Next of Kin (novel)

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First edition
(publ. Dennis Dobson, 1959)

Next of Kin, also known as The Space Willies, is a science fiction comic novel by English writer Eric Frank Russell. It is the story of a military misfit who successfully conducts a one-man psychological warfare operation against an alien race, with whom humans and allied races are at war. It was published under the title Next of Kin in 1959. A novella-length version was published in Astounding Science Fiction in 1956 as "Plus X", then published in somewhat expanded form by ACE Books as The Space Willies in 1958.


John Leeming is every sergeant's worst nightmare — immune to discipline and punishment, and given to random acts of defiance, such as wearing his cap backwards on parade for no particular reason. Thus when a mission to fly a prototype spaceship behind enemy lines comes up, he is the ideal candidate to fly it.

The ship is untested but should be able to outrun anything else in the galaxy. It carries no arms but is an ideal spy vessel for discovering the movements of the ships of the Lathians and their allies. Since the odds of returning alive are pretty slim, it is also an ideal way of dealing with Leeming. For his part, Leeming is ready to jump at any alternative to life in barracks and the stockade. He is equipped with a survival kit designed by a top bureaucratic committee, so it contains an exquisite miniature camera that is of no conceivable use if he needs to survive on an alien world, as well as the usual inedible food.

For a while the mission goes well, and Leeming relieves some of the boredom by listening in on routine ship-to-ship messages. He overhears conversations in a language that sounds exactly like English, but used to make bizarre statements, such as "Mayor Snorkum shall lay the cake", "What for the cake will be laid by Snorkum ?", "I shall lambast my mother!". Leeming starts tossing in his own comments, resulting in an aggrieved response "Clam shack?"

Later, the ship malfunctions and Leeming is forced to land on an alien world, which turns out to be inhabited by the speakers of quasi-English. They are a dour, reptilian race who make ideal prison guards. On being locked up, Leeming is told by the guard "We shall bend Murgatroyd's socks" to which he can only reply "Dashed decent of you".

Leeming winds up in one half of a POW camp, of which the other half is inhabited by members of another allied race. Unfortunately they have never seen a human and so do not trust him. To find a way out, he learns the alien language and tries to get the other prisoners to trust him. He begins to cultivate an imaginary friend whom he calls Eustace. He convinces the guards that Eustace can go anywhere and spy for him, and also that every human has a Eustace who can do the same. In addition, Eustaces can wreak revenge on those who harm their partners. Events help him here, in that one guard he threatens with Eustace is shot for allowing a mass escape attempt of the other prisoners.

Furthermore, Leeming alleges that the Lathians, the leaders of the enemy alliance, also have invisible companions called Willies, although these are far inferior to Eustaces. He tells the aliens to ask human prisoners on other planets two questions : "Do the Lathians have the Willies?" and "Are the Lathians nuts?", a "nut", according to Leeming, being someone with an invisible companion. Leeming's captors are convinced by the responses and fear that if they start accepting human prisoners, they will have thousands of invisible Eustaces running wild across their planet, spying and causing mayhem.

They immediately release Leeming and smuggle him home, at the same time withdrawing from their alliances and convincing other races to do the same. The enemy alliance collapses and the Lathians have to make peace.

On arriving home, Leeming's behaviour is, if anything, even more erratic and insubordinate than ever. It is not clear if this is due to his sense of elation at having beaten his captors, or to his having suffered a nervous breakdown from the stresses he has endured.

The plot has obvious similarities to E. H. Jones's The Road to En-Dor – an account of that author's escape from the Yozgad prisoner of war camp in Turkey during World War I.[citation needed]

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