Wednesday, March 24, 2021

"Somewhere on That Asteroid of Sin Lurked the Crime King of the Universe"

"Asteroid of the Damned."
By Dirk Wylie (Frederik Pohl, 1919-2013 [ISFDb HERE] and Dirk Wylie, 1920-49 [ISFDb HERE]).
Illustrator unknown.
First appearance: Planet Stories, Summer 1942.
Reprints page (HERE).
Short short story (7 pages as a PDF).
Online at Project Gutenberg (HERE).
     "What they're really crazy about, of course, is silver and copper. They'll do just about anything for it, including murder and treason."

When you're down and out on Pallas without so much as a shekel—never mind a gun—and there's somebody who's about to kill you, what do you do? You take advantage of an ancient Chinese practice, obviously . . . .

Principal characters:
~ The bartender:
  "You couldn't bribe a Kiddie with a certified check for a couple of billion dollars."
~ MacCauley:
  "He was flat on the floor before he realized he'd been hit. Then began the real trouble."
~ Kittrell:
  "Sparks were fairly snapping from the blazing dial of his own heavy, old-fashioned timepiece . . ."
~ Major Copeland:
  "And what did you say that stuff was that saved your life?"
~ The Kiddie:
  ". . . shrank into himself and seemed to whimper voicelessly. The glow-glands set around his eyes shone a pinkish purple of fright. He started to say something—in the primitive sign-language that his race used to communicate with aliens—but halted the gesture and abruptly turned and slunk away."
~ The Kiddie policeman:
  "Commi wih me tu Offic he wil arange arest."
~ The Venusian:
  "Here on Pallas we have a law; the citizens must be protected. When a foreigner makes an accusation against a citizen, it is quite possible that he is wrong, and a great injustice will have been done. As you know, there is only one way to soothe a Palladian . . . money."

References and resources:
- "Pallas' largest gambling-room": "Pallas (minor-planet designation: 2 Pallas) is the second asteroid to have been discovered, after 1 Ceres"; see Wikipedia (HERE) for the science about Pallas and (HERE) for some of the fiction about it. Its surface gravity is 2/100 of a g, so unless they have widely used artificial gravity simulating 1 g (Earth normal) in our story, it should be very easy to get around there like a kangaroo. (Some authors either ignore or forget about that; see the mistake about lunar gravity in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the 1968 movie.) As for what an asteroid (but not Pallas) could be worth, see the Forbes article (HERE) and then see Wikipedia (HERE) for notions about how to realize that profit.
- "There was something about Venusians, Mac decided, that he didn't like. It wasn't their fault, of course, that they had evolved in a wet climate": Our authors adopt the swampy Venus model; see Wikipedia (HERE).
- "pallid stick-men from Mars": A case of humanoid chauvinism? See Wikipedia (HERE).
- "his money-belt fat and heavy with a half-million in platinum credits": "The first and only case when platinum coins were used as a regular national currency was in Russia, where coins were circulated between 1828 and 1845. These coins proved to be impractical: platinum resembles many less expensive metals, and, unlike the more malleable and ductile silver and gold, it is very difficult to work." But, who knows, by the time our story takes place maybe that problem has been overcome; see Wikipedia (HERE).
- "a staff of office, like the old Bow Street Runners": Understandably the early days of the British police force were a catch-as-catch-can affair; see Wikipedia (HERE).
- "by all the Plutonian Ice Devils": By 1942 it was a safe bet that Pluto would be covered with ice; see Wikipedia (HERE).
- "two hostile groups of Mercurians": It seems our authors think the entire Solar System might be inhabited from end to end; see Wikipedia (HERE).
- "a Ganymedan Secessionist": "Ganymede, a satellite of Jupiter (Jupiter III), is the largest and most massive of the Solar System's moons. The ninth-largest object in the Solar System, it is the largest without a substantial atmosphere. It has a diameter of 5,268 km (3,273 mi), making it 26% larger than the planet Mercury by volume, although it is only 45% as massive." See Wikipedia (HERE) and (HERE).
- "you're a hophead": "slang: a drug addict." More commonly used in the '20s through the '50s. See (HERE).
- "Each day, the federal government is charged with protecting over 7,000 miles of land bordering Canada and Mexico, 95,000 miles of U.S. shoreline, and over 300 ports of entry across the United States. Each of these entry points has the potential for criminal and/or terrorist organizations to exploit corrupt officials willing to misuse their official positions for financial and/or personal gain." — From the FBI Archives (HERE).
- "unclipped his Sam Browne": Some of the most important figures in history have worn it. "The Sam Browne belt is a wide belt, usually leather, supported by a narrower strap passing diagonally over the right shoulder (although Royal Canadian Mounted Police non-commissioned members wear theirs over the left shoulder). It is most often a part of a military, para-military or police uniform." See Wikipedia (HERE).
- "A string of what they call 'cash.' It's a kind of money they used to use; square pieces of copper with holes in the middle. Had 'em strung together and sewn onto a belt." Go to China Highlights (HERE).
- "Twenty-four dollars' worth of junk beads—that's what they paid the Indians for it. Now the land is worth billions of dollars—a square foot of it brings the best part of a million." See (HERE) for an article about Manhattan real estate values (pre-beerbug, of course), from which we quote: "While the city has long been a global capital, the value of its land has traveled an uneven path. Back in 1626, the Dutchman Peter Minuit 'bought' Manhattan, 'the island of many hills,' from the Lenape people for $24 worth of trinkets. Since then, most of the hills for which it was named have been flattened, some new land has been created, and the island has become one of the priciest places in the world. Determining just how valuable that land is, however, is a tricky proposition."
- According to the ISFDb, Dirk Wylie (Joseph Harold Dockweiler) co-wrote several SFFnal tales with other well-known or soon to be well-known science fiction authors, passing away by the age of 30; see the SFE (HERE) and the Fancyclopedia (HERE).
- Our latest encounter with Frederik (no "c") Pohl was last July with his "Conspiracy on Callisto" (HERE).


  1. I prefer science fiction from the 1950s and earlier because I've never been able to come to terms with the awful truth of the inhospitable nature of the Solar System. I'd much rather believe in Leigh Brackett's Mars than the real Mars.

    And I'd much rather believe that there really are Asteroids of Sin, complete with Crime Kings, rather than just lumps of rock.

    I don't think science fiction ever quite recovered from the moon landings and the realisation that that's all the Moon is - a lump of rock.

    1. The Unknown is a huge playground for science fiction writers, and SFF authors from before the era of interplanetary space probes made the most of it. I knew a guy who refused to read anything but Burroughs, believing him to be the ultimate fantasist. All of which is not to say that SFF since Sputnik hasn't had its triumphs (there have been some), but only if today's authors can explain as colorfully and convincingly as Brackett and Burroughs did why there AREN'T such things as Martian princesses.