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Next of Kin
Eric Frank Russell
Victor Gollancz, 181 pages

Next of Kin
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
SF Site Review: Wasp
Eric Frank Russell Tribute Site

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rich Horton

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Eric Frank Russell was a British writer who did the bulk of his work for John W. Campbell at Astounding Science Fiction in the 40s and 50s. His work was consistently breezy and fun, only occasionally taking on a darker tone, as in parts of his novel Dreadful Sanctuary (particularly the revised version). One of his favorite plots involved an individual or a few individuals using their wits to overcome a bureaucratic institution. Often enough, the heroes were human and the foes alien, but a certain gentle mockery in his tone tends to leave the reader almost sorry for the enemy, and convinced that they will eventually see the light and become decent fellows after all. His most famous story is probably "...And Then There Were None" (published in Astounding in (1951) and later incorporated into the fix-up novel The Great Explosion, also included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume IIA). He won an early Hugo award for "Allamagoosa".

Next of Kin, now reprinted in a Gollancz SF Collectors' Edition, has a complex publishing history. It was originally a novelette, "Plus X", in the June 1956 Astounding. Russell quickly expanded it into half of an Ace Double, published in 1958 as The Space Willies. Then the following year, it was further expanded to the 56,000 word novel known as Next of Kin. (The copyright notice in this edition hints at an even later revision, as it gives copyright dates of 1959 and 1964.) It must be said that the expansion seams show -- I haven't read the original story, but I think I can detect which parts of the novel it must have been, and I don't think the padding added much meat.

The story concerns John Leeming, a scout pilot for the Terran space navy. Earth and her allies are engaged in a war with the Lathians and their allies. Leeming, a rather insubordinate fellow by instinct, is given the assignment to take an experimental new super-fast one-man scout ship and fly it as far as he can towards the "rear" of the Lathian empire, in order to determine the extent of the Lathian holdings. Leeming proceeds to do so, but as the capabilities of his ship are unknown, he finds himself marooned with a decaying ship on a planet well away from the front, indeed, out of range of an ordinary ship, Terran or Lathian. He's the only human being on a strange planet, and he must find some way to elude capture and find a way back home -- and he may have to do so twice, as even if he steals one ship, it won't be able to get all the way to Earth.

Leeming proceeds to have a few adventures, but inevitably gets captured by the natives of the planet, who are not Lathians but one of their allied species. He finds himself in a prison with a number of Rigellians (allies of Terrans), but no other humans. Now his problem is doubly difficult -- but then he has an inspiration. The rest of the book (which I assume to have been the original story) tells of his clever idea and the implementation of it. I found his idea cute in conception, but implausible in execution. As with several other Russell stories that I have read, it is necessary for the hero's foils to be quite remarkably stupid. It also depends on some 50s slang being essentially current far in the future -- and ... but criticism is pointless. The book is not meant to be believable, but just to be fun to read.

Russell was almost always readable: a reliable entertainer. I certainly recommend looking up his stories -- his best novel may be Wasp, which has also been reprinted in an SF Collectors' Edition, and NESFA Press has issued a collection of his stories called Major Ingredients. I found the novel at hand, Next of Kin to be pleasant enough fluff, and page by page an engaging and fast-moving read, but also truly featherweight, and more implausible and more padded than his norm. Probably not the best introduction to his work.

Copyright © 2001 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at http://www.sff.net/people/richard.horton.


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