Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction #6: Dear Devil by Eric Frank Russell

Russell, Eric Frank. "Dear Devil." Other Worlds Science Stories, May 1950.

This article is part of my attempt to read the 155 stories currently (as of 1 November 2022) on the ISFdb's Top Short Fiction list. Please see the introduction and list of stories here. I am encouraging readers to rate the stories and books they have read on the ISFdb.

ISFdb Rating: 9.50/10
My Rating:     7/10

"The first Martian vessel descended upon Earth with the slow, stately fall of a grounded balloon."

A Martian exploration party lands on Earth. After a single day of searching the nearby surface using hover jets, it is decided the planet has no value as its inhabitants have destroyed themselves. The captain decides to take off first thing next morning for their next destination, but a Martian named Fander, who has less of a logical mind than his fellow travellers, elects to remain behind, believing the planet contains much beauty.

Shortly after taking residence in a cave, Fander comes across a group of children. Quickly, he uses his hover jet to swoop over and kidnap one child, returning with the fainted boy to his cave. Fander is patient with the boy, and over time the child grows accustomed to this slithering blue Martian. They are able to communicate through touch, as is the Martian way, and the pair form a kind of alliance, eventually bringing Fander into the boys' small community of children.

It turns out that a (post-nuclear?) virus has killed off most of the adults, so that the children live independently in small communities. One adult, however, who appears immune to the disease, lives close by, and though he will not associate with the children out of fear of getting them sick, he protects them from a distance. Fander learns much from this adult, and also begins to educate the children, meting out tasks depending on each child's talent, and the motley group soon set out to seek out life on other parts of the planet. As the technically adept children grow and lean via Fander's hover jet to build more powerful forms of transport, the community is able to fly out farther, and begin to bring back people who look a little different from these Caucasian children, particularly those with different skin. The community continues to grow and to become more international.

The novelette spans several years, decades even, and we see the development and growth of a once-emaciated humankind, as Fander desires to unite as much of humanity as is possible. While a good story with some interesting ideas and good world building, it does show its age in the way it presents what is supposed to be an international culture.

The main idea in the story is that all people can live as Earth people, rather than as individual races and nations. One unified race with one unified culture. Yet the idea is presented from a western perspective, as Fander has landed on clearly what was once the United Kingdom (I choose the UK as the story's author was British). The community is essentially ruled by the cultural majority, and as these western kids build their community and bring back people from the east, the eastern folk are assimilated into this culturally western society. While Russell glosses over most of the details of the community, which is unfortunate, the glimpses we get of weddings and funerals are those seemingly built in western culture. The kids return with eastern people, but leave eastern ideology behind. One of the main boys unites with a girl from the east, and it is she who is assimilated rather the combination of the two building a new, shared culture. "They can't be all that different if they can fall in love," Fander says, yet unfortunately one set of "differences" is cast aside, and a once rich culture is forgotten.

Despite this revisionist view, nearly three quarters of a century after the story's initial publication, it is nice to see this ideology of human unity presented at a time when many humans feared the possibility of destruction resulting from the differences between specific divisive nations. Many did believe, of course, that it would take a large-scale destruction of the status quo to allow a better form of unity for our planet, and it appears this is what Russell seems to think, but this idea is not brought up directly, and may be more of a plot device.

In the introduction to the May 1950 issue of Other Worlds, where the story first appeared, editor Raymond A. Palmer blatantly refers to the story as the best in the issue: "Naturally this cover illustrates the best story in this issue." It also gives credit for selecting the story for publication to their new managing Editor, Beatrice Mahaffey, "who picked Dear Devil and then held a knife at our throat until we agreed weakly to buy it!"

A nice little anecdote for an overall good--but not great--story.

As for the cover of the May 1950 issue of Other Worlds, by Malcolm Smith, I quite like it for its rich colours and nice detail. It is very much a scene from the story and nicely imagines our Martian protagonist (except that the first fainted boy the Martian abducted had black hair). I'd buy the issue for thirty-five cents.


pattinase (abbott) said...

This sounds complicated for s short story. In my workshops in college, the professor always advised a limited cast and a story you could tell in a few sentences if you were asked. Nice that he could pull it off.

Casual Debris said...

Hi Patti, it is a long short (a novelette) of about thirty pages. Aside from the main Martian, there is very little actual characterization, and much of the story reads: "they did this, and then they did that, and they met some yellow-skinned people and were surprised, and ten years later a boy married one of the yellow-skinned girls, and then this other thing happened..." Despite this, it remains an interesting read.

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