Ready an older book can be tricky – and I’m not even talking about Chaucer or Voltaire here. On the one hand, a recognition of the fact that the book arose from a different time, a different social context, is necessary to give it a benefit of the doubt sometimes, to explain why it doesn’t quite fit with modern expectations. On the other hand, sometimes you can defer too much and paper over that a book just isn’t very good with the explanation that, at one time, people must have thought it was.
Wasp, which was first published in 1957, has a brilliant idea at its core – a single operative is dropped behind enemy lines with instructions to wreak havoc among the populace, drawing resources and attention away from the front lines. The analogy the title makes is to when a wasp gets into a car, freaks out the driver, and kills all on board in an accident. It could have easily been written as a Cold War thriller, a James Bond kind of thing, but one side in Wasp is on Earth and the other on Jaimec, near Sirius, and the war is an interstellar one.
The wasp in this case is James Mowry, who had the good fortune to have been born on the enemy planet and raised there until he was a teenager. As a result he gets drafted for this dangerous assignment (he’s not a career spy). After some montage-like training, he’s dumped on an outlying planet, given lots of resources, and let loose. He does precisely what he’s supposed to do, with the expected results.
Which is the biggest problem with Wasp, something that doesn’t really have anything to do with when it was written. Mowry is just too good at what he does, particularly considering his lack of espionage background. Yes, he gets into scrapes with the secret police, but there’s never really much danger. There’s no real antagonist, no dogged cop trying to hunt Mowry down that makes it seem like he’s really at risk.
Nothing goes wrong until almost the very end when his cache of goods is found and he’s effectively cut off from communicating with Earth (don’t whine about spoilers – did I mention 1957?). Had this happened in the middle of the book, throwing Mowry out of his comfort zone and forcing him to deal with some serious problems, it would have been a welcome twist. As it is, he survives what’s left of the book in quick fashion before he’s picked up (in an admittedly twisted coda) by Earth forces.
That wouldn’t be too problematic if there was something interesting going on inside Mowry. Given his background, one might think he would have some sympathy from the Sirians. In spite of their secret police, they don’t seem all that different from what we know of the Terrans (Mowry, after all, is impressed against his will and sent to indiscriminately blow up stuff – hardly noble) and surely Mowry made a friend while he was growing up? More immediate, he doesn’t forge any kind of connection with the people he uses in his scheme. Everybody is a pawn being moved around the board, even Mowry.
The lack of depth draws sharper focus to the anachronisms of the story. For one thing, there are no women involved. I don’t mean there are no notable female characters, I mean there are no women anywhere at all (As Jo Walton put it, “[t]his is an old fashioned book, written before women were invented.”). Par for the course in 1957, but glaringly unrealistic to modern eyes. For another, there isn’t any attempt to extrapolate future tech, aside from space travel and communications, such that Jaimec looks and sounds almost exactly like 1950s America. A typewriter features prominently at one point. With a better story and deeper, more interesting characters, it would be easy to overlook.
Lots of people make a lot of Mowry being a “terrorist.” No less a luminary than Terry Pratchet said of Wasp he “can’t imagine a funnier terrorists’ handbook.” Neil Gaiman, at one point, owned the film rights. He was working on a script when 9/11 happened and he abandoned it because audiences wouldn’t be ready for a movie where the terrorist is the good guy (although, given his lack of depth, he functions more as a psychopath than a good guy).
I’m not sure that’s an accurate characterization of Mowry and what he does. For one thing, he’s an agent of a state at war inflicting damage on the other state with which is at war (presumably openly declared). That’s straight up warfare, even if carried out in a slightly unconventional way. For another, most of Mowry’s targets are military or government related, even if there’s some collateral damage. Compared to carpet bombing, lacing the countryside with landmines, and atomic weapons, however, it’s damned precise. If Mowry had brain in his head I’d think that perhaps the author was trying to make a larger point.
There’s something to be said for quick dumb fun. Wasp is certainly quick and, in spots, it’s kind of un in a subversive kind of way. But it’s pretty dumb and doesn’t think very highly of its characters. It’s intriguing central idea deserved a better execution.