Quest on Phoebe by James R. Adams appeared in the Summer 1947 issue of Planet Stories.
Quest on Phoebe is definitely not the sort of story you’d see in a sci-fi mag these days. The accompanying illustration, definitely not. You sort of know what you’d be getting into with a picture of a frightened angry white guy in a jungle gunning down a pitch black, big-lipped, bug-eyed, half-naked Phoebian, but it certainly comes with a clever (by 1940s pulp standards) twist.
Ron Farr is a resourceful and clever but rather dis-likable fellow with whom we’re not supposed to sympathize. He’s heard that on the remote and uncharted jungle moon of Saturn there is a ruined temple that contains the secrets of immortality. Of course there are numerous dangers and obstacles he has to overcome first, and dammit if there aren’t all of these weird bug-eyed alien pygmies following him everywhere and watching him! At one point, he gets so mad he shoots one of them; this buys him some distance, but they keep following him, all the way through several ingenious traps that any DM would love to stock his dungeon with and to the Temple.
The final trap which ultimately gets him is pretty neat. The Temple itself is empty, but Ron gets zapped with a ray that causes him to see and for his body to believe in illusory objects and barriers. He KNOWS the walls that have trapped him are a hallucination, and is taunted by the pygmies who freely pass through the barriers which he cannot. He ends up dashing his brains out against the illusion. Turns out the pygmies all carried tubes with the elixir of immortality on them at all times and have made it their duty to escort the chosen one who will eventually come to the temple, beating its obstacles, and bestow the secrets of lost Phoebe on them, but they’re glad that it wasn’t this guy because he was a dick anyway.
The weird Phoebians are shown to be pretty magnanimous and more enlightened in their primitivity than Ron is with his gun and lust for wealth or even the ancients and their bloody traps. It’s easy to want to write Quest on Phoebe off as just another bland and vaguely racist story, but I feel like what we have here is something akin to looking at stories like Fafhrd & Mouser stealing a god’s eye and killing all of his priests sworn to guard from the other side. Of course in Fafhrd & Mouser’s case, they’re clearly anti-heroes for whom we’re rooting because the stories are from their perspective. But Quest on Phoebe seems more to be a deconstruction of the stories in which a brave spaceman shows up, kills all the natives, and gets away with their treasure than to be an example of one. What really makes this work is that it IS a pretty action packed adventure story that’s entertaining to read, but by making the protagonist just unlikable enough that you can be impressed by his cunning and still find him despicable and punctuating the story with a brief account of the ordeal from the perspective of the Phoebians, Adams pulls off something really interesting here without coming off as being preachy or condescending about pulp tropes.
Or maybe he really was racist and I’m reading too much into this. Either way, damn interesting story. Sorry it’s not available anywhere online.