Friday, April 11, 2008

Eric Frank Russell's "Dear Devil" (novelette, science fiction): Humanity rises from post-nuclear-war apocalypse - with some external help

Quote from short story titled Dear Devil by Eric Frank RussellThis fantastic uplift story comes with high praise from none other than Isaac Asimov - "a terrific story, and a moving one."

When introducing it in one of the anthologies he edited (I'll post ToC later), Asimov also tells us that this story, along with Spielberg's movie "ET", marks a major milestone in the way aliens are treated in sf: "In the earliest tales of interplanetary travel, natives of other worlds were usually presented as reasonably friendly... The first case of a hostile encounter was The War of the Worlds, by H G Wells... The tale of interplanetary warfare was o dramatic that it set the fashion for what followed... And Mars was always particularly demonic... It took some courage, then, for Russell to reverse this".

While I've read many post-apocalypse stories of societies gone back to primitive state, this is one of the very few that primarily focuses on coming out of this primitive state.

Martian poet that plays a key role in the story could actually have been replaced with a human with enough foresight. May be the Martian adds an outsider's point of view - someone not living the day-to-day existence to enable looking at the big picture - like many consultants called by companies. And he certainly adds color to the story.

There is a certain outlook about man/woman relations & their place in society here that probably is better associated with the time the story was written. Even Martians exhibit these attitudes!

Story summary.

"The first Martian vessel descended upon Earth... it was spherical & had a strange buoyance out of keeping with its metallic construction... There were no rockets, no crimson Venturis, no external projections other than several solaradiant distorting grids which boosted the ship in any desired direction through the cosmic field. There were no observation ports. All viewing was done through a transparent band running right around the fat belly of the sphere."

Crew is tentacled Martians that talk to each other either by sign language using "sign-talking tentacle", or via "contact telepathy". A special telepathic tentacle touches others' (even human arms, later in the story) for telepathic communications.

What the visitors see is post-nuclear-war desolation. Very few animals, no large trees, no flowers, some ruins of what was obviously intelligent construction, "No sign of any superior lifeform still surviving... various animals, two- or four-legged".

They'll spend a while outside - air is breathable to them. And some smarter ones, including Captain Skhiva, will rightly conclude it wasn't a natural disaster; inhabitants had brought the doom upon themselves with their own efforts.

Among the crew is Poet Fander, included to entertain the crew during the long voyage. He takes a lifeboat to look around, & sees a "thing of beauty". We will later learn it's a statue of a woman. This statue also tells him what shape of animals to seek when looking for local intelligence.

While the ship is taking off early next morning to explore Venus, Fander wants to be left back - to seek the source of that beauty! Probably stranded here forever! So the ship takes off without him. He gets some supplies, & a flying vehicle ("load-sled").

He will make home in a cave. A while later, he identifies a group of humans. But how to establish contact? They run away as his flier approaches, & his tentacled shape is obviously frightening.

So he kidnaps one from among the group. It turns out to be a very young boy. After many days of trials, he will gain his acceptance & establish communications - using contact telepathy. He will learn the child's name - Speedy. And that it's a group of children that lives alone.

"Devil" of the title comes from child's first impressions of him. The name will stick, & Fander will always be known to humans as Devil. But a dear one.

We will later learn that this earth suffers from some kind of a contagious & fatal sickness artificially introduced during the war - "cultured bubonic". Adults get it first; to save children, they always abandon children at the first sign of sickness - so at least the kids will live! We will also learn later that disease has nearly run its course; only the fear of it needs to be overcome.

Fander will later kidnap two more kids from the same group - both girls. But during this kidnapping, his ship was shot at by someone on the ground. He will later learn an old man, Old Graypate, has guns & sort of guards children without getting physically close to them.

But with help from Speedy, contact is now established faster with the girls. With the help of the 3, he will contact Graypate. Soon, he is living in the shelter where the kids live, along with Graypate. He will also learn the ruin really happened during the time of Graypate's grandfather.

Here he will teach the oldest boys (not girls) the art of living & bring a certain confidence in them - with Graypate helping. While Fander himself is not technically qualified, his flying machine will soon bring neighboring & then farther communities into his community. This larger gathering now has people who remember many old arts.

And he has smart pupils. When his load-sled runs out of power after a few years, his pupils are ready to power it with radio-active dust, still abundant in many places. They will keep making little improvements; then build their own new load-sleds - eventually much bigger & powerful compared to original. They'll build homes, dams, start agriculture, people getting arried again, ... Humanity coming back to life.

Near the end of the story, we see the death of Graypate due to old age. And near-death of Fander. We are told the Martians, in old age, go into a sort of hibernation called "amafa". It can last as long as a year, but some never recover. Fander has been in it for two years now.

That is when the second Martian ship lands. To a waking humanity against an expected desolation. Contact will be easy, thanks to people's experience with Fandor. And this visiting ship has "Physician Traith" who succeds in fixing Fander. 20 days hence, Fander will wake up.


  1. Aliens found on earth "various animals, two- or four-legged"!
  2. "It is not a matter of logic or illogic... It is merely a matter of viewpoint. You see certain angles; I see others."
  3. "Where there is beauty there once was talent - may still be talent for all we know. Where talent abides is also greatness. In the realms of greatness we may find powerful friends."
  4. "I think you are a little afraid because you suspect what I suspect - that there was no natural disaster. They did it themselves, to themselves."
    "If this is their own sad handiwork, ... what are our chances of finding friends among people so much to be feared?"
  5. "blatantly discarding reason in favor of an idle dream. Hoping, hoping, hoping - to achieve the impossible."
  6. "The difficult can be done at once; the impossible takes a little longer."
  7. "I cannot help my shape any more than you can help yours."
  8. What caused war: "Differences in people. Some were colored differently in their bodies, others in their ideas, & they couldn't get along. Some bred faster than others, wanted more room, more food. There wasn't any more room or more food. The world was full, & nobody could shove in except by pushing another out."
  9. "there are times and circumstances when it is worth dropping the short view of what is practicable for the sake of the long view of what is remotely possible."
  10. "There were too many folk of too many different sorts."
    "They can't be all that different if they can fall in love."
  11. "Supposing most of the people still in this world could assemble here, breed together, & have less different children; the children bred others still less different. Wouldn't they eventually become all much the same - just Earth-people?
    All speaking the same language, sharing the same culture? If they spread out slowly from a central source, always in contact by sled, continually sharing the same knowledge, same progress, would there be any room for new differences to arise?"
  12. "I'm not so young as I used to be, & I can't dream as far ahead as I used to do."
    “It doesn't matter so long as the young ones can dream it."
  13. "Our numbers are not large... We breed slowly and some of us die halfway through the normal span. By cosmic standards we are a weak & foolish people much in need of the support of the clever & the strong. You are clever & strong. Whenever my people visit you again, or any other still stranger people come, always remember that you are clever and strong."

See also.

  1. Ross Rocklynne's "Quietus": Very similar concept. Well intentioned alien visitors out to help ex-sentients of now post-apocalypse primitive earth. But a very different plot development & ending.

Collected in.

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

Fact sheet.

First published: Other Worlds Science Stories, May 1950.
Rating: A
Nominated for Retro Hugo Award in novelette category in 2001.
There also is a 1958 novel of Russell with this title. I don't know if that is an expanded version of this novelette.
Related: All stories of Eric Frank Russell.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this wonderfully helpfull post. I read "Dear Devil" as a child and have been looking for it off and on for the last 30 years! You post was the top hit on Google for the key words "sled alien poet earth help science fiction" - and finally, after all this time I was able to get the author and story name - now have it on order from Amazon.

Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

Me, too.

What anonymous said.

I am so delighted I can hardly stop beaming.

Thank you and your wonderful memory for bringing back a delightful moment of my long ago childhood.



Sharon From Baltimore said...

I too read this lovely story in my long ago childhood. I remembered it with fondness and it really started me on a lifetime of loving to read. If you do enjoy Dear Devil, read The Great Explosion by Russell. It has the same gentleness and is still SF. Thank goodness for Amazon. These books are no longer out of reach.

Tinkoo said...

Sharon: I've read "The Great Explosion"; good one. I am a Russel fan, & have read practically anything of his I could lay my hands on.

candide said...

I am much like Anonymous and others in having read the short story many years ago in high school. In the late 1960’swhenreading science fiction was frowned upon but was m6 only escape from a fractious world where the only sane discussion of the world came in science fiction. This tale was one of my favorite and most touching. Yes, touching. Anyone and everyone can and should be kind to each other was a lesson I learned. And today when working on getting a writing project of my own back on track, I struggled to remember the name of this one but found the story by querying the internet for a Martian helped some post apocalyptic children survive who came to love him. I found it with one try. Telling, eh? It still warms my heart. Thank you for your work.