Next of Kin
(Gollancz/Sterling, $14.95, 181 pages, paperback; first published
as Plus X in Astounding 1956; expanded for first book
publication as The Space Willies 1958 US; first published as
Next of Kin 1959 UK; this edition 2001; first US release of this
edition 2002; phew!)
The quote on the back cover of this reissue in Next of Kin." Before Pratchett,
before Adams, before Friesner, before (but only just) Goulart, before
countless others who cashed in on the craze for humorous fantasy/sf
sparked by the success of (particularly) Adams and Pratchett, Russell
was a giant fish in the relatively small pond of comedy in the genre
literature of the fantastic. In novels such as Wasp (1957, reviewed
elsewhere on this site) and The Space Willies/Next of
Kin and in countless short stories, many of the best of which are
to be found in the quasi-fixup The Great Explosion (1962), independent-minded
Earthlings succeeded, generally through use of their wits and against
enormous numerical odds, in thwarting or defeating powerful bureaucracies
or tyrannies -- usually bureaucratic tyrannies, usually alien ones,
always characterized by lack of mental flexibility.
no-longer-named Gollancz series of classic sf novels is fittingly from
Terry Pratchett: "I wish I'd written
Russell's classic novel in this wily-human-vs-dimwitted-alien-bureaucracy
theme -- The Great Explosion is rather different, concerning
itself with a monolithic human bureaucracy attempting to deal with scattered
and idiosyncratic human cultures -- is undoubtedly Wasp, but
Next of Kin is always cited in the following breath. This probably
does a disservice to Wasp, which is immeasurably the better of
the two novels.
There is no great plot to Next of Kin. John Leeming is sent
on a super-fast scout vessel into the region of the Galaxy controlled
by a hostile alien federation, the Combine, to report back on the strengths
and capabilities of the various Combine planets. Far on through his
trip his vessel packs up, and he crash-lands on a remote and unimportant
Combine world. There he succeeds in avoiding the dimwitted aliens for
a while, but is eventually incarcerated in a PoW prison from which escape
by straightforward means is virtually impossible. Accordingly, he constructs
from bits of wood and bent wire a series of gizmos through which he
pretends to talk to his invisible alter ego -- his Eustace, as
he tells his captors. He convinces them that all humans possess a Eustace,
who will avenge whatever crimes are perpetrated on the physical body
and even, where necessary, survives the death of that body in order
to do so. The dimwitted aliens believe it, and so the war is brought
to an end with Earth and its allies as the de facto victors.
There's material here for a longish novelette or perhaps, depending
on how one played it, for a reasonably long novel of which the above
sequence of events would be the main, but not the sole, plot strand.
What Russell produced instead was a novelette expanded to fill enough
pages for book publication. (This is in strict contrast to Wasp,
which perfectly fits its length.) We're nearly at page 100 before Leeming
gets to the prison, which is where the story proper begins. Before that
we're treated to a mildly amusing opening sequence back on Earth where
the free-spirited -- and to be honest rather puerile -- Leeming is the
exasperation of his fixed-minded military superiors, then to a long
account of his solitary quest through Combine-occupied space, an account
whose inescapable tedium is alleviated only by one patch of brilliant
Leeming picks up the radio conversations of a species whose spoken
language, while totally alien, shares enough of the basic blocks of
English to sound like a mangled version of the latter language. He eventually
joins in with his own nonsense. A sample:
There came another pause, then Gnof resentfully told all
and sundry, "I shall lambast my mother."
"Dirty dog!" said Leeming. "Shame on you!"
The other voice now informed, mysteriously, "Mine is a fat
This extract illustrates another characteristic of Next of Kin:
it is decidedly, well, naughtier than one expects from that era.
Although the Sixties were just around the corner, it would only be a
full decade later -- with the advent of the movement crystallized around
Michael Moorcock's New Worlds -- that genre sf would begin to
swing with them. Astonishingly, a novel such as Olaf Stapledon's Sirius
(1944), with its maturity towards matters of sex, could probably not
have been published as a genre sf book 25 years later; James Branch
Cabell's books, packed as they are with sexual humour, were regarded
during this period as irremediably sinful; and yet Next of Kin
has its fair share of doubles entendres, albeit relatively innocuous
ones. Perhaps these simply slipped past the editors of the day or perhaps
those editors were complicit in Russell's act of minor subversion.
Once Leeming is within the prison, the dimwitted aliens become even
dimwitteder. And here there is a conundrum that Russell never quite
succeeds in sorting out, with the result that his narrative is never
fully convincing. These aliens are of a species which has successfully
developed the capability for interstellar flight; although they are
merely a minor constituent of the federation that is waging war against
the Earth and its allies, they are nevertheless technologically able
to wage that war. In other words, they cannot be that dimwitted.
To be sure, we ourselves are sufficiently able to initiate an interstellar
mission tomorrow if we set our minds to it -- we have the technology,
but lack the gumption -- and to be equally sure there are plenty of
profoundly dimwitted human beings around; yet we are not a universally
dimwitted species. If we were, we couldn't have attained the level of
technology that we have. (You might argue that foolishness is
a universal human trait, but that's a different matter from dimwittedness.)
Russell's aliens in Next of Kin, though, are stupid through and
through ... so how come they're able to build starships?
It might seem a bit futile to question such stuff in an overtly comic
novel, but comedy -- unless entirely surreal, which Next of Kin
assuredly is not -- depends for its effectiveness on a sort of skewed
plausibility. Characteristics may be impossibly exaggerated, but there
has to be an underlying reality that can be exaggerated upon.
Logic may be distorted to hilarious effect, but it has to have a logic
of its own. Stereotypes may be guyed, but there has to be a core of
truth to the stereotype. As in fantasy/sf, there is a suspension of
disbelief; but, again as in fantasy/sf, either side of that suspension
has to be moored in something; nothing demolishes the suspension
of disbelief more immediately or more terminally than the niggling thought:
"This doesn't make sense."
There's a very simple answer to this, in the case of Next of Kin.
Leeming is not a normal human being at all: he is a diehard sf fan.
It doesn't say so in the book, but he displays all the characteristics
of the type of fan whom you must have met a million times: intelligent,
yes, but able to manifest that intelligence, outside perhaps an employment
that makes specific use of it, only in the form of puerile smartassery,
usually at the expense of the "mundanes", whom the fan regards as a
dimwitted mob incapable of appreciating the finer points of pulp sf.
Next of Kin is, in effect, Revenge of the Nerds set on
a movie lot of cosmic scale. The only way in which such fictional ventures
can succeed is by stereotyping all the non-nerds/fans as profoundly
stupid; this fictional necessity is incorporated as if a reality into
the worldview of the type of sf-fan lifestyle fantasist (to borrow Brian
Stableford's term) to which I'm referring.
Viewed from that perspective -- shifting one's mind into sf-ghetto
mode -- Next of Kin's major implausibilities become far less
troubling, and consequently the humour works far better.
Such humour as there is. As mentioned above, this book reads less like
a novel than like a hugely padded novelette, and the same comment applies
to the ration of humour presented in its 180-odd pages. There are
some good jokes, and there are some very funny sequences; but
they're spread somewhat thinly. Much the same could be said of Wasp,
of course; but in Wasp's case it doesn't matter much because
Wasp would still be a perfectly viable sf novel if you stripped
all the humour out of it; wherever there might be a paucity of grins
the story itself keeps you happily charging along. Not so in Next
of Kin, where there's not really very much by way of story.
Russell's flipness of writing nevertheless does keep one turning the
pages -- does make Next of Kin an entertaining read. At the end
of it, however, one is left with the nagging suspicion that one might
have been better off reading something else. If you're an admirer of
Russell's work overall -- as this reviewer is -- then you'll be mighty
pleased to have this reasonably handsome reissue on your shelf. If not,
then you'd be better off tracking down a copy of Wasp or The
Great Explosion or...
Review by John Grant.
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