Monday, April 11, 2016

Three early '50s stories by Eric Frank Russell

Here's the third installment of our exhaustive look at the 1978 collection The Best of Eric Frank Russell, part of Del Rey's "Critically Acclaimed Series of Classic Science Fiction."  Today's three tales all appeared in Astounding (remember when Alan Dean Foster told us Russell was Astounding editor John W. Campbell's favorite SF writer?)

Del Rey's Critically Acclaimed Series of Classic Science Fiction,
available at a second-hand store near you!
"Fast Falls the Eventide" (1952)

All you Christians already know that "fast falls the eventide" is a phrase from the famous hymn "Abide with Me," written in 1847 by a Scotsman dying of TB.  Russell is going for a sort of sad but hopeful mood here, the mood a religious person, confident of God's love and a just afterlife, might have while facing his own or a friend's death.

Everybody loves A. E. Housman 
The setting of "Fast Falls the Eventide" is reminiscent of Jack Vance's Dying Earth stories and Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun.  A million or more years in the future Sol is growing dim (Earthlings can see the stars during the day) and the human population on Earth is down to a paltry one million.  Soon Earth will be uninhabitable. As the plot, which follows a young woman, Melisande, to a sort of job placement interview at her college and then to a planet inhabited by crocodilian aliens where she takes a position as a teacher, unfolds, we gradually learn the truth of humanity's subtle strategy to achieve racial immortality!

Mankind has evolved to the point that people live thousands of years and many have telepathic powers.  Many Earthlings, like Melisande, go to college for centuries (!) to absorb the tremendous store of knowledge which the human race has compiled over its own long history and through interaction with innumerable alien species. These students are then hired by aliens to act as educators; so knowledgeable are Earth's academics that human tutors are the most sought after in the galaxy, and every alien civilization demands far more than can be supplied.  Retaining a human tutor is a major status symbol!  Spread far and wide throughout the galaxy, and coveted and admired by all intelligent species, humanity faces no risk of extermination from local catastrophes or alien hostility.  And, in a touch all you teachers out there will love, Russell suggests that students leave school fundamentally changed by their teachers: "Each arrived as an utter stranger, departed like a child of his very own [Melisande's professor muses] taking some of his essential essence with them."

(If you are keeping score at home, this story also features aliens who do not vocalize, like the Martians in "Homo Saps" and the very different Martians in "Dear Devil," and an explicit don't- judge-people-by-their-looks / embrace-diversity message.  The crocodile aliens smell bad, but Melisande is sophisticated enough to ignore it, and Russell reflects, "How boring the universe would be if all creatures were identically the same!")

"Fast Falls the Eventide" is more about a mood and an idea than about plot or character.  The beginning feels a little too precious, the effort to be poetical a little too labored.  But once we get past the scene setting and to our heroine, Russell does a good job of holding the reader's interest by revealing the truth of what is going on slowly, and keeps us from getting bored by employing various SF images and props.  I liked it, even if at times it smells a little like teachers' union propaganda.

"I Am Nothing" (1952)

In "Late Night Final," you may recall, we had a ruthless imperialist commander who was reformed (in part) by exposure to an innocent young female member of the society he was trying to forcibly incorporate into his empire.  Well, here in "I Am Nothing" we have a similar plot.  Luckily, this story is a little more sophisticated and interesting.

David Korman is the autocratic ruler of planet Morcine.  (Are we supposed to think "corpsman" and "porcine?")  As the story begins he launches an invasion of peaceful planet Lani; for PR purposes, his own son is serving aboard the first ship that lands on Lani.

While "Late Night Final" was full of repetitive satire and included a vaguely realized and unconvincing utopia, in "I Am Nothing" Russell tries to produce a psychological portrait of a man who is obsessed with strength and who, because his parents were jerks, is unable to develop healthy human relationships, and instead tries to win respect by inspiring fear in all with whom he deals.  We witness Korman's cold and unsatisfying relationships with his wife, his son and his subordinates.  The crisis of the story comes when the tyrant's son sends back to Morcine a refugee from Lani, the only survivor of a village razed in the fighting, an eight-year-old girl mentally scarred by her ordeal.

The little girl, Tatiana, a psychologist discovers, feels she is nothing because she has no one, even her cat having been killed (the internet weeps!) during the fighting. Korman identifies with the child--he also has no one.  An opportunity to open peace negotiations fortuitously comes out of the blue, and Korman, transformed by his budding relationship with Tatiana, seizes it.  We are led to believe that the war will end and that Korman will become a foster father to Tatiana and each will make whole the other's broken psyche.

This story is sentimental and sappy, but I think it works.  It is also psychological and philosophical, delving into why oppressive individuals commit their crimes against others, and arguing that the greatest victory a man can win is not over outside enemies, but is the victory over one's own base nature.      

"Weak Spot" (1954)

This is one of those stories that is just an idea, with zero plot, character or feeling.  "Fast Falls the Eventide" was also a story constructed around an idea, but that tale had an interesting, even surprising, idea, and Russell kept his idea in the shadows until the end and enlivened that story with a mood and with arresting images.  "Weak Spot" story lacks any feeling, and its idea is pretty obvious and pretty boring.

A vast and powerful human space Empire (6000+ planets) has, on one of its borders, a tiny empire (8 planets) of belligerent reptilian aliens.  Periodically the warlike reptilians raid or conquer a human planet, and there follows a limited punitive expedition and a prisoner exchange.  The point of the story is that the Empire's rulers don't wipe out the much weaker civilization of alien troublemakers because this external threat stabilizes the Empire.  Raids by the lizard men keep the Imperial populace distracted from other problems and united, preventing civil war and independence movements.  The reptilian menace also gives hotheaded and adventurous Imperial citizens something heroic to do beyond the Empire's borders so they aren't within the Empire, destabilizing human civilization with their atavistic antics.

I don't appreciate it when a guy spins his paragraph-sized idea into a limp ten-page story.  Life is too short!  Thumbs down!

**********

You can see Russell working hard to achieve literary value and engage the reader's emotions with "Fast Falls the Eventide" and "I Am Nothing;" in those essentially sad but also hopeful stories civilizations and peoples interact with each other and change.  "Weak Spot," on the other hand, is cold and gimmicky, a sort of filler story.

Just three more stories from The Best of Eric Frank Russell to go.  Catch them in our next episode!

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