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This was a science fiction short story about the captain of a ship that sails from port to port on an alien planet. I'm not sure whether the captain is a human or the native alien species, and if he is a human whether it is the case that the planet was colonized or it's supposed to be some kind of parallel evolution or alternate timeline.

The planet's primary is a first-generation star, so the local system is very poor in metals. As a result, the dominant technological base is roughly early renaissance. Most things are made of wood and/or stone. Metal is used sparingly because it is very expensive. There may be elements of higher technology (e.g. electronics) available in theory, but in practice they are exceedingly rare.

The ship serves as a mobile printing press, serving the needs of a city for a period then moving to another. If I recall correctly, the moveable type represents a fortune in metal, so there aren't very many printing presses available. I seem to recall that the ship also maintained a library of volumes that it could show off in the hopes of getting orders for the newer ones or the classics. It would be years between visits to individual cities, so there was usually something new to sell, plus people would have manuscripts for new books that they wanted to publish.

There didn't seem to be anything like copyright law as we know it.

I forget the main plot -- something about having to escape one of the cities that the ship was visiting due to a cultural misunderstanding?

It's not the Kornbluth story "That Share of Glory" (which has an answer here already).

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    Kind of seems odd that they don't at least do wood type... you have to recarve it more often, and it will soak up the ink a bit, but it works quite nicely.
    – FuzzyBoots
    May 20 at 19:31
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    I'd think performance of wood type would depend on wood type. May 20 at 19:34
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    Also seems a bit odd to put a fortune in irreplaceable metal on a ship and sail it around perpetually. Sooner or later its gonna sink in deep water, or get "lost at sea".
    – T.E.D.
    May 21 at 18:03

2 Answers 2

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This is Vernor Vinge's The Barbarian Princess (or another short story in the series) or possibly the novel form of that story "Tatja Grimm's World"

The ship serves as a mobile printing press, serving the needs of a city for a period then moving to another. If I recall correctly, the moveable type represents a fortune in metal, so there aren't very many printing presses available. I seem to recall that the ship also maintained a library of volumes that it could show off in the hopes of getting orders for the newer ones or the classics. It would be years between visits to individual cities, so there was usually something new to sell, plus people would have manuscripts for new books that they wanted to publish.

She finds the bastion of all culture, arts, entertainment and history for the entire planet, the seven-hundred-year-old science fiction magazine Fantasie, which is produced entirely aboard a gargantuan floating vessel the size of a small city. But despite the printing presses, sail-powered vessels, and mind-expanding technology, Tatja is still dissatisfied.

The planet's primary is a first-generation star, so the local system is very poor in metals. As a result, the dominant technological base is roughly early renaissance. Most things are made of wood and/or stone. Metal is used sparingly because it is very expensive.

From this review

TATJA GRIMM’S WORLD takes place on a world at the cusp of the scientific revolution. But this world lacks metals, has a unique geography, and is possessed of distinctly different cultures. The result is a very different sort of scientific revolution, which Vinge works out in fascinating detail.

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  • I think this is correct. I would have read it in the September 1986 issue of Analog. Thank you!
    – Otis
    May 21 at 11:28
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A ship-based printing press, plying trade as mobile printers, is the background for Vernor Vinge's Tatja Grimm series. I need to dig it out to provide quotes, but a review on Goodreads yields:

the planet Tu on which the book takes place is a metal-poor world where humanity has had to adapt using ceramics and wood for everything. The first half of the book is set on a giant traveling publishing barge that sails the oceans of the planet and sells, among other things, a speculative fiction pulp mag called Fantasie.

(emphasis mine)

The original publication was as a short story "Grimm's Story" in Orbit 4 (1968), so if you're recalling a short story that may be it. (There was also another short set on the world published in Analog in 1986. Both were combined into the later novel-length fix-up Tatja Grimm's World.)

From the introduction to the story in Orbit 4:

The planet called Tu is a world of oceans and scattered archipelagoes. Tu has a sister planet, Seraph, hanging eternally fixed in her sky—a more tantalizing goal for space flight than our Moon. But Tu’s thousand-year-old civilization has almost no metals. With a wood-glass-and-plastics technology, the island people have hydrofoils, telescopes, even photography, but no heavier-than-air craft, let alone spacecraft: they can only look up and wonder.

And from Tatja Grimm's World:

“Not like this one. Ivam Alecque knows astronomers at Krinsarque who are hanging spectro gear on telescopes. They’ve drawn line spectra for lots of stars. The ones with color and absolute magnitude similar to our sun show incredibly intense lines for iron and copper and the other metals. This is the first time in history anyone has had direct insight about how things must be on planets of other stars. Houses built of iron are actually possible there.”

Ascuasenya was silent for a moment. The idea was neat; in fact, it was kind of scary. Finally she said, “We’re all alone in being so ‘metal poor?’”

“Yes! At least among the sun-like stars these guys have looked at.”

About the publishing barge:

In the first place, the Tarulle Publishing Barge wasn’t due in the Krirsarque area for another three days. Svir had been very upset to learn that his ship would stay a day ahead of the Tarulle fleet as the publishing company sailed slowly east along the Chainpearl Archipelagate. He wouldn’t receive the latest copies of Fantasie—all two years’ worth—until he reached Bayfast in Crownesse. In the second place, the Tarulle Barge rarely landed at minor places like Krirsarque. The Barge dispatched its hydrofoil sailing boats for such contacts. These boats delivered the company’s publications, and took aboard supplies and manuscripts.

And a bit about the barge itself:

The Tarulle Barge was especially impressive by day. Over the centuries, it had grown helter-skelter. New barge platforms had been added and built upon—then built over again, until the mass resembled nothing so much as a man-made mountain of terraces, cupolas, and cranes. The top offices and printshops were of spun glass —the most modern construction material. The bottommost members of the Barge were moldering timbers three hundred years old. From the top of the mainmast to the bottom of the lowest hold was almost three hundred feet.

(Quotes from "Grimm's Story" since that's the first short story version.)

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  • I didn't know that this was a series or had been turned into a fix-up. Thank you!
    – Otis
    May 21 at 11:30

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