Thursday, September 29, 2011

Apparently you can NEVER trust a Martian

It's always fun to stumble across a pulp-era story I haven't read before.

"The Devil's Asteroid," by Manly Wade Wellman, was published in the July 1941 issue of Comet magazine. It's not a classic, but its a fast-moving and entertaining short story with a cool setting.

The main character is Fitzhugh Parr, an Earthman who's been accused of murdering a Martian. (He claims self-defense, but he seems to hate Martians so much, I'm not sure he can be considered a reliable narrator.) Because Mars and Earth have a treaty that prevent them from executing each others citizens, Parr is sentenced to permanent exile on an asteroid.

It's a tiny world where an artificial gravity generator is used to maintain an atmosphere, along with enough plant life to provide food. Parr is left there and soon contacts other exiles. He's surprised to find that, as the newest guy, he's now in charge.

There's a reason for that odd custom, though. On this planet, humans gradually regress, becoming more and more animal-like until they eventually become animals. The regression is physical as well as intellectual, so there's a community of ape men who have been exiled from the other exiles.

Parr is a two-fisted sort of guy, so he immediately comes up with a plan to capture the next Martian ship that lands, eager to get away before he begins regressing. This doesn't go well and he ends up losing his leadership position to a newly arrived woman. But, through the time-tested method of beating up a really big ape man, he soon gain controls of the ape man community.

But there is more going on around the small asteroid than Parr suspects, all leading up to a fairly nice twist at the end.

Not a bad little story at all. It's available to read online HERE.

There is one interesting thing to note about this story. The Martians in it pretty much come across as a sadistic race, using this particular asteroid as a sort of Botany Bay simply because the regression is a way to torment the exiles.

I guess it's because Mars is named after the god of war, but it's turned out to be populated by a pretty high percentage of violent races in various fictional universes. There's been some benevolent and/or peaceful Martians from time to time, but most of the best-known Martians would just as soon cut your throat as look at you. In the case of H.G. Wells' Martians, they'd drink your blood afterwards.

Edgar Rice Burroughs gave us a Mars where there's nothing anyone likes better than a good sword fight. Robert Sawyer's time travel novel End of an Era gave us an intelligent Martian virus that took control of dinosaurs. Heck, even the Topps trading cards company gave us Martians mean enough to shoot a dog.

There's no getting around it. If you ever meet a Martian, run for it. There's just no trusting 'em.

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