Russell, Eric Frank. Wasp.

NY: Avalon, 1957.

Russell was well-known in the 1940s & ’50s as a writer of superior pulp science fiction (he won the first Hugo for a short story in 1955), but he never really quite made the first team. He’s not much read these days, and that’s rather a shame.

This is probably his best and certainly his best-known short novel, which Terry Pratchett called a very funny “terrorist’s handbook.” Earth is involved in an interplanetary war with the Sirian Empire and while the former has a slight but useful technological lead, the latter is superior in sheer numbers, both of men and of ships. James Mowery is recruited by the Terran dirty tricks department to be air-dropped on the Sirian outpost planet of Jaimec, where he will function as a “wasp” — a small creature capable of causing havoc among much larger victims. (It helps that the aliens are very similar in appearance to Terrans.) He starts by posting propaganda stickers on buses and shop windows proclaiming the existence of a “Sirian Freedom Party,” and by spreading damaging rumors. Then he begins a program of judicious bombings and assassinations, all of which are meant to distract, divert, and tie up the enemy’s resources. And he’s quite successful, in that the government eventually finds itself trying to combat the depredations of what they believe is an anti-war underground with thousands of members. Things are made easier for Mowery, in a way, by the “kaitempi,” obviously modeled on the brutal Japanese secret police, because a society cowed by such an organization is also open to manipulation by others. The plot is well worked out, the characters are convincing, and the author’s light and slightly tongue-in-cheek style suits it perfectly.

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