Monday, October 29, 2012

REVIEW: Entities: The Selected Novels of Eric Frank Russell

Title: Entities: The Selected Novels of Eric Frank Russell
Author: Eric Frank Russell
Genre: science fiction
Price: $29 (hardcover only)
Publisher: NESFA Press
ISBN: 978-1886778337
Point of Sale: Amazon
Reviewed by: Chris Gerrib

A while back at a science fiction convention one of my fellow panelists mentioned that the novel Wasp was “the best military SF novel he’d ever read.”  Google being my friend, I discovered that Wasp had been written in the 1950s by Eric Frank Russell, and re-issued with other novels in 2001 by the New England Science Fiction Association.  Based on this recommendation, I purchased the book, which at 691 pages is a bit of a doorstopper.  Trust me – it’s well worth the purchase.

The lead novel in the collection is what’s considered Russell’s very best work, the novel Wasp.  In this book, set in an undefined future, one intrepid Earth-man, James Mowry, is surgically altered to look like an alien race and dropped behind enemy lines.  Mowry’s orders are to act like a wasp, and keep stinging the enemy, causing panic and draining resources while a conventional war is being waged.

Mowry is, in short, to be a terrorist.  Aided by a conveniently repressive government and a stack of cash with which to purchase cooperation from the local criminal gangs, Mowry busily and rather gleefully creates terror.  Assassinations, bombs, propaganda stickers and barrels with curved pipes sticking out the top all play their rolls.  The famous SF writer Neil Gaiman optioned the book as a movie, but after 9/11 decided the market for merry terrorist movies had dried up.

Wasp in particular and the rest of the novels in the collection suffer somewhat from being written when they were.  As Jo Walton said, they were apparently written before women were invented, and so have few if any female characters.  They also feel a bit dated technologically – people rely on phone booths, printed newspapers and physically-mailed letters.  Still, Wasp holds up as a truly engaging novel.  It probably should – Russell, a Brit, spent his war working with one Ian Fleming, and so at least some of the dirty tricks applied in Wasp were tested elsewhere.

The rest of the collection is secondary only in comparison to the masterpiece.  Russell frequently explored the theme of hidden powers, and two of the works, Sinister Barrier (in Russell’s preferred and later version) as well as Sentinels from Space feature aliens either controlling or protecting humans.  Both are gripping reads. Call Him Dead takes the hidden aliens theme a step further, involving a (hidden) human telepath who is the only person that can detect the aliens.  Lastly, returning to the One Versus the World theme, we have Next of Kin, in which one military misfit helps win the war for the human race.

Three short stories round out the collection, of which the one that stuck with me was Legwork.  In this short story, an alien is scouting out Earth circa 1950s as a potential invasion target.  The alien has some cool tech, but his biggest ability is use hypnosis to convince any member of any intelligent species anything.  One would think that the invader would be invincible, but cracking that knot is what Russell does in the short story.

Entities is highly recommended for any SF fan.


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