on January 14, 2006
"Wasp" is yet another of that enormous sf library which I first encountered round about age eleven - and find myself still going back to half a century on. Hope that says something about the books rather than about me. Be that as it may, it is a list to which the late Eric Frank Russell has contributed more than his fair share.
When things military come into Russell's tales, they tend to draw upon his personal experience from WW2, and "Wasp" is no exception. Based on proposals from Russell's time with British Intelligence in the Pacific theatre, it is the story of one man against an Empire - a solitary agent sent into the heart of enemy territory to cause chaos and mayhem out of all proportion to his resources.
James Mowry is the typical Russell hero, a solitary type not over-fond of authority, but who would, in his own words "rather walk into something than be frogmarched into it" and will, if absolutely cornered, acknowledge that some kinds of authority are a good deal nastier than others. He finds himself cordially invited to take part in just such a conflict to "defend the bad against the worse", between Terra and the Sirian Combine, a futuristic version of the Japanese Empire of 1942, which it resembles right down to the name of its secret police. He is dropped in (surgically disguised to resemble a Sirian) entirely on his ownsome, his assignment being to create, single-handed, the appearance of a powerful resistance movement. This he does to spectacular effect, causing the enemy to tie up whole shiploads of troops and agents to suppress a movement that in fact is only one man.
There is room for a quibble or two. Considering that "Wasp" is supposed to be several centuries in the future, the technology, save for the existence of spaceships, is remarkably little advanced on 1957. About the only other innovations seem to be broadcast power and visual telephones. However, this does not impinge unduly on the story, which does not depend on technical marvels to any extent. Most of Mowry's weapons - crayons, window stickers, rumours spread verbally in parks, threatening letters, and the occasional mail bomb - seem pretty low-tech even for the time of writing. When he wants anyone killed, he hires local thugs to do it by the usual methods, rather than resorting to super-science. This indeed was perhaps the whole point of the story, that it was possible to cause major disruption without the need for super weapons and suchlike, rather as the wasp of the title was able to cause a car crash by frightening the driver without even needing to use its sting.
Less excusable is the total absence of any female characters. This sort of misogyny was common in early sf, and perhaps acceptable, given contemporary assumptions, where the characters were space pilots and the like. However, for what is essentially a "resistance fighter" novel it was anachronistic even for WW2, let alone a decade later.
I have less sympathy for the criticism I have run into in a number of places, which dislikes the novel because it somehow takes the wrong side in the "war on terror", making the terrorist the Good Guy. To my mind, anyone thinking like that suffers from myopia bordering on cataract. There have been plenty of instances in my lifetime, and even more in Russell's, where the Good Guys were defined by their enemies as "terrorists". Mowry's "victims" were typically secret policemen and other official types, surely fair game when there's a war on. Nor is it likely that his tactics would have been all that effective among a loyal population which still had confidence in its leaders. Basically, I think it's fair to say that any society which can be brought down, or even seriously undermined, by "Wasp" methods probably deserves to be. If anything in it makes us uneasy, perhaps we ought to be taking a hard look at ourselves rather than at the book.
In short, another "must read" for anyone already fond of Russell, and a good place to start for anyone who hasn't encountered him. Go out and get it.
on November 17, 2001
As a teenaged devotee of Sci-Fi in the late 50's, this was one of the first of a select list of books of any genre that impacted my life. I didn't fully understand why this was so then; I only knew it was special, even tremendously relevant at some fundamental level. At the time, yes, it completely entertained me with its action and its sardonic and irreverent narrative. Beyond that, the precepts of this novel created an unease in my mind that remained with me over the years. Full comprehension followed with a little more life experience and a better understanding of humanity and our history. Now this book not only entertains and intrigues, but frightens as well
"Wasp" is a portrayal of how devastating a single, well-equipped terrorist can be to a society (especially a technology-based one). Though the society targeted in this novel is (humanoid) alien and the terrorist a human patriot (albeit not entirely willing) passing as an alien with the help of some surgical modifications, it is entirely believable that the author drew upon human social conditions, especially our foibles and weaknesses, as the basis for this alien society.
Using an insidious "monkey wrench" approach, one individual (suborning marginal elements of the enemy society for use as unwitting accomplices) spreads dissention and disinformation and fear, and so distracts the enemy police and military that the result is the creation of an environment in which the society can be more easily subdued with an overt military invasion. Hence, the precept of this novel as presented at the beginning of the narrative: A wasp buzzing around threateningly in the close, closed quarters of a car traveling a high-speed can cause the driver to lose control, resulting in the death and destruction of relative giants and their huge machine.
"Wasp" is frighteningly close to a workable blueprint for effective terrorism today in most any society on this planet -- especially if there are certain fundamental social conditions at work and certain enabling technologies, chiefly communications-related, in place that can be meaningfully exploited (in addition to being feared by the novel's protagonist).
About the only "criticism" I have relates to the novel's presentation of technology. The author mostly avoided technological traps by simply not going into "the details," and the story suffers nothing for that since the book is mostly about people and governments, and the exploitation of their foibles and fears.
The most technologically "off" element in this novel relates to electronics, particularly communications and, to a lesser degree, computers and "recognition" technology, or the lack thereof. The alien space-faring society's police and military seems pretty much stuck in a 1950's human communications environment where the kind of personal radio communication common with today's police and military is far advanced from that in the novel. I don't really find this deficiency distracting, just amusing. If you read the book and find its technological deficiencies truly distracting, then you have surely missed the essence and relevance of this great novel.
on July 24, 1999
Since I first read it (and Russell's other brilliant books such as Men, Martians and Machines and Three to Conquer) in my early teens, I have regarded Wasp as one of the true SF classics. It ranks with Bester's The Demolished Man and Tiger! Tiger!, as well as the best of Clarke and Heinlein, although its sardonic tone has more in common with Robert Sheckley.
Although set in a future a few centuries ahead, when Earth is at war with the Sirian Combine, Wasp is directly transplanted from conventional warfare of the Second World War era. Indeed, I don't know why it took so long to dawn on me that the Sirians are analogues of the Japanese, while the noble Earthmen are essentially 1950s Americans. Oh sure, the Sirians are purple instead of yellow - but they are short, bandy-legged, and fanatical. To clinch it, their dreaded secret police is called the Kaitempi: compare the actual Japanese Kampeitei.
The Sirians have a great advantage in numbers, but the Earthmen are smarter. How to make the most of their quicker wits and superior technology? One way is to drop secret agents behind enemy lines to sow confusion, dissension and destruction. The result is dramatic, convincing and (in parts) riotously funny.
on April 10, 1999
I read this book when I was eleven or so and have spent the rest of my reading life in search of something that fascinated me more. Tolkien's was the only fiction that may have done so, but it is, of course, nothing like Wasp.
WASP is a short, simply written book, but it has some quality that makes people mad for it. I think it is the sardonic omniscient voice that adds so much to the flavor of WASP: the voice of the Author himself.
A new edition was published not long ago that was completely unabridged. I felt the slightly abridged version read better (It's always good to cut out the fancy talk.). But I may just be used to the same slightly shorter edition most people have read.
If you want a guaranteed fascinating read (and be swept away on wings of reading enjoyment!), buy this book now. Be forewarned, however, that some might say it kind of glorifies terrorism.
on November 8, 1999
I first read this book in early 60s and have reread it a few times since. It is a timeless story of how one man, with some essential supplies, can disrupt a whole world. More importantly to me was that soon after reading it for the first time, I read a review of it in Astoundin magazine. There the reviewer mentioned THE GOOD SOLDIER SCHWEIK and THE REVOLT OF GUNNER ASCH. I found Scweik heavy going but the Revolt of Gunner Asch introduced me to Hans helmuth Kirst. I have been reading Kirst ever since. Apparently, somebody in Germany has recently come out with a trilogy of videos "08/15 Trilogy" which comprises the first three (of four total) Gunner Asch novels: The Revolt of Gunner Asch Forward Gunner Asch The Return Of Gunner Asch. and all this became available to me because Eric Frank Russell wrote the WASP.
on January 30, 2000
I read this book in the early 60's. I promised myself I would never forget the title so as to read it again as soon as I found a copy. I'm still waiting . I hope it will be available soon and recommend it to all who like interesting books, not just Science Fiction!
on July 17, 2000
Really, this underrated classic is more of a spy story than sci-fi. It deals with Earth having to fight a protracted interstellar war with a humanoid civilization in the Sirian system. Something has to be done to break this near-stalemate, so ne'er-do-well James Mowry gets drafted because he is smaller than the average human and speaks fluent Sirian. The idea is that Mowry do some sabotage and psychological warfare on a Sirian planet. Mowry is really no urbane Bond type--he hangs out in urban areas with a bunch of Bogart/ Cagney hood types--but he manages to use this bunch of hard cases who don't give a damn about patriotism one way or the other as muscle. It's too bad this book is out of print--I've had my Dell edition for almost 40 years.
on July 27, 2000
WASP was probably my first SF novel read, and it along with MISSION OF GRAVITY by Hal Clement hooked me for life. There isn't a lot I can add to the reviews here, other than get the abridged version. Eric Frank Russell had an unfortunate propensity for clumsy and verbose phraseology. All U.S. printings (until recently) have followed the original heavily edited version. It had ~20,000 words pruned, choice phrases like "guzzle guts" and was a far better book for the lost weight. I am not saying to avoid the unabridged version (I have and have read both). But, if you are going for one only, go abridged -- you won't regret it.
on February 6, 2004
Basically he gave the idea, of 1 man making a difference, through non-violent means.
The concept of the Wasp, is to annoy the enemy to the point of distraction. Let them hurt themselves trying to swat the Wasp.
It's like the concept of Aikido, to use the enemies own energies against itself.
I find this to be the progenitor of where Harry Harrison got his idea for the Stainless Steel Rat. At least in my mind.
I only wish there was a sequel to this amazing book, of which i still have a mostly torn copy of. That i will always cherish.
GREAT BOOK! Must have for your own Sci-Fi Classics Collection.
on June 30, 1999
This rather hard to find little book is a true classic. You'll need to get past the first few paragraphs where it seems that the author is in fact a 14 year-old... but then it grabs you and you won't have a moment's peace until it's read. So read it when you have plenty of free time ahead of you! The SF setting is somewhat irrevelevant in this novel - really it's about subversion and terrorism but the alien world is convincing enough. Russell has some novel ideas. The most amazing thing about this book is that it isn't also a film (unless you know different). It feels like a film. Buy it!