By Bud Webster
Let Me Be Frank (or Welcome to the Allamagoosa Russell-Palooza!)
Eric Frank Russell (who heartily dislikes writing about himself) was born on January 6, 1905, at Sandhurst, Surrey, England. . . . He says he is still dizzy from fighting his way through courses in chemistry, physics, building and steel construction, quantity surveying, mechanical draftsmanship, metallurgy and crystallography. . . . He has a number of ambitions:
- to become a social parasite;
- to write a story with which he is still thoroughly satisfied one year later;
- to entertain so many readers so well that some may have a momentary regret when they bury him;
- to type with more than two fingers.
So Russell wrote of himself (like it or not) in the back cover copy of his 1954 Fantasy Press novel, Deep Space. "Age forty-seven, look like fifty-seven, feel like thirty-seven, act like twenty-seven, think like seven," he said a year earlier on the back of Sentinels of Space (Bouregy & Curl). "I think that is all anyone could possibly care about. Oh, yesI fiddle around trying to write stories."
"Fiddle around," he says. Would that we all could "fiddle around" as well. Russell may have been ironically self-effacing up there, but the fact is he wrote a lot of terrific stories, including one that was so good, legend has it, that John W. Campbell had to create a magazine to fit around it. I'll get to that a little later, though.
Russell has already told us where and when he was born. I'll add that he was raised in Egypt, served honorably with the RAF in WWII, and worked as telephone operator, quantity surveyor and "draughtsman"; certainly the UK equivalent of cab-driving, encyclopedia salesman and fast-food manager, all typical writers' jobs (it says here). He was a founding member of the British Interplanetary Society, which is where he first ran into people like Arthur C. Clarke. You know, the 2001 guy.
It was there in the Society that he found science fiction, and decided to "fiddle around" with it. In fact, his first attempt, a story titled "Eternal Re-Diffusion," was based on an idea given to him by one of the other founders, one Leslie J. Johnson. He sent it to what was then the pre-eminent sf magazine in the US (and thus, the world, this being the mid-'30s and all), Astounding Stories, as it was then known. The editor, F. Orlin Tremaine [i], bounced it as "too difficult" for his readers. Okay, that begs the question of what Campbell might have said, but he wasn't given a chance to decide, apparently. The story finally saw print in 1973 in a UK chapbook, The Harbottle Fantasy Booklet #3. Russell and Johnson did collaborate on a more successful yarn, "Seeker of To-Morrow" for the July, 1937 Astounding.
Russell's first sale was "The Saga of Pelican West," which appeared in the February issue of that year. His third story, "The Prr-r-eet," included a plot element given Russell by none other than the young (20 years old) Arthur C. Clarke. Russell shared the wealth, passing along to Clarke 10% of the amount Russell was paid, which amounted to about three dollars. This was Clarke's first stfnal income; Ghu alone knows what would have happened if it was only one dollar. Why, Childhood's End might have been written by Deutero Spartacus. Or Pel Torro. [ii]
Before I get much further into this little laudatorium, I want to break with my usual practice and step off the dais to talk about my own personal feelings about Russell and his stories.
Long before I actually put pen to paper (yeah, I started out that waydidn't we all?) for the express purpose of telling stories I wouldn't get spanked for, I was reading pretty much everything I could find that called itself "science fiction." At the library, if it had a rocket or atom on the spine, it was mine, daddy-o, at least until it was due back. I honestly don't recall at this far remove where I first encountered Eric Frank Russell's work, but I can tell you when I first read it and said to myself, "I'm gonna do this some day!"
It was an Ace Double, D-313 in fact, which put Russell's The Space Willies back to back with a collection of six of his other stories, Six Worlds Yonder. I read the A-side first, oddly enough (I was far more accustomed to reading short stuff), and I don't think I put it down until Mom had called me the third time for dinner. [iii] I was absolutely delighted by this yarn about a smart-ass human using his imagination to put one over on hide-bound aliens. So much so, in fact, that when I came to write my first salable story, I had Willies and Eustaces very much in mind. It sold, of course, to Analog, and I'd like to think that John Campbell would have liked it, even if he wouldn't have bought it.
When I got to the B-Side, I fell in love all over again with "Diabologic," and after reading "Into Your Tent I'll Creep," it was more than a week before I could look my dog in the eye. Is it any wonder I ended up writing for Analog a few decades after that? I think not, Bubba. It was an inevitability, because that one Double influenced my reading for a long, long time. It wasn't until Dangerous Visions came along that I began to look elsewhere.
I learned a lot from reading Russell, I did, even though it would be decades before I would put it to any real use. I learned about pacing, characterization, and that humor on the page requires exactly the same things that stand-up (well, in my case, class-clowning) does: timing, delivery, wit, and a memorable punchline. I can point to others who influenced me as well [iv]Simak, Heinlein, Davidson, Knightbut it was Russell who put me on the path to writing for Astoundingpardon me, Analog.
But enough personal reminiscences. Let's get back to that legend I mentioned in the second paragraph, shall we? That magazine was Unknown, later Unknown Worlds, and the first issue (March 1939) contained Russell's justly famous "Sinister Barrier." Much has been said, both at the time and in subsequent years, of the claim that Street & Smith's decision to launch a new fantasy magazine as a companion to their very successful Astounding Stories was predicated on finding the perfect place to publish Russell's "Sinister Barrier." Stfnal legend tells us that Campbell, planning a fantasy magazine to go along with his harder sf monthly, had an "AHA!" moment and pegged Unknown to Russell's short novel.
Moskowitz, though, says this just isn't so. [v] Writing about Russell in his important collection of authorial essays, Seekers of Tomorrow (World 1967), he puts the whole thing up to coincidence, more or less:
The origin of the magazine and the publication of the novel seemed too happy a wedding to be fortuitous. Nevertheless, it was.
Seems that Russell first submitted the story to Campbell in 1938 for Astounding under the title "Forbidden Acres." Campbell loved the first half but not the second, and sent it back to Russell for a rewrite. SaM continues:
Russell . . . decided to rewrite the novel from end to end, utilizing as his technical model the Dan Fowler stories which ran in G-Men, a popular pulp magazine of the period. Campbell, on accepting the revision, openly admitted he was astonished that Russell, with his limited writing experience, had been able to do the difficult theme justice.
We'll get to that theme in a few, but first I want to add one vote in favor of legend, if I may. In the first volume of his two-volume autobiography, In Memory Yet Green (Doubleday 1979), Isaac Asimov writes of meeting Russell at a meeting of the Queens Science Fiction League in '39:
Unknown was a magazine the like of which had never appeared before. . . . Campbell had conceived of it precisely as a vehicle for Sinister Barriers [sic]. . . .
Well, I'm sure the Good Doctor meant well [vi], but the fact is that I can find no real confirmation that the above is the case, and a look at the foreword to the 1948 Fantasy Press edition of the full novel puts, I firmly believe, the final kibosh on the legend (much as I'd have loved it to be true). In dedicating the book in part to Campbell, Russell says ". . . for kicking me around until this story bore more resemblance to a story." Add to this the fact that, although there is a letter to Russell in The John W. Campbell Letters Volume 1 (edited and compiled by Perry A. Chapdelaine, Sr., Tony Chapdelaine, and George Hay, AC Projects 1985), it dates from 1952; there is no mention of the story or its having been a factor in the creation and publication of Unknown, just a long argument with Russell about Charles Fort. And finally, Alan Dean Foster, in his glowing and laudatory introduction to The Best of Eric Frank Russell (Ballantine/Del Rey 1978), never once mentions it even as a legend. QED, I think we can put this one to bed.
Which leads us, William Nilliam, to the basic premise of this justly famous novel: we are property. Cows, if you will. Don't worry, I'll explain.
Charles Fort was a popular force in the late 19-teens through his death in 1932. He was heatedly debated, both in the field of science fiction and the Real World, and his "conclusions" were targets of both derision and reverence. This is not the place to delve too deeply into his "theories," but the Wikipedia entry under his name is both informative and, given the vagaries of both format and subject, reasonably accurate.
To put it concisely, Fort compiled odd-ball news stories, what newspaper folk refer to as "silly season" items: rains of fish and/or frogs, people disappearing without explanation, that sort of thing. I suspect he didn't really believe most of what he gleefully presented to an eager readership, but just enjoyed screwing with peoples' minds.
One thing he said, though, not only rang true with Russell, but Edmund Hamilton and several other authors in and out of the field (although Russell certainly got more mileage than most). As Russell said in the intro to the Fantasy Press edition:
Charles Fort gave me what might well be the answer. . . . Casually but devastatingly, he said, " I think we're property." [Italics Russell's] And that is the plot of Sinister Barrier.
More specifically, we are the property of an unseen (unseeable?) alien race that keeps us in an uproar, prevents a long-lasting peace, and in essence breeds us like cattle. For much the same reason we breed cattle, too.
I honestly don't know how much of Fort's blather Russell actually believed, either, but he was a long-time member of the Fortean Society, and I think it’s reasonable to believe that he wasn't just in it for the plot ideas.
All that to give you a background for this very fine novel, and thanks for sticking around. Sinister Barrier begins, more or less, with those cows I mentioned a while ago in the form of a quote from one Peder Bjornson, a professor with funny eyes: "Swift death awaits the first cow that leads a revolt against milking," he says. Dunno about you, but it hooked me right away.
Seems that a lot of his fellow profs, all of whom have funny eyes [vii], have been dropping like, well, pole-axed steers. An investigator, one Bill Graham (and didn't I get a kick out of that name in my Fillmore days), is sent to look into the deathshe even witnesses one early onand what he finds would have Charles Fort nodding his head up and down frantically and yelling, "See? See, I told you!" There is much ensuing paranoia involving iridescent blue globes flying about feeding off peoples' emotions, causing wars and strife so that their à la carte menu will have plenty of daily specials, desserts and those amber beverages we're all so fond of [viii].
This is perhaps the best known of his novels, and deservedly so, but there's another book I constantly and consistently saw in the used bookshops [ix] I used to haunt that's almost as well-known, if not more famous. That book, one of my own all-time favorites, is Men, Martians and Machines. A collection of stories about a man/robot named Jay Score (J20 in his robotic persona), this was not only my first introduction to aliens and humans working together (predating Star Trek by most of a decade), but also the first time to my knowledge that an African-American had been featured as ship's crewman (in this case the doctor). There was a reason for this in Russell's plot-lineapparently, no Negroes (as was then the respectful term) ever got space sick. Don't forget this was the early '40s, a time when the depiction of African-Americans in popular culture was still less than courteous, and an African-American as a serious character who did nothing in the way of either shucking or jiving was rare indeed, not to mention pretty cool. I don't necessarily think that Russell was trying to make a major point, or to showcase his (comparative) broad-mindedness; I just don't think he felt that a Negro had to be portrayed as a Steppin Fetchit caricature instead of a reasonable human being. If this be Libertarianism (orsay it softly!Liberalism), then so be it.
Jay Score is a big, quiet man in the middle of a crew of characters who border on the wacky, and occasionally edge all the way into zany. One might even call them madcap, if one were inclined to do so. Most of them are human, but a few are Martians, and they're just as wacky/zany/madcap as the regular folk are.
Don't get the idea that they're all that two-dimensional, however. They're fun, and funny, but Russell's skill even in a series of yarns tossed off to make John Campbell laugh is evident, and if they don't exactly leap out of the story and dance around the room, they nevertheless work just fine on the page. I especially like the Martians, haughty and sarcastic, playing chess at every opportunity and complaining about the thick (to them) atmosphere, who still manage to get their work done and act just as heroically in defense of their non-tentacled shipmates as they do to protect themselves. Zany individuals the crew and officers may bethis is Russell, after allbut they are first and foremost a crew.
The book contains four stories, "Jay Score," "Mechanistra," "Symbiotica" and an original, "Mesmerica." I re-read this one at least once a year, with as much delight and amusement as I got from it the first time.
You shouldn't get the idea that Russell was all about cattle or provincial aliens, either. Perhaps my favorite EFR story, one that still lumps up my throat a little when I re-read it, is "Dear Devil" (May 1950 Other Worlds [x]). I honestly don't know why Campbell didn't take this oneit's certainly ASF-worthyand I really don't know why Russell sent it to that most pulpish of the digests, Other Worlds. Leaving aside for the moment that OW seems lost in the '30s, the editor was none other than Ray Palmer, best known in the field for the Shaver Mystery (isn't Google wonderful?) and "fact articles" about flying saucers. However odd the match-up might seem at this remove, though, it was apparently just the thing for EFR; "Dear Devil" was his first for Palmer, but indubitably not his last. Perhaps the two men shared a Fortean connection. It's a definite possibility.
The story itself is, my own teary opinion aside, one of Russell's best, and deservedly one of his best-known. One could compare it to the famous axiom that clowns aspire to serious roles, but that's just a little too easy for me to be comfortable with. For all his puns and jokes and humor bordering on the bawdyin Trillion Year Spree, Brian Aldiss refers to him as "[Campbell's] licensed jester"Russell was no clown. His humor, broad as it may be, is satire (if not out-right parody), frequently of the one major thing other than Forteanasticness that inspired him to write: bureaucrats and the red-tape restraints which is their only reason for existence. According to Russell, that is.
Here, though, the humor is gentle, the satire moderated by honest sentiment. He chews no scenery, bangs no drums, constructs no bopamagilvies. He gives us a Martian poet, not a soldier with a steel rod up his fundament or a clever human ready to mess with said rod-butted soldier. Already, I'm intrigued. How many exploratory missions would NASA make with a poet onboard to "maintain morale by entertaining"?
The poet, Fander, asks to be left behind when the captain decides that the third stone from the Sun is dead and worthless. The captain reluctantly grants his request, and there the story really begins.
Fander finds people, of course, hiding in the ruins, "ragged, dirty, and no more than half grown." Children, almost feral, and almost certainly doomed. Under less capable hands, we could already be moving into the town square of Greater Maudlinity, but Russell is better than that.
"He lay within the cave, a ropy, knotted thing of glowing blue with enormous, bee-like eyes . . ." And tentacles, don't forget the tentacles. No wonder the first child who sees him cowers from him, calling him "Devil! Devil!" Little by little, the poet gains their trust by leaving food. Disaster is averted, not by massive Governmental action or by military intervention, but by the simple acts of kindness shown by this "Dear Devil" and the love and veneration shown him by his adopted charges.
What happens subsequently won't surprise anyone whose reading level is somewhere north of Bambi, but that isn't the point. In many cases, the greatest joy of the tour is not what you see as much as how the curator has arranged it. Here, the title says it all. If you want to know more, track down a copy of The Best of Eric Frank Russell or any other collection/anthology that contains the story (go to William Contento's invaluable Index to Science Fiction Anthologies and Collections, at http://www.philsp.com/homeville/ISFAC/0start.htm to find out which ones). Trust me, how can you go wrong?
"Alamagoosa," Deep Space, Wasp, "Homo Saps," "The Hobbyist". . . . Y'know what? The truth, painful as it may be, is simple: I could go on for a lot longer than I already have about Russell and his work, to the point that most of you reading this would edge out of the room to escape. I make no apology for thisRussell is a writer well worth going on and on about. But even though space on the Jim Baen's Universe site is for all intents and purposes endless, I owe it to my editors and you as well not to take a chance on running you off. Not to mention what I may owe Eric Frank Russell himself. There are numerous copies of his books out there to be had, either online or (preferably) at your local used bookshops or convention dealers' rooms, so take a tip from ol' Budzilla his own self and get into them. You'll have a good time, I promise.
[i] Yes, Virginia, there was an Astounding editor before John Campbell. A couple, in fact: first, Harry Bates (of "Farewell to the Master" fame; you'll remember it as "The Day the Earth Stood Still," and I'm talking about the good one, youngster, not the recent crapola ) edited the magazine for Clayton, then Tremaine came along when Street and Smith acquired it in 1933.
[ii] Google Robert Lionel Fanthorpe, cowboy. Interesting character.
[iii] If you've ever met me, you know there's ample proof that I've been late for very few meals in my life. This should tell you how engaged I was in this short novel, n'est-ce pas?
[iv] As opposed to those I wish I'd been influenced by, including Cordwainer Smith, Harlan Ellison and Alfred Bester. Whew!
[v] Although much earlier in his treatise on pre- and post-War fandom, The Immortal Storm (ASFO Press, 1954), he apparently thought otherwise. In chapter XXXV of this important book, he mentions Unknown ". . . which John W. Campbell declared was being put out be [sic] Street & Smith solely because receipt of a sensational novel by Eric Frank Russell called for creation of an entirely new type of fantasy magazine." However, the gap of thirteen years between the two books might account for this seeming disparityand SaM didn't say in the earlier book that he believed Campbell; he only reported what Campbell was supposed to have said.
[vi] Dr. Asimov might have had something of a blind spot where Unknown was concerned. In 1943, he sold a short story titled "Author! Author!" to Campbell for the magazine, which folded before it could be published. It was, in fact, the sixth story he had tried at Unknown, and the only one Campbell had accepted. It didn't see print until 1964, when D. R. Bensen made it the lead in his second Pyramid anthology of stories from the magazine, The Unknown Five, more than 20 years later.
[vii] "Strangely protruding, strangely hard" it says here. No, really.
[viii] Not me, though. I prefer my beer to be root.
[ix] Along with Conklin's little hardcover-paperback, A Galaxy of Science Fiction, raggedy-ass copies of The Martian Chronicles and stacks of The Andromeda Strain.
[x] I find it interesting in a weird kind of way that the cover date of this issue is the same cover date as the issue of Astounding which contained L. Ron Hubbard's first article on Dianetics; I wonder what Charles Fort would have made of this little juxtaposition. Coincidence? I think not.
BIBLIOGRAPHY OF ERIC FRANK RUSSELL
(As is usually the case, although the list below is as complete as I can make it, I am more than happy to stand corrected on errors or omissions. Contact me care of this fine magazine and I'll fix it, and probably give you credit as well. I would like to thank fellow bibliophile and scholar/historian Phil Stephensen-Payne ( http://www.philsp.com/pubindex.html#gcp) for his enormous help in compiling the following bibliography. Huzzah, Phil!)
Stories"The Saga of Pelican West"February 1937 Astounding
Articles"Over the Border"September 1939 Unknown
Novels and CollectionsSinister BarrierWorld's Work 1943 (UK); Fantasy Press 1948 (expanded from Unknown appearance); Galaxy Novel 1, 1950
Non-Fiction BooksGreat World MysteriesDobson 1957
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