Individual and Irreverent: Eric Frank Russell

When I re-read Eric Frank Russell’s Next of Kin yesterday for the first time in a long time, I was surprised to discover that the story I remembered started on page 105 of 160. When I’d finished, I went to check with Sasha, who was twelve a lot more recently than I was. “You’ve read Next of Kin, yes?” “Sure. That’s the one with the guy who’s captured by the aliens and–” “On what page would you say he was captured by the aliens? Just a rough estimate?” “Page 3?” he asked, giving me his “You know, I could have had a normal mother!” look.

Next of Kin consists 105 pages of old fashioned SF adventure followed by 55 pages of sheer brilliance. In the first part, John Leeming, a scout-ship pilot with an attitude problem, goes behind enemy lines in a star-spanning war to scout out the depth of enemy territory. He discovers 82 planets and crashlands on the 83rd, where he survives for a while in the wilderness before being captured, escaping, survives again and almost gets off the planet, all before we get to the good bit. Bear in mind that all this only takes 105 pages–they made books shorter in 1959, but they didn’t pack any less story into them. In the terrific concluding section, Leeming single handedly wins the war from an alien prison cell by some fast talking. No, it’s better than that. He does it by pretending that all humans have an invisible symbiote called a Eustace, and manages to make the aliens believe it by some clever wordplay.  It’s funny, it’s clever, and it’s entirely unforgettable–unlike the earlier part of the book.

If Heinlein had three plots, “boy meets girl”, “man learns lesson” and “the little tailor”, Russell had one–man vs bureaucracy. Heinlein’s “boy” might be a girl and his “man” might be “mankind”, but Russell’s man was always just that–one male human singlehandedly overcoming the vast forces of bureaucracy. Sometimes, as in Next of Kin and Wasp, it’s alien bureaucracy–though Leeming does an end-run around the humans as well. Other times, as in the short stories “Allamagoosa” and “And Then There Were None…”, it’s very much human bureaucracy

Russell’s writing, unlike Heinlein’s, is definitely old fashioned. Women barely exist–there are no women in Next of Kin, and I can’t remember anything but women as plot tokens anywhere. He wasn’t really a novelist either; all his best work was at short length. There’s something quaint and nostalgic about his universes and his cardboard characters. “I’d have loved this when I was twelve,” I found myself thinking. “Oh, right. I did.” It’s lovely that NESFA have so much Russell in print, but is he really relevant these days?

[More behind the cut…]

I really don’t know.

Certainly he has earned his historical place in the genre. Certainly Sasha, who is seventeen now, also loved him when he was twelve.

The lone hero was very much a staple of Campbellian SF, and at first glance Russell’s lone heroes seem to fit in that pattern. Then at second glance they don’t–Leeming with his undone fly and forgetting that magnifying lenses won’t light fires at night isn’t a funny kind of Competent Man. And that’s what Russell was doing–he was poking fun at the Competent Man even while writing one. Russell’s bureaucracies, human, alien, military, commercial, were humourously exaggerated but recognisably realistic. If you’ve read any classic SF short fiction at all, I bet you remember the story “Allamagoosa”. It’s the “offog” one. The spaceship is being inspected and everything is being checked, and there’s supposed to be an offog and they have no idea what it is, so they fake one up and it passes the inspection and then they pretend it broke in flight, nothing easier…until all ships are grounded because it was the ship’s “official dog” that’s been wandering through the story all the way along. This sticks in the mind not because it’s funny (though it is) but because it’s exactly the way things work. “Offog” I mutter as I fill in forms.

Russell’s masterpiece, and most characteristic work, was the story “And Then There Were None…”. It’s the concluding part of the novel The Great Explosion and almost certainly the reason that novel won the Prometheus Hall of Fame Award in 1985. I wouldn’t go looking for the (practically unfindable, although I have it) novel, though; the story’s in the NESFA collection, and in a great many collections of classic SF short stories too. In “And Then There Were None…”, a pompous Ambassador and a ship of Terran bureaucrats and soldiers come to a planet colonised by anarchists four hundred years before. The planet has neither money nor leaders. They have the ultimate weapon–non-violent non-resistance–and they call themselves Gands, after Gandhi. Their weapon is summed up in the equation “F=IW”, “Freedom = I won’t”. The Gands live by obs (obligations) to each other and the might of Earth gives up and leaves when the drain of individual soldiers and technicians from the ship to the planet becomes to great for them to cope with. Whether you agree or disagree with it, whether you agreed with it passionately at twelve and can see flaws in it now, it remains a perfect illustration of an alternative way of doing things. You can’t put it out of your mind. 

There’s a way in which the things you read early furnish your mind. Maybe young people today come across the concept of satyagraha in some other way. When Clark E Myers quoted “F=IW” on the Citizen of the Galaxy thread, he was asked to explain it. All I can say is that “And Then There Were None…” became an essential ingredient of how I think about freedom, and choices,  and obligations, it’s one of the things that’s in my mind when I think about those things,  even if I’m disagreeing with it. (It only works, as Gandhi’s tactics only worked, against an opponent that can be shamed and thinks of themselves as fundamentally decent. The Nazis would have made short work of Gandhi, as Turtledove’s story “The Last Article” — in the collection Kaleidoscope–shows. If S. M. Stirling’s Draka had landed on the planet of the Gands, things also wouldn’t have gone so well.)

What Russell brought to SF was a hatred of bureaucracy, a love of wordplay and a fundamental irreverence. He didn’t take anything seriously. He championed individualism against everything. He made a place in SF for later writers like Bob Shaw, Robert Sheckley, Parke Godwin, and Douglas Adams who use SF to write about serious things ironically.

Read him when you’re twelve. If it’s too late for that, find your twelve-year old head to read him with. 

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