Tag Archives: William Tenn

Flash reviews — August ’09

When I started this blog I set myself the task of reviewing every single book I read. And so far that’s what I’ve done. But it’s finally time to face the fact that that’s not always going to happen. For one thing, I have some demands on my time that I didn’t have way back then. For another, there are times when, for whatever reason, I just don’t feel like writing about a particular book. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad book; it simply means I can’t think of anything much to say about it. So when I get one (or more) like that, I’m going to simply pass them along with a rating and a brief comment. Here’s what I’ve got right now:

Title: Excession
Author: Iain M. Banks
Year: 1996
Rating: 3/5 stars
Another of Banks’ Culture novels, involving a mysterious object from another universe, a war with a nasty species called the Affront, and much intrigue between the various humans and Ship Minds. Interesting in parts, boring in parts, average overall.

Title: The Seven Sexes
Author: William Tenn
Year: 1968
Rating: 2/5 stars
Not as satisfying as the other Tenn collections I’ve read. Too many whimsical stories here and not enough serious ones. The best is “Sanctuary,” in which time travelers from the future come back to the present and establish diplomatic relations by setting up Temporal Embassies.

Tenn again — The Wooden Star

woodenstarThe 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.

Add some short stories together, multiply by Tenn, and take the square root

tennsquarerootI acquired several of William Tenn’s short story collections a few months ago, at the same time I got his novel Of Men and Monsters, and I’ve just finished with the first one I randomly chose to dive into, The Square Root of Man, published in 1968. This collection contains some of Tenn’s earliest stories, including his very first story from 1946. The other stories are from the late 40’s and the 50’s, with a couple from the 60’s. While some of these stories showed some merit, overall I wasn’t very impressed. But that’s ok because Tenn himself, in his Author’s Note, explains that these stories do not represent his best work:

Examining this collection, which contains some of my earliest as well as a couple of my latest stories, I was sorely tempted to do complete rewriting jobs. There are stories here written when I was desperately attempting to become a commercial hack, not yet aware that I totally lacked the necessary talent. There are stories here written in the tough, gag-a-minute style then so popular in the magazines and very far indeed from what I have come to realize I do best.

In the end, he decided against rewriting:

Like Huxley, I decided to resist “the temptation to wallow in artistic remorse.” [...] I wrote these stories and I was terribly proud of them once: let them be.

What these stories lack in style, some of them make up for (at least partially) with valuable ideas or sensibilities. “Alexander the Bait,” Tenn’s first published story, is about a forward-thinking industrialist who re-ignites interest in the space program through means of a massive deception. “The Jester” is a comical warning about letting machines take over too much of our work for us. “Confusion Cargo” and “Venus Is a Man’s World” take on gender bias, especially the latter which turns gender roles upside down: after men screw up the world with one war too many, there is a Maternal Revolution in which women take over, pass the Male Desuffrage Act, and assume the positions of power previously held by men. “The Last Bounce” resonates with a couple of different tensions; one is the conflict between the desire for adventure and the longing for a stable home life with a family; the other is the contrast between the brave souls who proudly risk their lives in exploration, and the military-style organization that employs them and is all too willing to use them up like replaceable parts in a machine.

Some of the stories, however, have little or no redeeming value at all. “She Only Goes Out at Night” and “My Mother Was a Witch” are quick, shallow tales about vampires and witches which manage to do little except waste a bit of the reader’s time. “Consulate” is a farcical story about two average guys who end up being Earth’s first ambassadors to our galactic neighbors; it’s farce with no sharp edge of satire behind it, which ends up being pretty empty. “The Lemon-Green Spaghetti-Loud Dynamite-Dribble Day” is about a strange day in New York City after the water supply has been spiked with LSD; the main character walks around the city watching everyone tripping. Umm, mildly entertaining, I suppose, but without much of a point.

Many of these stories come across as simply adventure tales going for cheap laughs. Some of them had some depth to them, certainly, but they were largely lacking in the kind of satirical genius I was expecting (which others have attributed to Tenn). There weren’t many really great, memorable lines here, but I did like this comment on bureaucrats and executives:

Anyone with half an ounce of brain would have known there would be trouble. Unfortunately the requirements for an official of the Sagittarian Line include a university degree and a galactic license; nothing about half an ounce of brain.

I’m not going to hold this collection too much against Mr. Tenn, since he himself pointed out some of its deficiencies. But I do hope the other two collections I have turn out to be better.

Aliens in need of a big can of Raid (the “kills humans dead” variety)

The first time I ever heard of William Tenn was a few months ago when I read his entry in John Clute’s wonderful science fiction encyclopedia. Before that, he was completely off my radar; I had never heard even the slightest mention of him from other sf fans, in any reviews or essays, on any sf sites or forums, not anywhere. I didn’t know the guy even existed. Is he really that unknown? Or has everyone else known about him except me, but kept it quiet as part of some perverse conspiracy of silence? Whatever the case may be, I’m very glad I’ve come across this author, whose work spanned the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s. That work includes an impressive and very enjoyable novel from 1968 called Of Men and Monsters, which surely must rank as one of the more unique takes on the alien invasion theme.

This story is set many generations (hundreds or maybe thousands of years, it’s a little vague) after the Earth has been conquered and taken over by an alien species that dwarfs humanity in both technology and sheer size. These aliens, who stand hundreds of feet tall, view humans exactly the way humans view mice: as nothing more than irrelevant, mindless pests. But the pest analogy goes much further than that, since these future remnants of humanity live within the very walls of the enormous alien houses, and survive by stealing scraps of food from their larders. Indeed, among males it is considered a rite of passage to travel into Monster territory to perform a Theft, whether of food or other usable materials.

While highly satirical, the novel is also quite realistic in the way it portrays a futuristic downfallen mankind. Humanity has reverted to a simpler, more primitive way of life, along the lines of a hunter-gatherer society. Everyone seems to know and accept their place in that society, and overall they seem fairly satisfied with their lot in life. And that’s one of the points Tenn tries to make here; one of the main characters expounds on how being the dominant species of the planet must have involved huge amounts of strain, pressure, and guilt, and maybe it’s just as well that the task was turned over to somebody else so humanity can lead a more relaxed and more natural existence. Actually, the character who puts forth this idea comes from a tribe that has pursued that line of thought to an extreme conclusion:

“Man shares certain significant characteristics with the rat and cockroach: He will eat almost anything. He is fiercely adaptable to a wide variety of conditions. He can survive as an individual but is at his best in swarms. He prefers to live, whenever possible, on what other creatures store or biologically manufacture. The conclusion is inescapable that he was designed by nature as a most superior sort of vermin — and that only the absence, in his early environment, of a sufficiently wealthy host prevented him from assuming the role of eternal guest and forced him to live hungrily, and more than a little irritably, by his own wits alone.”

Those who hold to this philosophy seem to assume that modern humans live less “irritably” than their ancestors, and in fact they criticize their ancestors for all those varieties of cruel behavior we know humanity is capable of. However, I don’t think their assumption really works out all that well. Tenn also portrays these modern primitives engaging in warfare, torture, political backstabbing, and the misuse of religion to control people. So, although the “vermin theory” may have something going for it (it’s interesting, at the very least), it’s harder to swallow the idea that these descendants of a conquered species live nobler or happier lives than their predecessors did.

During the course of the novel’s events, Tenn pokes fun at various human traits and tendencies. It’s hilarious the way one certain character raises brown-nosing to a high art! And humanity’s hierarchical instincts also receive a good amount of ridicule, most pointedly when one character exclaims:

“He’s not wrong. I mean he can’t be: he’s our leader.”

One of the serious issues the novel raises is the nature of power differences between species and the question of how to treat “lesser” species. After witnessing the Monsters testing various pest control poisons and devices on captured humans, one character comes to ponder the question: if we can experience suffering so casually at the hands of the aliens, to whom we are nothing, then what about those creatures we see as nothing, and consider pests? Do they, in their turn, experience suffering at our hands? If it’s all right for us to destroy rats or roaches, then isn’t it also all right for the Monsters to destroy us?

In fact, those who hold to the “vermin theory” seem to accept that it IS all right for the Monsters to do what they do; it’s all part of the nature of things, with every species doing what it has to do to survive and live comfortably. And that includes humanity, who, as the superlative pests they are, have resources of their own, and at the end of the novel put them to good use, making sure that their infestation spreads much much further than just the Earth. How ironic that when mankind finally reaches the stars, it’s not as the masters of a planet, but as annoying, verminous hitch-hikers!

Excellent book, just superb, and highly recommended!