Book Talk: 'Wasp' by Eric Frank Russell - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Book Talk: 'Wasp' by Eric Frank Russell

Alexander Wallace gets stung.
The great Terry Pratchett said about Eric Frank Russell’s 1958 novel Wasp:
“I can't imagine a funnier terrorist’s handbook.”
It’s the sort of description that is bound to give the average reader pause; we’ve seen the ravages of terrorism in places like New York and Arlington (my hometown) on September 11th, in London on July 7th, and other places since. I remember reeling in horror at the Bataclan massacre, and again at the Brussels bombing (for the latter I was following the news with live updates well past midnight in a dorm common room). Terrorism, especially in this century, has the connotation of shocking violence and heinous brutality that could strike ‘developed’ countries at any moment. Indeed, much of the zeitgeist of the 2000s in the United States and in other countries was this sense that nobody was ever truly safe.

It is for that very reason a film of Wasp has never been made; Neil Gaiman had the option, briefly, in the early 2000s, but the obvious made it clear that the public would not have it. Stories about terrorism are a hard sell, but they have been done well; see the 2008 film Der Baader Meinhof Komplex, about the Red Army Faction in West Germany in the 1970s. Sometimes, you can get away with it if you portray said terrorists as freedom fighters, as several countries have done in their national mythologies (both Israel and Palestine have done this). Erick Frank Russell takes that idea with style and with bravado, and produced a memorable book.
Unlike most terrorism narratives, the protagonist of Wasp acts on the behalf of a nation-state, in some ways resembling spy fiction. He is drafted into the military and made to be a ‘wasp,’ named due to a news story presented in his training about a wasp inside a car causing the driver to crash and die. He is then dropped on a planet ruled by the Sirian Empire, with which Earth is at war. His mission: cause mayhem.

Pratchett was absolutely right about how this could serve as a handbook for terrorists; however, this is not meant in a technological sense. Rather, it is a primer on the psychological aspect of terrorism that many have tried to exploit. After 9/11, Damien Hirst drew controversy for saying:
“The thing about 9/11 is that it's kind of like an artwork in its own right. It was wicked, but it was devised in this way for this kind of impact. It was devised visually... You've got to hand it to them on some level because they've achieved something which nobody would have ever have thought possible, especially to a country as big as America. So on one level they kind of need congratulating, which a lot of people shy away from, which is a very dangerous thing.”
Hirst is more right than many would claim. Terrorism, ultimately, is about getting a reaction, from a government or from a society at large; you could say that terrorism is deadly performance art. It is that sort of performance that Wasp thrives on: much of the protagonist’s task is not destroying objects or killing people but through sowing terror in city after city. The inhabitants of this planet get more and more scared as the protagonist continues his dismal task, and it is that paranoia that helps bring about their undoing.

If there is a lesson in Wasp, it is about how interconnected, and thereby vulnerable, any industrial society is. Start a panic in one place, and it can spread like wildfire (the internet has exacerbated this). And there are always those on the bottom rungs of society who can be persuaded to do many things with money. They’re stunningly prescient for a book written in 1958, and typewriters on other planets aside, the book remains very relevant.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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