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!