by Eric Frank Russell

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Avalon: New York, 1957 (abridged)
223 pages

New Worlds, March-April-May 1958

Dobson: London, 1958
202 pages

collected in —
Entities: Selected Novels

August 2012

The sting of subversion

Wasp is a novel rather simple in theme: undermining by a lone individual of an enemy society in wartime. By virtue of Eric Frank Russell's clear and fast-paced action, as well as his sense of realism and sympathetic humor, Wasp has become rather a science-fiction classic. While it is speculative, the approach isn't entirely fictional. During World War II, Russell worked in British Intelligence, devising ways to weaken Imperial Japanese home-front morale and sabotage their war effort in a softening-up period prior to the anticipated Anglo-American invasion of the Japanese home islands. Fortunately for all sides, that invasion turned out not to be necessary.

In many of his stories, Russell pits a single man or small band against overwhelming power and authority: enemy star-empires' space fleets and armies and prisons. Ingenuity, adaptability, bravery, endurance, even simple stoic patience all are exemplified in his heroes. "James Mowry, twenty-six, restless and pigheaded", is recruited to emulate a wasp, a little critter with a highly distracting sting: a Terran secret agent set down with some usefully subversive equipment on Jaimec, an outer planet of the Sirian Combine.

The Sirians against whom the Terrans are waging interstellar war, although biologically alien, are sufficiently humanoid that a human with skin dyed purple and a few minor modifications can pass for one of them. Mowry was born on the Sirian capital planet, the son of a trader, and speaks the language as a native.

It's important to note that the alienness of the Sirians really is only skin-deep. Russell's target is not ordinary folk whatever they look like or under whatever flag they live, but oppressive bureaucracy and autocratic nastiness. His true villains tend to be secret-police officials (the Kaitempi) and overbearing authority figures of all kinds. Stupidity and cupidity wherever found are a wasp's allies and raw material for propaganda, subversion, and sabotage. Other than their purple complexion, Sirians resemble denizens of Russell's and our own environment, with police and taxi drivers and petty crooks among the usual sorts in many present-day countries.

In early readings of Wasp I assumed, as did I'm sure almost all readers, that such subversive tactics as Eric Frank Russell devised could and would be used successfully by America and Britain, or by the West or Terrestrials; not successfully against us. In later years I am not so confident. But as with all varieties of good science fiction, speculative foreknowledge is invaluable as preparation.

Even after quite a few re-readings over the years, I still find Wasp suspenseful as well as humorous, a fine story of adaptable bravery and as humane as warfare can be.


© 2012 Robert Wilfred Franson

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