Under the Influence: Eric Frank Russell




There may be no other author who I can sincerely say has had a direct influence on me as a writer through as few works as Eric Frank Russell. While I have since read quite a few of his works – the Jay Score stories, "MacHinery", "Now Inhale", and others – his actual influence on me comes from two short stories: "Legwork" and "Hobbyist".


"Hobbyist" is the story of Steve Anders, an exploration pilot whose ship encounters a spatial disturbance of immense power, throwing him so far from home that by the time he finds a planet he can land on, he's effectively out of fuel (in this case, nickel-thorium wire is the fuel). As he explores the planet, accompanied only by a parrot named Laura, he discovers that he is not alone. Something else lives here, and in a building of stunning size and mysterious purpose it does… something. But inside that building may be what Steve needs to get home…


"Legwork" is two stories: that of alien criminal Vanash, called a "hypno" but what we today would call a telepath of tremendous power, able to control minds at a range of a good chunk of a mile, and of the human beings trying to track someone who seems able to commit crimes in a thousand different guises, all perfect, all unimpeachable, all vanishing as soon as their business is done.


 Vanash is a spy from Andromeda (whether from an actual galactic-scale civilization or from some planet in Andromeda is unclear)and spends his time surveying Earth so that his people will understand the capabilities and behaviors of this little world. Vanash's illusions are so perfect that there is nowhere he cannot go safely and without question; he can appear to be anyone and anything, and eliminate any question or confusion in his targets (or, indeed, cause confusion, if he desires). This ability is – rightly – considered sufficient by Vanash for both offense and defense. If you can't penetrate the illusion you can be killed easily, and you will never be able to actually strike the real Vanash.


But Vanash's people are only a loose association, really; they work on the assumption of genius and talent, the need for particularly gifted individuals to solve particular new problems. What they don't use, nor understand, is a peculiarly human approach to solving problems: systematic, patient, methodical, plodding, workaday grind, doing it all the hard way… by "legwork"…


"Legwork" was, perhaps, the real start of my interest in mystery novels, and certainly of the "crime procedural" – one in which the reader may or may not know who or what committed the crime, and the focus is on how the police manage to track down the perpetrator regardless of how prepared, clever, or special he may be. The human investigators of "Legwork" follow both routine and the dictums of fictional investigators such as Sherlock Holmes, recognizing that when facing something extraordinary, you cannot dismiss extraordinary answers. Slowly but surely they come to understand what they are dealing with, and prepare to trap an almost uncatchable foe – one whose powers turn out to be just barely limited enough.


This story also demonstrated the need to think "around" a problem that was supernatural in effect – if you wanted human beings to knock down something that seemed much more powerful, it was vital that you explicitly let the reader know what limits that supernatural (whether magical or SF or otherwise in nature) power had, so that the human hero could reasonably be expected to figure out some way to deal with the being. In that sense, many of my Jason Wood stories are direct spiritual descendants of "Legwork".


"Hobbyist" was an inspiration in atmosphere. In some ways, this short story carried off the feeling of being marooned and beyond help better than many novels based around a similar concept, and then segued into a creepy horror-novel type atmosphere that still kept an edge of hard scientific exploration… and then flavored it with an inspiring sense of wonder. I've encountered very few writers who could manage all of those at all, let alone manage to cram them all into a short story!


"Hobbyist" was so inspirational in this area that it directly inspired the beginning of the first novel I ever wrote, a terrible Mary-Sueish pastiche that started as Eric Frank Russell and quickly diverted to mostly Doc Smith. But perhaps not so oddly, the beginning of that abysmal novel remained readable, because it was focused on the problem and challenges of an ordinary human being trapped in an impossible position. And though that story was unpublishable, the spirit, and the thoughts that inspired it, remained, and continued… and still drive me today.


I never met Mr. Russell myself, something true of many of my other inspirations. But he lives on in his stories… and, perhaps, a bit of him in mine, as well.






  1. I stumbled onto Eric Frank Russell and really -loved- his work. Many of his stories would grab hold of my emotions, like ‘Somewhere a Voice’. But my single favorite book he did is probably ‘Wasp’. Love that book. I think it’s the sense of self-reliance about characters he wrote about that hooked me.

  2. Joe Wojtowicz says:

    Still have my copy of WASP. The importance of one man in a fight vs the bad guys. Will reread it again, it is always worth another look

  3. I like everything I’ve read by Russell, but yeah, Wasp is awesome. I definitely have fond memories of Legwork and I think Sinister Barrier has a lot of similarities in how the humans approach the problem.

Your comments or questions welcomed!