One man against a whole planet: Eric Frank Russell’s Wasp

When you think about it, Eric Frank Russell’s Wasp (1958) is a really peculiar book. Terry Pratchett summed it up when he said “I can’t imagine a funnier terrorist’s handbook.” It’s the story of one Earth man sent to a Sirian planet to cause as much havoc and consternation as possible, to waste Sirian time and resources so that humanity can win the war. James Mowry is sent off alone with a pile of resources to be a wasp—and the wasp he’s supposed to emulate killed four people and crashed their car by causing them to panic. The odd thing about it is that it’s very light in tone. It’s a comedy about a terrorist.

The last time I wrote about Russell Neil Gaiman said in comments:

The only book I’ve optioned was WASP. I started the script, wrote about a dozen pages, then Sept 11th happened, and I let the option lapse; I didn’t think that the world (or at least the U.S.) would be ready for a terrorist hero for a very long time. And he is a terrorist—one man tying up an entire planet’s military might as they look for a huge non-existent organisation, using nothing but the 1950s plot-equivalent of a couple of explosions and a few envelopes filled with anthrax powder…

It would have made a marvelous movie, but Gaiman was quite right.

I said in that article on Next of Kin that you should “read him with your twelve year old head,” but reading Wasp now I realised that my twelve year old head had bought into a lot of things. We’re told that the Sirians are awful, but what we see of them isn’t very different from what we’re shown of Earth. They are both overloaded bureaucratic systems that don’t take the wishes of their citizens very much into account. Mowry tells himself that every Sirian is an enemy, but we see lots of ordinary perfectly nice Sirians as well as some obnoxious ones. What Mowry is doing is explicitly terrorism—he’s making people afraid, and he’s making them use up energy and resources, he’s encouraging the system to become more repressive and use up more resources.

My twelve year old head delights in seeing one disguised human snarl up a whole alien planet with nothing but some stickers, some ticking parcels and a few small explosions. The story is absorbing. I laugh. But my grown up head keeps looking at how he was recruited and how he’s treated by Earth, and what happens when he’s thrust into a prisoner of war camp and saying “Hmmmm.” Russell clearly intended this. He was writing very Campbellian SF, one competent Earthman snarls up a whole planet of purple aliens with funny ears, but yet, at the same time he was doing something subversive. Mowry associates with gangsters and criminals who cheerfully betray and murder each other, he blows up innocent cargo ships and doesn’t care who gets hurt when his luggage blows up and destroys half a hotel. We’re clearly meant to be on Mowry’s side, and I am, but… are we meant to be on Earth’s side? Or should he have been doing the same things at home? As always with Russell, you want to head away from bureaucracy and make for the planet of the individualist anarchists.

This is an old fashioned book, written before women were invented—I don’t think there’s a single woman with a speaking role in the book. If it were written now, Mowry would have more character—he has a background and a personality, but he really isn’t developed at all. What’s good about Wasp is the set of incidents, which rattle along without pause, the humour, and the way it makes you think. I regret the loss of Gaiman’s movie version, which would have had women and brought the ambiguity centre stage. Meanwhile, keep your brain switched on this time, or try to read it both ways at once. You’d have loved it when you were twelve. And it’s still a lot of fun.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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