Sunday, April 3, 2016

Four postwar stories by Eric Frank Russell

Let's read four more stories from The Best of Eric Frank Russell; these were first published in the period 1946-1950, the first three in Astounding, the fourth in Other Worlds.

"Metamorphosite" (1946)

Our hero is Harold Harold-Myra, native of an independent planet just beyond the frontier of a vast space empire of some four thousand worlds. He is kidnapped by agents of the Empire and brought to the Empire's capitol planet for study and interrogation--the Imperialists want to know if Harold's planet can safely be incorporated into the Empire.  If Harold's people prove to be dangerous, his planet and race will be eliminated with planet-buster bombs.

This is a longish story, over 60 pages in this edition.  Russell details Harold's interrogation, escape, and then his final negotiations with the ruler of the Empire during which he must convince the Imperialists not to unleash the planet-wrecker bombs.  At the start of the story we know nothing about Harold, not even his name, but as the story progresses we learn, in dribs and drabs when it is appropriate to what is going on, all about his superior race and superior culture.  Harold's people have the ability to read minds and hypnotize people, photographic memories, no need to sleep, and the power to consciously control bodily functions like blood pressure and heart rate.  He also builds a sophisticated receiver transmitter from parts he steals (via fraud) from a store.  Is there anything he can't do?  Harold's civilization is old, and has evolved beyond the use of violence and money.  (Russell seems to hate money--the whole point of what is perhaps Russell's most famous story, "...And Then There Were None," is to present a utopian society that has no money.  I suspect Russell was also a chess player--chess plays a role in the plot of this story, as it did in "Jay Score.")

At the final negotiation we learn the amazing truth about Harold, his planet, and the Empire.  Harold's world is our Earth, thousands of years in the future; he and his fellows have all those powers because ages ago there was a nuclear war and the resulting radiation accelerated evolution among the survivors.  The Empire's population consists of descendents of colonists who left Earth just before the nuclear war and, over the course of their own civilizational collapses and rebirths, forgot the location of their home world.  On the final "sensawunda" page of the story Harold drops his humanoid disguise and shows the Imperial rulers his true form: the future inhabitants of Earth, our inheritors, will be pure pulsating energy, like miniature suns!  The Empire is no match for such power, and peaceful coexistence is assured.

"Metamorphite" reminded me a little of a Van Vogt story: there's the gradual reveal of esoteric abilities until the protagonist is finally shown to be of god-like power, for example, and the radical paradigm shift at the end.  The plot is not very tight--because Harold ends up back in the hands of the Imperial authorities, the middle portion of the story, when he is escaping and hiding out, feels a little like an unnecessary shaggy dog story.  In Russell's defense, this middle portion includes entertaining SF elements like odd aliens that menace or befriend Harold, high tech devices, and opportunities for Harold to use his many superpowers, and Russell explains that Harold needs to be on the lam for nine days so other Earthlings (using their hypnosis powers) have time to infiltrate the Imperial government and space navy and create a stalemate situation in which the ruler of the Empire can't trust his own planet-buster bomb ships.

I'll give this one a mild to moderate recommendation.

"Hobbyist" (1947)

This is a really good one.  I recognized it as I was reading it; I must have read it as a teenager in some anthology or other.  "Hobbyist" has been widely anthologized; in fact, it appears in three different books I own.

Astronaut Steve Ander's one-man probe ship is thrown off course by a cosmic storm, and he ends up shipwrecked on an uncharted planet without enough fuel to get back home.  Exploring this mysterious world, he notices something odd about its flora and fauna--every organism seems to be one of a kind, the sole example of its species.  Late one night he spots in the distance a weird apparition, a cyclopean being of light.  Investigating this being's path by daylight, Steve discovers a vast building, and inside innumerable transparent cases housing inert living organisms, and then machinery which actually builds plants, fungi and animals, atom by atom.  Steve also finds the radioactive material he needs to power his probe ship, and escapes the planet, carrying with him the mind-blowing knowledge that most or all species of life in the universe were designed, constructed and planted by that eerie luminous giant--Steve met his maker and lived to tell the tale!

Russell paces this one well, including enough detail to bring the whole caper to vivid life and just the right amount of clues and foreshadowing to allow the thoughtful reader to figure out what is going on before Steve does, but without making Steve look like a dope.  All the astronaut stuff--how the ship works, the standard operating procedures followed by a probe pilot, and so forth--is fun.  The scene in which Steve first sees the god-like hobbyist is quite effective.  Russell also includes a sort of comic relief character; all probe pilots have a parrot to keep them company and taste test alien food.  Comic relief characters can often be distracting, but I thought Laura the Macaw was a pleasant addition to the tale.

Here we have a bona fide classic.

"Late Night Final" (1948)

This is a sort of satire of the military mind and of the kind of people who like to "go by the book," and a utopia about people who have eschewed the use of money.  In many ways its plot is similar to Russell's 1951 story "...And Then There Were None," which was included in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.  I have a low tolerance for satires and utopias; I rarely find being preached at, or somebody trying to make his point by ridiculing somebody else, to be very entertaining or very persuasive.

A flotilla of space warships of the Huld Empire, whose flag is red, black and gold, lands on a pleasant planet.  The commander of the force, Cruin, claims the world for the Huld and keeps consulting his manuals to figure out what to do next.  These manuals include step-by-step instructions for assessing how suitable a planetis for conquest, detailed rules on how to deploy the force's ships in a defensive posture, and so forth.  Russell mentions the manuals on almost every page, to make sure we get the point/joke.

In "Metamorphosite" the Empire's standard practice was to take specimens for study and interrogation to determine the suitability of a planet for absorption into the Empire.  Cruin's manuals prescribe the same kind of procedure, and a bunch of locals are quickly seized and taught the language of Huld so interrogation can take place.  One of the major plot elements of "...And Then There Were None" was how the spaceship crew found the people on the planet so friendly and their way of life so preferable to shipboard life that everybody started deserting.  The same thing happens in "Late Night Final."  The men all desert, and take up life among the happy natives who somehow have an efficient modern economy (TV, aircraft, bountiful food) with no money.  Cruin redeems himself by spending three years apart from the other men (as a forest hermit or something) and then returning to charm a pretty native girl.

Cardboard characters, feeble jokes, an obvious plot with no surprises and ideas based on wishful thinking--"Late Night Final" is the worst of the first seven stories in the book.  Thumbs down!

"Dear Devil" (1950)

This is a sentimental story about how we should all help each other and love each other even if we look different and have different ideas.  It has been widely anthologized, and, in fact, the illustration on the cover of the 1988 edition of Isaac Asimov Presents the Golden Age of Science Fiction: Sixth Series illustrates this very story.

A spherical ship crewed by blue, slithering, tentacled Martians lands on Earth.  The Martians, peaceful vegetarians, are looking for friends (Mars is in some kind of vaguely defined trouble), but find the Earth is practically a wasteland after a cataclysmic world war which saw the use of nuclear and biological weapons.  The captain of the Martian ship and most of its crew, scientific and engineering types, want to hurry away to Venus to see if there is a civilization there, but the romantic on board, a poet, wants to remain on our devastated Earth--he saw something beautiful (which Russell doesn't disclose at first) and wants to continue exploring.

Left alone with an air car and supplies, the poet, Fander, uses his ray gun to carve out a comfy cave for himself, and then makes friends with some human kids and a single adult who are living a parlous existence in the ruins of a fallout shelter.  From the adult he learns the dim outlines of the war that destroyed human civilization two or three generations ago.  (The main cause was overpopulation, exacerbated by ethnic and ideological strife.)

"Dear Devil" is full of sappy moments meant to pull the old heart-strings--the alien makes friends with Earthlings by playing music on his little electric harp, carves wooden dolls for the little girls, and has to explain what flowers are to the Earthlings because we killed all the flowers in our big war.  (The war also exterminated all cats--the internet weeps!)   The Martians in this story, like those in "Homo Saps," can't talk, and instead communicate via telepathy.  This is a special telepathy, though--Fander has to touch people with his special telepathy tentacle to read and transmit thoughts. (Whoa, does this remind you of 1982's E.T.?)  Presumably demonstrating that we should try to get along with the commies despite their unconscionable crimes in Eastern Europe and elsewhere (the coup in Czechoslovakia, blockade of Berlin, and Maoist takeover of mainland China all took place in the two years before the publication of this story), Fander loves the Earthers even though their carnivorous ways disgust him.  (This parallels the way the humans love Fander even though he looks like a hideous monster--"devil" is the first word that comes to mind when humans see him.)

Fander acts as a surrogate father and mother to the kids, and then a spiritual leader of a movement to rejuvenate the human race and rebuild human civilization.  The air car is used to gather together little bands of all different ethnic backgrounds from all over the world, while the smartest young Earthlings study the Martian vehicle and figure out how to duplicate it.  In less than twenty years a new city has been built along with a fleet of aircraft--above the city towers the "thing of beauty" which spurred Fander to stay, a statue of a grieving woman.

When things are looking just ducky Fander suddenly reveals that Martians typically go into hibernation for several months or years in the middle of their lives, and his period of hibernation is beginning.  Sometimes a Martian does not wake up from this period of repose, Fander warns the citizens.  He asks to be interred in the cave he dug for shelter when he first arrived on Earth.  He is in the cave so long that people begin to suspect he has died, but at the end of "Dear Devil," to much rejoicing, Fander emerges, alive.  (Whoa, does this remind you of the first century AD's New Testament?)

The first half or two-thirds of the story, in which Fander opts to stay on Earth and befriends the first group of humans, focus on character interactions and emotions and are not bad.  The later sections, which briskly describe the development of the city and air car fleet over several years, read like a dry history lesson and are not very convincing.  (Uneducated Earth kids mass produce Martian antigrav motors without mines, refineries, factories, etc?)  The Christ-like hibernation business seems goofy and unnecessary, like Russell tacked it on so his story would end with an emotional bang.

Still, I think "Dear Devil" deserves a mild recommendation.  


"Hobbyist" is the stand out here, a real gem.  "Late Night Final" is a clunker, but, while they could be tightened up a bit, "Metamorphite" and "Dear Devil" are both worthwhile.  With seven of the collection's thirteen stories behind me, I have a high degree of confidence the lion's share of the remaining stories will be acceptable.  I do hope we get new ideas and themes; Russell does appear to have a few topics he returns to repeatedly.

No comments:

Post a Comment