Nothing spells plot like an independent trader plying the spacetime lanes in search of profit, in a world very much skewed against the little guy. Nothing, that is, unless one adds family! Now in addition to scrabbling after profit, one has extra motivation: failure isn’t merely an individual catastrophe. Bad judgement, terrible luck, or the machinations of a vast inhuman corporation could drag one’s whole family down into poverty…or worse.
Consider these five novels of cosmos-spanning family trade.
The Rolling Stones by Robert A. Heinlein (1952)
Believing with good reason that it would be disastrous to allow his bright but undisciplined sons Castor and Pollux to pursue their dream of the week (haring off to Mars on an interplanetary trading venture of questionable legality), writer Roger Stone transforms the venture into a family outing. It’s not the adventure the twins wanted but it’s the one they get.
The spacecraft Rolling Stone sets off with a family crew: dad Roger, mom Edith, sister Meade, brother Buster, the twins, and grandmother Hazel. Will the twins’ bright idea turn a profit? Perhaps that’s not the only thing to consider: Not only is trade more complicated than either twin cares to acknowledge, space is an unforgiving environment and it is all too easy for greenhorns to make a fatal mistake.
“The Horn of Time the Hunter” by Poul Anderson (1963)
Near-light speed travel and time dilation guarantee that interstellar traders will become alienated from planetary cultures. Solution? Bring their families with them on their travels. Distinct cultural groups make convenient scapegoats, and the Golden Flyer purchased its own safety by betraying their fellow Kith, a crime for which the Kith Council banished ship and crew far beyond the borders of human space. Now, twenty thousand years later, the Golden Flyer returns to discover what time has done with humanity.
Ruins on the first world they explore suggest that humanity’s run may be over.
Chanur’s Venture by C. J. Cherryh (1984)
Two years after rescuing the human Tully from the Kif, Pyanfar Chanur’s trading vessel The Pride of Chanur has not reaped the expected benefits of trade with humans. Instead, the chaos that followed the rescue has made the ship something of a pariah, which is never a plus for trade. Tully’s reappearance may herald the long-delayed payoff for Pyanfar’s act of charity towards the hairless ape.
More likely, it signals that Pyanfar and her hapless crew are about to be dragged into interstellar politics even more complex and fraught than their first adventure.
Fortuna by Kristyn Merbeth (2019)
Having escaped doomed Earth for the Nova Vita system, humanity’s last remnants wasted little time establishing mutually hostile colonies. Each planet in the red dwarf system views the others with poorly concealed (sometimes open) paranoia. This presents an opportunity for Mama Kaiser and her children, each born on a different world. Their Fortuna plies the space lanes between worlds, acting as intermediary for worlds unwilling to deal directly with each other. Aware that the system is edging towards open war, knowing that middlemen often make convenient scapegoats, Mama Kaiser always has an eye out for the Big Deal that will provide enough money to insulate her family from ill fortune. There are three problems with this strategy:
- There isn’t enough money to protect the family if war actually comes.
- The Big Deal itself may be what drags the Fortuna into the line of fire.
- There is no plan so perfect that Mama Kaiser’s daughter Scorpia cannot somehow f*** it up beyond all recognition.
The Bloodline Feud by Charles Stross (2013)
Many children dream of discovering they are lost royalty. Thanks to a box of memorabilia from her birth mother, orphan Miriam discovers that for her, this is in a sense true. Her blood relatives, the Clan, are possessed of a remarkable genetic gift that lets them step from one parallel world to another. The catch? The Clan’s roots are in a feudal society. They see no need to heed local law if it would impede the accumulation of wealth. Warnings that their policies are short-sighted and doomed to failure fall on deaf ears. Worse, the Clan is losing an interdimensional war it has no idea it is fighting, a war in which Miriam is very much a target.
I am always interested to learn of new works in this subgenre. If there are any you feel deserve more attention, please mention them in the comments.
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.