Thursday, November 17, 2005

An Appreciation of "The Allamagoosa"

by Lou Antonelli
Word came out last weekend that SciFiction - the online web zine that publishes science fiction as part of the SciFi channel's web site - will be shutting down at the end of the year.
The SciFi Channel was formerly owned by an outfit called Vivendi, which was snapped up by NBC this summer. Apparently the bean counters at Rockefeller Center noticed they now owned something that actually didn't make money - so they killed it. Isn't corporate consolidation wonderful?
Ellen Datlow has served as editor of SciFiction for its past five and a half years. During that time, it has oublished some of the best original fiction around, period.
As a tribute to Ellen's fine work as well as the overall quality of SciFiction, a fellow named David Schwartz has set up a tribute blog that lists all the stories and classic reprints the site has featured. Authors and fans have been invited to write "appreciations" of the stories.
My contribution to this project is my appreciation of the first story to be honored with a Short Story Hugo 50 years ago, "Thr Allamagoosa' by Eric Frank Russell. Here it is.


Fifty years ago, Eric Frank Russell's "The Allamagoosa" won the first Hugo ever given out for short story.
SciFiction brought us many brilliant original pieces of fiction in its five and half years, but one of my most enjoyable reads of late was when it republished "The Allamagoosa" as one of its classics.
The story seems a little dated when read today - the jut-jawed spacefarers so common in earlier sf were already on their way out by 1955 - but in his sly observations about the rigidity of the military (British or otherwise) Russell seems more of a precursor of Douglas Adams than a descendent of Doc Smith.
In the way it depicts people facing bureaucracy in the future, Russell's story shows both an understanding of and sympathy with people that is unfortunately not all that common in a genre whose bedrock are the hard and cold sciences.
Like O. Henry, Russell often seems to be in the background with a sardonic chuckle. His stories are all the more endearing in that we know that his depictions of people and the way they react to life - especially when dealing with their own screw-ups - is honest and accurate.
His conclusion to "Allamagoosa" - with the spaceship captain going cross-eyed as he chews his fingernails alone in his cabin - not only flows naturally from the story, it's one of the funniest finales you'll ever read; all the more impressive because the story is not a parody or comedy.
It instead explains what happens when the crew of a spaceship can't account for an item in their inventory during an inspection, and how their efforts to bullshit their way out of the dilemma just snowballs all the hell out of control.
"Allamagoosa" is apparently a nonsense word the Brits use for something you don't know the name of - like "thingamabob" or "doosiehickey" here in the U.S.
One reason I especially like the story is because the screw up happens due to a typo in the ship's inventory. If you've ever worked in an office and had someone call a service tech because they didn't know they had accidentally unplugged their computer, you appreciate that - despite the technical brilliance of our tools, gadgets and toys - the human capacity to screw up due to ignorance, inattention or just plain damn laziness will continue unimpeded into the future.
I picked up copy of Vol I of the "Hugo Winners" series of paperbacks, edited by Isaac Asimov, two weeks ago for fifty cents at a local thrift shop.
Of course, "The Allamagoosa" is right at the front. I reread the last page just to see if it was still as funny as remembered - and I still laughed my ass off.
I've always thought Russell's reputation in the genre dropped because of the fact that - although he didn't pass away until 1976 - he stopped writing science fiction in 1959.
He is one of the few great names of the genre who apparently simply lost interest in it, from all accounts.
As a result, fans and editors seemed to have reciprocated the disinterest over the years.
Russell's work includes the justifiably famous "Sinister Barrier" and other great works such as "...And Then There Were None", "Hobbyist", "Love Story", "Symbiotica", "The Prr-r-eet", "Dear Devil", "The Witness", "Diabologic". "Space Willies", and "Wasp", among others.
If Russell perhaps didn't love sf until the day he died, no matter. The corpus of a great author stands apart from his personality.
Thanks to Ellen for keeping a great story and a great writer on public view.

1 comment:

  1. thats to bad, i for one didnt even know that site exsited.


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