Of All Possible Worlds; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

The posts on William Tenn continue while I work on new posts.

Science Fiction Ruminations gives the parallax on this.

Cover by Bob Blanchard

Raw Feed (1998): Of All Possible Worlds, William Tenn, 1955.

Introduction: On the Fiction in Science Fiction” is William Tenn’s defense of science fiction. First, he argues that, contrary to critics, sf is about people as individuals or representatives of a “collective community”.  Second, popular art, which sf is, is helpful in attaining aspirations of artistic immortality. He argues that “a scientific error or two” would not mar classic sf. He explicitly mentions Robert A. Heinlein’s Beyond This Horizon, Frederik Pohl’s and Cyril Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants, Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee, and Isaac Asimov’s Pebble in the Sky as classics.  Responding to the old charge of sf as escapism, Tenn notes that new literary genres, be they novels or Elizabethan plays are always denounced as dangerous by an intellectual elite invested in the old forms. Tenn doubts that people read any fiction to learn more about their “unfulfilled” lives or gain a moral perspective. He thinks that people read fiction for escape, believable escape. Responding to the old and still present charge that sf has produced no Shakespeare, Cervantes, or Fielding, Tenn notes that Elizabethan dramatists produced nothing equivalent to Aeschylus either though it was the standard they were aiming for.  Good popular art has a certain primitive vitality and vulgarity, Tenn argues, which causes it to endure longer than boring art polished to the point of perfection.

Down Among the Dead Men” — This story, like Alfred Bester’s “Disappearing Act” published a year earlier in 1953, is a satire about the Cold War. Essentially both stories depict a society totally mobilized for war – and the qualities of those societies being destroyed in the act of defending them. I use to regard these stories as somewhat liberal whining about fighting the Cold War, but, in learning more about the total mobilization of America in WWII (which, of course, Tenn and Bester would have known first hand) and the encroachments of the government on liberty during that war and since, I appreciate these stories now. Here a decades long war with the alien Eoti has radically changed Earth’s society. Not only are millions dead and all of Earth mobilized, but, in a satirical point derived from the recycling drives of WWII, human soldiers, dead soldiers, are revived as ever increasingly sophisticated “soldier surrogates” or, in popular parlance, zombies. Sexual mores have changed drastically since Earth’s women need to pump out as many babies as possible. The narrator, his reproductive organs wounded – and the wound one of the few that are irreparable, is excluded from these couplings. I’m unsure whether to be glad, at the end, the protagonist as found a purpose and family (albeit a surrogate one) or horrified that familial and human sensibilities have been so distorted or wonder that humans are so adaptable.

Me, Myself and I” — A time travel story whose contortions (Tenn evidently specialized in time travel stories) are reminiscent of Heinlein’s earlier “All You Zombies” or Robert Silverberg’s later Up the Line, but it’s justifiably not as well remembered because it has little wit outside of plot contortions.

The Liberation of Earth” — This justifiably witty, classic story is not just a satire of Cold War politics with its war by surrogate but of imperialism generally going back to at least the British Empire and the 20th Century’s fight against fascism. Earth suffers under the rotating yoke of two alien warring races, the Dendi and the Troxxt, who set up their own installations, force evacuations of land areas, and kill large numbers of people thought to collaborate with the enemy. The alien races do not directly correspond in their actions and slogans with any human power bloc. The story is wonderfully told as a tale by humans living on a trashed Earth (its orbit has become very eccentric) of deserts, little air, and giant rabbits. The narrator naively notes that Earth is “as thoroughly liberated as it is possible for a race and a planet to be.”  The human race has suffered greatly under aliens purporting to be acting in its best interests. 

Everybody Loves Irving Bommer” — This story about a man who disastrously gets his wish to be sexually irresistible to women could easily have been a Twilight Zone episode.

Flirgleflip” — Another of Tenn’s time travel stories. This one involves the Temporal Embassy, far down the timestream, foiling a researcher’s effort at time travel before the “appointed” time. This tale evokes humor through having the narrator haplessly failing to adapt to our time. He is a very overspecialized academic.

The Tenants” — A fantasy tale about a real estate agents and his mysterious tenants who rent the technically non-existent 13th floor of his building.

The Custodian” — I think this is the second time I’ve read this tale of a custodian studying man’s great art (and religions) before it is destroyed in an impending nova. Man has divided into two camps: the Affirmers, who have sacrificed everything not deemed to be absolutely essential to man evacuating Earth and settling elsewhere, and the Custodians who study all the cultural artifacts left on Earth. The narrator of the story is one such Custodian who rejects the “single-minded biological idiocy” of simple survival. He looks forward to being alone on Earth for a year before the nova comes. The rest of his fellow Custodians were supposed to stay too, but the Affirmers broke their promise and carted them away. The Custodian notes “That Man’s sentimentality is not to be frustrated”. But his plans are upset when he takes responsibility for an infant. I have a lot of sympathy for the Old Custodian, a failed artist, who thinks that he can accomplish little with his life but perhaps the child has the potential for beauty so he must live to try to fulfill it. The Custodian takes an old starship out of a museum, loads it with great treasures (or parts of them – he takes only parts of the Sistine Chapel) and sets off with the knowledge that man will eventually long for these items, that he is an “esthetic Noah”, destined for a unique place in art history. A poignant, funny tale.

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