Retro Review: “Gambler’s Asteroid” by Manly Wade Wellman

Thrilling Wonder Stories, spring 1944

There are no space walrusses in “Gambler’s Asteroid” either

“Gambler’s Asteroid” is a space opera short story by Manly Wade Wellman, that was published in the Spring 1944 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories and would have been eligible for the 1945 Retro Hugo Award. The story may be read online here. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.

Warning: Spoilers beyond this point.

The titular gambler’s asteroid is 624 Hektor (spelled “Hector” in this story), which in this story’s version of the pulp science fiction shared solar system has been encased in a bubble of glassite and had its spin sped up by atomic engines to create artificial gravity (Hector is too small to have much in the way of natural gravity) on the inside of the glassite bubble. So all of the characters in this story are walking around on a glass floor with the stars below them. An enterprising Venusian than turned Hector into a sort of interplanetary Las Vegas or rather Atlantic City, considering that the Las Vegas we know today is largely a postwar phenomenon.

Our protagonist is Patch Merrick, a not very successful gambler, who has just bet his last value-units on a card game named Indemnity. The game is fictional, but Wellman explains how it works in a quick paragraph. Not that it matters much, because Merrick loses in the second round anyway.

Wellman now gives us some backstory about Merrick and his tentacled and telepathic Martian pal Zaarrgon. Turns out that Merrick and Zaarrgon are fugitives on the run. Zaarrgon is another of those social justice warriors that certain quarters still claim did not exist in golden age science fiction. He stole water to help his fellow Martians who were dying of thirst and thus attracted the attention of the Martio-Terrestrial League. I can’t help but wonder whether this organisation is a rebrand of Leigh Brackett’s Terran Exploitation Company. “Hey, we’re still an evil bloodsucking company, but at least out new name is a little less blatant about it.”

Zaarrgon ended up in prison, facing execution, and Merrick, who refers to himself as “guilty of sentimentality”, broke him out. As a result, Merrick lost his promising career and his fiancée Morgana Conti, daughter of the wealthy Coburn Conti, and was forced to flee with Zaarrgon to the lawless asteroid belt. They stopped on Hector, hoping to win enough money – pardon, value-units – to buy supplies for their space cruiser and continue their escape. However, Martians are banned from gambling on Hector due to being telepathic and Merrick turns out to be really crap at gambling, so they’re soon out of money and supplies.

The game that Merrick was playing normally ends with all players, including those who dropped out, comparing their totals. The highest total wins. Merrick had good cards. However, he and Zaarrgon are broke and the stakes are too high for them, so Merrick wagers their space cruiser instead. There is obviously no way this can go wrong.

However this time, Merrick gets lucky and beats not just a fellow human player named Mr. Alabaster, but also the house. Now he and Zaarrgon have more than enough to resupply their ship.

Mr. Alabaster, on the other hand, is not happy at all, because he was on Hector to do a job and the money he just gambled away was expense money. Turns out he is a bounter hunter, albeit a very inept one, who is supposed to hunt down Merrick and Zaarrgon on behalf of Morgana Conti and her father. Zaarrgon is still scheduled for execution. As for Merrick, his fate will be worse, at least according to Alabaster, because Morgana Conti still wants to marry him. As for Alabaster, he wound up with the bounty hunting job, because he’s a friend of the Conti family and Morgana hired him. However, she did not consider supplying Alabaster with photos of Merrick and Zaarrgon, which seems like an odd oversight.

Zaarrgon gives the luckless Alabaster his money back and tells him that the fugitives are headed for the moons of Jupiter to throw him off their scent. Not that it helps much, because Zaarrgon and Merrick are arrested anyway by casino security guards who overheard their conversation with Alabaster.

And so Zaarrgon and Merrick end up in prison, while the casino security chief, a froglike Venusian named Lirog, immediately calls Morgana Conti and asks if the prisoners are the fugitives she seeks. Morgana confirms this, doubles the reward and declares that she will pick up the prisoners herself. Alabaster shows up again as well to gloat, because Morgana will pay him a handsome reward as well.

While Merrick and Alabaster are arguing, Zaarrgon uses one of his tentacles to steal a guard’s handy rust raygun and uses it to reduce the lock of their cell to rust. Merrick knocks out a guard and the two fugitives are on the run once more.

On their way back to their space cruiser, they steal some of the atomic fuel for the engines which keep Hector spinning. There is some brief technobabble that Hector was once the centre of a planet that broke apart to form the asteroid belt, which is why powerful atomic fuel can be found there. Fuel powerful enough to take Zaarrgon’s and Merrick’s space cruiser beyond the solar system, though what they plan to do there is anybody’s guess.

They reach the docking bay of their cruiser, Merrick knocks out two more guards and Zaarrgon, who’s clearly the brains of this outfit, uses the rust ray he borrowed to weaken the frames of the glassite sheets and blow a hole into the bubble that envelops Hector, which will both allow the space cruiser to escape and keep everybody on the asteroid so busy with repairing the breach that they won’t have time to follow the fugitives.

The plan works, too. Merrick and Zaarrgon escape and head for another asteroid to purchase supplies, since luckily no one thought to relieve them of their winnings before throwing them into prison.

However, as Merrick and Zaarrgon make their escape aboard their space cruiser, they receive a call from none other than Morgana, who informs them that her plan worked.

When Merrick points out that her plan didn’t work, because he and Zaarrgon escaped, Morgana reveals that she wanted them to escape and made sure they would. She sent Alabaster after them, because he is the stupidest man she knows and a compulsive gambler besides. Then she bribed the card dealer to make sure that Alabaster lost all his expense money to Merrick, allowing Morgana to secretly finance Merrick’s escape.

However, the card dealer informed Ligon, the casino security chief, who then decided to arrest Merrick and Zaargon to get the reward himself. Merrick once more tries to reassert his independence by telling Morgana that he and Zaargon broke out on their own.

“That’s what you think”, Morgana says and reveals that she paid Alabaster to smuggle the rust gun into the prison, allowing Merrick and Zaargon to escape. Merrick is dumbfounded and Morgana tells him that he can’t come home now anyway, because he’s still a wanted man and because there are still many things that Morgana has to fix. And besides, she knows that Merrick isn’t ready to settle down just yet, but once he’s had enough of adventure, he’ll come back to her.

The story ends with Merrick moping and Zaarrgon babbling about asteroids and the creation of the asteroid belt and wondering why Merrick is moping. I take it back. Zaarrgon is not the brains of the outfit, he and Merrick are both idiots in their own way. Morgana, on the other hand, is awesome.

I have to admit, I only read this story, because I flipped forward through the Spring 1944 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories after reading “Unsung Hero” by Ruth Washburn and came across this story – after two pages of “incredible but true Scientifacts”. The interior art – showing an anthropomorphic frog and a man in a cage ogling an attractive woman – looked intriguing enough and besides, I like Manly Wade Wellman‘s writing, so I decided to read it. I’m glad that I did, because this is a fun space opera adventure that manages to pack a lot of plot into only six pages.

If I have one complaint about “Gambler’s Asteroid” it’s that it’s too short. With the amount of plot and backstory there is, this could easily have been a novella, if not a novel. The glassite encased asteroid Hector is a fascinating setting, which I would have loved to explore more. I also would have loved to see Merrick break Zaarrgon out of prison and learn more about Merrick’s relationship with Morgana and her father and just what his life and promising career were like, before he decided to free Zaarrgon. And of course, I would have loved to see more of Morgana than two brief videocalls, because Morgana is awesome.

Intergalactic gambling dens are a space opera staple these days, whether it’s Canto Bight and Bespin of Star Wars fame (okay, we never actually see any gambling on Bespin, but you know it’s going on somewhere, considering who runs the place), Stardust City in a recent Star Trek: Picard episode as well as a lots of other intergalactic gambling dens in pretty much every Star Trek series to date, the casino planet Carillon in the original Battlestar Galactica or The Scuttling Cockroach, where Mikhail and Anjali rescue Pietro Garibaldi and get themselves into trouble in my own Freedom’s Horizon. However, Hector is the granddaddy of all of those intergalactic gambling dens. I’m not sure if this is the first intergalactic gambling den to ever feature in science fiction – most likely it’s not. But it’s definitely a very early example.

These days, Manly Wade Wellman is mainly remembered for his (very good) occult detective and folk horror stories – indeed, I reviewed one of them. But like most authors of the pulp era, Wellman was a man(ly) of any talents, who also wrote science fiction, mystery and crime fiction, comic books (a Spirit comic he wrote was nominated for the Retro Hugo this year) and historical non-fiction and who was even nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and won the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine Award over William Faulkner. However, Wellman’s science fiction stories, particularly his space opera tales from the 1930s and 1940s, are less well known than his fantasy and horror stories. At least based on “Gambler’s Asteroid”, I think that’s a pity.

Wellman’s skills as a writer are clearly evident in this very short story. In a few lines and paragraphs, he manages to sketch a fascinating setting by sprinkling in details like “Venusian chirp-water music”, a “Martian joy-lamp shedding stimulus rays overhead” or the popular Martian genre of “formalised comi-tragedy”, all of which are attractions on offer on the glassite floors of Hector. Wellman also had a dry humour that sets his work apart from other pulpy space opera tales of the era.

Like too many of the stories I have reviewed here at Retro Reviews, “Gambler’s Asteroid” has never been reprinted. I sincerely wonder why, because there is a lot to like about this fun space opera caper.

 

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