Now Inhale
by Eric Frank Russell

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Astounding Science Fiction, April 1959

collected in —
Major Ingredients

April 2010

Choose the time of your last breath
They say Nero fiddled while Rome burned; Taylor's problem was to play games while his executioners burned ....
John W. Campbell
editor's teaser for "Now Inhale"
Astounding, April 1959

"Now Inhale" by Eric Frank Russell is a classic science fiction novelet, well on its way to becoming about as famous as shorter fictions are likely to get. As with anything of only about twenty pages in its original appearance, I can't say much without giving away all of the story, but I must tell you these: the setting, the critical challenge to the hero, and the name of a game.

Wayne Taylor is a Terran interstellar scout who has crash-landed on a heretofore unknown alien planet. The aliens are sufficiently annoyed to classify Taylor as a spy, but civilized enough to have formal procedures for ending his unwelcome visit.

The aliens possess an enshrined tradition that everyone to be terminated is entitled to a final game — a palliative to the afterlife not unlike our custom of a last meal.

As Taylor learns, the challenge is to make that final game last as long as possible. Of course it is absolutely unlikely that any commonly-known game could be played long enough for rescuers from Terra to reach him. He's allowed to choose either an alien or Terran game. The game he comes up with he calls, in deadpan earnestness, Arky-malarkey.

The Towers of Hanoi

Russell describes here a real and playable game. The Towers of Hanoi game (or Tower of Hanoi, or Tower of Brahma) is based on an ancient Hindu legend, expressed as a modern game by Edouard Lucas in 1883. It is simple in concept, basically transferring a stack of disks one at a time from one peg or stack to another peg or stack. There are three stacks, and no disk can be placed atop a smaller disk. Depending on the number of disks, this can take quite a while. A similar numerical mountain lurks in the chessboard challenge to place a grain of rice on the first square, two grains on the second, continuing to double until the 64th square is reached.

Eric Frank Russell's "Now Inhale" is the first place I ran across the Towers of Hanoi, and I suspect that is so for many other science fiction fans. To Taylor, the ancient legendary ritual is not a mathematical abstraction but a possibility of extending life day after day as long as possible — or a quick termination at the strangler's post.

I'd like to draw your attention to some Internet resources for the Towers of Hanoi:

  • MazeWorks offers an interactive version of the game. You can choose the number of disks to play with up through 12, and either play yourself or have MazeWorks solve it for you. Try it first with 3 disks to get the idea, and then add a couple if you wish. Don't try it with more than a half-dozen disks, either solo or automatic, unless you have big stores of patience.
  • The Lawrence Hall of Science has patterns for printing out your own game materials, and 7-disk and 9-disk boxed sets you can buy: Tower of Hanoi sets
  • Wikipedia has a detailed logical analysis with diagrams, plus applications and variants. Warning: at the end of the article are some plot spoilers for "Now Inhale"; read the story first.
  • Amit Singh's Hanoimania! provides source-code in an astounding variety of programming languages: "(over a hundred) implementations of the Towers of Hanoi problem, or rather, its solution." Even programmers more jaded than curious may find some surprises: "Consider the Hanoi OS. This is an x86-bootable operating system that solves the Hanoi puzzle as its primary task."
The individual's dilemma

A single individual against an entire planet or even an interstellar empire — whether he's held close or on the loose — is a favorite and thoughtful theme in the work of Eric Frank Russell. His novel Wasp is an example of the spy or agent who remains at large; Next of Kin (The Space Willies) is an example of the scout who get slung into an alien hoosegow; while The Pirates of Ersatz (The Pirates of Zan) turns and widens to take on our own civilization.

The Russell hero, baffled and balked by barriers and bureaucracy, thinks his way through the psychology of the problem. All these stories are studies in the psychology of adaptability and determination under pressure. "Now Inhale" is worthy of being mentioned, in the company of such excellent novels, among Russell's most memorable stories. It is fine science fiction.


© 2010 Robert Wilfred Franson

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