In a short story that I read (don't have the link, but the short story itself is not relevant to this question), it is set about a millennia from now, where humans have long since made contact with numerous alien species. However, over time, the 'Terrans' are notorious for being the interplanetary pirates - raiding other ships and outposts.

Essentially like Star Trek meets Pirates of the Caribbean.

What events could result in the entire culture of Earth becoming based on piracy?

  • $\begingroup$ FTL travel, colonies in other solar systems, and intergalactic commerce. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre May 23 '15 at 0:35
  • $\begingroup$ I have updated my question, as I am looking at the cultural shift for Earth becoming a 'pirate world' $\endgroup$ – user9671 May 23 '15 at 0:38
  • $\begingroup$ Considering the answer of @Thucydides, are we talking pirates or privateers? Just to clarify, the first work for themselves, the second work for a government. $\endgroup$ – clem steredenn May 23 '15 at 19:41

The title of the question alone ("Pirates of Earth" at the moment, and I hope it doesn't change) is pretty cool. Sounds like an Edmond Hamilton pulp SF adventure.

Anyway... @santiago, if you are looking for a reason for Terrans to be notably, saliently piratical compared to other starfaring races, you have some heavy lifting to do.

What makes a pirate?

In Earth's nautical history, piracy tended to be a short-lived social phenomenon, one that comes and goes. Typical drivers of oceangoing piracy include:

  • Lots of sailors without employment (especially after a war, when governments hastily reduce their expensive navies)
  • Valuable cargoes being shipped by sea
  • Reduced naval patrols in the areas of piratical activity

These factors tend to be self-correcting, or at any rate short-lived. However, in their heyday, they create surges of piratical activity that seem to erupt, and remain intractable, for a while until the conditions do in fact change.

(See The Golden Age of Piracy.)

However, there's another kind of piratical scenario that may be more useful for your purposes, because it's got more staying power: Asymmetrical warfare.

A handy example is the modern-day situation of Somali piracy, in which the pirates began as fishermen whose livelihoods were reportedly wrecked by toxic waste dumping and illegal overfishing in their traditional fishing grounds. According to the article, the fishermen-turned-pirates have, over the last few years, mostly become criminal gangs rather than resistance fighters, and enforcement efforts have severely reduced the Somali pirates' activities.

However, this is a somewhat different situation than the Golden Age piracy.

  • Rather than groups of displaced skilled predators (overwhelmingly men) living mainly in isolated enclaves (Tortuga, Nassau etc), the Somali pirates are a self-sustaining population of indigenous people.

  • Somali piracy has been suppressed by focused, strenuous efforts on the part of the still-powerful Western industrial governments, who are not divided by war or other competition.

So, for your Terrans-as-pirates scenario, just put the Terrans (or perhaps the inhabitants of the entire Terran Solar System) into a position in which they feel forced to adopt asymmetric warfare: using small numbers of FTL ships to do commerce raiding rather than attempting to face more powerful races' starfleets.

What you need to sustain, in your story, would be the following circumstances:

  • The menace of the antagonistic alien species is unrelenting (they do not stop being malefic.)

  • The aliens are nonetheless not powerful enough to stomp humanity into submission effectively: the pirates must retain at least some freedom of action.

As long as you can keep these issues reasonably stable, you have in fact created an opportunity for a pirate-friendly system civilization.

Have fun!

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  • $\begingroup$ I think your statement piracy tended to be a short-lived social phenomenon is a bit ambiguous. As long as we've been on the Sea there have been pirates. Hard to talk about "shot-lived". But of course, if it tends to be too much disturbing, the "victims" usually pull some strength in the discussion, which substantially reduces the piracy in some region. $\endgroup$ – clem steredenn May 23 '15 at 19:59
  • $\begingroup$ @bilbo_pingouin, I was only speaking of the cyclic nature of piracy's economic conditions: a supply of skilled and available pirates, for example, is often only a generation or two in duration. Clearly, I didn't state that very well... maybe I should edit the post. It has a few shortcomings. Thanks for drawing my attention to this one! $\endgroup$ – Bill Blondeau May 23 '15 at 23:16

Your question is too vague to give any specific events. However, it is possible to look at piracy from a relationship perspective, and identify scenarios which lend themselves to piracy, science fiction or not.

Piracy, at its core is thievery. One is taking goods that one has no rights to. This is both the start and end of piracy. There must be a good which can be taken which can be turned into value without anyone having to ask too many questions. These goods must exist, or piracy has a hard time existing. On the high seas, most goods were not individually marked in any useful way, so a 100lb bag of flour stolen from a Royal Clipper is indistinguishable from any other bag of flour. Thus a pirate can sell it anywhere someone needs flour and isn't looking for any trouble. However, imprint goods with some identifier which people will pay attention to, and it becomes harder to hawk your wares. (See Firefly's episode involving imprinted government rations for an excellent example of how much trouble this can cause)

The next key is transit. Pirates rarely went after goods that were stationary. Those could easily be guarded with stone walls and bayonettes. They went after goods in transit, where it was much harder to defend them. You need a transport process which causes people to aggregate valuable goods, then transfer them quickly along hard-to-defend paths. Consider that, in WWI, vessels were commonly attacked by U-Boats. Those vessels grouped together into convoys, lead by military ships, and suddenly the piracy was not an option. There needs to be a good reason (likely financial) why goods do not receive this kind of guard.

Finally, pirates need stealth. No pirate ship is ever a match for the navy. Not by a long shot. They may take on one or even two enemy ships in a pinch, but no pirate ship will outgun a fleet. Pirates depend on the ability to hide when the seas get "hot" with navy vessels. You need a situation where there are lots of hiding places where pirates may hide out. Perhaps an asteroid belt. Do remember that freighter captains are not idiots. They will try to avoid places which inspire piracy, so you'll need a reason why they're forced to go there.

Finally, you want all of the earth to resort to piracy. This will only occur if desired resources are not available in such mass that it is worth employing the entire Earth populous. Spaceships take technology, so we need enough technology to keep them flying, but not enough to rebuild a world. The best way to do this is an event which suppresses knowledge for a generation or two. That would give us the opportunity to retain knowledge of how to do day-to-day tasks, but not remember unusual things (like how to rebuild civilization).

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I mentioned a few inventions and developments that would lead to a piracy-dominated Earth, but those alone wouldn't be quite sufficient to produce the desired outcome.

Piracy, technically, is crime at sea, but I'll ignore that for this question since it's as good a descriptor as any for criminal spacefarers.

For the natives of any planet to become pirates, they must first have a reason to become pirates. The leading cause of people becoming pirates has historically been for the acquisition of wealth, mostly in coin but also in station. The majority of pirates came from the lower classes of society who saw piracy as the best means to a better life. This occurs seemingly naturally in smaller seaside cultures with limited access to technology, such as can be seen on the African coast.

Pirates need something to seek to acquire. Need can only match demand, so there must be trade in an arbitrary location in space. Since most of space is empty, there needs to be faster-than-light travel available. For goods to have a reason to move, there need to be multiple sites that require specific resources. The movement of resources between locations results in commerce. Commerce in inter-solar or intergalactic space must be governed and controlled to be effective, so there needs to be some central arbitrating agency to regulate trade and ensure the exchange of resources is fair.

Now let's suppose Earth once had a prominent position in the Agency. As the central point of the commerce network shifted away from our humble solar system, the Agency would face mounting pressure to move away from Earth. The removal of the Agency from Earth would lead to a steady flow of people away from Earth. Those who remain would be those unwilling or unable to leave the vicinity of Earth to better their own lives. As necessary resources were consumed or removed from Earth, those who remained would fall farther and farther from importance in the Agency, becoming a bottom run in the intergalactic society in time.

At this point, those who remain on Earth have little hope to improve their situation through upstanding ventures, since Earth has nothing left to offer the intergalactic community. The remaining Earthlings resort to acquisitions from other spacefarers and space-based outposts to get what they need and improve their lives.

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  • $\begingroup$ Great answer! An interesting point, what would be the space version of the term 'piracy' be? $\endgroup$ – user9671 May 23 '15 at 1:28
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    $\begingroup$ @Santiago The typical answer to that is space pirate, but there may be some other, shorter term that eventually worms its way into language. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre May 23 '15 at 1:35
  • $\begingroup$ @Frostfyre 'Space pirate' sounds a lot cooler than pretty much anything else, though, so it may well remain the dominant term. $\endgroup$ – Fund Monica's Lawsuit May 23 '15 at 12:17

You get piracy when goods with high intrinsic value are transported through a known location, and particularly poor populations live nearby.

So pick a few flavors of unobtanium - things like Dune's spice, antimatter, super hard hull material, etc. And make them central to the galactic economy the way oil is central to ours and sugar was during the golden age of piracy.

Now make sure earth has none of these things, but that others must stop in nearby systems to recharge or refuel their FTL drives.

Then it makes more sense for Terrans to prey on the legitimate economy than participate in it. We become pirates.

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One other way to get pirates is for the governments of the Earth or Solar System to issue "Letters of Marque" to enterprising would-be pirates. Men like Sir Francis Drake were issued these letters from Queen Elizabeth I as a means of England waging economy of force actions away from England to tie up Spanish resources and allow Elizabeth's court advisors to focus on the safety of the Realm.

Drake, Hawkins and their compatriots had the incentive of taking a share of whatever loot they could obtain. Elizabeth also got a cut, while the Spanish were deprived of not only a lot of silver bullion, but also ships and trained crews either killed and captured outright, or at least diverted from other, more profitable uses, to protect the treasure fleets.

This ties in with the Asymmetrical Warfare idea raised in another answer. Ships with Letters of Marque are working for the government, but have a limited sort of plausible deniability, depending on just how the letter is worded. It also transfers most of the risks and costs from the government, which can maintain a smaller fleet, and also makes predicting actions much more difficult; the privateers are not working according to a timetable or plan drawn up by the Admiralty, so intelligence focused on the government forces will probably miss the activities of the privateers until it is too late.

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  • $\begingroup$ To me there seems to be a confusion between pirates and privateers. Probably the OP could specify, but your answer focuses on privateers, whereas the question was about pirates. $\endgroup$ – clem steredenn May 23 '15 at 19:39

If humans are famous for piracy, it is quite reasonable to think Earth is not a place where the aliens want to export technology needed for spaceships. It is also reasonable to think that the technology for FTL might be beyond the ability of our industrial base to duplicate. Even if few physicists understand how it works and can build prototypes to prove it, building actual spaceships might be limited to a few ridiculously expensive test vehicles.

Under such circumstances taking some ship you have gotten from somewhere, removing much of the cargo capacity for better weapons, higher speed, and better protection, and then going out there to get more ships with that technology that can also be converted to use a pirate ships would make perfect sense.

If piracy was a prime source of vital technology, I predict Earth governments would be spectacularly inefficient in stopping it. They might even issue letters of marquee to give it some formal protection and to restrict undesirable side effects. Such as preying on the wrong ships, or the competition between captains that involves nuclear weapons, or attacks that would force aliens to send a fleet to "assist" the authorities in containing the pirates.

As for why the aliens do not stop it, the easiest solution might be that Earth is within the buffer zone between two powers that are unwilling to let the other operate in the buffer zone and unable to cooperate with each other. In such case it is possible many of the ships that fall prey to piracy would be smugglers, so that the alien governments are content to ignore what happens to them.

For that matter the governments might have distinct preferences as to which smugglers make it thru and which do not, but no wish to admit they are tracking the smugglers. Few discreet messages to those notorious barbarians who are attacking ships anyway might be convenient.

This might be extended to deniable operations within and beyond the buffer zone. If both sides use humans as deniable and expendable agents this might go on for some time and result in many quite noticeable events. Enough to build a reputation.

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