Monday, 30 May 2011

Book Review: Wasp

Wasp, by Eric Frank Russell, recently turned up on Kindle and I noticed it in my recommended books, so I thought it was high time to catch up on what I actually think to be an important (if lighthearted) book on the topic of insurgency. Its a work of science fiction, but a very entertaining one. Written in the 1950's it emerged from a time when suspicion and threat of the Soviets were rising, and the second world war was only recent history.

The premise of the book is that the Earth (a pretty clear analogue for the UK during WW2) is besieged on all sides by the hostile Sirian Empire (Aka Germany). Technologically less advanced but far more populous the Sirians will eventually win the war and Earth will be wiped out. Enter the main character Mowry.

Mowry is recruited to be dropped into enemy territory to become, in the words of one of the protagonists, a "wasp". The theory is that a wasp, in the right place, can cause enormous damage as humans flail in panic at it. Occasionally the wasp gets crushed, but more often than not it gets away scot free. Mowry is therefore disguised as a Sirian and dropped off on one of their planets to disrupt the enemy with everything from leafleting campaigns to assassination to bombings.

Its a very clever book, and deals with the idea of insurgency very well. The tactics of the "wasp", the reaction of society at large, all are very true to life. Mowry's slow descent into culture shock and madness as he is increasingly isolated from Earth is very well described.

To me this is one of the most interesting parts of the book. As Mowry continues to struggle to maintain his focus and remember that everyone around him, including people who are his partners in crime (albeit unwittingly) grow to be friends. He knows how foolish this is, but at the same time cannot resist it.

The abject failure of the Sirian Empire to manage to crush the wasp is almost a case study of the difficulties we face in modern times, both at home and abroad in finding threats to our own security. Our massive and disproportionate reaction to threats which are in truth minor is charted in playful detail in Wasp. I dont want to spoil anything for those who might like to read the book so I won't go any further than that.

This charmingly written, entertaining little parable is a story which should be part of the reading list of anyone who is interested in the idea of insurgency or counter insurgency.
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