Sentinels From Space by Eric Frank Russell science fiction book reviewsSentinels From Space by Eric Frank Russell science fiction book reviewsSentinels From Space by Eric Frank Russell

In the science fiction novel of 1953, mutants and their various abilities – especially telepathic – were apparently all the rage. Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, the first novel to win the Hugo Award, showed us how difficult a proposition murder could be in a society of mind readers. In Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore’s Mutant, the “Baldies” referred to in the title had to learn how to live among a society that feared and despised them. Clifford D. Simak’s Ring Around the Sun dealt with mutants capable of moving between Earth’s parallel worlds; Isaac Asimov’s Second Foundation centered around a galaxy-disrupting mutant called The Mule; and Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human posited the creation of a gestalt mentality when six mutant individuals merged. Seemingly lost in the mutant shuffle that year was British author Eric Frank Russells contribution Sentinels From Space, a book that I have only recently experienced. And if this title cannot lay claim to the same exalted quality of those other novels just mentioned, it yet remains a work deserving to be better known today.

To be perfectly honest, Sentinels From Space was originally released two years earlier, in the November 1951 issue of Startling Stories, and under the title The Star Watchers. The NYC-based publisher Bouregy & Curl (soon to be Avalon Books, one of the most important sci-fi houses of the ‘50s and ‘60s) would release the novel as a $2.75 hardcover in 1953, however, featuring the new title as well as beautiful cover art by Ric Binkley. Paperbacks from Ace in 1978 (the one I was happy to nab, with a cover by Vincent Di Fate), Ballantine in 1986, and Methuen in 1987 would follow, but today, readers who are interested in laying their hands on the book would be well advised to pop for NESFA Press’ deluxe hardcover volume entitled Entities: The Selected Novels of Eric Frank Russell, which not only includes Sentinels From Space, but also the author’s first novel, Sinister Barrier (1939), Wasp (1958), Next of Kin (1958), and some wonderful shorter pieces. Sentinels From Space was Russell’s third of 10 novels, written when the author was already 46 years old. At one time editor John W. Campbell’s favorite contributor to his famed Astounding Science-Fiction magazine, Russell here reveals himself to be in fine, if hardly top-grade, form.

His book is set during an indeterminate future year. Venus and Mars have both been colonized, but the long space flights required in getting to those planets have resulted in the settlers being exposed to gene-altering radiations en route. Thus, the colony worlds have a disproportionately high number of mutants with various abilities, as compared to the average citizens of Earth. As Russell’s book begins, one of the rare Earthmen with mutant abilities, David Raven, is called before the World Council and given an extremely important task. Raven is a true telepath, with the ability to not only read minds but – rarity of rarities – block his own mind from other telepaths as well. He is thus deemed the perfect agent to carry out his mission. It seems that a cabal of Martian and Venusian insurgents is currently engaged in an undeclared war on Earth. To win their liberation, they have begun a systematic series of sabotage attacks on some of Earth’s most vital infrastructure, and before things go too far, it has been decided to send Raven out to somehow put a stop to all this. Raven is later briefed by a man named Carson, head of the Terran Security Bureau, and learns that there are at least a dozen different types of mutant living on Mars and Venus: the true telepaths such as himself; levitators, who can float through the air; pyrotics (or what we might think of today as fire starters); chameleons; nocturnals, who require no sleep; malleables, with the ability to alter their face’s appearance; hypnos, with the power to mesmerize; supersonics, presumably capable of hearing in other sound ranges; mini-engineers, with the ability to create complex miniaturized devices; radiosensitives, who can go about blind and navigate like bats; insectivocals, with power over the deadly insect life of Venus; and teleports, with the ability to lift objects with their minds. And, Carson warns, there might very well be more!

Little daunted, Raven goes to the home of his beautiful and husky lady friend Leina, a true telepath like himself, where he is involved in a confrontation with a squad of mutants almost immediately. Raven later visits the home of a Venusian named Kayder, ostensibly a mere businessman living on Earth but in actuality an insectivocal, and one of the insurgent leaders. Raven then travels to Venus and confers with his friends Charles and Mavis, also true telepaths. He learns from Charles that the bigwig insurgent head on that planet is a nonmutant of exceptional ability named Thorstern; a man who envisions himself as the ruler of that world one day. Thus, Raven and Charles take it upon themselves to break into Thorstern’s heavily guarded castle and try to convince the would-be autocrat to alter his plans. But, as might be expected, Thorstern is not so easily convinced…

Sentinels From Space by Eric Frank Russell science fiction book reviewsSentinels From Space, as you may have been able to discern, is a very interesting book, but perhaps its most interesting aspect comes from trying to figure out what David Raven is all about. Almost from the first, clues are dropped indicating that he is not merely a Terran telepath. Thus, speaking of the humans on Earth, Leina asks him “Why must these creatures [emphasis added] be so stubborn and idiotic?” When arriving on Venus, Raven jumps out of his passenger ship, plummets 12,000 feet, and then suddenly brakes to an unassisted landing … and not in the manner of a levitator, either! He and Charles are able to enter Thorstern’s heavily guarded compound with ease, mentally trace the electrical leads connecting to the alarm system, control others’ actions with their minds, and slay from afar … all while discussing being “handicapped by our disguise” and wondering if horses are really horses and dogs are really dogs. Raven is completely unflappable and fearless, and for good reason, as it turns out … his abilities are decidedly daunting. Far be it for me to reveal the backstory of this character and his associates, but let’s just say that the book’s title does provide something of a clue.

Typical for Eric Frank Russell, the dialogue in the novel is loaded with the snappy, joking, noirish tough-guy patter that led so many readers to believe that the Berkshire-born author was an American. The use of this hard-boiled talk (“All right, Brain-picker, on your feet and start walking”) in a futuristic setting is an appealing conceit, for this reader anyway. And Russell, as always, leavens the seriousness of his tale with a goodly dose of humor – not for nothing was he once referred to as “Campbell’s licensed jester” – although the laffs are not nearly as abundant as in his wonderful offering from 1962, The Great Explosion. (I love when Raven refers to mankind here as “Homer Saps.”) And as in Bester’s The Demolished Man, here, we are given an excellent depiction of what it is like to be a telepath, and the rapid-fire torrent of thought snippets that we see Raven receiving from around the galaxy is fairly remarkable; ditto for when he is able to detect all the thoughts passing through the minds of those castle guards.

As Carson tells Raven early on, the game that is being waged by the Martian and Venusian insurgents against Earth is like a game of “super-chess,” with the mutants being the specialized pieces and the nonmutants playing the role of the disposable pawns. And the resultant game play here is suitably complex. To be succinct, Sentinels From Space is a challenging read, one in which puzzling statements are made throughout that are only clarified 100+ pages later on. The book requires the reader to hold a lot of info in his/her mind and think clearly throughout; this is hardly an empty-headed novel. And so, perhaps it was not the ideal book for me to read while trying to get over a case of COVID! Still, I found that matters did gradually become clearer as the story proceeded.

Russell’s third novel, surprisingly, features a minimum of action sequences per se. Most of the memorable scenes revolve around talk (Raven talking to the Council, to Carson, to Kayder, to Charles and Mavis, to Thorstern, and finally, to one Major Lomax of Terran Intelligence, who hauls David and Leina in after their display of superhuman abilities begins to set off alarm bells). The only genuine action sequences involve Raven’s exit from the ship over Venus and his subsequent walk over the inhospitable terrain; his and Charles’ penetration of Thorstern’s castle; and Raven’s purloining of a ship to leave Venus and return to Earth. So yes, the book is more talk than action, but at least the talk is always of an interesting variety.

Now, having said that, I must also report that Sentinels From Space was also the first Eric Frank Russell book that I’ve read that was not completely satisfying. This is a book that suggests more than it reveals, and remains frustratingly tantalizing by the time it wraps up. To my way of thinking, we never do learn quite enough about David Raven and his friends.  What we are given is fascinating, and could easily have served as the basis of an entire series about Raven’s mission (the foreshadowed hints of an inevitable pogrom against the mutants might also have been gone into in depth in such later installments), but Russell was never one to go in for sequels or series. So we are left with this suggestive puzzler; a book that takes place in no stated year and with nonspecific locales for any of the scenes that transpire on Earth. Personally, this reader could also have done with some more of the alluded-to Venusian monsters (a la those in Kuttner & Moore’s 1947, Venus-set masterpiece Fury) to spice things up, and possibly a scene showing those nightmarish Venusian insects in action, but that is not what was topmost on Russell’s mind here, apparently. I suppose the bottom line is that Sentinels From Space makes for some gripping and challenging sci-fi, although it is ultimately frustrating and not nearly as entertaining as some of Russell’s other works … such as 1955’s Men, Martians and Machines, a perfect melding of action and humor. Still, even lesser Russell is better than many other writers performing at their peak, so my qualified recommendation for this one. (By the way, I hope that this review has hung together logically. I still have a head full of COVID as I write these words, and my brain feels as if it’s been dazed by a top-grade hypno…)

Published in 1953. Without warning, the World Council on Earth found itself in a war to the death with its developing colonies on Mars and Venus. And it was a war that Earth could very well lose. For even with an overwhelming superiority in numbers and technology, the men of Earth would have to face colonists possessing telepathic powers of ever type – mind readers, teleporters, hynos…Each one was worth more than regiments of the finest trained and equipped troops. It was a test of strength that would leave three worlds in ruin.


  • Sandy Ferber

    SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....