The Space Willies – Eric Frank Russell (1958)
‘An Earthman’s tongue is his deadliest weapon
There was a common understanding in the Space Navy that scout-pilots were a breed apart–cocksure, reckless, and slightly nuts. But it was also understood that when a really dangerous job had to be done, a scout-pilot was the man to do it.
So for John Leeming, a couple of months of dodging death in a one-man ship, zipping in and out of the enemy Combine’s rearguard, was just another one of those jobs. And there was no man in the Universe more surprised than Leeming when his heretofore indestructible ship just gave up the ghost smack in the middle of a Combine-held prison planet!
It was then that the spirit of the Scout Corps had its chance to shine. With self-confidence as his only weapon, Leeming had only two choices: give in to the enemy and be captured…or quick-talk them into a real case of THE SPACE WILLIES!’
Blurb from the 1971 #77785 Ace Double paperback edition
Rather like William F Temple’s ‘Martin Magnus’ Eric Frank Russell’s lead character here is a space-pilot who doesn’t take to authority too well.
Earth and her allies are under attack from the Combine, another alliance of aliens who have occupied a neighbouring region of space. It is not known whether the Combine are only occupying the nearer stars or whether their dominion goes deep into the territory behind them.
And so John Leeming; sarcastic, disrespectful and disdainful of authority, is considered the perfect choice for a secret mission.
Leeming has to take an experimental one-man high-speed ship and survey the stars beyond the Combine’s border to determine how large an area they control.
All goes well for a while with Leeming reporting back on the location and affiliation of almost a hundred planets when the experimental ship finally gives up the ghost, forcing Leeming to land on a Combine prison planet.
From there, Russell weaves a comical farce around the concept of a clever prisoner of war outwitting his less clever captors.
It’s well-written and the comedy is sustained throughout.
There is a minor blemish in that Russell at one point describes one of his alien captors as ‘a fairy’ and therefore by inference (within the context of the cultural mores of the time) not considered strong, brave or intelligent enough to be a danger.
However, this was the 1950s when white heterosexual men controlled the Western World and many places beyond, including the world of SF publishing.