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Russell, Eric Frank

Entry updated 14 August 2023. Tagged: Author.

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(1905-1978) UK author who used the pseudonyms Webster Craig, Duncan H Munro and Niall Wilde (also spelled Naille Wilde) on a few short stories, and borrowed Maurice G Hugi's (see Brad Kent) name for one other, "The Mechanical Mice" (January 1941 Astounding). He began publishing work of genre interest with "The Saga of Pelican West" for Astounding Science-Fiction in 1937, and he was only the second UK writer, after John Russell Fearn, to become a regular contributor to that magazine; he used a slick pastiche-US style (now regrettably dated) in most of his stories, and – like John Brunner after him – was often thought to be American. Russell was interested in the works and theories of Charles Fort, and based his first novel, Sinister Barrier (March 1939 Unknown; 1943; rev 1948), on Fort's apparently throwaway solution to the rash of arbitrary mysteries and disasters that afflict the human race: "I think we're property." In Russell's novels, those who own us are parasites called Vitons (see Parasitism and Symbiosis) which or who feed on human pain and anguish, and hide behind the "sinister barrier of our limitations" that blocks our perception of most of the electro-magnetic spectrum (see Arrested Development); in hindsight, the fact that all races except Caucasians are particularly susceptible to the Vitons' brain-washing and that a Yellow Peril invasion of America comes close to defeating humanity, seems gratuitously offensive. Perhaps because it was an exercise in Paranoia, Sinister Barrier was featured in issue #1 of Unknown, although it is in fact straightforward sf and would prove atypical of that magazine. As to the unmistakable racism of the novel (see Race in SF), it should be noted that a story of only a few years later, "Jay Score" (May 1941 Astounding) features a Black character depicted without racial condescension, and that the Star Trek-like Jay Score series it initiates features a racially mixed crew of interplanetary explorers including tentacled but likeable Martians and a heroic Robot; the sequence continued in Astounding and was collected – with one new story, "Mesmerica" – as Men, Martians and Machines (May 1941-October 1943 Astounding; exp as coll of linked stories 1955). Later stories such as "The Undecided" (April 1949 Astounding) or "Postscript" (October 1953 Science-Fiction Plus; vt "P.S." in Far Stars, coll 1961) may be read as either anti-racist or pro-equality of all sentient beings; the latter theme is most explicitly stated in "Fast Falls the Eventide" (May 1952 Astounding).

Some of Russell's best work was done in the years after World War Two, including "Metamorphosite" (December 1946 Astounding) with its much-borrowed finale of apotheosis or Transcendence, "Hobbyist" (September 1947 Astounding) (see Zoo) and "Dear Devil" (May 1950 Weird Tales). A series of bitter anti-War stories, including "Late Night Final" (December 1948 Astounding) and "I Am Nothing" (July 1952 Astounding), culminated in the fine pacifist Satire "... And Then There Were None" (June 1951 Astounding), subsequently incorporated along with mostly less inspired material into the episodic Ship-of-Fools narrative The Great Explosion (fixup 1962). Russell went on to write other stories in which militaristic humans are confronted by frustrating cultures, including "The Waitabits" (July 1955 Astounding), although he pandered to John W Campbell Jr's human chauvinism in stories which confronted unimaginative humanoid Aliens with awkwardly inventive humans, as in "Diabologic" (March 1955 Astounding), The Space Willies (June 1956 Astounding as "Plus X"; exp 1958 dos; rev vt Next of Kin 1959), "Nuisance Value" (January 1957 Astounding) and Wasp (1957; exp 1958). The latter, though essentially a secret-agent yarn set in a lightly disguised World War Two Japan, contains some accurate and funny Prediction of possibilities for urban terrorism. The Hugo-winning anti-bureaucratic satire "Allamagoosa" (May 1955 Astounding) is in much the same vein. Russell's stories of this quirky kind made a significant contribution to sf Humour; though he had more or less stopped writing original work in any quantity by about 1960, his stories' continuing influence is reflected in Design for Great-Day (January 1953 Planet Stories by Russell alone; vt "The Ultimate Invader" in The Ultimate Invader and Other Science-Fiction, anth 1954 dos, ed Donald A Wollheim; exp 1995) with Alan Dean Foster, which functions as a homage to Russell's work.

Russell's remaining novels were more earnest than his ironic short fiction, and have not perhaps worn as well. His old "We're property" theme was recycled to diminishing effect, while the books often featured almost wilfully incompatible story elements. Dreadful Sanctuary (June-August 1948 Astounding; rev 1951; rev 1963; further rev 1967) is an improbable quasi-Fortean sf tale – drawing on Fort's suggestion that Earth is an asylum for other worlds' lunatics – whose various versions include two markedly different endings; the plot regrettably smothers a more interesting sub-theme about human Psychology. In Sentinels from Space (November 1951 Startling as "The Star Watchers"; exp 1953; vt Sentinels of Space 1954 dos) over-the-top Campbellian Psi Powers sit perhaps satirically within an uncompromisingly anti-Campbellian scenario in which benevolent mature souls, who have emerged from the chrysalis of corporeality, keep watch over our immature species with Uplift in mind. Three to Conquer (August-October 1955 Astounding as "Call Him Dead"; 1956) is about an Invasion of Earth by parasitic aliens who turn out to be more easily detectable – the protagonist being Telepathic – than they had anticipated. With a Strange Device (June 1956 Famous Detective Stories as "Run, Little Men!"; 1964; vt The Mindwarpers 1965) is a convoluted psychological melodrama cast as a crime story, whose sf device is Hypnotic implantation of false memories (see Memory Edit).

His short fiction appears in various collections: Deep Space (coll 1954; cut vt Selections from Deep Space 1955), Six Worlds Yonder (coll 1958 dos), Far Stars (coll 1961), Dark Tides (coll 1962), Somewhere a Voice (coll 1965), Like Nothing on Earth (coll 1975) and The Best of Eric Frank Russell (coll 1978) edited by Alan Dean Foster. Two posthumous assemblies – Major Ingredients: The Selected Short Stories of Eric Frank Russell (coll 2000) and Entities: The Selected Novels of Eric Frank Russell (omni 2001) – attest to the continuing appeal of his comic, contagious visions of solvable paranoias, doable worlds, all competently expounded in terms assimilable to later, more truculent iterations of what came to be known as Libertarian SF.

Russell was posthumously inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2000. [MJE/BS/JC/DR]

see also: Chess; Colonization of Other Worlds; Evolution; Gods and Demons; Golden Age of SF; Identity; Identity Exchange; Identity Transfer; Invisibility; Lie Detectors; Money; Monsters; Origin of Man; Paradox; Perception; Politics; Power Sources; Rays; Religion; Secret Masters; Shapeshifters; Time Travel; Villains.

Eric Frank Russell

born Sandhurst, Surrey: 6 January 1905

died Liverpool, England: 28 February 1978




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