Humans have, starting in prehistoric times (with obsidian, red ochre, etc.), established vast trade networks that cross mountains, deserts, and oceans. Presumably, this will be true in the future as well, even as humanity expands out into SPAAACE. While there are reasons why larger concerns will tend to dominate, the little guys will often provide more engaging narratives. Thus, these five heartwarming tales of working traders enthusiastically engaging in commerce among the stars…
The Trouble Twisters by Poul Anderson (1966)
Hyperdrive gave humans the stars…also vast fortunes to Polesotechnic League merchant princes like Nicolas van Rijn. Great men cannot be everywhere, however, which is why this collection of short pieces focuses not on van Rijn but his employee, David Falkayn (don’t worry! David eventually gets into management by marrying the boss’s beautiful daughter). Whether upending religious prohibitions, obtaining state secrets, or intervening in bitter ethnic strife, Falkayn and his co-workers always find the solution that delivers profit.
Long after the events in this book, Falkayn would become disenchanted with the League’s conscience-blind focus on immediate profits. This would have regrettable implications for Falkayn’s relationship with van Rijn, but without actually saving the League or humanity from the consequences of the League’s short-sighted policies. But at least they generated lots of profit for the shareholders before the League-armed space barbarians descended from the skies.
Merchanter’s Luck by C. J. Cherryh (1982)
The Company War is over but its consequences remain daily reality for Sandor Kreja of Le Cygne. Mazianni pirates slaughtered most of Le Cygne’s trading family. The trio of survivors turned to bold trading gambits. The end result is a criminal record that forces a now solitary Sandor to use an assumed name lest outstanding charges catch up with him. Sandor is therefore a very cautious man.
Love defeats all, including (in Sandor’s case) sensible prudence. Smitten with the Dublin Again’s Allison Reilly, Sandor’s flamboyant romantic gestures make the news, never a good move for a wanted man. Much worse from Sandor’s perspective, his new fame and promising alliance with Dublin Again make him potentially useful to the war ship Norway’s Signy Mallory in her struggle against Mazianni remnants…useful as bait.
Stopping at Slowyear by Fredrik Pohl (1992)
The Nordvik has visited eight star systems in the twenty-seven years Mercy MacDonald has helped crew the interstellar trader. Her career has stretched even longer by planetary calendars, but since the Bussard ramjet-propelled craft never returns to any system it visits, the consequences of relativistic time dilation can be ignored. What she cannot ignore is her reluctance to spend the rest of her life on Nordvik.
The Earth-like planet Slowyear orbits an F8 star; one Slowyear year is as long as five Earth years. Despite the challenges presented by extended seasons, Slowyear’s settlers have created a tidy little pocket civilization that at first glance certainly seems a better deal than spending decades on a cramped, ancient starship. Some might find Slowyear quaint and rustic. For Mercy, Slowyear is the world where she will spend the rest of her life.
Trading in Danger by Elizabeth Moon (2003)
Ky Vatta means well, which turns out not to be a sufficient defense for a PR-unfriendly attempt to assist a friend as far as Slotter Key’s naval academy. Summarily expelled from the service, Ky is forced to turn to her family for employment. Happily, the Vattas own a merchant fleet. Less happily, the ship they entrust to disgraced Ky is the Glennys Jones, a run down, obsolete trader whose main value is as scrap.
Previous deferment of necessary ship maintenance forces Ky to seek money for repairs. Ideally, she could draw on the Vatta line of credit to pay for this. Inconveniently, not only is it unclear whether she has the legal ability to do so, an unprecedented attack on the ansible network makes it impossible to contact the Vatta head office. The subsequent appearance of heavily armed, fast warships with an interest in the Jones is nowhere in Ky’s business plan, but it is a development with which she will have to deal.
Chilling Effect by Valerie Valdes (2019)
Eva Innocente comes from a family of bold entrepreneurs. Other people uncharitably call them career criminals. Unenthusiastic about her clan’s chosen occupation, Eva has managed through great effort to put the criminal life behind her. Now she’s the captain of the starship La Sirena Negra, on which she and her crew eke out a meagre living delivering legitimate cargoes.
Just because Eva is done with criminal life does not mean the criminal life is done with her. The interstellar criminal concern known as the Fridge reaches out to Eva. The Fridge has taken Eva’s sister Mari hostage. If Eva would like Mari not to spend an extended period on ice, Eva will have to keep the Fridge happy by running a few highly illegal errands. Faced with the need to convince her crew to play along with a plan with no possible benefit to them, Eva does the only sensible thing and resorts to blatant lies. It’s a short-term solution, but Eva only has to worry about the long term if she and her friends somehow manage to live that long.
Star traders are a popular trope—I could have populated this list solely with books by Andre Norton and written a sequel featuring books by Poul Anderson—so no doubt you have your favourites which are reprehensibly not mentioned in this article. Feel free to mention them in the comments below.
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and the Aurora finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.