Ace Double Reviews, 12: The Space Willies, by Eric Frank Russell/Six Worlds Yonder, by Eric Frank Russell (#D-315, 1958, $0.35, reissued as #77785, 1971, $0.75)
by Rich Horton
Eric Frank Russell (1905-1978) was an English writer who worked almost exclusively for John W. Campbell. He began publishing in 1937 and made his first big splash in 1939 with Sinister Barrier in the first issue of the classic fantasy magazine Unknown. (One fannish legend, probably false, has it that Campbell founded Unknown because he wanted to publish Sinister Barrier but didn't think it would fit in Astounding.) Russell was particularly prolific during the 50s, then almost completely stopped, publishing only some 5 short stories and one novel after 1959. He was most famous for novels and stories of interaction between humans and aliens, usually with a comic slant. Sometimes buffoonish humans would come into frustrating contact with unpredictable aliens (as in "The Waitabits" in this book), sometimes a clever human or two would themselves frustrate buffoonish aliens (as in "Diabologic" and The Space Willies in this book). And sometimes the interaction would be a bit more interesting.
This Ace Double backs the short novel The Space Willies, about 45,000 words long, with Six Worlds Yonder, a collection of six stories totalling some 43,000 words. All the stories in Six Worlds Yonder are from Astounding, and The Space Willies is an expansion of an Astounding novelette.
The publication history of The Space Willies and its related stories is a bit involved. It was originally a novelette, "Plus X", in the June 1956 Astounding. The Space Willies was then published in 1958 at 37,000 words. The following year, it was further expanded to a 56,000 word novel, Next of Kin. (The copyright notice in the recent Gollancz SF Collectors' Edition of Next of Kin hints at an even later revision, as it gives copyright dates of 1959 and 1964.) It must be said that the expansion seams show. "Plus X" seems to me a much tighter story, sticking to the essential part of the action (the hero's imprisonment and goofy escape scheme): I prefer it to both expansions.
The story concerns John Leeming, a scout pilot for the Terran space navy. Earth and her allies are engaged in a war with the Lathians and their allies. Leeming, a rather insubordinate fellow by instinct, is given the assignment to take an experimental new super-fast one-man scout ship and fly it as far as he can towards the "rear" of the Lathian empire, in order to determine the extent of the Lathian holdings. Leeming proceeds to do so, but as the capabilities of his ship are unknown, he finds himself marooned with a decaying ship on a planet well away from the front, indeed, out of range of an ordinary ship, Terran or Lathian. He's the only human being on a strange planet, and he must find some way to elude capture and find a way back home -- and he may have to do so twice, as even if he steals one ship, it won't be able to get all the way to Earth.
Leeming proceeds to have a few adventures, but inevitably gets captured by the natives of the planet, who are not Lathians but one of their allied species. He finds himself in a prison with a number of Rigellians (allies of Terrans), but no other humans. Now his problem is doubly difficult -- but then he has an inspiration. The rest of the book (which is basically the original story) tells of his clever idea and the implementation of it. I found his idea cute in conception, but implausible in execution. As with several other Russell stories that I have read, it is necessary for the hero's foils to be quite remarkably stupid. It also depends on some 50s slang being essentially current far in the future -- and ... but criticism is pointless. The book is not meant to be believable, but just to be fun to read.
Six Worlds Yonder is subtitled "Stories of First Landings on Far Planets", and that is actually a pretty good description of 4 of the 6 stories. It's a decent enough collection in pretty pure Russell mode, but I ought to mention that I had read all of the stories save one before, but I only remembered one of the stories before rereading. (To be sure, that may say more about the state of my memory than anything else.) The six stories are:
"The Waitabits" (17500 words, Astounding, July 1955) -- a Terran military team lands on a world they have been warned is unconquerable. The natives do indeed turn out to be unconquerable, but for an amusing reason. Decent enough, but I think a bit long for its substance.
"Tieline" (2700 words, Astounding, July 1955, under the name Duncan H. Munro for the fairly obvious reason that it appeared in the same issue as "The Waitabits") -- men sent to an isolated "lighthouse" planet inevitably go mad. How can they be kept sane? A bad story -- the setup is strained beyond belief (they go insane on 10-year hitches -- why not try shorter hitches? Pets aren't allowed -- but that is pretty much contradicted by the eventual solution. etc. etc.).
"Top Secret" (6300 words, Astounding, August 1956) -- Terran military types send messages to a remote planet via a relay system, resulting in essentially a game of "telephone", such that a routine message ends up warning of the arrival of 42 ostriches, and repeated requests for clarification just make things worse. Silly as anything, but OK as long as you don't ask for anything but silliness.
"Nothing New" (4000 words, Astounding, January 1955) -- this was the only story I hadn't previously read, and oddly enough it might be my favorite. Humans visit a friendly alien planet for the first time -- or was it really?
"Into Your Tent I'll Creep" (Astounding, September 1957) -- this time the story is from the POV of aliens visiting Earth. The humans they like just fine, but there is another species on Earth that one alien comes to fear ...
"Diabologic" (8500 words, Astounding, March 1955) -- this seems to be a fairly popular story, for example it was Andre Norton's choice for the anthology My Favorite Science Fiction Story. I guess it's OK, but it's awfully slight, and it depends on really stupid aliens, who don't understand Zeno's Paradox or the Cretan Liar Paradox. The story features a Terran scout discovering another space-going civilization, and managing to befuddle the aliens enough that they won't pose any threat to Earth.
On the whole, this is a fairly characteristic Eric Frank Russell collection, but not really his best work. Better to seek out the stories in The Great Explosion, his Hugo winner "Allamagoosa", his novelette "Dear Devil", maybe the novel Wasp.