Classic space opera (and science fiction in general) has envisioned a universe where things like commerce take place on the galactic scale, and within a regular human lifespan. If one looks at the commerce of a galactic civilization in classic science-fiction, one sees that the commerce hasn’t changed all that much. Merchants or guilds profit off of trade between planets, star systems, etc. Goods and money move back and forth between the parties involved.
The problem with this form of galactic commerce is that it requires quite a bit of handwavium-powered technology to facilitate such trade on a galactic scale. For example, currency in many sci-fi scenarios is relatively uniform. Long gone are the days of currency wars, currency manipulation, skewed currency trades, and the like. The basic conflicts behind real commerce a absent, and this is a shame. Moreover, the currency that exists is either a product of a supermassive government or it’s a sort of free-floating entity in the galaxy. Although this is certainly interesting, it still forces one to ask the question: how did we get here, especially when currency in our own world is so finicky?
Another problem with the traditional model of commerce is that it requires fast travel times between point A and point B. In other words, goods and/or services are received within a lifetime, less to be exact. To do so on a galactic scale would require some serious handwavium-powered tech to travel at speeds well above the speed of light. Again, although this is interesting, it leaves out some of the very real problems we are going to face in the larger galaxy.
As you can tell, this article advocates for a sort of mundane science-fiction approach. Such an approach forces us to reconsider how galactic travel, trade, and currency might actually look like. Thankfully, space opera has a number of pioneers in the field, advocating for a mundane-ish approach to such things.
In the work of Charles Stross, the notion of a galactic currency exists, but this currency is finicky and must fulfill a number of criteria in order to be of any value to those using it. Stross has created a sort of slow-currency, something that appreciates with time rather than the opposite being true. This slow-currency is built on the back of debt. Moreover, it requires third-party verification to use. Slow-currency, in other words, tackles the issue of a universal or galactic currency in a way that removes the handwavium we have seen in classic SF.
One could adapt Stross’s galactic currency to the intrigue and politics of a universe populated with bickering humans. In other words, one could see a galaxy where hundreds, if not thousands, of slow-currencies co-exist. Some would be worth more than others. Moreover, political and economic conflict might make for an interesting time when trading currencies for goods and/or services. One galactic society might outlaw the use of one slow-currency and only accept its own form. Currency wars, currency manipulation, and the like could be a regular part of galactic life, something merchants or guilds will have to traverse while doing business in the galaxy.
Another thing that boggles the mind is the use of handwavium-powered technology to move goods across the galaxy. I can understand why traditional science-fiction has stayed the course and kept the things we are familiar with. Too alien and people are hesitant to take it seriously. However, I think science-fiction has gained the trust of millions of readers and can venture off into the void, examining the unusual solutions that humans or their descendants may very well have to figure out once they get out into the larger universe. This is where Alastair Reynolds’s world-building and scientific rigor comes to mind. Reynolds can spin a yarn and do so by staying, within reason, inside the known physical limits of the universe. In his Revelation Space series, Reynolds shows us the vastness of a small portion of the galaxy and illustrates how trade might occur between human worlds and star systems. Moreover, Reynolds shows us that traveling below the speed of light can be exciting and offer challenges to what it means to be human, something that the author of this piece believes is important to all science-fiction writing.
Lastly, I am reminded of the very real and messy world that we live in. Add galactic distances, changes in human society, and the like, it is bound to be messy business. Up to this point, I believe science-fiction has been too unwilling to deal with the messiness of humanity. Sure, the darker sci-fi writers have delved into humanity and its messes, but there is still work to be done. Hopefully, with time, we will move away from handwavium and build worlds, universes really, that mirror human existence in all of its fucked-up glory.