For a writing project, I'm trying to break the mould of some others involved and depict nomadic people who travel in enormous colony-ships, searching for life-bearing worlds similar to their own and stripping them of resources before continuing on, descending from refugees who fled into space.

I've been imagining a strong "cottage industry" using onboard, small-scale manufacturing in the colony-ships and a prominent black market beneath a formal barter economy. Would anyone with more expertise, or an interesting viewpoint be willing to chime in on what their economy and perhaps what currency might look like?


FTL is pegged at 32,000 times the speed-of-light; population is around 2 million divided between 40 ships with the majority in one massive carrier which provides food and other supplies to the smaller vessels which perform military operations.

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    $\begingroup$ tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/SpaceNomads this is an extremely common theme. Quarians, the aliens from independence day, the Yuuzhan Vong, Orks from 40k, to give a few examples of space nomads who travel in enormous colony ships, search for life bearing worlds, and strip them and move on. It might be worth looking into them. $\endgroup$
    – Nepene Nep
    Jun 22, 2021 at 16:59
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    $\begingroup$ What approximate speed is the FTL? 1Ly per [second, minute, hour or ?]? That will make massive difference in life style. How many people? 1K 10K 100k 1M? Really changes economy options, how much resources they could extract/trade etc. The larger the more likely to be trading only for novel exotic art pieces. $\endgroup$ Jun 22, 2021 at 18:54
  • $\begingroup$ FTL is pegged at 32,000 times the speed-of-light; population is around 2 million divided between 40 ships with the majority in one massive carrier which provides food and other supplies to the smaller vessels which perform military operations. $\endgroup$
    – Vexus
    Jun 23, 2021 at 2:28
  • $\begingroup$ What do other people think of the nomads messing with planets that can support life? Perhaps somebody plans to colonize one, then finds it strip mined, with the local ecology ruined. I think it would be easier and cheaper to mine asteroids and lifeless planets. $\endgroup$
    – NomadMaker
    Jun 23, 2021 at 23:59
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    $\begingroup$ what are they getting from a planet they cannot get easier and cheaper from asteroids, without have to drag it up a gravity well. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jun 24, 2021 at 14:02

3 Answers 3


Resource availability is going to have a crucial influence on the economy. How frequently is a planet going to be available? If it is once every 100,000 years then this will give rise to a very different economy to once every 10 years.

Now you appear to be talking about planetary strip-mining, which might mean your ship is planetary harvester or larger type ship.

ID Harvester

But wait! Another important question to consider is to what extent is your nomadic civilisation capable of extracting resources from a planet? Are they capable of core mining like the big circular dude in the pic? Habitable planets have delicious gooey cores of magnet-forming rare heavy elements so this is could be one such pinnacle of harvester evolution. Or is their tech more primitive?

Another closely related issue to consider is resource / effort tradeoff - if travelling to a planet has a high resource cost then there will be significant motivation to extract as much as possible from the planet before moving on, which will act as a driver for technological development. If they aren't advanced enough to actually strip mine a planet then there needs to be a good reason why, cheap & accessible FTL is a very good reason. Availability of one technogy makes up for not having the other.

So in my view there are two competing extremes:

1: Extremely large ship with massive onboard materials storage, very advanced extraction tech, and no FTL.

2: Smaller (but still f*ng massive) planet-hopping ship with cheap FTL and low extraction tech - potentially focussed around raiding already manufactured products from existing civilisations. I have a feeling this is where you are going.

On the basis of this wild assumption, I am going to assume a few more things which in my opinion would flow forth from this technological model.


  • Industry is relatively primitive, with limited manufacturing potential and possibly lacking altogether the ability to reproduce most manufactured goods. Therefore the economy largely lacks the concept of market rate for manufactured goods and instead trade in manufactured goods relies heavily on negotiation and / or hand to hand combat.

  • Ship repair is the only exception and is the exclusive preserve of generational artisans who are, by virtue of their irreplaceability, either extremely powerful in their own right or directly controlled by those in power. Perhaps they are top tier slaves who are never allowed outside their compound but have everything provided for them like aristocracy.

  • Manufactured goods which are produced new and in significant quantities are limited to items which can be manufactured at small scale with relatively low tech; clothes, textiles, swords, etc. Again the economy mostly lacks the concept of fixed market rate, with the skill and reputation of the artisan being a far more crucial factor in determining price.

  • There is a vibrant repair industry which revolves around repairing and modifying the manufactured goods looted from various worlds. A lot of goods providers are also junkyards and the yard operators & various dealers have become adept at combining incompatible technologies from various different worlds. It would not be impossible to see an ox-powered washing machine with a water teleporter fitted because the spin dry no longer works. It might not occur to them to modify the teleporter to teleport the dirt, it moved water when it arrived so that's how it works.


  • There is livestock on board. A lot of livestock. Think artificial biospheres with spacebound reproductions of large swathes of Mongolian steppe. There is a concept of market rate for food, with there being relatively standard price points for size and age etc.

  • With another civilisation there could be an ongoing power play for the control of this land as it is the ship's most valuable resource, but the Great Khan Chingis I, founder of Space Mongolia, proclaimed that the land cannot be owned and offending the great law is punishable by death.

  • It is normal for a family to keep a deer & graze it on the common land, then butcher it themselves or pay a butcher when the time comes.

  • Butchery is a respected trade and there is an economy for butchers in which skill & reputation still play a huge part.


  • There is more or less no fixed currency. There are various tokens of exchange including precious stones and gold coins minted on some long forgotten planet.

  • Precious metals are an exchange medium but this is indistinguishable from barter. The Khan and high ranking royalty have hoards of wealth which are considered commensurate with their titles and are more are a way of honoring those titles than a practical financial instrument. They can buy whatever they want but what is there to buy?

  • The Khan and his household will go and barter like everyone else when they need something.

  • There is no black market. What would make a black market? Two things - tax evasion and illegal items. There are no illegal items so there is no illegal trade, there is no value added tax and really there is very little concept of formal economics as a whole so there is no tax evasion. This culture is mostly incompatible with modern terran economics.

  • There is however a receiver for the Space Khanate who takes a portion of the loot from every raid, this loot is used to pay officials and keep the repair slaves in wine and prostitutes.

  • There is also taxation from tribute; worlds which have been raided and agreed to submit will pay tribute to the Khanate. As FTL is cheap, raiding ships are sent out to collect the tribute and orbitally bombard any planet which rebels.

Cultural attitudes

  • There is little reverence for technology in it's own right. It is valuable if it can do a job which needs doing or if it looks good as an ornament but there is no tendency to invent jobs for the sake of it as in modern terran society. It is possible that a highly valuable and sought after piece of tech like a long range stargate is sitting on someone's table being used like a TV.

  • Being nomads, they respect independence but are proud of their traditions. The great law passed on from the founders is still held in high esteem as it is the glue of their society and represents the original decrees from Heaven which they should honour. The first Khan is considered second only to Heaven.

  • Outside the higher levels of society and institutions there is little tendency to hoard wealth and conspicuous hoarding tends to result in raids from less well off families. Someone who has not earned his hoard cannot just collect wealth and then pay guards to guard it; the guards will take the hoard and then beat them up for having the audacity to ask them to guard it.

  • All men are equal at the table. Honorifics and titles, if they exist, are normally only used in formal settings. Every man is on a first name basis with every other man, including the Khan.

  • A son can take the place of a father and an elderly Khan usually retains power at the behest of his descendents. His sons will speak for him at gatherings and in negotiations and one will take over his title. One who fails to produce any descendents will have to name someone or be deposed.

  • Government is basically an absolute monarchy with individual lords governing smaller / less important areas and high attention to individual performance for the masses. There is no tolerance for uselessness; most modern terrans would not last five minutes.

  • There are men of office; priests, monks, generals, doctors, apothecaries, and so forth, who are expected to set an example and who can be given certain privileges.

Dealing with conflict

  • Resource scarcity, ie land scarcity / food scarcity is dealt with by planning more raids.

  • When the raids are not sufficient or when land stress causes overcrowding then a portion of the population will appoint their own Khan and either leave at the next habitable planet or challenge the incumbent Khan to battle for control of the ship. If he loses then the incumbent and his followers must leave.

  • Failing to put one's life on the line for the greater good is considered cowardly and cowardice is punishable by death, so a group is always formed at the correct time.

  • These exiles rarely affect shipbound artisans as their skills are too important to be lost to the ship.

  • Colonies so founded as regarded as having special status & they do not pay tribute.

Okay that's enough I think. In case you haven't noticed I have just been doing my own version of "space mongolia" and I got a bit carried away.

If you want some google leads:

Law: "yassa","Iki Tsaadzhin Bichig"

People / places: "Kalmykia", "Buryat", "Yakut"

There is a lot more but if you go from there you'll be down a wiki rabbit hole in no time. There is so much to read and not much space here, if you get an idea of how these cultures behaved on terra then I think it might spark more inspiration.


The idea of a spaceship, or even a fleet of spaceships, no matter how big the fleet or the size of the ships in that fleet, "stripping" a planet of its resources is just unrealistic. A planet is huge and a spaceship, any spaceship, is just a tiny speck in comparison.

Then there's the issue of access. Only a small proportion of what is valuable on a planet can be found on the surface. Most of it will be underground. And you can't just go blowing huge holes in the planet and lifting chunks out into space, because most of what you'll be bringing up will be worthless rock. What you'd need to do is dedicate resources to in-depth surveying, careful excavation, and probably some basic-level refinement on the surface before lifting the finished resource up into space. At this point, you may as well just land your spaceships and settle on the planet, because this process will take a while.

If you're committed to living in space however, you're best off giving planets a wide berth and, firstly, making sure you have the best possible systems in place for reusing and recycling whatever resources you already have on your ship(s), and for whatever other resources you may need from time to time to look for them in small packages - interstellar asteroids and comets, and even the layer of space dust that will settle on your ships as they travel through space may contain some useful trace elements. Waste not want not.

As for economic activity aboard the fleet, I think the level of complexity very much depends on the size of your population. This is maybe a matter of opinion, but I think the industrial output of a spaceborne civilisation would be about the same as a terrestrial civilisation, albeit with a few trade-offs. Agriculture would be a much more labour- and energy-intensive activity in space - instead of relying on a nearby sun and a planetary water cycle, you'd need to have a crew of people monitoring the solar lightbulbs and maintaining hydroponic systems - but other forms of manufacturing could have greatly improved productivity in a low gravity environment. Here on Earth a great deal of the energy that gets used in building heavy machinery comes from lifting and hauling heavy parts and components, in space you can nudge and spin, say, an engine block into the chassis of a car, without having to rely on powerful and dangerous hydraulic lifts and winches.

In terms of the broader economic system, I think what needs to be kept in mind is that in space there are no exploitable externalities. Here on Earth, we can take what we find, whether that be virgin land, potable water, breathable air, extractable ores in the ground, sunshine, etc, etc, and convert these through our labour into sellable products. In space, the water, the air, the light, these are all things that your fellow citizens had to work to produce, so the web of interdependency is much tighter than it would be on any planet. As such, by necessity there would be a much stronger role for central planning. You wouldn't be able to rely on being able to access any product you want for the right price - if component X is needed for the air scrubbers, then component X is needed for the air scrubbers, and there's nothing you'd be able to do for love nor money to get hold of that component X.

That said, currency to buy the things you can buy would probably be pretty similar to what we have in our own lives. A barter economy wouldn't exist because barter economies have never really existed, (in the real world, societies have always jumped straight from the "everyone shares resources openly with their community" stage to the "everyone uses a mode of currency to exchange resources" stage without an intermediary "ten chickens equals one goat" stage). What would likely happen is you would have some things assigned to you as a given, a place to sleep, a stipend for basic food supplies, free medical care, because, again, there are no externalities in this society, it can't afford to have a section of its population excluded from the workforce by the consequence of being homeless, starving, or avoidably sick. Above that, you would earn a wage by performing labour, and could use that wage to purchase whatever limited luxuries might be available.


Frame challenge: The most constantly valuable thing is information, always.

So in the situation when you need to travel for years or centuries from star to star, it's the only thing that's worth keeping and seeking. These nomads roam from settled world to settled world seeking to trade for information. Their ships are basically giant server farms, with exabytes upon exabytes of various things stored in them, from that "hello world" program test in this ancient computer language called C++, to planet-busting Death Ray schematics.

They even have a dedicated "digital archeologist" as a profession, since not even they remember exactly what their data vaults hold anymore. You can obtain something extremely valuable from them... if you have some useful information to bargain in return, or if the Fleet needs physical resources currently for repairs or expansion.


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