The best science fiction adventure novels about traders

D.J. Butler Author Of Abbott in Darkness
By D.J. Butler

Who am I?

I’m a science fiction and fantasy novelist and editor. I’m also a corporate lawyer and mergers and acquisitions consultant. I have a passion for trade, in history, games, literature, and even real life. I fear that we have far too much art glorifying killers and bullies, and I think the future will be built, as the past has been, by people who are willing to explore, meet other cultures, get to know them, and work to find deals that will benefit everyone involved.

I wrote...

Abbott in Darkness

By D.J. Butler,

Book cover of Abbott in Darkness

What is my book about?

Abbott in Darkness is Lost in Space as a corporate crime story. John Abbott and his young family are forty light-years from earth starting his dream job working as an accountant for the famous Sarovar Company. Company employees are allowed to trade for their own accounts and make their fortunes. This is good, because John and his family are in debt and need the money. On the other hand, the resulting temptations sometimes lead Company traders astray.

John is assigned to investigate embezzling on Sarovar Alpha, but quickly discovers that behind the thefts lie smuggling, gun-running, and murder… and now the criminals have him in their sights. With no way back to Earth and nowhere else to go, John Abbott is all in.

The books I picked & why

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The Van Rijn Method

By Poul Anderson,

Book cover of The Van Rijn Method

Why this book?

This omnibus collects eleven short stories about space merchant Nicholas Van Rijn. Van Rijn (no coincidence that he’s Dutch) is literate, clever, eccentric in speech, archaic in dress, and occasionally valiant in battle – but he’d much rather trade than fight, and although he describes trade as “swindling each other,” he characteristically strikes deals that benefit all parties.

Van Rijn’s trade-in spices (he is CEO of the Solar Spice and Liquors Company) is a callout to the history of the Dutch East India Company. The great early modern companies (and specifically, the British East India Company) are one of the inspirations in my book: they founded some fortunes and give to startling adventure stories, but the contradictions inherent in their nature also led to corruption and oppression.

Quicksilver: Volume One of the Baroque Cycle

By Neal Stephenson,

Book cover of Quicksilver: Volume One of the Baroque Cycle

Why this book?

Depending on whether you read the series in omnibus form or not, Quicksilver is the first either of three or the first of ten books by Neal Stephenson, comprising the Baroque Cycle. This is a rip-roarin’, swashbuckling adventure that also manages to be cerebral and hilarious. In the biggest picture, the cycle is the story of the transition of Europe into modernity. In its specific plot threads, the narrative embraces the dispute between Newton and Leibniz over the invention of calculus, alchemy, King Solomon’s gold, the career of John Churchill, the Royal Society, and its advances in natural philosophy, and the invention of modern finance. Though it’s set in the seventeenth century, the series is attitudinally science fiction, examining big societal questions through scientific and technical lenses. Above all, it’s fun.


By Isaac Asimov,

Book cover of Foundation

Why this book?

If you only know Foundation from its recent television incarnation, you might think it’s principally about cloned emperors and a young woman with psychic powers. But Asimov’s actual book, consisting of stories written when he was quite young, is about the attempt to found a kind of ark where a remnant of galactic civilization can outlast an imminent dark age. His heroes aren’t warriors, but include academics, politicians, and, in two of the five stories (“The Traders” and “The Merchant Princes”), merchants. These are buccaneering traders on the edge of civilization, who sometimes resort to blackmail, but they mostly use their wits, their keen powers of observation, and their ability to negotiate to outmaneuver their enemies and advance Hari Seldon’s plan to save civilization.


By Frank Herbert,

Book cover of Dune

Why this book?

Dune is Frank Herbert’s deconstruction of the idea of the heroic leader. It’s not principally a story about merchants or trade. On the other hand, the action of the book is all driven by the fact that all parties in the book want control of the spice melange, because it allows space travel, because it develops psychic powers, or because it gives wealth. The war of which Dune tells the beginning, and in which Paul Atreides will become a terrible, bloody messiah, is the result of the failure to trade, so by means of a sort of photographic-negative narrative, it tells us why trade matters so much. The sweep of the story is grand, the scope ambitious, and the ideas are perennially important. 

The Pride of Chanur

By C.J. Cherryh,

Book cover of The Pride of Chanur

Why this book?

In The Pride of Chanur, a human prisoner escapes from the alien kif, who are interrogating him and who have killed his shipmates. The human stows away aboard a hani merchant vessel (the hani are non-human sentients; think large humanoid cats); when discovered, he talked the ship’s captain into making him part of the (otherwise female and hani) crew. The kif attempt to bully the hani into giving up their human crewmate, but they refuse and retreat, until the kif are overextended and have to return home. This is a psychologically rich and entertaining novel that is about spaceships, but whose action is all subterfuge, negotiation, and diplomacy, rather than shooting.

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