William Tenn

William Tenn was the pseudonym used by Philip Klass (1920-2010). The bulk of his SF was published between 1946 and 1967, with only five stories published during the last forty years of his life. Although primarily a short story writer, Tenn produced one short and one full length novel. The short was the fantasy, A Lamp for Medusa, which was first published in 1951 and has also appeared in shorter form as Medusa Was a Lady. It was written very quickly to a deadline and is an Unknown style humorous fantasy. The protagonist is Percy Yuss (Perseus) who rents an apartment whose previous tenants have all disappeared. While taking a bath he and the bathtub are transported to a fantasy version of ancient Greece where he is greeted by a talking sea serpent as a "son of Danae." The human inhabitants, however, decide he's either an impostor or a disguised monster and take him prisoner. He fully expects to be executed by the local ruler, who has decreed the death penalty for almost anything. Somehow he manages to understand the local language but he is unable to talk himself out of predicament and is thrown into a cell to await execution. His cellmate turns out to be a woman and former tenant of the same apartment, stranded like him. They are rescued by Hermes and taken to another expatriate from their own time, who explains that they are in a far future where by chance ancient Greece is being recreated. The various monsters and gods are aliens from other planets or realities. Percy finally agrees to slay the gorgon, but ultimately discovers that the gods are lying to him as well. Cute at times but much too long for its content.

Of Men and Monsters (1968) was Tenn's only full length novel, an expansion of "The Men in the Walls" from 1963. Aliens have conquered the Earth, a species so advanced that their technology is incomprehensible. Scores of humans survive as almost literally rats in the walls, scavenging on the "monsters". The humans, reduced to barbarism, are split between two religions. The dominant one speaks of reclaiming lost human technology, even though that was demonstrably inadequate. The suppressed one believes that humans need to steal alien technology in order to defeat them. The young protagonist, Eric, is about to make his ritual first solo steal from the aliens, a rite of manhood, when his uncle admits to being a secret member of the latter group. He also learns that there is a secret organization working across tribal boundaries. Unfortunately, the traditionalists get together and organize a purge which leaves Eric with a band of strangers out in monster territory. Eric is captured by monsters, escapes, and finally finds a tribe which understands alien technology to a limited extent and is smuggling groups of human colonists onto their starships so that we can infest other planets. Not the glorious ending that similar novels offer and a humbling look at one possible human destiny.

Of All Possible Worlds (1955) was his first collection. The opening story is "Down Among the Dead Men", which is probably the very first rationalized zombie story. Humans are losing a war against an insectlike species who have invaded the solar system. In order to produce enough soldiers to hold the line, all human protoplasm is saved and refashioned into new soldiers, using several patterns established from famous heroes. The protagonist is a still living commander of a small vessel who arrives to meet his first crew of reconstituted  crewmen - called variously blobs, zombies, etc. - and finds them just as hostile to him as he is uncertain of them. He finally establishes a bond when the realize that he is sterile just like them. The science is silly. Building new bodies out of miscellaneous flesh has got to be inefficient even if it was plausible, and Tenn never tells us where they get their personalities and emotions. It does however make a pretty obvious statement about the inhumanity of war and the way prejudice works. Tenn rarely wrote about space travel and this is about as close as he usually gets. "My, Myself, and I" was the earliest written of Tenn's published stories, although it didn't appear until some years later. It's a time travel paradox story, but a very good one, in which a rather dim man is sent back through time to move a single stone, which has dramatic effects in the future. When he's sent back to reverse things, he gets into an argument with his first self, and further complications arise. One of the best of its kind. "The Liberation of Earth" is also a commentary on warfare, specifically in this case the Korean War. It was apparently mildly controversial at the time. Earth is "liberated" by an alien species which wants to use the planet as a fortress opposed to a rival race. They insist they are freeing us from an evil threat and just want us to stay out of their way while they make their preparations. Then the other race occupies the planet and explains that their predecessors are lying tyrants. As the planet repeatedly switches hands, most of the human race is killed and the planet itself is rendered unstable.

"Everybody Loves Irving Bommer" is a comic fantasy about a man who takes a massive overdose of a potion designed to make him more attractive to women. It even begins to work on men and he is swamped at his job selling kitchen utensils in a department store by a horde of adoring women. He is finally crushed by the mob. I remembered most of this story even before I re-read it despite the lapse of more than fifty years since the first time I did so. "Flirgeflip" (aka "The Remarkable Flirgeflip") is another humorous time travel story. A man from the future is sent back to our time against his will and finds that he is so specialized in a field of knowledge that doesn't even exist in our era that he is unable to convince anyone that he is sane or from the future, except for a newspaper reporter who turns out to be a time agent. No paradox in this one but it's still a clever tale. "The Tenants" is another fantasy, this one about a mysterious duo who rent the thirteenth floor of an office building that has no thirteenth floor. This is another one I still remember from my teens. "The Custodian" is about the last man on an Earth about to be destroyed by the sun going nova. The rest of humanity has migrated and it was illegal for him to remain behind. His private deathwatch is interrupted when his detectors start periodically indicating that there is other human life on the planet, although the alarms are always very short. Finally he discovers a hidden group of people who also refused to leave, but an accident has killed all of them except an infant. He refurbishes an abandoned ship, fills it with artwork that was left behind, and flees with the child just before the sun explodes. Tenn considered this his favorite of his stories.

The Human Angle was Tenn's second collection. "Project Hush" is a very short piece about an army mission to the moon that discovers a secret navy mission to the moon. "The Discovery of Morniel Mathaway" is another time travel story. A scholar from the future comes to the past seeking a famous artist and has to take over his life when he discovers the man is a fraud. "Wednesday's Child" is an odd story about a woman with no navel and other odd physical characteristics who attracts the attention of a predatory man. "The Servant Problem" is a depressing future planetary dictatorship where the ruler is secretly manipulated by a member of his staff, who is secretly manipulated by his psychiatrist, who is manipulated by a technician, who has been conditioned to do whatever the ruler wants. "Party of the Two Parts" involves a criminal amoeboid creature who visits Earth and sells what are, for his race, pornographic photos which are used in a high school biology book, resulting in an interstellar squabble about the interpretation of the law. Fun but minor. "The Flat-Eyed Monster" is one of my all time favorites, a reversal of the "bug-eyed monsters" that were once prevalent in SF. A professor of literature is involuntarily teleported to a world of multiple tentacled creatures who communicate telepathically. Although he can hear their thoughts, he cannot get them to "hear" his own. He discovers that his eyes emit some kind of ray which dissolves his captors and he escapes into the night. The title story is a minor vampire tale. "A Man of Family" is an interesting story set in a society where the number of children you can have is regulated and has become a status symbol. When the protagonist loses his job, his pay cut makes it necessary for him to put one child up for adoption. Overall this is very nearly of the same high quality as the first collection.

Next came Time in Advance (1958), which contained only four stories, opening with "Firewater."  Enigmatic, highly advanced aliens have settled in various deserts on Earth and the few humans who manage to communicate them emerge with odd mental powers but appear to be insane and have difficulty communicating with unaffected humans. The protagonist is a businessman who barters with them for nuggets of information they may have gleaned from the aliens, a practice which is frowned upon by the world government. The businessman solves the crisis by making contact with his alien counterpart. The title story has an interesting premise. The law is changed so that you can serve your sentence before committing a crime. Two men are released after pre-serving their time for murders but through various circumstances neither one of them is able to go through with their planned crimes. The first expedition to Mars finds an abandoned but still functioning automated city in
"The Sickness."  They are infected with what seems to be a fatal disease but instead it gives them extraordinary mental powers. The final story is "Winthrop Was Stubborn" (aka "Time Waits for Winthrop"). Five people win a journey to the 25th Century, but one of them - Winthrop - decides not to go back to his own time, even though the transfer requires that all five participate. Since by law no one can be compelled to do anything, they have to find a way to convince him. Every effort fails but fortuitously Winthrop dies and his dead body works just as well as if he had been alive.

The Wooden Star (1968) opens with "Generation of Noah," a story about a survivalist family's reactions when the bombs begin to fall. I've never cared for it. "The Brooklyn Project" however is one of my favorite time travel stories. Despite warnings that changes wrought in the past would be undetectable because people in the present would assume they had always been the case, an experiment leads to the replacement of humanity by intelligent amoebas. In "The Dark Star" the man chosen for the first flight to the moon has to decide whether to bow out when he learns that he will almost certainly be sterile by the time he returns because of inadequate shielding. "Null-P" is a satiric future history in which humans glorify the average following a nuclear war and civilization declines into boring sameness until we are finally replaced by intelligent dogs. "Eastward Ho!" is one of my favorites. After the collapse of civilization, Native American tribes rebound and conquer North America. A very funny satire. "The Deserter" involves a Jovian deserter in a war with Earth who believes his own race has been ruined by militarism, only to discover that humans have the same problem. "Betelgeuse Bridge" is about a race of intelligent snails who swindle the human race out of all of its radioactive minerals. Furious, humanity develops artificial substitutes and turn the tables. "Will You Walk a Little Faster" is very minor. Kobolds turn out to be aliens waiting for humans to die off so they can have our planet. Two time travelers try to perform opposite tasks to save the world from disaster in "It Ends With a Flicker."   "Lisbon Cubed" is a very funny story about a man who discovers that various alien spies are walking around in people suits. "The Masculinist Revolt" is, as you might expect, a clever satire on feminism, male privilege, marketing, fads, and life in general. This was a very high quality collection.

The last two Tenn collections prior to the NESFA omnibus edition was The Square Root of Man (1968) and The Seven Sexes (1968). The first opens with Tenn's first published story, "Alexander the Bait," in which a scientist fakes data from the moon in order to spur human space travel. "The Last Bounce" is a space opera bout the discovery of an anomaly in space.  "She Only Goes Out at Night" is a minor supernatural tale of a man who falls in love with a reluctant vampire. "My Mother Was a Witch" is actually about dueling non-magical curses but it's quite clever. A joke writing robot conducts a series of pranks in "The Jester." "Confusion Cargo" is a moderately good problem story set on a spaceship. "Venus Is a Man's World" is a spoof of gender stereotyping, sometimes funny, sometimes not. Two unlikely fishermen are abducted by aliens to staff an interplanetary way station in "Consulate." The final story is "The Lemon-Green, Spaghetti-Loud Dynamite Dribble Day" is about the day when most of New York City was dosed by LSD placed in the water supply. It's rather fun, but this is the weakest of Tenn's collections, drawn mostly from his earliest work.

The Seven Sexes opens with "Child's Play," which was his most frequently reprinted short. It's one of those stories where a piece of technology from the future inadvertently ends up in the present, in this case a set children use to build living things, including duplicate humans. The recipient unwisely tries it out. "The Malted Milk Monster" is reminiscent of Jerome Bixby's "It's a Good Life." A spoiled young girl can move people into her own private universe where she is all powerful. The protagonist fails to escape. "Errand Boy" is another technology from the future story, and not a particularly good one. "The House Dutiful" concerns an alien artifact that manifests itself as a house that is completely subject to the wishes of its owner, but it modifies its owner's thoughts to determine what those wishes are. "Mistress Sary" is a horror story about a bigoted teacher who runs afoul of a young voodoo sorceress. In "Sanctuary" a rabid eugenicist criminal seeks sanctuary at an embassy from the next century, which leads to complications in the future. "Venus and the Seven Sexes" is a longish story about an intelligent species on Venus that has seven different sexes, and a rather odd attitude toward visitors from Earth. It's quite funny. The collection ends with "Bernie the Faust." A con man gets taken by an alien, but eventually gets the last laugh.

In 2001, NESFA Press published the complete SF of William Tenn in two volumes, Immodest Proposals and Here Comes Civilization. In addition to the stories already mentioned, they include several that were previously uncollected. NESFA also published a collection of essays titled Dancing Naked. The first includes "The Ghost Standard", a minor piece about cannibalism and a convoluted legal and linguistic question. "On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi" is one of Tenn's best stories, set on a Venus where all the Jewish people have migrated. In the second volume is "There Were People on Bikini," a parable in which Earth is evacuated so a new explosive device designed by aliens can be detonated. "A Matter of Frequency" is a light tale of an experiment that inadvertently irritates an alien civilization. A distressed starship finds a strange star system in "The Ionian Cycle" and "Hallock's Madness" involves a man experiencing bizarre phenomena. "Ricardo's Virus" is a minor adventure story set on Venus and "The Puzzle of Priipiirii" is a very light other worlds adventure. "Dud" is mildly cute satire about aliens and legal problems. "The Girl with Some Kind of Past. And George" is mildly humorous. Only one of these is exceptionally good, but almost all of his previous collected fiction is worthwhile.