Saturday, September 1, 2007

Eric Frank Russell's "Next of Kin" (novel): Smart monkey/dumb crocodile kids' tale adapted for adults

Quote from the novel titled Next of Kin by Eric Frank RussellThis hilarious & very readable story reads like a longer version of familiar smart monkey/dumb crocodile story of primary school: A monkey about to land on the dinner table of a crocodile family sweet talks the crocodile to let him bring his tastiest part, his heart, that he left on the tree, as his kind normally do when they go around wandering around! I think original is from Panchtantra, widely loved kids' story collection that is said to have inspired Aesop's Fables & Arabian Nights; translations should be available in almost every language.

You will need to suspend credulity when reading this novel. Everything is not logical. But that doesn't come in the way of fun.

I collected some quotes from the novel here.

Story summary.
A galactic war has been going on between Allies & Combine over occupation of some planets. Allies include humans, "Sirians, Rigellians and others". Combine is led by Lathians, & includes some 20 odd sentient species - among them Zebs & Zangastans. Zangastans are among the weakest in Combine, & are primarily contributing to war effort as wardens of prisoners of war; they play a major role in later half of the story.

Military Intelligence of humans, wants to know how deep behind the Combine war front does the influence of Combine extend. A new kind of space ship engine has recently been invented that can outrun anything Allies or Combine have, & has a much longer range without refueling.

Scout Officer John Leeming will take one of the only 3 ships fitted with this engine for this intelligence task. He will have no weapons save the capability to outrun everything sentient. Engine is outfitted with a bomb; he must destroy the ship rather than letting it into enemy hands - even if it means his own death. But he is a survivor.

We are treated to some tidbits on earth during preparation, voyage, an encounter with enemy fighters mid way, etc. He penetrates deep into enemy lines, gets promoted mid-way through the mission to Lieutenant, & finally, near 83rd planet of his mission, he runs into trouble. Twenty "propulsors" in his ship have tube lining that has limited life because of extreme heat & pressure; many of them fail. He is forced to land near a forest on this planet of 10% more gravity than earth & a bit more oxygen in the air. This is the planet of reptilian Zangastans.

He gets out some essential supplies, blasts the ship, & wanders in the jungle a while. Is eventually picked up by locals, & is questioned by Major Klavith - the sole individual on the planet who can speak "Cosmoglotta", the common language of the galaxy. Makes a sensational escape, wanders again in jungles a while, loots a truck, drives to space port, & tries to run away with a spaceship! It is when entering the spaceship that he gets caught & sent to prison as PoW.

This is where the most discussed part of the story begins, half way through the book. He is the sole human in jail. But there are some 2,000 Rigellian prisoners - among the civilians arrested when Combine attacked the unarmed colonists on newly inhabited planets. They have been here 2 years; many have died attempting escape. A new escape attempt is underway, & will happen a few months down the line.

Rigellians are good to John, but live separately & won't involve him in any escape attempts. He finally figures a plan of escape sometime during his fourth month in prison. This is a ridiculous plan, & enemy must be really credulous to pull it off, but that's the fun part of the story.

It begins with creation of bopamagilvie, a useless gadget comprising a bit of twisted tin wire inserted into & wrapped around a small block of wood - former stolen from a factory in prison with the aid of a Rigellian, later picked up in common area during exercise time.

He convinces his captors that he is not alone but two! Physical form is what they can see, John Leeming. Plus an invisible ghost called "Eustace Phenackertiban"! Story is:

  1. Every human is accompanied by a Eustace - from birth to death! Eustace has his own name, apart from physical; John's is called Phenackertiban.
  2. The two can communicate directly via mind. No physical senses needed.
  3. Gadget is needed by physical to locate the ghost when ghost has wandered off far.
  4. The two are kind of symbiotic. Ghost is superior, actually lives off physicals, has an acute sense of justice, & is very sensitive to physical's emotions.
  5. Ghost will extract revenge in his own way from anyone who hurts his physical!
Also, that similar ghosts called Willis also control Lathians. Also, any life form that has a symbiosis between a physical & a ghost is called "nut", & its specimen "nuts"!

Of course, captors want to verify this. So some human prisoners on another Lathians world are questioned by Colonel Shomuth, a Zangastan liason officer. Lovely dialogs.
  1. Are "our Lathian allies really are Nuts"?
  2. "And they have the Willies?"
    "Not only have they got the willies but they'll have a darned sight more of them before we're through."
    "How can that be? We have learned that each and every Lathian is unconsciously controlled by a Willy. Therefore the total number of Willies must be limited. It cannot be increased except by the birth of more Lathians."
    "You've got me wrong. What I meant was that as Lathian casualties mount up the number of unattached Willies will increase. Obviously even the best of Willies cannot control a corpse, can he? There will be lots more Willies loafing around in proportion to the number of Lathian survivors."
    "have you any reason to suppose that a large number of partnerless Willies might be able to seize control of another and different lifeform? Such as my own species, for example?"
    "I wouldn't be surprised."
  3. "The Lathian heavy cruiser Veder crashed on landing and was a total loss. The Lathians attributed it to an error of judgment on the part of the crew. But that was just three days after you prisoners were brought here. Was it a mere coincidence?"
  4. "The biggest fuel dump in this part of the galaxy is located a few degrees south of here. A week ago it blew up to total destruction. The loss was a severe one; it will handicap the Combine fleets for quite a time to come... Lathian technicians theorize that a static spark caused a leaking tank to explode and that set off the rest in rapid succession. We can always trust technicians to come up with a glib explanation."
    "You have admitted yourself that more than four hundred Eustaces are roaming this area, free to do as they please."
Similar good fortune has been piling up around John: "At one time or another eight of my guards earned your enmity, by assaulting you. Of these, four are now in hospital badly injured, two more are to be drafted to the fighting front."

Eventually, for their own safety, the captors arrange John's safe transport to earth!

Fact sheet.
"Next of Kin", novel, review
Rating: A
Related: All stories of Eric Frank Russell.

First published.
This story has had a bit complex evolution.
  1. First appearance as a short story titled "Plus X", Astounding 1956 edited by John W Campbell, Jr.
  2. Novel length adaptation under title "The Space Willies" in 1958.
  3. A larger novel titled "Next of Kin" (reviewed here), 1959.
See also.
  1. Story has a small reference, with a misquote, to Arthur Clarke's "Nine Billion Names of God".


Anonymous said...

uttvwphI read this story in my teens, but for some reason I thought the title was "Eustace's Eustace". It has stuck in my mind all these years, and despite trying to get another copy to reread, I was never able to find it until now. I was thoroughly entralled as a teen, and rereading some of the points I am pleased to say I still am. A thoroughly enjoyable piece of writing. Now I have the Author I must read more of his works.

Tinkoo said...

Original is a short story - " X", I think. I've'nt read the short story version, but going by others' comments, second half of the novel follows it closely.

Tinkoo said...

Looks like Blogger ate up special characters. Original short story's name: "[something] X".