Title: Next of Kin
Author: Eric Frank Russell
Paperback: 260 pages
Publisher: Matrix Digital Publishing (May 29, 2008)
I was watching cable news coverage of the U.S. presidential election when one of the analysts said “Baloney Baffles Brains.” At least that is what I thought he said. Maybe it was just my imagination trying to make sense of the words and choosing a phrase from memory, a memory strong enough that I knew precisely where I’d read the phrase many years ago – in Eric Frank Russell’s Next of Kin. In any case, whether the reporter said it or not, it seemed a fitting analysis to me.
Early in Russell’s novel, a new recruit in the Space Navy wonders why they have issued him a brush and comb immediately after cutting his hair so short that the brush and comb are useless. The protagonist of the book, Scout-Officer John Leeming, gives the recruit a handy motto to help him navigate the logic of bureaucracy, “Baloney Baffles Brains.”
Tired of the bureaucratic red tape at the base, Leeming volunteers for a dangerous scout mission into enemy territory using an experimental ship designed to go farther and faster than any before. The admiral interviewing him for the assignment notes that Leeming has a first class technical record, but his disciplinary record stinks. When confronted with a list of violations, he responds, “I had a bad attack of what-the-hell, sir.” The admiral concludes that he is a nuisance and the base would be better off without him. As Leeming zooms away from base on his mission, he mocks his superiors over the radio with comments like, “Get undressed because I want to test your eyes. Now inhale.”
But Leeming does his job well, dutifully sending reports about previously unknown planets deep in enemy territory. Eventually he longs for human contact. In monitoring enemy communications in a language he can’t understand, his mind starts to formulate Terran words out of the babble, resulting in some hilariously nonsensical dialog. Then, while scouting his 83rd enemy planet, his ship begins to fail and he is forced to crash land. He is eventually captured by lizard-like humanoids and that is when the story goes from good fun to brilliant.
Locked in a seemingly escape-proof cell, Leeming plots his escape with only his wits and a piece of copper wire. He exploits the bureaucratic nature of the enemy’s command structure and the general stupidity of enemy personnel in a way that will remind some readers of the television show Hogan’s Heroes (only better).
The central theme of the novel is one that Russell utilized in many of his other stories, namely individualism versus bureaucracy. It is one that he most successfully explored in the 1951 novella “… And Then There Were None” which was later incorporated into the Prometheus Award winning novel The Great Explosion (reviewed here). Another fine example of his lampooning rigid organizations is his 1955 Hugo Award winning short “Allamagoosa.”
Russell had another favorite topic – the Fortean idea that humans were property manipulated by unseen forces. While the concept is central to some of his other works, in Next of Kin it is only used as a fictional construct as part of John Leeming’s ruse to escape.
Next of Kin began as a shorter work titled “Plus X” published in Astounding’s June 1956 issue. An expanded version called The Space Willies was published in the U.S. as part of an Ace Double in 1958. The full version of Next of Kin did not appear until 1959.
Stories promoting individualism and human ingenuity, along with a distinctly American writing style (even though he was British), made Russell a staple of John W. Campbell’s Astounding from the late 1930s through the 1950s. In fact, Brian Aldiss called him Campbell’s “licensed jester” in his history of SF, Trillion Year Spree.
I highly recommend Next of Kin as an essential part of any SF fan’s library. But don’t stop there: we are talking about one of the first twenty people inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, and the first inductee that could be legitimately called a humorist. Russell wrote too many good stories to limit yourself to a few. Although used copies of Next of Kin are readily available, I suggest NESFA’s two collections – Entities: The Selected Novels of Eric Frank Russell (featuring five novels, including Next of Kin, Wasp & Sinister Barrier) and Major Ingredients: The Selected Short Stories of Eric Frank Russell (includes “Allamagoosa,” “Plus X,” “…And Then There Were None,” “Dear Devil” and 26 more).
Now to get back to the tube so I can watch political convention speeches and have my Brain Baffled by Baloney.