Spotlight on Eric Frank Russell

Of Men, Martians and Machines. A Profile of Eric Frank Russell.

Eric-Frank-RussellFunny.  With all this talk of message fiction, returning to the golden age that never was and our genre’s need to return to the days of good old fashioned pulpy fiction, I thought for sure that Eric Frank Russell’s name would have to be mentioned eventually.

Since no one has bothered to bring him up, I guess that task falls to us here at Amazing Stories as we kick off a regular feature here that will cast a spotlight (or very diffuse laser beam) on the classic authors in our field.

Russell has been a particular favorite of mine ever since I ran across his short story Hobbyist in Campbell’s Astounding Tales of Space and Time anthology.

Hobbyist concerns the adventures of a lone space scout who has come to the end of his rope – or rather, his fuel wire.  His ship’s atomic converter prefers being fed reaction mass in the form of high grade wire and, after getting lost in the deep reaches of space, he has barely managed to make a landing on a habitable world (lord alone knows where in the cosmos) before exhausting his supply.

Russell’s opening grabs ahold and doesn’t let go: “The ship arced out of a golden sky and landed with a whoop and a wallop that cut down a mile of lush vegetation.”

We then meet the pilot and in a brilliantly compact paragraph, find out exactly what kind of person it takes to be a space scout: “Within the transpex control dome, Steve Ander sat and thought things over.  It was his habit to think things over carefully.  Astronauts were not the impulsive daredevils so dear to the stereopticon-loving public.  They couldn’t afford to be.  The hazards of the profession required an infinite capacity for cautious, contemplative thought. Five minutes consideration had prevented many a collapsed lung, many a leaky heart, many a fractured frame. Steve valued his skeleton.  He wasn’t conceited about it and he’d no reason to believe it in any way superior to anyone else’s skeleton. But he’d had it a long time , found it quite satisfactory , and had an intense desire to keep it – intact.”

Steve Ander (I always like it when main characters have my name! It makes it seem like the story was written just for me) is accompanied on his explorations by Laura, the macaw, who has quite the vocabulary and serves as excellent comic relief to the more staid and serious Ander.

I’ve always been fascinated by stories concerning the first landing on a new planet and, despite the many nasty things that are frequently found on such worlds, I’d still happily sign up for the Space Scout Exploration Corps.

astounding_science_fiction_194806Anders notices that there is something very strange about the world he’s landed on;  there only appears to be a single specimen of..anything living on the planet.  No plant resembles its neighbor…each insect is unique…no duplicates anywhere.

The rest of the tale (that I won’t spoil) concerns the discovery of the origins of this uniqueness.

Laura, the macaw, was something unique in my SF reading when first encountered, and she represents a fairly standard feature of Russell’s tales, the side-kick with a mouth.  If a scene in an EF Russell story calls for a sarcastic wisecrack delivered at the most jarring psychological moment, you can count on someone doing it – a talkative bird, a Martian, a love interest or a red-tape beset pencil-pushing bureaucrat.

Ander takes Laura out of the ship with him as he begins his first survey of the new world he is likely to spend the rest of his life on.  Russell’s character’s sense of humor, acerbic, sarcastic and self-deprecating, will be familiar to anyone who has read Andy Weir’s The Martian, although Mark Watney only has his echo to play off of.  Steve Ander has Laura:

“”Well,” he said, rounding the tail, “it’s something in which to live. It’ll save us building a shanty. Way back on Terra they want fifty thousand smackers for an all metal, streamlined bungalow, so I guess we’re mighty lucky. I’ll make a garden here, and a rockery there, and build a swimming pool out back.  You can wear a pretty frock and do all the cooking.” 

“Yawk!”, said Laura derisively.

Despite its lack of specificty, Laura’s remark is appropriate and we are soon introduced to Laura’s tremendous range.  Steve is puzzling over the strange landscape and discovers a beetle which he names for himself while remarking on the fact that no one will ever know this fact.  Laura responds:

“Dinna fash y’rsel’!” shouted Laura in a hoarse voice imported straight from Aberdeen.  “Dinna fash!  Stop chunnerin’, wumman!  Y’ gie me a pain ahint ma sporran!  Dinna-“

“Shut up!” Steve jerked his shoulder, momentarily unbalancing the bird. “Why d’you pick up that barbaric dialect quicker than anything else, eh?”

“McGillicuddy,” shrieked Laura with ear-splitting relish. Mc-Gilli-Gilli-Gillicuddy! The great black -” It ended with a word that pushed Steve’s eyebrows into his hair and surprised even the bird itself.

My first encounter with Russell completely bowled me over.  Steve Ander is a typical Russell protagonist, the capable man facing insurmountable obstacles and pushing through them, often because there’s simply nothing else to do.

Actually, there are two typical Russell characters: the Steve Ander down-to-earth type who accepts reality as they find it and does their best to cope with circumstances beyond their control, counter-balanced by the bureaucrat, people whose world revolved around red tape and completing forms in triplicate, the kind who believe that nothing exists or happens until it has been filed.

The natural animosity of these two types features heavily in many Russellian tales.  It reached its apotheosis in Russell’s tremendously funny and award winning (first Hugo Award for short story) shaggy dog tale – Allamagoosa.

Fortunately for those who don’t want to take my word for the humorous bent of this tale that is a perfect mirror of humanity, you can read it in all its glory right here.  I’ll get you started with the introductory paragraphs:

Allamagoosa

by Eric Frank Russell

It was a long time since the Bustler had been so silent. She lay in the Sirian spaceport, her tubes cold, her shell particle-scarred, her air that of a longdistance runner exhausted at the end of a marathon. There was good reason for this: she had returned from a lengthy trip by no means devoid of troubles.

Now, in port, well-deserved rest had been gained if only temporarily. Peace, sweet peace. No more bothers, no more crises, no more major upsets, no more dire predicaments such as crop up in free flight at least twice a day. Just peace.

Hah!

Captain McNaught reposed in his cabin, feet up on desk, and enjoyed the relaxation to the utmost. The engines were dead, their hellish pounding absent for the first time in months. Out there in the big city, four hundred of his crew were making whoopee under a brilliant sun. This evening, when First Officer Gregory returned to take charge, he was going to go into the fragrant twilight and make the rounds of neon-lit civilization.

That was the beauty of making landfall at long last. Men could give way to themselves, blow off surplus steam, each according to his fashion. No duties, no worries, no dangers, no responsibilities in spaceport. A haven of safety and comfort for tired rovers.

Again, hah!

Burman, the chief radio officer, entered the cabin. He was one of the halfdozen remaining on duty and bore the expression of a man who can think of twenty better things to do.

“Relayed signal just come in, sir.” Handing the paper across, he waited for the other to look at it and perhaps dictate a reply.

Taking the sheet, McNaught removed the feet from his desk, sat erect, and read the message aloud.

Terran Headquarters to Bustler. Remain Siriport pending further orders. Rear Admiral Vane W. Cassidy due there seventeenth. Feldman. Navy Op. Command, Sirisec.

He looked up, all happiness gone from his leathery features, and groaned.

“Something wrong?” asked Burman, vaguely alarmed.

McNaught pointed at three thin books on his desk. “The middle one. Page twenty.”

Leafing through it, Burman found an item that said: Vane W. Cassidy, R-Ad. Head Inspector Ships and Stores.

Burman swallowed hard. “Does that mean—?”

“Yes, it does,” said McNaught without pleasure. “Back to training-college and all its rigmarole. Paint and soap, spit and polish.” He put on an officious expression, adopted a voice to match it. “Captain, you have only seven ninety-nine emergency rations. Your allocation is eight hundred. Nothing in your logbook accounts for the missing one. Where is it? What happened to it? How is it that one of the men’s kit lacks an officially issued pair of suspenders? Did you report his loss?”

Captain McNaught (Mc Nothing?) shuttles between the two types of Russell character, sometimes the bureaucrat, at others the poor, suffering drudge trying to work his way back to peace.

Allamagoosa’s true reward is to be found in its ending: In the privacy of his cabin McNaught commenced to eat his nails. Every now and again he went a little cross-eyed as he examined them for nearness to the flesh.

astounding_science_fiction_195106You’ll have to read the rest of the story to find out what has reduced Captain McNaught to such a state. I’m not giving anything away by telling you that its got something to do with red tape.

Russell’s primary theme (other than poking fun at humanity in general) seems to be a blend of Fortean concerns (something vaster and keener than ourselves is manipulating us) and – not that far away as themes go – rejection of authority.

His works, from the playful Jay Score tales (Jay is a robot, serial number J20) to Next of Kin and Wasp often pose officiousness as the primary foe.  In Wasp, Terra is at war with the larger and stronger Sirian empire, and Terran strategists are looking for a stop-gap measure, something that will slow the Sirians down long enough for Terra to even things up.  They hit upon the idea of the Wasp – a small yet threatening force that has affects far greater than its size would warrant.  During the introduction to the novel a newspaper report of a wasp causing a multi-car pileup on a hiway (a wasp in a car causing its driver to lose control) is used to illustrate the strategy.  James Mowry, a soldier for whom discipline is a foreign word, is recruited to this program, cosmetically altered to resemble a Sirian and surreptitiously introduced to a Sirian world.

Mowry manages to find ways to emulate his insect namesake, but is not above ridiculing his own kind along the way, the Sirians being little more than exaggerated human bureaucrats.

In Next of Kin, Russell’s anti-authoritarian bent is given full play; John Leeming, a soldier in Terra’s space army, flouts authority at every turn and is rewarded by being ordered to test a new kind of stealth spaceship behind enemy lines.  He is eventually captured and while in captivity manages to flout authority to such a degree that he becomes a Red Chief Ransom, all while hilarity – at the expense of the hidebound – ensues.

Rejection of authority is often linked to Libertarian ideals and such a connection is on full display with Russell’s short story …And Then There Were None.  Explorers from the Earth empire happen across a man-colonized world where the inhabitants are 100% fully committed libertarians, so much so that communication between the two cultures is virtually impossible.  In the fix-up novel The Great Explosion, of which this short story makes up the final third, Russell attempts to demonstrate that without willing cooperation, virtually every human institution is subject to failure.  The story greatly resembles one long sit-in, in which the question is asked: if most people protest and you lock them all up, how do you run your society?  Good question.  (I’ve often thought that the Obligation Economy presented in this story could serve as a good model for a money-less economic system.)

Russell’s other bent was Fortean in nature, primarily Fort’s concept that humans are property.  This concept found full expression in Russell’s utterly creepy and horrifying story Sinister Barrier, the first novel to be published in Campbell’s Unknown magazine.

The novel is based on the premise that until just now, humans were blissfully unaware of their status.  New scientific discoveries reveal them to a small handful of individuals, most of whom are executed by their unseen owners, but not before the secret leaks out. “Swift death awaits the first cow that leads a revolt against milking,”

unknown_193903_v1_n1Russell uses humanity’s owners as explanation for all that is wrong with the world and with humanity itself;  unseen forces provoke us into putting emotion ahead of logic for their own inscrutable purpose.

The film They Live, starring the late Roddy Piper, is in many ways an adaptation of Sinister Barrier.

Russell is fun, playful, sarcastic, humorous and cutting.  His stories always deliver a message that can usually be summed up as “the human race has got to stop taking itself so seriously”.

Most of Russell’s works are available in one for or another.  You can find a complete bibliography here, a pretty comprehensive biography here, and many of his novels and short stories can be found in both print and ebook form on Amazon.

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