There seems to exist some very real confusion as to just what English sci-fi author Eric Frank Russell did during WW2. Some sources would have us believe that he worked for British Intelligence during the war years, while others claim that he was merely an RAF radio operator and mechanic. Whatever the real story may be, the writer put his war experiences to good use over a decade later, when he wrote what would be his sixth novel out of an eventual 10, Wasp. Initially released as an Avalon Books hardcover in November 1957, when Russell was already 52, Wasp has been called one of its author’s finest works. This reader was fortunate enough to acquire the 35-cent Permabook paperback edition from 1959 at NYC bookstore extraordinaire The Strand (selling price: a very reasonable $5), and am happy to report that Russell is now a very solid 3 for 3 with me, after having previously read The Best of Eric Frank Russell (1978), as well as his wonderful 1955 offering, Men, Martians and Machines.
In Wasp, the reader makes the acquaintance of one James Mowry, who, when we first encounter him, is being offered a job as the “wasp” of the title. Earth, at this point, has been at war with the Sirian Combine for 10 months, and Mowry’s job will be to go to one of the Sirian planets (Jaimec, as it turns out) and, single-handedly, cause as much trouble for the Sirians there as possible. (His commanding officer offers the analogy of a wasp that can fly into a moving automobile and cause a fatal crash, just by buzzing around.) Once dumped on Jaimec, Mowry gets busy with the nine phases of his campaign, befuddling and harassing the enemy in advance of a (hopeful) Terran attack.
Phase 1 involves the surreptitious distribution of propaganda leaflets; 2, the mailing of intimidating letters to the authorities, and sowing the belief that there is such an organization as the Dirac Angestun Gesept, or the Sirian Freedom Party; 3, the hiring of contract killers to take out high government officials and spread terror; 4, placing phony wire taps to increase uncertainty, as well as the spreading of false gossip (or, as we call them today, “alternative facts”); all the way to Phase 9, the sabotaging of ships to raise terror on the high seas. Mowry, who had lived on the Sirian home world Dirac with his family for the first 17 years of his life, would seem to be the perfect candidate for the job, and after his skin is dyed purple, his ears are pinned back surgically, and his extra teeth are extracted, he looks the part, as well. But can Mowry, one man against an entire planet, carry out his task, before the Gestapo-like Sirian secret police, the Kaitempi (actually, probably a nod to the Japanese secret police of WW2, the Kempeitai), capture him, torture him for information, and summarily do away with him on their strangling block?
Writing in his Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction, Scottish critic David Pringle says of Wasp: “…One brilliant Earthman confounds the stupid Sirian enemy … an amusing but chauvinistic tale, with a distinct flavour of World War II heroics.” Well, this reader would only half agree with that assessment. First of all, the man-in-the-street Sirians that Mowry comes up against are not particularly stupid (at least, no more so than the average Terran), while the Sirian government officials and their Kaitempi goons are anything but. Indeed, a good part of the suspense in Russell’s book derives from the fact that Mowry only just barely manages to elude his pursuers time and again; pursuers who always seem able to track him down, be it in the Jaimecan capital of Pertane or one of the lesser cities that Mowry operates in. We worry about Mowry, knowing full well what will happen to him when he is finally caught, which event would almost seem an inevitability. (And no, I would never dream of revealing whether or not Mowry is indeed ever captured, and thus ruin any potential reader’s suspense.)
Repeatedly, Mowry is compelled to make the 20-mile trudge through the forest (thanking his lucky stars for Jaimec’s 7/8 Earth gravity!), to his hideout cave, in order to regroup, change his disguise, and obtain new phony IDs. The Sirians surely do not give him an easy time with his assignment, and are decidedly not stupid, despite the fact that Mowry, in Bond-like fashion, narrowly outwits them continuously. As to the WW2 heroics, Pringle is absolutely correct. With very little reworking, Wasp could indeed have been turned into a tale of 1940s European intrigue, its sci-fi details being fairly minimal. Pertane, to be sure, feels very much like a film noirish city, with its tough-talking hoods, sleazy bars, guns, buses, and cheap hotels. Take away the otherworldly setting and the purple-skinned aliens, as well as the “dynocars” that run on broadcast power, and the antigrav devices on the spaceships, and the book’s sci-fi trappings would be practically nonexistent.
As for Pringle’s assertion that the book is “amusing,” no reader would ever argue. Russell was often mistaken by his readers for an American author (much like C.L. Moore and Leigh Brackett were erroneously thought to be male by theirs) due to his tough-guy language, constant use of slang, and heavy dashes of humor, and Wasp shows off his inimitable wisecracking style to a marked degree. Thus, minor characters are given nicknames based on their physical attributes (such as Major Pigface, Sniffy, Fatso), and the reader is given such wonderfully hardboiled prose as this:
The gun in his hand emitted a phut, no louder than that of an air pistol. Sagramatholou remained standing, a blue hole in his forehead. His mouth hung open in an idiotic gape. Then his knees gave way and he plunged forward face first…
Russell was indeed a terrific writer (supposedly, Astounding Science-Fiction editor John W. Campbell’s favorite!), and Wasp, compact and fast moving as its titular insect, finds him at the peak of his abilities.
The book contains any number of gripping scenes, including the two killings that Mowry perpetrates on Kaitempi brass, a very suspenseful jail break, and the planting of limpet mines in a heavily guarded harbor. The book, unsurprisingly, was purchased in the hopes of making it into a successful film. Very much surprisingly, that purchase was made by The Beatles’ Apple Corps (!), which paid almost 5,000 pounds for the film rights; sadly, the project never reached fruition. But Sir Paul, if you ever read this (and Ringo, since you were the one who signed the contract), this book would make for a surefire blockbuster today, I feel. Mowry is a wonderful character (tough, resourceful, ever ready with a quip … although Russell doesn’t give us all that much in the way of a background biography for the man) who would translate perfectly on the big screen. So, c’mon, guys … “Dig It.” “Let it Be.” “From Me to You.” “Please Please Me.” “Think for Yourself.” “We Can Work it Out.” “Don’t Let Me Down.” “The End.”
Oh … one other thing, actually. I try to steer clear of political commentary in these FanLit reviews, but there is one passage in Wasp (which, incidentally, has been referred to by others as a “comedic terrorist’s handbook”) that I feel all members of the current Trump administration should read … and heed. To wit:
The more persistently a government maintains silence on a given subject of discussion, the more the public talks about it and thinks about it. The longer and more stubborn the silence, the guiltier the government looks to the talkers and thinkers. In time of war, the most morale-lowering question that can be asked is “What are they hiding from us now?”