Short Reviews – Grifters’ Asteroid by H.L. Gold (as Harold C. Fosse)

Friday , 8, January 2016 4 Comments

“Short Reviews” are my reviews of short science fiction stories.  Sometimes the reviews themselves are short, but not always.  I started off covering some 70s Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, but have moved to focusing on older pulps (Planet Stories right now).  The purpose of this series is let people know what kinds of stories were being told in the pulps and share just how varied and awesome they are.  I’m very excited about bringing this series to a wider audience at Castalia House.  For those interested in previous installments, they can be found here.

Grifters’ Asteroid appeared in the May 1943 issue of Planet Stories.  The version reviewed was the 1953 reprint in the Fall issue of Tops in Science Fiction where it is attributed to Gold’s pseudonym Harold C. Fosse. 

What could be more enjoyable that watching cons get conned?  Watching cons get conned on an alien world, of course!  Grifters’ Asteroid takes the classic story of conmen trying to get the better of each other and puts it in the backwaters of out space.

Joe and Harvey are snake-oil salesmen who have been pushing their putrid panacea all across the solar system and at last found themselves in a lonely saloon on Planetoid 42, a tiny rock with a lovely view of Jupiter.  After quenching their thirst and taking a moment to gawk and be amazed at the proprietor’s six-armed alien servant, Joe and Harvey get the bill:

“If you gents ‘re finished at the bar, your drinks’ll be forty buckos.”

Harvey grinned puzzledly.  “We didn’t take any whiskey.”

“Might as well.  Water’s five buck’s a glass.  Liquor’s free with every chaser.”

Having been called every kind of crook in the book, Angus Johnson, saloon proprietor, mayor, justice of the peace, official recorder and fire chief of Planetoid 42, explains that first of all, he doesn’t get much business on the tiny worldlet, and secondly, the water tastes awful so has to be brought in buckets to be purified.  Harvey admits the explanation puts “a different complexion on what seemed at first to be an unconscionable middle-man between Nature and man’s thirst.”

Joe and Harvey aren’t thrilled by the prospect of filling their tanks at the generous bulk rate of $10 per litre, but they’re assured that price is only for their drinking water; they can refill their battery tanks from 42’s bitter pond for free.  On their way back, the pair notice a pipeline running to Johnson’s Saloon; they follow it all the way to shining crystal clear pond filled with the sweet clean water they’d just paid top dollar for!  Thus begins a lengthy and highly entertaining back and forth between the spacers and Johnson.  Each pulls all sorts of loony tune tricks to get back at the other and try to come out of the deal with a profit.  These schemes range from Joe and Harvey convincing Johnson to buy a stockpile of fake medicine made with his own nasty water to Johnson selling Joe and Harvey the six-armed servant who can’t actually survive off the planetoid (“Did Johnson know that when he sold you?” “Oh, sure.  Peopre from Earth buy me rots of times.  I never reave pranetoid, though.”)

One of the things that really stood out to me about this story was the relatively low stakes of the whole debacle.  In so many sci-fi stories, you see space crews struggling to make ends meet on multi-million dollar deals, while here you have a pair who are making it pretty good across the solar system conning rubes out of a few hundred bucks here and there.

Grifters’ Asteroid is hilarious piece and one illustrative of the range and variety of Planet Stories.  Planet Stories has something of a reputation for being full of blood-and-guts “Space Opera”, but it also had its fair share of the light-hearted, silly and fun that would often be found alongside the Planetary Romance and even Mil-SF stories.  I wonder, though…  Is there even a name for this picaresque subgenre of science fiction?

4 Comments
  • Aeoli Pera says:

    “Stuff that reminds me of Douglas Adams”?

    • Alex says:

      I don’t know. There’s a uniquely ‘American’ feel to these kinds of stories in a way I can’t quite articulate. Something about the cultural maelstrom of traveling salesmen, big-tent revivals, hucksters and middle-of-nowhere entrepreneurialism… The sort of thing you used to see everywhere from Bugs Bunny to stuff like The Music Man or Elmer Gantry. Take that and put it in space.

      The Beer Trust Busters was a story I read recently in a similar vein; now, I love the Brits and am a bit of an Anglophile myself, but I’d imagine that if British Spacers found out that beer was being usuriously taxed by pompous bureaucrats, they’d sit around and whinge about it. Figuring out after a drunken bender that they could create artificial and legally distinct micro solar systems so they could drink cheap beer again seems so quintessentially American!

      • Aeoli Pera says:

        Okay, the “big-tent revival” bit really puts that in perspective. A Brit may indeed “feel the Holy Ghost”, but he surely wouldn’t make such a fuss about it.

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