Tenn, William

The failure of SF to retain the interest of William Tenn is one of the tragedies of the post war genre.
Tenn - who in real life, Philip Klass, is a university professor - began publishing his witty, ironic, slashing, urbane, compassionate stories in 1946, and had stopped, more or less, by 1970.
It was not good for the field that he did.

Almost half a century after he started, his tone seems more contemporary than ever, his satires on human pretensions all the more necessary.
That first story - "Alexander the Bait," published in Astounding magazine by John W. Campbell Jr. despite its iconoclastic assault on a dearly held SF belief - is typical.
It contended that the exploration of space would be accomplished by organized teams of employees rather than individual entrepreneurs who leapfrog over sclerotic socialist bureaucracies to conquer the stars.
This is where he trampled Golden Age SF dogma.

Dozens of fine tales followed, some of them collected in early volumes such as Of All Possible Worlds, most of the rest of them assembled in 1968 when Ballantine Books issued a collected William Tenn edition: The Seven Sexes, The Square Root of Man, and The Wooden Star.These volumes provided a showcase of his work over two decades, but proved at the same time to mark his farewell as a writer of fiction.
Although a few excellent stories have intermittently appeared in recent years, they serve only to intensify the frustration that there have not been many, many more.
In that set of Ballantine books is a novel, the only full-length fiction Tenn has yet written.


Of Men and Monsters (the magazine title, The Men in the Walls, is both more accurate and more memorable) is a brilliant tale, reminiscent in its satirical strategies of Johnathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. In this version, however, it is human beings who are the Liliputians. A race of giant aliens has settled on Earth. They are scarcely aware of humanity, except as a kind of vermin. (Disch's The Genocides, in which similarly indifferent alien settlers exterminate us as if we were worms in an apple, was drafted at about the same time.)
The novel is told through the experiences of a young human, who comes into his adulthood by discovering the true position of humanity. This is wryly humiliating, and told with huge narrative zest; but the novel ends on a note of hope. Hidden in the wainscots of the vast alien spaceships, human beings begin to hitch hike their way to the stars, where they may find a more rewarding niche than Earth now allows them.


We need more Tenn.

 

(Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia, JC)


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