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Wasp
Eric Frank Russell
Victor Gollancz, 175 pages

Wasp
Eric Frank Russell
Eric Frank Russell was born in 1905 in Sandhurst, Surrey. His father was in the military and his family moved a number of times. He spent part of his youth in Egypt and Sudan. At college, he studied a variety of subjects including chemistry, physics and metallurgy. During WWII, he took radio courses in London and at the Marconi College in Chelmsford, eventually leading a small RAF mobile radio unit attached to General Patton's army. He worked for a time in an engineering firm but later became a full-time writer. In his later years, he gave up writing until his death in 1976.

ISFDB Bibliography
Eric Frank Russell Tribute Site

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Nick Gevers

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The early volumes in the Gollancz SF Collectors' Editions are a decidedly mixed assortment, including established classics and obscure curiosities. Although Wasp (originally published in 1957) must be assigned to the latter category, this is not to put it down. It may be dated, preposterously archaic in its technological and social assumptions, and distinctly patronizing towards its aliens (read foreigners), but it redeems itself by being wryly amusing, well-paced, and quite instructive on the subject of guerrilla and psychological warfare. It is a superior example of the stylishly undemanding SF adventure tales of the 50s, reminiscent in many ways (and this is a compliment) of L. Sprague de Camp's tongue-in-cheek neo-Burroughsian Krishna novels of the same period. It makes fine light reading.

Russell was a British writer with a good line in satire, particularly on bureaucracy, and he adapted himself comfortably to the requirements of John W. Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction (later Analog), subscribing to Campbell's editorial tenets of the necessity of scientific competence in fictional protagonists and of corresponding alien ineptitude in the face of human ingenuity. This formula requires that the hero be a person of laconic self-sufficiency, with a few peccadilloes added to lend a semblance of flawed humanity; his alien foes should be superficially menacing but in fact rubes waiting to be gulled and pushed over.

And thus Wasp.

Earth (America) is at war with the numerically superior but technologically inferior Sirian Empire (Imperial Japan, or perhaps Communist China). The Sirians control scores of colony planets; the Terrans, reasoning that casualties will be high if they simply wait to repel the enemy's onslaughts, decide to send elite saboteurs and agents provocateurs behind Sirian lines, who, by analogy with the ability of one annoying wasp to cause the crash of a human-driven vehicle, will sow confusion and panic out of all proportion to their numbers. James Mowry speaks Sirian well, is of Sirian stature (short), and need only dye his skin purple and pin back his ears to pass for a Sirian. After hasty training, he is dropped off on Jaimec, a Sirian "outpost world," tasked to wreak havoc.

This havoc is the meat of Russell's narrative. Mowry infiltrates Jaimec's cities, and soon creates the impression in the authorities' minds that Sirian dissidents, sick of the war and their rulers' jackboot repressiveness, have organized a resistance movement. He writes or affixes subversive slogans to walls, organizes strategic bombings and assassinations, and so ties down thousands of enemy soldiers and policemen, igniting discontent everywhere he goes. Terry Pratchett is quoted on the book's cover as calling Wasp an amusing "terrorists' handbook," and this it certainly is -- an account of ruthless confidence tricks and desperate escapes delivered with relish and keen irony. The ambition of Mowry's mischief rapidly escalates, much suspense being created by the efforts of the secret police to hunt him down; and the book's conclusion is both inevitable and cleverly surprising. As an entertainment with a tendency towards mordancy, Wasp cannot be faulted.

A few more such pulp confections could profitably be revived for the Collectors' Series. Their innocent confidence is still refreshing, however obsolete.

Copyright © 2000 Nick Gevers

Since completing a Ph.D. on uses of history in SF, Nick Gevers has become a moderately prolific reviewer and interviewer in the field of speculative fiction. He has published in INTERZONE, NOVA EXPRESS, the NEW YORK REVIEW OF SF, and GALAXIES; much of his work is available at INFINITY PLUS, of which he is Associate Editor. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.


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