Wasp: a novel of sabotage

WaspNovelWe’ve just been reading this remarkable novel. We don’t usually read science fiction, but this novel, while set in the far future amid an interstellar war, is really a novel of underground warfare.

The first few pages set the UW value proposition before you as well as any other document in history has done, as the recruiting spymaster, a Mr Wolf, sets the hook for protagonist James Mowry, in a parable of Churchillian vision.

Wolf stared at him again, long and penetratingly. “You’ll do. Yes, I’m sure you’ll do.”

“Do for what?”

“I’ll tell you in a moment.” Opening a drawer, he extracted some papers, passed them across. “These will enable you better to understand the position. Read them through – they lead up to what follows.”

Mowry glanced at them. They were typescript copies of press reports. Settling back in his chair he perused them slowly and with care.The first told of a prankster in Roumania. This fellow had done nothing more than stand in the road gazing fascinatedly at the sky, occasionally uttering ejaculations and loud phrases such as, `Blue flames!’ Curious people had joined him and gaped likewise. The group became a crowd, the crowd became a mob, and the bigger the mob the faster it grew.

Soon the audience blocked the street, overflowed into side-streets. Police tried to break it up, making matters worse.

Some fool summoned the fire squads. Hysterics on the fringes swore they could see or had seen something weird above the clouds. Reporters and cameramen rushed to the scene.

Rumours raced around. The government sent up the air force for a closer look. Panic spread over an area of two hundred square miles from which the original cause had judiciously disappeared.

“Amusing if nothing else,” remarked Mowry. “Read on.”

The second report concerned a daring escape from jail of two notorious killers. They had stolen a car, made six hundred miles before recapture. Their term of freedom had lasted exactly fourteen hours.

The third detailed an automobile accident. Three killed,.

one seriously injured, the car a complete wreck, the sole survivor had died nine hours later.

Handing back the papers, Mowry said, “What’s all this to me?”

“We’ll take those reports in the order as read,” began Wolf.

“They prove something of which we’ve long been aware but, maybe you haven’t realised yourself. For the first one, that Roumanian did nothing, positively nothing save stare at the sky and mumble. All the same, he persuaded a government to start jumping around like fleas on a hot griddle. It shows that in given conditions action and reaction can be hopelessly out of proportion. Also that by doing insignificant things in suitable circumstances one can obtain results monstrously in excess of the effort.”

“I’II give you that.” Mowry conceded.

“Now the lamsters, They didn’t do much either; climbed a wall, grabbed a car, drove like mad until the petrol ran out, got caught’ He leaned forward, continued with added emphasis,

“But for most of fourteen hours they monopolised the attention of six planes, ten helicopters, one hundred and twenty patrol-cars, eighteen telephone exchanges, uncountable phone lines and radio link-ups, not to mention police, deputies, posses of volunteers, hunters, trackers, forest rangers and National . Guardsmen to a grand total of twenty- seven thousands scattered over three states.”

“Phew!” Mowry raised his eyebrows.

“Finally, let’s consider this auto smash. We know the cause; the survivor was able to tell us before he died. He said the driver lost control at high speed while swiping at a wasp which had flown in through a window and started buzzing around his face.”

“It nearly happened to me once.”

Ignoring that, Wolf went on, “The weight of a wasp is under half an ounce. Compared with a human being its size is minute, its strength negligible. Its sole armament is a tiny syringe holding a drop of irritant, formic acid, and in this case it didn’t even use it. Nevertheless it killed four big men and converted a large, powerful car into a heap of scrap.”

“I see the point,” agreed Mowry, “but where do I come in?”

“Right here,” said Wolf. “We want you to become a wasp.”

Mowry does, in fact, “become a wasp,” and travels to an enemy planet, where he is infiltrated clandestinely and sets to work sabotaging and disrupting the enemy. He relies on the fact that in any society there are disgruntled individuals; when he cannot suborn or exploit them to his ends, or make common cause with them, he’s quite content to let them be fall guys for his actions.

The tradecraft in the novel is very reminiscent of World War II SOE operations (with a touch of period SIS and OSS as well). This is true of both the offensive tradecraft employed by Mowry, and the defensive craft set against him by he Sirian Secret Police, the dreaded Kaitempi (clearly playing on the feared Imperial Japanese CI agency, the Kempeitai).

Wasp was written by Eric Frank Russell in 1957, and is available online as a .pdf here. (A fan has a large repository of Russell’s books on that site). It also has a footnote in music history: the Beatles’ firm, Apple Corps, optioned it in 1970 as a potential vehicle for Ringo Starr in the Mobry role. The film was never made.

It’s a hell of a story of a singleton agent in a repressive alien (literally) society. And it still really, really needs to be made into a film. Ringo was right!

3 thoughts on “Wasp: a novel of sabotage

  1. Glenn Haldane

    Yes indeed – one of my favourite sf stories and beautifully written. EFR could spin a yarn with the best of them. And he was a Brit, you know.

    1. Hognose Post author

      He was, but his writing blends British, American and made-up expressions and slang. You get the impression he was, like Orwell, a keen student of and admirer of the English language. He has his Sirian aliens saying “Yar” and “Nar” which is a regional slang in Britain (forget where. Yorkshire maybe?) His style is quite unique. Wasp is somewhat reminiscent of an SOE memoir EFR might have read, The Masks of War by George Langelaan. Like Mowry in Wasp, Langelaan had plastic surgery before being reinserted to a denied area he had lived in previously (in his case, France). Not that Wasp is a rewrite of Langelaan’s story, it’s quite original, but at the time it was written, these SOE memoirs were coming out.

  2. TRX

    You might want to track down “The Space Willies” by the same author. In it (and in the excellent “Sleeping Planet” by William R. Burkett) the protagonist manages to disrupt an alien POW system by using psychological warfare.

    Hmm… “Sleeping Planet” is available as an ebook now, and used versions are online for a few dollars plus shipping. I’ve had my copy since 1971; maybe it’s time to read it again.

    The book was published in 1967. It was apparently serialized in a magazine in 1964, and might have been written well before that. Modern infrared sensor technology would make major parts of the story unworkable today, but you have to make a few allowances for something written half a century ago.

    As a very short spoiler, Earth is at war with humanoid aliens. The aliens develop a drug that puts mammals to sleep, and dust Earth with it. Of all Earth’s billions, only a dozen or so are immune. One is a lawyer from Atlanta, who comes back from a hunting trip to find an alien occupation force setting up for business. The other is a disabled veteran from London, who is captured almost immediately.

    The lawyer switches from deer to alien soldiers, who are demoralized by sniper fire when there isn’t supposed to be anyone to shoot at them. The Londoner, who speaks fluent Llralan, learns of the deaths from his jailers, and starts spinning involved stories tuned to upset them. Word spreads, and soon every accident is blamed on “Gremper”, a supernatural force.

    The lawyer is operating alone; figuring he might get a few dozen before they take him out. The Londoner knows there’s someone out there with a rifle, but little more than that. The invasion force is running to an exquisitely tuned timetable, which starts breaking down… if they don’t establish themselves deeply enough by the time the humans start waking up, the invasion force would probably be lost. And the problems keep piling up, and morale keeps dropping…

    It sounds a bit “yeah, right,” but it’s a very well-done book; think of a larger, more developed “Wasp.”

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