Inter-species Commerce in Science Fiction

The following article was submitted to us by Trevor Marsh, author of Politics by Other Means.

As an avid science fiction fan, and a fledgling science fiction novelist, one thing that has always fascinated me when it comes to the settings science fiction authors create is the idea of interstellar trade and commerce, particularly between different alien species.


One might assume that interstellar trade would work much like international trade functions today here on Earth, with the immutable rules of supply and demand dictating the flow of goods between various planets and star systems. While such a system of trade might make sense within our single solar system dominated by human beings, things get a little more complex once you leave our tiny piece of the intergalactic neighborhood.

To begin with, the costs of Faster-Than-Light (FTL) travel need to be taken into account when designing your fictional galactic story setting. Does FTL travel cost money or resources? If your preferred method of FTL travel involves using rare or exotic elements as a fuel source, it might very well be extremely costly to move a ship between star systems. Such high costs might kill off any traditional supply-and-demand kind of interstellar trading by making the costs involved with shipping the goods in demand elsewhere too prohibitive to justify actually moving them. In such a setting, every star system would likely feature its own, miniature trading network between the various colonies and mining facilities located within its borders which would largely be immune to the market forces affecting other nearby star systems.

So let us say your science fiction setting features nearly costless FTL travel, perhaps relying on wormholes or warp drives capable of using very cheap fuel sources. Now you face the challenge of actually engaging in inter-species trade with a civilization that is totally alien to you. To begin with, you need to speak the language. This important point is often skipped over by many science fiction authors. Something as simple as offering a seemingly magical “universal translator” ala Star Trek is often an easy solution, but if you put a little more effort into your writing you can come up with more intriguing scenarios for explaining how your freighter captains will be interacting with their various alien customers. I’ll get more into this point later.

The next obstacle to tackle is the very likely possibility that alien governments will not look too kindly on interlopers from a different star system messing with their own internal economies. Some alien civilizations could feature heavily state-controlled economies in which strong barriers to trade like tariffs could be raised to protect domestic production. Just look at the history of international trade here on Earth for a lesson in how long and painful the process of tearing down trade barriers can be. It would take a very open minded alien government, one seeking its own market advantages in your human civilization’s economy, to accept the concept of free trade and open commerce.

All of these thoughts were swirling around in my head as I was writing my first science fiction novel, Politics by Other Means, and they culminated in my creation of a species of aliens who are hyper capitalistic in nature and willing to go to extreme lengths to gain an advantage in the interstellar market. The Haldorans, your garden variety giant grasshoppers with surprisingly human-like faces, were the first alien species to encounter humanity in my science fiction setting, and they took great advantage of that fact. My story’s setting features no-cost FTL travel in the form of wormholes connecting nearby star systems. This enabled me to begin to lay the foundation for a true system of inter-species commerce amongst dozens of different alien civilizations.

513TW0FRQ2L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The Haldorans are the facilitators of that commerce because they always offer the new alien species they encounter the one thing none of them can resist in the form of their Slower-Than-Light (STL) “Haldor” drives. By offering these lightning fast engines to every alien species they meet, the Haldorans ensure themselves the friendship of pretty much everyone. However, the price for their drives is set at the total accumulated societal and cultural histories of the species seeking to trade for them. Most species, like humanity in my story, eagerly make this trade because it comes at no apparent cost to them. In exchange, they gain the ability to travel across a star system in days instead of the months it would take with conventional, reaction-based STL engines. What the Haldorans gain, however, is of equal value to them because the Haldorans are securing guaranteed future market share ownership for themselves.

This approach I used when creating the Haldorans helps to explain how an alien species is so easily able to adapt to human languages and general trading behaviors and practicies. The Haldorans are masters of reviewing the history of every species they meet, and then turning that knowledge to their own economic advantage. Theirs are always the first alien freighters to venture into unknown space, seeking to establish trade routes before anyone else. The Haldorans are more than happy to give up the secrets of their Haldor drives which, as I explain in the book are not even theirs to technically give away, because it assures their dominance of all interstellar commerce in their region of space. They operate with a complete free trade system and they use their influence to ensure all their neighbors maintain open borders as well. They are the ultimate free market aliens and I’m proud of the prominent position they occupy in the science fiction world I’ve created in my book.

If you’d like to learn more about the Haldorans or check out my book, you can find it here:

Written by Trevor Marsh.
Trevor Marsh is a new science fiction author with a deep love for the military sci-fi and space opera sub-genres. He began writing fan fiction pieces for space strategy games several years ago and after receiving lots of positive feedback he decided to finally sit down and write a novel based in his own original galactic setting.

Artwork by bobreduk.

  • Leonardo Faria

    However never explicitly proclaimed, Asimov has invented the “Energy is not a problem” clause, by which you can have unlimited flows of costless energy whenever you want for the purposes you want, as long as you have skilled maintenance workers for the power plants.
    So keep the galactic empires working and the economics of the freight is nothing to worry about.

  • Paulo R. Mendes

    This was a really cool article. Thanks, Mr. Marsh!

    • Kirov

      Yep, really interesting. I’ll have to give some thought to my own FTL drives, how much energy they use, and how common place they are to revise the economics of my universe.

  • Peter Hanely

    In one novel I’ve read (I forget the name) there was a chapter involving trade with a species without a common language. But the traders and natives shared enough market ethics to devise a barter system that worked anyway. The traders placed an offer on the ground. The natives then placed an offered payment next to it. The traders could take the payment or wait for a better offer. Or if no offer seemed reasonable pick up their goods and go elsewhere.

    • valkerie

      It might not be the novel you’re thinking of, but Robert Heinlein did that in Citizen of the Galaxy, written in the 1950’s, if I recall.

  • The one commodity that might be the traded universally is information. It is already the most valuable commodity of them all, and certain information might be as valuable to a silicon based life form as it is to a carbon based one.

    • Covertwalrus

      That was the final conclusion to link the traveling human societies ( the Okies) and their planet-bound relatives in the “Cities in Flight” stories by James Blish. However, a premature end to the universe, the reconstruction of it and the interference of the Web of Hercules ruined it.

    • John H Reiher Jr

      That sort of reminds me of a Clifford D. Simak story _The Big Front Yard_. It definitely reminds me of the “low cost” FTL system Trevor posits. Also, it demonstrates the concept of trading ideas and concepts instead of actual products.

  • Or the Melnorm in the old but brilliant Star Control Game

  • and of course in a certain Universe “this” is important…