Friday, May 29, 2020

Was Erik Frank Russell deconstructing space operas in the 1940s?

Men, Martians and Machines by Erik Frank Russell becomes an odder read the more you look at it. A collection of interlocking stories, it was published in 1955  but most of the book was originally published in the early 40s. 

On the surface, it’s the rollicking adventures of the solar system’s first interstellar spaceship as they explore one death world after another. A machine world, a plant world, a brain control world. It’s all very by the numbers, even back when it was written.

The next level, at least for me, is that Men, Martians and Machines is a definitive period piece. It felt that way back when I first picked it up back in the late 80s and it really feels that way now. Some critics say that every science fiction novel is about the time it was written, not the future. Russell was definitely writing about the navy and merchant marines of the 40s. (The lack of exterior weapons so they have to open the airlock to shoot back is so bizarre to me)

But it was when we dig even deeper that Men, Martians and Machines becomes really interesting. I thought the book was multicultural when I thought it had been written in 1955. But when I learned that part of it had been written over a decade before that, I was really impressed. I thought Voyage of the Space Beagle was the prototype of Star Trek but Men, Martians and Machines feels like Star Trek the prototype. The black surgeon is the most competent and mature human on the ship. Not only are the octopod Martians and the token robot treated as buddies by the humans, they are clearly more with it than the humans.

In every single story, the Martians and/or the robot have to save the humans. The humans would be dead every time if it wasn’t for the non-humans. The fact that Russell has this happen in every story turns the book into a deconstruction of the genre at a time when the standard trope was having humans always win, at least if John Campbell was editing. On top of that, the constant stream to death planets is clearly wearing the humans down by the end of the book. The book went from a yarn and period piece to something that made me think.

The other highlight of the book is the Martians. Not their cephalopod forms or limited telepathy but their laconic, easy going personalities. They never get worried or stop obsessing about chess even while dealing with fantastic threats. At one point, we learn that they can think in two threads at the same time so they are always playing mental chess. 

They never have to stop playing board games? I’m jealous!

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