Joanne Harris on a book about a future we sort of came to know
Joanne Harris on Wasp by Eric Frank Russell.
Based on the premise that even a wasp, armed only with its sting, can, in the right circumstances, cause the destruction of a moving vehicle and all its passengers, Wasp is at the same time a rollicking (and very funny) adventure story and a sly commentary on the nature of society: its fears; its instability; its lack of safety in numbers; and the role of the individual in a complicated, impersonal world.
Set during the galactic war between the Terran and the Sirian Empires, it tells of James Mowry, reluctant recruit to the Terran intelligence service. Mowry is known as a “wasp”: a solitary agent, in disguise as a Sirian and dropped on an enemy planet with orders to create as much mayhem and paranoia as possible.
Terry Pratchett said that he “couldn’t imagine a funnier terrorist’s handbook”. And that’s exactly what it is; disguised as a story from the golden age of sci-fi and of the Ealing comedy, combining various aspects of both. As such, it should seem dated. In some ways it does – there seem to be no women at all in this Boy’s Own Paper-ish romp – and yet, a part of the novel’s charm is this gleeful regression into the past: this story of one trickster, aiming to bring down a planet.
The sci-fi author Jo Walton says: “Read him with your twelve-year-old head.” But in the current climate, a terrorist hero, however comic, can take on a different complexion, even to a twelve-year-old.
Mowry’s plans, among others, involve: printing and distributing counterfeit money; writing slogans on walls; sending out death threats via the press; recruiting members of the Sirian Underworld to carry out targeted assassinations, while slowly building the myth of a vast, underground organisation working to destabilise the government. “By scrawling suitable words upon a wall, the right man in the right place at the right time might immobilize an armored division with the aid of nothing more than a piece of chalk.”
Neil Gaiman, who once optioned the book for the big screen, says: “I started the script, wrote about a dozen pages, then September 11th happened, and I let the option lapse; I didn’t think that the world (or at least the US) would be ready for a terrorist hero for a very long time. And he is a terrorist – one man tying up an entire planet’s military might as they look for a huge non-existent organisation, using nothing but the 1950s plot-equivalent of a couple of explosions and a few envelopes filled with anthrax powder.”
The moral ambivalence of Wasp is therefore perhaps more apparent now, reading with an adult eye. We are certainly meant to root for Mowry – and we do – but as the story progresses, it becomes clear that the real enemy is not the Sirian people (depicted, in spite of their “alien” features, as no different to humans in their behaviour), but the shadowy governments behind the two warring empires. Mowry is a hero, not because he is a terrorist, or even a patriot, but because he is an individual; subverting the concept of patriotism; serving the Terran empire out of pure self-preservation. Caught between two crushing forces, all he can do is try to survive: a wasp against an armoured tank. It’s an image we can all relate to in a world in which we often struggle with our concept of individuality, and it gives a nice existential twist to this deceptively light little tale.
Joanne Harris’s Runemarks is re-released by Gollancz on 24 November.