by Eric Frank Russell

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Astounding Science Fiction, April 1956

collected in —
Far Stars


April 2011

Nothing to see here ...

Eric Frank Russell's science fiction novelet "Legwork" is a straightforward police-procedural with a seemingly insurmountable challenge. An alien scouting for his technically more advanced interstellar civilization lands on Earth, and sets out armed only with his particular mental power:

Vanash was a twenty-four carat hypno, jeweled in every hole. Given a thinking mind to work upon at any range up to most of a mile, he could convince it in a split second that black was white, right was wrong, the sun had turned bright green, and the corner cop was King Farouk. Anything he imposed stayed stuck until he saw fit to unstick it.

Quite a formidable talent! Vanash is a quick study, experienced and even conceited in learning how newly-discovered worlds tick as he moves around untraceably. After he learns the basic social organization, he is particularly interested in the scientific and technological strengths and weaknesses of the current target world.

So a series of odd and even inexplicable small events begins at a point in the American countryside and then in a nearby small city, occasioning only minor puzzlement until a bank is robbed — even alien scouts need walking-around money. The reported facts simply cannot be reconciled, and the baffled local cops call in a Treasury agent who can bring wider resources to bear.

"Legwork" is a fun story, and a low-key, thoughtful, and subtle parable of persuasion misused, of hypnotic convincing powers: base rhetoric without words. I stress that Vanash presents a threat of entirely unknown nature: so masked and glazed with imitation and misdirection that it is not perceived even as a threat, merely as confused observations. The opposing force of detail detective work may be characterized as persistence, doggedness, legwork. Raised to meet a high challenge here, it is the refusal to give up in the face of the inexplicable.

As a companion to Russell's challenge in "Legwork", I suggest reading (or re-reading) John W. Campbell's novella, "Who Goes There?" (1938). The thematic basis is very similar, the stories are utterly different.


© 2011 Robert Wilfred Franson

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