Monday, November 18, 2019

Sci-fi Treasure

Treasure is easy in fantasy realms. Usually, it's great piles of gold coins, gleaming gems, and works of art. If you're doing a more Bronze Age thing, it can be cauldrons and tripods and drinking vessels like you see in The Odyssey. But what's treasure in a sci-fi universe? Large stacks of credit-vouchers just don't have the same feel as tumbled piles of doubloons and ancient crowns.

Back in the middle of the 20th century, when the future was nuclear, space powers feuded over fissionables the way 20th century powers fought over oil. Later, when the power of the future shifted from fission to fusion, He3 became the thing to fight over.

There's been all sorts of unobtaniums associated with power generation or FTL travel, such as Star Trek's dilithium crystals or the floaty magic rocks in the Avatar movie. This is a common and accepted way of expressing great value in space opera these days.

Mass-to-energy conversion makes this sort of thing difficult (unless the unobtanium is a key component in the process). Energy-to-mass conversion essentially makes anything dirt cheap. At that point, your treasure is going to be works of rare art, especially if you can verify the authenticity of original works. (While AIs might be able to churn out amazing art at astounding speed, the assumption here is that the original creations of idolized artists will still command great value, though potentially only to eccentric collectors.)

There's also the secrets-of-ancient-antiquity version, whether that's the knowledge of a lost (often but not always Golden) age (like the STCs of the Warhammer 40k universe), or dead alien civilizations.

While gemstones can still work (especially if you have a magical tech that can distinguish between natural and artificial) it takes more work. Keep in mind that diamonds are worth as much as they are today in the real world due to the bulk of the natural supply being dribbled out slowly by the principle mine-owners. They're actually quite common, just not in circulation.

Finally, while there's lots of gold and other precious metals potentially floating about, if you're talking about a galaxy-spanning civilization(s) with a population measured in the vigintillions, and most especially if there are practical applications for these metals (conducting electricity is still a thing), demand could still drive up price. This can be especially true if something is disrupting mining efforts; local pirate activity or warfare could drive up the price locally, double so if your FTL travel isn't instantaneous.

I've been casting about for other ideas of what future treasure might look like. If anyone has other suggestions, please feel free to share in the comments.


Kalyptein said...

One other classic scifi rarity is the Spice, or any other kind of hard to harvest/synthesize drug. Spice of course is needed for space travel and all the other feats of psychic mojo.

There was a scifi rpg called Blue Planet that had a gold rush for a substance called "Long Jon", slang for longevity ore. It had to be mined out of deep ocean deposits, and was the key component in advanced nanotech, including life-extension.

I think there was a book in which they used a currency backed by lifespan, where the basic unit was called "days" or something like that, and would literally buy you 24 hours of life extension.

Hyperspace nav charts might also make a good treasure, leading to new worlds or offering secret, faster shortcuts.

"Stabilized neutronium", ejected from neutron stars or the accretion discs of black holes could be the handwavium that powers hyperdrives or grav-tech.

daveb said...

In David Brin's uplift series Whale songs are coveted by the aliens.

Genetic scans/samples/studies of emergent life on obscure planets? With jump gates/points/hyperspace challeges knowing of safe transfer points is worth something. Hidden planets (or lost planets in deep space that can act as hideouts/fuel dumps. Hard to manufacture pharmacueticals (omni cure, organ transplants, designer drugs, combat drugs).

Tommi said...

Information is a classical solution. Secrets about people, governments or companies. Datasets. Programs. Science or technology.

JB said...

Food rations and medical supplies. This doesn't even have to apply to a post-apocalyptic society: I've been rewatching old episodes of Firefly and such things take on drastic value for struggling colonies on newly terraformed worlds. I suppose Herbert's "spice" falls into this category (for its life extending qualities, if not its psychic boost).

Species trafficking ("slaves") could be a form of future currency in a very grim-dark setting. Higher life-forms may see lesser sentients as cattle, after all. Lots of examples of this in SciFi literature.

Lots of possibilities, but precious metals and gems are still excellent for their portability and lack of malleability.

daveb said...

Nice one JB. I was thinking about this again after I logged off. The 'means of production' would be valuable even in a post scarcity society I imagine. Slaves, working robots, factories (nano facs?), nano gel, whatever it takes to make things.

trollsmyth said...

Awesome! Thanks for the feedback, everyone. :)

Kalyptein: I can't believe I forgot melange! It really is the Ur-treasure of space opera.

daveb: as our telescopes get better and better, it gets harder to justify "hidden" planets, though jump-points and other hyperspace navigational "shortcuts" are certainly a rich prize for those who can find them. And new biological specimens could be the way breakthroughs happen, if it's easier to explore strange new worlds than dream up yet another way to wrinkle Mother Nature. Researchers racing corp-assassins sent to snuff out their discovery so billions in R&D costs don't end up wasted sounds like a fun adventure.

Tommi: info is a classic, though it does tend to muddle the message a bit, transforming a treasure hunt into something more noir, either detective story, spy thriller, or Dan Brown sort of thing. Still, for a treasure that spawns further adventures, info can't be beat.

JB: slaves are the dark side of trading in original artwords. The only thing better than having an original Sebaztion is having Sebaztion himself locked in a gilded cage producing works on demand for you.

Cambias said...

Genomes for newly-discovered species.
Particular vintages of great wines.
And a perennial favorite: the deed to a piece of land.

trollsmyth said...


And a perennial favorite: the deed to a piece of land.

My first thought was that, while that made a great reward, you could have piles of these in a treasure hoard. But then I remembered that there are between one and two-million asteroids in the asteroid belt, and each one might have resources worthy of mining.

So now I'm imagining a literal hill of gold disks 1.5 inches across, each one etched with a legal writ giving the bearer mining rights to an individual asteroid.

Albert said...

Anything heavier than iron is going to be a pain to synthesize, unless technology is so advanced that scarcity issues hardly exist. So heavy elements and rare earths will be of some value for quite a while. If economy of scale matters for making mining profitable, there's even incentive for bandits or petty warlords to raid planetary stocks rather than try to take apart an asteroid.

Licenses to manufacture tech might be valuable, even if fabbers mean that everything is theoretically available at the push of a button. (Could be enforced legally, could be enforced with super-encryption.)

News is valuable if fresh, but the value wears off quickly. In-depth knowledge of a field might be restricted and thus valuable on the black market.

Any monopoly that permits a privileged few to gatekeep something of value will be fiercely defended, legally or otherwise, and breaking that monopoly might send massive shockwaves through the system.

Given the dangers of radiation, 'clean' genetic templates may be in high demand and hard for spacers to maintain on their own.