Mar 3 2011 5:47pm

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

Wasp by Eric Frank RussellWhen 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.

eric Aitala
1. aitala
EFR is one of my favorite SF authors... and most fans have never heard of him...

Dr E
Ben JB
2. Ben JB
It's been years since I read Wasp, but here's what I thought in 2005:

"Several years after 9/11, however -- almost several years after Bush declared victory in Iraq -- I don't find that I'm identifying too much with the Sirian Empire or with the Wasp. Mowry does his job well, and without a bit of conscience; though part of his agitation is to spread the idea of a Sirian Freedom Party, and though he seems to have some sympathy with the idea of Sirian freedom, the freedom Mowry offers is quite compatible with the death of every Sirian. It reminds me of that Onion article that said something like "Iraqi man killed by U.S. bomb would have loved freedom." In his casual disregard for the consequences of his actions, James Mowry, the Wasp, seems the very image of the Bush administration. But wait -- the Sirian Empire casually disregards truth, and helps to stir up the opposition they claim to be putting down -- and in that they seem the very image of our Bush administration as well. Something about this scenario seems very politically accurate to me -- both sides of the story are tending towards one result: the continuation of martial law. This reading might make some sense of the perfect final joke, which goes unremarked in all the other reviews I've read for this book; of course Mowry wins, but what does he win: a trip to a new planet, as he begins his lifetime of army service as a Wasp. While Mowry was tricking the Sirians into enacting and continuing martial law, he was also at the same time abetting and enabling the Terrestrial martial law that got him to where he was, and will continue to put him in his place.

"But where does that leave us, with whom can we sympathize or identify? The funny thing is that, even though we can't really identify with the Sirian Empire or with the Wasp, the book is full of people for us to identify with: the taxi driver doing his job, the stevedores loading cargo, the baker who recognizes the ridiculousness of it all, the old man who asks a question and gets kicked to death for doing so. It's somewhat curious that in a book written in 1957, the only image of humanity is purple-skinned, with pinched-back and pointed ears."

What seems especially interesting to me is that Russell was a military intelligence officer and (according to him) this is an idea he actually had during WWII--a way to screw with Imperial Japan (which is why the name of the secret police of the Sirians is so close to the Japanese agency's name). But how do we get from there (a possible plan) to the novel in '57 which seems to point out how morally questionable the whole plan really is?
Ben JB
3. PhoenixFalls
This is an old fashioned book, written before women were invented. . .

At least once a month you write something that is so startlingly funny, and so funny because it's so right, that I spew whatever I'm drinking all over my computer.

Clearly I need to stop drinking things at the computer.

Ben JB
4. afterthefallofnight
I read "Wasp" when I was in high school - approximately 200 years ago. I remember it fondly... Hmm, actually almost the only thing I can remember is that I liked it. And I was probably completely oblivious to any subversive undercurrents.

It sounds like a good candidate for my reread list.
Scott Raun
5. sraun
I go back and reread it every once in a while. There's a nice edition from Gollancz currently available, and Amazon has a Kindle edition.

He used a similar plot in the short story "Nuisance Value", which is another of my perennial rereads. It is possibly less ambiguous, and even more of a romp! (Now if I can just find it in e-book format.)

I'd missed the ambiguity of governments in my reads, but having had it pointed out, I see it. Russell's writing sucks me in to his protagonists, and I tend to not see anything outside their viewpoint while reading.

I agree, I'd love to see the Neil Gaiman movie version!
James Hogan
6. Sonofthunder
I agree with PhoenixFalls - that line about the book being "pre-woman invention" was classic. Best line of the review by far. Reminds me of when my family watched movies way back parents tended to like the old black-and-whites, but my sisters quickly realized a fatal flaw of many of these movies and so before we started watching a movie, they'd always ask, "Are there any girls in this movie??"

And apparently I need to read this. Never read anything by EFR, but it sounds interesting...I wonder if I would truly identify with Mowry..
Arthur D. Hlavaty
7. supergee
This is an old fashioned book, written before women were invented. . .

That would go with Philip Larkin's famous hypothesis.
Jo Walton
8. bluejo
I'm now trying to work out a history where humanity was like the Kzin with one subsapient gender until one day in 1963 the tireless work of Simon de Beauvoir and George Eliot paid off...
Nancy Lebovitz
9. NancyLebovitz
I believe that James isn't going to bother doing anything on his next mission-- he'll just hunker down with his pile of money and wait for the war to be over.

I may not have been tracking the presence of women the last time I read Wasp, but Anvil's Pandora's Planet was an amazing example of "before women were invented". Literally the only mention of sentient females was that the aliens didn't find human women attractive, so women weren't at risk.

However, considering that not only were there no onstage women, the male humans had no trace of mothers, wives, sisters, daughters.... The aliens might not have found women at all.

Jo, I'd like to read that history. And I can think of two branches, one where sapience is granted by choice, and one where it spreads by infection or somesuch.
Del C
10. del
Women had been invented, you can even see some in early Asimov. They just didn't have all the features we take for granted now.
Greg Morrow
11. gpmorrow
My recollection is that a fair chunk or all of Pandora's Planet is written from the perspective of the alien conquerors. Perhaps a subversive reading is that they simply did not/could not distinguish human females, and the apparently-male cast is actually gender mixed.
Ben JB
12. Foxessa
A wasp is the precipator of a Big Event with Big Consequences for Everyone in the 2009 Collision, a British television min series shown here on PBS. It's very good.

It was an intelligent riff spun from "The Butterfly Effect," which I loved.

Love, C.
Michael Walsh
13. MichaelWalsh
And it's available in a spiffy edition from those wonderful folks at NESFA Press And I believe the text used is longer UK text; the US edition was abridged to fit a particular page count of Avalon books 1957 hardover, and until the Del Rey editions of Russell, the US paperbacks used the abridged text.

Lastly, I should note that the Del Rey editions were done at the instigation of Jack Chalker, a long time fan of Russell.
john mullen
14. johntheirishmongol
It must be 30 years since I read this book. I do remember the idea of being a wasp, and I seem to remember it was a lot of fun. I have read a bunch of EFR and don't remember a bad read with any but it has been quite a while.
Ben JB
15. Dr. Psycho
I am not too embarrassed not to have thought of 9/11 in this context (although I did see a resemblance to the film Saboteur). Somewhat more embarrassed not to have noticed the lack of speaking roles for women.
I do remember being struck by the thought that fighting behind enemy lines (whether called saboteur, terrorist or partisan) was an excuse to feel justified in acting as a creature of pure evil: anything that disrupted the enemy war effort would be accounted to the good -- vandalism, counterfeiting, murder, serial child rape....
Ben JB
16. a1ay
I'm now trying to work out a history where humanity was like the Kzin with one subsapient gender until one day in 1963 the tireless work of Simon de Beauvoir and George Eliot paid off

Simon, or Simone? Works either way I suppose...

Or a "City & The City" setup in which the two genders just don't acknowledge each other's existence (beyond what's absolutely necessary). Wouldn't be that far from Victorian reality anyway.
Ben JB
17. Gardner Dozois
I loved WASP as a kid, it was one of my favorite novels. Of course, it didn't then have the unsettling 9/11 echoes it's subsequently picked up; I think that Neil was unfortunately right to abandon the film version.

As with RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK or dozens of other movies, it's fun to watch the clever ways that the protagonist comes up with to mow down the cardboard Nazis--until you start thinking of them as people, with flaws and virtues and families of their own. It never occured to me to sympathize with the aliens the first time I read WASP--they were just cardboard Nazis, there to be mowed down in clever ways.
Ben JB
18. Dineke
I recently reread it too and I enjoyed it very much, as I did when I read it with my '12-year old head'. No 9/11 terrorism associations, although of course he is a terrorist. It is war, and they are sort of losing the war, so he is a guerilla fighter sent to the frontline. Being European, from a country that was occupied by the Germans in WW2, perhaps I associate the wasp more with allied resistance fighters who blew up council registry offices and the like to thwart German occupation.

And I think that thinking in US and THEM has not at all gone out of fashion after 9/11. On the contrary. Only the THEMs have changed somewhat. Scores of movies have been made with scary THEMs who need te be thwarted/terrorised . So, this would make a great movie. Neil Gaiman, please option it again and insert a lovely purple interesting woman in it!

Because I agree completely with what you say about the lack of women in this book. That is where my 43-year old (female) head really has trouble with books from the 50s and 60s. Heinlein's the puppet masters has one token red-headed female, but she is cardboard. Having read scores of great SF by women (Lois McMaster Bujold! Elizabeth Moon! Sherri Tepper!) (and men too) where women are real people, it is weird reading this.
Ben JB
19. Gary J
When I read this almost a year ago, I had nothing to add. Now I have two things.

First, I am minded of Eric Flint's editing of James Schmitz's works. He made both the unedited and edited versions available for comparison, and the edited version was better. Something similar could be done for Wasp - the agent who recruits him could be female, the shopkeeper(s) on Jaime could be women, his contact with upper from his hideout a woman, without significant change to the story at all. But it would edit away the "women not invented yet" problem. I don't recommend it - but it's an option.

Second, Wasp is the source of one of my most favorite quotes:

"Aie, yar! Every day, every minute there is something. Last night, according to the news-channels, they destroyed the main Spakum space-fleet for the tenth time. Today they are pursuing the remnants of what is said to have been destroyed. For months we have been making triumphant retreats before a demoralised enemy who is advancing in utter disorder."
Ben JB
20. Mike Stone
It perhaps needs keeping in mind that Wasp was written only a decade or so after WW2 - when even the "Good Guys" did some pretty nasty things which were sadly accepted as what you had to do in wartime.

The bombing of Shugruma (Hiroshima?) surely killed many more people than all of Mowry's bombings put together. It was not his doing, but he apparently accepted it as just one more act of war, justified because letting the other side win would be even worse.

After all, Wolf may be a manipulative and exploitative character, but as portrayed he seems to be a lesser evil than Major Sallana, and Mowry, however grudgingly, seems to accept him as such. Mowry is "loyal to the swarm" despite his reservations about its Queen, and glumly accepts the necessity to "defend the bad against the worse".

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