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Literature / The Merchant Princes

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The main reveal of the book. It's the emblem of the Galactic Empire... and a Periphery leader has it on his bodyguards' blasters.

TRADERS-... With psychohistoric inevitability. economic control of the Foundation grew. The traders grew rich; and with riches came power....

It is sometimes forgotten that Hober Mallow began life as an ordinary trader. It is never forgotten that he ended it as the first of the Merchant Princes....
ENCYCLOPEDIA GALACTICA, 116th edition, published in 1020 F.E.

First published in Astounding Science Fiction (August 1944 issue), by Isaac Asimov, under the name "The Big and the Little". This Science Fiction Novelette is the third work published in his overall Foundation series.

Jorane Sutt, the mayor's secretary, and Hober Mallow, Master Trader from Smyrno, are having a discussion about a neighboring galactic nation, the Republic of Korell. Three spaceships from the Foundation have been lost in their territory. The government can't ask about what happened without appearing weak, and since they sent only routine reports before their disappearance, the government assumes that Korell has obtained nuclear weapons. Mallow's duty is to enter Korell as a normal Trader, but to find out where the Korellian government is obtaining nuclear weapons.

Later that night, each meets with a friend to explain how they were acting two-faced in the previous meeting. Both agree that a Seldon Crisis is occurring, despite Mallow treating it like a political buttress. Secretary Sutt believes that the Traders are a threat to the dominance of Terminus in the Foundation, and is afraid of losing the religious hold on the Four Kingdoms. Master Trader Mallow and his fellow Traders, on the other hand, are chafing under the oppressive rule where their political concerns aren't being represented. This internal conflict, combined with the possibility of an external military strong enough to challenge the Foundation, points to a Seldon Crisis, because if they don't handle it exactly as Seldon predicted, the Foundation will collapse.

Mallow invites his friend, the retired Trader Jaim Twer, along with him for the mission. Once in the capital planet of Korell, the ship plays a waiting game, wondering when the government will meet with Mallow. After a week of sitting idle in the spaceport, a Foundation priest boards the ship, begging for sanctuary. Naturally, everyone aboard is quite sympathetic, but Mallow, Captain of the vessel, points out that the missionary is in violation of Foundation Law as well as Korellian law. When a mob (which includes one small-town policeman) comes for the priest, Mallow has no choice but to let them take Revered Jord Parma.

However, this turns out to have been a Secret Test of Character; half an hour after letting the mob have the priest, Mallow receives an invitation to meet with Commdor Asper, the man in charge of the entire Republic. Mallow makes his initial sales pitch, and everything goes smoothly. After several demonstrations and a fancy dinner thrown in honour of the new trade agreements, he notices that the bodyguards for Commdor Asper have weapons with the Spaceship-and-Sun symbol of the fallen Empire on them. Shortly thereafter, he gives his crew instructions on what to do for two months, while he's investigating more details on his own.

Trader Mallow heads to the planet Siwenna. Once there, he learns about what's happened to the Empire in the hundred-fifty years since Terminus has lost contact with them. Nuclear power is still technically around, but nobody is able to repair it once it malfunctions. After a certain amount of disrepair, power plants simply shut down, and learning their routine maintenance is either a military secret or a hereditary job. Mallow doesn't stay long once he's confirmed this and the fact that Commdor Asper of Korell is married to a daughter of an Imperial Viceroy. They're definitely trading with each other, which means the Empire is the source of nuclear power.

A few months after Mallow returns to Terminus, however, he's accused for the murder of the Foundation Priest he found in Korell. However, during the trial Mallow reveals that the so-called priest was actually a Korellian secret agent, and also that Twer was spying on him on Sutt's orders. Mallow rides the sudden spike of popularity to become Mayor of Terminus, and reveals to his advisor that Korell will eventually declare war upon the Foundation, but he's planned for that eventuality.

When Korell goes to war, they find multiple successes, since the Foundation's ships never present battle. However, Korell's new economy is now highly dependent on the Foundation's technological know-how, and with trade halted, every device that was sold eventually fails and stops working, causing a large undercurrent of discontent that forces the Commdor to sue for peace in terms favorable to the Foundation.

"The Merchant Princes" was reprinted in Foundation (1951), the compilation of the first four stories. It was also republished in Science Fiction Classic Stories From The Golden Age Of Science Fiction (1989). Not to be mistaken for The Merchant Princes Series, an Alternate History series about a family of dimension-hopping traders by Charles Stross.

"The Merchant Princes" provides examples of:

  • Altar Diplomacy: It turns out the plot was started because of an Imperial general/viceroy marrying his daughter to a Periphery ruler in order to have a beachhead for his planned conquests. From the description, the husband is at least two-three decades the wife's senior.
  • As You Know: Trader Mallow and his friend, the retired Trader Jaim Twer, discuss an upcoming Seldon crisis. As Seldon and his Plan is a required part of a lay education on Terminus, the fact that Mallow had to explain it to his "friend" helped him deduce that Twer had been trained as a priest, not a layman, and is working for Jorane Sutt.
  • Book Ends: The revised version of "The Merchant Princes" that appears in Foundation (1951) includes an Encyclopedia Galactica entry on the Traders to begin the story, and an entry on Korell to end the story.
  • Cargo Cult: The "tech-men" of Siwenna, a hereditary sect of engineers and technicians, learn the operation of their nuclear power stations by rote. When Mallow asks what would happen if he destroyed a vital component, his guide's nearly incoherent rage indicates that they cannot actually repair anything important.
  • Conspiracy Placement: Members of Korellian Secret Police wear ultraviolet tattoos that say "KSP". Ultraviolet lights are rare on Korell, but Foundation Trader ships record in that light spectrum on a routine basis. Mallow uses this evidence to prove that the so-called Foundation priest was actually a KSP agent trying to trick them into breaking an interstellar treaty.
  • Continuity Nod: Sef Sermak, the opposition leader from The Mayors, is mentioned as a historical figure who broke the power of the aristocracy in the Four Kingdoms with his land reforms. His party, the Actionist Party, is now in government.
  • Contrived Coincidence: When Hober Mallow visits Korell, he is in an out-of-the-way spaceport, with the nearest city 150 kilometers away, when a priest appears, immediately followed by a mob. This fact clues Mallow in the fact that it is a ruse played by the Korellian leaders to prevent the Religion of Science from spreading to their world.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Mayor Mallow reveals that he's willing to use his economic power against his domestic enemies after Jorane Sutt's Villainous Breakdown. When Mallow's Number Two warns about the threat of Sutt's remaining followers, Mallow states that he will use his companies to crush anywhere that they're gaining ground into poverty. Hober is then asked about what the consequences of this will be in the future; Mallow shouts "What business of mine is the future? No doubt Seldon has seen it and prepared for it. There will be other crises in the time to come when money power has become as dead a force as religion is now."
  • Courtroom Episode: Secretary Jorane Sutt puts Master Trader Hober Mallow on trial for murder because he knowingly allowed a priest of the Foundation to be taken by a mob who were clearly ready to kill the priest. After three off-screen days of the trial, taking place in a large forum called the council chambers, Mallow agrees to making it public, so not only is it crowded with everyone who could fit, the trial is also being broadcast to every planet under Foundation control. Today is Mallow's first opportunity to refute/rebut the prosecution's case, which he does by revealing the so-called priest was actually a Korellian agent pretending to be a Foundation priest, to justify the destruction of Mallow, his ship, and his crew, and that Twer was a spy planted by Sutt to justify a crackdown on the Traders. The crowd grows wild, and Mallow takes advantage of popular opinion to get himself elected Mayor of Terminus, making him the highest-ranked political figure in the Foundation.
  • Deflector Shields: Trader Mallow bribes a Siwenna tech-man with a personal force shield that protects against blasters in exchange for a private viewing of the generator facilities on a planet. Oh, the shield works, all right, but only for one day. Not being stupid, he brought two, AND a gun that can shoot through it. The reason why a personal shield works as a bribe is that, as far as the Empire was concerned, personal shields were impossible, not because of the shield itself, but because you wouldn't be able to carry the needed generator around (thus, not even the Emperor himself has one).
  • Distant Sequel: The events in this story take place over a few years, starting twenty years after "The Traders" (and with none of the same characters), reportedly a "century and a half" since Terminus was colonized by the Foundation (150 F.E.). This places it seventy years after the events of "The Mayors".
  • Do Well, But Not Perfect: When Sutt tells Mallow that they must take out Korell in a direct offensive to avoid appearing weak, the Trader answers that if they prove strong enough to do that, the Imperial viceroy backing Asper may consider them a threat.
  • Enhance Button: Hober Mallow records the events when a Foundation missionary seeks refuge aboard Mallow's ship on the planet Korell. He later enhances an image on the Visual Record that shows an invisible tattoo on the missionary's arm. The tattoo says KSP, proving that the missionary is actually a plant - a member of the Korellian Secret Police. It is stated to be blurry, though.
  • Encyclopedia Exposita:
    • Essays on History, by Ligurn Vier, originally provides an Epigraph for this story when it was published in Astounding Science Fiction.
      "Three Dynasties molded the Beginning: the Encyclopedists, the Mayors, and the Traders—" — Essays on History, by Ligurn Vier
    • When this story is republished in Foundation (1951), an entry from the Encyclopedia Galactica for the Traders replaces the Essays on History, and the story ends with the entry for Korell.
  • Every Man Has His Price: Secretary Jorane Sutt comes to Trader Hober Mallow and tries to convince him to switch over to his camp. The trader remarks that his opinions might be for sale, but the politician isn't offering him profit. Sutt is unable to offer a price high enough to satisfy Mallow so he leaves, threatening to ruin the trader.
  • Evil Luddite: Korell is a subversion of the usual Luddite; they're not against Foundation technology, but against Foundation religion, which (before Mallow comes along) was a required part of any technological trade. Allowing the Religion of Science would mean allowing the Foundation to subvert them and ultimately make them into a puppet state, like what happened to Askone from "The Traders".
  • Fantastic Racism: Mallow is a Phrase Catcher for the phrase "filthy Smyrnian", with occasional irony, throughout the story. He was born in one of the original Four Kingdoms that the Foundation achieved dominance over (and the one that was casually mocked In-Universe since "The Mayors"), but managed to escape the Foundation's religion to become a citizen and a Trader, despite suspicion from Sutt and other Foundation leaders.
  • Finale Title Drop: At the end of the story, Mayor Mallow casually mentions the original title ("The Big and the Little") when explaining the Proxy War between Foundation and the Empire, with Korell as the Empire's proxy. The Foundation thinks and is "little" (an isolated Non-Governmental Organization that had to be so sharp it was forced to innovate miniaturization to stay alive), while the Empire thinks and was "big" (still the largest Galactic Superpower with enormous battleships and generators at its disposal, even while being smaller than its peak).
  • Galactic Superpower: The Korellian Republic is a powerful neighbor made up of a half-dozen star systems. During this story, they go to war against the Foundation, believing that their weapons, given to them by the First Galactic Empire, would allow them to effortlessly crush the upstart Second Empire.
  • Gone Horribly Wrong: Jorane Sutt decided to send Hober Mallow to Korell with the expectation that he would either get himself killed or do something that would allow Sutt to metaphorically hang him as a step in his plan to become The Man Behind the Man. Not only does Mallow achieve his stated mission, but the consequences lead to Sutt landing with his ass in prison and Mallow becoming the Mayor of Terminus (that is, the head of state for the Foundation).
  • Hereditary Republic: The Republic of Korell has had a single director of power for several generations. The current one is called Commdor Asper, having inherited the title from his father.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard:
    • Jorane Sutt hoped to use the trial against Hober Mallow to break the power of the merchants and ride the wave of religious fervor into greater power. Hober Mallow turned the fervor against him after he proved that the accusations were based on a lie, revealing Sutt's manipulations and riding the wave of patriotic fervor into the Mayor's office.
      "An atom-blaster is a good weapon, but it can point both ways."Salvor Hardin
    • Korell's Commdor's greed, stoked by his establishing a greater industrial network with the Foundation's technology, leads to his downfall when his war declaration against the Foundation leaves him without the essential maintenance for that technology, ruining him and his main supporters.
  • Impoverished Patrician: The family of Barr was largely killed off by the Empire for participating in a planetwide rebellion (ironically, one to return the planet to Empire rule). He lives alone, on the fringes of society, when Hober Mallow finds Onum Barr.
  • Info Dump: When Mallow has to explain how Seldon identified important eras of conflict, it clues him in that Jaim Twer isn't the retired trader he claims to be (since if he was, he wouldn't have to ask what a Seldon Crisis is).
  • Intrepid Merchant: Initially, merchants were expected to help spread the Scam Religion the titular society used to control its neighbors. Back in "The Traders", Trader Ponyets has a single-man ship, compared to Master Trader Hober Mallow, who has an entire crew at his beck and call. Despite that, he has a single-man shuttle that he uses to verify how close Foundation's territory is to the collapsing Empire. Mallow's riches from trading give him the title "first of the Merchant Princes", and the Foundation's Hat changes to Proud Merchant Race.
  • Invisible Writing: The Korellian Secret Police tattoo their members with ink that is invisible in regular light, but shines when exposed to intense UV rays. Noticing the KSP tattoo on the so-called priest of the Foundation is what Trader Mallow uses to prove he isn't guilty of murder.
  • It Only Works Once: Salvor Hardin's success in taking over the Four Kingdoms and their rulers had already made the Periphery wary about letting Foundation missionaries in, but ever since Askone was converted in the aftermath of the previous story, any local ruler will sooner shoot himself than let one preach upon his territory.
  • Just Ignore It: Mayor Hober Mallow's strategy for the war against Korell in Foundation consists of not making any major offences. The Foundation defends its territory, but that's basically all. How does this work to win the Foundation the war? Korell is economically dependent on the Foundation — thanks to Hober Mallow, as it happens — and so Korell finds itself without any population-unifying war sentiment, just a steadily worsening economy and quality of life as more and more things shut down without replacement parts from the Foundation.
  • Just the First Citizen: The Commdor of Korell, Asper Argo note  claims that Commdor simply means "the first citizen of our Republic". Dr Asimov spends a paragraph to comment on the phenomenon:
    Korell is that frequent phenomenon in history: the republic whose ruler has every attribute of the absolute monarch but the name. It therefore enjoyed the usual despotism unrestrained even by those two moderating influences in the legitimate monarchies: regal "honor" and court etiquette.''
  • King Bob the Nth: Stannell VI, a past emperor, is mentioned briefly by Onum Barr as one of the last good rulers. He had died fifty years before the present events.
  • Legendary in the Sequel: Mayor Salvor Hardin, from the events of "The Encyclopedists" and "The Mayors", is well-known enough, seventy years later, that two new epigrams have been attributed to him.
  • Merchant Prince: This story explains how the Foundation transitions from ruling their outer provinces through a Scam Religion to ruling through economic control. The Scam Religion that allowed Terminus to suborn control from the Four Kingdoms has proved remarkably unsuccessful in advancing the Foundation's sphere of influence. Hober Mallow, who would later take the "Merchant Prince" title referenced in the story's name, uses technology brokering to enhance the Foundation by turning their nation into a literal commercial empire. His practical proof? Winning a war simply by enforcing a blanket ban on trade until their enemy surrenders.
  • Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot: A few trader ships missing lead the Foundation to send Mallow to learn what happened to them. He discovers an Imperial general using Korell to fight a Proxy War against the Foundation, testing to see if they would be valuable targets.
  • Monster of the Week: Foundation politicians Sutt and Manlio are still clinging to the power of the Scam Religion, so they try to weaken the blossoming Traders by sending an agent to undermine Master Trader Huber Mallow during his mission on Korell, a world staunchly against the Foundation's religion. During the last third of the story, after Mallow has defeated his political opponents, he is faced by the planet of Korell itself, which has declared war on the Foundation. Mallow uses the Foundation's economic powers to win by declaring a trade embargo on Korell. Despite winning every battle, Korell is forced to surrender due to civil revolt at the wartime hardships.
  • Numbered Homeworld: Orsha II is the new capital of the Normannic Sector, since the revolutions on Siwenna.
  • Orwellian Retcon: When it was published in Astounding Science Fiction (August 1944 issue), the Epigraph was from Essays on History, by Ligurn Vier. When this story was republished in Foundation (1951), an entry about Foundation traders from the Encyclopedia Galactica is used instead.
  • Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions: The religion created by Salvor Hardin (in "The Mayors") to make Foundation technology palatable to the Four Kingdoms has been ridiculously unsuccessful at converting new systems to the Foundation's rule in the past few decades. Master Trader Hober Mallow realizes that the time for rule by religion is over and now it is time for rule by capitalism.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: Onum Barr stated that five of his six sons are dead, and he hopes his daughter is (the next story mentions she was Driven to Suicide).
  • People's Republic of Tyranny: The Republic of Korell, which is for all intents and purposes a one-man state ruled by an extremely repressive and vicious ruler named Commdor Asper Argo, who styles himself as Just the First Citizen and assures visitors that he is called the "Well-Beloved". It is also wretchedly poor, has a Secret Police and the infrastructure, like the population, seems poor and underdeveloped. The main character of the story, Hober Mallow, sourly notes that for such a beloved man, his house (which is more like a Palace) is unnaturally well-defended, heavily fortified and has a large complement of guards.
  • Permanent Elected Official: The Commdors of the Republic of Korell are elected once, and rule the nation for the rest of their life.
  • Proud Merchant Race: The Traders roamed the galaxy trying to push Atom Punk gadgetry. Master Trader Hober Mallow, realizing that the Foundation was capable of conquering other interplanetary governments by economic dominance instead of needing spiritual dominance, becomes Mayor of Terminus to prove that he and his fellow traders had an economic chokehold on the Republic of Korell, and withholding that technology was enough to defeat them in war.
  • Proxy War: Trader Mallow figures out that the presence of new weapons with the icon of the First Galactic Empire means that the Empire remains a Galactic Superpower in the core of the galaxy, and is trading with systems along the Periphery of the galaxy. The Empire later supplies Korell with nuclear spaceships to attack the Foundation, whose capital is at the extreme end of the Periphery.
  • Rape, Pillage, and Burn: A few years before the story, Siwenna was ruled by an Imperial Viceroy that attempted to rebel against the Empire, but by the time an Imperial Fleet came, the citizens had already deposed the Viceroy and welcomed the Fleet. The commander occupied the planet's strategic points and declared martial law, claiming that the Siwennians were rebels for revolting against the Viceroy, the Emperor's representative. Onum Barr, who is the one telling this story to Hober Mallow, states that the commander did this because he and his soldiers wanted the glory and loot from attacking a rebel province and were highly displeased that the chance was denied to them.
  • The Remnant: Trader Mallow is curious when he notices the sun-and-spaceship symbol of the Galactic Empire in a nation called the Republic of Korell. He goes off on his own to establish how close the Foundation is to the collapsing empire. The old empire is using the buffer of nations to attack the Foundation.
  • Resistance as Planned: A political party representing the Traders... led by a member of the clergy and an employee of the Traders' chief rival.
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: Salvor Hardin has the conflict of morals versus ethics down to a philosophy of life, expressed in one of the epigrams attributed to him which has been adopted by the Foundation's merchants:
    "Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right." —Salvor Hardin
  • Secret Police: Very little is explained about the Korellian Secret Police, aside from their use of invisible tattoos that show "KSP" under ultraviolet lights.
  • Secret Test of Character: When he goes to the Republic of Korell, Hober Mallow finds himself involved in a problem when his crew lets a Scientism priest in the ship before a mob can try lo lynch him, a problem Mallow solves by kicking the priest off the ship and into the mob. Thirty minutes later, Mallow receives an invitation to meet with Commdor Asper Argo, Korell's ruler. Mallow reveals at the trial for his "murder" of said priest that the priest had been a Korellian secret police agent, trained to behave like a priest to act as bait that would provoke Foundation ships into breaking Korellian law - which is implied, but not stated, to be the reason why the ships Mallow had been sent to look for were destroyed.
  • Takes One to Kill One: This story was written during the Atom Punk era of Science Fiction, so nuclear weapons are the most powerful technology conceived. Because of that, ships operating on nuclear power routinely defeat ships operating on chemical power, and "nuclear weapons" are more powerful than any other kind of technology. Therefore, characters conclude that the disappearance of three nuclear-powered Foundation ships can only mean that someone else also has nuclear weapons.
"[N]uclear power can be conquered only by more nuclear power."
Jorane Sutt
  • Terminally Dependent Society: The Republic of Korell, rather than collecting drips and dregs of trade with the Foundation, have decided that they need to launch an all-out offensive. They fail to anticipate, however, the cost of war when the opponent refuses to put up much of a fight, instead choosing to briefly defend and running away. Riots break out over the fact that the government is inconveniencing the citizens for nothing more than empty successes.
  • Vanity Is Feminine: Both of the Korellian women who appear on-screen are dazzled by the pretty jewelry the traders from the Foundation can offer. The shrewd manipulator (and wife to the planetary dictator) overcomes her fascination, but it still worked well enough in her husband's opinion.
  • Victory by Endurance: This is the core of the Foundation strategy in the Foundation-Korell war. It is implied the Foundation probably could curb-stomp the Korell forces if they really wanted to, but that would have the undesirable side-effects of making it easier for Korell's leadership to inspire anti-Foundation hatred in Korell's populace, and more importantly, risk drawing the attention of the Galactic Empire back to the Rim.note  To avoid those side effects, the Foundation simply adopts a defensively-oriented strategy, denying Korell any major victories or population-unifying opportunities for defense, and waits for Korell's economy to collapse without Foundation trade (Korell had become dependent on Foundation-provided nucleics). Three years later, the war ended as "one of the least fought in galactic history".
  • We Will Spend Credits in the Future:
    • The Commdor of Korell is listening to Hober Mallow's sales pitch, which involves claims that the Foundation-made jewelry will sell for ten thousand credits, while he is only asking for a thousand credits of raw resources in return. That's a profit of nine hundred percent, which pleases the Commdor.
    • When Mallow is on Siwenna, the tech-man he's talking to assumes an attempt a bribery with a pittance of credits.
  • Wins by Doing Absolutely Nothing: Korell, which has been trading with the Foundation for a while, decides to declare war. Hober Mallow, who established that trade route and is now the Foundation's Mayor, has his ships retreat, never presenting a fight. Korell still loses because (a) with the war, the trade route has dried up, and they do not have the technological know-how to fix what the Foundation sold them, which ranged from luxury items to devices that made industry far more efficient and profitable and (b) without being attacked, the only signs of war are the loss of goods, risking a political coup. Plus, by avoiding a fight, the Foundation prevents the still-living Galactic Empire (one of whose Viceroys has been trading with Korell on the side) from learning the danger presented by the Foundation before the stage is set for the Empire's defeat.
  • Xanatos Speed Chess: Hober Mallow quotes Mayor Salvor Hardin, who said, "To succeed, planning alone is insufficient. One must improvise as well." He uses Hardin's statement to justify his lack of a plan when going to the Republic of Korell, where several Foundation ships have disappeared. He may be lying about his lack of any plan whatsoever, since he's already keeping secrets from Twer, whom he suspects isn't who he claims to be, and invites the politician along to keep an eye on him.
  • "Yes"/"No" Answer Interpretation: When Mallow asks the techman what he would do if the nuclear power plant were to malfunction or be sabotaged, the techman refuses to answer, first saying that for the plant to malfunction it is impossible because it is designed to run forever, and then only answering that if Mallow were to sabotage it, he would be executed. This gives Mallow the answer he was looking for, which is that the techmen have no idea how the power plants actually work or what to do if they need to be repaired.

Alternative Title(s): The Big And The Little