Winning Against the Odds

Causing chaos in the enemy’s home. This edition published by Panther Books 1968.

Tales of great daring, and achieving victory when the chips are down and all the odds stacked against a hero, will always stir the imagination.  No matter whether they are fact or fiction, they give a sense that bravery and courage will win out in the end, and a just cause will be triumphant.

Ian Fleming’s original James Bond novels certainly give that impression.  Unlike the films, where the use of sophisticated technology invariably saves the day, the books depict a hard-pressed individual fighting against considerable opposition and being victorious in the end, though frequently with severe set-backs along the way.  The very first novel, Casino Royale from 1953, shows Bond enduring high-pressure confrontation, and eye-watering torture, before eventually succeeding.

The lone hero, fighting for what is right, can be an object of admiration.  The science fiction author Eric Frank Russell depicted this in his 1957 novel Wasp.  In this rather light-hearted story, secret agent James Mowry works undercover for the Earth during an interstellar war with the Sirians.  And just to be entirely clear, Earth’s opponents in Russell’s story are the Sirians – spelled with an ‘i’ – who are aliens based around the star Sirius.  Don’t confuse them with any similar names elsewhere.

The forces of Earth are massively out-numbered, but a single person working alone causes havoc on one of the enemy’s planets.  At the start of the novel, it is explained to Mowry that a wasp – a small insect with merely the threat of an irritating sting – can create mayhem when trapped in a car being driven at high speed; the driver can be terrorised into crashing the vehicle and killing all on board.

So Mowry becomes a “wasp” when he infiltrates the Sirians’ world.  Blending in with the indigenous population, he surreptitiously spreads anti-war propaganda, uses counterfeit currency to damage the enemy’s economy, and ties up the police and military authorities in futile investigations, moving on to selective killings and bombings.  He seeks out malcontents among the people – “a wasp could make good use of all those who would not heed the bugle-call nor follow the beat of the drum” – to use them as scapegoats.  He aims to destroy public morale, spreading alarm and despondency.

The population is duly terrorized, so let’s be in no doubt about this – Mowry is a terrorist.  He admittedly works to soften up the planet for a forthcoming invasion by Earth’s space fleet, but is little different to any individual who causes death and despair in an enemy’s territory since he feels that the end justifies the means, and believes that his cause is just.  Interestingly, we are never told the nature of the cause of the war, nor which side (if either) has the moral high ground; since the reader’s home planet is Earth, we assume that he’s on the side of the angels.   Which raises the question of just how far the reader is willing to condone acts of violence against possibly innocent parties when done for a “good” cause, and to accept that others may do so for different causes.

The novelist Doris Lessing tackled this subject in her 1985 novel The Good Terrorist.  In this powerful story, we see how a woman becomes increasingly involved in anti-establishment politics and ever more extreme violent acts against the state – and, inevitably, against members of the public.  In a sense that seems all too prescient these days, the main character believes that ordinary people just don’t understand what it’s all about, yet is convinced that what is being done is, overall, for the best.

So, when backs are against the wall, a lone fighter may be all that one can rely on to bring the battle to the enemy’s home.  In Russell’s novel, Mowry observes that it is “a pretty unorthodox form of warfare”.  Perhaps it was at the time that was written, but probably not so much nowadays.  As is all too obvious, there are people in the world today who feel it is the only approach available to them.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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