Saturday 4 January 2020

The Movement of Goods In Science Fiction

Space-based science fiction places a lot of attention on the transportation of goods.
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

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.

Is inter-jurisdictional trade really that scalable? Between real-world nations, whose populations are measured in millions, there might be a specialized need that cannot be filled by the manufacturing base of a smaller nation. But with planets that are often depicted as having populations that number in the billions, it’s hard to imagine a need so specialized that they don’t have the capacity for local manufacturing.

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
As an example, lets look at Star Trek and Deanna Troi’s home planet of Betazed. If Betazed needs self-sealing stem bolts, they could either have a local manufacturing operation, or they could have them shipped to the planet.

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
Globalization works in our present-day economy because capitalism maintains pools of labour in destitute conditions, and is thus able to offer goods at cheaper rates to those in walled-off prosperity zones. By extension, the existence of large-scale systems of transportation for manufactured goods in a science fictional setting implies the existence of planets with populations that are mired in subsistence poverty or slavery.

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. 


  1. Within a single solar system, you could imagine putting highly polluting industries on uninhabitable planets. For example, if we could strip mine Luna for rare-earth metals, that would arguably be much better than producing them here, even if the cost to produce and ship were higher.

    But trade between solar systems is a lot harder to explain. And if you've got a replicator, it's hard to see how you'd trade anything other than intellectual property.

    1. Greg, that is an excellent point, and one that (despite jawing over this topic for months on end), my co-authors and I never actually thought of.

  2. I'm reminded of the pre-neo-liberal works of H.Beam Piper. He generally had it that bulk shipping was necessary only when a planet was in a pre-industrial phase (like Zarathustra had just climbed out of in _Little Fuzzy_) or when society was collapsing and the industrial sector was in serious trouble (like in _Space Viking_); in the latter case, many of the characters found the situation fairly unsatisfactory. Other than that, he posited that the only things that needed shipping were unique local luxury products that couldn't be produced elsewhere due to specific conditions/biology, so you'd get a giant damn ship carrying a couple of suitcases of Zarathustran sun-stones as the prime paying cargo, some passengers and their dunnage, and the remaining space would be any old crap that *might* find a market somewhere along the route.

  3. As someone who wrote a story set on an interplanetary merchant ship, I have given some thought to interplanetary trade. First of all, all developed planets would be economically self-sufficient and that interplanetary trade would account for only a small portion of their economic activity – essentially trade in luxury or specialized goods. However, since one is dealing with the luxury or specialized demands of an entire planet, the volume of these products could be quite substantial.

    So what would be traded between planets? I, at least, find that it is easy to imagine natural products unique to a planet – say a type of marble stone or wood, for which there is a specialized market on other planets. Or it could be a unique manufactured product, which, while it could be imitated on any planet, the authenticity of the original would still command a price that justified the expense of interplanetary shipments. And you can extend this to ordinary manufactured goods. The USA is perfectly capable of building all sorts of automobiles and yet we import shiploads of them from Germany and other countries, not because of any manufacturing cost advantage, but because they are viewed by some consumers as superior products. Indeed, we import something as common as washing machines and fridges from overseas, while we produce them, cheaper, here. It is entirely imaginable that consumer demand for products famous for their quality could justify the expense of shipping them from one planet to the next in the volume necessary to make them competitive with the domestically produced products. And then there are agricultural products like, say, coffee or tea that can not be produced in the USA and must be imported. While one would imagine that most agricultural products could be grown somewhere on any human inhabited planet, one could also imagine that one planet or another might be simply more suited to growing certain products, either producing superior products, or being able to produce them cheaper in greater volume that would allow them to be exported at a profit. For example, a pound of Darjeeling tea can command a hundred time the price of supermarket teas. A planet that grew superior tea could well export their tea at a profit to satisfy the demand of the millions of tea connoisseurs on one planet. The key is that the supplying the needs of an entire planet for even very specialized goods would likely still create a great enough demand to make bulk shipments economically feasible. And we could also add to products the shipment of interplanetary tourists either in passenger ships or in some form of suspended animation as cargo.

    Distance, of course, would play a factor in all of this, but vast fortunes were made importing tea from China and spices from Indonesia even though the round trip voyage took a year.

    Of course, shipping a pallet of something to another planet, ala Firefly, is silly. But when you start to look at it on the scale of those vast container ships of today, which given the likely scale of supplying even very specialized products to an entire world of billions of people, is seems to me entirely feasible that interplanetary trade could be supported.

  4. Nice article. Personally, the presence of interstellar trade in space opera is just another element that reminds me that they are fundamentally fantasies, not very constrained (or informed) by reality--including this kind of commerce is a way to keep the story relatable to the reader's current situation. The cost of moving mass between stars is just a non-starter for any kind of capital mercantilism if you have an ounce of realism in your set-up--one that you can't get around with economies of scale with any currently-plausible technology.

    (Larger aside here on how our idea that "of course" our current system of disparate production & shipping makes sense is reliant on ultimately unsustainable systems with lots of unpaid externalities [e.g. affordable shipping due to fossil fuels] that simply don't have space correlates.)

    That said, if there are magical technologies for e.g. extremely cheap FTL and extremely cheap surface-to-orbit tech, one would expect to see economic structures emerge mirroring current production--as you point out, exploiting lower costs of production or extremely specialized/rare products. These discussions often make me think of Cherryh's Alliance-Union books, which do have magic FTL, but otherwise shoot for a fairly high level of realism--there, the space-faring merchants move specialized products between high-tech but low-pop stations, with the implication that 1.) they're massively underwritten by being data couriers and 2.) space-based trade is largely superfluous/luxury to any established planetary civilization.

    (Also, I don't think I've ever caught the reasoning on why anyone in the Trek universe ships anything that can be replicated.)

  5. Yes, and FTL starships will also never exist, but even if you use magic technology for them in your story, the requirements in resources, personnel, and expertise to build such vehicles makes it extremely unlikely that an individual would be able to acquire one in the market place and zip around in it. At least Dune got this part right.