Young People Read Old SFF

Allamagoosa

Eric Frank Russell

Although British, Eric Frank Russell (January 6, 1905 – February 28, 1978) wrote primarily for the US market. He dabbled in a number of modes, including Fortean tales of the weird, low key anarchist adventures and satire. It’s the last mode that’s relevant to this story.

Eric Frank Russell’s 1955 “Allamagoosa” is significant for a number of reasons. It won the inaugural Hugo for Best Short Story1. It slots into an under-populated niche (comedic SF) and is notable, within that niche, for being genuinely funny. It belongs to a now largely extinct genre, military comedy, whose drama derives not from people shooting each other, but from the eternal struggle between individual and bureaucracy. Military takes on that struggle may be out of fashion, but civilian comedies on the same theme are too common to list. The context may be unfamiliar to my readers, but the struggle will be familiar.

Of course, I’ve thought old stories offered common ground to my young readers before and been wrong. What will they make of this example?

"Allamagoosa" is one of the stories included in Eric Frank Russell's Major Ingredients, which is available here (Amazon). It does not appear to be available from Chapters-Indigo.

1: Is there a 12-step program for people who overuse footnotes? Asking for a friend.

Some of you may be aware the Hugo were first given out in 1953, so what’s up with “Allamagoosa” winning the first Hugo for Best Short Story two years later? The answer is simple: Short Story was not one of the categories in 1953 and no Hugos were given out in 1954.

A brief discussion of the Hugo Awards can be found here.

That was a really long and involved military joke, just a bit too long for the punchline to carry it. It didn't really need to be set in space, in fact a little bit of reading up shows that the joke is older than the story and is about earthbound naval regulations. I'll grant that the punchline is better in this version, but as I said before it's a long walk to get there.

—Jamie

My parents are auditors. They spent years of their professional lives counting and checking things for various organizations. In some cases they had no working knowledge of the products they had to count. They've also told me over the years that eventually all financial theft gets found out. The stories I've heard growing up about auditing—counting and checking things—gave me an additional reason to appreciate “Allamagoosa”.

This story appealed to me on another level as well. It illustrated the dangers of having a corporate culture where (arguably) small and infrequent mistakes are met with great suspicion and harsh punishment. Employees go out of their way to hide mistakes, an activity that ends up costing more money and being less efficient than a more "lax on mistakes" organizational culture would have.

Some of my standard criticisms of the Sci fi short story genre apply to this story as well: I didn't understand the terminology used in the story (perhaps by design?) And you could sort of see where the plot was going. But it was still compelling to see how the author would get to the revelation at the end of the story. “Allamagoosa” reads a bit like a business case for students training to become managers. When teaching them how to treat employees who identify issues at work, instructors could ask the trainees to read this story. And then make sure they do the opposite.

—Lisa

Even though this is an award-winning short story, all I can help thinking after reading it over a couple of times is that this is an awfully long way to go for what is essentially a dad joke. It’s at least an original dad joke. (My dad makes awful dad jokes. They’re usually the same ones every time I see him, which long ago became unfunny.) So at least this story came up with an original joke.

Ha ha, typos are funny. OK, I’m not that amused. Proofreading is one of my hobbies – I know, it’s surprising considering the number of spelling and grammar errors I probably have in these blog posts. (I never read my reviews after they go out because I know I’ll want to ‘fix’ things.) But anyway, I proofread a lot. Which means that I think of it as very serious, but ultimately unimportant as long as the meaning is conveyed. Which means this story just isn’t that funny to me.

I imagine Eric Frank Russell chatting with friends and they get around to the topic of “Aren’t words funny?” “Yeah, you can change so little and it means something different.” “Or it means complete nonsense.” “And what about these weird expressions we have? They must sound funny to other people. What is ‘hell in a handbasket’ in French?” “Yeah, weird.”

And then later, Russell starts making up fake expressions and he hits upon “Nom d’un chien!” as a nonsensical French expression. And thus "Allamagoosa" was born.

That’s my fanciful imagination at work.

And all the above paragraphs are my way of saying in a roundabout way that this story had all the impact on me of an okay dad joke. Ha, okay that was sort of clever. But you don’t need to keep going on about it.

—Mel

I think that this is supposed to be a funny or silly story, but it just doesn’t work for me. I didn’t work out what the reveal was ahead of time, but I just wanted it to tell me what it was already so the story could be over.

There isn’t much depth in the characters or setting to be particularly interested in either. The characters are all fairly two dimensional, and the setting is only notable for the ways it feels dated. This might not have mattered so much if I’d enjoyed the story more, but since I wasn’t enjoying myself it would have been nice to be distracted by interesting characters or setting.

The plot itself I found boring and annoying. Since I didn’t find the crew’s interactions or solutions to the problem enjoyable to read about, this story dragged despite being fairly short. If I wasn’t reading this for a review, I would probably have given up during the initial inventory scenes and then maybe have read the last paragraph or so to find out what the offog was supposed to be, if I decided I cared that much.

I could see this maybe appealing to other young readers. It’s noticeably dated, but not in ways that destroy the story. I think it’s still accessible and understandable to a modern audience, it just isn’t for me.


—Mikayla

Comments

  • Robert Carnegie

    I am an old person in Britain who was raised to believe that "Nom d'un chien!" is indeed a French expression, and even to know what it means, although not what a French person means if they say it.

  • Gary Schmidt

    Hell, I'm a middle-aged Aussie, and even I know that "Nom d'un chien" is a fairly standard French ejaculation - but I have worked with many French over the decades.

    And if "Mel" thinks they are a proffredder, they need to expand their vocabulary and reading dramatically. (I've been a professional proffredder, it's a cow of a job.)

  • Eub

    Okay, "dad joke" is square on.