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Steve Dandois: Aug. 2010

August 2010

Steve DandoisINTERESTING TIMES:
The Strange Case of Eric Frank Russell

“For centuries the Chinese used an ancient curse:
‘May you live in interesting times!’”

by Steve Dandois

We’ve all encountered that supposedly ancient aphorism and understood its implications: times of safety, of plenty and peace are inevitably dull.  Interesting times are times of change, when old ways conflict with the new, when previously undefined territories get new borders drawn around them.

Interesting point: that ancient curse might not be so ancient.

Apparently the earliest citation comes from a 1950 science fiction story called “U-Turn” by one Duncan H. Munro — a pen name of Eric Frank Russell.  In fact, Russell may have coined it.

And with typical contrarian wit, he immediately reversed it.

“It isn’t a curse any more,” he wrote. “It’s a blessing.”

Curses and blessings; the factual and fictional.  It’s as these crossroads of reversals where the enigmatic Mr. Russell seemed to be most comfortable working.

Eric Frank Russell
Sci-fi writer, Fortean researcher, military advisor, archfoe of Aleister Crowley: Russell wore many hats throughout his strange life, flitting like an elusive ghost in the shadows of various histories.  But most significantly, he wrote a distinctly Fortean novel which helped solidify an American subgenre and infected pop culture with a lingering sense of paranoia.

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Russell’s style was peculiar, but perhaps not peculiar enough. The truly great writers and thinkers have the honor of getting their names adjectivized; Russell never made the cut.  To do that, you have to break some major ground.  By the first third of the twentieth century, ground had been broken left and right.  Nietzschean thinking had pronounced God dead.  Darwinian thinking had displaced Man from the center of his Universe.  Freudian thinking had sought to weed all religion, superstition and neurosis by ripping them out by the roots from the fetid undergrowth of the sex-obsessed id.

And then, along came Fortean thinking.

There were troubling gaps in the omniscience of the new, all-knowing God of Science… but it took an eccentric library-haunting, note-hoarding New Yorker to put his finger on the pulse of this growing sense of disquietude.  In a string of four volumes, Charles Fort unsheathed his serrated prose to extract from the back pages of the world’s newspapers a “procession of the Damned.”  By this, he meant the persistent and peculiar reports of events that Science, in its infinite wisdom, couldn’t be arsed to explain.  He assembled dazzling catalogs of unexplained phenomena including  strange objects in the sky, mysterious disappearances, “wild talents,” inexplicable explosions and (always and ever) the apocalyptic rainfalls of frogs, fish and bizarre substances.

Fortean was more than just an adjective.  It was a way of perceiving, a way of life.  In his own weird way, Fort deserved to be elevated to level akin to his Darwinian, Nietzschean and Freudian peers.  He was the first, and arguably the finest, at defining the realms of the defiantly Undefined.

Of course, it’s not a way of thinking that necessarily gets you taken very seriously.

Thus, Fort’s defenders, in recounting the great man’s influence on the world, reflexively rattle off a list of contemporaries who sang the master’s praises.  If you’ve read much about Fort, you practically know the roll call by heart:  the disciples include Tiffany Thayer, Theodore Dreiser, Ben Hecht, H.L. Mencken, Booth Tarkington… and Eric Frank Russell.

That list may have sounded damn impressive a few decades ago.  But as years pass, glory fades and, slowly, ironically, Fort’s name has begun to eclipse his famed and foremost followers.  Nowadays, we know the Apostles, but we do not know their Acts.  Even less do we have any idea about how Fortean notions bled into their work and thereby seeped out into mainstream culture.
Eric Frank Russell fan photo

Eric Frank Russell is a prime example of this process.

Once a tremendously popular science fiction writer of the so-called Golden Age, his star has faded and fallen.  Largely unknown except to older fans in his native England, Russell’s books only rarely resurface in print.  They can be found only in the backwaters of amazon.com, usually in small editions from collectors’ presses, while his former peers, including Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein, continue to dominate the sci-fi racks of big box bookstores.

Ever since the earliest days of the science fiction genre, there was a clear divide between the American and English schools.  In his much-revised history of the genre (known alternately as Billion Year Spree and Trillion Year Spree), Brit sci-fi writer Brian Aldiss describes it as the difference between the thinkers (the English branch) and the dreamers (the American branch).  The Americans tended to use the genre as a way of opening the doorway to new vistas of romance.  In Under the Moons of Mars (alias A Princess of Mars), the quintessential Yank Edgar Rice Burroughs thinks nothing of having his character John Carter nap in a cave and awaken, through never-quite-explained mechanics, on the red surface of the exotic rock that the natives call Barsoom.  The distinctly English H. G. Wells, more or less a contemporary of ERB, must have been mortified by such sloppy dreaminess.  While Burroughs populated his Mars with six-limbed swordsmen and virtuous princesses capable, conveniently, of mating with Earthmen, Wells devised disturbingly and convincingly inhuman life-forms — “minds that are to our minds as ours are to the beasts of the field.”  Wells himself referred to his works as “scientific romances” — but in The War of the Worlds, there’s very little emphasis on the “romantic.”  Instead, the story, told from the point of view of an everyman, caught up in the tide of events with little impact of its outcome.  In tune with the evolving scientific outlook of the time, Wells displaces man from the center of his Universe.  Humankind can do little to stop the invasion by the mighty minds of Mars — who themselves are defenseless against a smaller invader, the virus of the common cold.

Eric Frank Russell split the difference: he was an iconoclastic English thinker who dreamt like an American.  (His disaffected, wide-ranging and sardonic view of the world may have been due to youth spent globetrotting between Egypt, Sudan and England as the son of a military academy instructor.)

Russell made his name with a set of stories featuring his own version of a different kind of Martian: eccentric, jocular, joyously nerdy creatures who took great delight in the human game of chess.  They were only a handful of creatures aboard a space-faring vessel also populated by human crewmen, including a contingent of African Americans, and sympathetic and intelligent robots.  The light-hearted tales collected in Men, Martians and Machines, written in the 1930s, remain bracing and refreshing.  (The initial tale, “Jay Score,” has a skillfully wrought twist ending that, six decades plus later, still manages to surprise and delight.)  The characterization of the polyglot crew is a clear forerunner of things like Star Trek and Russell’s crisp prose largely manages to mostly avoid the clunky wording and cringe-inducing sexism and racism all too prevalent in the “classic” pulps of the era.

It’s little wonder that Russell quickly became a darling of editor John W. Campbell, mastermind of Astounding Science-Fiction and architect of what the American branch of the genre would become.

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John W. Campbell held court at the offices of Street & Smith, the mighty magazine publishers with the thundering presses that churned out bestselling titles like The Shadow and Doc SavageAstounding was one of a slew of science fiction titles cluttering the newsstands of the time, alongside Amazing Stories, and Astonishing, Planet Stories and Thrilling Wonder.  Under Campbell’s stewardship, it would become a distinctly classier affair that its peers.  Campbell eschewed the extremes of the genre — scaling back the embarrassing “Astounding” adjective to emphasize the Science Fiction on the cover.  He had a vision for the future of the genre — one where the stories weren’t simply tired action tales trading ray guns for six shooters, but world-building tales where strong central “what if” premises were elaborated to their logical conclusions.  Isaac Asimov was a clear exemplar.  The elaborate, centuries-spanning future history he wove in his Astounding stories formed the foundation of his Foundation Trilogy. Campbell also favored crisp, muscular prose and quick, clear-minded heroes — capable men, jacks of all trades who were masters of any situation, the more chaotic the better.  Frequent Astounding contributor Robert A. Heinlein (who would go on to write Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers) cast the mould with his knockabout protagonists, sometimes ex-military men, often with engineering training — surprisingly like RAH himself.

As for Eric Frank Russell, he was Campbell’s “clown prince” (so dubbed by Brian Aldiss).  He had a knack for writing anti-authoritarian stories, where cunning Earthmen would find unexpected loopholes in the schemes of seemingly superior alien species.  For example, in “Now Inhale,” an Earthman accused of espionage is entitled to a “last game” — a custom of the aliens who apprehended him.  By choosing a seemingly simple Towers of Hanoi puzzle that will actually take years to solve by the rules, the Earthman manages to buy enough time to wait the arrival of rescuers.  The son of a military man, a veteran of the King’s Regiment in 1920s and of the RAF during World War II himself, Russell had a peculiar knack for devising convincing futuristic bureaucracies.  His Hugo Award winning short story “Allamagoosa” is the kind of anecdote old army vets trade back and forth, its essence would seem as much at home on an episode of “Sgt. Bilko” or “M*A*S*H.”  A shaggy dog story elevated to sci-fi only by its space-borne setting, it chronicles the panicked search for a missing part on a spaceship that will surely result in reprimands during a surprise inspection if it can’t be found.

Russell’s most famous satiric exercise in these regions is his novel Wasp.  It’s been widely praised by other writers, with its list of admirers including Jack L. Chalker, Mike Resnick and Alan Moore.  But as Neil Gaiman (comics scribe of Sandman fame and bestselling author of Coraline) points out, it reads much differently now than it did when it first appeared in 1957.

Gaiman noted that he’d “only ever optioned one book or story by someone else.”  The book was Wasp; the legalities were sorted and Gaiman was ready to sit down and write it.  “And then September the Eleventh 2001 happened.”
Wasp

The once-humorous exercise in imagination suddenly seemed grim and all too real.  Why?  Because, as fantasy humorist Terry Pratchett notes, Wasp is practically a “terrorist’s handbook.”  The title of Wasp refers to its metaphorical conceit: a massive automobile can be reduced to a heap of wreckage if the driver is sufficiently distracted by the buzzing of a tiny, insignificant insect that’s perceived as being far more dangerous than it really is.  In this case, the automobile is an alien world that has declared war on the Earth… and the wasp is a human trickster cunningly disguised as a resident of said planet.  The agent engages in a series of escalating acts of sabotage, sending the authoritarian government into a panic, convinced that the status quo is threatened by a revolutionary organization — which actually consists of one lone member.

The book is clever, but convincing.  There’s a reason that rumors have persisted that Russell based his novel on actual monkeywrenching plans that he hatched in the RAF offices to use against the Japanese during World War II.  The book offers ample evidence suggesting that Russell has painted a thin sci-fi veneer on actual wartime plans or incidents. The novel’s distinctly humanoid “Sirians” differ from the presumably Caucasian hero in only minor ways: the skin is purplish, the ears are pinned back.  The culture is foreign but very Earthlike.  But most tellingly, the secret police of the state are known as the Kaitempi, uncomfortably close to the name of the very real Imperial Japanese military police, the Kempeitai.  Was Russell playfully revealing Allied state secrets of a sabotage plan he’d helped devise?  Only God and MI-6 know for sure.

Another lingering mystery about Russell’s life is his apparent feud with Aleister Crowley, occult scholar and self-professed “Great Beast.”  In a playful autobiographical note, Russell writes:  “Am 6’2” tall with grey-brown hair, green eyes and look as if I should have been hanged at Nuremberg… My best enemy was the late Aleister Crowley whom I put in his grave by bone-pointing.”

References to Russell are practically nonexistent in Crowleyan biographical works; but at least one Thelemic scholar, Marcelo Motta, mentions the feud in his extended commentary on Crowley’s Magick Without Tears.  In an elegiac description of the magician’s late years, Motta paints Crowley as “subsisting on… charity… depending on heroin… living in a shabby small room,” and suffering the slings and arrows of various “charlatans and fanatics.”  Among them he numbers “Eric Frank Russell, a science fiction writer” who “prayed for Crowley’s death” every night.  Motta tartly concludes: “Mr. Russell was a Roman Catholic Irishman.” But all else remains enigmatic — including why Russell would have chosen Crowley as a target and whether the two men ever actually met.

It’s another symptom of Russell’s tricksterish nature — an elusive quality that led one online fan to dub her memorial site “The Shadow Man,” inspired both by the title of a Russell story and by the flickering, nebulous nature the man himself.  He flickers throughout the history of the sci-fi — but he’s always not quite there.  This tricksy nature is echoed in all his writing… but his most tricksy are his forays into Forteana.

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Great World Mysteries, by Eric Frank Russell

An early devotee of Fort, Russell was an enthusiastic member of Tiffany Thayer’s Fortean Society.  His news clippings of strange phenomena were a regular item in The Fortean Society Magazine (later Doubt).  Unfortunately, the real organization of the Society was always a one-man affair: the egocentric Thayer tried to run the ship by himself.  However, he relied on Russell to manage the English branch and Russell hosted the great leader during his 1952 trip to England.  By this point, Thayer and his wife were apparently somewhat cynical about the nature of the odd birds the group tended to attract.  Russell reports that Mrs. Thayer “took delight in nudging Thayer, pointing out some cross-eyed, crazy-looking Irishman, and saying: ‘There’s a member — go get him!’”  Russell also wrote Fortean articles for other magazines, including the SF pulp Fantastic which ran pieces like “The Creeping Coffins of Barbados” and “Satan’s Footprints.” (These would later appear in Russell’s nonfiction Fortean anthology Great World Mysteries.)

Early on, Russell sought ways to translate his fascination with his literary hero’s reports of weird phenomena and strange ideas into a narrative form.  Lest we forget, Fort himself initially attempted to do just that in his long lost novels X and Y.  Excursions into deep paranoia, they described schemes to manipulate events on Earth by Martian forces (in X) and by human conspiracies (in Y).  Though they fascinated literary giant Theodore Dreiser (author of Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy), all attempts to publish the novels were thwarted.  Disgusted, Fort destroyed the manuscript and elected instead to write his impassioned nonfiction essays based on the teeming notes of unexplained phenomena which had inspired his science-fiction epics.

Sinister Barrier, by Eric Frank Russell

Russell’s first novel Sinister Barrier may be as close to what Fort intended to achieve in X as anything we are ever likely to read.

It was a hybrid of fact and fiction, of sci-fi and fantasy that violated many conventions of the era.  Editor John W. Campbell was a champion of the book.  He apparently guided Russell into hammering it into something resembling a story.  But even though Campbell once admitted that Russell was his very favorite of the array of Astounding authorial talent he’d assembled, Sinister Barrier apparently didn’t fit his editorial vision of hard-minded, science-driven fiction.  The novel ultimately didn’t appear in Astounding:  instead, it became the lead piece and cover feature in the first issue of a new (and ultimately doomed) Campbell project, Unknown (also known as Unknown Worlds).

In Astounding, Campbell had helped codify a whole new and distinctly American brand of science-fiction.  Now, in Unknown, he hoped to repeat the feat for the fantasy genre.  Eschewing what “fantasy” had come to mean, Campbell had little interest in standard issue sword-and-sorcery or fairy haunted meadows.  In the quintessential Unknown tale, some specific fantastic element intrudes onto a recognizably ordinary, mundane and modern scene — and the implications of the fantastic are then extrapolated as rigorously as any nuts-and-bolts idea in any Astounding sci-fi story.

UNKNOWN: the Sinister Barrier issue

Campbell’s vision was unique and doomed — Unknown died an early death in 1943, a combination of fan disinterest and World War II paper shortages.  But the echo of the work remained — forming a blueprint for the kind of story that would become common currency on The Twilight Zone. It also served as the launching pad for a number of influential and beloved American fantasy tales, including “It” by Theodore Sturgeon (the inspiration for virtually every swamp monster in pop culture, including Swamp Thing and Man-Thing), Jack Williamson’s lycanthropic Darker Than You Think, along with Fritz Leiber’s soon-to-be-filmed-again Conjure Wife and his cliche-tweaking Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser adventures.

But Russell’s groundbreaking tale of paranormal paranoia was a beast of its own — a shape of things to come.

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Certainly, Russell’s editor and publisher saw Sinister Barrier as something unique.  Not only did Campbell choose to use it to launch Unknown’s new brand of fiction; no less a light than Isaac Asimov suggests that the magazine was originally invented to give the neither fish-nor-fowl story a home.  (However, other accounts, including Campbell’s, don’t back up this claim.)  Russell gratefully acknowledged that Campbell was responsible for “kicking me around until this story bore more resemblance to a story.”  And he notes that publishers Street & Smith “gave it a tremendous boost” — with blurbs describing it as “the greatest imaginative yarn in two decades,” belonging on the shelf with the cream of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne.

It was a lot of hype to live up to.  Russell, being Russell, had to raise the stakes.

In the foreword of the first hardcover edition, Russell writes: “It would be idle to pretend and dishonest to suggest that Sinister Barrier is anything other fiction.”

Then he goes on to suggest precisely that.

Describing it as a sort of “fact-fiction,” he says: “Sinister Barrier is as true a story as it is possible to concoct while presenting believe-it-or-not truths in the guise of entertainment.  It derives its fantastic atmosphere only from the queerness, the eccentricity, the complete inexplicability — so far as dogmatic science is concerned — of the established facts which gave it birth.  These facts are myriad.  I have them in the form of a thousand press clippings snatched from half a hundred newspapers in the Old World and the New.”

These clippings clearly inspire passages in the novel that must have seemed exceedingly curious to the casual reader.

A Sinister motif.The book opens with such a clipping, entitled: To Be Read in a Dim Light, at Night.

It purports to be a clipping from “a New York daily,” but Russell doesn’t say which one; it’s unclear if it’s a genuine item or a pitch perfect pastiche.  One suspects a ringer because the clipping begins with an homage to Fort — describing him as “a sort of Peter Pan of science” who “went about picking up whimsies of fact, mostly from the rubbish heaps of astronomy.”

The article suggests that Fort would certainly have been intrigued by a mysterious occurrence: “Eight starlings in flight suddenly plummeted to the feet of Patrolman Anton Vodrazka, dead.”  Other reports suggest another terrified starling slammed into a lamp at a “Restaurant at Fifth Avenue.”

“What killed the eight starlings?  What frightened the ninth?   Was there some Presence in the sky? …We hasten to pass the idea on to the nearest writer of mystery stories.”

Enter Eric Frank Russell, picking up the baton.

Somewhere in Stockholm, Professor Peder Bjornsen muses to himself: “Swift death awaits the first cow that leads a revolt against milking.”

Bjornsen is all too aware that his recent researches have put him in some mortal danger.  He retreats from an invisible horror, “a shapeless, colorless point that crept from window to ceiling.”  Consumed with terror, he drops dead.  Among his effects, the police discover his final writings.

“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” it begins.

The year is 2015, which is a day after tomorrow — the day after 1939, that is, when the story was written (with dashes of 1948, when it was expanded).  The tale is a curious mix of past and future — unabashed ‘30s pulp combined with proto-techno-thriller mechanics and archaic flourishes like unabashed workplace sexual harassment and flying “gyrocars.”

The bulk of the story follows Graham, a government agent, who’s chasing a mystery.  All around the world, scientists are dropping dead in mysterious accidents.  They’re connected by a web of secret research — an idea, a meme which spreads virally and seems to lead them to pursue an idea that it’s dangerous to even consider.  As Graham pursues the trail of dead bodies, we realize that we’re reading a crude, early prototype of the kind of sci-fi inflected conspiracy thriller that “The X-Files” would hone to perfection six decades later.

80 pages into the yarn, Graham finally gets a few steps ahead of the death wave and confronts Professor Beach.  Graham has realized that all of the dead scientists were friends of Bjornsen.

“Graham stabbed an accusing finger at the scientist.  ‘You were a friend of Bjornsen’s!’”

Perhaps all Fortean seekers are in some way “friends of Bjornsen.”  Like Beach, they tend to dwell in darkness.  “Light attracts nocturnal creatures,” Professor Beach explains.  “They can be a nuisance.”  And a distraction from Beach’s primary preoccupation: a hobby involving obsession and nimble scissors.

“I have here a thousand or more clippings telling about people mysteriously endowed with inhuman powers, suffering from abnormal or supernormal defects, giving birth atrocious monstrosities which promptly have been strangled or hidden forever from human sight,” Beach reports.

A thousand clippings.  Obviously, the same thousand clippings that Russell mentions in his foreword.  (Even though the novel is set in 2015, the press clippings invariably stall out in about 1939 — the year in which the original version was written.)  At times, Russell seems hellbent to use every single scrap.

His professorial avatar goes on to cite cases of mysterious appearances and disappearances — tales of Kaspar Hauser, Amelia Earhart and the Marie Celeste, and Benjamin Bathurst “who walked around the heads of a couple of horses — and vanished forever.”

Clearly Beach — and his creator — have the ultimate magic bullet theory: an explanation that provides a single, terrifying explanation for almost every category of inexplicable Fortean phenomena.

In his introduction, Russell hints at his theory in broad strokes.  Despite his “highly suggestive mountain of evidence,” the material failed to suggest a story — until three Americans offered ideas that “formed an unholy trinity out of whom was born Sinister Barrier‘s religion of damnation.”

The Cartier attack.

Russell cagily avoids naming names, for the most part.  (We’re left wondering if some of his inspirations were correspondents, other authors from the Astounding crew.  Alas, we may never know.) A “San Franciscan lover of long-distance debate” posed: “Since everyone wants peace, why don’t we get it?” A “bellicose Iowan demanded, ‘If there are extra-terrestrial races more advanced than us, why haven’t they visited us already?’”

And the third is, of course, inevitably, Fort himself.

“Casually but devastatingly,” Fort wrote: “I think we’re property.”

“And that,” says Russell, “is the plot of Sinister Barrier.”

As Professor Beach notes at a crucial turning point:  “The scale of electro-magnetic vibrations extends over sixty octaves, of which the human eye can see but one.  Beyond that sinister barrier of our limitations, outside that poor, ineffective range of vision, bossing every man jack of us from the cradle to the grave, invisibly preying on us as ruthlessly as any parasite, are our malicious, all-powerful lords and masters — the creatures who really own the Earth!”

Almost sounding disappointed, Russell notes that nearly nine years after the story’s first appearance, “I remain alive, which is the satisfactory proof that the story’s basis is a lot of nonsense…”  For his invisible, extraterrestrial overlords can perceive human thoughts — and any awareness of their existence is curtailed suddenly and ruthlessly.

There are things that are dangerous to think about, Russell seems to suggest…  and there’s a reason that the hard-to-fit facts of Forteana are ignored.  Denial is a natural act of survival… because thinking too long and too deeply about the things past the end of the sidewalk are a recipe for madness and death.

Heady and toxic stuff for a simple pulp novel, full of cardboard characters and plotting that capitalizes on contrived coincidence.

But like the sci-fi fans whom Russell thanks in his introduction, Forteans tend to be “willing to enter the gates of hell — providing they get in on the ground floor.”

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Steve Dandois

Ink-stained wretch STEVE DANDOIS first discovered Charles Fort in a dusty back corner of a rural Pennsylvania middle school.  Fort promptly assaulted Dandois’ sense of consensus reality and left him with a lingering case of doubt.  Dandois currently works in the salt mines of the entertainment and advertising industries crafting screenplays, tag-lines, music video treatments and viral web content.  Registered as a lethal weapon in the county of Los Angeles, he has been known to beat deadlines with his bare hands.


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