Wednesday, 3 July 2013

‘Wasp’ – Eric Frank Russell (Gollancz)

I really don’t read enough of the SF Masterworks books as I should. This is especially the case as I haven’t found a book in the series yet that isn’t thought provoking on one level or another. I say ‘thought provoking’ though… Sometimes the thoughts provoked do send me off on a tangent; for example, how did ‘The Difference Engine’ make the ‘Masterwork cut’ while ‘Neuromancer’ hasn’t? Anyway…
‘Wasp’ is a title that has intrigued me, ever since I saw it as a ‘forthcoming release’ a few months ago, not least because I am scared of wasps so naturally have a morbid fascination with them. The blurb is also very intriguing, check it out…

The war had been going on for nearly a year and the Sirian Empire had a huge advantage in personnel and equipment. Earth needed an edge. Which was where James Mowry came in.

If a small insect buzzing around in a car could so distract the driver as to cause that vehicle to crash, think what havoc one properly trained operative could wreak on an unsuspecting enemy. Intensively trained, his appearance surgically altered, James Mowry is landed on Jaimec, the 94th planet of the Sirian Empire. His mission is simple: sap morale, cause mayhem, tie up resources, wage a one-man war on a planet of eighty million.

In short, be a wasp.

A tale of espionage, one man against an entire planet? What’s not to like there? I’ll bet that, right now, you’re thinking that you wouldn’t mind giving this book a go yourself. Am I right?
I would say definitely give ‘Wasp’ a shot; I read it in a single sitting last night and was happy to pay the price of feeling dog tired this morning. Approach it with caution though, ‘Wasp’ isn’t the book that you might think…

‘Wasp’ is a book very much concerned with it’s concept, that one man (suitably equipped) can bring an entire planet to a standstill and so cause repercussions for an entire galactic war. The problem I found was that Russell is so pleased with his concept that he never really tests it. Agent Mowry is too well equipped and the Sirian Secret Police are always at least one step behind; everything that Mowry turns his hand to succeeds and the planet falls. Yes, the concept works but it does so at the expense of the story to a degree. Mowry has a few close shaves here and there but nothing that really makes the plot twist and turn like I’d have wanted it to. Russell attempts to address this by talking about the kind of questions that might be asked (in the aftermath of a ‘wasp sting’) but might ask is a long way from something that actually happens.

But I still kept reading. Like I said, I couldn’t put the book down.

While concept is clearly prioritised over plot, there is no doubt that it is fascinating to see Mowry in action and how his actions affect his environment. Russell does go into this in a little too much detail (for a book that is only a hundred and eighty pages long) but the exploration does make for interesting reading.

‘Wasp’ is also an interesting read in terms of what we find out about Mowry himself (with a little extra dash of humour added by Russell). Here is a man who doesn’t want to fight but reluctantly agrees to when confronted by the inevitability of his files.

‘James Mowry, twenty six, restless and pigheaded. Can be trusted to do anything at all – provided the alternative is worse.’
The affects of long term infiltration are also explored to good affect in Mowry; he gets the job done but even he can only take so much of being the only Terran amongst eighty million Sirians. There are some bittersweet moments of what is almost homesickness that are then followed by some slightly odd moments where everything is made better by well cooked ‘earth food’. I didn’t think that would be all it took to make Mowry feel better. Whatever works I guess…

‘Wasp’ is essentially a great concept that doesn’t quite make the jump into being a great story (and I think this was done purposefully). Not a ‘Masterwork’ in my book then but still a gripping read in its own right and a lot of fun. I’d definitely pick it up again.

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