Wasp by Eric Frank Russell

Sarah Weinman, over at Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind, pointed me to an article in "The Boston Globe" earlier in the week. The piece by James Sallis is titled "Echoes from Sci-Fi's Golden Age", and deals with Eric Frank Russell's short novel Wasp that was first published back in the mid-1950s.

Leaving aside my objections to the use of the term "sci-fi" other than for derogatory means the article reminded me of the joys of reading Russell's work. So I went back to the bookshelves and dragged out my copy. I must have bought it, probably second-hand, in the 1970s and read it then. I might also have read it in its first appearance in "Astounding" from my father's collection of old sf magazines, but I wouldn't want to bet on that. So I hadn't looked at the book for some thirty years and I was a bit worried that my memory of the work might have been tainted by the years in raising it above its natural level. So I approached it with some degree of trepidation - after all, I didn't want to come to the realisation that i) my memory is failing me, and ii) that I used to like total crap.

In his article Sallis acknowledges that a lot of sf written in the so-called "golden age" just doesn't stack up these days: the plots are thin, the characters thinner. But some of it has stayed the distance, and Sallis offers up Russell's Wasp as an example of a novel that deserves to be read, especially in our current times of cultural/religious wars.

In Wasp the Terran Empire is at war with the alien Sirian Empire. The humans are technologically superior, while the Sirians have a larger population and a larger number of planets on which they are based. James Mowry spent the first seventeen years of his life living on a planet in the Sirian sphere and, given his propensity to be a pest to any form of authority, is employed/co-opted into joining the human war effort. His mission involves running a one-man insurgency campaign on a Sirian planet, the aim of which is to divert alien resources from the war against the humans. He is to become the wasp of the book's title. Skin dyed purple and ears pinned back to pass as a native he is dropped onto the target planet, and the fun begins.

Basically the book fits neatly into "Astounding" editor John W. Campbell's view of the superiority of the human species over any other. The fact that we had never encountered another intelligent species didn't seem to ever sway Campbell; it was his opinion and he was sticking to it. And this "species-view" was reflected in a lot of the stories he published. The humans are always smart and resourceful, the aliens always dumb, lumbering and generally burdened by a stifling political system: in this case a bureaucratic police state.

The parallels with today's conflicts are obvious. But above all else the novel is funny. It pokes fun at authority and the propaganda war: "For months we have been making triumphant retreats before a demoralized enemy who is advancing in utter disorder." Read it for a bit of light relief and a ripping yarn in these troubled times.

[The article by Sallis also brought out a confession from Neil Gaiman: it seems that he had the film option on the book, and was writing the screenplay when September 11th 2001 arrived, and then it just "wasn't fiction any longer."]

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on September 16, 2005 1:40 PM.

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