What Does a Wasp Have To Do With Civil Resistance? Everything.

Google’s Vint Cerf recommended Eric Russell’s science fiction novel, Wasp, to a colleague of mine in the field of civil resistance. I’m very glad he did, I just read it and the novel is brilliant. It was published in 1957 and weaves civil resistance theory with creative tactics that remain fully applicable half-a-century later. Plus, it’s an action-packed page-turner. I highly recommend it.


What I want to do here is share some excerpts that elegantly highlight the theory behind civil resistance (my next posts expose creative tactics using stickers and paper-based wars).

The setting is an intergalactic war between Earth and the Sirian Empire. The latter has an advantage in personnel and equipment. Earth needs an edge and this is where James Mowry comes in. He is covertly dropped on the Sirian home planet to destabilize the entire empire. The aim is to divert the Empire’s resources and focus away from the war against Earth by creating a fictitious resistance movement at home. Wasp is the story of the strategies, creative tactics and real-world technologies that Mowry employs to accomplish his mission.

But first he has to be convinced to take on a mission that would have him single-handedly destabilize the entire empire from within. Naturally, he seriously questions the sanity of Agent Wolf, the unpleasant operator assigned to recruit him. Growing impatient with Mowry’s stubbornness, Wolf hands him some press reports.

Mowry glanced at them and perused them slowly.

The first told of a prankster in Roumania. This fellow had done nothing more than stand in the road and gaze fascinatedly at the sky, occasionally crying, ‘Blue flames!’ Curious people had joined him and gaped likewise. The group became a crowd; the crowd became a mob.

Soon the audience blocked the street and overflowed into the side streets. Police tried to break it up, making matters worse. Some fool summoned the fire squads. Hysterics on the fringes swore they could see, or had seen, something weird above the clouds. Reporters and cameramen rushed to scene; rumours raced around. The government sent up the air force for a closer look and panic spread over an area of two hundred square, from which the original cause had judiciously disappeared.

‘Amusing if nothing else,’ Mowry remarked. ‘Read on,’ commanded Wolf.

The second report concerned a daring escape from jail. Two notorious killers had stolen a car; they made six hundred miles before recapture, fourteen hours later. The third report detailed an automobile accident: three killed, one seriously injured, the car a complete wreck. The sole survivor died nine hours later.

Mowry handed back the papers. ‘What’s all this to me?’

Wolf: We’ll take those reports in order as read. They prove something of which we’ve been long aware but which you may not have realized. Now, let’s take the first one. That Roumanian did nothing, positively nothing, except stare at the sky and mumble. Yet he forced a government to start jumping around like fleas on a hot griddle. It shows that in given conditions, actions and reaction can be ridiculously out of proportion. By doing insignificant things in suitable circumstances, one can obtain results monstrously in excel of the effort.

Now consider the two convicts. They didn’t do much, either. They climbed a wall, seized a car, drove like made until they gas ran out, then got caught. But for the better part of fourteen hours, they monopolized the attention of six planes, ten helicopters, one hundred and twenty patrol-cars. They tied up eighteen telephone exchanges, uncountable phone lines and radio link-ups, not to mention police, deputies, posses of volunteers, hunters, trackers, forest rangers and National Guardsmen. The total was twenty-thousand, scattered over three states.

Finally, lets consider this auto smash-up. The survivor was able to tell us the cause before he died. He said the driver lost control at high speed while swiping at a wasp which had flown in through a window and was buzzing around his face. The weight of a wasp is under half an ounce. Compared with a human being, the waps’s size is minute, it’s strength negligible. Its sole armament is a tiny syringe holding a drop of irritant, formic acid. In this instance, the wasp didn’t even use it. Nevertheless, that wasp killed four big men and converted a larger, powerful car into a heap of scarp.

‘I see the point,” Mowry said, “but where do I come in?’

“Right here,” said Wolf. “We want you to become a wasp.”


After several months of training, Mowry is dropped on Pertane, the home planet of the Sirian Empire. He spends the first evening exploring Jaimec, the capital.

He wandered around, memorizing all geographical features that might prove useful to recall later on. But primarily he was seeking to estimate the climate of public opinion with particular reference to minority opinions.

In every war, he knew, no matter how great a government’s power, it’s rule is never absolute. In every war, no matter how righteous the cause, the effort is never total. No campaign has ever been fought with the leadership united in favour of it and with the rank and file one hundred per cent behind them.

There is always the minority that opposes a war for such reasons as reluctance to make necessary sacrifices, fear of personal loss or suffering, or philosophical and ethical objection to warfare as a method of settling disputes. Then there is a lack of confidence in the ability of the leadership; resentment at being called upon to play a subordinate role; pessimistic belief that victory is far from certain and defeat very possible; egoistic satisfaction of refusing to run with the herd; psychological opposition to being yelled at on any and every pretext, and a thousand and one other reasons.

No political or military dictatorship ever has been one hundred per cent successful in identifying and suppressing the malcontents, who bid their time. Mowry could be sure that, by the law of averages, Jaimec must have its share of these.

For a description of the creative tactics used by Mowry, stay tuned for my following post.

Patrick Philippe Meier

15 responses to “What Does a Wasp Have To Do With Civil Resistance? Everything.

  1. Brilliant post. Reminds me of the work of John Robb.

    I always like the idea of the “super empowered individual” in conflicts… that is the ability of a tiny number of people to create a massive disruption in an enemies system. Prison breaks in WWII are excellent examples. A small number of prisoners escape and tie down hundreds of thousands of German soldiers.

    • Thanks Chris! Good point on prison outbreaks in WWII. Actually just came across this re the author:

      “As Russell was in the Royal Air Force during World War Two he may well have had first hand experience of the operations of the British Special Operations Executive agents who were trained to disrupt the Nazis in occupied Europe in much the same way as Mowry does in Wasp.”

  2. Have you read Shah of Shah’s by R. Kapuscisnki?

  3. Pingback: Wasp: The Sticker as a Tactic for Civil Resistance « iRevolution

  4. Pingback: The Digital Disruption: Connectivity and the Diffusion of Power | iRevolution

  5. Pingback: Why Architecture and Calendars Are Trojan Horses for Repressive Regimes | iRevolution

  6. Pingback: Drones for Human Rights: Brilliant or Foolish? | iRevolution

  7. Pingback: The Use of Drones for Nonviolent Civil Resistance | iRevolution

  8. Pingback: The Use of Drones for Nonviolent Civil Resistance | iRevolution

  9. I just read the book, trying to understand where to see the link to civil resistance and non-violent actions. It was a nice read, but besides that the quotes in this and your other blog already cover everything more or less “civil”. After first stickers Mowry continues with murder, terrorism, sabotage; usual war stuff. This is not surprising, since the wasp concept is in itself nothing new. The soviet military secret service had trained whole divisions of “diversanty” and the whole cold war is full of “wasps” and proxy terror.

    The problem as I see it is that the use of civil resistance techniques for a military goal automatically “militarizes” the instrument. E.g. a technique used in civil resistance and non-violent actions will become a military technique if used for such aims. This is by the way the huge problem of military civil cooperation as development aid became part of counterinsurgency.

    Concerning civil resistance in science fiction. I was very much inspired by Lloyd Biggle Jr’s “The Still, Small Voice of Trumpets” (1968). His vision of the IPR Bureau, whose motto is “Democracy imposed from without is the severest form of tyranny” and whose work is to bring newly discovered planets up to the point where they have a planetary democratic government, is a must read for everyone in the field of democracy promotion. (He further develops the IPR in “The World Menders” (1971)

    Also a nice read with interesting ideas on the fight of native movements against transnational companies and their armada of law-firms is Lloyd Biggle’s “Monument” (1961/1974)

  10. Pingback: The Best of iRevolution: Four Years of Blogging | iRevolution

  11. Pingback: Drone Reading Roundup (Updated) « GEODATA POLICY

  12. I just read the following article in the Wall Street Journal, after which I Googled “wasp blue flames” (having read Russell’s book as a youngster), and encountered this site.
    Your comment “By doing insignificant things in suitable circumstances, one can obtain results monstrously in excel of the effort” is a nice paraphrase of the “butterfly effect”, the extreme sensitivity to initial conditions that marks any chaotic system, whether Lorenz’s weather system or a human society.

  13. Sorry: the article is at online.wsj.com/articles/humans-naturally-follow-crowd-behavior-1410543908?KEYWORDS=alison+gopnik.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s