Friday, August 31, 2007

Eric Frank Russell's "Allamagoosa": Fudging data can have unintended consequences

Quote from the short story titled Allamagoosa by Eric Frank RussellThis lovely piece of humor introduced me to Eric Frank Russell a couple of weeks back, & I became an instant fan. Since then I have read may be a half dozen of his stories, & every one is top class.

While I had never heard his name before I read this story, he apparently has had a prolific output. ISFDB lists over a 100 of his short stories, & may be a half dozen novels.

I also found instant identification with the story. Second half of 1990s in India was a mad time. Software industry was on the way to show globalization is good; everyone else was going crazy figuring out a way to stop Koreans from eating up their lunch. And many managements bought time by going for "ISO 9000 certification". If you were a line manager, you were in for introduction to insane bureaucracy & data fudging. This story beautifully captures the times.

Story summary.

A Terran spaceship Bustler is in a part of space known as Sirisec. It is docked at Siriport, far from Sol (home). Most crew is holidaying in the city; only skeleton staff on the ship.

Captain McNaught receives a message: "Terran Headquarters to Bustler. Remain Siriport pending further orders. Rear Admiral Vane W Cassidy due there seventeenth. Feldman. Navy Op Command, Sirisec."

Now this Cassidy guy has a reputation of a crazy stick-to-book accountant. And previous experience has convinced McNaught that it's best to come off such inspections clean.

Much crew leave is canceled. There is a mad rush to polish up the ship, & to do a physical inventory check. That is when they detect a missing piece of inventory: one unit of something called "offog". Problem is - no one on the ship has heard this name before!

After much drama, Chief Radio Officer Burman is assigned the task of manufacturing it for inspection! "Because it's typical of the baby names used for your kind of stuff... All we need do is concoct an imposing allamagoosa and tell him it's the offog."

Inspection happens. All goes well, including the newly manufactured offog.

Another message: "Terran Headquarters to Bustler. Return here immediately for overhaul and refitting. Improved power plant to be installed. Feldman. Navy Op. Command. Sirisec."

While heading home, they need to get rid of this offog - because maintenance crew back home won't buy it the way accountant did. So out goes the message to Terra: "Bustler to Terran Headquarters. Item V1098, Offog, one, came apart under gravitational stress while passing through twin-sun field Hector Major-Minor. Material used as fuel. McNaught, Commander. Bustler."

Shortly afterwards, there is panic all over. Terran headquarters order all ships in space grounded, pending investigation.

And that is when we learn what an offog is.

Collected in.

  1. "Major Ingredients" (ed Rick Katze).

Fact sheet.

First published: Astounding Science Fiction, May 1955
Rating: A
Winner of Hugo Award 1955 in short story category.
Related: All stories of Eric Frank Russell.
Listed among the stories from John Campbell's Astounding/Analog.
Included in Ellen Datlow's Sci Fiction classics.

See also.
  1. Arthur Clarke's "Superiority" (A): Another humorous story in similar tone, & very Dilbertian - on how not to deploy new technology in an organization.
  2. James P Hogan's "Making Light" (A): Humorous story about organizational bureaucracy.