales, I am depositing five thousand six hundred and sixty tons of gold. How did I get my hands on one hundred and forty-one years’ worth of your peak production, hey? Answer me that, clown!"

There was a rather long pause as McQuayle and Braunstein digested the information. “Where did the gold come from, then?” Braunstein asked.

"We used the big laser to refine a cubic kilometer of nickel-iron. It took us nearly a year."

"How much gold was there?” asked McQuayle.

"The nickel-iron assayed 0.75 ppm gold by weight,” replied Cantrell. “What's the weight of a cubic kilometer of nickel-iron, 8×109 tons?"

"And you could run off another five or six thousand tons of gold next year?” Braunstein asked.

"And the year after,” Cantrell agreed. “And the (Japanese) won't bother me about it because they have big lasers on most of their space stations, and most of the space stations with big lasers are close to large masses of nickel-iron. I've given them the whole technology."

"The gold standard,” McQuayle said weakly, “you've just shot the gold standard in the ass—one location producing five thousand tons of gold a year! Fifty would produce—what? Two hundred fifty thousand tons? And more would be coming on stream all the time ... we pegged the dollar at eight hundred fifty to the ounce ... we can't hold it there ... we can't limit production—my God! What's our money going to be worth?"

"I suggest you get a handle on the paper,” Cantrell said, “because if you stick with the gold standard, you're in for one hell of an inflation."

"The gold mines on Ceres seem to be a bit redundant,” Braunstein remarked at last. “Do the Japanese realize that the gold you're dumping on them isn't worth (expletive deleted)?"

"No. They think, like you did, that it was stolen from the NAU.” Cantrell paused for a moment to watch the forklift trucks moving the pallets of gold bars. “Premier Ito will be announcing our agreement in about ten minutes, at 1900. I told him we'd work out the details when I got back to Rosinante."

"Well, goddamnit, get my financial advisors!” Braunstein yelled.

"I beg your pardon?"

"I wasn't talking to you, Cantrell."

"You've totally destroyed the economy of the world,” McQuayle said. “What did you get out of it, Cantrell?"

"Survival. The Japanese Fleet is already heading away from Rosinante. Besides, I expect the economy of the world will survive."

From The Pirates of Rosinante by Alexis Gilliland (1982)
What metal is rare?

And then Hardin withdrew a two-credit coin from his vest pocket. He flipped it and its stainless-steel surface caught flitters of light as it tumbled through the air. He caught it and-flipped it again, watching the flashing reflections lazily. Stainless steel made good medium of exchange on a planet where all metal had to be imported.

“Let’s get back to business,” urged Hardin. “How would you take these so-called taxes, your eminence? Would you take them in kind: wheat, potatoes, vegetables, cattle?”

The sub-prefect stared. “What the devil? What do we need with those? We’ve got hefty surpluses. Gold, of course. Chromium or vanadium would be even better, incidentally, if you have it in quantity.”

Hardin laughed. “Quantity! We haven’t even got iron in quantity. Gold! Here, take a look at our currency.” He tossed a coin to the envoy.

Haut Rodric bounced it and stared. “What is it? Steel?”

“That’s right.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Terminus is a planet practically without metals. We import it all. Consequently, we have no gold, and nothing to pay unless you want a few thousand bushels of potatoes.”

“Well — manufactured goods.”

“Without metal? What do we make our machines out of?”

From Foundation by Isaac Asimov (1951)
Private money

The secretary inspected his fingernails and said, "Listen further, then. The general would not waste his men and ships on a sterile feat of glory. I know he talks of glory and of Imperial honor, but it is quite obvious that the affectation of being one of the insufferable old demigods of the Heroic Age won't wash. There is something more than glory hereand he does take queer, unnecessary care of you. Now if you were my prisoner and told me as little of use as you have our general, I would slit open your abdomen and strangle you with your own intestines."

Devers remained wooden. His eyes moved slightly, first to one of the secretary's bully-boys, and then to the other. They were ready; eagerly ready.

The secretary smiled. "Well, now, you're a silent devil. According to the general, even a Psychic Probe made no impression, and that was a mistake on his part, by the way, for it convinced me that our young military whizz-bang was lying." He seemed in high humor.

"My honest tradesman," he said, "I have a Psychic Probe of my own, one that ought to suit you peculiarly well. You see this—"

And between thumb and forefinger, held negligently, were intricately designed, pink-and-yellow rectangles which were most definitely obvious in identity.

Devers said so. "It looks like cash," he said.

"Cash it is — and the best cash of the Empire, for it is backed by my estates, which are more extensive than the Emperor's own. A hundred thousand credits. All here! Between two fingers! Yours!"

"For what, sir? I am a good trader, but all trades go in both directions."

"For what? For the truth! What is the general after? Why is he fighting this war?"

Lathan Devers sighed, and smoothed his beard thoughtfully.

"What he's after?" His eyes were following the motions of the secretary's hands as he counted the money slowly, bill by bill. "In a word, the Empire."

"Hmp. How ordinary! It always comes to that in the end. But how? What is the road that leads from the Galaxy's edge to the peak of Empire so broadly and invitingly?"

"The Foundation," said Devers, bitterly, "has secrets. They have books, old books — so old that the language they are in is only known to a few of the top men. But the secrets are shrouded in ritual and religion, and none may use them. I tried and now I am here — and there is a death sentence waiting for me, there."

"I see. And these old secrets? Come, for one hundred thousand I deserve the intimate details."

"The transmutation of elements," said Devers, shortly.

The secretary's eyes narrowed and lost some of their detachment. "I have been told that practical transmutation is impossible by the laws of nucleics."

"So it is, if nuclear forces are used. But the ancients were smart boys. There are sources of power greater than the nuclei and more fundamental. If the Foundation used those sources as I suggested—"

Devers felt a soft, creeping sensation in his stomach. The bait was dangling; the fish was nosing it.

The secretary said suddenly, "Continue. The general, I am sure, is aware of a this. But what does he intend doing once he finishes this opéra-bouffe affair?"

Devers kept his voice rock-steady. "With transmutation he controls the economy of the whole set-up of your Empire. Mineral holdings won't be worth a sneeze when Riose can make tungsten out of aluminum and iridium out of iron. An entire production system based on the scarcity of certain elements and the abundance of others is thrown completely out of whack. There'll be the greatest disjointment the Empire has ever seen, and only Riose will be able to stop it. And there is the question of this new power I mentioned, the use of which won't give Riose religious heebies.

"There's nothing that can stop him now. He's got the Foundation by the back of the neck, and once he's finished with it, he'll be Emperor in two years."

"So." Brodrig laughed lightly. "Iridium out of iron, that's what you said, isn't it? Come, I'll tell you a state secret. Do you know that the Foundation has already been in communication with the general?"

Devers' back stiffened.

"You look surprised. Why not? It seems logical now. They offered him a hundred tons of iridium a year to make peace. A hundred tons of iron converted to iridium in violation of their religious principles to save their necks. Fair enough, but no wonder our rigidly incorruptible general refused — when he can have the iridium and the Empire as well. And poor Cleon called him his one honest general. My bewhiskered merchant, you have earned your money."

He tossed it, and Devers scrambled after the flying bills.

Lord Brodrig stopped at the door and turned. "One reminder, trader. My playmates with the guns here have neither middle ears, tongues, education, nor intelligence. They can neither hear, speak, write, nor even make sense to a Psychic Probe. But they are very expert at interesting executions. I have bought you, man, at one hundred thousand credits. You will be good and worthy merchandise. Should you forget that you are bought at any time and attempt to ... say ... repeat our conversation to Riose, you will be executed. But executed my way."

And in that delicate face there were sudden hard lines of eager cruelty that changed the studied smile into a red-lipped snarl. For one fleeting second, Devers saw that space fiend who had bought his buyer, look out of his buyer's eyes.

From Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov (1952)
Money and air tax

"If you're basing the system on abundance and free trade, you won't need money, for example ..."

"Oh, but we do and will. It's one of the greatest of all human inventions. With it, we can trade with or for something in the future that doesn't exist yet. And since it's only score-keeping, we can use the comm/info net to do it."

I was out of my element, and I knew it. Money was something that was fairly easy to come by if I worked for it, and it was primarily useful for buying bread and butter. I didn't try to fathom the "Free-and-Twenty-One" economics where the actual value of money slipped and slid around, depending upon buying power. My standard of exchange was breakfast. Anywhere in the U.S., a good breakfast cost about ten dollars, and I used that yardstick to figure the value of currency when I was in other countries. I considered my primitive method of determining monetary value to be basic economics.

"Yes, the wording is such that the boycott will affect all space commerce activities carried on by the Commonwealth and its registered space facilities," Trip Sinclair observed, "even the League of Free Traders, Kevin."

"How about our Lagrangian operations?" Ursila Peri's video image wanted to know. "How can they boycott trade operations off-planet?"

"Is your air bill current, Ursila?" Trip asked her.

"Yes, but even if it wasn't, nobody out here would cut off another person's life support. If the credit line got over-extended too much for too long, we'd put the debtor on a ship home. We work together because there's a lot of nothing waiting for everybody beyond the bulkhead," she said. "They're going to have trouble enforcing tariff arrangements and trade boycotts out here, that agreement sounds exactly like something written up by a bunch of people who always have pressure around them and gravity to keep their feet on the floor. Earthworms!" She made it sound like an insult.

"Sandy, this is Jeri Hospah. Don't let his attempts at humor put you off; sometimes he means what he says. Jeri, find a sack for Sandy and issue him some chits. Then fake up some paperwork that will keep the Ell-Five people happy," Ali instructed us...

...Uncountable hours later, I awoke in the wan sleeping light of the personal compartment and was momentarily confused until I remembered where I was. I felt physically refreshed but still mentally fatigued. That's a dangerous condition in space because little things can kill a careless person.

Somebody had left a flight suit and a Remain-Over-Night kit. Jeri Hospah was either thoughtful or had a well-trained station crew. I took a sponge bath, put on the flight suit and slippers, and decided I might live if I could find breakfast.

The RON kit had a pack of chits—air, meal, water, airlock cycles—as well as an L-5 facilities directory and a visitor's card for the Free Traders' Lounge.

A note was in the kit. "Call me at 96-69-54 and I'll chit you breakfast—Jeri."

From MANNA by Lee Correy (G. Harry Stine) (1983)
Martian air tax

(ed note: the superintendent explains the facts of life to the new voluntary exiles to Mars. Keep in mind that on Mars, the air you breath is NOT free, it has to be manufactured and you have to pay for it.)

"Hear and believe," Farr said. "Okay, chums, let me give you the facts of life. Number one. Don't try to escape. There's no place to go. If you make it outside, you'll live about fifteen seconds. There's no air out there, and your blood will boil away in your veins. It's not a pretty way to go, and I'm told it's painful as hell.

"Number two. Don't try to escape. You may think you're smart and see a way to get a p-suit. You may even be able to operate it. And then what? You can't make air, and you can't carry enough to get anywhere worth going. Running out of air's not a lot better than going out without a suit.

"Number three. Don't try to escape. Sure there's a town here, and sure there are a lot of people in it. But you'll pay for everything, and I do mean everything."

He lifted an orange disk that hung from a chain around his neck. I'd noticed that everyone except us newcomers wore one, but they weren't all the same color. "Air-tax receipt," Farr said. "Mine's orange because I'm due to have it recharged. If it turns red, that's it. Pay up or go outside. You'll need air medals, because God help you if anybody catches you in town without one."

"Why? What happens?" someone demanded.

"Outside," Farr said. "Not even a chance to pay up. Just out."

"And who's to put me out?" Kelso demanded.

Farr grinned. "Every man jack who's paid his taxes, that's who. Might take several for you, but they'll do it."

At Central Processing they charged our air tags to bright green, forty days' worth. They gave us a hundred Mars dollars, worth about half that in Federation credits. We changed our coveralls for new ones, with a choice of blue or orange.

I found a tunnel end to sleep in. They'd been digging out to expand the city, but this project was halted for lack of a labor force. Nobody bothered me. I figured I had nothing worth stealing, anyway. That turned out to be stupid: I had a charged air tag, and that would be worth my life if there was anybody around desperate enough to cut my throat for it. Nobody was, just then.

I'd been there ten days and my air tag was turning from green to yellow, It was getting time to move on. I figured another couple of days would do it.

From Birth of Fire (collected in Fires of Freedom) by Jerry Pournelle (1976)
Introducting money

(ed note: Lucas Trask is trying to civilize a colony world that has fallen back to about horse and bow-n-arrow technology)

"The first order," Trask said, "is that these people you have working here are to be paid. They are not to be beaten by these plug-uglies you have guarding them. If any of them want to leave, they may do so; they will be given presents — and furnished transportation home. Those who wish to stay will be issued rations, furnished with clothing and bedding and so on as they need it, and paid wages. We'll work out. some kind of a pay-token system and set up a commissary where they can buy things."

Discs of plastic or titanium or something, stamped and uncounterfeitable. Get Alvyn Karffard to see about, that. Organize work-gangs, and promote the best and most intelligent to foremen. And those guards could be taken in hand by some ground-fighter sergeant and given Sword-World weapons and tactical training; use them to train others;, they'd need a sepoy army of some sort. Even the best of good will is no substitute for armed force, conspicuously, displayed and unhesitatingly used when necessary.

"And there'll be no more of this raiding villages for food or anything else. We will pay for anything we get from any of the locals."

"We'll have trouble about that," Valkanhayn predicted. "Our men think anything a local has belongs to anybody who can take it."

"So do I," Harkaman said. "On a planet I'm raiding. This is our planet, and our locals. We don't raid our own planet or our own people. You'll just have to teach them that."

The labor-guards, a score in number, were relieved of their duties, issued Sword-World firearms, and given intensive training. The trade-tokens, stamped of colored plastic, were introduced, and a store was set up where they could be exchanged for Sword-World items. After a while, it dawned on the locals that the tokens could also be used for trading among themselves; money seemed to have been one of the adjuncts of civilization that had been lost along Tanith's downward path.

From SPACE VIKING by H. Beam Piper (1963)
Ain't no interstellar money

(Planet) Blessed would not have been on my route other than for business reasons. Interstellar trade is economics stripped to basics. You can't make money by making money because money isn't money other than on its planet of issue. Most money is fiat; a ship's cargo of the stuff is wastepaper elsewhere. Bank credit is worth even less; Galactic distances are too great. Even money that jingles must be thought of as trade goods — not money — or you'll kid yourself into starvation.

I had worked the first leg, Landfall to Blessed, successfully... Anyhow, I got such a nice price that I temporarily had too much money.

How much is "too much"? Whatever you can't spend before you leave a place you are not coming back to. If you hang onto that excess and come back later, you will usually find — invariably, so far as I recall — that inflation or war or taxes or changes in government or something has wiped out the alleged value of fiat money you may have kept.

From TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE by Robert Heinlein (1973)
Internet managed finances

(ed note: this seemed science-fictional back in 1972, but has become a reality today)

Two humans, big, muscular fellows, were pushing their way ungently to the stage. The one on Flinx's left wore glasses—not for their antique therapeutic value, but because in some current fashion circles it was considered something of a fad. He extended a credcard.

"Can you accept this, boy?"

Flinx bridled at the 'boy.' but extracted his card meter. "Indeed I can, sir. Ask your question."

The man opened his mouth, paused. "How do I know what to pay you?"

"I can't set value on my answers, only on your question. Whatever you deem it worth, sir. If I give no answer I will refund your credits." He gestured to where the minidrag rested alertly on his shoulder. "My pet here seems to have a feel for the emotional states of others which is quite sensitive. Even more so than myself. A swindler, for example, exudes something that he is especially sensitive to. I am rarely swindled."

The man smiled without mirth. "I wonder why?" He dialled a setting on the card, extended it again. "Will a hundred credits do?"

Flinx was quick to stifle his reaction. A hundred credits! That was more than he sometimes made in a month! For a moment he was tempted to lower the figure, mindful of the laugh Mother Mastiff might have if she found out. Especially after his comments on her priceings this morning. Then he reminded himself that, after all, the man had set the price and surely would not cheat himself. He tried but could detect no trace; of humour about the man. Nor his companion. Quite the contrary. And he hadn't heard the question yet. What if he couldn't answer it?

"A ... a hundred credits would be most satisfactory, sir." The man nodded and stuck his card in the little black meter. The compact machine hummed softly and the amount, one-oh-oh-zero-zero, clicked into place on its tiny dial. There was a. brief pause and then it buzzed once, the red light on its top glowing brightly. It noted that the amount of so-and-so, card number such-and-such, was good for the amount dialled, and that credits numbering one hundred (100) had been transferred to the account of one Philip Lynx (his given name in the city records) in the Royal Depository of the sovereign Republic of Moth. Flinx returned the box to its place in his pouch and looked back to the two expectant men.

"Ask your question, sirs."

From The Tar Aiym Krang by Alan Dean Foster (1972)
Internet managed finances 2

A family got up to leave. The wife paid Rosaria with three separate credit chips. From the prices chalked beside the serving window, the five dinners totaled less than ten pesos—one and a half Frisian thalers. The citizens of Potosi didn’t have easy access to credit terminals which could have combined the small amounts into a single chip for convenience.

“So our Frisian visitors arrive,” Peres caroled, “they clean up our problem. They board the ship we provide, though they don’t know the ship’s ours. And the ship never gets home. The credit chips are aboard the same vessel, so they’re never presented for payment. End of story, yes?”

From The Sharp End by David Drake (1993)


Back in medieval times, merchant voyage durations were measured in years and long distance communication was non-existent. The same may hold true with hypothetical interstellar traders. In order to cope with the problems, medieval merchants invented Letters of Credit and Bills of Lading. For a simple explanation (with diagrams) of how they worked go here.

A letter of credit is a document issued by a financial institution, or a similar party, assuring payment to a seller of goods and/or services.[1] The seller then seeks reimbursement from the buyer or from the buyer's bank. The document serves essentially as a guarantee to the seller that it will be paid by the issuer of the letter of credit regardless of whether the buyer ultimately fails to pay. In this way, the risk that the buyer will fail to pay is transferred from the seller to the letter of credit's issuer.The letter of credit also insures that all the agreed upon standards and quality of goods are met by the supplier.

Letters of credit are used primarily in international trade for large transactions between a supplier in one country and a customer in another. In such cases, the International Chamber of Commerce Uniform Customs and Practice for Documentary Credits applies (UCP 600 being the latest version).[2] They are also used in the land development process to ensure that approved public facilities (streets, sidewalks, storm water ponds, etc.) will be built. The parties to a letter of credit are the supplier, usually called the beneficiary, the issuing bank, of whom the buyer is a client, and sometimes an advising bank, of whom the beneficiary is a client. Almost all letters of credit are irrevocable, i.e., cannot be amended or canceled without the consent of the beneficiary, issuing bank, and confirming bank, if any. In executing a transaction, letters of credit incorporate functions common to giros and traveler's cheques.

From "Letter of Credit" entry of Wikipedia

A bill of lading (sometimes abbreviated as B/L or BOL) is a document used in the transport of goods by sea. It serves several purposes in international trade, both as transit information and title to the goods.

A legal document between the shipper of a particular good and the carrier detailing the type, quantity and destination of the good being carried. The bill of lading also serves as a receipt of shipment when the good is delivered to the predetermined destination. This document must accompany the shipped goods, no matter the form of transportation, and must be signed by an authorized representative from the carrier, shipper and receiver.

From "Bill of Lading" entry of Wikipedia

Medieval merchants had other innovations that might be useful in an interstellar trading future.

The roads were bad and in poor repair. Ocean routes were treacherous. Brigands and pirates lurked in parts of the trade route far from any help. Distant nations treated merchants with disdain at best and as rich people to rob at worst. And every single landowner along the trade route felt that they had a right to extort whatever tax they could get out of the trade caravan.

To fix these problems the medieval merchants found effective solutions, the most effective being the concept of a Merchant Guild. These were association of of traders. Guilds could invest the member's fees in such things as improving road conditions and suppressing pirates and brigands. Lighthouses were erected at dangerous points, to prevent merchant shipwrecks. The guild would negotiate treaties of commerce with foreign nations, protecting the liberty and security of guild members (sometimes the guild could even get an agreement for foreign troops to travel with a trade caravan). And while a single trader could not do much about landowner's imposed taxes, a huge guild could negotiate from a position of power. Negotiations with a landowner would result in a Merchant Guild charter, where guild members would pay a fixed sum or an annual payment for right of passage.

You can see how these concepts can be re-used in an interstellar trading future, the situations are much the same.

The flip-side of course is that the guild members have to pay their dues to the guild, and obey all the guild regulations. Members cannot engage in any type of trade forbidden by the Guild charter, fines were imposed on members who broke the rules, and guild members had to aid and support fellow guild members in times of trouble. If a guild member was killed, the guild would care for any orphans thus tragically created. Guilds also supplied health insurance, funeral expenses, and doweries for girls who could not afford them.

Naturally the guilds became quite powerful. Independent traders would find it difficult to compete. In a village, local craftsmen also found it difficult to compete with the Merchant guilds, which lead to the rise of Craft guilds in self-defense. Eventually the merchant guild members delegated all the actual traveling and trading jobs in their profession to employees, and instead sat comfortably at home while their factors did all the hard work.

A trading post or "factory" is where a merchant (or the merchant's factor) carries on the merchant's business on a foreign planet. The trading post exchanges imported trade items for valuable local goods. In some cases a trading post and a couple of warehouses can grow into an actual colony. The trading post merchant or factor is responsible for the local goods logistics (proper storage and shipping), assesing and packaging for spacecraft transport. The factor is the representative for the merchant in all matters, reporting everything to the merchant headquarters. The longer the communication time delay between trading post and headquarters, the more trustworthy the factor has to be. Factors may work with native contract suppliers, called a comprador

Also interesting is how the rise of the 17th century Dutch seaborne empire was due in part to their superior utilization of wind energy in the form of their breakthrough cargo transport, the Fluyt ship. Unlike other cargo ships of the time, the Fluyt was not designed to be easily converted into a warship. It was pure merchant vessel. This means it was cheaper to build, carried twice the cargo, and needed a smaller crew. Specialized shipyards optimised for Fluyt production brought the construction price down to a mere 50% of a cost of a conventional ship. It could also operate in much shallower water than a conventional ship, allowing it to get cargo in and out of ports other ships could not reach. By using a Fluyt, cargo transport costs were only 70% to 50% of the transport cost with a conventional ship. The only trade route Fluyts could not be used on were long haul voyages to the East Indies and the New World, because Fluyts were unarmed.

If you are a science fiction writer or game creator, these ideas should start the wheels turning in your mind. It may be instructive to read a couple of history textbooks on the topic of Merchant Guilds, and look over the Nicholas van Rijn stories of Poul Anderson.

While a trading post can be on a remote planet at the frontier of a long space route, a Transport Nexus will probably be more centrally located. A trading post planet might be the only source of some valuable luxury good (exotic gem stones, unique liquor, native artworks) so it can be located on Planet Sticks in the Boondocks Cluster. By way of contrast, transport nexuses are centers of commerce and will be "strategically" located. If one is talking about science fictional faster-than-light starship trade, they will be at important junctures and cross-roads. If one is talking about real-science Solar system trade, there ain't no such junctures, so strategic will probably mean on or in orbit around planets that are important markets for interplanetary trade goods. You cannot have permanent junctures when the destination planets are constantly changing their position relative to each other.

A transport nexus is a crossroads for passengers, a port of entry, a trade warehouse where interplanetary goods are stored, released, and transshipped, a "trade-town".

Predictably, as soon as a merchant tries to move his imported goods out of the spaceport, the tax and tariff man shows up. As Terry Pratchett said, there exists Death and Taxes, and taxes is worse since at least death doesn't happen every time you try to cross the customs border.

If some trade goods landing at the spaceport are destined for another port, they are unloaded into a spaceport bonded warehouse, and later loaded into another merchant spacecraft. The point is the goods are just passing through, so the local customs agents can do nothing. However, if the spaceport is at the market for the trade goods, the port will probably be inside a sovereign nation, and the sovereign nation wants their taxes. The nation will have its customs and immigration agents controlling the flow of goods and people into and out of the spaceport, enforcing the nation's customs and immigration laws. The magic line is called the customs border. Goods land at the spaceport inside the customs border. The instant the goods are shipped across the border they have to be cleared by the customs agents, and the relevant duties, tariffs, and taxes paid. And some goods are contraband, which are restricted or prohibited from crossing the customs border. Depending upon the law, contraband items are refused entry or confiscated.

If the nation's list of contraband includes lucrative items, or if the tariffs are too high, there will be a strong fence around the customs border patrolled by customs agents on the lookout for smugglers.

The spaceport area inside the customs border is usually a free trade zone. In this zone, goods may be landed, handled, manufactured or reconfigured, and reexported without the intervention of the customs authorities. The agents cannot interfere at all with goods that are transshipped through the port. Trade goods inside the free trade zone are stored in bonded warehouses.

Futuristic silk road

The Silk Road Convoy was almost three hundred years old.

Its path roughly described a bent and swollen, meandering, broken ellipse along the edge of the rift and then out and across it and back again. A closer examination might reveal that the trail of the convoy was actually a series of lesser arcs tracing through the spiral arm, then turning reluctantly out into the darkness of The Deep Rift, with one scheduled stopover at the forlorn worlds of Marathon, Ghastly, and George, then across The Great Leap and into the lips of the ghostly streamer known as The Purse on the opposite side, then around The Outbeyond, down toward The Silver Horn, and finally turning home again, leaping across at The Narrows and then down through The Valley of Death to The Heart of Darkness, then a sudden dogleg up to a place of desperate joy known as Last Chance, before finally sliding into The Long Ride Home and a golden world called Glory.

The Silk Road Convoy was the oldest of all the caravans on the route. It was not the largest fleet on the route, but it was definitely the richest and most prestigious.

The convoy followed the path of an ancient exploration vessel. Colonies had followed the vessel. Traders had followed the colonies. The trade had evolved over the centuries into a trade route called The Silk Road. Eventually, due to the twists and vagaries of luck and history and fate, it became one of the most profitable routes known in the Alliance. At any given moment there might be as many as thirty different caravans scattered along its great curving length—but only the original Silk Road Convoy was entitled to bear the name of the trade route. This was because the partnership which had grown up with the original Silk Road Convoy also owned or controlled most of the directorships of the Silk Road Authority.

The Silk Road Authority was larger than most governments. It held three seats in the Alliance and controlled almost all of the trade, both legal and otherwise, within the ellipse of its influence. The Authority had major offices on every planet within thirty light-years of the primary route. Every merchant ship in the arm paid a license fee for the privilege of traveling the route and booking passengers and cargo through the offices of the Authority.

Some ships, like the notorious freebooter Eye of Argon, preferred to travel alone. Others paid for the privilege of traveling with a caravan. The caravans were near-permanent institutions.

Imagine a chain of vessels nearly three light-days long, islands of light strung through the darkness. They carried names like The Emerald Colony Traders (licensed to The Silk Road) and The Great Rift Corporation (licensed to The Silk Road) and Zetex Starlines (licensed to The Silk Road). The caravans provided service and safety—and safety had lately become a primary consideration for star travelers.

Because of its name, because of its age and its prestige, the Silk Road Convoy was considered the safest of all.

From Voyage of the Star Wolf by David Gerrold (1990)
Economics of mercenaries

Too often in history a mercenary force has disappeared a moment before the battle; switched sides for a well-timed bribe; or even conquered its employer and brought about the very disasters it was hired to prevent.

Mercenaries, for their part, face the chances common to every soldier of being killed by the enemy. In addition, however, they must reckon with the possibility of being bilked of their pay or massacred to avoid its payment; of being used as cannon fodder by an employer whose distaste for "money-grubbing aliens" may exceed the enemy's; or of being abandoned far from home when defeat or political change erases their employer or his good will.

A solution to both sets of special problems was made possible by the complexity of galactic commerce. The recorded beginnings came early in the twenty-seventh century when several planets caught up in the Confederation Wars used the Terran firm of Felchow und Sohn as an escrow agent for their mercenaries' pay. Felchow was a commercial banking house which had retained its preeminence even after Terran industry had been in some measure supplanted by that of newer worlds. Neither Felchow nor Terra herself had any personal stake in the chaotic rise and fall of the Barnard Confederation; thus the house was the perfect neutral to hold the pay of the condottieri being hired by all parties. Payment was scrupulously made to mercenaries who performed according to their contracts. This included the survivors of the Dalhousie debacle who were able to buy passage off that ravaged world, despite the fact that less than ten percent of the populace which had hired them was still alive. Conversely, the pay of Wrangel's Legion, which had refused to assault the Confederation drop zone on Montauk, was forfeited to the Montauk government.

Felchow und Sohn had performed to the satisfaction of all honest parties when first used as an intermediary. Over the next three decades the house was similarly involved in other conflicts, a passive escrow agent and paymaster. It was only after the Ariete Incident of 2662 that the concept coalesced into the one stable feature of a galaxy at war.

The Ariete, a division recruited mostly from among the militias of the Aldoni System, was hired by the rebels on Paley. Their pay was banked with Felchow, since the rebels very reasonably doubted that anyone would take on the well-trained troops of the Republic of Paley if they had already been handed the carrot. But the Ariete fought very well indeed, losing an estimated thirty percent of its effectives before surrendering in the final collapse of the rebellion. The combat losses have to be estimated because the Republican forces, in defiance of the "Laws of War" and their own promises before the surrender, butchered all their fifteen or so thousand mercenary prisoners.

Felchow und Sohn, seeing an excuse for an action which would raise it to incredible power, reduced Paley to Stone Age savagery.

An industrialized world (as Paley was) is an interlocking whole. Off-planet trade may amount to no more than five percent of its GDP; but when that trade is suddenly cut off, the remainder of the economy resembles a car lacking two pistons. It may make whirring sounds for a time, but it isn't going anywhere.

Huge as Felchow was, a single banking house could not have cut Paley off from the rest of the galaxy. When Felchow, however, offered other commercial banks membership in a cartel and a share of the lucrative escrow business, the others joined gladly and without exception. No one would underwrite cargoes to or from Paley; and Paley, already wracked by a war and its aftermath, shuddered down into the slag heap of history.

Lucrative was indeed a mild word for the mercenary business. The escrowed money itself could be put to work, and the escrowing bank was an obvious agent for the other commercial transactions needed to run a war. Mercenaries replaced equipment, recruited men, and shipped themselves by the thousands across the galaxy.

With the banks' new power came a new organization. The expanded escrow operations were made the responsibility of a Bonding Authority, still based in Bremen but managed independently of the cartel itself. The Authority's fees were high. In return, its Contracts Department was expert in preventing expensive misunderstandings from arising, and its investigative staff could neither be bribed nor deluded by a violator.

From "The Bonding Authority" by David Drake (1979)
Wealth of Galaxies

In the May 1989 issue of Analog, in an article titled "The Economics of Interstellar Commerce," I explained that even if there were no technological barriers to star travel, a species nevertheless needs economic incentives to build ships and go voyaging to other stars. The investment required for star travel is huge; the payoff is centuries (or at best, decades) away. Why would any species bother with such a costly activity, except perhaps for the extravagance of a few exploratory ships?

The only motivation I could think of to justify the multi-generational expense of establishing extra-solar colonies would be the combined benefits to be derived from time dilation and compound interest.

Greatly simplified, my idea was this: What will ultimately lure investors' money into building starships won't be the stars, it'll be superfast compound interest (relativistically speaking). Your Earth-bound bank account, piling up interest over the decades, would make you rich when you returned, still young, after a long interstellar voyage. (This is relativity's famous "twin paradox," applied to you and your bank account.) I predicted that it would probably be star-traveling (and thus long-lived) bankers who found it profitable to invest in starting mankind's interstellar expansion. Only after the passage of centuries might other activities justify the continuing expense of maintaining fleets of starships.

And if I'm right about this, then we may seem to be alone for a very understandable reason—no other species has seeking motivation.

To prove my point about the primacy of economics, consider the sad status of SETI—the Search for Extra-Terres-trial Intelligence. SETI is cheap; all it really requires is off-the-shelf radio technology. Yet in the absence of a profit motive, we can't even keep SETI afloat. You can imagine, therefore, how impossible it would be to raise funds for a fleet of non-profit starships—even if they weren't all that difficult to build.

I don't want to minimize the technological end of things, but interstellar travel really boils down to this: Assuming a species' engineers can do the job, economics is the whole ball of wax.

Could economics be the key missing factor in the Drake equation, as well as an explanation for the Great Silence? Drake himself suspects something like this. Could this explanation apply to every intelligent species in the galaxy? I think so. Consider this:

What does it take to develop our particular brand of economic incentives? It requires that a species generate several intellectual concepts, and that they take each of these concepts seriously. At minimum, they need: (1) private property; (2) money; (3) interest; (4) commercial banking; (5) merchant banking; (6) joint-stock companies; (7) financial markets; (8) accounting systems; and (9) a free-market economic system.

Observe that none of these requirements is an engineering development. None is a tangible technological achievement. Each is invisible, intangible, and abstract. None is inevitable. Therefore, it seems probable that our from being universal; it could actually be unique to us, and incomprehensibly "alien" to other species in our galaxy.

We have no difficulty assuming that many intelligent aliens will develop technology, because technology depends on observing and rationally responding to the tangible, objective world. Any reasonably bright, land-dwelling, tool-wielding species can eventually do that (although in retrospect, it certainly took us long enough). But what is the likelihood of another species' hitting upon and adopting every single one of the abstract economic ideas listed above? Most of the human cultures in Earth's past (and even today) would fail such a test.

A hive-like species, or a species that lives in communes, or that is always dominated by tyrants, or which consists of solitary individuals, may be scientifically brilliant and extraordinarily curious, but they will probably never develop the essential concepts of banking and interest and commercial finance that make interstellar travel a profitable, affordable activity.

To such aliens, our "mysterious" banks, our profit-seeking corporations, our compound-interest calculations (so vital to time-dilated star travelers), and certainly our stock exchanges, might be viewed as exotic manifestations of a bewildering alien religion. Even after studying us, they may utterly fail to grasp our motivation (or would they call it obsession?) for transporting cargo between the stars.

Well, I was looking for a "good Great Silence." I think I've found it.

The economic explanation tells us why, with the whole shining Universe beckoning to them, no alien species has ever been sufficiently motivated to build and launch ships to the stars. They're isolated, not by necessity, but by their own lack of imagination. They're not even sending out messages; nor are they listening for ours.

The Great Silence, therefore, is the silence of poverty. The galaxy is stagnant, with each alien species tragically isolated from the others. Each is a potential supplier of products and information, each is a potential buyer as well, but there is no interstellar intercourse. Not yet.

That's because we haven't arrived on the interstellar scene. When we do, we can be the merchant princes of the galaxy. Who cares if the aliens never understand that our traders, engaged in a ten-year (subjective) voyage, are primarily motivated by a century of compound interest piling up at home? As long as we're willing to build and fly the ships—and reap the profits—let the aliens think we're crazy!

We can do for the stay-at-home aliens what was done for us by the great railroad and canal builders, the merchant sea captains, the leaders of caravans. This is not merely the business opportunity of a lifetime, it's the biggest opportunity of all time! The Great Silence is our clue that the galaxy needs us—it needs us very much.

There's a lesson in all of this for those who like to dream up exotic, Utopian visions of mankind's future.

There are those who long for the day when we shall "progress" beyond the need for private property. They imagine that when we achieve that glorious un-propertied state . . . what? What happens then? They never say precisely what's going to happen. It's supposed to be obvious, and perhaps it is to them, but it certainly isn't obvious to me. Presumably they imagine that when we finally achieve that "lofty" level of existence, we'll automatically start building starships—somehow.

But it doesn't stand up to rational scrutiny. Your savings account and mutual fund shares and insurance policies aren't keeping mankind from the stars. When the Utopian day of socio-economic "liberation" comes, we'll have a society modeled after such "noble" people as the North American Indians—people who, to their everlasting misfortune, had not developed our economic incentives, or even the concept of land ownership—people who therefore (causal linkage implied here) numbered among their greatest accomplishments such technological wonders as ... the loincloth. (I can hear the knees jerking out there, so let me hasten to add that I'm criticizing an economic system, not a race.)

Those "thinkers" who imagine that we shall become an "advanced" star traveling species when we have developed "beyond" such "primitive" concepts as ownership of private property are dreaming of a future that can never be. You can have a society without property, or you can have the stars. You cannot have both.

So there it is—the likeliest reason why we seem to be alone—we're the only capitalists in the cosmos. And if that's really true, then even though the Universe is seething with intelligent life and probably has been for hundreds of millions or possibly billions of years, we have absolutely nothing to fear. Ladies and Gentlemen of Earth, I bring you tidings of great joy: The stars belong to us!

From "The Wealth of Galaxies" by Warren Saloman, editorial for Analog science fiction December 1989


Trade wants to be free. The invisible hand will not be denied. If a government forbids the import of a trade good, it becomes a seller's market and the price to purchase said good rises. This creates a financial incentive on the traders and importers. The definition of traders and importers trying to avoid the government restriction is "smuggling". Some define smuggling as "international trade through an unauthorized route." The lesser reason to smuggle is if the item is not actually contraband, but there is an expensive import tax.

Smuggling rapidly becomes an arms race between the custom inspectors and the traders, as the smugglers think of new and creative ways to sneak their contraband in right under the nose of customs. Or an arms race between the border patrol and the traders. Naturally if the bootlegger is trying to avoid going through customs at all, they do not have bother with putting up the charade that they are really honest merchants. On the other hand, custom-hood-winkers do not have to deal with boarder patrol spacecraft crewed with trigger-happy agents with no sense of humor.

It doesn't really matter whether the forbidden item is drugs (drug-runners), firearms (gun-runners), alcohol (rum-runners), stolen property, fugitives, rebels, illegal immigrants, items to avoid paying taxes or tariffs on, or cheap imported commercial goods competing with the local economy (avoiding a trade embargo); market forces will have their say. Smuggling became a recognized problem in the 13th century, a few minutes after England created the first national customs collection system. The English smuggling problem only lessened after the tariff laws were liberalized under pressure from the free trade movement.

This is why Han Solo had that hidden compartment below the deck plates of the Millennium Falcon, and Malcom Reynolds had that concealed cubby hole in the side of the Serenity. Not to mention Northwest Smith, Esmar Tuek, Stella Star and Jenna Stannis.

Note that custom duties are border taxes paid on goods being imported, such duties are being avoided by smugglers. Excise taxes on the other hand are "inland" taxes paid on goods being moved internally in a nation, and are normally of no concern to interplanetary smugglers.

In the 1700's along the English coast, the high custom duties imposed on tea, wine, and distilled spirits made smuggling very profitable. So much that impoverished fishermen and seafarers found it to be so lucrative that for many communities smuggling was more economically significant than legal activities such as farming and fishing. In Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped it is said the most common name for a bar on the coast was The Smuggler's Inn. This can be adapted to a science fiction background if you can figure out some sort of poverty-stricken profession that requires regular travel between the planet's surface and low orbit. Keep in mind that "poverty" is relative.

Naturally a smuggler can make their life so much simpler if they can bribe or otherwise corrupt a government official to look the other way. This not only applies to giving a rustling handshake to a customs inspector, but also to large under-the-table sweetheart deals with the Parliamentary Off-Planet Trade Minister. The only difference is the size of the bribe and the size of the operation.

Occasionally the contraband item is being smuggled off planet instead of being smuggled into the planet. Illegal emigration, fugitives from justice, spies, stolen items, espionaged secret or confidential information, dangerous native animals, and so on. It matters not if the controlling government is trying to control import or export, they are creating an opportunity for a smuggler to make some money.

The government forbidding the import of goods might not be the government of the planet. The planet may be invested by a hostile fleet, under siege by an external enemy trying to starve them out. In this case the trader is not so much a smuggler as they are a blockade-runner. The runner might be a noble patriot working for free, an amoral mercenary being paid by the interdicted planet, or a slimy opportunist trying to make a killing by importing luxury items at inflated prices. The stakes are higher with blockade-running as compared with smuggling, since enemy combat spacecraft are probably armed quite a bit better than a little putt-putt customs border patrol boat.

On Basilisk Station

"The ensign might want to give PO Harkness his head, Sir," MacBride had said quietly. "If anyone in the detachment can recognize a crook cargo setup, it's him. And -- " she'd given him one of her deadpan smiles " -- I've . . . discussed the importance of his assignment with him."

So now Tremaine shifted position slightly, moving aside to lean his elbow on a freight conveyer where he could watch Harkness and still keep the corner of his eye on the crewmen.

Harkness was prowling around the neatly stacked counter-grav cargo pallets with a copy of the manifest, checking canister labels. The weight of a magnetic tape reader bulged the thigh pocket of his coveralls, but the flap was still sealed. Now he slowed his label checks and bent a bit closer to a pallet, and Tremaine noted the way one of the crewmen by the tube tensed.

"Mr. Tremaine?" Harkness called without turning.

"Yes, PO?"

"I think you might find this interesting, Sir." It was amazing what a fatherly voice could come out of those battered, prize-fighter features. Harkness sounded like a teacher about to demonstrate a classroom experiment for a favored pupil, and Tremaine crossed the cargo bay to stand beside him.

"What is it, PO?"

"This, Sir." A blunt finger with scarred knuckles indicated the shiny silver customs tape running around the canister and, in particular, the Royal Customs Service seal with its small starship surmounted by the crowned Manticore and flanking, rampant Sphinx and Gryphon of the Kingdom's arms. It looked perfect to Tremaine.

"What about it?"

"Well, Sir," Harkness said ruminatively, "I can't be certain, but -- " The broad fingertip flipped the seal, and Tremaine blinked as it popped right off the tape it was supposed to be an integral part of. He bent closer and saw the clear plastic tape bridging the gap where the original seal had been sliced away.

"You know, Sir," Harkness went on in that same, thoughtful voice, "I'll bet those poor bloody -- pardon, Sir -- " he didn't sound especially apologetic, but Tremaine let it pass; he had other things on his mind " -- NPA sods have been doing their best without the right equipment for so long these fellows just got sloppy." He shook his head, a craftsman mourning slovenly workmanship. "Never would have gotten by a regular customs man."

"I . . . see." Tremaine glanced over his shoulder at the now acutely unhappy crewmen. One of them was sidling sideways towards the shuttle flight deck, and Tremaine nodded to Private Kohl. The Marine shifted position slightly and unsnapped his stunner holster. The moving crewman froze.

"What do you suppose is in there, PO?" the ensign asked brightly, beginning to enjoy himself.

"Well, Sir, according to this manifest, this here -- " Harkness thumped the canister " -- is a shipment of duralloy animal-drawn plows for delivery to the Hauptman Cartel factor on Medusa."

"Let's open it up and take a look," Tremaine said.

"Aye, aye, Sir." Harkness's broad grin showed teeth far too even and regular to be natural as he drew a forceblade from one capacious pocket. He flicked the switch, waking the tooth-twisting warning whine Manticoran law required of all such tools, and ran the invisible blade around the doctored Customs tape. Silver plastic slivered, and the soft "Shuuush" of equalizing pressure sounded as he sprang the canister.

He lifted the lid -- then paused, frozen in mid-movement.

"Well, well, well, well," he murmured, adding an absent-minded "Sir" as he remembered the ensign beside him. He shoved the lid fully up until it locked. "Mighty strange looking plowshares, I'd say, Mr. Tremaine."

"So would I," Tremaine said after a moment, leaning forward to stroke a hand over the lustrous, tawny-gold fur. The canister was two meters long by one wide and one deep, and it seemed to be completely full. "Is that what I think it is, PO?"

"If you think it's Gryphon kodiak max pelts it is, Sir." Harkness shook his head, and Tremaine could almost hear the credit terminal ringing behind his eyes. "Must be two, three hundred thousand dollars worth of them," the PO mused. "In this one canister," he added as an afterthought.

"And right off the controlled species list." Tremaine's voice was so grim the petty officer straightened and looked at him in surprise. The youngster beside him didn't look young at all as he stared down into the canister and then turned to glare at the wilting crewmen.

From On Basilisk Station by David Weber (1999)


Space Pirates is a science fiction trope that just won't go away. The image of pirate freebooters on the high seas is just too romantic for words, science fiction writers can't resist. Alas, in a scientifically accurate world, they are more or less impossible, much like space fighters and for similar reasons. There ain't no stealth in space, so it is practically impossible for a fat space galleon to be surprised in mid trip by a sinister space corsair flying the Jolly Roger. Or a rude surprise for a space merchant ship whose trajectory passes too near the Somali Asteroids for that matter. It would be several orders of magnitude easier for the "piracy" to take the form of grand theft from the merchant's warehouses on the ground.

Synonyms for "pirate" include corsair, buccaneer, and freebooter.

Do keep in mind that back in the days of Blackbeard piracy was punishable by death. If nothing else many pirates were savage murderers. The skull-and-crossed-bones flag contained skulls and bones as a message to the hapless galleon to hand over your treasure with no resistance, or the pirates would kill you and take it anyway. These are not the jolly comedic figures many of us remember from childhood stories.

But over and above the homicide aspect, under Admiralty law pirates were considered Hostis humani generis (Latin for "enemy of mankind"). The high seas could be claimed by no nation, they were the common property of all. So piracy was seen as a crime committed against all nations. Therefore all nations were bound by admiralty law to capture, try, and (if found guilty) execute any pirates they encountered; regardless of whether the nation had been attacked by that particular pirate or not. The trial usually was in a court martial land-side, but in extreme cases could be by drum-head court-martial convened by the officers of the capturing ship. Convicted pirates were traditionally hanged, in space I suppose they'd be thrown out an airlock without a space suit ("death by spacing").

The other class of seafaring criminal who were considered hostis humani generis were slavers.

Nowadays things are a bit different. Vessels on the high seas are under the protection of and in the jurisdiction of the vessel's flag state. Piracy is considered an offense of universal jurisdiction, so any state can board and seize a vessel engaged in piracy. And any state my try and impose penalties according to that state's laws.

For a far more incisive analysis, refer to these articles from the indispensable Rocketpunk Manifesto: And A Bottle Of Rum, Yo Ho Ho And A Bagful Of Khat, and Pirates in SPAAACE !!! - Reconsidered

But of course if one is creating a fictional universe with faster-than-light starships, the author can tweak the properties of the FTL drive in order to allow piracy. As a matter of fact, many tweaks that will allow interstellar combat could also allow interstellar piracy.

Generally the pirates will have to perform naval boarding in order to loot the target merchant ship. In the Traveller RPG, boarding parties and the defenders use cutlasses since shooting bullet holes in a pressurized hull is considered to be a Bad Thing. But actually, all romanticism aside, it would take about an hour before the air leaking out a bullet hole depressurized the compartment to dangerous levels. So ditch the sword and take a submachine gun instead.

As a general rule, merchant ships cannot be armed, armored, and combat crewed enough to fight off a pirate attack, not without increasing the amortized and operating cost and reducing the cargo capacity to the point where the ship cannot turn a profit. A "Q-ship" is a warship disguised as a merchant vessel, intended to fatally surprise hostile convoy raiders. They would also work against piracy. However since a Q-ship is a warship, it carries no cargo.

In Peter Hamilton's The Night's Dawn Trilogy, merchant starships can be armed yet still carry cargo with profit. The merchants tell everybody that the weapons are an anti-pirate measure (and because the ships sometimes hire out at mercenary warships). However some merchants ships actually commit piracy if they are sure no one will see or live to tell. In other words they are pirates hiding in plain sight.

And a Bottle of Rum

Pirates in SPAAACE !!!

There is no escaping them, no matter how high your cruise acceleration or how much reserve delta v you have in the tanks. They lurk the literary spaceways, ready to pounce on the next gilded starliner or even the next wandering tramp freighter.

Are they possible? Or — a more relevant and demanding test — are they plausible?

First, let's assume a setting with no FTL or other out and out magitech, confined for practical purposes to the Solar System. Orbital mechanics makes the paths followed by commercial ships highly predictable, so that hijacking one would have much in common with train robbery, except with no doubt that the train will be on time. The problem is that the entire line is in plain view of the main depot — even from hundreds of millions of kilometers away — so no matter where you pull the job, the dispatchers can see it and notify Pinkerton's.

Along the spacelanes, at least in normal space (e.g., no FTL), every robbery is therefore a brazen robbery. Which leads to two further observations:

1. The above applies only to robbery, not to, say, embezzlement or fraud. These remain practical ways to transfer funds to your account, as it were, but this hardly fits our image of space piracy.

2. Sticking to stickups, since the act will be brazen anywhere there is no reason to travel off into deep space somewhere to commit it. You may as well strike right after the ship undocks from a space station, so long as you're outside the immediate reach of the authorities. (And if they're on the inside of the station airlock, they can't get at you till they order up a patrol craft.)

This has a couple of advantages. You don't need to set out in your pirate ship weeks or months in advance (which everyone in the Solar System would see you doing anyway). Your ship won't be needed till just before — or just after — the heist. Even then the ship doesn't need carronades on the quarterdeck, or the equivalent; its function is more analogous to a getaway car. If you shoot it out with the authorities you're going to lose — if you could shoot it out with them and win, why didn't you just seize the station itself outright?

Which leads to a further complication. For the sake of Romance we don't want just a single act of space piracy, however brazen — we want endemic piracy, Brethren of the Coast. The sort of heist I outlined above, however, is pretty much an inherent one-off. In fact, since it won't be hard to figure out who pulled it off (who made a sudden and unscheduled departure right after the crime?), your ID will be all over the police net, and you'll have a hard time fencing your haul, or even enjoying it in peace and quiet.

Assuming, however, that the local police all see eye to eye about the severity of the offense. Here politics raises its ugly head — not ugly at all, really, in this context. For where there are Brethren of the Coast, Lords of the Isles cannot be far behind, and when the pirate wears a badge, all those messy legal complications go conveniently away. They are replaced by diplomatic and sometimes military complications.

The dirty secret of piracy has always been that — like terrorism today — it is in the eye of the beholder, as Bess told Felipe. Endemic space piracy, of the sort we would like to write about, almost always has a strong whiff of guerilla war. Whether it pits the Nasty Empire against the Noble (if scruffy) Rebels, or the Good Shepherds against the Sea Wolves, is strictly up to the author's tastes.

James Cambias:

Piracy in space could work for the same reasons piracy on Earth works right now in places like Somalia and Malaysia. The pirates aren't quite enough of a problem to justify the cost (both $ and political) of putting them down. They operate out of areas with either complaisant or non-existent local law enforcement, so stopping the pirates would mean invading and "nation building" — which nobody likes.

Manned piracy in space would require some kind of space habitat which is either run by a powerful Earth state yet tolerates piracy (the "no peace beyond the Line" model), or a space habitat which is essentially owned by pirates and can defend itself (the "Libertaria" model).

Here's the real bottleneck: where do you get the pirates? On Earth there's never been a shortage of young men willing to steal stuff and kill people, but launching people into space costs an amazing amount of money, and keeping them alive up there costs even more. Launch space is limited, so anyone doing piracy is not doing something else — which means the profits of piracy have to support an entire space program.

Rick Robinson:

Carla — good question about what makes pirates and other thieves romantic. It's worth a blog post, but short form:

Historically most piracy has been plain thuggery, like sea piracy today. (Remember the cruise ship that repulsed an attack off Somalia?) Generally it has been both loathsome and petty — small boats attacking coastal freighters and the like.

A fair proportion, though, was peer competition between merchantse.g., Venetians v Genoese — and this becomes nearly indistinguishable from naval guerre de course (commerce raiding). This is both grander and more ambiguous.

There's also religious/ideological piracy, corsairing, what Drake was doing. This can also be grander and more ambiguous, to the extent you care (or can be persuaded in a story to care) about infidels, or papistry.

The piracy most associated with Romance — "Pirates of the Caribbean" — actually represents the declining phase of Protestant corsairing, more or less from Drake to Sir Henry Morgan to Blackbeard.

But surely the fascination with Robin Hood, or pirates, or the Mafia, also has to do with the general fantasy of living beyond the usual constraints. As such it also has a "rebel" undertone, since the usual constraints include, especially, the powers that be.

Cambias — yes; piracy or the like can function when the cost to the authorities of shutting it down is too high, and it doesn't touch their vital interests.

As for the cost of space travel, that poses complications way beyond piracy. Until/unless the cost can be brought down dramatically — about a hundredfold, from $10 million per ton or passenger to low orbit to perhaps about $100,000 per ton or passenger — the sort of space future familiar in SF is not likely to happen at all.

You just can't have colonies, or even robust space stations and bases, if every interplanetary mission costs several billion dollars/euros/whatever.


If we allow for the possibility of stationary* bases that can act as useful defensive fortifications; than as a prelude to war than as an alternative to an all out offensive wars may begin with the use of pirates as auxiliary commerce raiders. Two factions in the deadlock stage before the outbreak of actual hostilities allow pirates to use their bases against each other. This allows for a shift in the economic and military balance between them, since piracy both constricts the enemies trade and also forces them to divert ship-construction to corvettes/frigates/whatever-their-patrol-craft-are-called instead of larger ship designed for the big battles.

If more than one faction undertakes this strategy it can set up an interesting dynamic between the auxiliary pirates, the spaceforce patrol craft crews, and the spaceforce line-ship crews. The Line ship crews are probably brown-nosing and button polishing while trying to ignore that while they get lots of simulator time they haven't actually seen combat yet.

I honestly don't know how difficult it would be to manage an intercept of a ship that happened to already be past the beginning of it's journey, but since it would be fairly obvious that a ship from an unfriendly base loitering near you would be a pirate we may be stuck with that.

However if a group were to try to attack a liner immediately after it left port they wouldn't need a ship of their own at all; just use the liner as the getaway vehicle. It even comes with it's own hostages! If you need a better mass ratio to reach you're preferred destination dump any cargo you don't want; and then set off for the nearest port unfriendly to the people you just stole from. This is probably where most pirates would get their start, hijacking a ship in their own home port and then try to modify it into a more effective and fearsome vessel. Stealing your first ship keeps your starting costs down.

When I said "they wouldn't need to use a ship of thier own" I was implying that they either had short range thruster power or had stowed away on board. Clearly you would need some mode of transport to board a ship as it was leaving a space station.

* By stationary I mean "Cannot drastically change their movement without outside help." Obviously anything orbiting the sun or a planet is moving, but the bases I'm thinking of can't change that movement very much without outside force.

Rick Robinson:

Orbital forts can be targeted by missiles at Stupendous Range — though whether the missile gets through defenses is another matter.

Commerce raiding has another effect — besides diverting funds from a battle force to patrol/escort craft, more fundamentally it diverts funds from the cargo ships. It raises their "protection rent." Note that in purely economic terms it makes no matter the rent goes to pay for escort ships or goes to the pirates themselves as protection money. Which leads to:

Hijacking does seem more practical than waylaying ships in deep space, especially since — let's face it — boarding a spaceship is just not a practical tactic. I can see storming the airlock of a ship docked up, or even boarding from a space taxi, but either way depending pretty much on catching the crew off guard.

But the other practical option is extortion, either tactically of individual ships, or strategically of shipping lines.

Winchell Chung:

In the story "Recoil" (collected in THE COMPLETE VENUS EQUILATERAL) by George O. Smith, the very first space pirate goes the extortionist route. In the novel, there really isn't any way to intercept and board a spacecraft.

So the pirate uses anti-ship weapons to destroy a couple of freighters in route. Then he announces that space shipping has become regrettably dangerous, but for the low-low fee of one dollar per ton of cargo (sent to an untraceable Swiss bank account), he will personally ensure that freighter spacecraft wouldn't accidentally be hit by missiles. A protection racket, in other words. Nice freighter you have there. It would be a shame if anything happened to it.


The trouble with hijacking is that it's near impossible to repeat it. If you were on the crew or a passenger than your biometrics will undoubtedly be checked by port security, and if you're crew there may be police background checks as well. So you do your heist and then you find another way of operating or another line of work.

Boarding is extremely difficult with one ship, but not all that difficult with two or more. With one ship the problem is that while the pirate captain needs to keep the freighter and cargo relatively intact the freighter captain has no such restrictions. He can wait until the pirate is very close before either firing weapons or using his engines as a weapon or ramming.

The solution is to go in with two ships, with one ship matchiong velocities with the target far enough away that it can defend itself against a surpirse attack. The second closes and prepares to dock, and the ultimatum is sent. If the freighter tries to use force against the boarders it can be blasted out of the sky even if it suceeds.

Now there another factor that comes into play here: If a given ship and captain have a reputation for leaving no survivors even if their demands are met then there is little motivation to surrender. If on the other hand the freighter's crew can believe they will get better treatment through cooperation than there is a greater chance of surrender. Having a reputation for being true to your word is very useful for issuing ultimatums; particularly if the freighter captain can check his database on the captain and ship.

All this changes if the freighter is carrying it's cargo in detachable pods.

Rick Robinson:

Reliable identity checking spoils a lot of familiar plots!

For boarding, the "two ships" can simply be your ship, and a space taxi (or gig, or whatever you call a "ship's boat") that does the actual boarding. What you still don't get is classic boarding against resistance.

Reputation matters! In an environment where you can destroy a ship but not forcibly capture one, you depend on the victim's willingness to surrender. So you want a reputation for ruthlessness against those who don't surrender, but leniency toward those who do.

From ... And a Bottle of Rum by Rick Robinson (2007)
Pirates in SPAAACE Reconsidered

Somali pirates did not put to sea to further the cause of space opera, but space opera is an unintended beneficiary of their depradations, because we now have an excuse to reconsider a time honored trope: space piracy. Reread this recent post, and this older one. I have usually distinguished hard SF (and retro-hard rocketpunk) from space opera, but of course it is nearly all space opera at heart, no matter how well we tart it up with realistic details. And because we do want to tart it up, we can look to the waters off Somalia for lessons.

Apart from piracy as such, one of my commenters brought up another traditional form of malfeasance at sea, barratry, a name given to many crimes, the one of special SF interest being scuttling a ship to cover theft of its cargo. As I noted in the comments, this is an eminently practical space crime, indeed one that could already have been committed. If a commercial space launch blows up or sends its payload into the Indian Ocean, who knows if there was really a satellite aboard? (For that matter a launch sabotaged by commercial rivals surely also counts as barratry.)

One form of space piracy is a first cousin of barratry. If you can divert cargo spacecraft onto orbits to nowhere, under the right conditions you can divert one to Port Royal. Unlike barratry, there's no concealing this crime, no uncertainty whether a crime was committed, and you know the address of the receiver of stolen merchandise. How you serve a warrant is another matter, but like barratry this sort of piracy is a white collar crime and requires an insider.

What about 'real' piracy – forcible hijacking of spacecraft? The strategic lesson of Somalia piracy is a timeless one: It thrives along lawless coasts. And the first tactical lesson is that real pirates don't fly the Jolly Roger. The traditional image of space pirates striking out of the interplanetary vastness is unlikely, because a pirate ship on a nonstandard orbit is declaring itself to the entire solar system, putting potential victims on alert and giving any patrol force weeks to respond. Pirates will strike in crowded space, where their mother ships are indistinguishable from a host of civil craft.

Contrary to SF tradition, the asteroid belt makes a lousy pirate lair. It is vastly too big, a billion kilometers across, its shipping lanes likewise farflung. But since space piracy is brazen wherever you commit it, why not Earth orbital space? This will surely be the most crowded part of space for centuries to come, and the first to have a shadow side. Given hundreds of spacecraft, many in similar orbits, and a steady flow of inter-orbit shuttle craft moving among them, we have suitable physical conditions for brazen piracy. Distances in Earth orbital space are hundreds of times greater than in the waters off Somalia, and the Space Patrol can't be everywhere.

Boarding in space has its challenges. You can't board a spacecraft simply by bringing a small craft alongside and scrambling up a line – or can you? The defenders can easily jam the airlock, and cutting your way in is difficult, at minimum requiring costly specialized equipment. But pirates don't have to break into the pressure cabin to threaten passengers and crew, and effectively hold them hostage. Cut the power supply, disable the radiators – technically sophisticated pirates might even be able to hotwire the propulsion system and divert the ship without needing to directly overpower the crew.

Future versions of Captain Phillips will improvise 'nonlethal' means of defense. Evasive maneuver is a classic means of defense; attitude thrusters might also be used as fire hoses to keep boarders at bay. Putting defensive armament on civil spacecraft will be problematic for all the same reasons it is today.

The real challenge for our orbital pirates is not making captures, but where to take them. Pirates need a Port Royal, a place where the art of asking no questions trumps orbital mechanics. So why doesn't the Space Patrol simply blast it out of orbit? That is where politics come in. In rocketpunk days the default assumption was a Federation, a 'sole superpower' taken to the max. No room there for Port Royal, not in Earth orbit, not in the Kuiper Belt.

Remove the Federation and things aren't so easy. Take your pick of a Patrol paralyzed by dysfunctional legalism, or rival national patrols paralyzed by dysfunctional mutual antagonism – save, perhaps, a tacit mutual agreement that Port Royal is worth more as an intelligence-gathering asset than as blasted wreckage. Mix in whatever combination and stir to taste. The conditions needed for organized orbital piracy may be unlikely, but where commerce is rich but authority weak or uncertain, it could happen.

Lurking beyond piracy are questions about space warfare. I have been in the school of thought that sees space combat as dominated by the laws of physics and the vastness of space, where 'everyone sees everything,' and battles are fought by automated systems engaging each other at Stupendous Range. But what if real space conflicts end up happening in crowded space, where at Stupendous Range you can't easily distinguish hostile forces from civilian craft including friendly ones?

How things play out in those conditions could be very different – more complex, and because of the human element more interesting than robotic battles fought in the middle of nowhere.


Close-quarters conflict, crowded conditions, difficulty telling friend from foe until it's too late, possibly a messy political situation and divided loyalties. Your scenario looks like a rich seam of plot and story :-)

Are your orbital pirates vulnerable on the way to space-Port Royal? If it's some distance from Earth orbit, would a ship being taken there be on a non-standard trajectory, and would that be obvious to the Space Patrol (or whatever)? If so, does it follow that your pirates have to have a way of making the hostages' lives dependent on the pirates' continuing survival? This is easy if the pirates and hostages are in the same craft; if Space Patrol destroy the craft they kill the hostages along with the pirates. But if the pirates don't actually board the cargo ship, just capture it by hot-wiring its propulsion system or whatever, does this mean that Space Patrol can devise a way of destroying the pirate ship while leaving the captive ship intact? A sort of small but highly accurate torpedo, perhaps — do those work in space, and what would the pirates do about them?

I was going to say that your orbital pirates would also have a problem in profitably disposing of their ill-gotten cargoes, since anyone could see and track a ship leaving Port Royal and arrest it whenever and wherever it tried to sell its stolen cargo. But this might not be an issue if the main profit is in hostage-taking and ransoms rather than the value of the stolen ship and cargo per se. In which case, the most profitable targets for space pirates (hijackers?) would logically be passenger rather than cargo craft, as this gives you more hostages to ransom.

Rick Robinson:

Things do get wonderfully messy when humans are involved.

And yes, vulnerability en route to Port Royal is a problem. The general solution, if you can't conveniently board the prize, is to keep in close formation with the capture.

Precision missiles/torpedoes are certainly possible, and lasers can potentially have ultra precise aim. But so long as only one patrol ship is in position to engage at a given moment, the pirate can position himself 'behind' the capture. The pirates might also attach a mine with a 'dead man' switch — blow up the pirate and the mine goes off.

The Somali pirates depend on ransoming crews and ships, but fencing off stolen merchandise might be possible. If the legal framework is weak enough, legitimate or semilegitimate cargo may also pass through Port Royal, and how do you prove that a given outbound cargo is previously stolen goods?

The underlying requirement is that the shipping industry regard piracy losses as cheaper than paying for enough hugely expensive Space Patrol ships to clean up the spaceways — and perhaps cheaper than opening their own books to prying official eyes.

Jim Baerg:

Rick: "The underlying requirement is that the shipping industry regard piracy losses as cheaper than paying for enough hugely expensive Space Patrol ships to clean up the spaceways - and perhaps cheaper than opening their own books to prying official eyes."

So, no space piracy in David Brin's "Transparent Society"

Rick Robinson:

To answer the question — not necessarily. Unwillingness to pay for a patrol force might still be enough to make piracy viable.

In space conditions, a degree of transparency is nearly a given — there's no sneaking in and out of Port Royal by night or fog. But no surveillance technology will see what its operators choose not to notice. I could see 'transparency' leading to a wink & nod culture.


As far as pirates getting the 'drop' on a passenger vessel in orbit; your generic Orbital Transfer Vehicle (OTV) (that looks like a thousand others) suddenly, or leasurely, scoots up to your trans-lunar transport and some guys in heavy-duty construction space suits squrt over to your ship and attach some commercial shaped-charges to various sections of your hull. They then tell you to let them on board; when you do, they take control and the OTV leaves, to go about its business. If the half dozen Space Patrol ships are busy shadowing each other (national politics) or inspecting the freighters from Mars (Customs and Drug Enforcement)or tracking some asteroid (Navigation Hazard Abatement), they then miss the whole thing. By the time someone notices that the transport is NOT headed for Lunar orbit, but is actually on its way to L-4 (Port Royal) it may be too late to stop and board it.

The American and Russian Space Patrols may be more professional and more agressive than say, the Non-Aligned States Space Patrol, but they can't be everywhere. As I've said before, you can tell a lot from a ship's drive flare and acceleration charateristics, but you can't determine the content or intentions of the crew from those facts. To further confuse things, sometimes ships change destinations due to reasons not apparent to the world at large.

If the government of L-4 Port Royal dosen't allow the 'taking' from certain nations or multinational companies, and even provide some 'kick-backs', then Port Royal may be untouchable (if things don't get too annoying to the rest of the various players in space commerice), at least from a political standpoint. As Rick said, things DO get messy when humans are involved. As far as the carefully orchastrated flow of interplanetary travel imagined during the 'golden age' of SciFi, I doubt that logical construction will be high on the list of criteria as space travel evolves and government entities strugle to keep up with the rapidly growing complexity of interplanetary travel and commerice.

Rick Robinson:

The one part of this scenario that might not work out well for the pirates is the pirate ship (OTV) 'going about its business.' Once the act of piracy is committed, the pirate ship has in effect hoisted the Jolly Roger by revealing its intent, and the only safe place for it is in close company with its prize. If it goes off on its own, Patrol ships finally have a clean shot for their fancy long range weaponry.

Once they get back to Port Royal, the pirate ship can be 'laundered' and return to service under a different registration. Again some wink & nod is required.

No doubt this whole situation is unstable; if piracy gets out of hand, there will finally be some sort of crackdown, such as putting Port Royal under quarantine, backed up by Patrol blockade.

As an alternative scenario, when things get out of hand Port Royal gets proactive and goes legit, perhaps establishing its own Patrol to clean out freelancers. Set a thief to capture a thief!


I hadn't thought about the OTV 'going about its business' getting shot up and/or boarded after it delivered its 'cargo' of pirates, but you're probably right. Centuries ago, Jamaica was once a center of piracy and eventually did just as you suggest would happen to our future Port Royal; go legit or have its patrons withdraw their support and protection. Of course, if the OTV was just a 'robot-for-hire' type, then it may not really be worth shooting it up or even boarding it...the owners wouldn't know who was going to reprogram it after they rented it out for what they thought was legimate commerice..or, at least, they could claim they thought that.

Ian Moulding:


There is no Space Patrol. There is a single overarching Federation that controls space, be it the UN or whatever, but Earth is just as heavily balkanized as it is today. The space-controlling Federation acts as a proxy for the collective efforts of the nations that back it. This sort of situation depends on all the great powers of the era wanting to avoid an arms race in space while still having access to the resources of space.

The Federation's main job is to license large corporations to exploit space resources. It also runs a ships registry, provides technical licenses for ship crews, and other administrative tasks, but its main job is to collect fees and taxes from the corporations.

Some of these corporations are owned outright by national governments, others are nationally-owned through shell companies, and some are privately owned. There's a real mix of competing interests out there. All of these companies have private security, mainly to protect their assets from corporate espionage and disgruntled employees but also because there are a lot of expensive assets floating around with no central authority to guard them.

And in this setting it's also common for small highly maneuverable craft to approach larger craft. The corporations don't trust important data to broadcast media, and tightbeam communications can be intercepted by virtual-antennae nanoclouds without totally blocking the beam (Technobabble and handwavium in one sentence!). Pirate craft look just like couriers and packet ships, and if you bribe the right person at the security firm you can even get the proper approach codes.

Earth-Moon space and the busy Lagrange points are good places to approach a victim. Depending on how developed the setting is the Jupiter and Saturn systems might also have a piracy problem. There might also be enough traffic around Earth-Mars cyclers to support piracy.

A pirate base could be a station, cycler, or transfer vehicle owned by a supposedly legit company. Said company is actually backed by a national intelligence agency, coalition of companies, or other backer. Whatever the backer is, it can have a variety of motives — Disrupting a rival's activities, capturing a key piece of information or technology, or distracting attention from some other activity. And there can be multiple pirate havens, all backed by different players.

And no one nation on Earth can take any large-scale actions against piracy. There are too many interests at stake. It would take a majority of the great powers acting in (relative) cooperation to change the system without sparking a war. As long as piracy stays small, it will remain a valuable tool for the corporate and national players in space.

It's an unstable situation, but unstable situations make for fun story backdrops.


And just to further confuse things, there will probably be pirates (criminals) and privateers (backed by Letters of Reprisal and Marquee); which is which are closely held secrets.

Ian Moulding:

Thinking about it, the term 'piracy' and romantic images of the age of sail are probably part of why 'hard' SF writers dismiss the idea of space piracy. The image invoked is one of a pirate ship approaching a victim on the high seas, far from help where no one can see what's happening... But in space everyone knows there's no such thing as stealth*.

Replace the term 'piracy' with 'hijacking'. Cargo vehicles are hijacked on a regular basis in the Western world, on brightly light streets and highways, with GPS broadcasting their positions.

* Part of the problem is that a lot of people confuse the ideas of strategic stealth (The inability to hide large-scale maneuvers) with tactical stealth (The ability to misdirect sensors or break target locks for a few seconds). And there's a lot you can do with strategic misdirection. Just look at the build-up to D-Day.

Rick Robinson:

Ian — I like that scenario. Easy to imagine an International Space Authority that doesn't really have much authority. In this situation the Patrol is likely to be mainly an emergency rescue organization, and even if their craft have some armament, how many ships do they have? Even Earth orbital space is a big place, let alone the rest of the Solar System.

Mars orbital space, Jupiter space, cyclers — anywhere with lots of traffic and no strong overarching authority. If authority is blurred enough you can also get the ambiguities Ferrell mentions. Whether a particular grab is piracy, privateering, or official arrest can depend on perspective!

Our familiar image of piracy definitely produces misleading preconceptions! Truth to be told, even most Golden Age piracy was by small craft operating near lawless coasts. Big quasi-warships like the Black Pearl were very much the exception. William Kidd's Adventure Galley was a similar ship. (The filmmakers perhaps had her in mind — I was impressed that they showed her using oars!) But Kidd was a highly ambiguous character, and Adventure Galley was actually an antipirate design.

In space, though, I suspect that even grand scale piracy — AKA irregular warfare — will happen in crowded space, not out in the middle of nowhere.

The comment about stealth is very well taken. Anyone remember Heinlein's Between Planets? The Venus rebels send troops aboard commandeered space liners to seize Circum-Terra space station. That is a perfectly viable operation, and can as easily be piratical as military — or have elements of both.

Ian Moulding:

1 — I think we just found the viable setting for human-piloted space fighters. As Carla said — Close quarters, crowded conditions, difficulty telling friend from foe, split-second life and death decisions, all in a boiling cauldron of politics and money. What sane government would leave those decisions up to an AI programmed by the lowest bidder? Small fighter craft piloted by officers trained to deal with hostage situations make sense.

2 — Pirate havens. Given the way legal authority is subdivided, leased out, and just plain sold in the sort of setting we're discussing, any station or orbital platform can be a pirate haven at least once. Station A impounds a craft from Station B for smuggling. Station B security intercepts a craft owned by the same company that owns Station A and demands the release of the craft impounded by Station A. But the cargo from that craft was actually owned by a government-backed corporation that owns Station C. Said government issues a letter of marque and reprisal allowing ships from Station C to intercept craft from Station A and sues Station B for losses. Meanwhile the mafia bribe a dock worker to let them into the impound area, and the cargo from that first impounded ship vanishes into the night.

The International Space Authority personnel give up and go get drunk.

3 — It can't be all crazy all the time, or no one would work there no matter how much it paid. But the major decisions are probably made in back on Earth, between the great powers that control space. For the most part living and working in space is pretty quiet, but when things go wrong there's a real sense of powerlessness. The space cops are almost entirely mall-cops or corporate security, with a few armed marshals guarding important craft. And nothing gets done without a conference call back to Earth.

4 — This is essentially a variant of the cyberpunk idea of corporate governance, and the idea of full-time criminals in this system amuses me. In this set-up everyone either works for one of the corporations, or for the International Space Authority, or is an observer from one of the Earth-based powers. A full-time criminal would be like a cubicle worker who spends 8 hours a day 5 days a week stealing office supplies, downloading corporate data onto portable media for sale on the black market, clogging the company intranet with spyware, letting people into the company vehicle pool, and dealing drugs in the staff lounge, and still aces all his performance reviews.

5 — You can still have space colonies in this setting. In this case a group of colonists would register as a corporation and lease a set of resources from the International Space Authority. As long as they pay their corporate taxes no one will care how they live their lives out on some backwater cluster of asteroids.

6 — The situation lasts until:

  1. One great power becomes dominant on Earth, and can clear up the situation in space.
  2. One coalition of space-based powers becomes strong enough to create an anti-pirate patrol and make the powers back home accept the patrol.
  3. The people who live and work in space stop identifying with the green hills of Earth, start identifying with the habitats of Jupiter Trojan L4 (Or wherever), and become willing to shoot anyone who tries to argue the point.
  4. All of the above.


Ian's situation seems to me to be somewhat reminiscent of the Border reivers on the Anglo-Scottish border in the 16th century. That situation of blackmail, theft and violence carried on, with both governments and their officials either helpless or complicit, until 1603 when England and Scotland came under a unified crown for the first time (James I/VI). Whereupon James' government suddenly had an incentive to clear up the Border, and did so in a surprisingly short time.

Rick Robinson:

Ian — LOTS to chew on in that last reply! But on the first point, while this type of setting definitely puts humans at the front of the loop, I don't think it produces classical style 'space fighters.' The minimum crew for a boarding & inspection type mission would be (at a guess) three: a pair to board, watching each other's backs, and a third who stays aboard the patrol craft with a finger on the All Hell Breaks Loose button.

But this parallels your point about the familiar pirate image misleading us. The familiar image of space war is essentially (post-1588) sea battles on steroids. Real space conflict might be an entirely different beast, more like police work that occasionally explodes into urban warfare between rival cops.

I'm not even going to try to discuss the other points here in the comment thread, because it goes to the whole question of power politics in space. Which is, shall we say, a big question. :-)

Ian Moulding:

Carla: Yeah, there are a lot of similarities there. There are also similarities to policing in the 18th and 19th Century, particularly in New York City where police from rival boroughs used to fight in turf battles. Rival private firefighting groups also used to brawl over who had the right to put out housefires.

For that matter, think stagecoach robberies in the American West or highwaymen in England. When you really think about it, the peace and quiet of the 20th Century seems to be the anomaly here.

Rick: Who says the space fighter is firing missiles? Put the boarding crew (2 guys at a minimum, a squad of 4—6 may be more likely) into rocket-propelled space armour, give them harnesses with forced-entry gear, and fire 'em from an exterior missile rack. I wouldn't want to do that job — But I don't want to do a HALO jump either.

I've been driving myself nuts for months trying to set up a politically and economically viable setting for space piracy, and suddenly it all falls into place. I just ran a few basic spreadsheets and even a slow rate of space development produces a viable piracy threat by the mid-21st Century. The powersats produce 2% of Earth's power, the space population is 0.0001% of Earth's, and space mining provides maybe 5% of Earth's material needs. As long as no one hijacks one of the helium-3 tankers the great powers on Earth just don't care what happens. On the other hand, over 80% of the space population has spent the majority of their lives working, training, and living in space. They definitely care.

From Pirates in SPAAACE !!! - Reconsidered by Rick Robinson (2009)
The Ecology of Piracy

The practice of piracy involves more than a crippling shot, a boarding party, and a swift escape into the blackness of space. Even pirates must obey certain laws: the laws of economics, ecology, and political reality. Piracy has flourished in particular places, and follows a progression from simple outlawry to organized business (sometimes to the formalized status of privateer). Mutineers, hijackers, and other "wildcatting" pirates appear dashing, but successful long-term piracy requires intelligent, planned adaptation to conditions, like any other enterprise. In the words of the overused phrase, "there are old pirates and bold pirates, but there are few old, bold pirates."

The major feature distinguishing the business of piracy from the merchant's trade is its systematic acceptance of illegal violence to enhance the normal effort to buy low and sell high. Under certain conditions, the pirate entrepreneur may slip freely back into the merchant role. Like the merchant, the pirate requires a ship, a crew, a source of goods, and a market in which to sell them. He faces the same risks of accident, malfunction, and remoteness from aid in a crisis. His routine varies only as dictated by his status as an outlaw.

Poverty, mutiny, other crimes, or temperament can force experienced spacers into piracy as a livelihood. The illegal acquisition of a starship will be a relatively easy task for experienced spacers (albeit rather dangerous). Obvious approaches include hijacking, mutiny, and "skipping;" (ed note: skipping is running away to escape the bank's mortgage on your starship) a successful pirate might someday boast the funds for an outright purchase! An exchange of ships may sometimes be useful, when the crew's current vessel is damaged, "hot," or inadequately equipped.

What sort of ship suits the pirate's needs? The requirements of illicit space travel come into play here. Streamlining is essential for frontier refueling without recourse to port authorities (ed note: in-situ resource utilization, skimming a gas giant's atmosphere to get free fuel). Nav-tapes must be available from a "generate" program in the ship's computer. The jump-drive should be sufficient for rapid travel, but not so large as to require excessive crew. Piracy itself dictates hardpoints and turrets, plus space for cargo and captives (perhaps in low berths) (ed note: suspended animation). Superior avionics will detect nearby ships and altered transponders (ed note: to broadcast a fake ship ID) will lull the suspicions of both victims and police. Forged papers are, of course, a necessity if the ship is to survive long in patrolled space.

Realistically, very few pirate vessels will have all (or even a majority) of these facets. Scout/Couriers and Far traders will be most common in the "trade," with their integral hardpoints, streamlining, and jump 2 capability. Without bank payments, the costs of operating a starship are low: fuel can be skimmed from gas giants or remote oceans, and even a minor success will generate the few tens of thousands of credits needed for the crew, life-support, and maintenance. Prizes can be stripped of costly equipment or sold intact to illegal buyers. Kidnapping for ransom, extortion, and the fencing of valuable cargo can offer other sources of cash. There are major problems, however. Access to facilities, not their expense, is the key to on-going piracy. Basic ships stores can be extorted from casual traffic, purchased under a "cover" identity, or delivered through a second ship (willingly or under duress). Annual maintenance and repairs of battle damage will require lengthy stops in a class A or B port. Battle damage can be difficult to explain to port authorities (bear in mind that not everyone can be bribed, and not all those who can will stay bought). Secure maintenance can be a difficult and expensive proposition, and such bases will delimit the natural "ranges" of successful pirates. Without secure bases of operation, pirates will lead a hand-to-mouth existence, extorting or conning their way through groundside repairs, always one jump ahead of the fleet, having to abandon vessels with great frequency or operating unreliable ships increasingly prone to dangerous malfunctions. Pirates with such handicaps will be no match for the local authorities, armed merchantmen, or jealous rivals.

Personnel must be taken into consideration as well. Few ship's crew will care to spend their entire lives onboard ship, slowly accumulating money. Ship's crew must be given rest and recreation in port at frequent intervals, or they will soon desert or mutiny. In addition, pirate crews are not renowned for their high moral fiber or their extreme loyalty. Many a second-in-command has "promoted" himself with murder. Many crewmembers will get revenge for a slight (real or imagined) by betraying their ship and turning state's evidence. A captain who took command by mutiny could very well have set the precedent for his own downfall.

Pirates must seek out class A or B star-ports beyond the borders of major states, and controlled by authorities too weak or too immoral to bar suspected criminals from their facilities.

Pirates must also remember the cardinal rule: don't get greedy. If you become enough of a threat to business, either the business will go away, or somebody (not necessarily the law) will remove you as a threat. No matter how big you are, there's always somebody bigger, and it's usually a good idea not to attract their attention. In seeking prey, cost efficiency directs pirate attention to ports of Class C or better, with their higher volume of traffic. Such ports provide immediate targets for piracy, but also present the danger of a rapid response of authorities. A laden merchant is most securely looted at a distance from its last known location: intimidated. hijacked or lasered into compliance, a ship can be boarded and reprogrammed for jump to a nearby empty system, with time in hyper-space for a leisurely inventory of the take. The main problem with piracy is that a given region can only support so many "predators." If trade is disrupted too much, merchants will avoid the area, and the pirates will "starve." The analogy to nature can be carried further: Shepherds expect a few losses from their flocks as part of the cost of doing business. If wolves begin killing too many sheep, however, the shepherds will find it worth their while to organize a large-scale hunt to wipe the wolves out or drive them away.

Referees should bear in mind that the populations and governments of these worlds will not openly condone piracy, and will help in its extermination if it begins to cut too much into the circulation of trade in the region. Remember, a small, discretely run operation will be the most successful in the long run.

Inspiration can be drawn from the way pirates in the "real world" operated. Research the Caribbean pirates and privateers of the late 1600's and early 17OO's AD. Note in particular the career of Henry Morgan, a pirate/privateer for the first part of his career, then a pirate-catcher for the British in his later life.

From The Ecology of Piracy on the Spinward Main by Steven Sowards, The Journal of the Travellers' Aid Society No. 19 (1983)
Margin of Error: Using Q-ships

(ed note: Warning, Spoilers for the story "Margin of Profit". Nicholas van Rijn is the master of an interstellar trading corporation. One of their trade routes goes through a choke point, right past the dreaded Borthudians. The Borthudians are using their navy to capture the merchant ships, seizing the ships and cargo, and electronically brain-washing the valuable crew so they will use their technical training on behalf of the navy. Bypassing the planet would render the trade route unprofitable, but neither van Rijn nor the guild of ship crews are happy about the piracy. 85% of the merchant ships make it through unharmed, but the 15% who are unlucky represent lost capital to van Rijn and brain-enslaved brothers to the guild. Trained crews are at a premium, they are the main item the Borthudians are after.)

(Escorting the merchant ships with warships in a convoy would make the route unprofitable. Arming the merchant ships would make the route unprofitable (a warship needs 20 expensive crew members, a merchant ship only needs 4).

(Nicholas van Rijn has an idea. He makes a Q-ship that looks just like a merchant ship, sends it past the Borthudians, and captures the next Borthudian raider. Then he explains the facts of life to the Borthudian captain, and sends the captain home with the bad news.)

"Ah, so. Greetings and salubrications," van Rijn boomed. "I trust you have had a pleasant stay? The local jails are much recommended, I am told."

"For your race, perhaps," the Borthudian said in dull anger. "My crew and I have been wretched."

"Dear me. My nose bleeds for you."

Pride spat: "More will bleed erelong, you pirate. His Mightiness will take measures."

"Your maggoty kinglet will take no measurements except of how far his chest is fallen," declared van Rijn. "If the civilized planets did not dare fight when he was playing buccaneer, he will not when the foot is in the other shoe. No, he will accept the facts and learn to love them."

"What are your immediate intentions?" Rentharik asked stoically.

Van Rijn stroked his goatee. "Well, now, it may be we can collect a little ransom, perhaps, eh? If not, the local mines are always short of labor, because conditions is kind of hard. Criminals get assigned to them. However, out of my sugar-sweet goodness, I let you choose one person, not yourself, what may go home freely and report what has happened. I will supply a boat what can make the trip. After that we negotiate, starting with rental on the boat."

Rentharik narrowed his eyes. "See here. I know how your vile mercantile society works. You do nothing that has no money return. You are not capable of it. And to equip a vessel like yours—able to seize a warship—must cost more than the vessel can ever hope to earn."

"Oh, very quite. It costs about three times as much. Of course, we gain some of that back from auctioning off our prizes, but I fear they is too specialized to raise high bids."

"So. We will strangle your Antares route. Do not imagine we will stop patrolling our sovereign realm. If you wish a struggle of attrition, we can outlast you."

"Ah, ah." Van Rijn waggled his pipestem. "That is what you cannot do, my friend. You can reduce our gains considerably, but you cannot eliminate them. Therefore we can continue our traffic so long as we choose. You see, each voyage nets an average thirty percent profit."

"But it costs three hundred percent of that profit to outfit a ship—"

"Indeed. But we are only special-equipping every fourth ship. That means we operate on a small margin, yes, but a little arithmetic should show you we can still scrape by in the black ink."

"Every fourth?" Rentharik shook his head, frankly puzzled. "What is your advantage? Out of every four encounters, we will win three."

"True. And by those three victories, you capture twelve slaves. The fourth time, we rope in twenty Borthudian spacemen. The loss of ships we can absorb, because it will not go on too long and will be repaid us. You see, you will never know beforehand which craft is going to be the one that can fight back. You will either have to disband your press gangs or quickly get them whittled away." Van Rijn swigged from his bottle. "Understand? You is up against loaded dice which will prong you edgewise unless you drop out of the game fast."

Rentharik crouched, as if to leap, and raged: "I learned, here, that your spacefolk will no longer travel through the Kossaluth. Do you think reducing the number of impressments by a quarter will change that resolution?"

Van Rijn demonstrated what it is to grin fatly. "If I know my spacefolk . . . why, of course. Because if you do continue to raid us, you will soon reduce yourselves to such few crews as you are helpless. Then you will have to deal with us, or else the League comes in and overthrows your whole silly hermit-kingdom system. That would be so quick and easy an operation, there would be no chance for the politicians at home to interfere.

"Our terms will include freeing of all slaves and big fat indemnities. Great big fat indemnities. They do right now, naturally, so the more prisoners you take in future, the worse it will cost you. Any man or woman worth salt can stand a couple years' service on your nasty rustbuckets, if this means afterward getting paid enough to retire on in luxuriance. Our main trouble will be fighting off the excessive volunteers."

He cleared his throat, buttered his tone, and went on: "Is you therefore not wise for making agreement right away? We will be very lenient if you do. Since you are then short of crews, you can send students to our academies at not much more than the usual fees. Otherwise we will just want a few minor trade concessions—"

"And in a hundred years, you will own us," Rentharik half-snarled, half-groaned.

From Margin of Error by Poul Anderson (1956) collected in The Van Rijn Method
Earthman, Come Home: Fuel-less Ship = Piracy

(ed note: In Cities in Flight, their gravity control technology grows more efficient as the mass of the ship increases. So most of the ships are actual cities, chopped off at bedrock, and flying from star to star. They are sort of the migrant laborer's of the galaxy, with the Earth cops considering the Okie cities to be little better than tramps. The cities are powered by uranium and plutonium. In the story, Mayor Amalfi of New York is flying his Okie citie across The Rift, a wide area with no stars except for one wild star. The crossing is going to take about a hundred years.)

"Nothing on that side. Lots of nothing."

Amalfi moved the switch again.

On the screen, apparently almost within hallooing distance, a city was burning.

It was all over in a few minutes. The city bucked and toppled in a maelstrom of lightning. Feeble flickers of resistance spat around its edges—and then it no longer had any edges. Sections of it broke off and melted like wraiths. From its ardent center, a few hopeless life craft shot out into the gap; whatever was causing the destruction let them go. No conceivable life ship could live long enough to get out of the Rift.

Dee cried out. Amalfi cut in the audio circuit, filling the control room with a howl of static. Far behind the wild blasts of sound, a tiny voice was shouting desperately, "Rebroadcast if anyone hears us. Repeat: We have the fuelless drive. We're destroying our model and evacuating our passenger. Pick him up if you can. We're being blown up by a bindlestiff. Rebroadcast if—"

Then there was nothing left but the skeleton of the city, glowing whitely, evaporating in the blackness. The pale, innocent light of the guide beam for a Bethé blaster played over it, but it was still impossible to see who was wielding the weapon. The Dinwiddie circuits in the proxies were compensating for the glare, so that nothing was coming through to the screen that did not shine with its own light.

The terrible fire died slowly, and the stars brightened. As the last spark flared and went out, a shadow loomed against the distant star-wall. Hazleton drew his breath in sharply.

"Another city! So some outfits really do go bindlestiff! And we thought we were the first ones out here!"

"Mark," Dee said in a small voice. "Mark, what is a bindlestiff?"

"A tramp," Hazleton said, his eyes still on the screen. "The kind of outfit that gives all Okies a bad name. Most Okies are true hobos, Dee; they work for their living wherever they can find work. The bindlestiff lives by robbery—and murder."

His voice was bitter. Amalfi himself felt a little sick. That one city should destroy another was bad enough; but it was even more of a wrench to realize that the whole scene was virtually ancient history. Ultrawave transmission was somewhat faster than light, but only by about 25 per cent; unlike the Dirac transmitter, the ultraphone was by no means an instantaneous communicator. The dark city had destroyed its counterpart years ago, and must now be beyond pursuit. It was even beyond identification, for no orders could be sent now to the lead proxy which would result in any action until still more years had passed.

"Some outfits go bindlestiff, all right," he said. "And I think the number must have been increasing lately. Why that should be, I don't know, but evidently it's happening. We've been losing a lot of legitimate, honest cities lately—getting no answer to Dirac casts, missing them at rendezvous, and so on. Maybe now we know why."

"I've noticed," Hazleton said. "But I don't see how there could be enough piracy to account for all the losses. For all we know, the Vegan orbital fort may be out here, picking off anybody who's venturesome enough to leave the usual commerce lanes."

"I didn't know the Vegans flew cities," Dee said.

"They don't," Amalfi said abstractedly. He considered describing the legendary fort, then rejected the idea. "But they dominated the galaxy once, before Earth took to space flight. At their peak they owned more planets than Earth does right now, but they were knocked out a hell of a long time ago. . . . I'm still worried about that bindlestiff, Mark. You'd think that some heavy thinker on Earth would have figured out a way to make Diracs compact enough to be mounted in a proxy. They haven't got anything better to do back there."

Hazleton had no difficulty in penetrating to the real core of Amalfi's grumbling. He said, "Maybe we can still smoke 'em out, boss."

"Not a chance. We can't afford a side jaunt."

"Well, I'll send out a general warning on the Dirac," Hazleton said. "It's barely possible that the cops will be able to invest this part of the Rift before the 'stiff gets out of it."

"That'll trap us neatly, won't it? Besides, that bindlestiff isn't going to leave the Rift, at least not until it's picked up those life craft."

"Eh? How do you know?"

"Did you hear what the SOS said about a fuelless drive?"

"Sure," Hazleton said uneasily, "but the man who knows how to build it must be dead by now, even if he escaped when his city was blasted."

"We can't be sure of that—and that's the one thing that the 'stiff has to make sure of. If the 'stiffs get ahold of that drive, there'll be all hell to pay. After that, 'stiffs won't be a rarity any more. If there isn't widespread piracy in the galaxy now, there will be—if we let the 'stiffs get that no-fuel drive."

"Why?" Dee said.

"I wish you knew more history, Dee. I don't suppose there were ever any pirates on Utopia, but Earth once had plenty of them. They eventually died out, thousands of years ago, when sailing ships were replaced by fueled ships. The fueled ships were faster than sailing vessels—but they couldn't themselves become pirates because they had to touch civilized ports regularly to coal up. They could always get food off some uninhabited island, but for coal they had to visit a real port. The Okie cities are in the same position now; they're fueled ships. But if that bindlestiff can actually get its hands on a no-fuel drive—so he can sail space without having to touch civilized planets for power metals—well, we just can't allow it to happen, that's all. We've got to get that drive away from them."

Hazleton stood up, kneading his hands nervously. "That's perfectly true—and that's why the 'stiff will knock itself out to recapture those lifeships. You're right, Amalfi. Well, there's only one place in the Rift where a lifeship could go, and that's to the wild star. So the 'stiff is probably there, too, by now—or on the way there." He looked thoughtfully at the screen, once more glittering only with anonymous stars. "That changes things. Shall I send out the Dirac warning, or not?"

From Earthman, Come Home by James Blish (1955), book 3 of the Cities in Flight series
Space Skimmer: Fuel-less Ship = Piracy

(ed note: In Space Skimmer, there used to a galactic empire. It collapsed about five hundred years ago for unclear reasons. Shortly before the collapse, a new type of starship had been invented, the Space Skimmers. Unlike conventional starships, these ships were constructed out of force fields instead of metal. They were self-repairing, and could gather the energy they needed for fuel by making a close pass by a sun.)

“Why is it that the Empire is still active in this area?” asked Ike. “Everywhere else we’ve been, the Empire is only a memory.”

“Part of it is geography,” Edelith answered. “Here, we’re nearer to the core of the galaxy. The stars are closer to each other; an interstellar flight between two neighbors is not as big a jump as it would be farther out.

“When the Empire collapsed, it only meant the collapse of long-distance communications; local trade still continued. For us, local trade covers an area which includes forty-three inhabited planets.” She shifted her position on the chaise, straightened slightly. “The average journey between stars is only a few days — in your skimmer, only a few hours — but out in the spiral arms, a journey could be days or months, even for you.”

Mass asked, “You haven’t tried at all to reestablish contact with any of the other Empire Stations?”

She shook her head. “The numbers aren’t right.”


“The human race is spread too thin throughout the galaxy. It’s spread too thin even among our own planets; we have too few governments with the necessary populations or wealth.”

Ike put in: “There is an important social equation involved here. Individually, no planet has the wealth to mount the effort of rebuilding the Empire; it takes the collective wealth of many planets — but in order to achieve that kind of cooperation, you need the kind of communications that only an already established Empire can provide.

“A planet has to have a population of at least one billion people, with a gross product per person of at least ten thousand credits per year in order to be able to afford the technology capable of building and maintaining a profitable starship; an empire requires at least twenty such populations in order to maintain communications between a community of one hundred stellar systems.”

“And even then, they’re spreading themselves pretty thin,” remarked Edelith. “But trade and communications are an aid to growth; eventually their investment should pay for itself.”

Ike added, “The equation is determined by the length of time it takes to travel from one star to another. Before the synthesis of the skimmer, the critical factor was one light-year every three days.”

“The skimmers must have upset that equation drastically,” Edelith mused. “Economic values on too many planets were determined by false scarcity of certain trade items. With the sudden explosion of information and commerce that the skimmers represented, there must have been economic and political chaos. We’ll never know how much chaos, though; the Empire’s communications collapsed before the skimmers’ effects were fully felt.”

Mass didn’t pay any attention to that There was something else on his mind. “Wait a minute,” he said. “There are lots of planets with large populations and within range of each other — wouldn’t they be able to pool their resources?”

Edelith considered it. “It sounds good, Mass, but it doesn’t work that way. A culture has to reach a threshold level of production; after that, it requires only the willingness to accomplish the deed. Below that threshold level, there’s no way to ‘pool resources.’ Above it, there’s no need.

“There’re probably many areas in the galaxy where neighboring star systems have maintained communications — like the area around Liadne; but the Empire at its height comprised more than 11,000 planets. Most of them were thinly populated — oh, most people lived fairly well; according to the history texts, there were a great deal of resources available for just a very few people — but the equation requires a certain amount of manpower as well as a speci6c level of production. Too many of the Empire planets fell below those levels.”

“Then the Empire doesn’t exist any more, any-where...?”

“Probably not,” said Edelith. “We are living in what historians of the future will probably call ‘The Galactic Dark Ages’.”

“Dark Ages?” asked Tapper. “Doesn’t that mean a time of no knowledge?”

“It means an interruption in the gathering of knowledge, or a loss of knowledge from the general usage of a culture. In our case, the knowledge isn’t lost — it’s just spread out. It only remains to be gathered up again. This skimmer —” She gestured about her, “— is the perfect vehicle for such a task.”

"Excuse me,” said Ike. “It was the skimmers that were responsible for the collapse of the Empire in the first place.”

“Huh?” That was Mass.

Edelith echoed his bewilderment, “Why do you say that?”

“Because it appears to be true. I have been considering your statement, Edelith. You said that economic values on too many planets were determined by the false scarcity of certain trade items. I assumed you meant the scarcity which is derived from inefficient transport systems, in this case, the pre-skimmer lightships. As you postulated, the efficiency of the skimmer would destroy those values and create economic chaos — with political upheavals following as well However, I do not think you realize the scope of those political upheavals because you fail to realize the power of the skimmers.”

Both Mass and Edelith were staring, “Go on,” Edelith whispered.

“The pre-skimmer lightships,” said Ike, “were in-efficient in a way much more important to the stability of the Empire than the one-light-year-every-three-days limitation: they had to have a home base. They were tied down to a high-level technology because only a high-level technology could refuel and maintain a lightship.

"A lightship is an ecological dead-end,” explained the construct. “It has to be supported, it cannot support itself. The energy-refining equipment to manufacture its power cells could cover several hundred square miles. No ship could comprise that much technology within its hull,” said Ike, “—until the skimmers. The skimmers are self-supporting.”

“My God, yes —” Edelith’s face was pale. Mass blinked in astonishment.

"You should have realized it, Mass; this craft not only has almost unlimited speed — it has unlimited range as well. We can travel anywhere because we can refuel with anything. Think of the effect that knowledge must have had on a Captain four hundred years ago. Suddenly he no longer had to be responsible to his home planet — not economically, not politically. He was a free agent, master of his own ship, captain of his own destiny; he was as independent as a man could be. Once he was in space with his skimmer, there was no way that anyone could catch or control him.”

Edelith sank onto a chaise, her mouth agape. She managed to gasp, “but the skimmers weren’t the cause of the collapse, they couldn’t have been —”

“They were the catalyst,” said Ike. “The potential must have already been there.”

Edelith forced herself to ass. “Yes, of course. The potential for collapse is inherent in any entropy-reversing system. Its strength is measured by how well the system can cope with or adapt to new circumstances — yes, of course, Ike —” She looked up, her eyes were bright with realization, “— the impact of the skimmers was too much for the Empire; they happened too fast. They overloaded the culture’s ability to adjust —”

“And the result was an explosion of irresponsibility,” said Ike. "First, the economic chaos, then the political upheavals; then, anally, men must have seized the skimmers for their own ends, either to flee or to control. The skimmers represent ultimate power. I suppose that men must have killed for them, become dictators or tyrants. A man with a skimmer has absolute control, yet he cannot be caught or killed.”

Edelith shook her head, “No, Ike — not dictators. Gods. Men would have used the power of the skimmers to set themselves up as gods.”

From Space Skimmer by David Gerrold (1972)
Fustest With the Mostest: No Stealth In Space

James Cambias:

In the perfect-information environment of space, pirates can still operate — they just have to be clever. Base themselves in "choke points" with suitably chaotic politics, so they can intercept merchants when they've finished their burn and can't evade.

Example: for a forthcoming story (The Barbary Shore by James L. Cambias) about pirates intercepting Lunar helium payloads, I put the raiders at L-1, near where the payloads launched from the Moon begin the fall down to Earth. The payloads are moving very slowly there, so a quick burn from L-1 can intercept them. Until they start their intercept burn, the pirates are peaceful "Lunar Resource Satellites" duly registered and legal.


In a non-FTL system any attempt to draw close enough to a ship to board is going to be clearly visible to anyone looking the right way at the right time. Even barring a distress call that could be heard by anyone in the system and lead them to point their telescopes in the right direction sooner or later someone is going to spot the pirate ship while it is pirating. Once that occurs the ship can be tracked, and at some point the pirates are going to need a port or a base. Under these circumstances any port that gives aid to a ship that has been identified as a pirate will be getting a visit from a taskforce some time soon; since as I recall that would be an act of war. Chances are the regions harbouring pirates would not be up to a full-scale war against the regions they are robbing, since presumnably the robbed has more resources than the robber.

And that would be the problem Cambias. Without any uncertainty about where the perpetrators of the crime had gone it would be quite simple to take measures to stop them. Without a horizon or islands around to use to keep out of sight any act of piracy would be in full view of the solar system.

This also applies to Rebel groups, the only real places to hide are inside of habitats, otherwise tracking down a rebel base is just too easy. If there is a rebellion it will be less space battles and more sabotage and knifings. Of course you have internal sensors to worry about, but those are much easier to smash than telescopes on the far side of the system.

James Cambias:

I covered that in my story. The pirates are perfectly legal right up to the moment they start pirating. Then their flag government is shocked, shocked to discover these seemingly honest entrepreneurs were actually pirates. Some hapless political dissident gets arrested for the crime, and things continue. The story, of course, is about the inevitable response.

From Fustest With the Mostest, comment section (2007)
Books I will not write #4: Space Pirates of KPMG: Pin-Stripe Piracy

Starships are expensive, intricate pieces of machinery. They are difficult to build and maintain, and have to be continuously in motion, transporting cargo and passengers, in order to cover their running costs.

There are space pirates. They, too, have to pay huge amounts of money to keep their starships running, and they can't afford to be stupid about it.

The space pirates' business model is this: they identify a likely target merchant ship, match courses with it, and board.

They do not, however, rape, pillage, and murder the passengers and crew. That would leave them having to transport a lot of bulk merchandise and find somewhere to fence it, taking an inevitable hit in the commodity's resale value. It would also set everyone's hand against them. Not good for life expectancy ...

Instead, they audit the cargo. Then they search out for any secret items the ship is transporting, stuff that is of high value but not publicly announced. Many times they don't find any. But sometimes they stumble across a passenger liner with a safe full of quantum computing chips, or a bulk liquid carrier with much less freight volume in its cargo holds than expected and something extremely massive tucked away — a lump of stabilized neutronium, for example.

They do not steal the secret cargo. Instead, they notify their accomplices by means of their private causal channel to buy commodity options based on their insider knowledge of the secret cargo's impending arrival. Then they give the hijacked ship an armed escort (under communications silence) all the way to its destination, to ensure it arrives on time.

Thus: your typical space pirate in the Eschaton universe metaphorically wears a grey pin-striped suit, swarms aboard a merchant vessel with a spreadsheet between his clenched teeth, and has retirement plans involving a senior partnership in a firm of accountants. (Captain Jack Sparrow he ain't.)

Such pirates are tolerated by the majority of sane merchant captains (although they drive commodity traders up the wall) because space is big, space is dark, and space contains a small but worrying number of idiot barbarians who will, if they see a foreign merchant vessel, board it with rape, pillage and murder in mind. Idiot barbarians are bad for commerce. Professional space pirates strongly disapprove of this and will take drastic preventative measures when they run into them.

Now, fast-forward a decade after the events of "Singularity Sky". The New Republic of that book is, clearly, in dire straits. In fact, it's disintegrating under the stress of its own cultural singularity (inflicted by first contact with the Festival). The economy is in tatters; navy crews are not being paid. Is it any wonder if the crews of the surviving vessels of the New Republican Navy mutiny and light out for parts unknown, there to try and make their fortune flying the Jolly Roger (despite not knowing a put option from a hole in a bowling green)?

The pin-striped space pirates aren't going to approve ...

Pirate Havens

Another problem to be addressed if you want piracy to be viable is infrastructure. Captain Jack Sparrow's ship needed no fuel, only the winds. The crew can repair much of the ship if they can find an island that has trees. And there is no shortage of places that will accept gold coins and jewels. Now a pirate starship might be able to squeak by if they can use water or hydrogen for fuel, but it will be a real problem if their ships require antimatter or highly refined plutonium. Repairing ones ship is job for a shipyard, not a random asteroid with the crew frantically looking for nuggets of titanium. And fencing high tech computer chips will be a challenge. What pirates need is a Pirate Haven.

The two models of pirate havens are Tortuga and Port Royal. Tortuga was a place made by pirates and run by pirates for the benefit of pirates. Port Royal was a place that officially was against pirates. But unofficially they would purchase pirated goods, repair pirate ships, and show pirate crews a good time. In order to maintain the illusion of their anti-pirate stance the officials of Port Royal would strain themselves looking the other way, and never ever asking any embarrassing questions.

James Cambias said that manned piracy in space would require some kind of space habitat which is either run by a powerful Earth state yet tolerates piracy (the "no peace beyond the Line" model), or a space habitat which is essentially owned by pirates and can defend itself (the "Libertaria" model).

Pirate havens may also have their very own argot, Thieves' Cant or secret language.

Wikipedia: Pirate Haven

Pirate havens are ports or harbors that are a safe place for pirates to repair their vessels, resupply, recruit, spend their plunder, avoid capture, and/or lie in wait for merchant ships to pass by. The areas have governments that are unable or unwilling to enforce maritime laws. This creates favorable conditions for pirates and piracy.

These havens were often near maritime shipping lanes. Although some havens were merely hidden coves, some were established by governments who employed privateers to disrupt the overseas trade of rival nations.

From Pirate haven in Wikipedia
The Ecology of Piracy

Access to facilities, not their expense, is the key to on-going piracy. Basic ships stores can be extorted from casual traffic, purchased under a "cover" identity, or delivered through a second ship (willingly or under duress). Annual maintenance and repairs of battle damage will require lengthy stops in a class A or B port. Battle damage can be difficult to explain to port authorities (bear in mind that not everyone can be bribed, and not all those who can will stay bought). Secure maintenance can be a difficult and expensive proposition, and such bases will delimit the natural "ranges" of successful pirates. Without secure bases of operation, pirates will lead a hand-to-mouth existence, extorting or conning their way through groundside repairs, always one jump ahead of the fleet, having to abandon vessels with great frequency or operating unreliable ships increasingly prone to dangerous malfunctions. Pirates with such handicaps will be no match for the local authorities, armed merchantmen, or jealous rivals.

Personnel must be taken into consideration as well. Few ship's crew will care to spend their entire lives onboard ship, slowly accumulating money. Ship's crew must be given rest and recreation in port at frequent intervals, or they will soon desert or mutiny. In addition, pirate crews are not renowned for their high moral fiber or their extreme loyalty. Many a second-in-command has "promoted" himself with murder. Many crewmembers will get revenge for a slight (real or imagined) by betraying their ship and turning state's evidence. A captain who took command by mutiny could very well have set the precedent for his own downfall.

Pirates must seek out class A or B star-ports beyond the borders of major states, and controlled by authorities too weak or too immoral to bar suspected criminals from their facilities.

From The Ecology of Piracy on the Spinward Main by Steven Sowards, The Journal of the Travellers' Aid Society No. 19 (1983)
Path of the Fury: Supplying Pirate Infrastructure

"And we've already been dumping a lot of luxury items through Wyvern. I don't see any reason we can't fence the rest of our loot there—they certainly won't object."

He shrugged, and heads nodded here and there. Most Rogue Worlds were fairly respectable (by their own lights, at least), but Wyvern's government was owned outright by the descendants of the captain-owners of one of the last piratical fleets of the League Wars to go "legitimate." It bought or sold anything, no questions asked, and was equally indiscriminate in the deals it brokered. Many of its fellow Rogue Worlds might deplore its existence, yet Wyvern was too useful an interface (and too well armed) tor most of them to do anything more strenuous. Which, since the Empire had both the power and the inclination to smack the hands of those who irritated it, gave Wyvern's robber-baron aristocracy a vested interest in anything that might disrupt the nascent Franconian Sector's stability.

From Path of the Fury by David Weber (1992)
The Witches of Karres: Supplying Pirate Infrastructure

"One thing, here's Uldune!" Her fingertip traced over the star map between them, stopped. "Be just about a week away, on half-power."

The captain gave her a surprised look. Uldune was one of the worlds around here which were featured in Nikkeldepain's history books; and it was not featured at all favorably. Under the leadership of its Daal, Sedmon the Grim, and various successors of the same name, it had been the headquarters of a ferocious pirate confederacy which had trampled over half the Empire on a number of occasions, and raided far and wide beyond it. And that particular section of history, as he recalled it, wasn't very far in the past.

"What's good about being that close to Uldune?" he inquired. "From what I've heard of them, that's as bloodthirsty a bunch of cutthroats as ever infested space!"

"Guess they were pretty bad," Goth acknowledged. "But that's a time back. They're sort of reformed now."

"Sort of reformed?"

She shrugged. "Well, they're still a bunch of crooks, Captain. But we can do business with them."


She'd never been on Uldune but it was a frequent stopover point for Karres people. Uldune's reform, initiated by its previous Daal, Sedmon the Fifth, and continued under his successor, had been a matter of simple expediency—the Empire's expanding space power was making wholesale piracy too unprofitable and risky a form of enterprise. Sedmon the Sixth was an able politician who maintained mutually satisfactory relations with the Empire and other space neighbors, while deriving much of his revenue by catering to the requirements of people who operated outside the laws of any government. Uldune today was banker, fence, haven, trading center, outfitter, supplier, broker, and middleman to all comers who could afford its services. It never asked embarrassing questions. Outright pirates—successful ones, at any rate—were still perfectly welcome. So was anybody who merely wanted to transact some form of business unhampered by standard legal technicalities.

"I'm beginning to get it!" the captain acknowledged. "But what makes you think we won't get robbed blind there?"

"They're not crooks that way—at least not often. The Daal goes for the skinning alive thing," Goth explained. "You get robbed, you squawk. Then somebody gets skinned. It's pretty safe!"

It did sound like the Daal had hit on a dependable method to give his planet a reputation for solid integrity in business deals. "So we sell the cargo there," the captain mused. "They take their cut—probably a big one—"

"Uh-huh. Runs around forty per."

"Of the assessed value?"


"Steep! But if they've got to see the stuff gets smuggled to buyers in the Empire or somewhere else, they're taking the risks. And, allowing for what the new drive engines will cost us, we'll be on Uldune then with what should still be a very good chunk of money. . . . Hmm!"

While still half a day away from the one-time pirate planet, the Venture's communicators signaled a pick-up. They switched on the instruments and found themselves listening to a general broadcast from Uldune, addressed to all ships entering this area of space.

If they were headed for Uldune on business, they were invited to shift to a frequency which would put them in contact with a landing station off-planet. Uldune was anxious to see to it that their visit was made as pleasant and profitable as possible and would facilitate matters to that end in every way. Detailed information would be made available by direct-beam contact from the landing station.

It was the most cordial reception ever extended to the captain on a planetary approach. They switched in the station, were welcomed warmly to Uldune. Business arrangements then began immediately. Before another hour was up Uldune knew in general what they wanted and what they had to offer, had provided a list of qualified shipbuilders, scheduled immediate appointments with identity specialists, official assessors who would place a minimum value on their cargo, and a representative of the Daal's Bank, who would assist them in deciding what other steps to take to achieve their goals to best effect on Uldune.

Helpful as the pirate planet was to its clients, it was also clear that it took no unnecessary chances with them. Visitors arriving with their own spacecraft had the choice of leaving them berthed at the landing stations and using a shuttle to have themselves and their goods transported down to a spaceport, or of allowing foolproof seals to be attached to offensive armament for the duration of the ship's stay on Uldune. A brief, but presumably quite effective, contamination check of the interior of the ship and of its cargo was also carried out at the landing station. Otherwise, aside from an evident but no-comment interest aroused by the nova guns in the armament specialists engaged in securing them, the Daal's officials at the station displayed a careful lack of curiosity about the Venture, her crew, her cargo, and her origin. An escort boat presently guided them down to a spaceport and their interview at the adjoining Office of Identities.

From The Witches of Karres by James H. Schmitz (1956)
Transport Nexus: Supplying Pirate Infrastructure


There's no reason that this can't be worked into the plot. Our own human nations are not immortal. Our corporations can be consumed or die of incompetence. Just because Rome was not eternal did not mean it could not exist for the span it did. The vast majority of seeds do not become trees but that does not mean a forest cannot be.

Any properly vast station would have hundreds of sectors with redundant life support and power generation systems. If we imagine the station as an island in space, consider Hispaniola. On one side we have a functioning states, the Dominican Republic. On the other side we have Haiti, a dysfunctional mess. Same island, same resources, different results.

I could imagine a very interesting setting on a vast station that is suffering from the collapse of unified control. Some sectors are properly maintained and society is functioning as it should. Other sectors are in poor maintenance. Some of the common areas are completely out of maintenance, possibly open to hard vacuum. Perhaps the functioning side lacks the resources to fix the broken areas, maybe lack the manpower.

You have a story of resource depletion and civil war on Easter Island. A relatively advanced primitive society tore itself apart, likely over religion and politics. Imagine if you had a dozen islands within sight of each other, some of them maintaining social order while others descend into cannibalism and anarchy.

So as far as your Mos Eisley station example, a small one would be operated by one pirate king, the same way pirate settlements in the Carribean were founded by notable individuals. His house, his rules. Visitors pay rent. He provides the power, air, and food. For larger pirate settlements, each faction would maintain their own area. You wouldn't see chaotic evil pirates running these places, they'd be pragmatic amoral. These would be the guys you could trust in the sense that you know they are rational and have reputations to maintain in the community. You might get knifed in the back if no one is to be the wiser but they're not going to cheat you openly in a way that would harm their reputations. Get known as a cheat and no other pirate will risk doing business, savvy?

The rationale for a pirate haven like this is fairly obvious. Pirates can't get their ships worked on in legitimate yards. They need a place to handle repairs too big for the hands onboard. They need a place for R&R, can't exactly stretch your legs in places where the cops are. Ships can refit and recrew here. And there's also the need to fence stolen goods. Here pirate cargo gets traded to "honest" merchantmen and can get back on the open market.

Now any number of things can happen to jeopardize the viability of such a pirate haven and that's where the stories get interesting.

(ed note: for more read the section on Mos Eisley Space Station)

From comments to Transport Nexus
Waystar: Supplying Pirate Infrastructure

(ed note: Waystar is the legendary pirate haven. Zilwrich is a Zacathan alien, noted archaeologists and historians. They have a life span of about a thousand years. The "Guild" is the Thieves Guild)

"You are right that it was a raid for the treasures we found within a tomb. It is a very rich find and a remainder of a civilization not heretofore charted. So it is worth far more than just the value of the pieces—it is worth knowledge!" And he provided that last word with such emphasis as I might accord a flawless gem. "They will sell the treasure to those collectors who value things enough to hide them for just their own delight. And the knowledge will be lost!"

"You know where they take it?" Eet asked.

"To Waystar. So it would seem that that is not a legend after all.

"They blasted into hyper. We cannot track them." Ryzk shook his head. "And the site of Waystar is the best-guarded secret in the galaxy."

But I held a session in which we pooled what we knew of Waystar. Since most was only legend and space tales, it would be of little value, a statement I made gloomily.

But Zilwrich differed. "We Zacathans are sifters of legends, and we have discovered many times that there are rich kernels of truth hidden at their cores. The tale of Waystar has existed for generations of your time, Murdoc Jern, and for two generations of ours—


"That—that means it antedates our coming into space!" Ryzk interrupted. "But—"

"Why not?" asked the Zacathan. "There have always been those outside the law. Do you think your species alone invented raiding, crime, piracy? Do not congratulate or shame yourselves that this is so. Star empires in plenty have risen and fallen and always they had those who set their own wills and desires, lusts and envies, against the common good. It is perfectly possible that Waystar has long been a hide-out for such, and was rediscovered by some of your kind fleeing the law, who thereafter put it to the same use. Do you know those co-ordinates?" he asked Ryzk.

The pilot shook his head. "They are off any trade lane. In a 'dead' sector."

"And what better place—in a sector where only dead worlds spin about burned-out suns? A place which is avoided, since there is no life to attract it, no trade, no worlds on which living things can move without cumbersome protection which makes life a burden."

"One of those worlds could be Waystar?" I hazarded.

"No. The legend is too plain. Waystar is space-borne. Perhaps it was even once a space station, set up eons ago when the dead worlds lived and bore men who reached for the stars. If so, it has been in existence longer than our records, for those worlds have always been dead to us."

He had given us a conception of time so vast we could not measure it. Ryzk frowned.

"No station could go on functioning, even on atomics—"

"Do not be too sure even of that," Zilwrich told him. "Some of the Forerunners had machines beyond our comprehension. You have certainly heard of the Caverns of Arzor and of that Sargasso planet of Limbo where a device intended for war and left running continued to pull ships to crash on its surface for thousands of years. It is not beyond all reckoning that a space station devised by such aliens would continue to function. But also it could have been converted, by desperate men. And those criminals would thus have a possession of great value, if they could continue to hold it—something worth selling—"

"Safety!" I cut in. Though Waystar was not entirely Guild, yet surely the Guild had some ties there.

"Just so," agreed Eet. "Safety. And if they believe they have utter safety there we may be sure of two things. One, that they do have some defenses which would hold perhaps even against Fleet action, for they cannot think that the situation of their hole would never be discovered. Second, that having been so long in the state of safety, they might relax strict vigilance."

However, on the visa-screen what we picked up now was not the ship, but what lay ahead. For additional safety Eet had snapped on the distort beam and through that we could see just a little of the amazing port we neared.

Whatever formed its original core—an asteroid, a moon, an ancient space station—could not be distinguished now. What remained was a mass of ships, derelicts declared so by their broken sides, their general decrepit appearances. They were massed, jammed tightly together into an irregular ovoid except in one place directly before us, where there was a dark gap, into which the ship controlling our path was now headed.

"Looted ships—" I hazarded, ready to believe now in every wild story of Waystar. Pirates had dragged in victim ships to help form their hiding place—though why any such labor was necessary I could not guess.

The band of murdered ships ended suddenly in a clear space, a space which held other ships—three I could see. One was the cargo ship which had brought us in, another was one of those needle-nosed, deadly raiders I had seen used by the Guild, and the third was plainly a yacht. They were in orbit around what was the core of this whole amazing world in space. And it was a station, oval in shape like the protecting mass of wreckage, with landing stages at either end. Its covering was opaque, but with a crystalline look to the outer surface, which was pitted and pocked and had obviously been mended time and time again with substances that did not match the original material.

From Uncharted Stars by Andre Norton (1969)


When is a pirate not a pirate? When they are a Privateer, of course. What's the difference? Not much, just a Letter of Marque and Reprisal. If a government is at war, and it doesn't want to spend a lot on warships and/or naval officers (or it wants plausible deniability), privateers are the solution. But the line between pirate and privateer is quite vague. The term "corsair" can mean either pirate or privateer.

Here's the deal. The privateer is a civilian warship, owned by citizens of the government. The owner receives a Letter of Marque from the government. The letter authorizes the privateer to attack vessels belonging to the "enemy" (as defined in the letter) in the name of the government. Other than what is stated in the letter, the privateer does not take any orders from naval command.

As the privateer captures or sinks enemy vessels, they get prize money. The privateer submits claims for bounty to the Prize Court to get the prize money. Generally they submit their claim by putting a prize crew in charge of the captured ship at the site of the battle and having it set sail to the port city containing the prize court. The prize money comes from the sale of the captured ship and its cargo (the government can purchase the captured ship at cost).

The prize crews usually are unhappy, since once they are off the privateer they do not receive any prize money from future captures. Only the crew on board the privateer during the battle get prize money from that battle. So the longer a crew person stays on the privateer, the more prize money they get.

The privateer is initially funded by private investors, who in exchange get a portion of the prize money earned. The privateer's officers and crew get the rest of the prize money. The government does not have to pay any money (prize money comes from sale of captured ship), yet gets the benefit of pressuring enemy convoy fleets and warships. It is a pretty good deal all around, as long as the privateer can regularly capture enemy vessels.

Of course the privateer is stuck with the bill for repairing any damage their ship sufferers during battle. And they run the risk of being captured or killed if the enemy ship turns out to be more than they can handle.

If the privateer commits certain offences, the navy can revoke the letter of marque as punishment. If the privateers mistakenly capture a ship of the wrong nationality, the prize court can order the captured ship returned the owners, and will not pay any prize money. In addition, the privateers will be liable to the owners for damages. If the privateers are smart, they will post a performance bond before hand, as insurance to pay for damages to owners. Legally privateers are not pirates, but warships. Pirate law does not apply, but the laws of naval warfare do.

Space Skimmer: Letters of Marque

The Empire had always been unwieldy and unmanageable. By the year 970 H.C. it was not so much an empire as a loosely organized confederation. Lip service was paid to the idea of a unified central government for all the races of man, but the Empire was only as strong as its local representative.

Where that representative was only one agent with an Oracle machine and a twice-yearly visit from a trading ship, the Empire was a distant myth. Where that representative was an Imperial Fleet, the Empire was law. And there were all the possible variations in between. Some were just, some weren't.

The Empire passed no laws; they could not guarantee uniform enforcement. Instead, they wrote suggested codes of moral behavior for use by representatives of the Imperial Council. Agents of the Empire were free to apply them — or not apply them — as they saw fit. Or, at least to the degree that they could enforce them.

The Empire maintained few fleets of its own — and these stayed close to home. Instead letters of marque were issued.

Member planets and systems often had their own armadas to police their own territories. Often, those territories consisted of as much volume as those armadas could effectively patrol. Armed with letters of marque, these fleets were automatically acting in the name of the Empire. As agents of such, their duties were what ever their admirals wanted them to be. In return, the badge of the Empire made them — and their control — legal.

The local governments controlled the fleets, and in so doing, they wielded the real power. Some were just; some weren't. The Empire didn't care — as long as they paid their taxes. Most of them did.

In return, they received the benefits of Empire.

In addition to the implied legality of their regimes, they were automatically privy to the vast scientific and cultural library represented by the sum total of humanity. The Empire continually collected and distributed. It functioned as a gigantic clearing house of knowledge, literature, art and music. Member planets disseminated their contributions freely through the system — part of the price they paid for being able to tap the system in return. The exchange was always a bargain: the knowledge of one planet traded for the knowledge of a thousand.

One way to control an empire is to control the pulsing of its lifeblood — its interstellar commerce, the huge ships that swim between the stars.

Indeed, it was the only way to control the recalcitrant government of a far distant planet — threaten to cut it off from its interstellar brothers, especially those beyond its immediate reach. Expel it from the Empire altogether —

— at which point it becomes fair prey to any armada bearing the Empire insignia. After all, wasn't it a matter of restoring order? And weren't the armadas legal representatives of the Empire itself?

An Empire ship would never attack another Empire ship or planet; that would be a violation of the sacred trust of the Empire. But an attack on an independent ship or government — well, that was something else altogether.

The Empire insignia was a license — but only to be used against those who did not bear it. Neat. Effective.

The Empire held that one trump card, and it was enough. It was the card of mutually recognized legality, an insignia recognized by all mankind and one that indicated its bearer subscribed to a known code of behavior. It was a safe-conduct pass through troubled spaces and a basis upon which any two humans could meet for trade, or news, or simply for the exchange of pleasures. It was the card of the open market — and few would endanger their right to participate in that market by defying the Empire. They feared their neighbors too much.

From Space Skimmer by David Gerrold (1972)
The Star Fox: Letters of Marque

(ed note: in the novel the Alerion aliens have captured a human colony world of New Europe in the Phoenix. For political reasons having to do with appeasement, the nations of Terra are loath to do anything about it. Gunnar Heim, a private citizen, finds a loop-hole in the archaic concept of privateers.)

Heim looked at the bent head, and the rage in him seemed about to tear him apart. "I'd like to go out myself!" he shouted.

"This would be piracy," Coquelin sighed.

"No ... wait, wait, wait." The thought flamed into being. Heim sprang to his feet. "Privateers. Once upon a time there were privately owned warships."

"Eh, you have read a little history, I see." Some life came back to Coquelin. He sat straighter and watched the huge, restless figure with eyes again alert. "But I have read more. Privateering was outlawed in the nineteenth century. Even countries not signatory to that pact observed the prohibition, until it came to be regarded as a part of international law. Admitted, the Federal Constitution does not mention so archaic a matter. Still"—

"Exactly!" Heim roared; or was it the demon that had come to birth in his skull?

"No, no, flout the law and the Peace Control forces arrive. I am too old and tired, me, to stand trial before the World Court. To say nothing of the practical difficulties. France cannot declare war by herself. France cannot produce nuclear weapons." Coquelin uttered a small sad chuckle. "I am a lawyer by past profession. It there were a, you say loophole?—I could perhaps squirm through. But here—"

Word by word, Heim said: "I can get hold of the weapons."

Coquelin leaped in his seat. "Qu'est-ce que vous dites?"

"Off Earth. I know a place. Don't you see—Alerion has to put space defenses in orbit around New Europe, or she can't hold it against any determined attack." Heim was leaning on the desk now, nose to nose with the other, talking like a machine gun. "New Europe has only a limited industry. So the Aleriona will have to bring most of the stuff from home. A long supply line. One commerce raider—what'd that do to their bargaining position? What'd it do for our own poor buffaloed people? One ship!"

"But I have told you—"

"You told me it—was physically and legally impossible. I can prove the physical possibility. And you said you were a lawyer."

Coquelin rose too, went to the window, and stared long out across the Seine. Heim's pace quivered the floor. His brain whirled with plans, data, angers, hopes; he had not been so seized by a power since he bestrode his bridge at Alpha Eridani.

And then Coquelin turned about. His whisper filled the silence: "Peut-etre—" and he went to the desk and began punching keys on an infotrieve.

"What are you after?" Heim demanded.

"Details of the time before quite every country had joined the Federation. The Moslem League did not recognize that it had any right as a whole to deal with them. So during the troubles, the Authority was charged with protecting Federation interests in Africa." Coquelin gave himself entirely to his work. Once, though, he met Heim's eyes. His own danced in his head. "Mille remercîments, man frère," he said. "It may be for no more than this night, but you have given me back my youth."

"Here's the situation. One commerce raider in the Phoenix can make trouble out of all proportion to its capabilities. Besides disrupting schedules and plans, it ties up any number of warships, which either have to go hunt for it or else run convoy. As a result, the Aleriona force confronting ours in the Marches will be reduced below parity. So if then Earth gets tough, both in space and at the negotiations table—we shouldn't have to get very tough, you see, nothing so drastic that the peacemongers can scream too . loud—one big naval push, while that raider is out there gobbling Aleriona ships—We can make them disgorge New Europe. Also give us some concessions for a change."

"It may be. It may be." Vadasz remained sober. "But how can you get a fighting craft?"

"Buy one and refit it. As for weapons, I'm going to dispatch a couple of trusty men soon, in a company speedster, to Staurn—you know the place?"

"I know of it. Ah-ha!" Vadasz snapped his fingers. His eyes began to glitter.

"Yep. That's where our ship will finish refitting. Then off for the Auroran System."

"But ... will you not make yourself a pirate in the view of the law?"

"That's something which Coquelin is still working on. He says he thinks there may be a way to make everything legal and, at the same time, ram a spike right up the exhaust of Twyman and his giveaway gang. But it's a complicated problem. If the ship does have to fly the Jolly Roger, then Coquelin feels reasonably sure France has the right to try the crew, convict them, and pardon them. Of course, the boys might then have to stay in French territory, or leave Earth altogether for a colony—but they'll be millionaires, and New Europe would certainly give them a glorious reception."

"Mr. President, honorable delegates—" The translation could only suggest how the voice shifted, became the dry detached recital of an attorney making a technical point. "The Federation was founded and still exists to end the tragic anarchy that prevailed among nations before, to bring them under a law that serves the good of all. Now law cannot endure without equal justice. The popularity of an argument must be irrelevant. Only the lawful cause may be admitted. In the name of France, I therefore advance the following points."

"1. The Constitution forbids each member nation to keep armed forces above the police level or to violate the territorial integrity of any other member nation in any way. To enforce this, the Peace Control Authority is vested with the sole military power. It may and must take such measures as are necessary to stop aggressive acts, including conspiracy to commit such acts. The individuals responsible must be arrested and brought to trial before the World Court."

"2. The naval branch of the Authority has been used beyond the Solar System, albeit only in relatively minor actions to suppress insurrection and riot or to protect the lives and property of humans on distant planets. By authorizing such action, and by negotiating agreements with various aliens, the Federation has de facto and de jure assumed the posture with respect to non-human societies that was traditional between governments on Earth prior to the Constitution. Hence Earth as a whole is a sovereign state with the lawful prerogative of self-defense."

"3. By attacking New Europe and subsequently occupying it, Alerion has committed an act of territorial aggression.

"4. If Alerion is not regarded as a sovereign state, negotiation of this dispute is legally impossible, and the Authority is required to take military measures against what can only be considered banditry."

A roar went through the hall. Fazil banged his desk. Coquelin waited, sardonicism playing over his mouth. When order had been restored, the spokesman of France said:

"Evidently this assembly does consider Alerion to be sovereign like Earth. So, to proceed—

"5. If Alerion is indeed a legitimate state, then by the preamble to the Constitution it belongs to the family of nations. Therefore it must be regarded as either (a) obliged to refrain from territorial aggression on pain of military sanctions, or (b) not so obliged, since it is not a member of the Federation.

"6. In case (a), Alerion is automatically subject to military sanctions by the Peace Control Authority. But in case (b), the Authority is also required, by the Constitution and by past precedent, to safeguard the interests of individual humans and of member states of the Federation. Note well, the Authority has that obligation. Not this honorable assembly, not the World Court, but the Peace Control Authority, whose action must under the circumstances be of a military nature.

"7. Accordingly, in either case an automatic state of war now exists between Alerion and the World Federation."

Chaos broke loose.

Somehow quiet was enforced. Coquelin waited until the silence had become deathly. He raised another typewritten sheet and resumed in the same parched tone:

"8. In the event of territorial aggression, member states of the Federation are required to give every appropriate assistance to the Peace Control Authority, in the name of the Federation."

"9. In the judgment of France, this imposes an inescapable duty to provide armed assistance to the colonists of New Europe. However, a member of the Federation is prohibited the manufacture or possession of nuclear weapons."

"10. There is no prohibition on individuals obtaining such weapons outside the Solar System for themselves, provided that they do not bring them back to the Solar System."

"11. Nor is there any prohibition on the unilateral authorization by a member state of the Federation of a private military expedition which so outfits itself. We grant that privateers were formerly required to be citizens of the country whose flag they flew, and that this might conflict with the national disarmament law. We grant also that eventually the issuance of letters of marque and reprisal was banned, by the Declaration of Paris in 1856. But while such treaties remain binding on their signatories, including France, they are not binding on the Federation as a whole, which is not a signatory and indeed has members such as the United States of America which never were signatories. And we have seen that the Federation is a sovereign state, possessing all rights and responsibilities not explicitly waived.

"12. Therefore the Federation has the unrestricted right to issue letters of marque and reprisal.

"13. Therefore, and in view of paragraphs 7, 8, and 9, France has the right and the duty to issue letters of marque and reprisal in the name of the Federation.

"France has done so."

"And she might take the chance rather than surrender. I'd hate to spoil our record. Four months of commerce raiding, eighteen Aleriona ships captured, and we haven't had to kill anybody yet."

"Not just that we wont have to blot out lives," Heim exulted. "But the money. All that lovely, lovely prize money."

And a prize crew to take her back to Earth, the business part of him recalled. We're damn near down to a skeleton complement. A few more captures and we'll have to call a halt.

Fiercely: So we don't sell the last one, but send word by. it. Whoever wants to sign on again can meet us at Staurn, where we'll be refilling our magazines. With the kind of bank account I must have now, I can refit for a dozen more cruises. We won't stop till we're blown out of space—or the Federation gets off its duff and makes some honest war.

He gave himself entirely to the work of preparation. When battle stations were piped, a cheer shivered the length of the ship. Those were good boys, he thought with renewed warmth. They'd drawn reluctant lots to choose who must bring the seized Aleriona vessels home, and even so fights had broken out over the privilege of daily risking death in the Auroran System. Of course, the ones who stayed got a proportionately larger share of booty. But they had signed on his privateer for much more than that.

Suggested Reading

The 11 Billion Dollar Bottle of Wine, the possibilities of interstellar trade
Costikyan, Greg . This does focus on slower-than-light interstellar trade, but still has plenty of hard data.
What Peak Oil Looks Like
Greer, John Michael. Very clearly explains how both the industrial revolution and globalization can be viewed as a kind of arbitrage.
The Theory of Interstellar Trade
Krugman, Paul. Amusing paper written by Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman. Mr. Krugman recently wrote a new forward for a re-issue of Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy. Thanks to Kip Larson for suggesting this link.
The Economics of Interstellar Commerce
Salomon, Warren, ANALOG magazine, (May 1989). Collected in Islands In The Sky. A very well-reasoned analysis on possible ways that interstellar trade can establish itself. It will repay careful study.
The Wealth of Galaxies
Salomon, Warren, ANALOG magazine, (December 1989) guest editorial. A follow-up to THE ECONOMICS OF INTERSTELLAR COMMERCE.
GURPS Traveller: Far Trader
Thrash, Christopher; Daniels, Steve; and MacLean, Jim . This is a supplement for a role-playing game but don't be fooled. This is almost a textbook-quality book. It has detailed analysis of the economics of interstellar trade, and a system of equations to model trade routes and economic demands. If you are working with interstellar trade at all, you need this book.

Other Thoughts

Dane shouldered his bag into the lift which swept him up to ground level and out into the sunshine of a baking south-western summer day. He lingered on the concrete apron which rimmed this side of the take-off Field, looking out over its pitted and blasted surface at the rows of cradles which held those ships now readying for flight. He had scant attention for the stubby inter-planetary traders, the Martian and Asteroid lines, the dull dark ships which ploughed out to Saturn's and Jupiter's moons. What he wanted lay beyond - the star ships - their sleek sides newly sprayed against dust friction, the soil of strange worlds perhaps still clinging to their standing fins.

From THE SARGASSO OF SPACE by Andre Norton (1955)

Ander Nordholm had been a government man. He and his daughter were classed as outsiders and strangers by the colony group, much as were the other representatives of law from off-world—the Ranger Franklyn, Post Officer Kaus and his two guards, the medical officer and his wife. But every colony had to have an education officer. In the past too many frontier-world settlements had split away from the Confederation, following sometimes weird and dangerous paths of development when fanatics took control, warped education, and cut off communications with other worlds.

Yes, the Nordholms had expected a period of adjustment, of even semi-ostracization since this was a Believer colony. But her father had been winning them over—he had! Charis could not have deceived herself about that. Why, she had been invited to one of the women’s “mend” parties. Or had it been a blind even then?

But this—this would never have happened if it had not been for the white death! Charis’s breath came now in a real sob. There were so many shadows of fear on a newly opened planet. No safeguard could keep them all from striking at the fragile life of a newly planted colony. And here had been waiting a death no one could see, could meet with blaster or hunting knife or even the medical knowledge her species had been able to amass during centuries of space travel, experimentation, and information acquired across the galaxy.

And in its striking, the disease had favored the fanatical prejudices of the colonists. For it struck first the resented government men. The ranger, the port captain and his men, her father—Charis’s fist was at her mouth, and she bit hard upon her knuckles. Then it struck the medic—always the men. Later the colonists—oddly enough, those who had been most friendly with the government party—and only the men and boys in those families.

She could return; or she could remain here until the hunt found her—to take her as a slave down to the foul nest they were fast making of the first human settlement on Demeter; or somehow she could reach the mountains and hide out like a wild thing until sooner or later some native peril would finish her.

Her safety depended upon what the settlers would decide. She had no means of concealing her back trail. In the morning it would be found. But whether their temper would be to follow her, or if they would shruggingly write her off to be finished by the wild, Charis could not guess. She was the one remaining symbol of all Tolskegg preached against—the liberal off-world mind, the “un-female,” as he called it. The wild, with every beast Ranger Franklyn had catalogued lined up ready to tear her, was far better than facing again the collection of cabins where Tolskegg now spouted his particular brand of poison, that poison, bred of closed minds, which her father had taught her early to fear. And Visma and her ilk had lapped that poison to grow fat and vigorous on it.

There was a spacer, a slim, scoured shape, pointing nose to sky, the heat of its braking fire making a steam mist about it. But this was no vision — it was real! A spacer had set down by the village!

Charis faced around toward the ship and waved vigorously, looking for the insignia which would make it Patrol or Scout.

There was none! It took a moment for that fact to make a conscious impression on her mind. Charis had been so sure that the proper markings would be there that she had almost deceived herself into believing that she sighted them. But the spacer bore no device at all. Her arm dropped to her side suddenly as she saw the ship as it really was.

This was not the clean-lined, well-kept spacer of any government service. The sides were space-dust cut, the general proportions somewhere between scout and freighter, with its condition decidedly less than carefully tended. It must be a Free Trader of the second class, maybe even a tramp — one of those plying a none-too-clean trade on the frontier worlds. And the chances were very poor that the commander or crew of such would be lawfully engaged here or would care at all about what happened to the representatives of government they were already aligned against in practice. Charis could hope for no help from such as these.

Charis had known some Free Traders. In fact, among that class of explorer-adventurer-merchant her father had had some good friends, men who carried with them a strong desire for knowledge, who had added immeasurably to the information concerning unknown worlds. But those were the aristocrats of their calling. There were others who were scavengers, pirates on occasion, raiders who took instead of bargained when the native traders of an alien race were too weak to stand against superior off-world weapons.

"It is simple, my friend." The trader's insolent tone to Tolskegg must have cut the colonist raw, yet he took it because he must. "You need labor. Your fields are not going to plow, plant, and reap themselves. All right, in freeze I have labor — good hands all of them. I had my pick; not one can't pull his weight, I promise you. There was a flare on Gonwall's sun, they had to evacuate to Sallam, and Sallam couldn't absorb the excess population. So we were allowed to recruit in the refugee camp. My cargo's prime males — sturdy, young, and all under indefinite contracts. The only trouble is, friend, what do you have to offer in return?

So that was it! Charis drew a deep breath and knew there was no use in appealing to this captain. If he had shipped desperate men on indefinite labor contracts, he was no better than a slaver, even though there was a small shadow of legality to his business.

"You present a problem." The captain spoke to her again. "There is no processing station here, and we cannot ship you out in freeze—"

Charis shivered. Most labor ships stacked their cargo in the freeze of suspended animation, thus saving room, supplies, all the needs of regular passengers. Space on board a trader ship was strictly limited.

And as her eyes adjusted she saw that they had indeed set down in a wasteland.

Sand, which was a uniform red outside the glassy slag left by the thruster blast, lapped out to the foot of a range of small hills, the outline of which shimmered in heat waves. There was no sign of any building, no look of a port, save for the countless slag scars which pecked and pitted the surface of the desert sand, evidence of many landings and take-offs.

There were ships — two, three, a fourth farther away. And all of them, Charis saw, were of the same type as the one she had just left, second- and third-class traders. This seemed to be a rendezvous for fringe merchants.

"This is our chance, the big one, the one every trader dreams of having someday—a permit on a newly opened world. Make this spin right and it means—" His voice trailed off, but Charis understood him.

Trading empires, fortunes, were made from just such chances. To get at the first trade of a new world was a dream of good luck. But she was still puzzled as to how Jagan had achieved the permit for Warlock. Surely one of the big Companies would have made contact with Survey and bid in the rights to establish the first post. Such plums were not for the fringe men. But it was hardly tactful under the circumstances to ask Jagan how he had accomplished the nigh to impossible.

From ORDEAL IN OTHERWHERE by Andre Norton (1964)

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