Short Reviews – The Dead-Star Rover, by Robert Abernathy

Friday , 29, March 2019 5 Comments

The Dead-Star Rover, by Robert Abernathy, appeared in the Winter 1949 issue of Planet Stories. It can (and should) be read here at

It’s been rare that I’ve been as excited about a story as I have been for The Dead-Star Rover. But I’m back to reading Planet Stories, again, and I did not realize how much I’d missed them, nor just how much a cut above that Planet Stories really was in the mid-to-late 40s, after I’d gone for so long reading other pulps. Don’t get me wrong, aside from that terrible desert of Astounding, I’ve read and reviewed a handful of really good stories, but this… This is angelic choirs in the heaven, lights shining down… Gameable content, my friends!

I could talk about how The Dead-Star Rover blows up modern memes of the pulps, focus on its progressive aspects, like the fact that the couple is interracial and the protagonist is a dark-skinned man with a pale white dame (run in the issue right after Stark’s second adventure), but I’d rather talk about the fact that this is easily adaptable as a Mad Max-esque setting for something like Car Wars.

It’s all here in The Dead-Star Rover! Different races that are largely delineated along the lines of what tech they’ve scavenged and by the vehicles they are using. On this post-apocalyptic world, self-sustaining machine vehicles roam the barren lands, sometimes autonomously, other times piloted. The tale begins with one of the “terrapin” who has just taken out the aero of one of the bird people—its pilot is a beautiful, if brash, woman. Losing her aero has doomed the girl among her people, sparing her life has doomed the man among his.

But onto the setting write-up!

Panzer-jacking the Panzer-Folk


The Terrapin are a nomadic people who drive large and fast rovers (their “Terrapin” from which they get their names). The Terrapin spend much of their time hunting alone or in packs; their prey are large autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles that they use for parts to repair their own vehicles. They often prey upon the Trailer-folk. Their vehicles have speeds of 100-150 mph; their living compartments contain room for immediate family. The Terrapin are a proud people but with many traditions and taboos, particularly against outsiders. The Terrapin are preyed upon the Bird-Peoples and Buzzards.


The Trailer-Folk live in large autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles. They travel in large “herds” for safety. The Trailers themselves have large space for families and replication technology that allows for a great many sundry items and food to be created from minerals and organics that the vehicles continuously harvest. Life among the Trailers is bountiful, but this makes them an easy target for the many other hunter cultures.


Living in Aeries high in mountains and on plateaus overlooking the wastes, the Bird-People have very fast, agile and powerful aircraft; each Bird has their own “aero” which they must earn. Loss of one’s aero is a great dishonor. Birds who have lost their aero have only a life of servitude to look forward to, if another Aerie will take them in. The Bird-People believe themselves to be the master race of earth and once they successfully subdue the inferior terrestrial peoples, they can set upon the task of rebuilding civilization.


The Panzer-Folk live inside gigantic war tanks. These tanks have extremely effective long-range guns and anti-weapons. Additionally, they are known for their advanced radar capabilities and are the bane of both air and land craft, however they may be snuck up on by foot or from below. The Panzer-folk are primarily nocturnal hunters, and in the early pre-dawn hours will seek out safe terrain where they may defend themselves against air attacks and visibility to take out any ground attackers at a distance. Panzer-folk are solitary hunters, and each Panzer is capable of sustaining a small family.


Very little is known about the Mole-People, except that they have powerful drilling rigs that give them access to underground mineral and organic deposits while keeping them safe from both aerial and terrestrial hunting bands.

Pill-Box People

The Pill-Box People have traded mobility for safety. They live in large fortifications with potent gun emplacements that can keep most foes at bay, unless a very large and well organized force were to co-ordinate an attack against them. The Pill-Box people are believed to be very resource-wealthy (moreso than the Trailer-folk), with many of the supplies, weaponry, food, and resource harvesting capabilities and technologies that the other tribes covet. It’s all there for the taking, but it’s VERY well defended!


Buzzards are the scourge of the air. While the Bird people prefer fixed-wing craft, the Buzzards fly all manner of rotary and directional jet vehicles. Contraindicative of their name, the Buzzards don’t scavenge but actively hunt and destroy, often for the thrill of it. They’ve been known to use heavy weaponry and bombs in their raids, sometimes even resorting to chemical warfare when they really want a win.

Ship People

Those who lived on the ships were least affected when the bombs went off. They had plenty of food in the seas and access to much of the old technology. These were likely the descendants of the world’s great navies, and through discipline and perseverance (plus not having to deal with the terrestrial squabbles of the other folk) were able to preserve, recover and advance. Like the Bird people, they hope to re-unite the world, only they hope to do so not as the race of ship-people, but as the race of Men. The Ship People have aerial vehicles, which they have used to observe and make contact with other tribes. Additionally, they have tele-imaging capabilities which allow them to safely project images of themselves among potentially hostile contacts. The Ship-People have recently developed EMP technology which they hope to use to quell the fighting among the vehicle tribes long enough to establish peace.

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  • I took your advice and read the story before your review. It took a bit to realize the overall situation, but it was a thrilling reveal when I figured it out.

    The idea of the machine “ecology” reminded me of things like Gregory Benford’s “Great Sky River.” The humans can only survive by serving the machines or keeping beneath their notice.

    Also, what would you make of the “Dragon People?” I think they are flamethrower tanks that operate in small squads. Might fit into the hierarchy in between the Terrapins and the Panzers.

  • Alex says:

    Aww, man, I completely forgot to write up the Dragon People!

    Yeah, they probably use light flame-thrower tanks.

    The first passage took me a few reads, because the pilot, pilot’s race, and the vehicle name were used interchangeably.

    To really use this as a setting, you’d also probably have to make an absolute call on just how autonomous the machines were and what other machines were out there besides the ones that the humans used as vehicles.

  • A. Nonymous says:

    I could talk about how The Dead-Star Rover blows up modern memes of the pulps, focus on its progressive aspects, like the fact that the couple is interracial and the protagonist is a dark-skinned man with a pale white dame (run in the issue right after Stark’s second adventure)

    Stopped reading there.

  • […] stories we reviewed, including Spider Men of Gharr, the Stark Stories, and more recently The Dead-Star Rover, featured non-white protagonists and/or explicitly interracial couples. Women not only were reading […]

  • Roy Niblett says:

    I read this recently on Gutenberg and really liked it. The only thing I found struck a false note was the anti-ionization field which shuts down spark ignition engines, simply because I would have expected most of the land vehicles to use compression ignition (given post WW2 tech which is about the time of writing). As I read it, none of the machines were autonomous, all included human crew who had become culturally part of their specific machines. Tech level (except for the sea people and possibly the Buzzards) appears about 1940s. BTW, are the “buzzards” in Mad Max Fury Road a reference?

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