[originally posted here at Castalia House]
Asteroid of Fear by Raymond Z. Gallun was featured in March 1951 issue of Planet Stories. It can be found here at Archive.org.
This issue that started out a bit rocky* finds its footing with Asteroid of Fear. Though the menace is human, the setting and sci-fi elements are anything but mundane.
John Endlich and his family are the first agricultural colonists on the asteroid Vesta, assigned and provided for by the Asteroids Homesteaders Office to grow foods locally for asteroid miners. Johnny’s one of those guys who’s made his own bad luck in the past, and this could very well be the last chance to do right by his family. After a rough ride of ups and downs in life, standing up to a bully landed him in jail for six month, costing him last farm, so in a last ditch effort, he signed up to be given a kit and head off to the asteroid belt. Unfortunately for John, he finds himself the target of harassment from a group of space miners on their way back from a brief respite on Earth.
Things escalate between Johnny and one miner, Alf Neely, who threatens do to violent mischief on John, his farm, and his family. On an asteroid like Vesta, with no atmosphere, even prankish sabotage of a man’s efforts can cost him his life, so John and his family are forced to live on edge, ever watchful of Neely and his pals who might wreck their equipment or rupture their habdome while they sleep.
After a stressful touch and go period setting up the farmstead, eased somewhat by Neely having to do a stint in lockdown after John’s wife reported an incident to the cops, Endlich finally has some crops to show for all his efforts. He makes the mistake of taking a handful of tomatoes to show off down at the miner’s bar; Neely bursts in, ready for a fight, and several other miners are right behind him, but Endlich manages to clobber the brute and drag him off back to his farm as a hostage, the horde of miners chasing after him. When he gets back to the farm, a hilarious scene unfolds where, to the cheers and jeers of the miners gathered around the habdome, Endlich forces Neely at gunpoint to eat tomato after tomato till he’s sick.
The real neat part of this story was the setting and little touches. Asteroid of Fear works under the premise that the asteroids were part of an Earth-like planet that was destroyed in a cataclysmic instant. Where the Endliches set up on Vesta is near the ruins of a pre-cataclysm settlement that was partially preserved by the rapid loss of the planet’s atmosphere – the kids even find the remains of inhabitants, millions of years dead and frozen, in the beds of abandoned domiciles on Vesta’s surface. As the habdome returns warmth and atmosphere to the flash-frozen mummified earth, signs of ancient life begin to re-emerge as seeds, spores, and insect eggs that had lain dormant for aeons wake from their slumber.
Another thing I would note is that while the perspective view seems to first imply that being out in space for long periods of time has turned the miners into inhuman monsters, the real twist is that Alf Neely is just a bully; the miners have had it rough and became rough to cope, but they come around to Endlich in the end. Gallun’s novelette was excellent and, after Black Amazon of Mars, is my favorite in this issue.
*:Though I talked about Black Amazon first, it is actually the last story in this issue. I’ll be wrapping this issue up next week with a Ross Rocklynne reprint, The Diversifal, followed by a few highlights from the letters..