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. See the Space People article at TV Tropes. Novels including this 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.

Sometimes these trader cultures in large clan-ships have a Thalassocracy, where they have a monopoly on trade since they control all access to space. If people living on planets want to engage in interstellar trade, they have to go through the thalassocrats.

Economics of Starships

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

Merchant Starship Costs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Passenger Traffic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ship mass and size

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starship Performance

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

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

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

Assumption: starships use reaction drives for normal space travel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to starships. How big are they?

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

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

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

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

radius = CubeRoot( v / 4.189)

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

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

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

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

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


This is very difficult to estimate.

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

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

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

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

Orbital high ports

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This will give the following order of battle:

  • 15 battlecruisers
  • 60 cruisers
  • 80 corvettes

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

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

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

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

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

Assumption: warships are always cigar shapes because Hollywood hates spheres

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

Result of assumptions:

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

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

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

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

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

Of course there is no hotel staff.

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

Warship typeCrew

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

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

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

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

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

Middle-period Empire

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

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

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

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

Galactic Empire

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


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

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

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

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


I will note that historically one of the most valuable trade goods was spices. Which cannot be 3D printed unless their resolution is atom-by-atom. Freaking black pepper was so valuable that it was used as collateral for loans, or even currency. In the 1400s the Italian monopoly on black peppercorns was the incentive behind the Portuguese effort to find an alternate route to India. Vasco da Gama managed to reach India by sailing around Africa, which would be a very uneconomical route except for the sky-high value of black pepper.

And We Went East

(ed note: This is about an adventure set in the medieval fantasy role playing game like Dungeons & Dragons. But it could be adapted to a RocketPunk future, abet one that had very limited long-range communication. A setting during the Long Night after the fall of the galactic empire would do nicely.
The author Multiplexer is highly skilled at applying modern economic theory to fantasy situations.)

The Goblin and the Peppercorn

The Halfling Thief found the bag of peppercorns on the goblin’s body.

An argument ensued. The Fighter wanted to keep walking toward the ruins and fulfill their benefactor’s request. The ruins were full of treasure, he said. The party got to keep whatever they found as long as they killed the monsters and returned with the ruins secrets.

Peppercorns weren’t treasure. They were food.

But the Thief wanted to understand how this little bag of black spices ended up in the goblin’s pocket. Goblins don’t cook with peppercorns.

Black pepper makes the traditionally bland food of the region interesting and flavorful. When peppercorns appear in the market – rarely – people pay more gold for small bags than for major magic items. The poor crave them. The rich kill for them. Sure, this small bag of peppercorns is not a Cap of Underwater Breathing or a Potion of Heroism, but it can buy them. This bag is better than gold.

Can we indulge in Halfling curiosity? The ruins have been ruins for thousands of years. That’s why they’re called ruins. The secrets aren’t going anywhere.

When the Wizard and the Bard sided with the Thief, the Fighter caved. Fine. We will follow you on your so-called mystery. And then we will head to the ruins and discover some real secrets.

The goblin’s trail lead to the bandit’s massacred bodies not more than a day old and rotting in the open air. One bandit carried small, empty sacks smelling strongly of pepper and a letter of free passage on this road between the Lord of this land and the True and Free City Republic. From the look of the site, the goblins jumped the bandits while they were camping and cooking. Of course, the goblins ate the well-seasoned and peppered steaks.

The party left the bandit’s bodies to rot while promising the Fighter that he could massacre any future peppercorn-stealing bandits. They took the letter.

Further along the road by another two days (and the Fighter made noise about ruins and secrets) the party discovered the overturned carts, dead horses, and bodies of the traders. They were dressed in merchant’s red robes. The sacks were empty. The cargo stolen. But the Halfling Thief found a manifest of good and prices. Prices higher than the party could command for spelunking and murder expeditions.

Maybe the ruins could wait, the Fighter said.

The party buried the traders.

This land’s gold, the Halfling Thief said, was flowing east down this road to the Free City Republic. We, adventurers, root through ancient cellars and dig through old ruins, risking our lives and very souls, to haul out chest after chest of easy gold. We cheerfully hand that gold to rich merchant and wizard guilds in return for armor and baubles and magic. Lords wrest that gold from guilds by taxation. Then, those Lords send that gold down this road east in return for this.


Let’s follow the money, the Halfling Thief said. Let’s follow the peppercorns.

And we went east.

The Free-City Republic

The Free-City Republic stank. For all its glamour architecture and glorious history, humans demi-humans pressed together in the streets with little sanitation and less space. They climbed over each other for space on this tiny island nation. The temple entrances reeked of urine where supplicants voided themselves before climbing the steps. Merchants dumped their garbage into the streets.

The Transmuter Bankers, members of the mighty Exchanger’s Guild, ruled above the stench from their black towers and behind their long red masks. They were rarely seen but always felt. A Republic in name only, the immensely rich ruled this plutocracy with an iron fist in a velvet glove. They were more interested in their constant wars with the other Free City Republics ruled by other Transmuter Bankers than the daily government rhythms and wrapped themselves in bureaucracy.

Down on the streets, enormous customs houses squatted among the warehouses while armies of armed customs agents took their due. Long ships with short triangular sails bobbed in filthy waters while moored at a mile long dock. Thousands of merchants and porters unloaded their wares into a market of uncertain prices and taxation. Purchasing agents bartered loudly with street merchants for their Lord. Spices. Silks. Porcelain. Bails of cotton and linen. Ivory. Pearls. Cases upon cases of rare and precious magic reagents.

The Halfling Thief thrust her arms into a barrel of peppercorns, worth more than the land she was hired to serve, and drew in a deep breath. She asked how much.

“Only the Gods and Modrons know the prices of the day,” the peppercorn merchant told the Halfling Thief. “Today might be a good day. It might be a bad day. We don’t know until we sell.”

Pirates, horrible and wealthy, plied the profitable waters offshore. They preyed on lightly armed merchant ships and took their cut by force. Smugglers and a far flung powerful Thieves Guild made good use of sewers to avoid the customs house and the hated head tax. The Navy pushed out into waters to find more fertile trading grounds and pursue the Republic’s endless wars.

This was not the peppercorn’s source, the Halfling Thief said. This is the terminus. This is wonderful but merely the city where the merchants collect the land’s gold and send it further east. I want to find the source of the peppercorns. We should press onward.

But when she turned around, the Fighter was gone. He found his source of endless money, booty, magic items and glory far beyond mere run down ruins in a backwater country. He left to fight the pirates of this sea until he conquered them all and they acknowledged him as their King. He took the Ranger with him as backup. The Fighter wanted to make it a buddy movie.

Yet the Thief still had the Wizard, the Cleric and me, the bard.

And we went east.

The Old City

This old city at the desert’s edge was a relic of an ancient time. Once, it made its wealth by shipping grain north into great open markets of hungry cities. Now, by conquest, it shipped its grain south to less discerning and wealthy consumers. Its sand stone walls told stories of ancient battles and grand Kingdoms and the magnificent adventures of Murder Hobos long dead.

Centuries ago, this city ruled Empires. Centuries hence, its power forgotten, it would be shriveled, an open air theme park for tourists pretending to experience its grandeur and power. This city was fated fade, remembered for its art and music but not for its heroes and power. Its sewers infested with monsters and converted to adventuring dungeons. Its marvelous temples turned into adventuring ruins with dark secrets for rich rulers to plumb.

Thus was the power of trade. Far more powerful than any army, religion or ruler, trade builds empires binding together humans and demi-humans under one banner. And trade lays them to waste.

The old city was still a vibrant trading force. Its power had not completely leaked out its walls. The great camel caravans came in through the east gate. The merchants unloaded and made transactions with rapacious middle men. Dockworkers loaded precious cargo by the ton on the long ships and sent them west to the Free Cities to feed their endless wars. The tax men with their thugs roamed among the merchants taking their due for an Emperor thousands of miles away.

The open air markets were full of peppercorns. They were cheaper here than the dead merchant’s lists back home and cheaper still than the Free Cities. The Halfling Thief watched the peppercorns come in through the gate by camel and be delivered by the half ton to the merchant’s stall. Gold exchanged hands.

Gold still flowed east.

Comprehend Languages and Tongues helps with travel negotiations between cultures. Without the Fighter and Ranger, we were vulnerable to bandits but if we traveled down the river instead of overland and with other caravans we could make it east to the peppercorn source. Overland trade, we learned, was phenomenally dangerous. Outside, in the desert, banditry was tribal. If we flew the wrong colors, we would be forced to give bribes at best and attacked at worst.

The Halfling Thief ensured the caravans that our Wizard and Cleric would keep us safe.

The Thief turned to the Cleric but the Cleric was gone. Taken by the mash of cultures and nations passing through this trade city, she was determined to proselytize. What better place to create converts than a trade nexus between Empires? Even if she converted a handful, her God’s Word would spread far to new corners of the world. Her God would grow. What is better than a big, fat, well-loved God?

Yet the Thief still had the Wizard and me, the Bard.

And we went east.

The Ocean Market

The great oceanic trading city was made of magically bound sand. Enormous limestone and coral fortresses towered over a sprawling dock reaching across the horizon. Houses five stories high stood over packed market-filled streets. Impossibly thin golden minarets topped bright white temples of a strange God. The mash of cultures, languages and beings, many never seen in the Halfling’s land far away across a sea and a desert, pressed together in the great bazaar beneath the Sultan’s uncompromising eye.

And the market! The sights! The smells! Uncut rhinoceros and elephant horn of pure ivory. Bizarre animal skins. Gold stacked in bars. Huge towers of wax for candles and supplies. Enormous bushels of grains. Plates and bowls of purest white. Cloth so smooth it barely caressed the skin. Ambergris, pulled from the bellies of murdered whales, and fragrant incense. Brightly lacquered wood. Magic items with strange and new properties. Elaborately crafted magical weaponry and armor dyed bright colors and adorned with ostrich feathers. Endless shelves of rare magical reagents and jewels. Bizarre fruit. Slaves, driven to open air slave markets, by the thousands. Fragrant spices, including the peppercorn, heaped in enormous baskets in huge open air stalls. An unimaginable bounty from the nexus of trade.

Gold coins from a dozen unknown and distant lands passed through the Halfling Thief’s hands.

The Halfling Thief, with extensive help from Tongues and a bit of prodding with Detect Thoughts, asked about the origins of peppercorns. Did they come from this land? Is this the terminus of all our gold, our sweat, our tears, our hard work?

The merchants laughed. No, no, no. We bring great bushels of grain and these strange animals to the market. We supply incense and skins. We send wax and wood. But the peppercorns? The peppercorns come from the far east across the ocean on the other side of the monsoon winds. They come here on the bottoms of boats. See, the Westerner Agents will give us all their gold for the peppercorns we import at great cost.

How far?

Farther than the horizon, the merchants said. Farther than the sun and moon. But you can follow them, if you wish, on our boats held together with coconut twine and adorned with great lanteen sails. Board one of our great trading dhows and follow the rising sun. There, you will find the peppercorns where they grow wild and abundant on enormous vines. That is where your golden money flows, Halfling. Your source of infatuation, madness, and black gold lies over the sea.

A sailor on the open ocean has only one true companion: fear. Wizards help to keep the skies clear. Clerics of the storm and sea provide grace to the voyages. Past the shore pirates are not a threat but the sea itself kills. But even with prayers and spells, many voyages are lost with all hands. A trip across the sea was much more dangerous than a dungeon crawl through ancient ruins looking for lost secrets. But on the other side of the ocean, what secrets we will find!

The Halfling Thief turned to consult the Wizard about the voyage but the Wizard was gone. Seduced by the allure of new knowledge and new spells, the Wizard found his way into the city’s enormous libraries filled with thousands of books. Dazzled, the Wizard no longer had to crawl through filthy dungeons and dangerous ruins to learn new secrets. He had a lifetime of research here where spells came to him from all points of the world. He didn’t need to kill for this knowledge. He simply waited for it to be unloaded off ships from distant lands.

I asked the Halfling Thief if she was prepared for this journey. Our Fighter, Ranger, Cleric and Wizard were gone. We were all that was left. The voyage was long and dangerous. Who knew what we would find on the other side?

The Halfling said, how can a Bard turn down stories and adventure?

And we went east.

Writer’s Note: I’m an enormous fan of road stories and the Silk Road is the best road story in history. This one follows peppercorns over sea instead of over land simply because the sea route has fewer major stops. The cities involves are Venice (Italy), Alexandria (Egypt) and Mogadishu (Somalia). The influential Ajuran Sultanate of Eastern Africa is a huge, often unmined source for adventure and exploration. An easy way to get players out of their Western European adventures and into somewhere like that is to simply… follow the peppercorn.

From And We Went East by multiplexer (2015)
One Product Planet

One Product Planet: Averted, in its strict form. The realities of interstellar economics, logistics, and costs of transportation mean that it’s almost always more practical to maintain a decent-sized agricultural and manufacturing base at home, rather than import all your food and goods, for anything but the smallest of outposts.

Played straight in a loose form, in which certain worlds are known for certain of their (mostly unique) products, for example:

Big Dumb Object: Within the Empire, the partial Dyson sphere at Corícal Ailek (which exports thought) and the Dyson bubble at Esilmúr (which exports antimatter and other forms of stored energy in unwholesomely large quantities) would qualify.

Capital: For the Empire, that’s Eliéra, the throneworld, which does indeed export governance – to such extent as the Imperial governance is all that centralized, and indeed, can be bothered to govern. For the Worlds as a whole, that would be Conclave (Imperial Core), where the Conclave of Galactic Polities sits and attempts to bring some order to the chaos, with all the associated politicking, corruption, intrigue, and scandal you might expect.

Exotic: A number of these, from the shell-world of Thalíär (Principalities) – mostly exotic from the point of view of the tourism industry – to the blue-white giant in the Ringstars and the black hole out in the Last Darkness constellation. Also, certain exotic matter products are primarily manufactured near the high-energy environment that best supports them, and so have major factories out by Esilmúr, also.

Factory: Qechra (Imperial Core), a corporate conlegial colony world completely overtaken by autoindustrialism, with a manufacturing capacity of holy crap how much!?. It’s more of a showpiece than anything else, and secondarily a place to manufacture ridiculously large items, but it also serves the valuable purpose of being a worrisome sleeping giant.

Farm: Yes, in the sense that there are more than a few worlds that take pride in exporting their local specialist products, from specialist flowers to unique local booze. No, in the sense that just about every world, or at least system, can manage to feed itself locally, and there are no worlds absolutely dependent on their imports of agricultural products, or mighty grain-ships ploughing the spacelanes.

Gates: The closest you get to this are the systems in any given constellation which house the long-range gates to other constellations, and thus are about as close as anything gets to being bottlenecks. (For the Imperial Core, these are Almëa, Meryn, Ocella, Sy, and Vervian Systems).

Military: It doesn’t export military forces – if anything, it imports them – but the Palaxias (Imperial Core) system is essentially given over to the Imperial Navy and its Prime Base, which also houses a large amount of the rest of the Imperial Military Service by default. Also, to a lesser extent, the six systems out in the fringes where the IN keeps the mobile naval bases for its sextant fleets.

Mines: See once again the Imperial energy production facility at Esilmúr; aside from such rare and specialized facilities as it, though, resource gathering tends to be distributed all over the place.

Science: The corporate conlegial research colony at Wynérias (Imperial Core) is notorious for its pursuit of unrestricted research FOR SCIENCE!, as is – even more so – the private conlegial colony at Resplendent Exponential Vector, but they’re hardly the only place where Science happens. Or even where FOR SCIENCE! happens.

Service/Cultural Center: Most notably, Seranth (Imperial Core) is the largest and most prosperous tradeworld the Empire, or even the Worlds, have to offer. It’s by no means, under the general principle I mentioned above, an entire planet of Wall Street, but the Seranth Exchanges do dominate the local economy, and the floating cities of Seranth probably are All Manhattan, All The Time. It’s a very dominant commercial center, and only just eclipsed as a cultural center by Delphys (Imperial Core) for entertainment and art, and Viëlle (Imperial Core) for media in general.

Underworlds: Nepscia (Galith Waste) is infamous throughout the Worlds for its red market. Litash (Dark Sea) was even more infamous for both that and acting as a major pirate center, before it got strangelet-bombed out of existence.

Causal Channels

"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 11 Billion Dollar Bottle of Wine

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)
The Halcyon Drift

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)
The Mote in God's Eye

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

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

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

“Thirty-Two Tons, this is Clajdia SysCon, we’re going to need you to abort your next maneuver, recompute for previous burn time plus twelve minutes, crossing traffic drone freighter DF-01369. Over.”

“Clajdia SysCon, Thirty-Two Tons, negative on that, we have traffic priority over drone freighters. Over.”

“Thirty-Two Tons, Clajdia SysCon, affirmative, but you don’t want to exercise priority over one-three-six-nine, over.”

“Clajdia SysCon, Thirty-Two Tons, clarify please. Over.”

“Thirty-Two Tons, Clajdia SysCon, one-three-six-nine is a three-hundred-barrel fermenter of Callaneth’s Finest Ballistic Beer with a special requirement for constant acceleration. We preempt her for you, they lose thrustdown. They lose thrustdown, they lose the batch. They lose the batch, all the belters out of Ipsy Station want your heads to decorate their candles. How badly do you want to harsh the local color? Over.”

“Clajdia SysCon, Thirty-Two Tons, recomputing as requested. Clear.”


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

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


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

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

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

Triangular Trade

A trader would like a nice simple two-planet set up: where they go to planet Alfa to buy a load of Alfan Aphrodisiac Apples, transports them to planet Bravo to sell them at a fat profit, buys a load of Bravoian Bodacious Beef, transports it to planet Alfa, and sells it at a fat profit. Rinse, lather, repeat.

But all too often one of the planets does not cooperate, such as when planet Bravo desired Alfan Aphrodisiac Apples, but the vegetarian Alfans look upon Bravo's major export with horror.

The key to solving the problem is Triangular trade. The trader has to find a third planet, one that wants to import Bravo's export, and which exports something that Alfa wants. Such as planet Charlie, which adores Bravoian Bodacious Beef, and exports Charlean Chicory Coffee without which no Alfan breakfast is complete.

Triangular trade

Triangular trade or triangle trade is a historical term indicating trade among three ports or regions. Triangular trade usually evolves when a region has export commodities that are not required in the region from which its major imports come. Triangular trade thus provides a method for rectifying trade imbalances between the above regions.

The particular routes were historically also shaped by the powerful influence of winds and currents during the age of sail. For example, from the main trading nations of Western Europe it was much easier to sail westwards after first going south of 30 N latitude and reaching the so-called "trade winds"; thus arriving in the Caribbean rather than going straight west to the North American mainland. Returning from North America, it is easiest to follow the Gulf Stream in a northeasterly direction using the westerlies. A similar triangle to this, called the volta do mar was already being used by the Portuguese, before Columbus' voyage, to sail to the Canary Islands and the Azores. Columbus simply expanded the triangle outwards, and his route became the main way for Europeans to reach, and return from, the Americas.

From the Wikipedia entry for Triangular trade
Time Enough For Love

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)
Castles in the Sky Part I: History, Mechanics and Trade

(ed note: this was intended for a medieval fantasy background such as Dungeons & Dragons. But while reading it, mentally replace "flying castles" with "mobile space stations" and replace "town" with "planetary colonies". The author Multiplexer is highly skilled at applying modern economic theory to fantasy situations.)

Triangle trade is a simple and extremely profitable concept. An example:

  1. High Elves desire silver as they melt the coins down and turn them into jewelry. In return for chests of silver, they sell their carefully hand-crafted ghostly textiles, super common to them but rare to everyone else.

  2. The Dwarves, who have strained relations to the High Elves but not with the people flying castles, exchange the holds of Elven textiles for Dwarven magical weapons and armor.

  3. The Murder Hobos at home pay premium price (in silver) for Dwarven magical weapons and armor which they use to murder various indigenous demi-humans for more silver.

Around and around the Flying Castle goes, taking a markup at each step, and selling to those who want things and buying oversupply. This is not limited to Elven textiles and Dwarven magical weapons – Flying Castles trade in rare and precious magic items and spells, spices, other textiles, rare food stuffs, inventions, technology, finished goods, and beings from far away continents.

Problems crop up in the otherwise tame and civilized triangle trade when two nations both want a monopoly in one rare and valuable good. For example, both Flying Castles wish to sell a high performing rare Elven mithril armor crafted only by one tribe of Elves living on a distant and nicely tropical island. Controlling that good – and the island – and monopolizing it allows one nation to reap the profits while the other nation to pay sky high and price-controlled prices. The potential profits are huge.

It’s in the best interests of Murder Hobos, and the two nations, to try to control that island, its goods, and its inhabitants. In go the swords and mercenaries. One might think the Elves on the island making armor would have something to say about all this. But to have a say, they need to get a Flying Castle. Right now what they have are coconuts and really nice hammocks. The Elves are out of luck.

Here the nations do what nations do. They do enter into far off hostilities. They ship fireball-throwing cannons instead of cotton thread. And they get into a hot shooting war over islands and Elves.


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.

And there are a few examples of science fictional socialist utopias where money is obsolete, e.g., Star Trek. Good luck with that.

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 Karl Gallagher's Torchship the unit of currency is called Keynes or "Keys", named after Keynesian Economics.

  • In Philip E. High's The Prodigal Sun money was literally hours of work.

  • 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 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 which would stack into neat rectilinear piles.

  • 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.

Medium of Exchange

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


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

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

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

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

Historically coins were disc shaped because that's what you get when you roll out a measured ball of precious metal and flatten it with a stamp bearing the King's face. They are also convenient to carry, especially if they have a hole in the middle for stringing. You should mill the edges to prevent crooks from engaging in the crime of coin clipping (this does little to stop the crime of in sweating). 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.

Gold coins are generally composed of a gold alloy (Coinage Gold) because pure gold is too soft to hold up to the stress of being used as a coin. In modern times, a popular popular choice for silver-colored coins is the alloy cupronickel, due to its corrosion resistance, electrical conductivity, durability, malleability, low allergy risk, ease of stamping (metalworking), antimicrobial properties and recyclability.

In low-tech places, coins are manufactured by hammering or casting. In more modern-day tech settings, coins are machine-struck. In futuristic data-driven societies, physical coins are obsolete and instead virtual coins are used. Indeed, as previously mentioned, physical money may actually be illegal since the Police State cannot trace physical money transactions.

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.

Overcoming the Myth of Barter

Many assume that before currency existed, people would trade goods through a barter system. This idea was created by 18th century Europeans hypothesizing about how markets worked before a state regulated currency. But in reality, we have no historic or anthropological evidence that this ever occurred. None at all, even in isolated societies that don’t have money for their internal exchanges.

Let’s think about it for a minute. If you make hats for a living, you need to barter your hats for food. But if you’re a skilled haberdasher, making a quality hat will take you a day or two and use lots of materials. To survive, you need to find someone who doesn’t already have a hat and is willing to trade you several days worth of food for it. And it better be something that won’t spoil, since you can’t trade part of a hat for a single meal.

To make another hat, you need to find a cloth maker that either doesn’t have one of your hats or is well off enough to collect them. Once you’ve made hats for all of your suppliers, you’ll need to start making your own cloth and hat pins, etc. That means making a hat takes even more time. A haberdasher’s trip to the market soon looks like a run to CostCo!

As we can see, barter is impractical for supporting any degree of workforce specialization. Maybe you could make it work for absurdist fiction held together by logic similar to Terry Prachett’s Disc World. But the rest of us need something a bit more practical.

Small Communities and Mutual Obligations

Once we leave the imagination of Enlightenment thinkers and enter the real world, we see a few different stages of development for economic exchanges. On the smallest scale, we have systems of mutual debts. My hunting went poorly one day, so you share some fish with me. On another day fishing is scarce, so I share part of a deer with you.

This is often called an egalitarian society, characterized as not having individual ownership. When you look below the surface, however, you find it is a series of mutual obligations. If I’ve received help from you in the past, I am obligated to return the favor when you need it, and vice-versa.

The process starts because friends and family are reluctant to let each other die of hunger. Once this system of mutual debts takes root, the threat of ostracization perpetuates it. If everyone in your small community knows that you don’t fulfill your obligations, they won’t be willing to help you.

Trade and Accounting of Debts

An economic system of obligations requires a level of trust that is difficult to maintain on a larger scale. If a merchant trades with a large number of people on a frequent basis, they won’t trust everyone to repay informal obligations. To overcome this obstacle, people created ways of accounting for the value of goods and debts owed.

The concept of monetary value was introduced through units of standard goods. In ancient Sumeria, long before the shekel was a minted silver coin, it represented a weight of grain. As an early agricultural society, taxes collected from farmers and wages paid to workers were in grain. Shortly thereafter, the value of goods was priced in accordance to those payments. If one shekel was about 10 grams of barely, then an item priced at 100 shekels was worth one kilo of barley.

While goods were priced and some physical objects like coins may have circulated, the primary currency was credit. I owe you for the hat you made; you owe me for some eggs and milk, etc. Debts were recorded as a value tied to a commodity such as grain. Your trustworthiness was measured by your ability to repay your debts in a timely manner, rather than your willingness to share when your neighbors were in need.

This system for converting value helped traders make large one-time exchanges of goods. This was especially convenient for the farmers that actually grew the grain! But since exchange was based on credit, trust was still essential, and debts were still tied to the idea of personal obligations.

Normalizing Physical Money

Money as we know it comes into play when there is a state. If you are the head of an early state, the most important resource is still food. You can pay your soldiers in grains, or you can make coins out of available metals. Declare a measure of this coin as equal to a shekel of barley, and you have currency. As an all powerful head of state, your people understand your credit is good and accept the coinage as payment from soldiers and other workers. They know that they can go redeem the coin for grains to eat.

It’s still all about trust, but so long as trust in the state’s ability to repay coinage is preserved, people accept the currency. Personal obligation and virtual credit diminish significantly. If I don’t know you well, I can simply demand coinage, in which case I am taking the credit of the state instead of gambling on the trustworthiness of your credit. Building relationships becomes unnecessary as long as everyone has currency backed by the state. The relationships and obligations between you and I are replaced with relationships and obligations between you and the state. As a result, large scale markets can form and trade takes off.

Economic Imperialism

(ed note: this is from a satirical fantasy novel by Terry Pratchett. It is about microscopic people who live among the threads of a living-room carpet. The Dumii are like the imperial Romans, their capital city is "Ware." Pismire is a philosopher.)

Outside it, separated by a wall of sharpened hair stakes, was Merchants’ Ware, the city most people thought of as the real city. Normally its narrow streets were crowded with stalls, and people from all over the Carpet. They’d all be trying to cheat one another in that open-and-above-board way known as ‘doing business’. All sorts of languages could be heard, often very loudly. Ware was where people came to trade.

The Dumii had built their Empire with swords, but they kept it with money. They’d invented money. Before money, people had bought things with cows and pigs, which were not very efficient for the purpose because you had to feed them and keep them safe all the time and sometimes they died. And suddenly the Dumii turned up with this money stuff, which was small and easy to keep and you could hide it in a sock under the mattress, which hardly ever worked with cows and pigs. And it could be cows or pigs. Also, it had little pictures of Emperors and things on it, which were interesting to look at. At least, more interesting than cows and pigs.

And, Pismire had once said, that was how the Dumii kept their Empire. Because once you started using Dumii money, which was so easy and convenient and didn’t moo all night, you started saving up for things, and selling things in the nearest market town, and settling down, and not hitting neighbouring tribes as often as you used to. And you could buy things in the markets that you’d never seen before — coloured cloth, and different kinds of fruit, and books. Pretty soon, you were doing things the Dumii way, because it made life better. Oh, you went on about how much better life was in the old days, before there was all this money and peacefulness around, and how much more enjoyable things were when people used to get heavily-armed in the evenings and go out and make their own entertainment — but no-one was anxious actually to go back there.

Economic imperialism!” Pismire had once said, picking up a handful of coins. “A marvellous idea. So neat and simple. Once you set it going, it works all by itself. You see, it’s the Emperor who guarantees that the money will buy you things. Every time someone hands over or accepts one of these coins, it’s a little soldier defending the Empire. Amazing!”

No-one understood a word of what he meant, but they could see he thought it was important.

From The Carpet People by Terry Pratchett (1992)
The Lydian Stater

In north-western Turkey, not far inland from the Aegean Sea, stands a mountain known in ancient times as Mount Tmolus, from which two rivers fall, one the Pactolus, the other the Hermus. Several factors combine to make these two rivers important in history. The gradient they follow is shallow, so they flow slowly; as they cross the coastal plain they fan wide and smooth, carrying loads of deposit brought down from Tmolus in the form of fine grains of soil mixed with gold, which are winnowed from the slopes of the mountain by the action of wind and temperature change, and washed away by the waters. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, writing in the fourth century B.C., these two rivers had for centuries been known as the richest source of panned gold in the world. Two thousand seven hundred years ago they lay within the boundaries of the kingdom of Lydia, and in one of them some unknown prospector, probably in the employ of the king, made one of the most fundamental discoveries in the history of mankind.

At the time, the standard method for retrieving and smelting the gold dust was through the use of sheepskins. The grease in the skins would trap the tiny particles of gold, and when the skin was fully laden it would be hung on a branch to dry, then thrown into a furnace where the heat would incinerate the animal material, leaving the gold lying in blobs among the fine ashes. It may have been this use of the sheepskin that gave rise to the myth of the Golden Fleece sought by Jason and his Argonauts. Be that as it may, the gold blobs were melted into blocks, or ingots; in this form they were used as a replacement for goods and as payment for services — a practice which goes back as far as the third millennium B.C. in Mesopotamia and Egypt, where the value of the ingot of gold (or copper, or silver) was determined by weight. The limitations of such a system are obvious. The ingots were bulky and difficult to transport. They could only be used for payment on a large scale such as took place between one state and another, or for settling accounts with mercenaries at the end of their period of service.

The discovery made by the man panning for gold in the Pactolus changed things at a stroke. Apart from fine grains of gold, the river also contains small, flat pieces of a flinty stone, black in colour, whose proper geological name is schist. The first reference to the use of schist is by Herodotus, who says that the Lydians cut the top surface of the stone flat, leaving it matt. If gold were rubbed on this matt surface it would make scratch marks. Pure gold would leave yellow marks, gold mixed with silver, white ones, and gold mixed with copper, red marks. The stone could thus be used to assay the quality of the gold, and its common name has passed into our language as a metaphor for evaluation: the touchstone.

The effect of this accidental discovery, made some time in the eighth century B.C., was to be immense. It gave the rulers of Lydia, probably starting with King Gyges (685 B.C.), the ability to ensure a standard quality to their precious metal, for the touchstone shows to even the most inexperienced eye a difference in quality of the smallest percentage. It had been the custom for centuries in the Babylonian and Egyptian empires to stamp ingots with some mark giving authority to the value of the metal, although such marks did not necessarily make the ingots more freely exchangeable, since they probably meant no more than that the man who issued the ingot would accept it back at the same value for which he had offered it in the first place. However, with standard quality metal made possible by the touchstone, and forgery easily detected by the same stone, the mark of the king's mint was now evidence of purity, weight and acceptability.

The need for smaller units of exchange took matters a step forward with the production of the Western world's first coin, the Lydian stater. Within a hundred years a set of coins, each one a fraction of the stater, had been issued. When Croesus of Lydia introduced the first standard imperial coinage in 550 B.C. Lydian money was already known for its high and unchanging standard. Other cities and states followed: Miletus, Phocaea, Cyzicus, Mitylene and Ephesus each founded official mints, and gradually their money began to be used and accepted outside the bounds of their own market-places, as monetary unions, like that between Lydia and Mitylene, were established. By the time of the Athenian Empire, in the fifth century B.C., money from Athens was accepted in most parts of the eastern Mediterranean.

As the use of coinage spread, it had two fundamental effects. The first was political: money issued by a central mint had a unifying effect on the users. The mark of the government on the coin was present in every transaction. Its presence defined the boundaries of governmental authority, and its value mirrored the health of the economy and the political stability of the country. The second effect of coinage was a consequence of the first. As the states developed and prospered, trade between them increased, and the use of coinage permitted more selective buying and selling of more diverse cargoes. Markets became more varied, and more widely scattered. It could be said that the introduction of the Lydian stater triggered the growth of trade in the Mediterranean because coinage made possible much more flexible trading methods.

From Connections by James Burke (1978)
Portability of Money

There is an old Streinveldtian fable about a man who tried to trick Toke, the death-god. The man demanded one million credits worth of precious metals. Toke gave it to him — all in one piece, a massive mountain of glittering brilliance.

At first the man was delighted, he danced in happy circles around his towering treasure; all too soon, however, he realized what a terrible trick Toke had played on him. This solid boulder of copper and silver and gold was too big for him to move — but he couldn’t leave it where it was. He didn’t dare leave it alone long enough to go after the tools necessary to break the metal into smaller pieces; somebody else might come along and discover it. He might come back to find others hammering and chopping and picking away at his fortune; he had no way to prove that this mountain of metal was actually his. But he couldn’t stand there with it and guard it forever —

At last, in krieing frustration, he summoned Toke again and demanded that the death god take away this cursed burden and instead give it to him in a form that he could carry. Toke smiled and snapped his fingers. The looming fortune vanished. In its place was a million-credit note.

That should have pleased the man — but it didn’t. He had his fortune concentrated all in a single scrap of paper; but now there was no way for him to spend it.

Who could change a million-credit note? If he took it to a bank, they might take it away from him; he still had no way to prove that it was his. That the treasure was now in such a portable form made it even easier to steal than the mountain of gold.

He summoned Toke again. This time, the man demanded that the money be both portable and definitely identifiable as belonging to him. Toke took back the million-credit note; he smiled, sat down, and wrote out a check for the same sum. At last the man was pleased —

— until he tried to cash it. Have you ever tried to cash a check signed by Toke, the death god?

From Space Skimmer by David Gerrold (1972)
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)
Fiat Lucre

(ed note: ecu is economic-indexed credit unit. Sort of a futuristic Euro)

Cantrell leaned forward at his desk to examine the plaster models that would eventually be reproduced an order of magnitude smaller as the one-, five-, and ten-ecu pieces issued by the Bank of Rosinante.

"The bas relief of the Rosinante, Inc., logo is fine for the tails of all three coins—"

"Reverse,” said Mordecai Rubenstein.

"Whatever,” agreed Cantrell. “But it will do anyway. For the heads, the obverse if you insist, Galileo is fine for the one ecu, and Newton is excellent for the five, but I don't like the right profile of Einstein on the ten. Could you give me a full face, perhaps?"

"You had remarked that you liked the Karsh portrait,” Mordecai said, reaching into his case to remove another plaster model, “but for coins, the profile is really the best. This is the Karsh Einstein, done in maximum relief. Beautiful, but look at the hologram in coin size.” He banded over a hologram showing the two Einstein coins, full face and right profile, side by side. Cantrell studied them for a while, and set them aside.

"I see what you mean,” he conceded. “We'll go with the right profile."

"Why is there a wreath of thirteen stars around the heads?” asked Marian.

"For the six purlins, four caps, two sides, and one asteroid of Mundito Rosinante,” replied Mordecai, grinning. “I'm not one to be sentimental about the old regime, ma'am."

"Of course not, Mordecai,” she said, “but coins travel, and we wouldn't want to give anyone the wrong impression, would we?"

"What do you suggest?” asked the old machinist.

"Your designs are very handsome,” said Cantrell. “Why not use the astronomical signs for the seven planets, separated by the six stars, as the wreath? That way you minimize the design change, and avoid using the thirteen stars of the old regime."

(ed note: the "old regime" is the former United States of America. Symbols of the regime, such as thirteen stars, are politically explosive.)

“The coins. Do you want them in the NAU cupronickel sandwich?"

(ed note: cupronickel is a popular choice for silver-colored coins, due to its corrosion resistance, electrical conductivity, durability, malleability, low allergy risk, ease of stamping (metalworking), antimicrobial properties and recyclability)

"No,” said Cantrell, “use pure nickel. The stuff is for local use only, and the less it looks like real money, the better."

"Good enough,” agreed the old machinist. “A nickel coin is a lot prettier. Do you want to check the final designs?"

"No, I trust your good taste. Oh, and look — take off that motto, ‘In God We Trust.’ Put on something like 'Fiat Lucre,' ‘Let There Be Money,’ instead."

From The Revolution from Rosinante by Alexis Gilliand (1980)
Ceres d'Or

“Meanwhile, we're going to need money, no matter what we decide. Set up a mint to run off that stash of bullion Vong turned in. Coinage gold, ten-percent copper, with one ounce of fine gold per coin.” He hesitated a moment. “Use the Rosinante logo on the reverse, milled edges, of course."

(ed note: Coinage gold is a gold alloy. It is used because pure gold is too soft to use as a coin.)

"What do you want on the obverse?” Rubenstein asked. “A dead politician?"

"No,” said Cantrell. “They turned up a bronze of Ceres in the Aegean Sea recently."

(ed note: the gold bullion was obtained from the mines of the asteroid Ceres)

"A few kilometers north of Melos,” Skaskash said. “The Greek and Italian governments are arguing over who it belongs to. We have a holograph on file, at the request of Mr. Bogdanovitch."

"The Ceres de Milo?” asked Rubenstein. “That would be good—hell, that would be outstanding. The right profile with the wreath of grain. I'll have the plaster mockup ready in a couple or three days. Do you still want the ‘Fiat Lucre’ motto on it?"

"'Let there be money'?” Cantrell grinned. “Why not?"

"You were cool to the idea of coining gold when I suggested it,” she said. “What made you change your mind?"

"Maybe the Ceres de Milo,” said Cantrell. “That is one great head, and the name ‘Ceres d'Or’ is pure magic.”

(ed note: d'Or means Gold)

"Why not put the bars of gold in the vault and issue paper and plastic like civilized people?” he asked.

"Charles, Charles.” Marian shook her head. “We are in such trouble that I can't even worry about it any more. Who in hell would be dumb enough to take our paper?"

"The militia, the union, the fleet...” Cantrell looked blank. “We haven't had any trouble."

"Our citizens take our paper because they don't have any choice,” Marian said. “It buys what they need, and for the future, they hope for the best. But the Japanese from Yamamoto-Ceres I, for instance. What can they do with it? We want them to work for us, but they must figure that we are only temporary. So we mint gold coin to pay them with. It may be awkward, but that's their problem."

"Right,” Cantrell said. “They have banks to stash it in."

"Are you going to do something about the banks?” Skaskash asked. “They are part of the Japanese establishment, after all."

"I'm going to leave them the hell alone.” Cantrell took a sip of coffee. “Maybe deposit a million or two ounces of gold bullion so they can issue some of our paper for us."

From The Pirates of Rosinante by Alexis Gilliland (1982)
Edison's Conquest of Mars

     Having made this mental calculation, I knew that my weight, being 150 pounds on the earth, should on this asteroid be an ounce and a half.
     Curious to see whether fact would bear out theory, I had myself weighed with a spring balance. Mr. Edison, Lord Kelvin and the other distinguished scientists stood by watching the operation with great interest.
     To our complete surprise, my weight, instead of coming out an ounce and a half, as it should have done, on the supposition that the mean density of the asteroid resembled that of the earth—a very liberal supposition on the side of the asteroid, by the way—actually came out five ounces and a quarter!
     "What in the world makes me so heavy?" I asked.
     "Yes, indeed, what an elephant you have become," said Mr. Edison.
     Lord Kelvin screwed his eyeglass in his eye, and carefully inspected the balance.
     "It's quite right," he said. "You do indeed weigh five ounces and a quarter. Too much; altogether too much," he added. "You shouldn't do it, you know."
     "Perhaps the fault is in the asteroid," suggested Professor Sylvanus P. Thompson.
     "Quite so," exclaimed Lord Kelvin, a look of sudden comprehension overspreading his features. "No doubt it is the internal constitution of the asteroid which is the cause of the anomaly. We must look into that. Let me see? This gentleman's weight is three and one-half times as great as it ought to be. What element is there whose density exceeds the mean density of the earth in about that proportion?"
     "Gold," exclaimed one of the party.
     For a moment we were startled beyond expression. The truth had flashed upon us.
     This must be a golden planet—this little asteroid. If it were not composed internally of gold it could never have made me weigh three times more than I ought to weigh.

     Mr. Edison suddenly turned the current of talk.
     "What do you suppose those Martians were doing here?"
     "Why, they were wrecked here."
     "Not a bit of it," said Mr. Edison. "According to your own showing they could not have been wrecked here. This planet hasn't gravitation enough to wreck them by a fall, and besides I have been looking at their machines and I know there has been a fight."
     "A fight?" exclaimed several, pricking up their ears.
     "Yes," said Mr. Edison; "those machines bear the marks of the lightning of the Martians. They have been disabled, but they are made of some metal or some alloy of metals unknown to me, and consequently they have withstood the destructive force applied to them, as our electric ships were unable to withstand it. It is perfectly plain to me that they have been disabled in a battle. The Martians must have been fighting among themselves."
     "About the gold!" exclaimed one.
     "Of course. What else was there to fight about?"
     At this instant one of our men came running from a considerable distance, waving his arms excitedly, but unable to give voice to his story, in the inappreciable atmosphere of the asteroid, until he had come up and made telephonic connection with us.
     "There is a lot of dead Martians over there," he said. "They've been cleaning one another out."
     "That's it," said Mr. Edison. "I knew it when I saw the condition of those machines."
     "Then this is not a wrecked expedition, directed against the earth?"
     "Not at all."
     "This must be the great gold mine of Mars," said the president of an Australian mining company, opening both his eyes and his mouth as he spoke.
     "Yes, evidently that's it. Here's where they come to get their wealth."
     "And this," I said, "must be their harvest time. You notice that this asteroid, being several million miles nearer to the sun than Mars is, must have an appreciably shorter period of revolution. When it is in conjunction with Mars, or nearly so, as it is at present, the distance between the two is not very great, whereas when it is in the opposite part of its orbit they are separated by an enormous gap of space and the sun is between them."
     "Manifestly in the latter case it would be perilous if not entirely impossible for the Martians to visit the golden asteroid, but when it is near Mars, as it is at present, and as it must be periodically for several years at a time, then is their opportunity."
     "With their projectile cars sent forth with the aid of the mysterious explosives which they possess, it is easy for them under such circumstances, to make visits to the asteroid."
     "Having obtained all the gold they need, or all that they can carry, a comparatively slight impulse given to their car, the direction of which is carefully calculated, will carry them back again to Mars."
     "If that's so," exclaimed a voice, "we had better look out for ourselves! We have got into a very hornet's nest! If this is the place where the Martians come to dig gold, and if this is the height of their season, as you say, they are not likely to leave us here long undisturbed."
     "These fellows must have been pirates that they had the fight with," said another.
     "But what's become of the regulars, then?"
     "Gone back to Mars for help, probably, and they'll be here again pretty quick, I am afraid!"

     The more we saw of this golden planet the greater became our astonishment. What the Martians had removed was a mere nothing in comparison with the entire bulk of the asteroid. Had the celestial mine been easier to reach, perhaps they would have removed more, or, possibly, their political economists perfectly understood the necessity of properly controlling the amount of precious metal in circulation. Very likely, we thought, the mining operations were under government control in Mars and it might be that the majority of the people there knew nothing of this store of wealth floating in the firmament. That would account for the battle with the supposed pirates, who, no doubt, had organized a secret expedition to the asteroid and been caught red-handed at the mine.

From Edison's Conquest of Mars by Garrett Serviss (1947)
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)

Debased Currency

Debasing a currency means making a nation's money worth less. Generally this is done by the nation in question in order to gain some financial advantage at the expense of its citizens. The historic method was to reduce the precious metal content of each coin. Soon Gresham's law rears its ugly head. The old more valuable coins will vanish from circulation as people horde them, and the new less valuable coins will become widely used.

In science fiction debasement sometimes happens for more radical reasons. Some science fictional means suddenly destroys the value of the material used for the standard; e.g., some idiot invents a device that cranks out tons of gold, thus blowing the gold standard out of the water and crashing the entire economy. Alternatively another idiot invents some new and improved method of counterfeiting money, commonly by inventing a matter-duplicator which can make perfect duplicates indistinguishable from the original.

  • 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 obliterated the economy of the whole 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.

  • 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.
Greshams law

(ed note: the protagonist is traveling with a naval courier. Said courier is doing a bit of smuggling on the side. The unit of currency is called a "conmark". When the war started, they switched over to a devalued conmark that was little better than scrip.)

     The Captain wasted little time on us. He spoke with the courier briefly. The courier opened that huge case and passed over a kilo canister. The Captain handed him some greasy Conmarks. They were old bills, pre-war pink instead of today’s lilac gray. The courier shoved them inside his tunic, grinned at me, and went outside.
     “Coffee,” he explained. And, “A man has to make hay while the sun shines. A local proverb.”
     My glimpse inside the case had shown me maybe forty more canisters.
     It was an old, old game with Fleet couriers. The brass knew about it. Only their pets received courier assignment. Sometimes there were kickbacks. My companion didn’t look like a man whose business was that big.
     “I see.”
     “Sometimes tobacco, too. They don’t raise it here. And chocolate, when I can make the contacts back home.”
     “You should’ve loaded the boat.” I didn’t resent his running luxuries. Guess I’m a laissez-faire capitalist at heart.
     He grinned. “I did. Can’t deal with the Captain, though. After a while one of the sergeants will notice that nobody has patrolled that part of the plain lately. He’ll make the sweep himself, just to keep his hand in. And I’ll find a bale of Conmarks when I get back.” He hoisted his case. “This’s for special people. I sell it practically at cost.”
     “Conmarks ought to be drying up out here.”
     “They’re getting harder to come by. I’m not the only courier on the Canaan run.” He brightened. “But, s**t. There had to be billions floating around before the war. It’ll come out. Just got to keep refusing military scrip.

From Passage At Arms by Glen Cook (1985)
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)
Deliberate Devaluing

Our Heroes have made Terra's first interstellar voyage to the planet Osnome (remarkably like Edgar Rice Burrough's Barsoom, except the human-looking people are green, not red). They are given gifts of alien gems called "faidons", which are indestructable glowing gemstones totally unknown on Terra. Richard Seaton and his best bud Martin Crain are worried about what happens when their wives wear the gems on Terra.

     "These jewels rather puzzle me, Dick. What are they?" asked Martin, as the four assembled, waiting for the first meal. As he spoke he held up his third finger, upon which gleamed the royal jewel of Osnome in its splendid Belcher mounting of arenak as transparent as the jewel itself and having the same intense blue color. "I know the name, 'faidon,' but that's all I seem to know."
     "That's about all that anybody knows about them. It is a naturally-occurring, hundred-faceted crystal, just as you see it there—deep blue, perfectly transparent, intensely refractive, and constantly emitting that strong, blue light. It is so hard that it cannot be worked, cut, or ground. No amount of the hardest known abrasive will even roughen its surface. No blow, however great, will break it—it merely forces its way into the material of the hammer, however hard the hammer may be. No extremity of either heat or cold affects it in any degree, it is the same when in the most powerful electric arc as it is when immersed in liquid helium."
     "How about acids?"
     "That is what I am asking myself. Osnomians aren't much force at chemistry. I'm going to try to get hold of another one, and see if I can't analyze it, just for fun. I can't seem to convince myself that a real atomic structure could be that large."
     "No, it is rather large for an atom," and turning to the two girls, "How do you like your solitaires?"
     "They're perfectly beautiful, and the Tiffany mounting is exquisite," replied Dorothy, enthusiastically, "but they're so awfully big! They're as big as ten-carat diamonds, I do believe."
     "Just about," replied Seaton, "but at that, they're the smallest Dunark could find. They have been kicking around for years, he says—so small that nobody wanted them. They wear big ones on their bracelets, you know. You sure will make a hit in Washington, Dottie. People will think you're wearing a bottle-stopper until they see it shining in the dark, then they'll think it's an automobile headlight. But after a few jewelers have seen these stones, one of them will be offering us five million dollars apiece for them, trying to buy them for some dizzy old dame who wants to put out the eyes of some of her social rivals. Yes? No?"
     "That's about right, Dick," replied Crane, and his face wore a thoughtful look. "We can't keep it secret that we have a new jewel, since all four of us will be wearing them continuously, and anyone who knows jewels at all will recognize these as infinitely superior to any known Earthly jewel. In fact, they may get some of us into trouble, as fabulously valuable jewels usually do."
     "That's true, too. So we'll let it out casually that they're as common as mud up here—that we're just wearing them for sentiment, which is true, and that we're thinking of bringing back a shipload to sell for parking lights."
     "That would probably keep anyone from trying to murder our wives for their rings, at least."

From The Skylark of Space by E. E. "Doc" Smith (1928)

Illegal Cash

In some science fiction, physical money is illegal since the Police State cannot trace physical money transactions. By law all money transations must be via credit cards or debit cards. Intangible electronic numbers transferred from one bank ledger to another through traceable internet connections (credit cards or debit cards), so the state can keep a close eye on all your purchases. To the very last penny.

Naturally people wanting to bribe somebody or purchase illegal goods had to find some physical untraceable alternative. Purchasing illegal drugs with your bank card will just get you busted by the narks.

Such illegal currency is related to the concept of money laundering.

In the science fiction show The Expanse, Detective Miller accepts bribes in the form of casino chips. One of the authors said: "Why do they use casino chips as money on The Expanse? It's how you get a black market economy when everything else is traceable e-money."

In the real world, events overtook science fiction when some genius invented a way to transfer money over the internet, but encrypted in such a way that the authorities could not track it. Specifically they can see the transaction but have no idea of the identity of the sender or receiver. This is called Bitcoin (BTC), symbolized by , Ƀ, or ฿. Bitcoin is the first cryptocurrency that is decentralized.


His total assets were quickly converted to New Yen, a fat sheaf of the old paper currency that circulated endlessly through the closed circuit of the world's black markets like the seashells of the Trobriand islanders. It was difficult to transact legitimate business with cash in the Sprawl; in Japan, it was already illegal.

In Japan, he'd known with a clenched and absolute certainty, he'd find his cure. In Chiba. Either in a registered clinic or in the shadowland of black medicine. Synonymous with implants, nerve-splicing, and microbionics, Chiba was a magnet for the Sprawl's techno-criminal subcultures.

From Neuromancer by William Gibson (1984)


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.

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.

Intrepid Merchant

     ''Sweet to ride forth at evening from the wells
     When shadows pass gigantic on the sand,
     And softly though the silence beat the bells
     Along the Golden Road to Samarkand.

     We travel not for trafficking alone:
     By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
     For lust of knowing what should not be known
     We make the Golden Journey to Samarkand.''

     — James Elroy Flecker, "The Golden Road to Samarkand"

An Intrepid Merchant is a merchant that goes to the far corners of his world, bravely seeking profit. He is a treasure-hunter but the treasure is not hidden, it is in the bazaar waiting for him after he has crossed the deserts, mountains, seas, or trackless gulfs of space. The chief characteristic of an Intrepid Merchant is that he is both a merchant and an adventurer. He buys and sells like any other trader. The difference is that he goes to far distant markets to find what he is looking for. (May be fond of being In Harm's Way - after all, the more dangerous it is to get at something, the rarer and, therefore, more valuable it's likely to be.)

On the less salubrious side of things, this character type can overlap with being a Privateer or Pirate (where the risk is the original owner fighting back), a smuggler (where the risk is that you're trading illegally), or even a slave trader.

If he ever "retires" (or at least settles in one place), he's likely to become a Merchant Prince on the basis of his earnings.

This trope is Older Than Feudalism, dating back in poetry, folklore and history to at least Sinbad the Sailor, continuing as a staple of adventure fiction until the present day, and finding its way into science-fiction almost as soon as the genre came into existence. It migrated to role-playing games, especially Traveller, in which it is one of the main player character types. Inevitably the Intrepid Trader found new territory to explore in computer games, appearing in Elite and its successors. A common space subtrope of this would be the Space Trucker.

Intrepid Merchants were arguably the foundation of the world's economy, before easy transportation and communication made his kind irrelevant. They still exist in places like Central Asia in which transportation and communication are not easy.

When a whole culture has this as its Hat, it is a Proud Merchant Race .

For a huge list of examples click here

Intrepid Merchant entry from TV Tropes
Merchant Prince

     Not counting the Line and the Foundry, the yards and the village, too,
     I've made myself and a million; but I'm damned if I made you.
     Master at two-and-twenty, and married at twenty-three —
     Ten thousand men on the pay-roll, and forty freighters at sea
     Fifty years between'em, and every year of it fight,
     And now I'm Sir Anthony Gloster, dying, a baronite:
     For I lunched with his Royal 'Ighness — what was it the papers had?
     "Not the least of our merchant-princes." Dickie, that's me, your dad!
     Rudyard Kipling,The Mary Gloster

By using acquired wealth, knowledge, and skills (often including outright bribery), a merchant or other capitalist character becomes a member of society's ruling class. Unlike in One Nation Under Copyright, the Merchant Prince doesn't necessarily own outright the society he rules, or even run a Mega Corp.; he may, in fact, be only the "first among equals" among many competing merchants. However, this usually doesn't keep him from trying to run the government like he would his business.

Note that to qualify for this trope, a merchant must rise to power as a consequence of his own power and wealth. A merchant who inherits political power because he was already the rightful heir to the throne doesn't count, as he would have gotten that throne regardless of his mercantile activities. A Self-Made Man who becomes royalty by being wealthy and renowned enough to marry the king's only daughter would count, however.

Generally, a Merchant City will be ruled by one of these, or by a council of them modeled after those of Renaissance Italy. Though not required for the trope, some may operate (at least) one Mega Corp..

A particularly successful Intrepid Merchant often "retires" to become one of these. In more modern settings, expect a lot of these to also be Corrupt Corporate Executives. Some video games based on the An Entrepreneur Is You model may have becoming one as the player's goal.

For a huge list of examples click here

Merchant Prince entry from TV Tropes
Merchant City

     "If it can't be had here, it can't be had on any world."
     — High Market flavor text, Magic The Gathering

A city populated mainly by merchants, or known for its shopping opportunities. Tends to be a port or somewhere financially strategic. Usually has a Black Market and/or a Bazaar of the Bizarre. You can buy the best available items there, or at least have the most variety to choose from.

This is often, but not always the capital or Hub City.

On many occasions it will be the hometown of a Proud Merchant Race, and will be the favorite hangout of the Intrepid Merchant. Some are even ruled by Merchant Princes.

For a huge list of examples click here

Merchant City entry from TV Tropes
Terran Innovation

(ed note: In the novel, the women refugees from Terra arrive in another alien civilization cluster. They need to start a business to support their efforts. Luck for them, Terra has a few economic innovations unknown to the aliens)

The sha-Eyzka had received the humans kindly, in their fashion: given them the freedom of Zatlokopa, taught them language and customs, heard their story. After that the newcomers were on their own, in the raw capitalism which dominated this whole cluster.

But a small syndicate of native investors had been willing to take a flyer and help them get started.

There wasn't much question of commercial rivalry yet. The women's operations were too radically unlike anything seen before. Carriers and brokers existed in plenty throughout this cluster, but not on the scale which Terran Traders contemplated—nor with such razzle-dazzle innovations as profit sharing, systems analysis, and motivational research among outworld cultures.

(ed note: One of the women is abducted by the alien Forsi.)

Forsi, Sigrid realized. The second most powerful race in this cluster. She might have guessed.

One goblin leaned toward her. His skin rustled as he moved. "There is no reason to waste time," he clipped. "We have already learned that you stand high among the sha-Terra. The highest ranking one, in fact, whom it was practicable for us to capture. You will cooperate or suffer the consequences. Understand, to Forsi commercial operations are not merely for private gain, as here on Zatlokopa, but are part of a larger design. You, Terran Traders corporation have upset the economic balance of this cluster. We extrapolate that the upsetting will grow exponentially if not checked. In order to counteract your operations, we must have detailed information about their rationale and the fundamental psychology behind it. You have shrewdly exploited the fact that no two species think entirely alike and that you yourselves, coming from an altogether foreign civilization-complex, are doubly unpredictable. We shall take you home with us and make studies."

Another asked curiously, "Did you search long before picking this culture?"

"We were lucky," Sigrid admitted. Anything to gain time! "We had . . . this sort of goal . . . in mind—a free enterprise economy at a stage of pioneering and expansion—but there are so many clusters. . . . After visiting only two, though, we heard rumors about yours."

"We hope to leave within a few years," Sigrid pleaded. "Can't you realize our situation? We've made no secret of it. Our planet is dead. A few ships with our own kind—males—are scattered we know not where in the galaxy. We fled this far to be safe from Earth's unknown enemy. Not to become powerful here, not even to make our home here, but to be safe. Then we had to make a living—"

"Which you have done with an effectiveness that has already overthrown many calculations," said a Forsi dryly.

"But, but, but listen! Certainly we're trying to become rich. As rich as possible. But not as an end in itself. Only as a means. When we have enough wealth, we can hire enough ships . . . to scour the galaxy for other humans. That's all, I swear!

"A most ingenious scheme," the chief nodded. "It might well succeed, given time."

"And then . . . we wouldn't stay here. We wouldn't want to. This isn't our civilization. We'd go back, get revenge for Earth, establish ourselves among familiar planets. Or else we'd make a clean break, go far beyond every frontier, colonize a wholly new world. We are not your competitors. Not in the long run. Can't you understand?"

"Even the short run is proving unpleasant for us," the chief said. "And as for long-range consequences, you may depart, but the corporate structure you will have built up—still more important, the methods and ideas you introduce—those will remain. Forsi cannot cope with them."

(ed note: However, the women turn the tables on the Forsi, rescuing Sigrid and capturing the Forsi.)

An Eyzka called the police corporation while the others secured the surviving Forsi. "There's going to be one all-time diplomatic explosion about this, my dear," Alexandra panted. "Which . . . I think . . . Terran Traders, Inc., can turn to advantage."

Sigrid grinned feebly. "What a ravening capitalist you have become," she said.

"I have no choice, have I? You were the one who first proposed that we turn merchants." The Yugoslav girl hefted her gun. "But if violence is to be a regular thing, I will make a suggestion or two."

She looked at the sullen prisoners. Her head shook, her tongue clicked. "So they thought to get tough with us? Poor little devils!"

From After Doomsday by Poul Anderson (1961). Collected in To Outlive Eternity
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)
The Economics of Interstellar Commerce

For a ship moving at near light-speed, time dilation requires that in terms of your subjective, shipboard life span, the voyage won't be much more time-consuming than, say, one of Francis Drake's pirate raids.

This brings us to problem number three: Assuming there are adequate ships and places to go, and the crew's lifespans aren't a problem, why would fleets of expensive vessels be launched to go there? That's another way of asking the Big Question, and we'll spend the rest of this essay trying to answer it.

But before continuing, let's be sure we're all together. I suspect that the Big Question may have taken some of you by surprise. After all, there are abundant examples of terrestrial, trans-oceanic trade, which at first glance seem to provide models for interstellar commerce. For example, the Japanese import raw materials to their resource-poor islands, transform the materials into automobiles, send the finished goods across the Pacific, and sell them in the United States—and they make a lot of money doing so. Couldn't the same kind of thing work among the stars?

Not necessarily. The times and distances (and therefore the costs) involved are not analogous—not even close. The distance to the Sun's nearest stellar neighbor is approximately five billion times the distance from Japan to California. Therefore, the model of transoceanic trade is virtually useless.

It's often been assumed that there would be interstellar freighters and ore ships based on the trans-oceanic model, but is this assumption realistic? Consider the importation of raw materials to the Earth. Sure, resources might vanish from the Earth or become unimaginably expensive, although this is doubtful. Still, we won't be using starships to import raw materials. We can always mine the asteroids, or Jupiter's moons. They're millions of times closer, and therefore far cheaper. So unless there are minerals out there we've never dreamed of, and that we can't synthesize closer to home, we can forget about interstellar ore boats.

It's not raw materials that we'll lack in the solar system, it's cheap labor. But the cost of labor on Earth would have to be incredibly high to justify an interstellar flow of manufactured goods. It's conceivable, of course. We can easily imagine a future political setup (the post office scenario) in which all nations on Earth are so bogged down with artificially high labor costs and archaic work rules that the "cheapest" Earth-made automobiles would cost, relatively, what a Rolls Royce costs now. But ask yourself—would even that kind of economic insanity justify an interstellar transportation system, with a 10- or 15-year (Earth viewpoint) transit time?

Probably not. The unions would take care (if they were clever) that terrestrial prices never got so high that the interstellar freetraders would have a competitive advantage.

Even if Earth was devastated by war (a common science fiction scenario), we could rebuild our factories faster than we could import finished goods from the stars. Remember, after the destruction of World War II, Western Europe was back in business within a few short years.

So we need to assume a really amazing manufacturing advantage that would make goods from the stars so valuable as to be worth the cost—and years of transit time—of shipping them to Earth.

Is that realistic? Maybe. Some goods are unique—like the products of newly created technologies. Ah, but would new colonies develop such technologies? And even if they did, there's always the risk of industrial espionage; and anyway, by the time the products got to their distant market (Earth), would they still be state of the art? A dozen years of transport time can dull a product's competitive advantage.

Besides, absent a new terrestrial dark age (another common SF scenario), interstellar shipments are going to be pretty much a one-way street. Earth will have technologies the new worlds need, at least in the early stages of our interstellar expansion. They (the colonies) will need goods from Earth, but not vice versa. In marketing terms, they're going to be like the natives of Bangladesh—we know they're out there, and they want what we produce, but what's in it for us? The problem for an interstellar merchant is finding something Earth can buy from the new worlds.

Well, what can the new worlds export? It'll be a long time until the new worlds are out-inventing Earth. All their technology will be old stuff, made with machines they took with them. But even old technology can be unique if it involves secret processes. Sure, but does Coke's secret formula justify the cost of interstellar freight? What else have they got?

Artwork is unique. Persian rugs are regionally specific, labor-intensive products. Havana cigars and French wines require special climatic conditions. Extraterrestrial analogs of such items could be traded. But it would take a lot of future Picassos, cases of Coca-Cola, bottles of Chateau Betelgeuse, Oriental carpets, and interstellar stogies to support a galactic merchant fleet. Anything else?

There's the possibility of Dune-like spice, or Star Trek's dilithium crystals, or some other wonder goods—but we can't count on their existence. For the moment, let's ignore this problem, and arbitrarily assume that something, say automobiles, will be worth shipping from one planetary system to another. This (the Toyota scenario) is our biggest, wildest assumption so far, but let's play with it for a while, and see how it goes.

If you were a star-faring merchant considering the purchase of a shipload of cars from, say, Epsilon Eridani, which is almost 11 light-years away from Earth, how would you know what market conditions were like on Earth? It'll take you 11 years (actually 10.8 or so, but let's not be fussy) to send a message to Earth ("Cars for sale. Want some?") and 11 more years to get a reply ("Yes, we'll take a few."). By the time you got that reply, the information would be 11 years out of date. Perhaps Marco Polo could operate like that, but things were somewhat different then.

Ah . . . let's assume that you don't need to send an inquiry to Earth. Instead, imagine that Earth is always broadcasting its needs, so you touch down on a manufacturing planet circling Epsilon Eridani (which we'll call "EE") and you get the latest info (11 years old) from Earth—"Hot market here for cars from EE." Fine. Now what?

Now you start thinking like a merchant. What kind of mark-up could you expect that would justify buying a starship-load of cars and tying up your capital (or paying interest on a loan) for the dozen years you would need to get those cars to your destination? I said a dozen years, because your ship will certainly be slower than the communications system. Bear in mind that you'd be making an investment in goods that might very well be obsolete when they finally arrived. And if Earth is dominated by strong labor unions (as they would have to be to make scarce, extraterrestrial labor a bargain) they'll have a full range of protectionist legislation to keep out cheap imports. And what kind of import duties would you have to pay in order to clear your cargo through Earth customs?

The only way your venture could work is if you could know, a dozen years in advance of your arrival on Earth, what your sales price and other costs would be. Could you? Maybe.

It's possible for that broadcast of Earth's needs to be some kind of continuing offer, containing price and terms, and by acting on it you could be assured of selling your cargo at those prices—even though your cargo would be a dozen years old when your ship arrives on Earth. That would require an automobile dealer on Earth to commit himself, years in advance, to pay a healthy price for cargo he hoped would be arriving—some day. Maybe his broadcast offer would say, "Irving's Interstellar Imports needs 100 cars, as of the year 2200. Will pay 30 Heinleins each, plus all import taxes, if they get here by the year 2224 (that's 11 years for Irving's offer to get to EE, and 13 more for the goods to be produced and sent from EE to Earth). This offer guaranteed by irrevocable letter of credit from Bank of Terra."

The "offer" would have to be officially registered somewhere at EE, and if you accepted it, that too would be registered, so the next interstellar entrepreneur arriving at EE wouldn't duplicate the order. Irving only wants 100 cars, not 100 million. A message would then be sent to Earth saying that the goods were on the way.

Would that do it? Perhaps, if there were strict laws that made that kind of deal a binding contract, if the Bank of Terra were still in business when you arrived, if there were no currency depreciation, and perhaps a thousand other things. Maybe a local branch of the Bank of Terra on EE would use that broadcast offer as collateral, and make you a loan equal to the cost of your cargo and the cost of the loan, plus some profit. Nice deal. Then you pay for the cars, leave the profit on deposit (with interest compounding) and you head for Earth to deliver your cargo to Irving.

The bank should do quite well, too. The loan is secure (it's backed by the Bank of Terra on Earth, and your ship is insured by Interstellar Lloyds). Your profit deposit is going to sit on EE, waiting about 24 years until you return. With a loan portfolio and a deposit base like that, interstellar banking should be a super-profitable industry.

When you arrive on Earth with your cargo in good condition, the Bank of Terra (on Earth) broadcasts to its branch (on EE) that everything's fine, and you can withdraw your funds. (We've just described how a "letter of credit" works today in international trade.) And observe, future bankers, that it can take decades for funds to clear. That's one hell of a profitable float. Faster-than-light communications would probably be a banking disaster!

Now you dash back to EE, most likely with an outward bound cargo arranged in the same manner. Both the trip to Earth and the return to EE take a short time, subjectively (about 2 or 3 years altogether, depending on how much beyond 99% of light-speed you're traveling), and when you get back to good old EE, you're a rich man—depending on the tax laws that have been enacted on EE during the 24 or so years of your absence.

That sounds like it could be workable, but does this Toyota scenario make any sense? Would an automobile dealer on Earth (or any other interstellar destination) offer to pay for a shipload of cars (or whatever) which wouldn't arrive for two dozen years?

It's unlikely, but not impossible. A deposit of 20¢ now, compounding annually at only 7% per year, grows to $1 in 24 years. At an interest rate of 10% per year, you only need to deposit about 10¢. So our terrestrial auto dealer only has to put up a small deposit now with the Bank of Terra to have the payment guaranteed in 24 years. And, if the deposits come from his customers, the auto dealer isn't even investing his own funds. The only risks are structural ones—the bank may fail, the laws may change, the currency may depreciate, there may be war, plague, and so on. But these are risks that could be faced, and gladly—if the lure of huge profits were there.

It makes even more sense if the customer doesn't have to wait 24 years, which is possible. He makes his 10% deposit, then goes off on an interstellar trip, and returns to Earth a couple of subjective years later, while 24 Earth-years have passed, and . . . ta da! His car is waiting for him, all paid for. Of course it's an old-style car, but that's OK. He's technologically like Rip Van Winkle. Unlike Rip, he's still young, but he's hopelessly out of date, and not trained to use new vehicles. (We're assuming rapid technological progress, remember?) Interstellar travelers need old-style goods (and probably live in behind-the-times communities with their contemporaries) so the years of transit time your cargo requires turns out to be a desirable feature.

We're getting desperate now. We've got ships, we've got places to go. Time and distance are no problem. Compound interest makes long voyages worthwhile, and we've worked out a system of interstellar finance. We can even imagine some kind of commerce going on. But how can we get interstellar colonies organized and self-sufficient? Where will the funds come from? The Big Question looms as large as ever. Can it be done?

Maybe. Remember the tremendous profits to be made from the banking system, if only we could think of a way to get it started.

Surely, with wealth like that waiting to be made, someone will think of a way. How about this: Our venturers might not have to wait decades for a return on their investment. Remember time dilation—a round trip to EE takes about 24 years, Earth time, but only about 3 years, ship's time. Investors could get a much quicker payoff (subjectively) if they go along for the ride. Not that they'd have any desire to become settlers. All they want is to stay alive long enough to reap the rewards of their enterprise. A rich man could put part of his portfolio at interest on Earth, invest the rest in an exploration company, and then climb aboard ship. After 24 years have passed on Earth, he returns only 3 years older, finds a potful of money waiting for him in the bank (his left-behind deposit has multiplied five or ten times, depending on interest rates) and he also owns the beginning of a thriving business on EE. After another trip or two, he's incredibly rich, still relatively young, and now his investment on EE should be starting to pay off.

This is the scenario of star-traveling investors, who become centuries old by Earth's reckoning, with fortunes (and maybe families) established on several worlds. It's quite possible that something like this will happen. In fact, this scenario is so tempting that it may be the answer to the Big Question!

All right. Star-traveling investors and bankers will pay for the first ships.

From "The Economics of Interstellar Commerce" by Warren Saloman, for Analog science fiction May 1989
Wealth of Galaxies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All ship’s personnel are eligible for compensation over and above earned salaries. That compensation consists of a share of the voyage’s profit as determined by the ledger and certified by the Captain.

Share Distribution Table and Explanation:
OwnerThe Owner’s share consists of 20% of total profit before crew share distributions
CaptainThe Captain’s share consists of 10% of total profit before crew share distributions.
ShipThe remaining profit is distributed among the ship’s officers and crew based on their rank and/or specialty. Officers receive double shares while crew receive full, half, or quarter shares depending on rank.

Shares: Example

If a ship completes a voyage with the following officers and crew and the profit consists of 10 kilocreds:

Officers (each gets two shares):

  • Captain
  • First mate
  • Second mate
  • Engineer
  • Chief steward
  • Cargo master


  • Full share(5)
  • Half share (4)
  • Quarter share (4)

Total shares: 20

Owner: 2000 cr

Captain: 1000 cr

Ship: 7000 cr

The Owner would get 2000 cr. the Captain would get 1000 cr. The remaining 7000 cr are divided by 20. Each share in this example is worth 350 cr and distributed according to share rank with each officer getting 700 cr, each full share getting 350 cr, etc.

Note that the captain, as officer, gets 1700 cr — the Captain’s Share plus a Double Share as officer.

Caravans of the Dead

(ed note: This is about how to reduce traveling merchant mortality in the role playing game Dungeons & Dragons. But it has some general principle that still apply in Rocketpunk, transferring it into science fiction should be straightforwards.

In D&D there are the magic spells Revivify and Raise Dead to bring a dead person back to life. The magic spell Gentile Repose prevents a dead body from decaying.

In Rocketpunk there is Suspended Animation, freezing a person into a human-shaped block of ice and thawing them out at the destination.

In D&D the two "raise the dead" spells require an expensive diamond, because of reasons. A "cleric" is a priest or priestess of a god or goddess, they are the only ones who can cast raise-the-dead magic spells. "gp" means one gold coin, the standard unit of currency. A "murder hobo" is a mercenary soldier for hire.

The author Multiplexer is highly skilled at applying modern economic theory to fantasy situations.)

On Trade

How do great magic items, mystical cloaks, Elven and Dwarven armors, rare reagents, and unusual spell scrolls make their way across enormous distances to shops and ultimately the hands of Murder Hobos? Slowly and perilously, one laborious step at a time.

For example, Elves sell their armor only at the edge of their remote forest. A group of merchants trades rare reagents for the armor. Once bought, they pack the armor into a wagon and carry it over the mountains to a trading hub city. There, it goes on sale. A second group of traders buys the armor at a markup. They move it in a great caravan with other goods over a desert to a different city’s bazaar.

The armor flows through four or five different trading hubs on route to Murder Hobos. Each time the armor changes hands, its price increases. A merchant bought it for 100 gp here and sold for 400 gp there. Once it reaches the local market, the 40 gp worth of Elven time, materials and effort becomes 1,000 gp in the Magic Item Shoppes a thousand miles away.

Overland, long distance trade is dangerous and expensive. The roads are full of monsters, bandits, and weather-based peril. Routes shift with changing military and political conditions. Even through politically stable areas, preparation for travel requires pricey letters of passage and introduction. Otherwise local governments are certain to loot rich, foreign caravans for a quick payday.

Sea travel is marginally faster, safer and cheaper simply by avoiding politically unstable areas and rapacious local rulers. It certainly isn’t more comfortable – an oared craft with a hundred men still lacks a bathroom. Any boat might fall prey to murder, piracy and disease – even at the hands of their own captain and crew when they want the cargo more than their payoff for delivery. The loss of men, ships and cargos on the seas is so common wharf logs simply note shipwrecks as “Lost with all hands” and a small shrug.

Yet, the possible upside profit on a trading venture is so great people keep trying. Despite wars, bandits, piracy, disease, and death, a 1,000 gp Elven Magic Chain Shirt is still 1,000 gp. Considering a typical background set-filling peasant makes 1gp through an entire year of backbreaking labor and subsistence living, that 960 gp profit could turn some enterprising Murder Hobo into a Lord – for a single sale of kit. And the wagon holds twenty more where that came from.

So they keep heading out into the great beyond hoping to come back and make their retirement.

The God of Death

The dangers of overland trade present a golden business opportunity for the right person or trans-planar being.

A down on his luck God of Death contemplates the souls arriving on his Ferryman’s shores. Some are dead from disease, some from war, but a fair number from misadventure on the road. In recent years, the sea of souls turned into a trickle. His Church is in bad financial shape. Gods of Death just aren’t “in” this decade. It’s all light and happiness and harvest now.

With a lack of hard followers, various Gods of Death compete for scant believer gold coin to support their continuing faith. It’s bad financial times for Gods of Death everywhere.

This God of Death, being in the typical Anubis Ferryman-over-the-waters mold, isn’t a stranger to travel or travelers. It’s kind of his thing. He makes the same simple calculation the merchant Murder Hobos do. He can improve on the sad state of overland and sea trade and build a business model on this. He can change his nature from the pure Death business into the Death, Trade and Money business. This gets more believers into his church and widens his appeals to a certain kind of believer clientele with money to burn.

This God of Death sends his Clerics his plan via dreams and prophecy. And when the Clerics misinterpret that, via physical messenger. The plan will work and nothing could go wrong.

It works something like this:

At the beginning of the journey, the Clerics kill all the passengers with something pleasant and painless specifically made for their comfort. They offer a nice poison to drink or use a convenient spell. People go take a lie down and quietly die in the Cleric’s care.

Souls of the newly dead collect in the realm of the Dead. They receive little chits identifying themselves as part of the God’s new Dead Caravanning Service. The Ferryman separates these souls from daily soul-ferrying commerce and sends them to the plush couches of the comfortable, upscale waiting rooms. The God’s servants offer the newly and waiting Dead complementary phantasmal drinks.

Meanwhile, Clerics cast Gentle Repose on their now dead merchant passengers (Gentle Repose is a magic spell preventing a dead body from decaying). A single 3rd level Cleric of the Dead can keep 10 corpses in gentle repose indefinitely. A higher level Cleric can offer a more economical service of more corpses on a journey per day aggregating the cost keeping travel prices low.

The caravaneers, still alive to drive caravan, goods, Clerics and bodies to its destination, pack the bodies in with the cargo. They figure body weight against the space of freight. The displacement is an overall plus: while bodies take space, the caravans no longer pack food, water, clothing, cooking goods, or other life or comfort articles for the merchants. They re-allocate that space for more goods on the trip, raising the trip’s possible end profits.

Once the caravan reaches the destination, Clerics cast Revivify. This is the lowest and cheapest tier of raise dead service costing the passenger 300 gp in cheap diamonds plus the cost of Clerical services (plus tip.) This is also the riskiest option – if the Cleric does not raise the client within one minute of waiving the Gentle Repose spell, the Ferryman waives the soul from the waiting area to the underworld ferry.

However, richer merchant clients of the Caravans of the Dead pay 500 gp in diamonds plus service plus tip for the more expensive Raise Dead which not only raises the body but also casts healthy neutralize poison and cures all non-magical diseases. Not only is the trip more profitable due to carrying more salable cargo, it’s a health tonic and spa. Merchants return from successful journeys healthier than when they left and free of all foreign diseases.

Who doesn’t want to return from a year-long trip healthier than when they left? It’s a great secondary level of service marketing.

The Church allows borrowing the price of the Revivify and Raise Dead Services against the future profits of the journey for a certain low-interest rate back to the Church so full cash payment is not necessary up-front for those merchant companies just starting out. Merchants can also “pre-pay” for their death and resurrection and death and resurrection services (two deaths, two raises, based on trade location and trade route) to guarantee first raise and resurrection priority services plus added comfort services in the Underworld.

The Church doesn’t bother with collections on deadbeats. Failure to pay simply means the Clerics re-kill the client and the God of Death will exact his payment in other less pleasant methods in His Underworld.

Sure, dying and returning is a traumatic ordeal but the Church provides “rest and recovery” rooms in their various franchised locations with attending Clerics waiting with glasses full of refreshing cucumber drinks on return from the Dead.

The Glorious Upsides

But why would anyone do this? And why is it suddenly so popular?

Dead merchants on a caravan of the dead no longer worry about getting killed by war, famine, or bandits. They won’t get fleeced by pirates, deal with a mutinied crew, or pay the dreaded Head Tax when passing through ports. Who wants to loot, steal or tax a big wagon full of dead bodies? Sure, they’re not actively decaying dead bodies (as long as the Cleric stays alive to cast Gentle Repose) but they’re still dead. It’s a real theft deterrent.

And there’s no boredom! Merchants die at one end of their journey, travel, and come back to life in some glorious, strange and different foreign city surrounded by new meta-humans to meet and greet! They can get right down to the business of wheeling and dealing, filling the wagons, acquiring cargo, and buying cheap to sell expensively. When it’s time to leave they simply die again, sit around in a comfortable quasi-death waiting room playing board games and reading the boardsheets from home (conveniently provided astrally) until it’s time to raise again.

Should the absolute worst happen to merchant bodies on their travels, should the boat sink in a storm, or the caravan get caught in a warzone, or bandits loot the entire enterprise en-route, well, the merchants are already dead. They’re comfortably dead, not hacked to bits dead. It could be so much worse! A Ferryman working for the friendly God of Death takes the poor merchant to the Underworld in style with same-day service. Of course, the Church refund the price for pre-paid Revivify or Raise Dead to the nearest living relative or estate. Those who die permanently in transit will receive a very comfortable afterlife. They are, of course, customers, and the Church hopes to service the next of kin on their next trade mission.

The More Glorious Downsides

So, this makes a ton of money for the Death Church. It is no longer contemplating Church Bankruptcy. But this financial scheme is not without its downsides.

First, me-too knock-off Churches pop up and sell similar services cheaper. How can a competitor price their services cheaper than 500 gp + Clerical fees + tip for a full Raise Dead? By raising the merchant bodies into undead to help with the journey and pay down the expenses. Undead don’t eat, they don’t need a bathroom, they don’t sleep, and they don’t take much more space than the original Gentle Reposed bodies. Now, of course, the merchants may experience some significant wear and tear on their bodies during the journey should they use a cheaper service from a second-rate Death God. But they keep more profits.

Second, finding Murder Hobos (mercenaries) to guard a caravan of bodies to ensure it reaches its destination might have minor challenges like, for instance, telling the Murder Hobos the caravan is full of dead bodies. Some Murder Hobos with different and/or competing God and religious-based arrangements may take issue with voluntary death and resurrection. This may cause the price of the Death God’s services to increase depending on the contracted services and the other objections.

There’s plenty of Murder Hobos who will do anything for adventure, murder, plunder, and a dozen levels, so during protection contract negotiation the Clerics leave out ‘what is in the wagon.’ Cleric business, they say. Things become awkward when the Cleric’s wagon erupts with live merchants who, just as quickly, disappear again. But these are Death Clerics. Around them, things get weird.

Third, the diamonds. If this Death God’s business is successful, and assuming it is, the Death God needs a continuous influx of diamonds to power the entire business scheme. Diamonds, of course, come from Dwarves who run the diamond mines. Trade here is equitable – Dwarves like gold, Clerics receive gold from pre-paying rich merchant customers, Clerics give Dwarves gold, and Dwarves hand over diamonds. Clerics burn diamonds on raise services. It all works.

Diamonds, it turns out, are not all that rare. The world’s crust makes them all the time. But they are difficult to extract from deep mines and that effort makes the Dwarven services valuable. The preferred route for a Death God who builds his Godly Business on a mountain of bodies, Revivify, and Raise Dead is to enter into an exclusive contract for Dwarven diamond-based services.

The negotiations are tense. The Death God must deal with Dwarven Gods. It goes back and forth. Finally, the Dwarves agree to give the Death God and his followers an exclusive monopolistic line on the diamonds in return for a percentage of the successful fees and tips.

Dwarves don’t care. They simply desire a constant delivery of gold for doing, in their minds, nothing. While they are merchants, they have their ways of dealing with the horrors and problems of the long distance trade. They don’t need the Death God’s services but they do like his money.

The other Churches do care because, now, they must find replacement diamond suppliers for their own Revivify, Raise and Resurrection services. They require a new source of mining expertise – Gnomes, perhaps, whose mining gear occasionally explodes. The overland routes to the Gnomes are sometimes long and dangerous. Many routes involve peril, pirates and Murder Hobos. Big caravans full of diamonds are easy targets for greedy bandits and rapacious local lords.

Maybe instead of going to Holy War against the Death God over diamonds like they are clearly contemplating, the other Churches should take advantage of the Death God’s Caravans of the Dead.

From Caravans of the Dead by multiplexer (2015)
Cruel ships of prosperity

(ed note: This is talking about sea-going trade in the 1600s, but it can be applied to a science fictional universe. Isaac Kuo says "When the rocket equation applied to the crew")

Gemelli Careri, an Italian adventurer, circled the world in the late 17th century. No part of his journey was more dangerous than the trip from Manila to Acapulco, made in 1697 on one of the deep-drafted, many-sailed boats known as the Manila Galleons. These trading ships spent more than two centuries delivering spices and luxury goods from Asia to the New World and Europe, earning enormous profits for their financiers, mostly Spanish colonists in Manila. But here is Careri’s description from Giro del Mondo (1699) of what life was like for their sailors:

There is Hunger, Thirst, Sickness, Cold, continual Watching, and other Sufferings … [The sailors] endure all the plagues God sent upon Pharaoh to soften his hard heart; the Ship swarms with little Vermine, the Spaniards call Gorgojos, bred in the Bisket … if Moses miraculously converted his Rod into a Serpent, aboard the Galeon a piece of Flesh, without any Miracle is converted into Wood, and in the shape of a Serpent.

The journey was interminable, the sea was unruly, the food infested. ‘Abundance of poor Sailors fell Sick,’ Careri writes. As a paying passenger, he would have had slightly better conditions than most of the crew. But status didn’t provide much safety: by the end of his journey, two officers, one pilot’s mate and the Captain Commander were buried at sea, their bodies dragged down by earthen jars tied around their ankles.

The captain died of a disease known as ‘Berben’, which according to Careri ‘swells the Body, and makes the Patient dye talking’. The second disease, and the most dangerous to the galleon’s sailors, ‘is called the Dutch Disease, which makes the Mouth sore, putrefies the Gums, and makes the Teeth drop out’. This one is more familiar – we know it as scurvy. For most of its two and a half centuries in operation, the galleon’s sailors died in droves of these and other heinous maladies, teeth rattling from their heads, boils blooming on their limbs like black flowers.

The Berkeley historian Jan DeVries found that some 2 million Europeans made trading voyages to Asia between 1580 and 1795. Of these, only 920,412 survived: an overall mortality rate of 54 per cent. European companies, DeVries concludes, sacrificed one human life for every 4.7 tons of Asian cargo returned to Europe. Of course, the Europeans spread their diseases when they travelled, and made liberal use of violence, so the suffering of the people they ‘discovered’ was even more awful than their own. But no less than colonialism itself, the unrelenting horrors of these sailors’ lives helped forge the world we live in.

The first Manila Galleon made the round trip between Acapulco and Manila in 1565, and then did it nearly every year until 1815. It was the last link connecting the Earth’s human populations. ‘As soon as the Spanish arrive in Manila,’ says Arturo Giráldez, professor of Spanish literature at the University of the Pacific in California, ‘we have a permanent connection between all the landmasses.’

Though much of the history of European exploration is told through fantastic tales of overland quests for cities of gold, the galleons, their owners and their crews had no more mythical or lofty goals than Maersk or other giant merchant shipping concerns do today. It was the seaborne quest for trade that bound the far reaches of the globe together, and it is trade that has kept the world connected.

Foremost among the objects of trade were spices. After being introduced to benighted Europe from the Middle East during the Crusades, Asian spices became spectacularly prized for both their taste and their purported medical benefits. For decades, the most desired spices, including nutmeg and clove, were grown only on tiny Pacific islands called the Moluccas. They came to Europe through complex overland chains of Asian and Arab middlemen, who each took exorbitant premiums.

Europeans soon realised that they had the means to cut out those middlemen: spectacularly advanced maritime technology. Trade in the Mediterranean had relied since antiquity on slow-moving galleys, driven by oars, hard to steer, and with shallow drafts that made them unfit for the open ocean. But advances starting in the seventh century had deepened keels, multiplied sails, and made rudders sturdier. This new breed of ship, which would become the backbone of the galleon trade, was fast and manoeuvrable, able to withstand stormy seas while carrying huge amounts of cargo and large cast guns.

Leveraging this new technology, the Portuguese reached the spice islands of Southeast Asia by sailing around Africa in the 15th century. The 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas prevented the world’s other then-great power, Spain, from taking the same route – so they started searching for a westward path, by way of the New World.

The first to confront the task was Ferdinand Magellan, one of the explorers least due the reverence granted by grade-school history lessons. Magellan’s Spanish fleet (he himself was Portuguese, real name Fernão de Magalhães) left Seville in 1519, rounding the tip of South America and crossing to Asia in 99 days. Even that brief journey was more than Magellan had prepared for: by the time the fleet reached Guam, his sailors were gnawing on the leather fittings of their sails out of hunger.

Worse, Magellan didn’t know how to sail back to Mexico. Today’s carbon-fuelled ships can largely ignore the forces swirling around them, and simply follow the straightest possible line to their destination. But in the age of sail, wind and currents were a ships’ fuel. Corralled by the great forces of lunar gravitation, climate, and the Earth’s rotation, the oceans travel great looping paths that remain steady for centuries. These were the highways of European exploration and trade. While Magellan had known where to find the westward current to Asia, he didn’t know the way back.

On 27 April 1521, Magellan got himself killed in a local conflict in the Philippines, and his fleet fell apart. His ship, the Trinidad, attempted to sail back across the Pacific the way it had come. It spent months being pushed back to Asia – the naval equivalent of trying to climb up the down escalator – before the crew finally surrendered in despair to local Portuguese forces. The second ship, the Victoria, took an existing westward route home, rounding Africa and returning to Spain in September 1522, completing the first full circumnavigation of the Earth.

It was a historic milestone, but no model for a profitable trade route. For that, the Spanish needed to find the return route from Manila to Mexico, the eastward leg of the Pacific Gyre. They spent decades searching for it, before finally succeeding thanks to the sailor-monk Andrés de Urdaneta. A different breed altogether from Magellan, and far more deserving of memorialisation, Urdaneta was thoughtful and devout. He had stayed for 9 years on the Moluccas after an ill-fated 1525 Spanish expedition, so he knew the region well. He was 66 and a man of the cloth in Mexico City when, in 1564, the Spanish crown drafted him to help finish Magellan’s work.

Urdaneta served as pilot of a small fleet under the command of Miguel López de Legazpi. The fleet, first following Magellan’s route westward from Mexico, captured the Philippines for Spain, and established Manila as a Spanish commercial base. In 1565, acting on local knowledge gleaned during his lengthy stranding on the Moluccas, he guided one ship, the San Pablo, north from Manila along the coast of Japan. There, he found the northward Kuroshio Current – the first leg of a great watery highway that soon turned eastward, towards Mexico. This, at last, was the long-dreamed of tornaviaje, or return. Finding it was Urdaneta’s greatest accomplishment.

The narrow thread of force that connected Manila to Acapulco was, as it turns out, much less friendly to humans than its westward counterpart. The 11,500 miles Urdaneta crossed while returning to Mexico was then the longest sea journey ever made without landing. He took on no fresh water or food for more than four months. Much of the journey, as Careri would attest more than a century later, was both stormy and frigid. By the time they reached land again, Urdaneta’s crew was exhausted and malnourished. What they weren’t, mostly, was dead. In light of what followed, this is astounding.

One or two ships sailed Urdaneta’s route each year for the next two and a half centuries. The Manila Galleons were immensely profitable, with the lion’s share of the proceeds flowing to the Spanish colonists in Manila who financed and organised the trade. The ships arrived from Mexico laden with silver, which the Chinese badly needed for their rapidly expanding monetary system. They returned carrying not just Indonesian spice – Spain’s original object – but Chinese silk and porcelain, and Japanese jewels and preserves.

In Manila, life was leisurely, even beautiful. The work of administering the galleons took up only two or three months of a year, with the rest of the colonists’ time given purely to lavish parties, carriage rides, and social intrigue. The Spanish were singularly indolent occupiers, developing no aspect of the local economy except the galleon trade. They couldn’t even be bothered to dig up the Philippines’ gold, currently calculated as the third largest reserve in the world. They were interested in profit, not in shaping the lives of the people they colonised.

Though just as one-dimensional as the conquer-and-plunder approach taken elsewhere by the Spanish, the Philippine occupation was different in one crucial way: the resource they were exploiting was not Manila’s metal, spice or opium, but its location between the spice islands, China and the New World. Europe was still in the grip of a mercantilist economic ideology that valued exports over multilateral trade. But the galleons’ amazing profitability showed, long before Adam Smith wrote it down, that national specialisation was the source of wealth, and those who conquered the distance between regions could reap that wealth.

The galleons ushered in global capitalism in another, bleaker way. Friedrich Engels, observing the disease, malnourishment and suffering rampant in London’s nightmarish 19th-century slums, would write that ‘everything which here arouses horror and indignation is of recent origin, belongs to the industrial epoch’. Engels was wrong. The age of sail gave us the same kind of horror, or worse.

The crossing that Urdaneta first completed in four months took longer for the less savvy sailors who followed in his wake: five months, sometimes as many as eight, with no fresh water but from rain, and no fresh food but from the sea. Never before had humans been so isolated from their natural environment, for so long, in such numbers. Centuries before the slums of industrial Europe, the trade ships of the Pacific were full of sailors rolling in their own shit, starving to death, and ravaged by disease – a Breugellian vista of Hell, compacted into a boat. At times, the dangers grew too great. In 1657, the San Jose was found drifting off the coast of Acapulco, every last crewman and passenger dead.

The typical provisions of a trading ship consisted of salted, preserved meat, a variety of beans, wine, oil and vinegar and, usually in scant portions, luxuries such as honey, chocolate, rice, almonds, and raisins. But the most famous staple was hardtack, or ship’s biscuit. This was a sort of primitive granola bar made by baking a dense dough until it was hard as a rock. The process was supposed to preserve it, but the sea was merciless. ‘In every Mouthful,’ said Careri, ‘There went down abundance of Maggots, and Gorgojas chew’d and bruis’d.’

Gorgojo now means weevil, but there are multiple contemporary accounts of them feeding on crewmembers, so that meaning might have shifted. Regardless, various tiny creatures constantly besieged sailors’ veins and food supplies. Careri also describes soups swimming with ‘worms of several sorts’, and beans infested with maggots. The sailors had little option but to dig in.

Fishing provided psychological relief from this nightmare, but didn’t solve the underlying, disastrous problem: the total lack of fruit and vegetables. A certain amount was loaded on departure from Manila, but this was reserved almost exclusively for officers, and consumed within weeks. Those aboard could not have understood the chemistry or biology that made this so deadly. They saw only the consequences.

At around the third month without landfall, the sailors’ gums would begin to swell, while their energy flagged. As their condition progressed, the gum tissue became so swollen that sailors sometimes cut large chunks from their own mouths – and felt nothing. As lethargy overwhelmed them, the rest of their flesh began to decompose before their eyes, skin taking on the soft touch of fungus, and black ulcers swelling from it. This was followed by multiple organ failure and, ultimately, death.

Many between the 16th and 19th century reckoned scurvy a consequence of the malodorous vapours of the Pacific. Careri and many others knew that ‘the best remedy against it, is going ashore’ but exactly why wasn’t known. A scattered few had observed that fresh fruit cured the disease, but many seamen thought burying a victim up to the neck in dirt was also a powerful cure.

Even as their crews rotted alive, the galleons often carried Chinese ginger as part of their payload of prized spices. Though ginger was generally known for its medicinal as well as culinary properties, it was not understood that it is a source for ascorbic acid, or vitamin C, which is crucial to the body’s synthesis of collagen, the basic building block of our connective tissues and skin. In its absence, humans literally fall apart.

Those not killed by scurvy were at risk from another inescapable element of life on the galleons: severe crowding. Priests, who had free passage as missionaries, were sometimes crammed into cabins so small they had to rest their heads on one another’s feet. In 1767, aboard the San Carlos, 62 Jesuits were confined to a space meant for 20. They were then joined by 25 soldiers and a small herd of pigs. And these were the privileged: most sailors were expected to simply cram themselves into any available corner.

While all sea vessels are necessarily confined, the galleons had a particular problem. Space on these ships, especially on the return trip to Acapulco, was astronomically valuable. Their crowding embodied what the historian Jack Turner calls ‘the law of increasing exoticism’: ‘The further they travelled from their origins, the more interesting [spices and trade goods] became, the greater the passions they aroused, the higher their value.’ The returns on even small cargos from the East could be huge.

This led to some amazingly inhumane decisions by those in charge. Careri describes huge shipboard cisterns, designed to both store and collect water on the journey, being smashed to make room for goods belonging to an officer’s friends. This was practically an act of murder: sailors’ ration of water was already a mere two pints a day. Frequently, ships sailed without backup sails and repair supplies, and it was common practice to store the guns to save space, making them useless for repelling pirates, which often lurked in wait of the galleons’ precious cargo.

The most common product of severe crowding was infectious disease. Microbiotic fiends traversed the constantly moist membranes of passengers and sailors, breeding typhus (known as ‘ship fever’) and typhoid (a disease spread by fleas and ticks). These were later joined by new diseases of exploration such as yellow fever and syphilis, the latter discovered in the New World before spreading to Europe and, primarily by the galleons themselves, to Asia.

Disease was exacerbated by a primitive view of cleanliness among Europeans of the age. Though latrines that cantilevered over the ocean were available on some galleons, many sailors didn’t use them, instead shitting into the ship’s bilge, or even in the general hold. In part, Careri tells us, that was because of the incessant, brutal cold. But this indifference was widespread. The French sailor François Pyrard de Laval wrote in 1610 that typical Portuguese ships around India were ‘mighty foul and stink withal; the most men not troubling themselves to go on deck for their necessities’.

The lack of basic hygiene on ships illustrates the vast gap between early modern knowledge of geography and sailing on the one hand, and of the internal frontiers of the human body on the other. It was well-known that the world was round, part of the basis for the galleons’ amazing navigational leap. But few educated Europeans of the 16th and 17th century had more than the vaguest concepts of nutrition, infection, germs or the role of cleanliness in health. Most ships, even as late as the 18th century, relied for rudimentary medical help on a multitasking barber whose most effective tools were his enema syringe and tooth-puller.

This had deep intellectual roots. For the 15th and most of the 16th century, medical authorities were engaged in a kind of backwards march, blindly deferential to the second-century Greek physician Galen. Galenistic medicine was based on the theory of the humours, a set of materials with various qualities that had to be balanced within the body.

Advancement past this theory was hampered by a Papal ban on human dissection for research, not lifted until 1482. But a rationalistic approach to illness was, even then, centuries away. The Manila Galleons launched more than 30 years before the birth in 1596 of René Descartes, whose thinking would prove foundational for the very concept of an ‘experiment’. They launched precisely a century before Robert Boyle, in 1665, became the first to make biological use of the word ‘cell’. The connection between cleanliness and contagion wasn’t persuasively argued until John Pringle’s Observations on the Diseases of the Army (1752). The first controlled experiments showing the effectiveness of citrus fruits in preventing scurvy were performed by James Lind in 1747. In fact, they were the first properly controlled medical experiments ever conducted.

But there was more than simple ignorance behind the suffering of the galleons’ sailors. The ships were often suspiciously overcrewed. They could be sailed by 40 or fewer, but carried crew complements of between 75 and, as the ships grew larger, 200. In Vanguard of Empire (1993), Roger C Smith points out that this overcrewing was due to the (correct) assumption that many of the crew would die.

Providing better food was known to decrease mortality – emergency rations of higher quality were packed on all ships to aid the recovery of the ill (though Careri observed that most of that quickly ended up at the captain’s table). But providing higher quality food would have been a major expense for financiers, without greatly increasing the likelihood that a ship’s cargo would arrive intact – which is all that really mattered to them. In fact, since the bulk of salaries was paid only at the end of a round trip, allowing half of all crew to die would have been a double cost saving. And so the sailors wore the yoke of global commerce, were worked to death, and then forgotten.

The Manila Galleon was ultimately undone by its own success. The route was eventually worked by ships of almost every European power, albeit illegally. Merchant competition for Asian goods drove up prices, while cheaper manufactured textiles undercut demand. In 1770, the Frenchman Pierre Poivre began successfully cultivating nutmeg and clove in the Indian Ocean, ending the spice monopoly of the Moluccas. The final decades of the Manila line were marked by frequent losses (both maritime and economic) and half-filled ships. The last galleon ran in 1815.

By then, it was just one part of an expansive network of global shipping. Commercial steam power, which emerged in 1807 on the Hudson River, would eventually make that trade faster, more efficient – and much less deadly. The months-long Pacific crossing that killed a million men can now be made, even by the most leisurely of diesel container ships, in two weeks.

Reliable global trade underpins the unprecedented affluence now shared by many humans. In a better world, it might have spread its benefits even more widely. But today’s robust network, and the technology that underpins it, would likely never have appeared without a template to guide their growth. That template was crude, exploitative, unreliable – and very often, for the men whose bodies fuelled it, gruesomely lethal.

From Cruel ships of prosperity by David Z Morris (2016)

Transport Nexus

A Transport Nexus is a crossroad spaceport for passengers, a port of entry, an orbital warehouses where valuable minerals from asteroid mines are stored and trade goods transshipped, or a "trade-town". Will include related services, such as bonded warehouses, trading posts, hotels and longshoremen.

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.


From earliest times the world's great trading route had run from the eastern Mediterranean down the Red Sea, and across towards India and China. There is evidence of the Egyptians and Babylonians going as far south as Somalia in the second millennium B.C., and east towards India. Throughout the life of Alexander the Great this trade route was developed and held open as much as anything by his use of coinage. Alexander's mark was accepted from India to the Lebanon, from south Russia to the upper reaches of the Nile. In 331 B.C. he decided to found a city at the most convenient point to handle the flood of commodities criss-crossing his empire. The city was to be built in stone at a place where two natural harbours, facing east and west, would permit landfall whichever way the wind was blowing at the time.

Alexandria, at the mouth of the Nile, became the greatest trading capital of the world. From the south, from Somalia, came spices. From the Sudan came elephants, iron and gold. From France, Germany and Russia came furs and amber; from England, tin. Alexandria took goods from all over the world and redirected them to their destinations. Dio Chrysostom said of it, in the first century A.D., 'The city has a monopoly of the shipping of the entire Mediterranean ... situated as it is at the crossroads of the whole world.' After Alexander's death the city was ruled in turn by Persians, Greeks, Carthaginians and finally Romans. For six hundred years Alexandria prospered, both as a trading community, and as the intellectual centre of the Mediterranean — thanks to the great Library and Museion, founded not long after the city was built. Here, the greatest teachers of the time gathered to write and to give lectures, supported by public funds, in one of the ten halls, each devoted to one of the subjects taught on the curriculum. There were rooms for research and study, and quarters for teachers in residence.

From Connections by James Burke (1978)

Mobile Transport Nexus

In a rocketpunk universe, a transport nexus would be in a space station. Now, the thing about space stations is that they are basically a spacecraft without an engine. Which means if you add an engine you suddenly have a mobile transport nexus.

Castles in the Sky Part I: History, Mechanics and Trade

(ed note: this was intended for a medieval fantasy background such as Dungeons & Dragons. But while reading it, mentally replace "flying castles" with "mobile space stations" and replace "town" with "planetary colonies". The author Multiplexer is highly skilled at applying modern economic theory to fantasy situations.)

Castles in the Sky: History

Once in a while people put aside their unlimited desire for racism and war to give into a baser impulse: trade.

Trade is a simple concept. I have a thing here that took my local resources to produce and is unique to my environment. You have a thing there that took your local resources to produce and is unique to your environment. I would like your thing. You would like my thing. Let’s exchange and we both have the things and we are both richer for it. And we will sell what we traded into our local economies at an enormous mark up and make a fat payday.

Overland trade is the simplest method to execute but carries the most risk for the lowest payout. While anyone can fill a wagon with goods and head to parts unknown, the road hides dangers: weather, disease, hostile governments, the dreaded Head Tax, unforgiving terrain, long trip times, bandits, war, and spoilage. A dromedary, the best vehicle for crossing desert, tundra, steppe and mountains, transports about 1/2 a ton per animal. A dromedary train of 50 provides almost 50Klbs of trade goods. The payout is good, but the risk forces people to search for better methods of transport.

The sea is orders of magnitude less risky and more profitable than the road. A single caravel carries up to 50 tons of trade goods – twice an entire dromedary train for trips half as long. And the sea removes some risks – bandits, mountains, desert, the Head Tax, random wars – for different risks of equal or higher value – starvation, scurvy, pirates, storms, and getting lost at sea. Yet, the large cargo space, maneuverability, shortened trip times, and higher profits convinced countries to invest heavily in sea ports and naval technology.

For most of history, with only occasional levitate spell, the sea was the preferred method of trade until land was unavoidable. Cargo rode in ship bellies and took short, overland trips to reach final destinations. Merchant adventurers boarded ships to lands unknown and returned with holds full of spice, rare weapons, textiles, and gems. Ports grew and flourished.

Air travel is vastly preferable to either overland or sea trade. Unhindered by terrain with the shortest possible trips between two points, air travel tantalizingly promises vast riches. Whoever got themselves up there, traveled from point A to point B, filled a hold with goods, and returned, would win the game of trade.

A merchant wizard named Silenius Vox made his fortune on sea trade. He retired and invested his gains in magical experimentation. First, he levitated his outbuilding a couple of feet and hovered it overnight. It crashed and splintered in the morning. Fresh off his victory, he retooled the spell and levitated the barn. It crashed.

Silenius Vox, obsessed, worked for years furiously levitating this building and that. He burned all his cash on reagents and apprentices attempting to make the buildings move. Near to giving up and despairing at a lifetime of failure, Silenius changed a single mystical word and made his breakthrough. The Vox Mass Levitate spell ripped his manor house from the ground, flew it 3000 feet in the air, and, pushing apprentices into service to maintain the spell, held it there. Victory at last!

Silenius Vox passed away soon after but his apprentices continued the research. Maturing to Master Wizards, Silenius Vox’s former apprentices perfected the Vox Mass Levitate spell. They levitated houses for the wealthy and powerful.

Spells of such incredibly utility attract government attention. Before the third set of apprentices matured to Master, the King pressured and bribed wizards to develop a bigger, grander, and more powerful spell. The true maximal extent of the spell was the castle. Attempts to levitate palaces or walled cities failed when reaching some unknown scalability limit in the spell. No amount of money, wizards, power or reagents extended above this constraint; a standard sized castle was the best the Vox Mass Levitate could do. Yet, this was not wasted effort. During the discovery of spell’s limits, the wizards figured out how to move the castle in three dimensions.

This was the key.

Soon, Flying Castles wreaked slow motion havoc upon the flying castle-less neighbors. A period of open warfare and conquest followed where those without Flying Castles fell to those who did. It was an age of darkness and death from above.

But, governments could not keep this valuable technology secret. Thieves and spies made off in the night with the spells. Assailants kidnapped wizards and tortured them for their knowledge. Technology spread to the nations until the Flying Castle-less and the Flying Castled were at parity.

Wars never stopped, as they never do, but the Flying Castle technology fell into merchant class hands. While local wars are great for profits, long distance trade was better. A Flying Castle carried 1000 tons of cargo space over the caravel’s 50 in a single round trip. Nothing, not wars, nor pestilence, nor death slows down the urge to trade and make great profits.

The great Port cities turned into the great Flying Castle docking cities. Warehouse space flourished. The rich took out massive shares in trade expeditions. Companies formed around Flying Castles. Soon, majestic Flying Castles dotted foreign skies.

Castles in the Sky: Mechanical Considerations

A flying castle needs two features to operate: a continuous magic spell keeping the castle airborne and a method of locomotion.

Early in Flying Castle Technology when the apprentices and grand-apprentices of Silenius Vox still lived, singular wizards and their apprentices kept the castles aloft. The Vox Mass Levitate spell requires 24 hour maintenance, refresh and reagents to keep airborn. Should the spell stop, the castle, an unaerodynamic box made of rock, plunges majestically but quickly to the ground. In the first Flying Castle years before merchant companies perfected maintenance, sad crashed remains of failed experiments and lax apprentices lay side-up and parapet-down in distant cow pastures.

During the period of war and conquest, teams of military-inclined wizards lived in the castle and worked in six hour shifts. The spell’s high level strain was incredibly taxing. The mortality rate among apprentices forced to keep a Flying Castle battle-ready was appallingly high. Keeping a fleet of military-ready Flying Castles looked prohibitive.

Death is the sort of problem ingenious minds solve and solve they did. By time the Flying Castles fell into the hands of merchants, countries employed three solutions:

  1. Offer wizards and their teams substantial shares of the trade. More than a few wizards made their fortune on a single round distant trip across the world, exchanging magic items for silks and porcelain, and returning alive and whole. It’s deadly on the apprentices who carry the burden of maintaining the spell during the flight but financially rewarding for the Master Wizard. However, this is not particularly financially rewarding for the merchants who put up the stake, finance the expedition, and absorb all the risk. The merchants would rather not share all their shares of the trip with the wizard. But this works, and many Flying Castle Trade Companies employ this method.

  2. Impress the magical-wielding “dark races” (Dark Elves, Fiends, Demons, Illitids, etc) into service via Murder Hobo-based conquest. Invade their lands, take their children into Mamluk-like slavery, train them into strict magical arts, and force them to spend their lives flying castles. In these realms, the King himself owns these slaves. They are property of the state and leased to merchant use for heavy fees and taxation. And, dark races raised as wizards to fly castles often end up as powerful magical castes within their originating and slave-taking societies – carrying its own risks.

  3. Gnomish and other tinkering societies use a magic item/mechanical approach. They build enormous magic engines to automatically feed reagants and spell maintenance into the Vox Mass Levitate spell. This requires no wizards or slaves, but the merchant must bring on a team of gnomes for engine maintenance, give up cargo space for the engine, and risk suddenly plummeting from the sky should the engine seize up and the spell cease operation. But Gnomes are adventurous sorts. They often join the Merchant Company as members, invest their own money in the expedition, and perform their own engine maintenance. And the engines are mostly reliable. There’s only been a few massive crashes in the last few years…

That leaves the merchants with solving locomotion. After generations of development, and combined with supplementary magic spells, the box-like and air resistant flying castle has three methods of direct movement:

  1. Enormous magic sails. Fly high enough in the sky and the powerful trade winds will push a castle along the trade wind route. This method requires a navigator with strong knowledge of the trade winds, careful map reading, compasses, and recognition of known land masses from the sky. It also needs a man at arms who runs a tight sail maintenance crew. This is the safest and most common method of moving flying castles from destination to destination.

  2. Ley Lines. Smart wizards tap into the ley lines running along the ground and use them as a “super highway” for flying castles between cities. They can draw the power up into themselves and expend it as propulsion. This method allows faster travel than sails but requires both the ley lines staying put and flowing where the Flying Castle needs to go – neither always true. It also requires a wizard on board.

  3. Gnomish technology to rig up combinations of magic engines, windmills, and unspeakable bits of steampunk to gather wind up the front and expend it out the back as propulsion. This will get the Flying Castle where it wants to go, when it wants to go, in the direction it wants to go, with no limits on travel or movement. It might also explode.

Ingenious minds work today solving the air resistance problem.

With levitation and movement solved, Flying Castle merchants, captains and engineers must solve a number of other thorny issues:

  1. Landing is not something a Flying Castle can do in a foreign port unequipped and unexpecting an enormous flying fortress full of merchants, boxes and goods. Wizards, should they be available on the flight, provide levitation “elevators” to move cargo to and from the ground – the Vox Mass Levitate spell is good for more than moving houses and castles. Those Flying Castles staffed with gnomes employ dirigible and hot-air balloon technology to move seamlessly from sky to ground. These dirigibles carry a ton of cargo, collapse into storable containers and reinflate with heat. And, like other gnomish technologies, they occasionally explode.

  2. Flying castles can still get lost in a heavy storm, deep fog, or prohibitive cloud cover. Navigational magics and charting technology advanced rapidly once air travel became possible but the remains of lost castle still lie in forests, various deserts, and crashed into mountain tops. Blowing out to sea is the biggest risk for Flying Castles. The featureless ocean gives no clues to lost navigators. Navigators are armed with locational magics to navigate them back toward land in case of storm. Lost at sea means running out of food and starving, or killing the magic team keeping the flying castle aloft and disappearing into the ocean, lost forever.

  3. Food is less an issue on Flying Castles than on long distance sea voyages but still faces similar restrictions. The food does not rot from exposure to salt water. Castles have larger cargo warehouse spaces for food than ships. With green open areas, Flying Castles carries cattle (which has an issue, see #5), growing plots, and fruit trees. But without refrigeration – somewhat solved by magic – food will spoil. The green areas cannot feed the entire crew and merchant passengers, only supplement to hold off scurvy. Smart navigators plan food refuel stations along their routes to ensure the crew does not starve.

  4. “Dumping” is a real legal issue for Flying Castles. In the first salient and heady years of flight, captains solved the issue with waste by dumping it over the side on the unsuspecting people below. Those living on the path of trade winds or ley lines learned the hard way they were under Flying Castles. Before long, dumping became an issue of international concern and a body of legal entanglements. Today, captains allocate a percentage of valuable castle cargo and living to magical waste containment and management while flying over any known and populated lands or treaty areas. The gnomes have solutions which a few enterprising captains have installed, but the explosion risk is often too high for captains to contemplate.

Otherwise, living in a Flying Castle is much like living in a cross between a ship on a long distance voyage and a regular castle. It’s comfortable to passengers and ideal for long distance hauls through the sky.

Castles in the Sky: Trade

Triangle trade is a simple and extremely profitable concept. An example:

  1. High Elves desire silver as they melt the coins down and turn them into jewelry. In return for chests of silver, they sell their carefully hand-crafted ghostly textiles, super common to them but rare to everyone else.

  2. The Dwarves, who have strained relations to the High Elves but not with the people flying castles, exchange the holds of Elven textiles for Dwarven magical weapons and armor.

  3. The Murder Hobos at home pay premium price (in silver) for Dwarven magical weapons and armor which they use to murder various indigenous demi-humans for more silver.

Around and around the Flying Castle goes, taking a markup at each step, and selling to those who want things and buying oversupply. This is not limited to Elven textiles and Dwarven magical weapons – Flying Castles trade in rare and precious magic items and spells, spices, other textiles, rare food stuffs, inventions, technology, finished goods, and beings from far away continents.

Nations and merchants cave to the urge to maximize their profits. One castle is great. It brings home 1000 tons in possible profit. Two castles are better. A treasure fleet of castles is best. Five castles flying together lowers risk from loss on the voyage, almost guarantees someone returns home, and, at its most optimistic, delivers almost 5000 tons of cargo back to the Mother Nation. Who doesn’t want a treasure fleet? The might, the majesty, the awe, the sheer projection of wealth and power of five castles hanging with a slight hint of menace over foreign skies and distant ports is worth it.

Although this sort of thing has drawbacks. One country, in the quest to conquer its neighbors, sent out a fleet of its entire nation in castles on a single triangle trade mission and returned with warehouses full of goods for sale. Too bad they ripped up their entire border defense in search of profit. Their neighbors took advantage of a castle-less nation devoid of wizards and invaded on their own recognizance. By time the trade mission returned, they had no home nation to return to.

This was a lesson in moderation. You can send your castles, but you cannot send all your castles. (Note, the trade fleet did fine – they just declared a new nationality and sold in foreign currency. Merchants don’t care about governments. They only care about trade laws.)

Later, wise nations invested in castle building for the express purposes of turning them into flying cargo trade fleets. But the lesson held – and those who learned this lesson developed their fleets for both trade and war.

An interesting facet of the triangle trade available to the Flying Castle and expressly unavailable to ships or overland travel is the ability to finish goods while in transit. The castle has space for:

  • Warehousing components;
  • Warehousing advanced and finished goods;
  • Feeding and housing artisans who can take components and complete finished goods.

This requires merchants to give up precious cargo space to production space. He could stuff more Elven textiles per square footage in his castle instead of providing airy and sunny work spaces. The merchant must make this financial call: if the finished good fetches a higher price in the market than the cost of finishing the good on board plus the loss of other possible sales, he will commit to hosting on-board artisans. Some trade missions do. Some don’t.

Those who choose to produce in-flight expressly target trade ports selling raw materials: cotton for thread, molasses for rum, reagents for complex spells, mithril and adamantine for magic weapons. Artisans produce small but high performing goods in their on board workshops. By time the Flying Castle reaches the next port, the merchants can flip what was a buy of raw materials as highly priced finished goods. Then they can purchase the very best of the best their host nation has to offer – the porcelain bowls, the highest quality coffees and teas – and ship them back home for maximum profit.

And thus, theoretically, everyone makes money.

Problems crop up in the otherwise tame and civilized triangle trade when two nations both want a monopoly in one rare and valuable good. For example, both Flying Castles wish to sell a high performing rare Elven mithril armor crafted only by one tribe of Elves living on a distant and nicely tropical island. Controlling that good – and the island – and monopolizing it allows one nation to reap the profits while the other nation to pay sky high and price-controlled prices. The potential profits are huge.

It’s in the best interests of Murder Hobos, and the two nations, to try to control that island, its goods, and its inhabitants. In go the swords and mercenaries. One might think the Elves on the island making armor would have something to say about all this. But to have a say, they need to get a Flying Castle. Right now what they have are coconuts and really nice hammocks. The Elves are out of luck.

Here the nations do what nations do. They do enter into far off hostilities. They ship fireball-throwing cannons instead of cotton thread. And they get into a hot shooting war over islands and Elves.

And now we know how they work and why they go places, Flying Castles fight! Next week, we sail religions around the world, launch ground invasions, drop bombs, dog fight and go to war over trade goods and land!

Now, let me take a moment to mention James Blish's classic Cities in Flight series. In it, they invent paragravity machines called Dillon-Wagoner Graviton Polarity Generators (commonly called "Spindizzies"). These can lift spacecraft into orbit, move them around the solar system, and land them. They are also a FTL drive.

The amusing point is that the efficiency of a spindizzy goes up with the mass of the spacecraft. This means spacecraft were big. Huge, even. Finally entire cities were uprooted and turned into starships. The latter novels center around the adventures of New York, basically Manhattan island. The "Okie" cities became migrant laborers of the galaxy, traveling between planetary colonies. Upon arrival they can land the entire city on the planet under spindizzy power (lacking hand-waving paragravity, it makes more sense for mobile space stations to merely park into a convenient orbit and use surface to orbit shuttles).

Much like Flying Castles, actually.

If you optimize your mobile space station less towards "transport nexus" and more towards "military force projection", and have the resources of a galactic empire behind you, the result is more like the Death Star from Star Wars.

In the classic novel Gulliver's Travels, part III has our hero encountering the flying island of Laputa. It flies by virtue of magnetic levitation, controlled by the Laputans. The tyrant king controls the land of Balnibarbi, coincidentally the area Laputa can fly over. Rebel regions are brought to heel by either:

  1. Laputa hovers over the rebel region for a while. Region is deprived of sunlight and rain, thus causing crop failure
  2. Laputa conducts aerial bombardment, dumping large bolders on rebel cities
  3. In extreme cases, Laputa lowers itself on the rebel city, crushing it

The crush option is a last resort. While Laputa has a bottom plate of adamant 200 yards thick, crushing a rebel city could possibly damage the plate.

The city of Lindalino is the only successful rebel. They constructed large towers at the four corners of the city. On the top they placed loadstones (natural magnets). Since Laputa flies and moves by magnetic levitation, the towers are a defense. If Laputa got too close, the towers would either cause Laputa to crash or be pinned in place forever.

Earthman, Come Home

(ed note: The spindizzy powered Okie City of New York comes to its final rest in a remote planet in the Magellenic clouds. There they find another Okie city named IMT (Interstellar Master Traders) which has been stranded there for several centuries due to spindizzy failure. The original crew is still running the place, since Okies use anti-agathic lifespan-prolonging drugs. The crew has spent the time amusing themselves lording over the primitive human colonists.

The people of New York recognize IMT, who are wanted for crimes of genocide in the Thor V incident. But New York feigns ignorance.

IMT contracts New York to fix IMT's failed spindizzy. New York mayor Amalfi agrees, but it puzzled why IMT wants this. He muses over things while standing with a local primitive colonists named Karst.)

Behind Amalfi, Karst began to sing, in an exceedingly scratchy voice, but very softly—a folk tune of some kind, obviously. The melody, which once had had to do with a town named Kazan, was too many thousands of years old for Amalfi to recognize it, even had he not been tune deaf. Nevertheless, the mayor abruptly found himself listening to Karst, with the intensity of a hooded owl sonar-tracking a field mouse. Karst chanted:

“Wild on the wind rose the righteous wrath of Maalvin,
Borne like a brand to the burning of the Barrens.
Arms of hands of rebels perished then,
Stars nor moons bedecked that midnight.
IMT made the sky

Seeing that Amalfi was listening to him, Karst stopped with an apologetic gesture. “Go ahead, Karst,” Amalfi said at once. “How does the rest go?”

“There isn’t time. There are hundreds of verses; every singer adds at least one of his own to the song. It is always supposed to end with this one:

“Black with their blood was the brick of that barrow,
Toppled the tall towers, crushed to the clay.
None might live who flouted Maalvin,
Earth their souls spurned spaceward, wailing,
IMT made the sky

“That’s great,” Amalfi said grimly. “We really are in the soup—just about in the bottom of the bowl, I’d say. I wish I’d heard that song a week ago.”

“What does it tell you?” Karst said wonderingly. “It is only an old legend.”

“It tells me why Heldon wants his spindizzies fixed. I knew he wasn’t telling me the straight goods, but that old Laputa gag never occurred to me—more recent cities aren’t strong enough in the keel to risk it. But with all the mass this burg packs, it can squash us flat—and well just have to sit still for it!”

“I don’t understand—”

“It’s simple enough. Your prophet Maalvin used IMT like a nutcracker. He picked it up, flew it over the opposition, and let it down again. The trick was dreamed up away before space flight, as I recall.

From Earthman, Come Home by James Blish (1955)
Castles in the Sky Part II: Religion, War and Conquest

(ed note: this was intended for a medieval fantasy background such as Dungeons & Dragons. But while reading it, mentally replace "flying castles" with "mobile space stations" and replace "town" with "planetary colonies". The author Multiplexer is highly skilled at applying modern economic theory to fantasy situations.)

Castles in the Sky: Religion

A religion encompasses more than beliefs explaining how the world works, where it began, and how it will end. It is a language guiding community morals, ethics and communication on wide range of human and demi-human interactions. It informs the legal code, marketplace ethics, and the rules of trade.

For example, polytheistic civilization A worships, among its extensive pantheon, Bob the Trade God. Bob the Trade God encourages all His worshippers to travel, establish markets, build trade relationships, and make loads of money. If one follows the Scriptures of Bob, one knows Bob requires a small song, three spins widdershins and a tiny dance to close a deal instead of, say, a signature on a contract and a firm handshake. It’s a little prayer to Bob.

Bob’s paladins, clerics and scholars constructed a legal framework including recording spins, their number, and their duration for when someone challenges a contract in court. Bob’s merchant class – his most strident followers – take His Holy Word, venture into the world and trade among other Bob followers. This makes Bob happy, Bob’s clerics happy, and Bob’s followers happy.

And now Bob’s followers fly.

Inventing Flying Castles affected the Gods themselves. Bob now belongs to an entire pantheon who believes, whole heartedly, that flying castles are a Good Thing. They all knit in a bit of flight into their Theology to maximize worship. The birth Goddess births the clouds at propellers. Brandy, the Goddess of Tinkering became the Goddess of the Engine. Once flying castle technology, beloved by the rich and powerful, spread throughout the society, the Gods “approved.” The Sky God George, once gracing thunderstorms, lightning, and War, muscled out other potential Gods and Goddesses to personally patronize Flying Castles. Clerics “discovered” brand new religious justifications for flying around with the Grace of George, the Blessing of Bob and the Brandy Engines into foreign lands.

Flying Castles allows civilizations and their Gods new tentacles of religious outreach. Off they went, doing what Gods do – grow from medium-sized Gods into big Gods.

One day, followers of Brandy, Bob and George met followers of Joe. Joe the Trade God required all followers hop on one foot for a minimum of three minutes before the two parties considered any deal secure for the pain in the calf shows Joe the believer’s passion. And Joe’s lawyers-slash-Paladins constructed a careful legal code around Joe’s foot hopping dictates. Pain, they wrote into their legal code, is necessary and just before coin exchanges hands. It says right there in the Holy Works of Joe as Delivered Upon the Great Kumquat that Thou Must Hop and Hop Thou Must. A minimum of three hops, the legal and religious scholars wrote, and that it shall be.

When Bob’s followers flew a castle over to Joe’s lands, disembarked, and attempted to sell fine Elven armor for enormous crates of nutmeg, neither understood the other’s religious dictates. They had misunderstandings. Hilarity ensued. A Paladin stomped off-screen swearing vengeance for Bob in George’s Name. The trade deal worked out with spinning, singing, dancing, and foot hopping. This appeased both Gods. But, the Bob clerics thought on their way to the next port of call:

That took too much time, effort, and profit margin. Wouldn’t it just be easier if the Joe followers were Bob followers?

The next visitor to the land of Joe was not a happy Flying Castle trade ship, but a Flying Castle decked out in stained glass and song. A Flying Castle converted to a Flying Cathedral with a judicious coat of paint and tapestries. And the Clerics offered the Kings and Queens who followed Joe a simple deal: convert to Bob, accept our laws and get 20% off all trade deals. It’s right here in the Scriptures – for Lo, those who follow Bob shall have a Discount, and it shall be applied Universally. And with Bob comes George, bringer of the Flying Castle and Brandy, bringer of its technology. Does Joe offer you 20% off all trade deals? And what do you mean, this 20% deal is in crayon. It’s ancient! From the ancestors!

We have flying portable churches. We’ve even landed one for you. Gratis.

And if we don’t accept, asked the Joe followers. Well… said the Bob followers, 20% off in perpetuity is a nice deal. And we have these Flying Castles.

For Kings who worshipped Joe but lacked Flying Castles, and who wanted a cut in the Flying Castle triangle trade already making his small, distant country wealthy as trade does, Bob was a great deal. And Bob was just like Joe, right? Except a bunch of legalize, a few tapestries and some weird things about widdershins. Joe was out. Bob was in. Clerics get their cathedral. Get the people changing their mind en masse, stat.

Conversion! Level up! Everyone is now on the same Gods/Legal/Trade page. Now both civilizations will be rich. Burn those rioting Joe worshippers at the stake as heretics. And the worship of Brandy, Bob, George and their whole Pantheon spreads worldwide.

But for Kings who already have Flying Castles or don’t care for this encroachment of Bob and his damned flying Clerics and really would rather the Bob worshippers follow Joe, they explored option #2…

Castles in the Sky: Battles and War

Wars are about resources. Those resources might be land, water, raw materials, ports, or taxation collected from important cities on highly traveled trade routes. They might be souls and minds who, once conquered and converted, stop paying tithe to God A and pay to God B, or convert in ideology from one political thought to another. But Wars are always about taking some resource away (land + ideology, say) from the other guy.

Theoretically, the Joe followers don’t much like the Bob followers any more and they take to the skies. War.

Civilizations possessing Flying Castle technology organize their Flying Castles into Naval-like flotillas for war-time use. They group classes of Flying Castles into Fleets, headed up by a Flagship, into enemy territory. Neither walls, nor mountain ranges, nor oceans stop them. Once the aggressor declares War, battle in inevitable. Nothing is as terrifying as fleet of armed and dangerous Flying Castles descending from the clouds above to open rains of fire and death on the people below.

Battleship Castles, the most terrifying Flying Castles in the Fleet, carry armaments of heavy bombs, long-range magical and mechanical-like cannon and flak for protection from possible attack around their tower and walled sides. Loopholes riddle castle bottoms for cannon and manually positioned slow-motion bombing raids. The Castles rain “death from above” on enemy cities and lands, dropping bombs on unprotected known targets from overhead to destroy enemy castles, weapons depots, barracks and fortresses.

The enemy, responding to the bombing of their cities, launch their own Flying Castle fleets. Castle on Castle aerial combat is the world’s slowest dogfight. The Castles cannot maneuver quickly through the air. They rely on Abjuration protection shields, well-placed magical cannon, flak, battle tactics and planning to either blow down the enemy’s castle towers or close for boarding actions. Legendary Flying Battleship Castle commanders master vertical Z-Axis maneuvers while protecting their weaker castle bottoms from open fire. They rise through clouds into position to rain death on their enemy Castles from above.

Some Flying Castles in the fleet operate as a Carrier. These carry aerial craft to support the Battleships with mid-air combat. Smaller craft, stored explicitly for the purpose of dog-fighting, launch from the Flying Castle platform towers. Some are Gnomish Mechanical inventions: Gnomish dirigibles designed for combat, mechanical wings giving flight, combat balloons, and light two-winged mechanical fliers. Some are pure magic from spells, items and the like. And a few Castles prefer trained flying animals and their riders for aerial dog-fighting although Rocs, Manticores, Wyverns, and Pegasii run into major food, space and risk limitations over long haul travel distances. Should a tiny gold dragon burp in mid-fight and the castle catches fire, that is the end of that Flying Castle as people and supplies inside burn.

Once a lucky flier fights through and lands on the enemy’s Castle, they defeat the defenders to reach the engines or wizards below. Should they turn off the engines, the castle will plummet to the ground and kill all aboard (unless there’s excitement with traversing the dim halls, getting back to the flying craft, and dramatically escaping the doomed castle at the last second while music swells). Sometimes, dropping Commanders prefer to drop the Castle for tactical purposes but Castle take-over is more common. An enemy’s castle is a fat prize and reusable by the friendly Navy. Also, crashed Castles tend to land on things people want.

City walls and ground troops are useless when a Flying Castle appears overhead. Walls – not even tall walls – stop or even slow down a Flying Castle. Ground troops are simply paralyzed by Flying Castle actions, unable to do anything while the Castle flies overhead until the fight turns morphs a ground action. Cities are not helpless, however. Cities repurpose their old City Wall towers for Gnomish and Magical cannons for firing ordinance from the ground at the Castles. They employ positioned defensive Abjuration spells. They build shields of magic above instead of relying on walls around their city.

However, the city’s best defense from a Flying Castle are their own flying troops. While a Flying Castle has challenges with space, food, and fire hazards from carrying trained flying animals designed for aerial combat, a city has plenty of space. Well defended cities maintain flight troops drilled and trained for Flying Castle aerial dog-fighting combat. And should a city’s flying troops manage a successful boarding action, kill the defenders of a Flying Castle, take the wizard hostage, and take the Castle for themselves, a City finds itself in sudden possession of its own gun and turret platform to open up on the opposing side. But such a thing requires Great Heroics.

Another class of Flying Castle is the Transport. They disgorge castle-loads of troops on the ground via Gnomish and magic machinery. A city, hopefully, has ground troops left alive after the bombing action and aerial combat. The final stage of battle turns into urban combat – street to street, house to house, as troops land on roofs and try to take the city from above.

If the Flying Castles are victorious and the winning side wishes to keep the city, a Battleship lands outside the city walls, crushing valuable farmland. It becomes a towering oppressive symbol of victory and triumph. Occupying troops take up residence in the city. The military force claims the City as their own. If not, the military leaves an occupying force behind and flies off to wreck the next enemy city on its plan.

If the Flying Castles lose, the city still loses. The city is free but enormous dead smoking ruins litter the surrounding land.

Fleets of Battleships, Carriers and Transports are enormous expenses to their host country. Losing one to an enemy is a significant monetary loss. Typically, whomever starts with the biggest Navy and keeps up with the running cost of replacement battle over battle wins. But scrappy cities with their elite flying troops have, historically, put a serious dent into a Flying Naval Action when they have come to town. Don’t count some heroes on Dragons out simply because they don’t have enormous stone walls.

At the end of the War, when enough dead castles smoke and cities burn, the two sides sign a treaty (by some will of Bob and/or Joe). Someone walks off with the others’ resources. They draw new boundaries. Perhaps they nail a new God to the native’s feet. And if one country is overwhelmingly successful in War, that country’s ruler seriously looks at the map and considers expanding the Bob and money horizons.

Castles in the Sky: Conquest and Empire

Civilization B worships Paul the Trade God and not Bob. They lack Flying Castle technology. They have not developed high altitude magical cannons, bombs, Gnomish armed War Dirigibles, or flying dragon corps. But what they do have is nutmeg. Civilization A don’t have nutmeg.

Civilization A wants nutmeg.

There’s no reason for Civilization A not to wrest the nutmeg trees from Civilization B. And take from them they did, by the ends of cannons and the power of flying troops. Then, Civilization A sent back the nutmeg home for sale in their local markets as a global nutmeg monopoly. The castle, of course, stayed, landed permanently on the nutmeg tree island’s furthest edge as a local fort and trade point. Civilization A imposed the belief and legal strictures of Bob on the locals. The Flying Castle’s sheer might washes away legal codes the locals had over life, death and trade. More land, resources, and people taken for the glory of Civilization A.

Civilization A does this again. And again. And again.

Flying Castles are the engines of Empire. Once they pacify a land through a War action – one, and hopefully no more than one major set piece battle – the castles double as forts, barracks and, in the case of the Flagships, useful government buildings. They land and Instant Imperialism. Castles impose, to give a right of settlement, and to keep the locals from rising up in rebellion. They are the manifestations of raw mail-fisted power. Every time a local looks up on the horizon, the Castle looms, an affirmation of the power of conquerors.

Trade Flying Castles with enormous holds made for transport feeds resources from the conquered back into the Empire. These once expensive and now impossibly cheap resources are universally saleable and finished goods. The ravenous Empire population cannot get enough nutmeg, or mace, or pepper, or silk, or cloth, or Elven medications, or rare drugs, or whatever the conquered once made. The Empire taxes the imports and sales. The Empire becomes rich.

With its riches, the Empire builds more Flying Castles. With more Flying Castles, they win more Wars, they take more land, and they spread more Word of Bob. Bob melds with and consumes other Gods. More money feeds back into the Empire. The engine chugs along. Sure, the the crashed hulks of dead Flying Castles litter the ground from the random uprising, but this is the price one pays for peace.

But it is not all bad. With the horrors of conquest and empire comes the infrastructure builders to make it the world comfortable for the conquering. Civilization A builds roads and dams. They improve housing. They bring in their magical technology. Being part of the Empire is great! Too bad the nutmeg trees are gone and the locals who used to tend them, dead, but we have universal and global peace and prosperity.

Flying Castles hover along the Empire borders and above rebellion hot spots. Other Flying Castles refresh ground troops and government officials on a known schedule. Trade ships reach the far-flung corners of the Empire. The Empire annexes scrappy stand alone civilizations and slowly melts them into the new Empire. Gods mirror their host civilizations and, before long, Pantheons which once stood alone turn into one, giant Pantheon with Flight and Trade at its heart. Money good! Flight good! Technology good! Emperor good!

Civilization A turns into Empire A.

Being a citizen of the Empire is a pretty good deal. There’s a Navy to aspire to. There’s an Army of Elite Flying Troops. The Empire has money to spend on arts, literature, music, and magic. Life in the Empire is comfortable and the goods of the world are for sale. No one really wants or needs for anything. Too bad about Joe worshippers and other Civilizations. These things happen.

1000 years pass.

And then, we kick off our D&D campaign with the End of the Flying Castle Empire.


Worlds are more than just magic spells and some weapons – building a cohesive world means considering how people talk, trade, give each other ideas, and fight. This was a thought experiment (which needs some polishing) on building a world using money and military power as core motivation for all actors involved. “Castle in the Sky” is a rough outline expansion for a possible campaign world involving Flying Castles.

Nothing here is set in stone. It’s all available for ready theft.

Some ways to “JRPG” these core ideas up:

  • Start the Empire the Flying Castles made and let it crumble. Evil invaders on the ground and in the air chip at the edges of the Empire. The old Emperor dies and no one takes his place. Allow the world to end and let PCs dig into the sordid history of the Empire and decide for themselves if they wish to save it or let it fail for a new world. As the Empire fails, regions pull away under strong Generals and fight ala the end of the Han Dynasty and the beginning of the Three Kingdoms. Maybe stage a Red Cliff-like battle but aerial. Inject politics, might and power. Perhaps lose the secrets to the Vox Levitate Spell – No one knows how to make new Flying Castles at the end of Empire and the castles left operating are all in the world.
  • Run a game of Flying Castle Piracy and Smuggling. How one smuggles with a Flying Castle is an exercise up to the reader (they are not subtle – fly casually) but stealing and attacking other Flying Castles while flying a Jolly Roger is nothing but fun. Remember: piracy and smuggling is all about goods the Empire is trying to keep out, and the PCs are trying to get in for a big payday. What does the Empire not want in its borders? People? Drugs? Technology? And it’s not piracy, it’s a fight for Freedom! Freedom from the Empire in a stolen Flying Castle!
  • Run a Naval Star Trek like campaign. Build a set of stable Empires – for example, the Human Empire, the Gnomish Empire and the Dark Elven Empire. Have the Dark Elven Empire run their ships off captured and enslaved Mamluk-like wizards for extra evil and PC background fodder. Keep a number of smaller countries around so PCs can have easily reached “place of the week” to adventure. Have the party all take up officer positions operating their Flying Castle, have them interact with other Flying Castles, fight major airborne threats (big dragons), and embroil them in Dark Elven Empire politics. Ensure to stage at least one Wrath of Khan-like space battle in the magical nebula-like cloud.
  • Run a dog-fight based war backdrop game. Add Soldier in a Flying Squadron to the possible backgrounds for “Soldier.” The entire play group is connected in some way to a flying squadron – all PC squadron members, some PC squadron members and some friends, the PCs are fleeing the squadron, the PCs are disgraced from their squadron and need to redeem themselves, etc. Flying skills and access to a flying mount easily gets the players involved in the action, especially if war and conquest for money/resources/Gods/ideology is the backdrop for the game. Have them be stationed at a city so they have a home base with the option to go off with a Flying Castle to adventure in other places of the world.
  • Start with a standard JRPG “the bad guy destroyed my peaceful peasant village in some War/Conquest.” Spend the game trying to destroy the bad guy and his Empire of Flying Castles. Go through adventures, eventually have the party take a Flying Castle for themselves and fight the Big Bad on a Flying Castle Flagship Battleship tower. Escape at the last moment as the castle slowly crashes to the ground in flames.
  • Decide that the world has lost dragons, and let the players find dragons. Let them train them, grow them, and then eventually go to war with the crumbling and weak Empire ala Game of Thrones.
  • All Gnomes all the time! Because Gnomes.

Because big trade missions and Naval battles feel much more Age of Sail than Medieval, the world is ripe for magical clockwork and steampunk. Swap out regular magic spells and magical devices for Gnomish ingenuity. For example:

  • A steampunk Gnomish contraption with a huge copper bell which casts Sending for intra-Flying Castle communication and coordination;
  • Enormous steam-powered wings for flight instead of the spell Fly;
  • A crazy looking Bombard that sprays Cone of Cold instead of a wizard doing the same thing.

The world of Flying Castles hangs together fine with just straight up D&D-style magic, creatures from the Monster Manual, and an acceptance that a Flying Castle can both trade with you and bomb the hell out of your capital city. Gnomes may or may not make exploding engines. The lust for nutmeg combined with superior warfare may or may not power Empire.

Remember: there is no bigger and better expression of absolute power than a fleet of armed and armored Flying Castles hovering over your home. Just think about that, think about that very hard, before allowing a group of Murder Hobos take one over and fly off into the sunset.

Free Trader

Free Traders live and work on a starship, traveling to little-known planets to find exotic goods to trade. The crews generally live and own their starship, and experience a hand-to-mouth existence. The opposite is the traders who work for the huge corporations, living as drab little cogs in a drab corporate machine. The corporations have all the choice trade worlds to themselves, while the free traders have to fight over the scraps or do dangerous and financially risky explorations into unknown space. Term "Free Trader" was invented by Andre Norton.

As I previously mentioned 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.

FREE TRADERS. Interstellar travelling merchants who operate with great independence, owing no allegiance to a particular PLANET or EMPIRE. They are frequently encountered, and are generally a rather swaggering, pugnacious, buccaneering lot. They know their way around, and their trade ships are often well-armed, which can make them a factor to be reckoned with in SPACE WARFARE. Free Traders seem to be a mainstay of the interstellar ECONOMY. Some of them may eventually form an active TRADE FEDERATION.

     You get the idea that a fair amount of their TRADE might involve smuggling. This could be a tricky proposition, since landing on a planet is not like running a boat up on a beach, and SCAN equipment should pick up any space vehicle making a landing. On the other hand, a well-placed bribe to the operators will get you past any Scan technology.

     Some Free Traders are rather like Gypsies, footloose-seeming to outsiders but constrained among themselves by a clannish society, with elaborate social rules on things like who can marry whom. These Free Traders are probably less likely to found a Trade Federation, but their culture need not preclude them from smuggling.

From Free Trader entry in The Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy

Never lose sight of the fact that a Free Trader starship is not making any money while it is sitting on a planet or space station. The money comes by transporting cargo. Therefore the longer the ship sits on its butt while the cargo-master frantically tries to scrounge some cargo, the more money is being wasted. Even worse, spaceports charge berthing fees by the day.

Free Traders make money by two methods: Speculative Trade and Cargo Transport.

Speculative Trade is an attempt to make money from arbitrage, that is buying a cargo where it is inexpensive, transporting it to a planet where the cargo is expensive, selling it, and pocketing the profits. It is a big help if the Free Trader has a monopoly on a cargo, such as exclusive rights to the highly prized Zoran gemstones of the planet Lorgal. If the Free Trader guesses wrong, and the cargo is worthless on the destination planet, the traders have to absorb the financial loss themselves.

Cargo Transport makes money the same way as an 18-wheeler trucker. The free trader does not buy a cargo. Instead a client hires the trader to transport the client's cargo to a specified destination by a certain time, with the cargo intact. Traders who violate any part of the contract will not be paid.


Free Trader Merchant Spacecraft
The sine qua non of a Free Trader. A Free Trader without a ship is just a spaceport bum. These come from shipyards and used spacecraft salesmen.
In case the free traders cannot afford to purchase their ship outright, they will need a loan. The traders have to keep up with their mortgage payments or the bank will sic their repo men on them. Spaceport will host branches of banks and other financial institutions. Some will be affiliated with spacecraft building firms.
Traders need trade goods.
  • Prosperous traders will own a trading post or factory with exclusive rights to some valuable trade good on a planet.
  • Slighly less prosperous traders will just have the rights to the planet, and will have an arrangement with the natives to visit according to a schedule.
  • Even less prosperous traders will just have right to visit somebody else's trading post and pay through the nose for their valuable trade good.
  • Even lower are traders who scrounge around at a spaceport to find odd cargos they can trade or purchase, crumbs left over from the trade ships belonging to megacorporations.
  • And at the bottom are the traders who depend upon investors or ship brokers to hire the Free Trader to be a mere blue-collar cargo hauling service.
Cargo brokers are in the business of connecting cargo buyers with cargo sellers. Ship brokers are in the business of connecting owners of cargo transport spacecraft and charterers who have cargo which needs transporting. The brokers collect a commission on the sale. Technically the smugglers and black marketeers in Star-town are brokers as well, just not with offices and charging high commissions in return for not asking any embarrassing questions.
Cargo Insurance
If the crew purchases the cargo themselves cargo insurance is not strictly necessary. In most cases anything that prevents the cargo from being delivered will also ensure that the crew is never seen alive again. But if the cargo has been bought by outside investors, they will insist upon underwriters providing insurance. The investors do not give a rat's hinie about the free traders, the investers are going to be safe on their planet but they want to be equally safe from the risk of losing their investment money.
Here are some sample free trader crews from Andre Norton and John Maddox Roberts. Replacement crew members can be found in hiring halls. This can range from an internet bulletin board to a large complex including interview offices and inexpensive (or free) hostels for crew members down on their luck. They are generally located in spaceports. Outfitters sell crew uniforms and other crew gear.
Consumables and Ship Stores
Life support consumables will be needed for the trip: breathing mix, food, and water. Spare parts, hydroponic seeds, medical supplies, carniculture starters, ship's cats, items for the slop chest, and anything else a spacecraft needs for a mission. These items are found in a spaceport chandlery.
Maintenance and Refurbishment
Heavily bureaucratic spaceports will require ships to have regular spaceworthiness inspections and scheduled maintenance. Other spaceports don't care, it's your look-out to ensure your ship doesn't break down and kill you all in the big dark. Small repairs can be done en-route by the chief engineer. Major repairs will require a spaceport shipyard.
Fuel and Propellant
Fuel and propellant for the propulsion system, fuel for the power plant if different from the propulsion. Spaceports generally have fueling services.
Spaceports charge fees. These are numerous enough to make the ship's husband's hair turn prematurely white. Entry fees, berthing fees, cargo tariffs, longshoreman fees, the list goes on and on. And power services if you plug your ship into the spaceports power grid to save wear and tear on your ship's power plant. Not to mention septic tank services.
Landing Field
Civilized areas have actual spaceports with real landing fields. Uncivilized areas range from a level patch of dirt adjacent to a trading post or factory down to uneven wilderness on an unexplored planet. Spaceports also have nice things like emergency gear and hospitals if your ship crashes or topples over.
Sometimes the free trader will have to rent storage space for their cargo from the spaceport warehouse district.
The Shattered Stars

They had taken Moses Callahan's ship and turned it into paper.

A man lived on his ship. He breathed her air, ate and drank from her stores. Her bulkheads solid around him kept the uncaring vacuum outside where it belonged and her driving engines bent the very curvature of space to take him wherever he wanted to go.

But then he had to land. . . .

Suddenly all that breathing and eating became a life-support replenishment invoice. Those protecting bulkheads hid structural support members that had to be inspected and recertified by a licensed and commensurately expensive naval surveyor. Engines became fuel costs and a ten-thousand-hour service charge. Then there were berth fees, entry fees, value-added tax on cargo transactions, customs "courtesy" fees, outright bribes to the longshoremen's union—and Moses Callahan wound up sitting in the deepest corner of the Hybreasil inport bar complex, wondering whether to have another beer or have his good uniform cleaned and pressed before heading outport to try to unearth a cargo Celtic Crescent or Western Galactic might have overlooked.

From The Shattered Stars by Richard McEnroe, 1983

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)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Basilisk Station

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

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

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

"Mr. Tremaine?" Harkness called without turning.

"Yes, PO?"

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

"What is it, PO?"

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

"What about it?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From On Basilisk Station by David Weber (1999)
The Many kinds of Stealth

There is stealth in space. All smugglers know this. It's inside your ship for the most part. Smugglers are very similar to pirates or the total opposite depending on who you ask. An old joke goes there was a smuggler who switched to piracy thereby raising the average IQ of both groups.

In terms of economics pirates risk the well being of their ships and crew to gain loot which is a 100% profit (minus a little liquid hydrogen for the lasers and drives assuming the target doesn't fight back). Smugglers are trying to beat out government duties, tariffs and taxes and running a much smaller risk of their freedom and ship.

Smuggling is fairly easy to grasp. You find a planet that imports and heavily taxes a commodity that is relatively cheap. You buy the commodity and deliver it to that planet in a way that avoids the tax man. Or better yet find a commodity that is highly sought after on one world but illegal. Buy it where it is legal, sneak it to where it is illegal and set blasters to gouge.There are a number of ways to do this.

The simplest way is to find or create a hiding place in your ship. Make sure it's a very good place and don't even bother stashing it behind the radiation shields. Customs has robots, drones or day laborers and make them look there first. You only have one shadow shield to look behind but there are way more corridors to check and customs has a lot of ships to check if you're doing it right.

Removable door, floor, and ceiling panels are much better and honor tradition. Optionally you can put your illicit cargo (if it's small enough) someplace the customs inspectors wouldn't want to go. So you might hide your load of hot jewels in the flooring of the crates holding your cargo of venomous rock pincers for Durella 3. The would be smuggler is encouraged to find the most dangerous, toxic and unpleasant materials to haul that he can. Check the dumpsters behind fast food chains. Hiding packages in your ship's recycling system is a fine dodge as well.

If you're dealing with high tech customs inspectors then they may have all manner of sensors to look through walls. An extra laver of deception will be necessary in this case. Merely blocking the sensors will raise all kinds of eyebrows. The trick then is to disguise your contraband as something innocuous. Stick those auto rifles in with the farming equipment. Hide the psi boosters in bottles of aspirin. For those who have a crew ready to go the extra parsec ... customs doesn't usually do internals scans of human beings.

Hiding items in plain sight is often possible. One gentleman scoundrel would have a chilled pitcher of martinis ready when the customs inspectors came aboard and offer them a libation. The inspectors never accepted and found anything until one old commander on his last day before retiring agreed to a drink. After the inspector nearly choked to death on the stolen moon crystals hidden in the ice the smuggler lost his captain's license, ship and was sentenced to 20 years for poisoning a public official.

Disguising one thing as another is another common dodge. The pseudoraptor you're transporting might be a member of an endangered subspecies protected by law but the inspector won't want to get close enough to see past the dye job.

There is also the old shell game. A smuggler took on a cargo of on a desert world with no refueling facilities. He made for the local gas giant to refuel his Scout Courier. The local authorities learned of his activities and when a Navy patrol ship jumped into the system called in the violation. The patrol ship chased the smuggler all the way to the gas giant and got within shooting range just as it dipped into the clouds. The patrol ship shut down it's power, and lay silent above one of the poles where it could observe and wait for the smuggler who was refueling via an equatorial orbit. That was when three Scout ships emerged and headed in different directions. The patrol ship might have caught one but not all three. Two got away and the one that did get boarded had nothing. They claimed communications system damage kept them from receiving the patrol ship's hails and transponder id. It was probably caused by lightning storms while refueling.

The hard part of smuggling involves dodging the customs inspectors entirely. Maybe you have the big score taking up most of your hold. It is possible to land unnoticed at many times though these sort of stunts are usually confined to starport classes of A or D. We're not counting class E or X. Anyone can land anytime at those worlds.

Type A 'ports simply have too much traffic to stop every ship. A bribe in the proper circles or an anonymous tip to another ship and you could slip in with the law abiding citizens. A class D starport will not have a huge amount of traffic but it will also not have extensive sensors nd a savvy navigator could chart a course away from prying eyes.

Smuggling can also be from point to point on a single world. A low tech and balkanized world might have battalions guarding its border but a minor space presence. Moving goods from one nation to another can be as lucrative as between planets and much quicker. Just get out when one side or another gets starship missiles to load in their launchers (you aren't the only smuggler you know.)

Space tactics also involve stealth via distraction. One group of smugglers hit on the Jump Blind Tactic. Ship A launches from Planet Backwater. It heads for a point in space where Ship B carrying illicit cargo emerges from jump space (timing is very important obviously.) When Ship B emerges Ship A vents a load of plasma from its reactor (and will later claim engine malfunction). Ship B has its emergence hidden by the hot plasma. The ships dock and the illicit cargo is transferred to Ship A. Ship A makes a show of limping back to port as Ship B jumps out of system (or uses various kinds of flares to mimic its jump signature) and heads to port looking innocent and freshly emerged from jump. When Ship A gets to port it peddles the illicit cargo having been through customs inspection already on its way out. One smuggler operating out of a type D port made a show of chronic drive trouble and limping back to port a couple times till the trouble was fixed. The port itself was kept quite busy by the couple of extra ships that showed up that month.

Some smugglers have used modified missiles to deliver contraband, launching the missiles on a ballistic to their destination. Others have launched missiles that flew ahead inert until the ship rendezvoused with a customs inspector and were then picked up. Missiles can be chilled way down till they have almost no heat signature.

One rule of smuggling is kept by almost everyone: no phony distress signals. Smuggling is a nonviolent crime (unless you serve deadly toxic gemstones to an inspector.) A distress call can pull search and rescue ships as well as navy patrols away from a real emergency. That can result in death and there's a world of difference between losing your captaincy and ship and being sentenced to death or life imprisonment. After all, who would smuggle you out then?

From The Many kinds of Stealth by Rob Garitta (2016)


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Types of Pirates

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Interstellar Piracy Essentials

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Pirate Havens

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Spacecraft Insurance

Shipping cargo via seagoing ships and trans-oceanic trade can be really lucrative, but just one shipwreck or pirate encounter on the far side of the globe will result in a total loss. Spacecraft will be no different, except you will probably be able to spot the pathetic remains of your ship through a strong telescope.

The loss of ones ship is a risk, and the management of risk is the world of Insurance. Anybody who was required to purchase liability insurance for their automobile has a rough idea of how it works. The insurer is betting that they will get more money from you in insurance premiums than they will have to pay out to settle any car wrecks you cause. Which is why they jack your premium if you actually have an accident or get too many traffic tickets. The insurance companies spend lots of money researching methods of calculating the precise amount of risk involved with anything they cover.

Maritime insurance dates back to ancient Greece, but the real innovations were brought about by Edward Lloyd opening a coffee house in London in 1688.

In those times there were over 80 different London coffee houses (selling the "new black liquor from Turkey"), each associated with a different type of clientele. Lloyd opened his coffee house in a tiny area between the Tower of London and Thames Street, close to the Navy Office in Seething Lane. This just so happened to be the place where the world of London shipping and London finance intersected. While business was done at the Royal Exchange, news and information were gathered in coffee houses. So for Lloyd, it was a case of the three important parts of a successful business: Location, location, and location.

Lloyd's little coffee house quickly became very popular with ship’s captains, merchants and ship owners due to its location. Lloyd didn't have to listen to the sailor gossip for long to realize that all this intel was very valuable. He started publishing a regular sheet of intelligence on ships, individual ship seaworthiness rating, cargo and foreign events (which is still published to this day), and establishing a network of correspondents in ports across Europe. Lloyd's sheet was a shipping list containing each ship's name, owner, captain, port of departure and destination, tonnage, number of decks, guns if any, where and when the vessel was built, and most important of all a rating of the ship's hull and equipment. Hulls were rated by how sound they were by the letters A, E, I, O, and U. Equipment was rated either Good, Middling, or Bad. So the best risk was a ship with the rating AG, the worst was UB. Priceless information for an investor or insurer.

The investors and ship insurers took notice, and Lloyd's became the go-to place where the rich made deals with ship owners. Lloyd soon had to relocate his coffee shop to a larger building closer to the Royal Exchange, and offered the patrons coffee, tea, sherbet, and fruit punch. Not to mention unlimited pens, ink, and paper for deal writing. I suspect that Lloyd trained his employees to listen carefully to any conversations within ear-shot, and report back.

Lloyd also hosted "candle auctions." Say Cyrano Jones has a parcel of Spican Flame Gems for sale. The potential buyers gather at the auction site, the auctioneer sticks a pin into a candle an inch or so down from the top, lights the candle, and the frantic bidding begins. When the candle burns down to the point where the pin drops out, the auction is over and the high bidder has won (this is the origin of the phrase "to hear a pin drop"). The point of the candle is two-fold. First the time limit gets the bidders all frantic, which increases the seller's hopes of a bidding war breaking out. But secondly and more importantly, nobody knows exactly when the pin will fall, making it impossible for somebody to make a last-second bid. A similar method is used in the present day on some online auction sites. The exact ending time is randomly selected in order to foil last-second auction sniping.

Lloyd's coffee house had become an insurance marketplace. Starting with the Lloyd's Act of 1871, it became a partially mutualised marketplace within which multiple financial backers come together to pool and spread risk. This was the origin of the famous Lloyd's of London.

The insurance marketplace also created an infrastructure of useful specialists, such as shipbrokers, admiralty lawyers, bankers, surveyors, loss adjusters, general average adjusters, etc.

Naturally the underwriters exerted considerable power over the ship owners. If your ship was rated as being a broken-down ship-wreck-waiting-to-happen, nobody will be willing to hire you to ship cargo, or front you the money for cargo speculation. David Drake applied these concepts to the Bonding Authority featured in his science fictional mercenary stories.

The practice of insuring ocean shipping has the quaint name of "underwriting." The name was coined in Lloyd's of London, where under the Lloyd's risk information on the slip of paper the insurers would literally write their names.

Everything old is new again, so science fiction authors can confidently add a futuristic Lloyd's of Luna to their universe. Use the way that candle auctions transformed into random online auction end-times as a template.

Spacecraft Purchase And Repos

RocketCat sez

Oh, you stupid naive rock-rats are all alike. Every last one of you think you're the first to come up with the bright idea of fishing between the sofa cushions until you promote the down-payment on a broken-down fifth-hand death-trap hunk-o-junk OTV and to use it to strike it rich asteroid prospecting or cargo hauling.

Blinded by the sight of your future riches when you discover the mother-load, or deluded by precious childhood myths of how hard work is always rewarded, you don't bat an eye at the usurious terms on the loan agreement you sign with an ounce of your own blood.

If you had two brain cells to rub together you'd realize that anybody who'd lend you money on the strength of your pathetic business plan has gotta be a loan shark. Their two associates: "Bugsy" and "Knuckles", should have been a tip-off.

So out you go, in debt up to your eyebrows, into the wilds of the asteroid belt. Only to find to your dismay, that all the asteroids are either [a] worthless or [b] already claimed. No matter how hard you work.

As the time for the next payment draws closer, the hab module's humidity regulator breaks down under the incredible strain of dealing with the flood of cold sweat pouring off your brow. Black despair becomes your bunk-mate.

How are you going to get yourself out of this fine mess, Horatio Alger?

When the loan shark forecloses on you like the sub-prime mortgage you are, you have limited set of nasty options.

You can let them repossess your sky trash ship then hit the asteroid slums a broken person, pan-handling for your air-tax.

You can try to avoid the loan shark, while you frantically try to scrape together the loan payment, trying not to think about interest compounded hourly. When you have it, you have a quaint fantasy in your head that your late payment will only result in a few broken limbs which will only partially impair your ability to earn money for your next payment.

Or you can just flip out, scream to the uncaring heavens how you ain't gonna take it no more, and paint a big Jolly Roger skull-and-cross-bones symbol on the side of your ship.

In the latter two cases you will eventually be faced with Bugsy and Knuckles, quietly telling you that Mr. Shark is very unhappy with you while systematically doubling the number of bones in your skeleton. Unless you are truly out of luck and Mr. Shark contracts some professional bounty hunters to track you down and repo your ship.

Small businesses or even a Maw and Paw team might want to purchase a spacecraft to use in their startup business. A small ship can be used for asteroid mining or small cargo transport. Since spacecraft are going to be incredibly expensive, the happy couple will have to draft a business plan to convince Dealer Dan The Used Spaceship Man or the First National Bank of Ceres to advance them a mortgage loan or other type of financing.

Invariably many of these small businesses will discover that their business model does not capture enough value to keep up with the mortgage payments. They default. Sooner or later (depending upon how lenient the lender is) the business be hit by foreclosure and their ship will be repossessed. The bank will tell them to return the spacecraft or face a replevin lawsuit.

Honest businesses will meekly surrender the spacecraft to the bank and try to get a lift back to the civilized parts of the solar system. Desperate businesses will turn off their automatic identification system, and hope they can get the mortgage money before the bank catches up to them. Businesses that snap can "skip" or run away from the bank's mortgage and become a full pirate.

For the latter two types of foreclosure, the banks will need specialized employees or contractors to get their spacecraft back. Repo crew and bounty hunters. They are needed since a pirate will just use the bank's replevin as toilet paper. If you are dealing with a pirate, the repo crew will probably need to be armed. The situtation and the local laws will determine whether "armed" means sidearms or ship-to-ship missiles. Tough minded banks might consider the destruction of the forclosed spacecraft to be almost as good as repossession. Potential pirates might think twice if the bank has a reputation for bringing defaulters in dead or alive.

Leviathan Wakes

The Xinglong died stupid. Afterward, everyone knew she was one of thousands of small-time rock-hopping prospector ships. The Belt was lousy with them: five-or six-family operations that had scraped together enough for a down payment and set up operations. When it happened, they'd been three payments behind, and their bank—Consolidated Holdings and Investments—had put a lien on the ship. Which, common wisdom had it, was why they had disabled her transponder. Just honest folks with a rust bucket to call their own trying to keep flying.

If you were going to make a poster of the Belter's dream, it would have been the Xinglong.

The Scipio Africanus, a patrol destroyer, was due to head back down toward Mars at the end of its two-year tour of the Belt. They both headed for a captured cometary body a few hundred thousand kilometers from Chiron to top off their water.

When the prospecting ship first came in range, the Scipio saw a fast-moving ship running dark and headed more or less in their direction. The official Martian press releases all said that the Scipio had tried repeatedly to hail her. The OPA pirate casts all said it was crap and that no listening station in the Belt had heard anything like that. Everyone agreed that the Scipio had opened its point defense cannons and turned the prospecting ship into glowing slag.

From Leviathan Wakes by James Corey (2011)
Repos of the 22nd Century

The promise of private spaceflight brings with it the conditions of the socioeconomic systems from which it stems. By the mid-22nd century, there are so many private space operations that the asteroid belt and many of the minor bodies of the solar system are crawling with mining operations. Their primary function is not to send their goods back planetside — such an endeavor requires more ∆V than it’s worth in most cases — but to supply other interplanetary operations.

Rather than investing in such risky enterprises themselves, corporations offer to buy shares in small, independent mining operations, giving its debtor the upfront liquidity to purchase the necessary mining equipment, expertise, habitat, and spacecraft to establish a mining and manufacturing endeavor.

Many such operations, through either dishonesty, lack of due dilligence on the part of the sponsor corporation, or prospects that didn’t pan out, exceed their allotted time to turn a profit. By 2170, a majority of the Euros invested have failed to return home with interest and the corporations are looking for a way to reduce the scale of their losses.

When corporations foreclose on such an operation, though, the cost of retrieving the assets is likely to exceed the value of the assets. Rather than throwing good money after bad, corporations offer bounties on the assets of a foreclosed operation, payable to anyone who returns them.

Some miners consider their options and turn them in to their creditors themselves. Some hole up in asteroid fortresses, maximizing the cost of retrieving them.

Some assemble their resources into a spacecraft and run.

The latter the pretty for Repos — solitary entrepreneurs who specialize in altering the vector of a spacecraft to bring it into the reach of corporate interests who will pay to regain the value of the assets, typically liquidating them to recover as much of their investment as they can.

Because equipment gets worn and obsolete over time, the earlier a repo can return foreclosed equipment, the greater its value and the greater the repo’s cut. However, as a matter of policy, corporations will pay a flat fee for returning the defaulters to their authority so they can sue them. The prospectors’ old, obsolete equipment is often worth less when resold than it is to the repo, who often take any useful equipment for themselves to repair or modify their own craft.

Repo Strategy

Repos use several features of interplanetary law (such as it is) to their benefit.

  1. No laws, nations, or corporations control interplanetary space. Many craft have sets of laws, particularly when they carry large groups of people, but their laws have no weight while berthed or over any other craft in space.
  2. No individual or craft found piercing the envelope of a habitat will ever again be given berth in a station or spaceport. The UN considers such an action a crime against humanity except within the bounds of two nations under a declared state of war*, and almost every other port considers an individual who would do such a thing to be an existential hazard to the habitat.
  3. Likewise, most stations and spaceports view with an attitude between suspicion and existential fear any craft that will not allow another to dock, on the assumption that any restriction on docking endangers all who travel space. Some societies weigh the actions against mitigating circumstance, where others view it as an absolute law.

Repos therefore broadcast their endeavor for all to see, effectively holding themselves hostage, daring their quarry to take aggressive action that would forever banish them from their sources of fuel, water, food, and companionship. Because of the increased mass of additional crew, few repo craft can afford a second crew member and their associated life support. On the other hand, uncrewed craft are ready targets for any defensive capability a fleeing craft might have.Their pursuits are a popular form of entertainment and many several better-known repos help support themselves through corporate sponsorship of their broadcasts.

This craft, however, is not owned by one such repo. Instead, it is owned by Francesca “Frank” Nguyen, herself a former prospector who purchased her way out of debt by repossessing a malfunctioning, obsolete, adrift hydrogen mining craft. To return it to its corporate creditors, she approached its airlock with an MMU, then tased the crew, piloting the craft herself to Chiang-Diaz Station in a nearby Jovian orbit, and retrieved the bounty on the fugitive Archer Family gang.

She has since incorporated into the craft a radiator from a small space station, a drone launcher from a Jovian ring mining operation, and the cupola from a crewed space tug. She’s been unable to upgrade the NERVA-style nuclear engine to a VASIMR that would give her a much wider range of tactics for approaching other craft, but fully intends to do so when she’s got the kwai.

Adventure in Monthly Installments

     Monthly payments too.

     It is a common misconception that banks only float loans for traders and merchants to buy ships. Not true. Especially not true if you read what I posted about the Company and groups like the TAS (which may actually be divisions of the Company but let's not get into that here). Having a stake in exploitation er ... exploration is just too crucial to leave to amateurs like the Scouts or Navy.
     Those clowns might make new knowledge public for some trumped up ideal like 'the good of mankind'. Well what's good for the Company is good for everyone! Besides banks don't care how you make their/your money. You can haul cargo, frozen immigrants, perfumed nobles or make it other ways. You just need a good business model.

     There are very few ships built with ground assault in mind despite what conspiracy buffs tell you about CorpSec black ops. Thus mercenary groups often face a shortage of vessels willing to deliver them to landing zones. Most people built a ground assault transport (or modifying an existing ship) can find steady work with a number of up and coming mercs who can't afford a Broadsword yet or do not want the hassle.
     Being owned by the bank has a certain cachet. It's amazing how many planetary governments will wait patiently for your ship to land, then engage the mercs as they debark. No one wants to piss off the bank. The same goes for mercs on the ground. Hardened mercs, warlords and despots will usually treat the ship (and therefore her crew) well, allowing them to leave unmolested or offering gainful employment. This may have something to do with some banks siccing a transport full of lawyers on people stealing bank owned ships.

     Search and rescue can be very lucrative. Many backwaters simply don't have the personnel pool for a dedicated and effective search and rescue operation. These operators usually work for minimum when on standby and charge the recipients of their services. They also operate a sideline hauling stuff to and from orbit.
     Many Jovian outposts and market areas hire an SAR ship and crew as refueling can always go horribly wrong or will gift a freelance ship fuel to make sure it sticks around just because its a draw.
     Some (nearly all) SAR operators double as salvage operations because sometimes they don't make it in time.

     Seeker class ships are often bought by entire clans or a single crew that made a huge strike. But sometimes banks will allow a Seeker to be mortgaged. Due to the risk the loans are usually made by local banks in the same belt because not supporting the locals can be very bad for your business. Nevertheless various waivers have to be signed that allow the bank first crack at the estate of any deceased crew. Read the fine print if you're a family man/woman/other.

     Universities often send expeditions to points of interest. When they don't have any expeditions out they have no use for a starship. Chartering ships for research is fairly common and a captain with academic connections will find a number of colleges ready to charter him. He can also haul cargo between charters. Free traders are usually the ship of choice for this business as the high cargo capacity and passenger capacity is desired.

     Luxury Charter
     People used to travel often forget there are beautiful sights in space and amazing opportunities to experience: low gravity skiing on a gas giant's frozen moon, skimming a planet's rings, re-entry parachuting are just a few. The people who can afford this will want accommodations making high passage look like a smelly surplus spacesuit. All this costs credits. Luxury ships may seldom if ever leave their home system (chosen for surplus cash and beautiful stellar bodies).

     This sort of operation is set up quite often in war zones. If your shipping is already being shot at sending out armed vessels insures the investment. As a business privateers usually avoid tangling with warships and can be operated with acceptable levels of risk. The problem is making sure the ship owner does not skip or turn pirate. On the bright side a privateer can find constant employment in a war escorting other mortgaged ships for the bank!

From Adventure in Monthly Installments by Rob Garitta (2016)



A corporation is a company or group of people authorized to act as a single entity (legally a person) and recognized as such in law. Early incorporated entities were established by charter (i.e. by an ad hoc act granted by a monarch or passed by a parliament or legislature). Most jurisdictions now allow the creation of new corporations through registration.

Corporations come in many different types but are usually divided by the law of the jurisdiction where they are chartered into two kinds: by whether or not they can issue stock, or by whether or not they are for profit.

Where local law distinguishes corporations by ability to issue stock, corporations allowed to do so are referred to as "stock corporations", ownership of the corporation is through stock, and owners of stock are referred to as "stockholders." Corporations not allowed to issue stock are referred to as "non-stock" corporations, those who are considered the owners of the corporation are those who have obtained membership in the corporation, and are referred to as a "member" of the corporation.

Corporations chartered in regions where they are distinguished by whether they are allowed to be for profit or not are referred to as "for profit" and "not-for-profit" corporations, respectively.

There is some overlap between stock/non-stock and for profit/not-for-profit in that not-for-profit corporations are always non-stock as well. A for profit corporation is almost always a stock corporation, but some for profit corporations may choose to be non-stock. To simplify the explanation, whenever "stockholder" is used in the rest of this article to refer to a stock corporation, it is presumed to mean the same as "member" for a non-profit corporation or for profit, non-stock corporation.

Registered corporations have legal personality and are owned by shareholders whose liability is limited to their investment. Shareholders do not typically actively manage a corporation; shareholders instead elect or appoint a board of directors to control the corporation in a fiduciary capacity.

In American English the word corporation is most often used to describe large business corporations. In British English and in the Commonwealth countries, the term company is more widely used to describe the same sort of entity while the word corporation encompasses all incorporated entities. In American English, the word company can include entities such as partnerships that would not be referred to as companies in British English as they are not a separate legal entity.

Despite not being human beings, corporations, as far as the law is concerned, are legal persons, and have many of the same rights and responsibilities as natural persons do. Corporations can exercise human rights against real individuals and the state, and they can themselves be responsible for human rights violations. Corporations can be "dissolved" either by statutory operation, order of court, or voluntary action on the part of shareholders. Insolvency may result in a form of corporate failure, when creditors force the liquidation and dissolution of the corporation under court order, but it most often results in a restructuring of corporate holdings. Corporations can even be convicted of criminal offenses, such as fraud and manslaughter. However corporations are not considered living entities in the way that humans are.

From the Wikipedia entry for Corporation
Invaders from Mars

Here's my (admittedly whimsical) working hypothesis ...

The rot set in back in the 19th century, when the US legal system began recognizing corporations as de facto people. Fast forward past the collapse of the ancien regime, and into modern second-wave colonialism: once the USA grabbed the mantle of global hegemon from the bankrupt British empire in 1945, they naturally exported their corporate model worldwide, as US diplomatic (and military) muscle was used to promote access to markets on behalf of US corporations.

Corporations do not share our priorities. They are hive organisms constructed out of teeming workers who join or leave the collective: those who participate within it subordinate their goals to that of the collective, which pursues the three corporate objectives of growth, profitability, and pain avoidance. (The sources of pain a corporate organism seeks to avoid are lawsuits, prosecution, and a drop in shareholder value.)

Corporations have a mean life expectancy of around 30 years, but are potentially immortal; they live only in the present, having little regard for past or (thanks to short term accounting regulations) the deep future: and they generally exhibit a sociopathic lack of empathy.

Collectively, corporate groups lobby international trade treaty negotiations for operating conditions more conducive to pursuing their three goals. They bully individual lawmakers through overt channels (with the ever-present threat of unfavourable news coverage) and covert channels (political campaign donations). The general agreements on tariffs and trade, and subsequent treaties defining new propertarian realms, once implemented in law, define the macroeconomic climate: national level politicians thus no longer control their domestic economies.

Corporations, not being human, lack patriotic loyalty; with a free trade regime in place they are free to move wherever taxes and wages are low and profits are high. We have seen this recently in Ireland where, despite a brutal austerity budget, corporation tax is not to be raised lest multinationals desert for warmer climes.

For a while the Communist system held this at bay by offering a rival paradigm, however faulty, for how we might live: but with the collapse of the USSR in 1991 — and the adoption of state corporatism by China as an engine for development — large scale opposition to the corporate system withered.

We are now living in a global state that has been structured for the benefit of non-human entities with non-human goals. They have enormous media reach, which they use to distract attention from threats to their own survival. They also have an enormous ability to support litigation against public participation, except in the very limited circumstances where such action is forbidden. Individual atomized humans are thus either co-opted by these entities (you can live very nicely as a CEO or a politician, as long as you don't bite the feeding hand) or steamrollered if they try to resist.

In short, we are living in the aftermath of an alien invasion.

From Invaders from Mars by Charles Stross (2010)
Traveller Megacorporation

Millions of organizations do business within and without the Imperium.

  • Most of these are limited to one or two worlds.
  • A few thousand trade over one or more subsectors, a few hundred cover one or more sectors.
  • Only a few firms are truly Imperial in scope; these are known as Megacorporations.


Staggering in size, these organizations are so large that no one person can know everything they are concerned with at any given moment. Total shares of stock, annual profits, number of employees are all astronomical. Many organizations are so large that different divisions of the same megacorporation may actually be working at cross purposes. In most regions, megacorporations merely own the land their installations are on, but in some areas they control entire planets, either directly or indirectly.

Governance & Organization

Most Megacorporations use a hegemonic form (power structure) of governance.

  • They are sometimes called "corporate technocracies" and use an oligarchic power source, generally composed of a board of directors. Exceptions to the generality do exist.
  • Most megacorporations are organized very much like smaller companies, with a board of directors, a president, and vice presidents).
  • However, the board and the higher-level executive officers of the company are largely out of contact with the day-to-day (or even year-to-year) functioning of the company.
  • These upper level executives serve to plan general policy and long-distance actions.
  • The most important executives, in terms of personal power, are the various regional managers, by whatever title they have assumed.
  • A regional manager may control only a small portion of a megacorporation's total assets, but many hold more power in some regions than the representatives of the Imperial government.


A small number of Imperial regulatory agencies have power over megacorporations, and they are subject to any applicable local taxes, but, provided they do not blatantly violate Imperial sovereignty, regional managers can usually conduct their company's business as they see fit.

  • Because a direct confrontation with the Imperium would be bad for business, intentional violation of Imperial laws is done only on a covert basis.
From the Traveller Wiki entry for Megacorporation
Skylark DuQuesne

(ed note: Richard Seaton and Martin Crane invented a power source that delivers electricity at a ridiculously inexpensive rate, and a faster-than-light spaceship drive. They are startled at the effect these have on the economy of Terra. Tellus=Terra. Arenak, dagal, and inoson are technobabble unreasonably strong materials.)

WHEN Seaton and Crane had begun to supply the Earth with ridiculously cheap power, they had expected an economic boom and a significant improvement in the standard of living. Neither of them had any idea, however, of the effect upon the world's economy that their space-flights would have; but many tycoons of industry did.

They were shrewd operators, those tycoons. As one man they licked their chops at the idea of interstellar passages made in days. They gloated over thoughts of the multifold increase in productive capacity that would have to be made so soon; as soon as commerce was opened up with dozens and then with hundreds of Tellus-type worlds, inhabited by human beings as human as those of Earth. And when they envisioned hundreds and hundreds of uninhabited Tellus-type worlds, each begging to be grabbed and exploited by whoever got to it first with enough stuff to hold it and to develop it... they positively drooled.

These men did not think of money as money, but as their most effective and most important tool: a tool to be used as knowledgeably as the old-time lumberjack used his axe.

Thus, Earth was going through convulsions of change more revolutionary by far than any it had experienced throughout all previous history. All those pressures building up at once had blown the lid completely off. Seaton and Crane and their associates had been working fifteen hours a day for months training people in previously unimagined skills; trying to keep the literally exploding economy from degenerating into complete chaos.

They could not have done it alone, of course. In fact, it was all that a thousand Norlaminian "Observers" could do to keep the situation even approximately in hand. And even the Congress—mirabile dictu!—welcomed those aliens with open arms; for it was so hopelessly deadlocked in trying to work out any workable or enforceable laws that it was accomplishing nothing at all.

All steel mills were working at one hundred ten per cent of capacity. So were almost all other kinds of plants. Machine tools were in such demand that no estimated time of delivery could be obtained. Arenak, dagal, and inoson, those wonder-materials of the construction industry, would be in general supply some day; but that day would not be allowed to come until the changeover could be made without disrupting the entire economy. Inoson especially was confined to the spaceship builders; and, while every pretense was being made that production was being increased as fast as possible, the demand for spaceships was so insatiable that every hulk that could leave atmosphere was out in deep space.

Multi-billion-dollar corporations were springing up all over Earth. Each sought out and began to develop a Tellustype planet of its own, to bring up as a civilized planet or merely to exploit as it saw fit. Each was clamoring for and using every possible artifice of persuasion, lobbying, horse-trading, and out-and-out bribery and corruption to obtain spaceships, personnel, machinery light and heavy, office equipment, and supplies. All the employables of Earth, and many theretofore considered unemployable, were at work.

Earth was a celestial madhouse...

From Skylark DuQuesne by E. E. "Doc" Smith (1966)

Mega Corp.

"And when at last it is time for the transition from megacorporation to planetary government, from entrepreneur to emperor, it is then that the true genius of our strategy shall become apparent, for energy is the lifeblood of this society and when the chips are down he who controls the energy supply controls the planet. In former times the energy monopoly was called "The Power Company"; we intend to give this name an entirely new meaning."
CEO Nwabudike Morgan - "The Centauri Monopoly", Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri

Science Fiction, of the Dystopian and Cyberpunk sort, especially, loves its massive corporations. These corporations are usually umbrella corporations, controlling dozens of smaller companies that manufacture everything from clothing to military hardware. They can even be the police. Perhaps there is even one company that is a Privately Owned Society in its own right. This goes beyond the definition of "monopoly."

Rarely are Mega Corporations portrayed with anything other than unremitting negativism; rather than being a simple business making things that people want to buy, they are almost invariably the villains of the setting, and depicted as exploitative, oppressive and screwing the rules with their money while maintaining a Peace & Love, Incorporated façade. They are home to the Corrupt Corporate Executive, Mean Boss, Pointy-Haired Boss, and Obstructive Bureaucrat, and usually have Amoral Attorneys on the payroll.

Mega Corporations are shown to be private institutions and therefore don't have to play by most rules the government has to, such as freedom of speech, because it's always "nobody is forcing you to work for them or buy from them or use their institutions or buy their products." However, more dark versions will also show these guys pretty much buying off or eliminating their competitors, brainwashing the masses, and coming up with Evil Plans to ensure they have a monopoly and making it so that you still have to buy their products, while their employees are sometimes portrayed as oppressed, paid pitifully low wages (if at all), and treated as expendable.

They may also be shown controlling the government either through having employees in important positions or through lobbying, or taken to its extreme, may have Private Military Contractors or other Hired Guns (or even an entire country or world) at their disposal, and become Superpowers in their own right. Corporate Warfare may result if financial means are not enough to accomplish the company's goals. In shows seeking a Green Aesop a Mega Corp could also be Toxic, Inc..

A more benign version may be owned by a Rich Idiot with No Day Job. However, in Post Cyber Punk stories, some Mega Corps can aspire to be Big Good, providing the hero with amazing equipment in their quest to literally snuff out the competition. There do exist some rare benevolent portrayals of a Mega Corp; in which they merely may just be a large business which employs a lot of people but isn't shown practicing in unethical trade practices.

Monopolies, monopsonies (only one buyer of goods in the market), duopolies (only two sellers in the market), and oligopolies (only a small handful of Mega Corp entities that are selling in the market) do exist in real life, and indeed, very large multinational corporations do exist. And yes, some of these corporations do engage in unethical practices or political influence. And there are Real Life historical examples of Mega Corps acting either as a state within state or as an semi-independent political entity, such as the Hanseatic League. Of course, it is an exaggeration (at least) to claim all corporations act in this way.

(ed note: see TV Trope page for list of examples)

A Brief History of the Corporation: 1600 to 2100

(ed note: You really should read the entire thing. And take notes.

The article traces the rise and fall of the East India Company, with historical trends and power structures that a science fiction author can easily transpose into their future histories.

EIC is the East India Company. VOC is the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie aka Dutch East India Company)

Corporation Types
Control of LandControl of Mindshare

The Smithian/Schumpeterian Divide

     The first point is that the corporate form was born in the era of Mercantilism, the economic ideology that (zero-sum) control of land is the foundation of all economic power (ed note: the idea that business should be organized around Space).
     In politics, Mercantilism led to balance-of-power models. In business, once the Age of Exploration (the 16th century) opened up the world, it led to mercantilist corporations focused on trade (if land is the source of all economic power, the only way to grow value faster than your land holdings permit, is to trade on advantageous terms).
     The forces of radical technological change — the Industrial Revolution — did not seriously kick in until after nearly 200 years of corporate evolution (1600-1800) in a mercantilist mold. Mercantilist models of economic growth map to what Joel Mokyr calls Smithian Growth, after Adam Smith
     …Smith was both the prophet of doom for the Mercantilist corporation, and the herald of what came to replace it: the Schumpeterian corporation. Mokyr characterizes the growth created by the latter as Schumpeterian growth
     The corporate form therefore spent almost 200 years — nearly half of its life to date — being shaped by Mercantilist thinking, a fundamentally zero-sum way of viewing the world…
     …In fact, in terms of the two functions that Drucker considered the only essential ones in business, marketing and innovation, the Mercantilist corporation lacked one. The archetypal Mercantilist corporation, the EIC, understood marketing intimately and managed demand and supply with extraordinary accuracy. But it did not innovate.
     Innovation was the function grafted onto the corporate form by the possibility of Schumpeterian growth, but it would take nearly an entire additional century for the function to be properly absorbed into corporations. It was not until after the American Civil War and the Gilded Age that businesses fundamentally reorganized around (as we will see) time instead of space, which led, as we will see, to a central role for ideas and therefore the innovation function.
     The Black Hills Gold Rush of the 1870s, the focus of the Deadwood saga, was in a way the last hurrah of Mercantilist thinking. William Randolph Hearst, the son of gold mining mogul George Hearst who took over Deadwood in the 1870s, made his name with newspapers. The baton had formally been passed from mercantilists to schumpeterians.
     This divide between the two models can be placed at around 1800, the nominal start date of the Industrial Revolution, as the ideas of Renaissance Science met the energy of coal to create a cocktail that would allow corporations to colonize time

I: Smithian Growth and the Mercantilist Economy (1600 – 1800)

     It is difficult for us in 2011, with Walmart and Facebook as examples of corporations that significantly control our lives, to understand the sheer power the East India Company exercised during its heyday. Power that makes even the most out-of-control of today’s corporations seem tame by comparison. To a large extent, the history of the first 200 years of corporate evolution is the history of the East India Company. And despite its name and nation of origin, to think of it as a corporation that helped Britain rule India is to entirely misunderstand the nature of the beast.
     Two images hint at its actual globe-straddling, 10x-Walmart influence: the image of the Boston Tea Partiers dumping crates of tea into the sea during the American struggle for independence, and the image of smoky opium dens in China. One image symbolizes the rise of a new empire. The other marks the decline of an old one.
     The East India Company supplied both the tea and the opium.
     At a broader level, the EIC managed to balance an unbalanced trade equation between Europe and Asia whose solution had eluded even the Roman empire. Massive flows of gold and silver from Europe to Asia via the Silk and Spice routes had been a given in world trade for several thousand years. Asia simply had far more to sell than it wanted to buy. Until the EIC came along
     A very rough sketch of how the EIC solved the equation reveals the structure of value-addition in the mercantilist world economy.
     The EIC started out by buying textiles from Bengal and tea from China in exchange for gold and silver.
     Then it realized it was playing the same sucker game that had trapped and helped bankrupt Rome.
     Next, it figured out that it could take control of the opium industry in Bengal, trade opium for tea in China with a significant surplus, and use the money to buy the textiles it needed in Bengal. Guns would be needed.
     As a bonus, along with its partners, it participated in yet another clever trade: textiles for slaves along the coast of Africa, who could be sold in America for gold and silver.
     For this scheme to work, three foreground things and one background thing had to happen: the corporation had to effectively take over Bengal (and eventually all of India), Hong Kong (and eventually, all of China, indirectly) and England. Robert Clive achieved the first goal by 1757. An employee of the EIC, William Jardine, founded what is today Jardine Matheson, the spinoff corporation most associated with Hong Kong and the historic opium trade. It was, during in its early history, what we would call today a narco-terrorist corporation; the Taliban today are kindergarteners in that game by comparison. And while the corporation never actually took control of the British Crown, it came close several times, by financing the government during its many troubles.
     The background development was simpler. England had to take over the oceans and ensure the safe operations of the EIC.
     Just how comprehensively did the EIC control the affairs of states? Bengal is an excellent example. In the 1600s and the first half of the 1700s, before the Industrial Revolution, Bengali textiles were the dominant note in the giant sucking sound drawing away European wealth (which was flowing from the mines and farms of the Americas). The European market, once the EIC had shoved the Dutch VOC aside, constantly demanded more and more of an increasing variety of textiles, ignoring the complaining of its own weavers. Initially, the company did no more than battle the Dutch and Portuguese on water, and negotiate agreements to set up trading posts on land. For a while, it played by the rules of the Mughal empire and its intricate system of economic control based on various imperial decrees and permissions. The Mughal system kept the business world firmly subservient to the political class, and ensured a level playing field for all traders. Bengal in the 17th and 18th centuries was a cheerful drama of Turks, Arabs, Armenians, Indians, Chinese and Europeans. Trade in the key commodities, textiles, opium, saltpeter and betel nuts, was carefully managed to keep the empire on top.
     But eventually, as the threat from the Dutch was tamed, it became clear that the company actually had more firepower at its disposal than most of the nation-states it was dealing with. The realization led to the first big domino falling, in the corporate colonization of India, at the battle of Plassey. Robert Clive along with Indian co-conspirators managed to take over Bengal, appoint a puppet Nawab, and get himself appointed as the Mughal diwan (finance minister/treasurer) of the province of Bengal, charged with tax collection and economic administration on behalf of the weakened Mughals, who were busy destroying their empire. Even people who are familiar enough with world history to recognize the name Robert Clive rarely understand the extent to which this was the act of a single sociopath within a dangerously unregulated corporation, rather than the country it was nominally subservient to (England).
     This history doesn’t really stand out in sharp relief until you contrast it with the behavior of modern corporations. Today, we listen with shock to rumors about the backroom influence of corporations like Halliburton or BP, and politicians being in bed with the business leaders in the Too-Big-to-Fail companies they are supposed to regulate.
     The EIC was the original too-big-to-fail corporation. The EIC was the beneficiary of the original Big Bailout. Before there was TARP, there was the Tea Act of 1773 and the Pitt India Act of 1783. The former was a failed attempt to rein in the EIC, which cost Britain the American Colonies. The latter created the British Raj as Britain doubled down in the east to recover from its losses in the west. An invisible thread connects the histories of India and America at this point. Lord Cornwallis, the loser at the Siege of Yorktown in 1781 during the revolutionary war, became the second Governor General of India in 1786.
     But these events were set in motion over 30 years earlier, in the 1750s. There was no need for backroom subterfuge. It was all out in the open because the corporation was such a new beast, nobody really understood the dangers it represented. The EIC maintained an army. Its merchant ships often carried vastly more firepower than the naval ships of lesser nations. Its officers were not only not prevented from making money on the side, private trade was actually a perk of employment (it was exactly this perk that allowed William Jardine to start a rival business that took over the China trade in the EIC’s old age). And finally — the cherry on the sundae — there was nothing preventing its officers like Clive from simultaneously holding political appointments that legitimized conflicts of interest. If you thought it was bad enough that Dick Cheney used to work for Halliburton before he took office, imagine if he’d worked there while in office, with legitimate authority to use his government power to favor his corporate employer and make as much money on the side as he wanted, and call in the Army and Navy to enforce his will. That picture gives you an idea of the position Robert Clive found himself in, in 1757.
     He made out like a bandit. A full 150 years before American corporate barons earned the appellation “robber.”
     In the aftermath of Plassey, in his dual position of Mughal diwan of Bengal and representative of the EIC with permission to make money for himself and the company, and the armed power to enforce his will, Clive did exactly what you’d expect an unprincipled and enterprising adventurer to do. He killed the golden goose. He squeezed the Bengal textile industry dry for profits, destroying its sustainability. A bubble in London and a famine in Bengal later, the industry collapsed under the pressure (Bengali economist Amartya Sen would make his bones and win the Nobel two centuries later, studying such famines). With industrialization and machine-made textiles taking over in a few decades, the economy had been destroyed. But by that time the EIC had already moved on to the next opportunities for predatory trade: opium and tea.
     The East India bubble was a turning point. Thanks to a rare moment of the Crown being more powerful than the company during the bust, the bailout and regulation that came in the aftermath of the bubble fundamentally altered the structure of the EIC and the power relations between it and the state. Over the next 70 years, political, military and economic power were gradually separated and modern checks and balances against corporate excess came into being…
     …As an enabling mechanism, Britain had to rule the seas, comprehensively shut out the Dutch, keep France, the Habsburgs, the Ottomans (and later Russia) occupied on land, and have enough firepower left over to protect the EIC’s operations when the EIC’s own guns did not suffice. It is not too much of a stretch to say that for at least a century and a half, England’s foreign policy was a dance in Europe in service of the EIC’s needs on the oceans…
     …To read both books is to experience a process of enlightenment (The Corporation that Changed the World by Nick Robins and The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660-1783 by Alfred Thayer Mahan). An illegible period of world history suddenly becomes legible. The broad sweep of world history between 1500-1800 makes no real sense (between approximately the decline of Islam and the rise of the British Empire) except through the story of the EIC and corporate mercantilism in general…
     …The 16th century makes a vague sort of sense as the “Age of Exploration,” but it really makes a lot more sense as the startup/first-mover/early-adopter phase of the corporate mercantilism. The period was dominated by the daring pioneer spirit of Spain and Portugal, which together served as the Silicon Valley of Mercantilism. But the maritime business operations of Spain and Portugal turned out to be the MySpace and Friendster of Mercantilism: pioneers who could not capitalize on their early lead.
     Conventionally, it is understood that the British and the Dutch were the ones who truly took over. But in reality, it was two corporations that took over: the EIC and the VOC (the Dutch East India Company, Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, founded one year after the EIC) the Facebook and LinkedIn of Mercantile economics respectively. Both were fundamentally more independent of the nation states that had given birth to them than any business entities in history. The EIC more so than the VOC. Both eventually became complex multi-national beasts…
     …But arguably, the doings of the EIC and VOC on the water were more important than the pageantry on land. Today the invisible web of container shipping serves as the bloodstream of the world. Its foundations were laid by the EIC.
     For nearly two centuries they ruled unchallenged, until finally the nations woke up to their corporate enemies on the water. With the reining in and gradual decline of the EIC between 1780 and 1857, the war between the next generation of corporations and nations moved to a new domain: the world of time.
     The last phase of Mercantilism eventually came to an end by the 1850s, as events ranging from the first war of Independence in India (known in Britain as the Sepoy Mutiny), the first Opium War and Perry prying Japan open signaled the end of the Mercantilist corporation worldwide. The EIC wound up its operations in 1876. But the Mercantilist corporation died many decades before that as an idea. A new idea began to take its place in the early 19th century: the Schumpeterian corporation that controlled, not trade routes, but time. It added the second of the two essential Druckerian functions to the corporation: innovation.

II. Schumpeterian Growth and the Industrial Economy (1800 – 2000)

     …The action shifted to two huge wildcards in world affairs of the 1800s: the newly-born nation of America and the awakening giant in the east, Russia. Per capita productivity is about efficient use of human time. But time, unlike space, is not a collective and objective dimension of human experience. It is a private and subjective one. Two people cannot own the same piece of land, but they can own the same piece of time. To own space, you control it by force of arms. To own time is to own attention. To own attention, it must first be freed up, one individual stream of consciousness at a time.
     The Schumpeterian corporation was about colonizing individual minds. Ideas powered by essentially limitless fossil-fuel energy allowed it to actually pull it off…
     …If the EIC was the archetype of the Mercantilist era, the Pennsylvania Railroad company was probably the best archetype for the Schumpeterian corporation. Modern corporate management as well Soviet forms of statist governance can be traced back to it. In many ways the railroads solved a vastly speeded up version of the problem solved by the EIC: complex coordination across a large area. Unlike the EIC though, the railroads were built around the telegraph, rather than postal mail, as the communication system. The difference was like the difference between the nervous systems of invertebrates and vertebrates.
     If the ship sailing the Indian Ocean ferrying tea, textiles, opium and spices was the star of the mercantilist era, the steam engine and steamboat opening up America were the stars of the Schumpeterian era. Almost everybody misunderstood what was happening. Traveling up and down the Mississippi, the steamboat seemed to be opening up the American interior. Traveling across the breadth of America, the railroad seemed to be opening up the wealth of the West, and the great possibilities of the Pacific Ocean.
     Those were side effects. The primary effect of steam was not that it helped colonize a new land, but that it started the colonization of time. First, social time was colonized. The anarchy of time zones across the vast expanse of America was first tamed by the railroads for the narrow purpose of maintaining train schedules, but ultimately, the tools that served to coordinate train schedules: the mechanical clock and time zones, served to colonize human minds…
     …The steam engine was a fundamentally different beast than the sailing ship. For all its sophistication, the technology of sail was mostly a very-refined craft, not an engineering discipline based on science. You can trace a relatively continuous line of development, with relatively few new scientific or mathematical ideas, from early Roman galleys, Arab dhows and Chinese junks, all the way to the amazing Tea Clippers of the mid 19th century.
     Steam power though was a scientific and engineering invention. Sailing ships were the crowning achievements of the age of craft guilds. Steam engines created, and were created by engineers, marketers and business owners working together with (significantly disempowered) craftsmen in genuinely industrial modes of production. Scientific principles about gases, heat, thermodynamics and energy applied to practical ends, resulting in new artifacts. The disempowerment of craftsmen would continue through the Schumpeterian age, until Frederick Taylor found ways to completely strip mine all craft out of the minds of craftsmen, and put it into machines and the minds of managers. It sounds awful when I put it that way, and it was, in human terms, but there is no denying that the process was mostly inevitable and that the result was vastly better products.
     The Schumpeterian corporation did to business what the doctrine of Blitzkrieg would do to warfare in 1939: move humans at the speed of technology instead of moving technology at the speed of humans. Steam power used the coal trust fund (and later, oil) to fundamentally speed up human events and decouple them from the constraints of limited forms of energy such as the wind or human muscles. Blitzkrieg allowed armies to roar ahead at 30-40 miles per hour instead of marching at 5 miles per hour. Blitzeconomics allowed the global economy to roar ahead at 8% annual growth rates instead of the theoretical 0% average across the world for Mercantilist zero-sum economics. “Progress” had begun.
     The equation was simple: energy and ideas turned into products and services could be used to buy time. Specifically, energy and ideas could be used to shrink autonomously-owned individual time and grow a space of corporate-owned time, to be divided between production and consumption. Two phrases were invented to name the phenomenon: productivity meant shrinking autonomously-owned time. Increased standard of living through time-saving devices became code for the fact that the “freed up” time through “labor saving” devices was actually the de facto property of corporations. It was a Faustian bargain.
     Many people misunderstood the fundamental nature of Schumpeterian growth as being fueled by ideas rather than time. Ideas fueled by energy can free up time which can then partly be used to create more ideas to free up more time. It is a positive feedback cycle, but with a limit. The fundamental scarce resource is time. There is only one Earth worth of space to colonize. Only one fossil-fuel store of energy to dig out. Only 24 hours per person per day to turn into capitive attention.

     It is fairly obvious that Schumpeterian growth has been fueled so far by reserves of fossil fuels. It is less obvious that it is also fueled by reserves of collectively-managed attention.
     For two centuries, we burned coal and oil without a thought. Then suddenly, around 1980, Peak Oil seemed to loom menacingly closer.
     For the same two centuries it seemed like time/attention reserves could be endlessly mined. New pockets of attention could always be discovered, colonized and turned into wealth.
     Then the Internet happened, and we discovered the ability to mine time as fast as it could be discovered in hidden pockets of attention. And we discovered limits.
     And suddenly a new peak started to loom: Peak Attention.

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.
A Brief History of the Corporation: 1600 to 2100
Rao, Venkatesh. Long but fascinating article about the rise and fall of the British East India company. Science fiction authors will be able to quickly transpose this into a background of a galactic empire.
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.

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