I was reading James Blish again the other day and came across a passage wherein he suggested, with all seriousness, that the only article required to create a new age of piracy was ships that didn't require fuel. It further suggested that the only reason the Golden Age of Piracy happened at all was that sailing ships needed only the wind to take them and that the age ended because steamers needed fuel. I've seen others suggest that as long as you have lawless ports where you can fence your stolen goods that is all you need for piracy to run rampant.
So I decided to look at the actual history of piracy these are the four factors that seem, to me, to have led to its rampant heyday:
The crews, there was a ready supply of the skilled but desperate, both at sea and on shore.
Ships that could sail long distances, especially compared to the distances between ports, without making port and when they did "port" for anything but the most strenuous repairs could be any sheltered bay where clean water and food could be found.
Ships that when they did need major repairs could be serviced with relatively cheap, and abundant materials.
Goods (in coastal towns) and cargoes (on other ships) to take and ports to sell them in.
With those factors in mind I'd like to consider a case study, towards the end of the Federated Human Space timeline.
There are three basic phases to the future history in this universe:
In the first few decades of our expansion into space the authorities were very free with what left Sol and many colony worlds with cutting edge technology were planted in far flung star systems that have rarely been heard from since.
After humanity met their only extraterrestrial neighbours they took to something of a war footing, expansion slowed and a very successful program to limit the rate of colonial spread and technological advancement was put in place. The Continuity Program aimed to keep technological artifacts interchangeable across Federated Space and as far beyond as possible and to keep human populated star systems as densely packed as space allowed in case they ever had to defend the colonies from their worryingly reticent neighbours. As part of the program they keep the production of many vital components centralised and they took pains to round up ships that had been retired so they couldn't be captured and studied by their possible adversaries.
Fast forward to the era after the Sunderer Crisis and Continuity still keeps a lid on humanity in many arenas, though for very different reasons, but there are several hundred decommissioned/mothballed hulks in the inner systems (those star systems within 15 Light Years of Sol) alone, and there has been substantial skill leakage out into the colonies, many parts of those hulks can be reused, and ships built from scrap have become viable.
The situation as compared to the Golden Age of Piracy factors I have identified are as follows:
Starship crews have become a breed apart from their planet bound cousins, their opportunities are constantly growing but there are also always ventures that go belly up leaving a few rogues haunting the watering holes of docking stations looking for work at any given time. Crews tend to pull together in times of trouble but they also have a certain fierce rivalry to the way they conduct business as usual.
The ships in the setting do have comparable relative ranges to those at the height of the Age of Sail in terms of being able to run between several ports without any need to resupply and they don't need any kind of port except when they need major repairs.
Most of the materials needed to service starships are now readily available in a number of places outside direct government control, along with those with the skills to use them.
Cargoes exist that can be taken with relative ease in transit. Much of the trade is in raw bulk materials, mostly pure element stock for molecular printers, value added goods like art, alcohol and fine weaving whose value is in the fact they are made by hand or that they come from a certain place, and large scale integrated systems like interplanetary ships and space habitats. Of those goods the most easily stolen are the elemental stock and the integrated systems but all can be sold on if they can be moved far enough fast enough, which usually they can. The equivalent of shore raids in space probably involve hitting habitats and are probably (read certainly except under very strange circumstances) impractical.
So does the situation after the Sunderer Crisis support the idea of space piracy?
In answering please consider both raiding ships for interstellar cargoes and the raiding of in-system shipping by local vessels.
Additional data that may be useful:
- The average travel speeds are roughly 4C but the specific travel time for any given trip is highly unpredictable.
- Travel is completed using jumpdrives in increments of 5LY or less per jump to maintain an acceptable level of unpredictability, longer jumps are less predictable and prone to larger deviations in jump time.
- While in jump the ship and its crew experience no time, the trip is instantaneous for the travelers.
- Because of the nature of the jumpdrives in use interstellar ships tend to be as big as the support facilities on their design consideration route allow, topping out slightly south of 50miles long due to one particular facility being standardised to that size.
- By the era being discussed humanity is still concentrated in the inner systems, three jumps (15LY) from Sol, but has successful colonies in the trade route network out into the 25-30LY band.
- There is a reactionless drive effect as a secondary function of the jumpdrive technology but that function can't be used near large masses, including but not limited to planets, moons, most asteroids, the drive cores of other ships and most of the larger space habitats.