BOOK CLUB

Joanne Har­ris on a book about a fu­ture we sort of came to know

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Contents - By Eric Frank Rus­sell, 1957

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.

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