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?
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