More than four decades before Capt. Jean-Luc Picard and his mixed crew of Earthlings, aliens and android made their initial appearance in Star Trek: The Next Generation, English author Eric Frank Russell was charming readers with his tales of a similarly composed starship crew. Russell (1905 – ’78) had been a contributor to John W. Campbell’s seminal Astounding Science-Fiction magazine since 1937, when it was simply called Astounding Stories (Campbell would, years later, name Russell as his favorite science fiction author, which is quite a statement, considering all the many great writers whom editor Campbell fostered during the genre’s Golden Age!), and in 1941 contributed the first of four stories that would ultimately be collected into the volume appropriately titled Men, Martians and Machines. The collection was initially released in the U.K. in 1955 (the same year that Russell won the first Hugo Award for a Short Story, his hilarious “Allamagoosa”) and in the U.S. three years after that. The collection is comprised of one (truly classic) short story and three novella-length pieces, all narrated by the same sergeant-at-arms, whose name is never given to us, and all marked by fast-moving action, great imagination, and a slangy, wisecracking style (no wonder so many readers back then thought the British author an American!).
The collection kicks off in a big way with that classic, oft-anthologized short story, “Jay Score” (from the 5/41 issue of ASF), in which Capt. McNulty and his crew of the Upskadaska City (aka the Upsydaisy) are put in peril when their ship, on a routine Earth-to-Venus run, is hit by a meteor, severely damaged, and begins an out-of-control plummet into the sun. The story introduces us to some of the crew, including the google-eyed, 10-tentacled, chess-loving Martians, and deftly mixes humor and suspense with nary a wasted word, culminating in one of the finest surprise endings a reader could ever hope to come across.
In “Mechanistria” (ASF, 1/42), Capt. McNulty and most of his crew are back, but now they have been given a new ship, the Marathon, which, with its revolutionary Flettner drive system (think: warp drive), will enable mankind to explore the outer solar systems for the very first time. And what a doozy they pick as their first world to investigate: a planet in the region of Bootes, populated by nothing but dozens of species of mechanical devices with an overriding desire to dissect and analyze animal life! The crew of the Marathon surely has their hands (and tentacles) full, getting out of this scrape!
In “Symbiotica” (ASF, 10/43), our bickering, bantering heroes are back again, this time exploring a planet in the neighborhood of Rigel. Once again, trouble arises, when the green-skinned natives there capture the Marathon’s exploratory party and bring its members deep into the deadly forest. This story dishes out lethal trees, giant snakes and other nasty flora and fauna, building to one impressive battle royal.
Finally, in “Mesmerica” (written especially for the 1955 book release), the crew faces its most frightening menace yet upon landing on an unknown planet in the region of Cassiopoeia: “repulsive objects resembling tangled masses of thick, black, greasy rope” that can induce hypnotic hallucinations in their victims (a power similar to that of the Talosians in the classic Star Trek episode “The Menagerie”). Thus, without knowing what is real and what is mirage, our sergeant and his mates attempt to rescue some of their kidnapped fellows, in this extremely freaky/borderline scary Marathon outing.
In Men, Martians and Machines, the universe, it would seem, is a very hostile place. In the collection’s last three tales, the crew members are attacked for no especial reason — be it by robots, trees or mesmerists — and are forced to simply kick ass in their own defense. And yes, it IS ultimately thrilling to watch our heroes use their needle-ray guns, pom-pom blasters and “mini A-bombs” (A-bombs four years prior to 1945?!?!) to wreak havoc among their foes, despite being constrained by something called the Transcosmic Code (think: the noninterference Prime Directive). Still, it must be argued that all this carnage IS wrought in self-defense, and that Russell is actually very modern and PC in his treatment of the mixed crew, amongst whom the squabbling Earthlings and the Martians are shown to be very much brothers and comrades-in-arms. In a further demonstration of his modern-day sensibilities, Russell gives us a starship doctor who is a black man (how radical this must have seemed in 1941!) and even has McNulty say, of the robot crewman (whose name I will not reveal here, for reasons of my own), “[he’s] a lot more than a machine … he’s a person” (this, around 45 years before Picard pleaded Data’s rights as a human, in the episode entitled “The Measure of a Man”). The book keeps the reader in suspense by incorporating a respectable body count — there is no way to tell which crewman will be killed in any of the missions — at the same time that it keeps the reader in stitches. This is a VERY funny batch of stories, I must say; not for nothing did Brian Aldiss, in his sci-fi history Billion Year Spree, refer to Russell as “Campbell’s licensed jester.” Much of the humor here comes from our sergeant’s snappy patter, atrocious puns, tough-guy talk and eternal wisecracking; thus, his remark that the meteor was “ambling along at the speed of pssst!”; his comparing the Symbiotica residents to “transcosmic Zulus”; and his Mickey Spillane-like “the potent ray carried straight … and roasted the guts of a bawling, gesticulating native.” But those zany Martian characters easily win the prize for Russell’s funniest characters in this book, whether they are arguing about chess moves during the heat of battle or making derogatory comments about the “too thick” atmosphere on Earth by making swimming motions with their tentacles. What wonderful characters they are, and yet, as is shown time and again, what formidable opponents in a fray!
Men, Martians and Machines is assuredly a splendid entertainment, although it does come with a few slight problems. Russell never gives us explanations for his world occupied solely by machines, nor does he go into any sort of depth regarding the symbiosis between natives and flora in that third story. He makes up his own words on occasion (such as “Taking his mike, Steve hoarsed into it.” Hoarsed?!?!), uses an ungrammatical expression here and there (such as “the alien sextet weren’t there,” instead of “wasn’t”), is guilty of an occasional flub (the mesmerist village is originally said to be on the shore of a lake; later, it is said to be on the shore of a river), and dates his second story badly by comparing the soulless automatons to the Japanese (this WAS written in late 1941, remember). Still, I found the collection a real hoot; longtime Trekkers (such as myself, if you couldn’t already tell!) will most likely give it an extra star or two. In the wonderful collection The Best of Eric Frank Russell, Alan Dean Foster tells us that Russell once wrote, in typically amusing fashion, that his ambition was “to entertain so many readers so well that some may have a momentary regret when they bury [me].” But he needn’t have worried about the entertainment quotient in Men, Martians and Machines, that’s for sure!