Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Standard introduction for Postscripts to the Belated Reviews

Belated Reviews PS#10: Eric Frank Russell

Eric Frank Russell's best work appeared in the forties and fifties, mostly in the form of short stories. They're an odd mix: Many of them display a strong xenophilic streak, emphasizing the essential oneness of all races, and all intelligences. As long as said intelligences aren't messing with the human race. When that happens, his stories become exceedingly Campbellian: The aliens become targets, to be wiped out or at least cut down to size in a satisfying manner. (It typically takes one human per alien race.)

Russell's writing also reflects a strongly anti-authoritarian bias, which manifests itself in various ways. Despots, bureaucrats, and senior military officers are frequently targets of satire, tending to become victims of their own self-contradictions. Authority figures, in general, are rarely portrayed sympathetically in his stories.

Russell's stories have aged better than those of many of his contemporaries, because they are less dependent upon gimmicks. The ones that worked because they were witty are still witty, and his better serious stories had more...heart than was often the case at the time. His more typical sf-adventure stories don't read as well today. I'd rate Russell as a second-tier author. His better works are worth finding and reading, but they're mixed in with a good deal of dross. And even among those better works, there's no single extraordinary one which can serve to make him a must-read.

(Digression: Many of the 'classics' of science fiction are, or are composed of, short stories or novellas, because the dominant medium of the sf genre use to be the magazine. Today, by contrast, books dominate.What's more, the market for anthologies isn't very good. (I'm part of this trend myself; I read many novels, but relatively few short stories.) This makes reviewing an author like Eric Frank Russell problematic. I can't -- as I could with Zenna Henderson, for example, or Cordwainer Smith -- just point to a couple of anthologies and say "get those". His better stories often have to be dug out of uneven anthologies. In this review, when I discuss a story, I'll generally identify the anthology which has *my* copy of that story, but it should be taken for granted that the stories can be found elsewhere, as well.)

Russell's novels don't stand up as well as his stories. The best of them is the fixup novel "The Great Explosion" (***), about an expedition sent out to contact a number of 'lost colonies' that would as soon stay lost. The best part of the novel is the last story (novella?), titled "And Then There Were None" (***+). The ship finds a planet whose society is a functioning anarchy. There is no 'government', no 'leadership', no obvious medium of exchange -- and a general lack of interest in having anything to do with the expedition's brass hats. None of this seems as unreasonable to the expedition's rank and file, which begins to desert.(I assume this story helped inspire Hogan's "Voyage to Yesteryear" a coupleof decades later. Russell has the lighter touch, however.)

EFR started out as an earnest Fortean, and the notion of creatures hovering just over the edges of human perception pops up periodically in his writing. Its first, and rawest appearance is in his early novel "Sinister Barrier" (*+), a piece of Fortean paranoia in which everything from the mystery of Kaspar Hauser to the existence of war is attributed to invisible malevolent beings which feed upon humanity. Similar entities appear in his later novel "Sentinels of Space" (**-), only in that novel they turnout to be *protectors* of humanity. ("Sentinels of Space" is also a prototype for his one-man-vs-a-world stories.) The best use of such creatures, though, was in a lighter vein:

"The Space Willies" (***-), alternatively titled "Next of Kin" (and basedon the story "Plus X"), is also one of his Terra-uber-alles novels. Terra and its allies are at war with an enemy alliance, and scout pilot John Leeming is captured, and becomes a prisoner of war of one of the enemy's less brilliant races. Having nothing better to do, Leeming sets out to wage psychological warfare, and to convince his captors that every human has an intangible symbiont (known as a Eustace) capable of wrecking poltergeist havok upon his enemies. It's a cute, if silly, short novel.

"Six Worlds Yonder" (***) (my copy is the other half of the Ace Double in which "The Space Willies" first appeared) is one of EFR's more solid anthologies. All six of its stories are at least amusing. "TheWaitabits" (***) is about a Terran expedition to a planet whose discoverer laconically described it as "unconquerable", and neglected to give any more details. Sure enough, a species whose time sense is a couple hundred times slower than ours is, for all practical purposes, unconquerable. "Diabologic" (***+) is a better working out of one of the "Space Willies" themes: A spaceman who truly understands bureaucracies lands on an alien world and proceeds to make life miserable for the local rulers. (Well, think about it. Suppose an alien spaceship landed at Canaveral and its pilot, speaking perfect English, just walked out and started ordering people around, ignoring protocol, puncturing preconceptions, and generally treating the authorities in as cavalier a manner as possible: Who would have the nerve to call his bluff as long as no damage was being done? Mind, the beings Russell sets up as his straight men area bit slow, but it's not clear that we'd do better.) Russell uses thesame theme a third time, to poorer effect, in the novella "The Ultimate Invader" (**), which appears in the anthology of the same title.

The anthology "Somewhere a Voice" (***-) has a mix of better stories and weaker ones. The best of these is "Dear Devil" (***), in which a Martian poet comes to a post-holocaust Earth, and stays to help the remaining humans survive. "Displaced Person" (***) is a very short story with an effective punchline -- about a despot who has won the ultimate propaganda victory. "I Am Nothing" (***-) and "Somewhere a Voice" (***-) are touching stories in which people overcome their petty hatreds to reach for something better. Both stories are weakened, however, by thin plotting and thinner characterization -- both of which were general weaknesses in Russell's writing, and are particularly felt in his less 'clever' stories.

Weakness of plot and characterization are probably why EFR doesn't belong in the first tier of sf authors. The surprising thing is that his writing is as good as it, given those usually fatal weaknesses. In his lighter work, wit compensates. His better serious stories combine a reliance on idea with -- in the better sense of the term -- humanity. One of the best of these is "Fast Falls the Eventide" (***+). (My copy is in the 1952 "Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories"). The time is the distant future, and Earth is dying. Soon the sun will go nova, and there is no spare real-estate to which humanity could move if it wished to. So humanity -- evolved from today's, but still recognizably human -- finds away to make itself indispensible.

"Allamagoosa" (***+) (It's a 1955 Hugo short-story winner, so it's easy to find) is a good example of what I meant by 'clever'. The crew of the spaceship Bustler is informed that they are about to be Inspected, so naturally they take inventory before the inspector can. And come up short. And come up with what looks at first to be a clever way to hide the shortfall. And (because they are missing one important piece of information) bury themselves deeper and deeper in what it would be tactful to call red tape. (The short story "Top Secret" (***-), in the aforementioned "Six Worlds Yonder", is a less polished handling of a similar theme.)

If Eric Frank Russell were alive and writing his stories today, instead of forty or fifty years ago, they'd undoubtedly be different. Genre conventionsare different today. (For example, it's no longer good form to have yourexplorers test an atmosphere by opening the hatch and taking a sniff.) Our scientific preconceptions are different. (We find punched-card sorting machines, or robots which are essentially metal humans, distracting.) What we expect from our short stories has changed. Not surprisingly, much of Russell's writing has failed the test of time. His better stories, though, while showing their age, still make for pleasant reading.

Dani Zweig