The last time I read a story collection by William Tenn (The Square Root of Man), I said I wasn’t exactly wowed, and the author himself admitted those stories were some of his earliest and least impressive. After finishing a second collection, The Wooden Star, I’m happy to say the quality level is quite a bit higher this time around. Some of the stories in this volume — not all, mind you, but some of them — are real pearls of satirical genius, showing a writer at the top of his game. All of the stories here, even the ones I didn’t necessarily like, are built around some core observation on mankind’s more foolish and short-sighted behavioral traits. Tenn paints a target on humanity’s idiocies and lets loose his barbed arrows, hitting the bulls-eye roughly half the time, with the rest of the shots being a bit more scattered.
There are a couple of intriguing time travel stories here. “The Brooklyn Project” takes the view, widely known from Bradbury’s famous story “A Sound of Thunder,” that even the tiniest, most insignificant change in the past can reshape the present. And thus, an arrogant government official, providing commentary to the press about the first (military-controlled) time time travel experiment, assures everyone, with a smug “trust us, we’re the government” attitude, that nothing could possibly go wrong — which, of course, turns out to be not quite accurate. In “It Ends with a Flicker,” a man is sent into the past to change a certain event in order to avert a disaster. Turns out, though, that this changed event causes a different disaster in the new, changed timeline. So a man from the new timeline goes back to change that event, resulting in — yeah, you guessed it — the original timeline with its original disaster. Reality becomes a ping-pong ball bounced back and forth between these two men who each think their own problems are the most serious imaginable.
Two other stories take place in post-apocalyptic worlds in which society takes some strange and unexpected turns. “Null-P” explores what happens when “normal” and “average” become the new social ideals and are taken to an extreme. When a man who just happens to be the statistical average in all characteristics (IQ, age, height, income, everything) is elected President for just that reason, he sets the world on course to learn a hard lesson: that to give up striving to be the best has some serious consequences. “Eastward Ho!” is a hilarious story that exactly reverses the roles, in a rebuilding post-war world, between American Indians and the White Man. Manifest Destiny is turned on its head as the Indians, using all the same justifications and promises previously used on them, slowly and inexorably push the remnants of the U.S. government eastward, into an ever-shrinking territory, until finally the last few whites are forced to flee by ship, sailing to Europe in search of a new home.
And then there are the aliens. “The Deserter” is a humorous and yet scathing look at military thinking, set in the context of a war between Earth and beings from Jupiter. In “Betelguese Bridge,” alien con-men (con-creatures?) exploit mankind’s willingness to be deceived. In “Will You Walk A Little Faster,” aliens who want our planet when we’re gone decide to let human psychology do the work for them, pitting individual short-term interest against long-term species survival; and individual greed promptly dooms humanity. “Lisbon Cubed” pokes fun at the spy networks of our various intelligence agencies by presenting aliens who do it on a far grander scale, but still fall prey to a “cloak and dagger for its own sake” mentality.
“The Masculinist Revolt” takes on the “war of the sexes,” the nature of movements and counter-movements, political grandstanding, and the intersection of all of those in the ever-fickle arena of public opinion. For some reason it didn’t appeal to me much, although Tenn claims it as one of his favorites. “Generation of Noah” concerns a family preparing for nuclear war and a father’s disciplinary treatment of his children in order to make them ready; it strikes me as the weakest story in this collection. “Dark Star” is about a man who decides to pass on the chance to become one of history’s most remembered names, so that he may start a family instead; I found it only mildly interesting.
Overall this is a strong collection of stories, and I’d recommend it to anyone as a great introduction to Tenn’s writing.