Atomic Rockets

Introduction

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.

Goods

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)

Arbitrage

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).

Example

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)

Finance

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.

Example: 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)

Trading

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)

Smuggling

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 boarder 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)

Piracy

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 was 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.

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.

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.


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. In James H. Schmitz The Witches of Karres there are outlaw planets that handle these matters.

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.


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, yet gets the benefit of pressuring enemy convoy fleets and warships.

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.

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
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."

"Business!"


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?"

"Uh-huh."

"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

jollyreaper:

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)
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.”

“Eh?”

“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.


Doug:

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 ...

from Books I will not write #4: Space Pirates of KPMG by Charles Stross (2010)
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.
Interstellar Trade: A Primer
Robinson, Rick. A readable yet penetrating analysis of interstellar trade, by an author who is represented by more than a few quotes in this website. Also don't miss his must-read The Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy
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)