TPG reviews: Next of Kin, by Eric Frank Russell
A short, sharp and brilliant piece of SF
Scout-Officer John Leeming knew from the very start that his reconnaissance mission deep into enemy territory was likely to be a one-way trip. But when his ship finally let him down and he crashed on a far-distant planet and was captured by tough and ruthless aliens, he knew he wasn’t just going to give up.
Armed with a piece of wood, a coil of copper-like wire, his quick wits and an imaginary ally called Eustace, Leeming embarked on a brilliant campaign to gain his freedom – and coincidentally undermined the entire alien war effort!
My rating: 4/5
See that blurb up above? That’s pretty much the whole novel right there. Of particular note is that the intriguing second paragraph covers the last quarter-or-so of the book. Much of the book, then, is simply setup for the situation presented on the back cover. Tension, as you might expect, is practically non-existent: when Leeming makes his first attempt to leave the planet, we all know he’s going to fail simply because neither his wire nor the mysterious Eustace have yet been mentioned.
That said, it is all very entertaining.
The backdrop of the novel is a straightforward one. The Alliance, a…er…alliance of twelve sapient species including humanity, is locked in a war with the so-called Combine. The Combine is a second alliance consisting of a whopping twenty civilizations. Sadly, the latter faction has nothing to do with the aliens from Half Life. The exact details and history of the war are never discussed, though its implied that the Combine were the original instigators. It’s not particulary complex, but it provides ample room for John Leeming to…well, be John Leeming.
Let me explain. John Leeming is a scout pilot, who spends most of his time flying solo and who has very little patience for military procedure. Among other incidents, he was once disciplined for putting his cap on backwards during a military parade – the result of “a bad attack of what-the-hell”, as Leeming explains to a superior officer. Leeming is a wild card – precisely what the Alliance needs to finally win the war, as it turns out. And no, I’m not spoiling anything when I say that: its all but outright stated on the freaking blurb.
When a new ultra-fast ship is built for the purpose of scouting out the Combine’s territory, John Leeming eagerly volunteers to fly it. After a mostly successful mission, during which much important intelligence is transmitted back to the Alliance, Leeming is forced to make a crash landing following a mechanical failure. In trying to get off of the planet and back into friendly space, he is swiftly captured. Thus does he begin his long, bizarre and sometimes hilarious quest for freedom.
I should point out at this point that the writing itself is consistently top notch. On the back cover of my edition can be seen a glowing review from none other than Terry Pratchett, stating that Next of Kin is a book he wished he had written. Upon reading the book, one can quickly see why. In addition to strong prose and excellent pacing, Russel frequently incorporates amusing asides into the narrative which span anything from single sentences to whole paragraphs. The very first page contains a sterling example, in fact.
The best part of the book is undoubtedly its final quarter, where Leeming’s escape plan(the one involving copper wires and make-believe allies) finally takes form. Other highlights include Leeming’s early antics at his base, a very realistic and well-written space battle and various scenes involving Leeming’s “survival kit”. Said kit is a product of bureaucracy which makes very little sense to either Leeming or his enemies.
At less than 200 pages, you’re likely to breeze through this in only a handful of days. It’s a short ride, certainly, but it’s one that you’re likely to remember long after you’ve finished it. SF fans are sure to love it, and even non-fans will probably get at least something out of it. The only reason I’m not giving this 5 out of 5 is that the back cover gives a bit too much away.
Incidentally, I’ve now ordered a second book by this author, recommended to me by the same person who recommended the above. That book is Wasp, and I’ll be sure to review that as well when I’m done with it.