Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, March 6, 2020


Wasp by Eric Frank Russell (1957)

Russell (1905-1978) was a popular science fiction writer who produced a number of strong and not-so-strong stories throughout his career.   Although British, much of his work was first published in the United States.  This may be an oversimplification, but Russell was basically a two-trick pony.   First was his work that echoed Charles Fort's "we are property theme" (and others), as can be seen in his first novel Sinister Barrier (Unknown, March 1939; book publication 1943), for which editor John W. Campbell reportedly started the fantasy magazine Unknown as a proper vehicle for the novel.  The similarly themed Dreadful Sanctuary ran as a three-part serial in Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction in 1948 with book publication in 1951 (followed by two revisions in 1963 and 1967); here, Earth is basically a lunatic asylum run by unseen aliens.  Following the Fortean themes, Russel also published a collection of articles, Great World Mysteries, in 1957.  The other trick in Russell's arsenal pandered to Campbell's human chauvinism, in which wily humans get the best of non-human invaders, often in comic settings.  Thus, we have The Space Willies (also published as "The Space Willies" and Next of Kin), Wasp, and to a lesser degree The Sentinels of Space (with the added lagniappe of Campbellian psi-powers), Three to Conquer, With a Strange Device, and The Great Explosion.

Strangely, Wasp never appeared in Campbell's Astounding, where it would have been a good fit, but was released first as a book and the following year was serialized in Britain's New Worlds.  Calling the story "straightforward an unadorned," Amazing Science Fiction reported that Russell succeeds superbly within the limits he has set for himself."  Astounding's P. Schuyler Miller was not so impressed:  "Here's a good story idea and a good writer gone to waste."  Au contraire, said Galaxy's Floyd C. Gale:  "Russell has invested this hard-boiled yard with plenty of action and authenticity.  A fine light opera."  Anthony Boucher called it "a clever and diverting thriller, to which one's only objection might be that it's hardly s.f. in any sense" when reviewing the book for F&SF.  Despite being a "run-of-the-mill secret-agent adventure," said Leslie Flood in New Worlds, "as a lively puppet show it can be enjoyed by a tolerant audience. so it is possible to revel in Russell's smoothly styled action, sardonic eye for humorous details, and, let's face it, his gift for sheer readability."  Robert Silverberg (reviewing as "Calvin Knox" in Science Fiction Adventures) notes "the usual Russell treats:  light-hearted prose rich with flippant dialog, constant inventiveness of style, and steady suspense...In short, nothing profound here -- bit good fun from the first page to the last."

At its heart, Wasp is a spy story.  Earth is at war with the Sirian Combine.  Earth's defenses are good enough so the Sirians cannot attack the planet itself and the war has settled into one of attrition.  In war, there must be a winner and a loser.  Otherwise both sides will eventually degrade.  In order to win the war, Earth has decided to employ wasps.  A wasp can cause the crash of a car, killing the occupants by causing panic with destruction and death to follow.  "Under the right circumstances, one man can shake a government.  One such man -- wasp -- is James Mowry, sent to a Sirian planet to disrupt the government.  Armed with false identities, unlimited (counterfeit) funds, the ability to disguise himself, and a deep knowledge of psychology.  Mowry begins a campaign of disinformation, aided by rumor and the paranoid fear that a totalitarian government secretly holds.

Mowry spreads word of a fictional anti-government group Dirac Angestun Gespet.  A few isolated and widely distributed bits of minor terrorism are enough to convince the enemy that the imaginary opposition group is a real and valid threat.  Resources that would have been used for the war are redeployed to try to counter this new "threat."  In doing so the government institutes harder restrictions, which in turn foster additional resentment among the populace.  These methods have been used before and Russell draws upon his World War II experiences to make them seem real.  Except for some science fictional trappings, the book could well have been a World War II adventure set in Germany or Japan -- something that does not negate enjoying this novel.

Russell was a good writer and even his lesser efforts are usually worth reading.  Wasp, however, is not a lesser effort, albeit a minor one. There are no great concepts here, just a fast, smooth read from start to finish.  For those who like that sort of thing (and I do) there are many worse ways to spend an evening.

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