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by Eric Frank Russell

(Victor Gollancz SF Collectors' Editions, 9.99, 175 pages, trade paperback; first published 1957, this edition 2000.)

One has to wonder whether Eric Frank Russell applied first-hand knowledge of espionage or sabotage when writing his 1957 classic, Wasp. At the very least, he seems to have had access to some kind of saboteur's checklist. As Terry Pratchett says on the outside cover of this newly reprinted novel, "I can't imagine a funnier terrorists' handbook." Humour and terrorism are, indeed, interwoven in Wasp, and the novel has survived the passing of time so well that this heady mixture still has a powerful impact today.

Gollancz are to be congratulated on the reprint (which forms part of their Collectors' Edition series), but I'm disappointed that they devote only a brief paragraph to Russell's biography: after reading it, one is left none the wiser as to this superb British sf author's background or personal knowledge of cloak-and-dagger methodology. An independent search reveals that Russell had apparently spent four years in the RAF; perhaps that accounts for it. (Searching further, incidentally, one learns from author David Langford that the Wasp reprinted by Gollancz is in fact a slightly condensed version originally packaged for the American market. A British edition which may have been closer to what Russell had intended was published in 1958.)

The prime mover in Wasp is James Mowry, a fearlessly opinionated individualist who'd lived in the somewhat fascistic Sirian empire for the first 17 years of his life. When war breaks out between the Terran and Sirian empires, he is trained and sent back to a Sirian planet to wage a covert, one-person terror campaign. Terran intelligence had decided on this move because of the military cost-effectiveness of human "wasps": instinctive trouble-makers who, like real wasps, have a knack for producing severe panic reactions that are completely out of proportion to the actual damage they can do.

Disguised as a purple-skinned Sirian, Mowry proceeds to spread propaganda, send out letter bombs (dummies and real ones), plant limpet mines, kill the odd security policeman and generally create the impression that a fictitious movement called the Sirian Freedom Party is behind it all. The reader is never invited to question the ethics of Mowry's behaviour; the Sirians' own repressive and propaganda-drenched political structure sees to that. "For months we have been making triumphant retreats before a demoralized enemy who is advancing in utter disorder."

The seemingly limitless inventiveness with which Mowry goes about his business, while repeatedly avoiding capture by a hair's breadth, calls to mind Lois McMaster Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan and Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat. Wasp doesn't share their slickness, however: there is something more grittily real about this novel (hence my suspicion that Russell knew of which he spoke). Considering that Wasp is also graced by tight writing, sharply insightful humour and relentless pacing, sf connoisseurs should add it to their shelves pronto.

Review by Rupert Neethling.
More of Rupert's reviews are online at Parsec.

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