|edited by Rick Katze
Five diverse & fine SF novels
Entities: The Selected Novels of Eric Frank Russell is a substantial and very worthwhile omnibus collection. Usually without a lot of special-effects whoop-de-do, Eric Frank Russell (1905-1976) wrote some classic novels of science fiction, with suspenseful plots and deft characterization. His style always includes a leavening of humor — and sometimes heaping handfuls of hilarity in the course of untoward improbabilities and bureaucratic pratfalls.
Rick Katze, the editor, includes five of Russell's novels. I list them here in order written — they are not related:
These novels are (or will be) separately reviewed at Troynovant.
Jack L. Chalker contributes good introductions to each novel, balancing interesting background and tantalizing lead-in without giving away the plots. Russell's own 1948 Foreword to
Sinister Barrier is omitted, either because it gives away too much ahead of time — or because it takes the subject of the novel too seriously. Decide for yourself after you read that novel how serious and how scary its theme is. I hope Russell's Foreword will make it into some further collection, as a standalone piece.
Rick Katze rounds off Entities with two short stories and a novelet from Astounding Science Fiction that he couldn't fit into his previous giant Russell collection from NESFA Press, Major Ingredients:
"Mana" is too short to say anything about without giving it away; it prefigures Clifford D. Simak's City. "Mechanical Mice" is a great parable about delving into technologies which we don't understand. The mechanical mice are beautifully realized. For "Legwork", please see its separate review.
"Mechanical Mice" and "Legwork" show on a smaller scale that distinctive blend of humor, dramatic action, and serious theme found in Eric Frank Russell's novels.
These NESFA compendia are large to very-large books, and beautifully produced. You should have their editions for any author who is a favorite of yours. In earlier American editions, some of Russell's novels suffered unwarranted length restrictions, so it's especially pleasing to have complete versions at long last all in one place.
I wish I could say further that Entities provides definitive texts, at least as good as the separate Fantasy Press and Dobson editions published during Russell's lifetime, but that's not quite so. I believe this is an important issue — as well as inadvertently funny — so perhaps you will bear with me.
In this book full of favorites, I happened to reread the novelet "Legwork" first, but was frequently distracted by poor punctuation in the Entities version. Numerous periods, commas, and/or quotation marks are missing from the end of dialogue paragraphs. Random extra apostrophes turn simple plurals like boys into possessives, boy's; says turns into the odd say's (Say's Law?). There are several instances of dialogue sections with missing or doubled leading quotation marks. This assault on punctuation is really unfortunate for readability.
Too many times in "Legwork" sense is garbled with real but wrong words (wrong —> right, below):
So many little errors interfere with the enjoyment of this fine story. Notice that all the above typographical errors can sail right past a spelling-checker program. I found these not by proofreading, but by reading happily until dialogue flowed disconcertingly into a non-dialogue paragraph or someone else's dialogue, or I had to study a sentence to make sense of it. I resorted to reading "Legwork" with pen in hand.
(During later rereading for enjoyment — not proofreading — of this Entities version of "Legwork" after a couple of years, a dozen or so errors which I hadn't marked before jumped out at me, several of which I've added above. I had to bring out my pen again.)
From the platoon of sixteen well-meaning proofreaders listed in the back of Entities, "Legwork" got short shrift. The other stories and novels aren't mispunctuated nearly as badly, but obviously rely overmuch on automatic spell-checking rather than literate reading.
Eric Frank Russell's own name, after appearing correctly on the running page heads all the long way through page 671, is misspelled Erick for the last twenty pages.
I was brought up short during fast action in Sinister Barrier by a policeman's apparently pointing to a nonexistent second police car; really, he is indicating authority by pointing to the police star on his own gyrocar's hood. I also had to puzzle over previous formula, which should read precious formula — very precious indeed to the survival of humanity. A flyer's odd but evocative skimmed a temporary defeat should be skimmed in temporary defeat.
The funniest error to me is this bit, also in Sinister Barrier:
He paused, listened, then said, "Sony, Harriman, I can't tell you anything just yet. ..."
Sony should be Sorry. Sony Corporation was founded in 1946, in their earliest years using a Japanese company-name neither euphonious nor easy to translate. They first used the coined word Sony to brand their products in 1955. Having myself spent five years at Sony on various contracts, this one jumped out at me. Russell's knowledge of Japan, and his sometimes startling prescience, did not extend to pre-coining this brand for Sony Corporation. But it's spelled right.
Russell's justly famous novel Wasp is not immune herein to this fad of apology by brand-name:
"Sony." Davies stood up, sat down again.
The great critic William Empson is able to extract humor from scintillating blunders in dull lead type:
The text, by the way, is bad. I am not at all opposed to honest farce on the part of the printer ...
Russell is quite funny enough by his deliberate artistry, even more so with clean typesetting.
Entities in general (not just "Legwork") suffers from erratic italicization; sometimes Russell's italics are given in plain text, or other words acquire italics or capitals. Sinister Barrier frequently quotes Fortean-theme newspaper articles; the newspapers have been afflicted with extra italics as in "The Herald" instead of "the Herald" and so on. But aircraft-carrier Arizona (twice) and Zeppelin Hindenburg lose their italicization in Entities. Random italics distract the reader, as to modern eyes does the italicization of interpolated words by the Seventeenth Century translators of the Bible, King James Version.
Of course, NESFA Press is run by science-fiction fans for love of the literature, so the labor is volunteer (and truly appreciated by me!); whereas the big commercial and university presses, which no longer seem to proofread, must invent their own excuses.
Entities is a superb collection, and well repays the hard work, and the dedication, of editor Katze and his NESFA associates. I harp on these scattershot errors not because they mar the book irreparably — readers will be able to roll past most of them — but because I hope for a future printing in which the texts are corrected. These are wonderful novels, and they deserve that last one-percent effort to get Russell's texts presented right.
© 2002 Robert Wilfred Franson