The title of Eric Frank Russell’s science-fiction novel Wasp comes from the idea that one wasp in a speeding car can annoy the driver to the extent of causing a crash and hence damage out of all proportion to the wasp’s size and strength. In the case of the book, the ‘wasp’ is a human, James Mowry, sent to terrorise an alien planet as part of Earth’s war with the aliens.
The book starts well, with simple minor acts of sabotage building up believable levels of disruption (in a way that echoes Frederick Pohl’s The Cool War). Seeing a small number acts of terror trigger widespread security crackdowns and fears of people who appear to be a bit different works, if anything, even better for an early 21st century audience.
There is a fast moving and at times very tense plot that is very open to different reader interpretations. Is Mowry’s casual indifference to the deaths he causes a callous disregard of the life of others, even civilians, if they can in some ways be labelled “the enemy”? Or is the book really a satire against such callousness? You can read the book either way, making it very relevant to modern themes.
In other respects, however, the book rather shows its age. In the science fiction of 1957 women barely exist as characters. The future involves heavy use of file-card based computer technology and – luckily for Mowry – very little development in the way of surveillance technology. The aliens have space travel, but no CCTV and are heavy users of typewriters and phoneboxes.
In fairness, very few writers manage to predict a future that does not age badly, but a more serious failing is the weak ending. What should be a nightmare act of physical endurance becomes a rather brief, matter of fact sequence. The ending at least has hints of a much darker view of life, rescuing the final section and making the book a satisfying and enjoyable read.
A note if you have a choice of which edition to purchase: the production quality of the Polling reprint is poor – a poor choice of font face and spacing for the text, even though it is a large print format, and with a smattering of typos in the text.