Vintage Science Fiction Month: Wasp

Vintage SF Month is hosted by the Little Red Reviewer. I don't know how I missed this before, but since I've already read two vintage (i.e. "older than I am") works this month without even trying, I figured it would be fun to participate! First up: Wasp, by Eric Frank Russell:

"... the driver lost control at high speed while swiping at a wasp which had flown in through a window and was buzzing around his face. ... The weight of a wasp is under half an ounce. Compared with a human being, the wasp's size is minute, its strength negligible. Its sole armament is a tiny syringe holding a drop of irritant, formic acid. In this instance, the wasp didn't use it. Nevertheless, that wasp killed four big men and converted a large, powerful car into a heap of scrap." - Wasp, pages 3-4

Terrorists make for unlikely heroes, especially in our post 9/11 world, but Eric Frank Russell's 1957 novel Wasp represents a valiant effort that feels prescient and relevant to this day.

Sometime in the future, humans are at war with the Sirian Empire. Even though the humans posses superior technology in nearly every way, the Sirian Empire is able to compensate because their population outnumbers the humans by a ratio of 12 to 1 (along with commensurate advantage in resources). What to do when confronted with numerical inferiority? Resort to asymmetrical warfare! James Mowry is the titular wasp, a single human saboteur sent to the Sirian empire to sow discord and disruption. Given suitable circumstances, one man against a whole planet can "obtain results monstrously in excess of the effort."

He is, in effect, a terrorist. His tactics start out innocently enough. Phase 1 of his plan simply involves slapping subversive stickers all over various cities in order to establish the existence of a (nonexistent) resistance organisation named Dirac Angestun Gesept (Sirian Freedom Party). Subsequent phases escalate to targeted assassinations and bombings. He is aided by the panic of the Sirian government, depicted as an oppressive police state that engages in censorship and forceful suppression. Ironically, one of the strengths of asymmetrical warfare is that when your enemy commits a major act of violence against the people, you (the terrorist) win and you become stronger.

This is certainly a peculiar book. Terry Pratchett once commented that he "can't imagine a funnier terrorists' handbook." The tone of the book is certainly lighter than you'd expect from the above description, and it does have a dark, dry humor to it that is surprising. Mowry is a likable enough agent provocateur, but he is still a terrorist. We really don't know that much about him, actually. His recruitment at the beginning of the novel is coerced and I read it to basically be a death sentence (i.e. even if he survives, he will simply be redeployed). Russell does his best to soften the violence against the Sirians leadership by portraying them as obnoxious bureaucrats, but he leaves room for doubt due to reprisals on the innocent population (who are mostly portrayed as ordinary, perfectly nice people). We're clearly meant to root for Mowry, but Russell doesn't quite let us off that easy and provokes questions that are not easily answered.

Of course, the procedural aspects are great, and hold up pretty well too. Most of the tactics used in the novel feel logical and independent of hand-wavey technological cheats. For instance, there's a clever variant on a typical "follow that car" sequence in which Mowry, not wanting to attract suspicion, tells the cab driver that he doesn't remember the exact name of where he's headed, but he does remember the how to get there, so he'll just direct the driver as they go. Humor emanates from some of these tactics as well, like when the Sirian government, attempting to counter Dirac Angestun Gesept by requiring every organization on the planet, from the lowliest knitting group to the largest corporation, to formally register. Unphased, Mowry obtains a form and formally registers Dirac Angestun Gesept (Purpose of organization: Destruction of present government and termination of war against Terra. Names and address of elected officers: You'll find out when it's too late.). The 4GW crowd would probably love this book... if they didn't already have a well worn, dog-eared copy. The Sirian level of technology does seem suspiciously like that of 1950s earth, but Russell mitigates that with his earlier notion that the Sirians are technologically inferior.

Russell did serve in the RAF in WWII, and that's lead to some speculation that he had at least some firsthand experience (or at least, knowledge) of disruption in occupied Europe. As an anecdotal observation, the depiction of asymmetrical warfare in fiction was beginning to uptick in the 50s and 60s (I'm thinking of Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress in SF, as well as French memoirs and even some films like Jean Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows). In this respect, Russell's work does seem prescient, though it would be interesting to do more formal research to see how fiction depicted terrorism over time.

Aside from Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman has also counted himself a fan, and even set about trying for a movie adaptation:

The only book I've optioned was WASP. I started the script, wrote about a dozen pages, then Sept 11th happened, and I let the option lapse; I didn’t think that the world (or at least the U.S.) 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...

It would make for an interesting movie, though I'm guessing they'd rethink the Sirian appearance of purple skin, bowlegged gait, and funny ears. Regardless, I think it's something we could handle now, so perhaps, someday...

It's a short, easy to read book with little in the way of character depth or stylistic flourishes, but it's also fascinating, prescient, relevant, darkly funny, and a little scary. Certainly worth a few hours of your time.