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Next of Kin

by Eric Frank Russell

(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 cover scanthe no-longer-named Gollancz series of classic sf novels is fittingly from Terry Pratchett: "I wish I'd written 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.

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 comedy:

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 one."

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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