Tue
Jul 29 2008 12:43pm
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?

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. 

27 comments
Eric Aitala
1. Eric Aitala
I have always loved Russell... at the last Memphis SF convention I attended, I managed to pick up a nice hardback, two volume set of his work. I think it was a short, somewhat expensive run of printing.

Its a pity more of his stories, both long and short, have not been reprinted recently in a more accessible form.

Dr Eric
Christopher Davis
2. ckd
I'm a big EFR fan (what with finding a name for my sadly neglected blog in Wasp and all); naturally, I have both of the NESFA Press volumes.

Unfortunately, the lack of e-book editions of the NESFA Press volumes of Russell makes me sad, because it would be absolutely perfect to have his short stories available to read while waiting in line at whatever bureaucratic office one finds oneself stuck dealing with.
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
CKD: FWIW, I found, when I was poking about for this article, that his agents, Pollinger, have an e-book version of _Next of Kin_ available under Pollinger in Print.
Eric Aitala
4. Helen S
I have a feeling that Next of Kin may have been published in some form where one *would* have read only the last part: serialized in Analog or F&SF, maybe? I know I read the part you describe in an old sf magazine that was knocking around the house, and I am all but certain that I did NOT read the earlier part. Of course I may be suffering from exactly the same form of amnesia that you and your son had, but either way it's interesting.
Eric Aitala
5. Zed Lopez
I loved the Wasp, which I read when I was somewhere in the neighborhood of 12. (I still can't hear a sentence ending "...is the first" without mentally adding "The list is long.")

More recently, I've read Next of Kin, Three to Conquer, and Sentinels from Space, but I seem to have gotten too old.
Eric Aitala
6. Mike Brotherton
Spider Star has some Wasp type elements, and the influence was second-hand as I'd only heard about the story and hadn't read it myself.

As for the question of relevancy, I think that's one of those meaningless academic questions. There is nothing relevant to everyone, except for perhaps a handful of global issues like climate change, and everything is relevant to someone from some perspective and context.
William S. Higgins
7. higgins
Jo writes:

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.

(Imagine a paragraph break here.)

This is certainly Russell's signature plot-- you could always sell it to John Campbell, and it was pretty popular over at Galaxy, too. But it doesn't account for "Dear Devil" (lone Martian poet helps humans rebuild civilization on a ruined Earth) nor Sinister Barrier (Fortean horror in which invisible monsters are discovered to control us all, and are battled with science). He had some versatility.
Bruce Cohen
8. SpeakerToManagers
Helen S,

The part of the story about Leeming's invention of Eustaces was published as a separate story (titled The Space Willies, IIRC) in Astounding, sometime in the mid'50s (1957 sticks in my head, but could easily be wrong, I read the story when that issue of the magazine came out, and in 1957 I was 11, which is close enough to 12). Kelly Freas painted a really terrific cover for it; Campbell liked it so much that he had Freas write a short piece about how he'd built a model of the alien soldier's weapon to make sure he got the proportions right.

Higgins,

I agree completely. The Russell story that takes up the most space in my head is Hobbyist, which has nothing to do with bureaucracy, but a lot to do with Russell's sense of wonder, which I think was pretty big (also see the last page of Sentinels from Space).
Eric Aitala
9. Sandra Bond
Helen: you're right. The last section of NEXT OF KIN was published alone as "Plus X" in Astounding, and also anthologised thus at least once (which is where I first encountered both it, and Russell: Groff Conklin's FOUR FOR THE FUTURE.)

Higgins: glad someone else remembers "Dear Devil" (the one ERF story John Campbell wouldn't touch). "Somewhere A Voice" is also atypical, and brilliant.
Alison Scott
10. AlisonScott
I haven't re-read Wasp, which I suspect would make uncomfortable reading these days. The hero is after all, a full-on terrorist, inciting mayhem and disorder in the Big Empire.

EFR's Hugo for Allamagoosa was the first non-sample Hugo I ever saw in the flesh (it's in the SF Foundation library, together with the EFR archive). If some time-traveller had seen me agog with delight at touching a Hugo, and told me that twenty years later I'd have one of my own, my brain would have gone TILT.
Eric Aitala
11. Geoffrey Kidd
The NESFA "Major Ingredients" collection of Russell is superb, and I'm glad to have a copy on my shelf.

But "Entities" was *NOT* repeat *NOT* proofread, and it looks essentially like a raw dump of an OCR scan transferred to paper. It was so badly done that I threw my copy out and swore never to buy from NESFA again.
Eric Aitala
12. Helen S
Thank you! I might even still have that issue of Astounding somewhere, though I doubt it. I may have finally decided it was so acidic as to be a danger to others as well as itself.
Arachne Jericho
13. arachnejericho
"Allamagoosa" is available over at Sci Fiction (which is nowadays defunct).

(There is a right old archive treasure trove of stories from many folks there.)

"And Then There Were None" is available online at abelard.org.

All of The Great Explosion is available at what used to be The Memory Hole.

Jo mentioned the eBook for Next of Kin; it's also available over at FictionWise. (Though Amazon Kindle can't read those, I believe.)
Scott Raun
14. sraun
AlisonScott

I've re-read Wasp recently (definitely since 9/11), and it didn't strike me as terror. He was too targeted for it to be terror - the vast majority of his targets were military, the one significant exception that I can definitely recall was a gangster. The other possible exception was the ship - I don't recall if it was a pure cargo carrier or not.

His objective was to consume military resources, not to inflict a change on the society. Yes, there were things that made Joe Citizen upset with the government - but Joe Citizen's ire (and fear!) was aimed at the government, not at what the wasp was doing.
Avram Grumer
15. avram
Go ahead and look for The Great Explosion. I just got 89 hits when I queried ABEbooks.
Fragano Ledgister
16. Fledgist
I don't think that Sentinels from Space quite fits the lone-hero-versus bureaucracy model, inasmuch as David Raven is quite literally a superhuman being and the agent of a superhuman power (itself a bureaucracy).

I found intriguing, when I first read it, the idea that the agents were sent in as matched male-female pairs, though the women were clearly subordinate to the mean and clearly 'womanly' as opposed to manly.
Eric Aitala
17. NullNix
_Hobbyist_ isn't one man against bureaucracy. It's one macaw against a man. Or something like that. ;}

It had a notably wonderful last paragraph which even now sends tingles down my spine.

(... I wish more SF stories had macaws in them...)
Martin Wisse
18. Martin_Wisse
... I wish more SF stories had macaws in them...

In horror however it would just be macawber.
Eric Aitala
19. Neil Gaiman
The only book I've optioned was WASP. I started the script, wrote about a dozen pages, the Sept 11th happened, and I let the option lapse; I didn't think that the world (or at least the US)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...

(Mayor Snorkum will lap a pie chain.)
Eric Aitala
20. nougat
I can't believe I'm posting under Neil Gaiman. Just wanted to say that I think that WASP would make a great flick. Too bad about the lapse.

@Martin_Wisse: "macawber" is going right into my vocabulary. I'll give you the credit each time I use it.

Thanks for the tip on the ebook.
Eric Aitala
21. nougat
@ckd:
If you have a Kindle from amazon.com, they have a Kindle version of Next of Kin available too.

http://www.amazon.com/Next-of-Kin/dp/B001CQCA5E/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=digital-text&qid=1218027365&sr=1-1

And Fictionwise has the regular ebook version here:
http://www.fictionwise.com/eBooks/ericfrankrusselleBooks.htm?cache
Bethalynne Bajema
22. bajema
@Nougat: Ooh! Thank you kindly for pointing out the Kindle link!
Robert Franson
23. RobertWFranson
The longer versions are worth seeking out. "Plus X" may be the best part of Next of Kin (the shorter Ace Double version of the novel is The Space Willies), but there's a lot of additional characteristically Russell fun and adventure in the full Next of Kin.

Similarly, "And Then There Were None" is a classic in its own right, but within The Great Explosion we see the progression toward it. Russell was too realistic not to see the likelihood of interstellar utopias turning out well short of comfortably libertarian.

Geoffrey Kidd:
The NESFA collections are nicely produced, and I'm glad to have them; but I had to read Entities with pen in hand to correct typos. I hope for a reprinting with actual proofreading.

Neil Gaiman:
I've long thought that Eric Frank Russell is an unappreciated potential treasure trove for Hollywood. Lots of excellent science fiction with humor and suspense, but not dependent on expensive-for-screen special effects.
Eric Aitala
24. JohnnyYen
I first read EFR in the Astounding anthology (Hobbyist)and an F&SF Best-Of collection that had Jay Score in it. Another had And Then There Were None. (My long-gone father had left a box of SF book club hardcovers in the attic.) That's all it took.
Men, Martians and Machines has the four voyages of the Upskadaska City, including Jay Score.
I may not get quite the same thrill I did at 12 or so but I can still read him with great enjoyment and an appreciation for craft that I didn't have as a kid.
Eric Aitala
25. Felicity J. Aire
Russell is often said to have been one of the greatest authors that Britain has ever produced.

But more than a few people would also say that he was probably one of the most unpleasant characters that S.F. has ever produced.

Read Into Your Tent, the recent Russell biography from www.coldtonnage.com and find out.
Eric Aitala
26. Bill Kiehnhoff
I seem to remember a fraction of a Russell story and would like to know its title.

What I recall is explorers go to a far off world, where they seem to speak English and have a society not unlike ours. The huge difference is that they get along without physical or electronic money. Rather they trade in "obs" (obligations). Each party must recall good he had done for others and what good has been done to him. Each is responsible for keeping his own balance sheet and staying honest.

Does anyone know of this story and where I might find it?
Jo Walton
27. bluejo
Bill: That's "and then there were none", referenced above. And it's in the NESFA collection.

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