“I can’t imagine a funnier terrorists’ handbook,” is what author Terry Pratchett said about Wasp, by Erik Frank Russell. I’m no Terry Pratchett, but let me tell you that this is one of my favorite books of all time. And I almost didn’t read it. It was one of my dad’s favorite books, and for years he begged me to read it. But he caught me at a contrary time; I was very into Lord of the Rings and hardcore fantasy at the time, and wasn’t interested in a cheesy science fiction book written by a Brit in 1957. So I resisted him for a long time. But finally, by bribery and an idle threat to tie me to a chair until I cooperated (just kidding; Dad was a big softie), I finally sat down one Saturday and read it.
Oh. My. Goodness.
On to the story itself. Let me start by asking, how can a tiny wasp kill four people and destroy a car many thousand times larger than itself? How can a lone man panic an entire planet and stir a government to blind panic and military mobilization?
By being an irritant.
Wasp is the story of James Mowry, a regular joe minding his own business when he is ‘volunteered’ to become a psy-ops agent for Earth in its ongoing war with the alien Sirian Empire. Why him? Because he speaks the language like a Sirian native, he has the right body type to fake being a Sirian, and he has the right attitude, the kind my UK friends call “bloodyminded:” contrary, stubborn, tenacious. The title comes from the fellow who recruits Mowry; he describes what I mentioned above, about a wasp causing a car wreck, destroying the car and killing the passenger. That’s what he wants Mowry to be: a wasp, irritating the Sirians until they overreact one too many times, and subsequently crash and burn.
How? Well, after being trained up and surgically altered to look the part of a Sirian, (this is glossed over in less than a page; nothing gets in the way of story with Russell’s tight writing), he is sent to one Jaimec, one of the outer planets of the Sirian Empire. Is he armed to the teeth? Yeah, sort of. No guns. Instead he has a briefcase full of chalk, stickers, and bits of fakery that any WWII psy-op guy would be proud to own. As soon as he settles in, he starts creating the Direc Angestun Gesept, a ruthless Sirian terrorist group violently opposed to the war with Earth. The fact that the DAG only exists in graffiti, stickers, the occasional anonymous letter, and the contents of Mowry’s briefcase is something only Mowry knows.
You’ve watched the news, you know how a government — particularly one like the Sirians, who strongly resemble the 1950’s Soviet Union — is going to react to the news of a violent terrorist group suddenly becoming active. They’re going to clamp down on the populace. Things only get crazier once Mowry ups his own game to include assassination and sabotage. This escalating tug of war culminates in a planet-wide manhunt, military involvement, and a wild chase for Mowry.
Erik Frank Russell is one of the forgotten heroes of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. A British author, Russell wrote primarily for American audiences, mostly short stories for magazines like Astounding Science Fiction and Weird Tales. His style is very light-handed and eminently readable. He was writing in the Golden Age, so don’t expect a lot of character development or deep introspection, though that does not mean his characters lack depth; Mowry is delightfully engaging in his lone adventures.
I read this book back in the 80’s, long before 9/11. Nowadays, in some circles, this book is considered very controversial. I don’t know where Russell got his ideas (he was in the RAF during WWII, but only as a radar operator), but this book is a pretty damned good primer for how to conduct a psy-ops propaganda campaign. He describes it step by step, how to start, how to escalate, the works. It’s surprisingly prescient in that regard.
What makes Wasp my favorite SF book of all time is the theme: that a lone individual, using only imagination and audacity, can go up against overwhelming odds and win, not just once, but over and over again. This is a theme that comes up in a lot of Russell’s writing, and one that I believe in.