G. C. Edmondson’s 1980 The Man Who Corrupted Earth is a stand-alone near-future space industrialization novel.
Screwed over by government and his back-stabbing son-in-law, Gus Dampier lost control of his company. Gus is not content to be put out to pasture. He and an ambitious Arab named Mansour have a cunning scheme that may make them billions, upend the economy and save oil-dependent Arab nations1! If it screws over the WASP pricks who run the USA, all the better.
Their recipe for success begins “first, steal three derelict shuttles.”
Despite Moon-Treaty-related lawsuits making lunar development a chancy thing, NASA is powering ahead with space development plans centred on lunar resources. Gus believes this is pure malarky, but it does offer him the means by which he can pursue his own covert program. Old shuttles are abandoned in graveyard orbits. Even a man down to his last ten million can afford to buy some, as long as he lies about how they will be used.
Although they are too worn out to survive another Earth to orbit trip, gentler accelerations will not damage them. Another benefit of the Moon program is a comparative abundance of solid rocket boosters. Add the two together and you have a system that can quietly make its way out to prospect for asteroids. Even better, it can return with enough iron in one go to send shockwaves through the markets, shockwaves someone aware of the impending payload can exploit. What could go wrong?
Well … someone might target Gus for repeated assassination attempts. Yes, that happens. Is it Mansour’s brother Sheikh Omar the Beloved, suddenly paranoid that supposed playboy Mansour has his eye on Omar’s job as head of state? Or is it some other faction whose existence is as yet a mystery to Gus?
If assassination attempts were not enough, Philps Averill of the Environmental and Consumer Protection Administration contacts Gus’ son-in-law, F. X. M’Meath, for a spot of genteel blackmail. He offers M’Meath the opportunity to betray his father-in-law once more. Or he might choose to have his foreign sales kneecapped by interventionist agencies, dooming the company M’Meath betrayed Gus to save. The choice entirely M’Meath’s.
Gus’s astronaut recruits — Sin, Army, and Jarfi — venture into the Asteroid Belt and discover the Asteroid Belt is sparsely speckled with valueless debris. Had they enough time, the trio should be able to find an iron asteroid2. However, time is something they very much do not have; Gus’ experts fatally underestimated the health costs of free fall. Very soon Sin, Army, and Jarfi will be far too dead to prospect, let along return a payload to Earth.
Remember how angry people were about the Moon Treaty? No? Well, they were seething. Ads were taken out in the SF magazines denouncing the treaty! An SF author cognizant of his audience would be aware digs at the Moon Treaty would appeal to his audience as much as digs at those darn environmentalist bureaucrats. Edmondson does not disappoint3, although he does deviate from the standard model of space industrialization in other ways.
Although they don’t play an active role in the plot, be warned that various characters grumble about Jewish political advocacy groups and Zionists in the book. It’s “they prioritize Israel’s defense needs”, not “they secretly run Hollywood and the banks.” I also noted that while the book has a surprising diverse cast for its time, there don’t seem to be any Jewish characters at all.
The author is a cynic and finds many targets for cynicism.
Gus’ African-American associate Albert adopts a ludicrous Steppin Fetchit accent whenever unfamiliar white people are around, confident they will dismiss Albert as a mere servant. Nothing in the novel suggests that Albert’s estimation of the average white person’s insight into black character is wrong.
Army’s subplot involves being a black man raised by well-meaning liberals. Army subsequently discovered that everyone who looked like him suspected he was a social-climbing poseur as soon as they heard him speak, whereas nobody who looked like his parents got as far as listening to Army once they saw the colour of his skin.
Author José Mario Garry Ordoñez Edmondson y Cotton reserves most of his ire for America’s WASPs, here presented as running the US economy as a long con designed to funnel money into the pockets of a handful of old families, while protecting said families from the legal consequences of predatory actions that would send darker complected or Irish-descended Americans to prison. Indeed, Gus’ problems are in large part due to pissing off the WASP establishment; he helped send Old Money stock raiders to prison for embezzling from a pension fund.
Gus and Mansour’s initial bold scheme involves delivering to Earth in one shot a quantity of iron that is simultaneously large in absolute terms and small compared to the annual terrestrial production of iron, thus destabilising the global iron market, then (vague details go here), and finally profit! Why iron, you ask? I have no idea, unless Edmondson was riffing on an old Jerry Pournelle essay that proposed using tens of thousands of nuclear warheads to deliver iron to the Earth. Although that just raises the question of why Pournelle was so focused on iron.
Gus and Mansour’s scheme is, of course, totally economically implausible. Yes, there is lots of iron in the Asteroid Belt; covertly getting it from the Belt and cornering the iron market is the implausibility. To be honest, the scheme does not actually work: Gus gets lucky and his people stumble over something far more valuable (and much more improbable) while looking for their iron4. It’s almost as if the author didn’t give a damn about plausibility as long as he could power through to the ending he wanted and skewer folks he didn’t like along the way.
Flipping though back-issues of Ares Magazine (as one does), I see that Greg Costikyan thought highly of the novel. Keith Soltys of Science Fiction Review seems almost as positive, despite concerns about plausibility. I am less positive, although I did enjoy the bits where the realities of working in space turned out to matter.
The Man Who Corrupted Earth is out of print.
1: More specifically, save the Arabs from the economic collapse that could follow once Middle Eastern oil reserves are used up.
2: A lot of people would have used astronomical data to narrow down their candidates before dispatching prospecting teams but Gus et all appear to have hoped that at least one of the three shuttles would get lucky blindly searching.
3: He appears to have missed the trifecta by not denouncing William Proxmire.
4: Gus provides Mansour with a WMD in the form of orbital payload delivered at speed to the ground. Plucky little guys obtaining WMDs to deter the big guys from fucking with them was a recurring trope at the time (see also Ecotopiaand Alongside Night) but giving them to an Arab nation was and is considerably less common.