Review: The Great Explosion by Eric Frank Russell

The Great Explosion by Eric Frank Russell
Hardcover: Dennis Dobson, 13/6, 203pp, 1962 [1]

The prologue tells us that the result of Joahannes Pretorius van der Camp Blieder’s fixation on levitating a coin was the accidental invention of a stardrive and the result of that was “the Great Explosion,” or the diaspora of every weirdo from Earth to the stars. The rest of the book tells us how Earth eventually recovered from the loss of these eccentrics and proceeded to attempt to bring them into an Imperial fold. In this book, we follow one particular (and particularly mine-is-bigger-than-yours) starship in one particular sector as it voyages to four planets.

After an elaborate and pompous departure we meet and mock the crew, troops, and bureaucrats. Especially the bureaucrats. The first world they come to, like the state of Georgia or the country of Australia, has been settled by people exiled for running afoul of the law. They develop a family/gang-centered social structure in which they distrust anyone outside the family and despise work, gullible people (and gnoits, ponks, and snelks). Their only contacts with outsiders (other than our would-be imperialists) come on the few days of the year that make up trading season. Mainly, women who don’t like any of the men in their “family” demand to be traded. As an example of some of the humor, after the native leaves, the Colonel says he thought he saw him on the far side of the river waving an official-issue knife and asks the Sergeant Major if that was possible. “Sergeant Major admitted that it could be possible. In fact, it gave him much pain to describe it as practically a certainty inasmuch as the presence of the knife over there had been found to coincide with the absence of one over here.” And, as an example of some of the sociological arguments, when the Ambassador points out that their society has “No comfort, no security, no progress, no morals,” the native adds “No taxes, no work, no regimentation.”

Unable to establish a beachhead on a paranoid planet of multiple groups, the ship moves on to Hygeia. There are no “friendly” worlds according to the regs, but there are hostile and non-hostile worlds. Having determined this one to be non-hostile, the bigwigs debark, followed by the lesser ranked, and then the lesser still. It is wryly observed that, had the planet been determined to be hostile, “the order of exit would have been reversed.” This world takes the notion of a “nudist colony” to a whole other level. It demonstrates the relativity of social mores as the native naked fitness freaks are repelled by the Earthers’ dirty bodies (exemplified by their boozing and smoking) and dirty minds (exemplified by their clothes fetish). Under the “when in Rome” theory, when the men go on leave, they are ordered to go nude but this only offends the natives differently as the Earth folk, um, expose their relative lack of fitness. Despite these problems, the Terrans are finally granted an island on which to establish their embassy under various onerous conditions, so the remainder depart for the third world, but not every colony manages some variety of success. The Terrans moves on to the fourth world without stopping after finding the third depopulated, perhaps from a plague.

Finally, they arrive at the last world and, in one of the funnier scenes of the book, have difficulty making contact with Zeke, a native who finally tells them “Myob!” [2] and even more difficulty making contact with “Ginger Whiskers,” the next native who’s on his way to meet with the first. In a large-scale Keystone Cops routine, a bunch of soldiers are initially unable to corral a man determinedly headed “Zekeward” and finally have to carry him to the ship as he simply refuses to do what they want. They have no better luck stopping a guy who has “a gold ring in his nose” and “a pigtail four feet long” who is riding a fan-driven ball-wheeled motorbike (it’s especially interesting to note that this part was first published (in John W. Campbell’s Astounding) in 1951). Much of the contact goes like this, without useful result, until Harrison, the bicyclist among the stars, rides into town and starts making the slightest of headway, learning about how the natives are Gands and the Terrans are antigand. Eventually, even Sergeant Gleed joins in and they get a better understanding of this libertarian/anarchist society (“That’s freedom, isn’t it?”) they’re supposed to conquer. Contrary to the Weapons Shops sort of freedom, though, these folks explain how they have a weapon that can defeat all comers and there’s nothing secret or violent about it. It’s encapsulated on a sign that says “F-I.W.” and the remainder of the book will show the power of ideas in a clash of worldviews.

Humor is in the funny bone of the beholder but I thought this had very funny moments and was generally amusing, while it was also definitely “about” something and full of interesting and debatable points. For instance, the Terrans frequently use the notion of alien conquest (when there is no evidence of alien intelligence anywhere) to try to frighten worlds into joining them, which speaks to any general politics of fear. While I personally believe in strong international alliances, other elements may be making the point that they could form a single point of failure and that conquering varied forces could be harder than herding cats. On the other hand, I certainly support the diversity of states and the individuality of people within a larger framework. This seems to echo that with its various social conditions on world to world and with the Gands themselves. For instance, when trying to explain the Gands’ negative reaction to the soldiers’ uniforms, Harrison says to the Ambassador, “They seem to take pleasure in expressing their individual personalities by wearing anything from pigtails to pink boots; oddity in attire is the norm among the Gands.” It can also get rather existential or echo Rousseau (whom I loathe but that’s beside the point). When Sergeant Gleed isn’t being the usual SOB and Harrison remarks on it, “‘I’m off duty,’ replied Gleed, as if that explained everything.” This points to Gleed’s adoption of a role in “bad faith” or to the notion that men are by nature good and only made bad by institutions. The economics (as is often the case with that aspect of libertarian/anarchist theory) was interesting but more ideal than real. I had a hard time seeing how an “ob” (or the obligation one puts on another for returning a good deed) was all that different from money (though it mercifully frees people from the larger machinations of finance) or how the “size” of an ob could be determined (that is, when it could reliably be canceled). Russell does try to seriously tackle some of this with a character’s story about “Idle Jack” in response to a Terran asking about people who just tried to take advantage of the system. The point is, whatever your philosophy (unless it’s to not have philosophy in your fiction), there is something in this comic thought-experiment worth considering while you’re being entertained and amused.

[1] Approximately the last two-fifths of this book is the novella “And Then There Were None.” I hadn’t read that in a while, so compared each every so often (in a casual way, so could be wrong), but the only changes I noticed were some soldering to join the old material to the new (including two bits of initial material scraped into earlier parts of the book) and some tweaks to words. On the question of preferred version, this is a fairly unusual case where they’re about the same. The novella is naturally more focused and is probably sufficient but the additions provide more philosophical elements to consider and more humorous parts to enjoy so it’s basically just a question of whether the reader would prefer a longer or shorter version.

BTW, I somehow got hold of and read the Panther edition (which is a fittingly UK book for a UK author) but it has perhaps the dumbest blurb in the history of man, so I’m going with the slightly less wrong Pyramid cover. (Both have decent, fun art.)

[2] After initial amusing confusion and guessing, the Terrans later come to find this abbreviates the wisdom of “Mind your own business!”