Invent something new, so I can steal it

Con artists specialize. Not in who they pretend to be – a stock-market scam can be refitted as a horse-racing scam if that's what fires the mark's greed. They specialize in their relationship with the mark while the con plays out.

A roper travels from town to town, sizing up new marks and introducing them to the mob. A manager might never even see the mark – he's too busy organizing the other players behind the scenes. And even after the mark's money is safely in the mob's pockets, one vital role remains: a cooler keeps the mark from beefing to the police.

But never by threatening him. No, the cooler often poses as a fellow victim of a good idea gone sour. "What terrible bad luck – though I guess it could happen to anyone," he might say; or perhaps "No one but you will never know about this – my colleagues would never respect me again", if that seems more effective. In the words of Erving Goffman, "The mark is given instruction in the philosophy of taking a loss."

Goffman wasn a sociologist, not a con artist1. Life, he suggested, is a lot like a con game – and we're all marks. We all lose precious things; money, love, dreams; youth; health; and in the end, life itself. And, for the most part, we convince ourselves to accept our losses. We're all marks – and we're all coolers.

When I read Goffman's famous essay "On Cooling the Mark Out" – go read it, my summary barely scratched the surface! – I found myself thinking about those criminal specialties. While the details of con games have changed over the years, the basics haven't. Once you look under the hood, Nigerian scam e-mails work just like the 16th century Spanish Prisoner. But could truly new con games arise in the future? Could future con artists want something other than money? What if the criminals weren't even human? What advantages might that give them – and what might they fail to understand about us?

I turned those thoughts into a story about non-human con artists – "Heist" – that Stanley Schmidt bought for the June 2010 issue of Analog.

Like a lot of stories that appeared in print, "Heist" was hard to find unless you hunted up a back issue of Analog. Then Upper Rubber Boot Books tried doing a line of electronic reprints of stories that were only available in hardcopy, meaning you can get "Heist" for your e-reader. (Unfortunately, I hear the line wasn't a big success.)

It's a story I still enjoy, from the con game to the collapsing imaginary economy of a high-fantasy MMORPG. And if you're curious how it plays out, you can get the e-book on Amazon! Be sure to leave a review!

1. Hard-science types are no doubt asking "What's the difference?" (back to article)

Written on January 20, 2016