Russell was born in 1905 near Sandhurst in Berkshire, where his father was an instructor at the Royal Military College. Russell became a fan of science fiction and in 1934, while living near Liverpool, he saw a letter in Amazing Stories from Leslie J. Johnson, another reader from the same area. Russell met up with Johnson, who encouraged him to embark on a writing career. Together, the two men wrote a novella, "Seeker of Tomorrow", that was published by F. Orlin Tremaine in the July 1937 number of Astounding Stories. Both Russell and Johnson became members of the British Interplanetary Society.
Russell's first novel was Sinister Barrier, cover story for the inaugural, May 1939 issue of Unknown—Astounding's sister magazine devoted to fantasy. It is explicitly a Fortean tale, based on Charles Fort's famous speculation "I think we're property", Russell explains in the foreword. An often-repeated legend has it that Campbell, on receiving the manuscript for Sinister Barrier, created Unknown primarily as a vehicle for the short novel (pp. 9–94). There is no real evidence for it, despite a statement to that effect in the first volume of Isaac Asimov's autobiography, In Memory Yet Green.
His second novel, Dreadful Sanctuary (serialized in Astounding during 1948) is an early example of conspiracy fiction, in which a paranoid delusion of global proportions is perpetuated by a small but powerful secret society.
There are two different and mutually incompatible accounts of Russell's military service during World War II. The official, well-documented version is that he served with the Royal Air Force, with whom he saw active service in Europe as a member of a Mobile Signals Unit. However, in the introduction to the 1986 Del Rey Books edition of Russell's novel Wasp, Jack L. Chalker states that Russell was too old for active service, and instead worked for Military Intelligence in London, where he "spent the war dreaming up nasty tricks to play against the Germans and Japanese", including Operation Mincemeat. Russell's biographer John L. Ingham states however that "there is nothing, absolutely nothing, in his R.A.F. record to show that he was anything more than a wireless mechanic and radio operator".
Russell took up writing full-time in the late 1940s. He became an active member of British science fiction fandom and the British representative of the Fortean Society. He won the first annual Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1955 recognizing his humorous "Allamagoosa" as the year's best science fiction.
The 1962 novel The Great Explosion won a Prometheus Hall of Fame Award in 1985 — the third naming of two works to the libertarian science fiction hall of fame. The 1957 novel Wasp has been a finalist for the honor, which is now limited to one work per year.
The Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame inducted Russell in 2000, its fifth class of two deceased and two living writers.
Into Your Tent, a thorough and detailed biography of Russell by John L. Ingham, was published in 2010 by Plantech (UK).
Russell's full-length fiction includes the following:Sinister Barrier (1939)
Dreadful Sanctuary (1948)
Sentinels From Space (1953), based on the earlier magazine story The Star Watchers (1951)
Three to Conquer (1956), based on the earlier magazine serial Call Him Dead (1955)
Men, Martians and Machines (1955), containing four related novellas
Next of Kin (1959), published earlier as The Space Willies (1958)
The Great Explosion (1962)
With a Strange Device (1964), also published as The Mindwarpers.
Russell also wrote a large number of shorter works, many of which have been reprinted in collections such as Deep Space (1954), Six Worlds Yonder (1958), Far Stars (1961), Dark Tides (1962) and Somewhere a Voice (1965). His short story "Allamagoosa" (1955), which was essentially a science-fictional retelling of a traditional tall story called "The Shovewood", won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story.
Russell wrote numerous non-fiction essays on Fortean themes, some of which were collected in a compendium of Forteana entitled Great World Mysteries (1957). His second non-fiction book was The Rabble Rousers (1963), a sardonic look at human folly including the Dreyfus affair and the Florida land boom. He also wrote Lern Yerself Scouse: The ABZ of Scouse (1966) under the pseudonym "Linacre Lane".
Two omnibus collections of Russell's science fiction are available from NESFA Press: Major Ingredients (2000), containing 30 of his short stories, and Entities (2001) containing five novels. John Pelan's Midnight House published Darker Tides, a collection of Russell's horror and weird fiction, in 2006.
The 1995 novel Design for Great-Day, published as by Alan Dean Foster and Eric Frank Russell, is an expansion by Foster of a 1953 short story of the same name by Russell.
Russell had an easy-going, colloquial writing style that was influenced in part by American "hard-boiled" detective fiction of the kind popularized by Black Mask magazine. Although British, Russell wrote predominantly for an American audience, and was often assumed to be American by readers.
Much of Russell's science fiction is based on what might be described as fortean themes, with Sinister Barrier and Dreadful Sanctuary the most notable examples. Another common theme is the single resourceful human pitted against a ponderous alien bureaucracy, as in the novels Wasp and Next of Kin, as well as several shorter works.
Russell is sometimes categorized as a humorous writer, and Brian Aldiss describes him as John W. Campbell's "licensed jester". However, Russell's humour generally has a satirical edge, often aimed at authority and bureaucracy in its various forms. On other occasions, for example in the short stories "Somewhere a Voice" and "The Army Comes to Venus", his work has a deeper and more serious tone, in which the spiritual aspects of humanity's endeavours and aspirations shine through.
Russell's short story "Jay Score" (1941) is unusual amongst the pulp fiction of its time in presenting a black character, the ship's doctor, without any racial stereotyping. Indeed, this story and its sequels (collected in Men, Martians and Machines) may be considered an early example of the science fiction subgenre in which a spaceship is crewed by a multi-ethnic, mixed human/non-human, complement (cf. the much later Star Trek).
Russell also appears to have originated the colloquial initialism "MYOB" for "mind your own business", which appears frequently in the novella "... And Then There Were None" (Astounding, June 1951) and in the novel The Great Explosion based upon it.
In 1970, Russell was paid £4689 by the Beatles's company Apple Corps for the motion picture rights to his novel Wasp, the contract being signed on behalf of Apple by Ringo Starr. The film was never made, but it remained one of the most lucrative deals Russell ever made.