by Eric Frank Russell

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Astounding Science Fiction, September 1947

collected in —
Six Worlds Yonder

Major Ingredients

May 2010

An awesome creator

Eric Frank Russell begins his a classic science fiction novelet, "Hobbyist", with a bang of a starship's hard landing, yet described with as much of his distinctive humor as a near crash is likely to bear:

The ship arced out of a golden sky and landed with a whoop and a wallop that cut down a mile of lush vegetation. Another half mile of growths turned black and drooped to ashes under the final flicker of the tail rocket blasts. That arrival was spectacular, full of verve, and worthy of four columns in any man's paper. But the nearest paper was distant by a goodly slice of a lifetime, and there was none to record what this far corner of the cosmos regarded as the pettiest of events. So the ship squatted tired and still at the foremost end of the ashy blast-track and the sky glowed down and the green world brooded solemnly all around.

In a number of stories, Russell features a lone human scout or pioneer, exploring interstellar frontiers all by himself; but in other stories he adds a non-human companion, some Earthly creature to companion his hero and provide someone to talk to — if not exactly with; it's good psychology. In "Hobbyist", Steve Ander's companion is a bird, a fairly intelligent, affectionate, and quite talkative macaw named Laura. As Ander tries to solve the quietly scary enigma of this world, the bird helps keep him balanced, and quite usefully has a fine sense for which unique foods may be edible. Sometimes Laura's assistance is less refined, as when she launches into a Scots dialect she's picked up at some spaceport:

"McGillicuddy," shrieked Laura with ear-splitting relish. "McGilli-Gilli-Gillicuddy! The great black —!" It ended with a word that pushed Steve's eyebrows into his hair and surprised even the bird itself. Filming its eyes with amazement, it tightened its claw-hold on his shoulder, opened the eyes, emitted a couple of raucous clucks, and joyfully repeated, "The great black —"

A historical aside: Russell's novelet inspired — or is at least a contributing ancestor of — a spectrum of progeny with stranded explorers facing unfathomable phenomena: including, I presume, such distinctive treatments as Rex Gordon's First on Mars (also titled No Man Friday, 1956). Russell also manages one of the rare anatomical allusions (to a woman's areolae) to sneak into the pages of Astounding; perhaps it ran rings around the assistant editor: since this planet has only one human on it, the subject is not present and may not even be real, and the allusion occurs as a pun within an exuberant rant by a macaw.

The theme of "Hobbyist" is creation, and orders of life-forms. It would not be amiss to say that it is a philosophical or theological story, told in a clear style and straightforward treatment to present its awesome subject matter in full force — yet leavened with sympathetic humor in the best Russell manner.

"Hobbyist" entranced me when I first read it in my early teens. Some of its imagery became part of my permanent stock of impressions. Even with my far wider and deeper perspective of today, I find it still thought-provoking.

As a companion to your experience with Russell's classic story, I suggest reading (or re-reading) Robert A. Heinlein's novelet, "Goldfish Bowl" (1942). The thematic basis is very similar, the tone is quite different: they are not synoptic.


© 2010 Robert Wilfred Franson

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