Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Three Eric Frank Russell stories from the late '50s

Here it is, the fourth and final installment of our examination of The Best of Eric Frank Russell, published in 1978 by Del Rey.  These last three stories all appeared in Astounding.

1980s editions

"Allamagoosa" (1955)

This is a joke story; you might call it a "service comedy." I guess we should consider it a satire of bureaucracy and/or the military mind.  (In his intro to the volume Alan Dean Foster tells us that Russell's favorite targets are "big government" and "bureaucracy.")  Due to a typographical error in the list of ship's stores, the captain of a space warship and one of his officers think a mysterious piece of equipment is missing and they are about to get in trouble during a surprise inspection.  They conspire to defraud the inspector and the entire Earth Space Navy apparatus, and end up in even more trouble.

This story is very popular (it won a Hugo!) but I tend to think such stories are a waste of my time.

"Into Your Tent I'll Creep" (1957)

Eric Frank Russell loves animals!  (Isn't "English people love animals" one of those ethnic stereotypes we aren't supposed to believe in any more, like "French people eat snails and frogs and don't wash" and "Germans are obedient and efficient and don't know how to mind their own business?")  Elevated ants, telepathic camels, dead cats, we've had them all in the stories we've been reading in The Best of Eric Frank Russell.  "Allamagoosa'''s plot centered around a canine, and--woof!--"Into Your Tent I'll Creep" is also about dogs!

This story's "idea" is basically the same as that of "Homo Saps," in which telepathic aliens learn that camels are an intelligent race superior to humans.  In "Into Your Tent I'll Creep" some friendly aliens come to Earth and set up some kind of alliance with the Earthlings.  One of the aliens, somehow, has the ability to read the minds of Earth dogs.  (None of the other aliens have this power.) He realizes that dogs are running the world, that humans, who think they are the masters, are in fact dominated by canines!  The alien tries to prevent a breeding pair of dogs (ostensibly a gift from the humans, but in fact the vanguard of a canine attempt to take over this alien civilization) from accompanying the aliens home, but the dogs murder him and make it look like an accident.

This is a banal and boring joke based on the fact that so many people dote on their pets to an absurd extent.  (We didn't have a dog growing up, and my mother would say, when we saw somebody walking his or her dog, "There goes a dog walking its human.")  Not only is this joke not funny, but it only makes sense to a Anglophonic audience--according to Wikipedia 25 million dogs a year are eaten by humans!  This story would make about as much sense if it suggested cows (sacred to Hindus) or pigs (forbidden to many Muslims and Jews) ran the world.

"Study in Still Life" (1959)

"Alamagoosa" was about naval officers who, faced with onerous paperwork, defrauded the government bureaucrats. "Study in Still Life" is about colonial administrators who, faced with onerous paperwork, defraud the government bureaucrats.  Yes, another satire of big government and bureaucracy.  Now, I'm as skeptical/hostile to big government and bureaucracy as the next guy who follows Nick Gillespie on twitter and reads the Reason.com blog every day.  I've worked in the public sector and know how inefficient and corrupt it is.  But these kinds of jokes (and this one is over twenty pages long!) just are not very funny or interesting.

(Maybe one of the reasons I recoil from these kinds of stories is that I suspect that, rather than alerting the voters and taxpayers to a serious issue and energizing them to do something about it, they make light of the problem of wasteful and corrupt government, encouraging people to accept government inefficiency and malfeasance with a chuckle and knowing shake of the head.)  

Anyway, the colonial administrators order a piece of equipment in fraudulent fashion (with the best of motives) and we follow the request as it travels through a myriad of offices staffed by unlikable public employees, each trying to avoid responsibility while doing an absolute minimum of work.

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It is too bad that this collection, which includes some creditable work, ends with three joke stories that I didn't care for.  I am not the market for long joke stories, even if the joke is in line with my ideological beliefs.  (An exception would be Jack Vance's two amoral Cugel books and his satire of socialism, Wyst; those three volumes are legitimately funny as well as successful in terms of their literary style and adventure plots.)

I certainly don't regret reading The Best of Eric Frank Russell.  "Hobbyist" is very good, "Fast Falls the Eventide" has an original and intriguing idea, and several of the other stories in the volume are entertaining.  Perhaps most importantly, I feel like I now have a better grasp on what a somewhat important (he won that Hugo, as well as a place in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame and a posthumous Prometheus Award, after all) classic-era SF writer is all about.  I aspire to a breadth of first-hand knowledge of 20th-century science fiction literature, and reading this collection has added a piece to that puzzle.  

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