Military speculative fiction doesn’t have to be all pew-pew-pew and Stern People Who Do What’s Necessary. There’s lots of room for other approaches, including satire. The (or at least a) master of military satire was, of course, Eric Frank Russell, a British SF writer active mainly in the 1940s to the 1960s. His milSF story “Allamagoosa” won the very first Hugo Award for Best Short Story, in 1955.
Inaugurating my series of reviews of MilSFF That Does Not Suck with a classic like “Allamagoosa” strikes me as a necessary antidote to the blind military-worship that all too-often characterizes the genre. There are two catches: I actually inaugurated the series last week with Cook’s The Dragon Never Sleeps and I have already reviewed “Allamagoosa.” Here, have another worthy Russell work: 1962’s The Great Explosion.
Four centuries before the book opens, a would-be stage magician invented what turned out to be a faster-than-light drive, allowing roughly half the population of over-crowded Earth to flee outwards, to some sixteen hundred Earth-like worlds. Despite the loss of half its productive population, Earth is still the richest, most industrialized world — the only one able to make starships — so it follows logically that Earth should lead the effort to reunify all of the worlds of humanity into one magnificent empire able to resist alien invasion.
The fact that the humans have not encountered any technologically advanced aliens, let alone ones with designs on the human worlds, is immaterial. It could happen, you know. The unification project has nothing to do with a lust for power. Rather, it demonstrates the foresight and prudence of the architects of the Terran Empire!
This novel follows the adventures of one particular battleship of unusual size, which has been dispatched to re-contact four lucky worlds. These worlds will naturally rejoice at being incorporated into the Empire! … Although, to be honest, not only are the members of the expedition conscious that the colonists might not welcome integration into the Empire, they themselves fall a bit short in the whole enthusiasm-for-the-great-cause thing:
The first world the expedition visits was used as the dumping ground for close to a million criminals of various types: “Multiple murderers, incorrigible perverts, all the criminal rubbish we could well afford to lose.” Rather belatedly it occurs to the Terrans that very few of the prisoners would have been women, which might explain why four centuries later the prison world seems to have a small population, which is living in primitive conditions. On closer inspection, the better explanation is the planetary culture glorifies violence and mutual exploitation; hard work is for saps and slaves.
Hygeia, the second world, looks at first glance more promising. It was settled by the Sons of Freedom (also known as Doukhobors) and another group called the Naturists. Not much is known about either group, but from orbit it is clear this lot have done a lot more with Hygeia than the prisoners did with their world. On closer inspection, what actually happened is that the Naturists drove the poor Doukhobors out into the periphery and then proceeded to create a society based on sensible eating, regular exercise, and nudism.
This all sounds very promising to men who have spent a lot of time cooped up in a ship with no women on board. It turns out that the sky-clad colonists have little use for the plump and pallid men of Earth, who fall far short of the Hygeian physical ideal.
According to the ship’s fragmentary and limited records, the third planet, Kassim, was colonized by “Asiatic religious nuts.” It appears to be uninhabited. The explorers dismiss the idea that Asians might have willingly limited their numbers — I will return to this point later — and their minds turn to darker possibilities. After considering and dismissing theories of alien invasion or perhaps a mass rejection of civilization, the expedition’s leaders conclude that the world may be home to some new disease to which humans had no resistance. Rather than contract the disease themselves (or worse, spread it to other worlds), the expedition decides not to risk landing at all. This is perhaps the most sensible decision they make in the whole novel.
The final world, K22g, was settled by political dissidents about whom little is known. Making contact with the local government proves inexplicably difficult. When the difficulty is explained, the Terrans find it hard to believe. The reason the government is hard to contact is that there is no government. This is a planet of Gands, steadfast anarchists who point to Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent non-cooperation as their inspiration. They would rather die than acknowledge any sort of civil or military authority.
K22g soon proves to be a real threat to the expedition. Not because the Gands are hostile, but because they welcome like-minded immigrants. The Gand way of life is a seductive one. Insidiously seductive. Certainly nicer than life on the ship.
The Great Explosion is not so much a novel as a fix-up: a collection of shorter works set into a rudimentary framework. It expands 1951’s “…And Then There Were None” into a form that could be sold as a novel . As far as I know, only “…And Then There Were None” saw print before the novel was published.
Large swaths of this book have not aged particularly well. Not only do we get lines like
It isn’t like Asiatics to reduce their numbers so drastically. I expected to find this world exceptionally well populated.”
but there’s reason to think that when Earth was rounding up “all the criminal rubbish [Earth] could well afford to lose,” that included the Roma.
Speaking of the prison world, the women on it can move between communities until they find a man they like. Wow, does worrying about what the women might want seem out of keeping with the general tone of the place! I wonder if this was where Heinlein got the cockamamie idea he used in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress—namely, that in a mixed-sex prison where women are rare, women would gain power rather than being enslaved and commoditized like tobacco and alcohol.
Russell signals pretty early on that while some of his characters take the great mission to unify the worlds of the Empire seriously, he does not. Consider this quote:
News-channel commentators, lost for suitable superlatives, had repeatedly described the vessel as “one to make the senses boggle.” Always willing to do some fervent boggling, the public had turned up in its thousands. A solid mass of people stood behind the barriers and studied the ship with the bovine stares of good, obedient, uncomplaining taxpayers. It did not occur to any of them that somebody had paid for this gigantic vision or that they had been stung good and hard in their individual and collective wallets.
The tall, lean, crinkly-eyed ones were the crew. The crop-haired, heavy-jowled ones were the troops. The expressionless, balding and myopic ones were the bureaucrats.
The first of these types bore themselves with the professional casualness of people to whom a journey is just another trip in a lifetime of meanderings. Lugging loads of kit up the gangways, the troops showed the tough resignation of those who have delivered themselves into the hands of loud-mouthed idiots one of whom stood at the base of the steps and bellowed abuse at every fifth man. The bureaucrats wore the pained expressions of those suffering something that shouldn’t be done to a dog. They had been dragged from their desks and that is the Last Straw.
It puzzled me at first that the diplomats on board the ship never try to verify what they are told about the Doukhobors on Hygeia. A later passage clarifies that this was entirely deliberate. If Earth needs an excuse to intervene in Hygeian affairs, the condition of Doukhobors is being reserved as justification. <Fe>Of course, this isn’t in any way cynical. Any Terran intervention on Hygeia will necessarily have purely humanitarian motives.</Fe>
Russell served in the RAF during World War Two. I suspect that some of his less admirable military types are based on people with whom he had to deal during the war. Colonel Shelton, for example, isn’t so much concerned for the well-being of his men so much as he would like them to die in the right way:
“Good. I’d hate my troops to be decimated without firing a shot.”
“But it’s all right so long as they have fired a shot?” Grayder inquired.
“You know what I mean. They’re supposed to die in battle.”
Given Shelton’s interaction with Captain Grayder, one suspects that the ideal battle (from the POV of the rival services) would be between Shelton’s Terran Empire army and Grayder’s navy. I’m not even joking here; this seems all too realistic, given some of the stories in the war memoirs I have read .
The visit to the Gand planet, on the other hand, doesn’t seem quite so realistic. In fact, K22g is a utopia and those are generally never greatly restrained by plausibility. I suspect that the moneyless barter system used by the Gands probably wouldn’t scale well. It would have fallen apart in short order.
I also find it hard to believe that the encounter between Empire and Gands would really work out as bloodlessly as it does. Of course, Russell does go out of his way, earlier in the book, to establish that while their commander seems keen on the idea of them dying for the glory of the empire, the soldiers themselves are reluctant to resort to violence. In fact, there’s not a lot of evidence the Earth’s military has ever served a purpose beyond providing an opportunity for socially sanctioned cosplay, while sucking up a stupendous amount of money. The lack of actual experience at warfare may explain why the grand ship Earth sends out is only able to visit four worlds before having to head home for a massive overhaul. It’s not intended to be an effective fighting machine. Indeed, it’s possible the Earth couldn’t build one if they wanted to.
Of course, the real point of K22g is to poke fun at a rigid, authoritarian military hierarchy. Many of the people reading Russell’s book in 1962 would have been all too familiar with such hierarchies (World War II, Korea, and the various peacetime drafts). Nowadays, humour and satire at the expense of the military are rather out of fashion. Citizens across the world are expected to worship hero soldiers … at least until the soldiers return from war damaged, at which point they are quietly forgotten.
The Libertarian Futurist Society entered this book into their Hall of Fame in 1985. I expect the praise was more for the Gandian anarchist system and less for the humour (although the LFS has surprised me in the past and I could be completely wrong on this point).
I was sure I had a personal copy of this book, but I apparently lost or misfiled it some time between my 1998 purchase (in Wales, in glorious Hey on Wye and yesterday. I had to resort to an online version. Rather conveniently for me, The Great Explosion seems to have fallen out of copyright and can be found here ‚and here. If you do feel you need to throw money at people
throw it at me , NESFA included “…And Then There Were None” in their Russell collection, Major Ingredients.
1: Presumably this decision was driven at least in part by the implosion of the magazine industry in the late 1950s and the subsequent rise of the mass market paperback.
2: Boyington, for example, relates in his autobiography that he once saw an American soldier simply watching while a number of American planes burned. When asked why he didn’t do anything about the fire, the fellow explained the planes belonged to a different branch of the US military.