If there's one thing space tyrants hate, it's a clever smuggler. When it comes to sticking it to the spaceman smugglers are the secret heroes of space opera. Here are the 10 greatest (and most dashing) science fiction smugglers.
Domino Walker (Cowboy Bebop):
Lots of Cowboy Bebop characters are smugglers, one way or another... there's the couple in the first episode smuggling Red Eye using the old pregnancy trick. And Vicious must be doing a fair bit of smuggling, since what kind of organized crime boss would he be otherwise? But our favorite smuggler has got to be Domino Walker, the Blaxploitation-inspired smuggler of hallucinogenic mushrooms who appears in the episode "Mushroom Samba":
Northwest Smith (Northwest of Earth by C.L. Moore):
The original space smuggler, Northwest Smith is an amoral rogue who will carry anything across the spaceways in his small, agile ship, the Maid. Like many space smugglers, he's a ruthless anti-hero but he has a heart of gold. His closest ally is the equally amoral Venusian smuggler Yarol. C.J. Cherryh describes Smith as the original Indiana Jones in her introduction to the collected stories, but he's also obviously a Han Solo prototype. And weirdly, his adventures are a mash-up of cowboy adventure fiction (in space) with H.P. Lovecraft. Smith is forever meeting super-powerful alien beings that have been worshiped as gods, and they're frequently disguised as beautiful women. He falls into their thrall, but either summons the strength to shoot his blaster at them, or gets rescued by his buddy Yarol.
Jenna Stannis (Blake's Seven):
She's such a bad-ass, they named a king after her! Seriously, Jenna is awesome, and a great "Free Trader." When we first meet her in the show's second episode, she's locked up on a prison ship for smuggling some kind of illicit cargo under the nose of the evil Federation. And she turns out to be a cracker jack pilot, as well as an expert on all sorts of tricks at staying undetected. But she always maintains certain standards — she never smuggled drugs, for example.
Cobra (Space Adventure Cobra):
He's a smuggler and a rogue who never seems to go without his signature cigar. Based on the popular manga series Cobra, this anime follows our psychogun-toting hero as he travels through space, getting involved with three sisters and the ancient power on their planet that an evil force wants to harness. He decides to change his face and lead a normal life, brainwashing himself to forget his past, but it doesn't stick. Check out these amazing opening credits, but beware some nudity:
Caius (Stargate SG-1):
There's damn good reason to suspect Vala Mal Doran of smuggling, all things considered. But I don't think she ever comes out and admits it. She does, however, vouch for the skills of Caius, who's now a monk but used to be one of the best smugglers she ever knew — he modified a Tel'tak into a cargo ship. When Vala meets up with Caius, she's searching for the Ring of Shen Marak, which turns out to be a power coil — but first, Caius demands that she give him something she stole from him. There's no explanation of his skills, but we're inclined to think Vala knows of what she speaks.
G'Kar (Babylon 5):
Actually, he's more of a gun runner, along the lines of Rick before Casablanca. After Narn falls to the Centari, he spends a good deal of time and effort keeping up the flow of guns onto the planet — which of course requires smuggling skills. And this, in turn, requires dodging the overwhelming power of the Shadow-backed Centauri. G'Kar is smugging his weapons via Babylon 5, until Garibaldi finds out and gives him a method of gun-running that doesn't involve the station. Plus he's a pretty hep philosopher.
Esmar Tuek (Dune by Frank Herbert):
He's one of the main spice smugglers on Arrakis, practiced at getting the spice off the planet. And he has secret deals with the Fremen, to maintain his profits but also to undermine the rule of the Harkonnens. Once in power, Leto Atreides cuts a deal with him, promising not to bother with their operations if they give him a cut. Esmar throws his luck in with the Duke, turning over some Harkonnen spies. Even though Tuek gets killed in the attack on the Atreides, his son, Staban, winds up becoming just as indispensible, taking in Gurney Halleck and a number of the Duke's other men. Illustration below by Donato Giancola. Bigger version at the link.
Quark (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine):
Sure, Star Trek is full of smugglers. In the original series, there's Harcort Fenton Mudd — although we mostly see him selling chemically enhanced wives, and later dealing with some super wives of his own. He's pretty awesome. There's also Cyrano Jones, who's less impressive, especially since he smuggles Tribbles, which are one item where supply quickly exceeds demand. In Voyager, there's (sigh) Neelix, who talks a good game about his smuggling past. And I think the Outrageous Okona might have moved some Saurian brandy across the border a few times. But let's be real — Quark is the shit, when it comes to smuggling. He's the greatest smuggler in Trek history. And the proof is in the episode "Little Green Men," where Quark accompanies Nog to enroll in Starfleet Academy, and uses the excursion as a way to smuggle some kemocite to Earth. And later, he outwits all of the dumb twentieth century hyuumans. When he's not doing a Mrs. Doubtfire episode, Quark is the bomb.
Mal Reynolds (Firefly, Serenity):
Whether he's smuggling cows, food-bricks, or the coolest antique laser gun in the 'Verse, Mal Reynolds is the cleverest, most slippery customer there is. His tricks include ditching his nav sat or launching duplicate nav sats, and he's got a thousand ways of flying under the Alliance radar — including a fake distress call from a long way off, in case of emergencies. He's the ultimate underdog, but nobody ever outsmarts Mal Reynolds. Well... that last part isn't strictly true, I guess. But at least he's good at renegotiating a deal when circumstances require it.
Han Solo (Star Wars):
He's the most cunning SOB of them all, the guy who shoots first and knows out to outsmart the patrols. He'll carry anything (or anyone) aboard the Millennium Falcon, for the right price, and he knows all the tricks, including hiding in an asteroid field or in a Star Destroyer's jettisoned garbage. He's also got the requisite smart-assery and out-for-himself-but-secretly-a-nice-guy streak that every great smuggler needs. If we ever had some contraband to move across the galaxy, Han Solo is the guy we would call. We also have to give some major props to Han's partner Chewbacca and his frenemy Lando Calrissian, who are both smuggling honchos in their own rights. Here's Han Solo bargaining with the original Jabba the Hutt, back when Jabba was just some dude in a fur cloak:
Top image by Stephanie Fox, originally created for my "antiheroes" essay.
Additional reporting by Kelly Faircloth.