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Immodest Proposals
William Tenn
NESFA Press, 618 pages

Immodest Proposals
William Tenn
William Tenn is the pen name of London-born Philip Klass. He began writing in 1945 after being discharged from the Army, and his first story, "Alexander the Bait," was published a year later. He was a professor of English at the Pennsylvania State University, where he taught a popular course in science fiction. In 1999, he was honored as Author Emeritus by the SFWA at their annual Nebula Awards Banquet. He, along with his wife Fruma and his daughter, lives in Pittsburgh.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Nick Gevers

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For some years, NESFA Press (which describes itself as the "publishing pseudopod" of the New England Science Fiction Association) has been performing the crucial labour of saving classic SF from out-of-print pulp and paperback oblivion, gathering hosts of stories and novels together in large, handsomely produced hardcover collections and omnibuses. Authors already treated in this generous manner include Charles L. Harness, Cordwainer Smith, C. M. Kornbluth, Hal Clement, and Zenna Henderson; Eric Frank Russell and Fredric Brown are being similarly handled; and one of the worthiest projects yet is a two-volume Complete SF of William Tenn, of which Immodest Proposals is the first installment. To discover, or rediscover, these remarkable stories from the 40s and 50s is to realize all over again just how fresh and powerful the SF published in the pulp magazines could be: how open its world-view was, how flexible its conventions and "sense of wonder" were in the hands of laconic witty philosophers like William Tenn.

Tenn, whose real name is Philip Klass (and whose brother, the less well-known SF writer Morton Klass, recently died), is the son of a Jewish Marxist radical, and both components of that heritage show to good effect in his many audacious and hilarious fables and brief satiric future histories. The skeptical colloquial richness of Jewish humour and folklore distinguishes "My Mother Was A Witch" and "On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi"; but given the generalized magazine markets for which Tenn wrote, that element is usually held in the background, manifesting itself in a certain robust quirkiness of insight and diction. Less dissembled is his Marxism, which (at times surprisingly, considering that he appeared in, among other publications, John W. Campbell's rather reactionary Astounding) shows in biting ideological parody, whimsically savage parables against war and imperialism, and powerfully subversive oppositions of human and alien. In Tenn's hands, SF became a tool of ambitious social and political criticism; but his inventiveness and diabolically sharp wit made his polemics so dazzlingly beguiling, so original and disorienting, that they swept the SF world off its feet. As he moved into teaching, Tenn wrote less and less, and by the Seventies very little indeed; for some years, however, he was one of the most brilliant satirists in SF, rivalling Robert Sheckley, Fredric Brown, Frederik Pohl, and C. M. Kornbluth.

Immodest Proposals is divided, with some logic, into five sections. "Aliens, Aliens, Aliens" presents seven strong stories, ranging in seriousness from "The Ghost Standard", a slight but nifty variation on the cannibalism-in-a-lifeboat theme, through the knowing farce of "Lisbon Cubed" and "Party of the Two Parts" (in which alien espionage and pornography trading are rendered with screwball zaniness), on through the ingenious "The Flat-Eyed Monster" and "Firewater", exercises in the perspectival inversion by which the alien may in some sense be understood, through to "The Deserter" and the novella "Venus and the Seven Sexes", scathing analyses of militarism and cargo-cult culture possessing great bite even now. Tenn had a great gift for the representation of the bizarrely alien, a technique in which his exemplar was apparently Henry Kuttner; few writers then and now could make the concept of super-intelligent flying bottles truly succeed.

But much of the meat of this volume is to be found in Part Two, "Immodest Proposals". This is where Tenn's satiric voice attains its sharpest edge, in narratives of human folly as viewed by some omniscient cynic from an Olympian height. The famous short story "The Liberation of Earth" blasts the behaviour of the 50s superpowers through the marvellous analogy of a future Earth fought over by conflicting galactic empires; "Eastward Ho!" sends White Americans fleeing before the irresistible Red Indian tide; "Null-P" (a play on Van Vogt's Null-A) allows mediocrity to become humanity's guiding principle, with a horrifying outcome; "The Masculinist Revolt", written in 1961, sinisterly echoes the Feminist Movement that actually resulted; and "Brooklyn Project" shoots the National Security mentality of the postwar period so full of holes that it's astonishing it (mentality or story, take your pick) managed to survive. The transformation sequence in "Brooklyn Project" remains one of the most gleefully unsettling prose passages in the entire SF canon.

Part Three, "Some Odd Ones", cannot quite sustain the vigour of the previous sections; its highlights are "The Tenants", all about the hiring of central urban office space by otherworldly individuals, one of whom keeps his fellow in his pocket, and "Down Among the Dead Men", a harrowing description of the meeting of a space naval officer with his accusingly undead crew. Less exhilarating, although readable enough, are "Child's Play" and its sequel "Wednesday's Child", mock-horrific examinations of Frankensteinian people-engineering and its consequences, "Generation of Noah", an anti-nuclear scare story, and "The Lemon-Green Spaghetti-Loud Dynamite-Dribble Day", an eyewitness's testimony regarding mass misbehaviour after LSD is fed into New York's water supply. Modest stuff, but full of sparkle.

"Winthrop Was Stubborn", the novella that concludes Part Four of Immodest Proposals ("The Future") is an astonishing tour-de-force, a venture by a group of fairly average 20th century Americans five hundred years forward in time. They are frustrated, manipulated, harried, and bamboozled by almost everything they encounter (Tenn's elaborate satirical inventions flow thick and fast throughout); they have an agonising imperative to return to the mundane Present; but one of their number will not co-operate, and time travel soon seems a dubious blessing. The same indefatigable liveliness invigorates "Time in Advance" (what if criminals served their sentences before their crimes?) and "The Servant Problem", a quite extraordinary meditation on the circular dilemmas of power in a totalitarian state. "The Sickness", "A Man of Family", "Project Hush", and "The Jester" are minor and dated by comparison; but the competition is exceedingly strong.

In Part Five, "Out There", quieter, more contemplative stories stand out. "The Dark Star" reassesses space travel in obvious yet curiously surprising terms; "The Custodian" is the journal of the last man (and the last aesthete) on Earth, a haunting piece reminiscent of Robert Silverberg at his elegiac best. "Consulate" and "Alexander the Bait" are impressive in concept but possibly play too fast and loose with probability; "The Last Bounce" and "Venus is a Man's World" have strength in irony but the weakness of outdated premises. But then "On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi" intervenes, to show that even the oldest assumptions are perhaps more timeless than we think, and will make the future in their own, in this case distinctly rabbinical, image.

Immodest Proposals is an immodestly brilliant, as well as an immodestly large, anthology, and may well turn out to be the most significant SF collection of 2001. The opposition is certainly capable, but in the end, only Here Comes Civilization, the forthcoming second volume of the Complete William Tenn, may be a convincing rival.

Copyright © 2001 Nick Gevers

Since completing a Ph.D. on uses of history in SF, Nick Gevers has become a moderately prolific reviewer and interviewer in the field of speculative fiction. He has published in INTERZONE, NOVA EXPRESS, the NEW YORK REVIEW OF SF, and GALAXIES; much of his work is available at INFINITY PLUS, of which he is Associate Editor. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.


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