Major Ingredients: The Selected Stories of Eric Frank Russell, edited by Rick Katze

Framingham, MA: The NESFA Press, 2000 $29.00 hc; 702 pages

reviewed by Arthur D. Hlavaty

In science fiction, as in many other areas, there are those who bestride the field like colossi, who gain fame and fortune, who are discovered when the field is discovered and are incorporated into its mini-canon. There are also, let us face it, those who end up in richly deserved oblivion. But somewhere in between, there are those who deserve to be remembered for limited, but real, contributions. Science fiction rightly honors its grand masters, but someone should put in a word for the petit masters as well. NESFA is doing that with its reprint program; Eric Frank Russell, who lightened the Astounding of the Forties and Fifties with iconoclastic humor, strikes me as precisely the sort of writer for that honor.

Russell was an entertainer at heart, and his work has appealed to other entertainers. A previous Russell revival, featuring a smaller greatest-hits collection and reprints of several of his novels, was spearheaded by Alan Dean Foster, and the present collection bears an introduction by Jack L. Chalker and an afterword by Mike Resnick. Russell was perhaps the first trans-Atlantic science-fiction writer, an Englishman who successfully passed for a native in the American magazines. (And Chalker reports that Russell said that other British writers told him privately they'd been influenced by him, but wouldn't admit it in public.)

I'd first encountered Russell in the mid-Sixties, in a trashy-looking nonfiction paperback with the uninspiring title of The Rabble Rousers. With mordant wit, he recounted such public follies as the Dreyfus case and the McCarthy hysteria, excoriating most of the participants with phrases such as, "a myopic snail guzzler and the leading idiot in this disgusting pantomime," but also ready to praise the few who showed intelligence, loyalty, and courage in the face of such nonsense. I assumed that sf by someone whose mind worked like that would be enjoyable, and I was not disappointed.

His great theme was the Little Guy (once in a long while, the Little Gal) overcoming the principalities and powers. He occasionally tugged at the heartstrings, as in "I Am Nothing" and "Dear Devil," but his more characteristic approach was wry comedy in which the protagonists, rather than beating up the bad guys or inventing superweapons, triumphed by guile and orneriness. A favorite technique, seen in "Basic Right" and "Last Blast," resembled judo; as one of his characters stated it, "It is possible to buck a system, any system. All you need do is turn the handle the way it goes--only more so."

But Russell's individualists were at least as willing to cooperate as to compete, with a high degree of the usual sf willingness to transcend boundaries of race, sex, species, etc. (see "Jay Score"). As one of his characters puts it, "Intelligence is like candy. It comes in an endless variety of shapes, sizes, and colors, no one of which is less delectable than the others."

One version of this sort of mutual aid shows up in perhaps his best-known story, "And Then There Were None," where the Gands (named in honor of Mahatma Gandhi) have a political-economic system fully based on cooperation and trust, rather than coercion. Antiauthoritarians of both the right and the left claim Russell as a result of that story, and one can see the descendants of the Gands in Ken MacLeod's The Sky Road, among others.

There's always a certain amount of worry in returning to stories one had enjoyed more than thirty years ago and has not looked at since. Would I recall and reexperience the joys, or would I wind up with the embarrassment of realizing just what sort of simple or offensive material I had been amused by?

With this collection, it was mostly the former. Russell's writing hasn't aged as badly as one might have feared. There's an occasional annoyance like the phonetic funny French accent of the chef in "Allamagoosa" or the extended hinting that the talking bird in "Hobbyist" might *hoo boy* actually repeat a Bad Word, but that sort of thing is mercifully infrequent. A mildly irritating sign of age is the conviction that almost every story should end with a punch line--not necessarily an O. Henry twist that undoes what has gone before, but a gnomic bit of look-at-me prose, ritually signifying conclusion.

There are a few breaks from the unending white maleness of the sf of the time. One story in this collection has an American Indian protagonist, and two feature strong, resourceful women. There is even a black Earthling secondary character in one story, appearing as ship's physician, rather than porter. I suppose, though, you could say that some of these stories represent the sort of symbolic racism in which the alien lesser breeds without the law are guided and colonized by superior Earthlings.

Indeed, "Diabologic," for all its surface charm, can be seen as a horrible example of this sort of Terran exceptionalism. We are expected to believe that none of the other races of the universe have ever managed to trouble their minds with the sort of questions that Zeno and the Sophists raised fairly early in the course of our progress to the stars.

More often, though, Russell suggests that it will take us some more evolution to become wiser than the extraterrestrials. I would say that it is this belief--that the missing link between the apes and civilized humanity is us--that provides the main science-fictional element in Russell's writing. He is uninterested in the nuts-and-bolts aspect of space travel, and indeed a number of his stories are essentially tales of mundane exploration or war from which the sf elements could be painlessly removed. (James Blish made that complaint about "I Am Nothing," and one could say the same of such works as "Meeting at Kangshan" and "The Army Comes to Venus.") The best stories, however, such as "Fast Falls the Eventide" and "Late Night Final," offer the distinctively science-fictional element of evolutionary transcendence. It all comes together in "Metamorphosite": the witty dialogue, the independent but cooperating characters, the interspecies teamwork, the evolutionary view. Even the punch line works in this one. If I were to recommend one Russell story to stand for all of them, "Metamorphosite" would be the one.

The present collection is massive: 30 stories, filling 697 pages. Editor Rick Katze says that the ideal Russell collection would have had six more stories, which he does not specify. (I would recommend "Mana" and "Weak Spot," two short tales that appear in the Foster collection.)

Perhaps this book is better as a reference than as a reading experience. I read it slowly so as not tire of its themes (which is also my excuse for getting this review in somewhat late), but before I reached the end, I still felt that I had encountered enough pluckiness to last me a long, long time. (This seems to work on an individual-story level as well; in some of the longer tales, such as "Plus X" and "Nuisance Value," the good guys finally start to grate on the reader almost as much as they do on the bad guys.) The Foster collection might work better to introduce the reader to Russell, except that it lacks some essential works, notably "And Then There Were None."

One might also note that Major Ingredients falls slightly short of the absolutely perfect production one is tempted to expect of a NESFA book. "Homo Saps" appears in the table of contents as "Homo Sap." Chalker's reference to "Metamorphosite" comes out as "Metamorphosis." And there is the puzzling moment when an Earthman meeting a Gand woman in "And Then There Were None" is described as "eating her": Neither the sexual nor the cannibalistic meaning makes sense in context. My old Pyramid paperback of The Great Explosion renders the phrase as "guzzling her with his eyes."

Still, this is a valuable book. It is a large enough collection to show the nuances of Russell's approach. Without slighting the expected, characteristic works, it offers stories in which Russell chooses heroes from the sides he usually mocks, as in "Minor Ingredient" and "The Army Comes to Venus" (The latter is in several ways not the sort of thing one expects of the sf of the time or Russell's version of it; it is one of the few here that did not appear in Astounding.) Like all of NESFA's omnibuses, this book is a bargain on the wordage-to-price level. I wholeheartedly recommend it to libraries, and to serious readers and collectors of science fiction.