|The interplanetary transport Pachyderm|
from the movie Space Truckers is just
one of many, many examples of how
interstellar civilization is depicted as
being similar to our globalized economy.
(Image via highdefdigest.com)
Whether it’s a Lissepian captain hauling self-sealing stem bolts from Deep Space 9 or the crew of Firefly delivering cattle to the colony of Jiangyin, we are often presented with depictions of how goods are moved from one location to another.
This focus is probably a reflection of the modern neoliberal consensus that globalized trade is a good and necessary thing, and is a trend in science fiction that is worth questioning.
The large-scale movement of goods only makes sense if there is a strong economic incentive; if it is cheaper to build something in one location rather than another, if the skills to build something are only available in one location, or if the resources are only available in one location. When you see the depiction of merchant space ships travelling on regular runs between two locations, it implies that there are entire planets where it is cheaper to build something, and markets looking to buy those things.
With the exception of newly established colonies, interplanetary trade often seems to happen without the existence of one of the required antecedent factors. If the writer’s intent is to mirror our globalized economy, either for worldbuilding or plot effect, it would be helpful to see the justifications mirrored as well.
Planet-to-planet trade modelled after our globalized economy is a recurring theme in almost every fictional interplanetary community; the Democratic Organization Of Planets in Futurama, the Galactic Empire in Foundation, the Imperium of Dune, the Interstellar Alliance in Babylon 5, the Minmatar Republic in EVE … the list goes on. In science fiction with less advanced technology (no instantaneous transport, no universal replicators) rarity of resources such as dilithium or unobtanium sometimes serves as justification, but this doesn’t explain the overall “globalization” of the economies we see in SFF.
In short, even the flow of Spice can’t entirely explain a complex interstellar trading economy.
|In Dune, the need for Spice still can't |
explain why they have a trading economy.
Bene Gesserit sisterhood may not be
exactly as depicted here.
(Image via spicegirls.fandom.com)
While Starfleet ships may travel at higher warp speeds, freight transports are rarely depicted as going faster than warp five. Depending on the Star Trek resource book you look at, this is approximately 200 times the speed of light, or a bit more than a week to travel each way between Earth and Alpha Centauri. The travel time for such a freighter to get from Earth to Vulcan would be more than a month. Even if Betazed is trading with their nearest star system, the cost of transport is going to be significant, to cover ship depreciation, crew salaries, fuel costs, etc. This would demand a high-profit, highly differentiated product — one that is never mentioned.
Conversely, local manufacturing should in fact be economically feasible. In 2372 (when the trading of self-sealing stem bolts is depicted in Deep Space 9), Betazed has a population of more than 5.6 billion people. Even if the self-sealing stem bolts can’t be made by the universal replicator, one would assume that the factory in which the bolts are made could be set up relatively inexpensively, since much of the facility could be replicated. This leaves labour costs as the remaining barrier to production.
|We've never heard any Ferengi rules|
that prohibit keeping indentured workers
in conditions of absolute destitution.
(Image via memory-alpha.fandom.com)
This relationship between interstellar trade and slavery is occasionally made explicit, though the criticism of such systems is varied. Star Wars has included several depictions of slavery, and the close relationship between that slavery and interestellar trade. Notably, the recent movie Star Wars: Solo. But in Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, slavery on Tatooine is depicted as something tolerable to the upper-class ‘good’ characters Qui-Gon Jin and Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Cult classic SF TV series Firefly grapples with these issues more successfully in the episode Jaynestown, where we are introduced to disenfranchised indentured workers who mine resources on a slave planet. Likewise Becky Chambers’ A Closed and Common Orbit includes a planet with a slave culture, though a direct link between interstellar trade and slavery is not made explicit. Other reputable characters avoid the planet and express distaste for the practice, but there must be a large enough market accepting or unaware of slavery for the planet to exist. One wonders how many of the goods on Port Coriol have been produced by slaves.
Despite the fact that these systems would be untenable without a large underclass, science fiction spends a lot of time in walled-off prosperity zones. Earth in the United Federation of Planets is a sparkling gem, where there is no want that cannot be satisfied. People might work but only insofar as they want to. Once labour goes from meaningful to menial, they can simply stop and experience no hardship. Compare this to Arvada III where Beverly Crusher developed a passion for medicine as a child when her grandmother was forced to use roots and herbs to treat a medical crisis. The trade that occurs between these planets seems to benefit Earth a great deal while leaving Arvada III wanting. And in such a power imbalance, it’s no wonder that Earth is able to secure advantageous terms of trade. The threat of withholding trade includes the implicit threat of destruction. But the unfairness of this trading relationship is never made explicit, or commented on.
The plethora of cargo transports seen in science fiction is driven in part by a narrative need; transportation by default means characters move around, and this allows readers to explore a broader fictional universe. If you need a young man to go from a desert planet to a lush green planet to meet with a princess, it’s convenient if there is a YT-1300 Corellian freighter on which to book a ride. Blue collar work that is fixed to a specific location — such as most manufacturing or resource extraction jobs — rarely meets the needs of science fiction storytelling.
But that being said, the predominant depiction of transportation as opposed to manufacturing within space opera has implications for the futures we collectively imagine. Because all forms of economic activity have impacts on society, the primacy of transportation within space opera needs to be examined and challenged.