Sunday, February 14, 2010

Died: Legendary Science Fiction Author William Tenn

I was out of the country and only now heard the news about William Tenn's passing. Very sad. I conducted this interview in 2006 for a project that ended up fizzling out. It has sat on a shelf since then, and I’m upset that it took William Tenn’s passing for me to finally publish it. He was a fantastic author, and a friendly, interesting man. I'll always appreciate the fact that he took some time out to speak with me.

On February 7, 2010, science fiction author William Tenn passed away. He was 89 years old. He leaves behind a career's worth of science fiction that helped shape the genre itself.

Born Philip Klass, Tenn was one of science fiction’s premier satirists, poking and prodding everything from the military to the U.S. government’s policy towards arms proliferation to humanity’s egotistical belief in its own cosmic superiority to religious intolerance. Along the way, he’s become a legend in the sf community for not only his prose—which, at its best, was punchy, thought provoking, witty, and grim—but also his love-hate relationship with the field itself.

Tenn began publishing with “Alexander the Bait,” which appeared in Astounding Science Fiction in 1946. In it, he presciently described space exploration as an institutional endeavor, rather than the result of capable individuals (as in Heinlein’s The Man Who Sold the Moon). By the 1950s, Tenn had found a regular outlet in Galaxy, a magazine that, under the editorship of Horace L. Gold, championed to new voices and non-traditional themes in science fiction. There, the author continued to develop his pointed, intelligent humor.

“The Brooklyn Project,” in particular, ranks among Tenn’s funniest works, and stands along side Harry Harrison’s Bill The Galactic Hero and Joe Haldeman’s Forever War as a powerful indictment of the military. In the story, the press and various officials are invited to a secret bunker to witness the results of government experimentation involving time travel. Faced with this ultimate weapon, the journalists ask about dangers involved in mucking about with time. As the demonstrations continue, and elements of the present slowly begin to change, the government’s representative assures everyone with blithe optimism that such risks are completely nonexistent.

They say that science fiction’s job isn’t to predict the future. Anyone reading “The Brooklyn Project” today might disagree.

During this early period, Tenn also established himself as a master of the short story. Pieces like “Lisbon Cubed,” “Down Among the Dead,” and “Firewater” remain prime examples of compact narrative, and demonstrate how an author can use the form to cultivate complex ideas and multifaceted characters.

Tenn only published two novels, including A Lamp for Medusa and Of Men and Monsters, both in 1968. In the latter, humans are conquered by giant aliens, but the race lives on, surviving in the walls like rats. The Earthlings eventually spread to the stars on alien ships, much the same way that rodents spread through Europe.

William Tenn was born in London in 1920, and soon moved with his parents to New York City. He began writing after leaving the army in 1945. After 20 years as an author, he began teaching science fiction at Pennsylvania State University, where he was Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative Literature. Tenn was honored as Author Emeritus at the annual Nebula Awards Banquet in 1999, and in 2004 he was Guest of Honor at Worldcon, Noreascon 4. In 2006, Tenn was the Guest of Honor at Loscon.

His more than five dozen short stories have appeared in nine collections, and Tenn’s non-fiction writing was collected in 2004’s Dancing Naked, which was nominated for the 2005 Hugo award for Best Related Book.

DOC ATOMIC: You’ve been working in the science fiction field for over 50 years. Have you worked up a definition or description that you think encapsulates sf?

WILLIAM TENN: Science fiction is for the literate. Not the scientifically literate, but the knowledgeably literate, the people who are aware of the substantial amount of knowledge in our society. I define science fiction as that form of literature which could not have existed prior to the scientific revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries, and the industrial revolution of the 19th century.

Sadly, most people aren’t interested in knowledge, they’re not interested in the games you can play with knowledge. Years ago, I used to think that a day might come when science fiction would be universally accepted -- now I’m much more pessimistic. I think by its very nature, science fiction is a restrictive form of literature, and has a restricted group of readers. They are the people who know what’s going on in the world, and who like to play with that knowledge. That’s not the truth with the majority of people.

Don’t get me wrong. I would very much like for science fiction to be more generally accepted. It is much more accepted now than it used to be.

You know, I wrote a piece once for a United Nations booklet on modern literature. In the course of it, they asked me to define science fiction, and I did as I just did it with you. Then I said, “If you want another definition, it’s the mass literature of the very, very few.” That’s what it’s always been.

The people who are acquiring a mass audience in science fiction, today are not those who worked in it all those years. Most of them are not writing pure science fiction, they’re writing fantasy. That appeals to the majority of the people who live in the past and think in terms of the monsters and the horrors and the gods and the battles of the past.

Your comment about science fiction being for the literate flies in the face of many of the genre’s critics. You don’t have to go far back to read comments like, “It’s for kids,” “It’s for sub-literates.” Most literary critics claim that intelligent people read the classics.

Let me tell you a story. When I was at Penn State, and I was a brand new assistant professor, the head of the department’s wife used to introduce me to visiting luminaries by saying, “Have you met Phil Klass? He writes science fiction under the name William Tenn. My children read it.”

Then, one evening, I visited the families house. When I put my coat down in her bedroom, I saw a stack of science fiction books on her bedside table. The best stuff in the field. She’d been reading it for years, but as the wife of the head of the department, she could never admit it.
So her “children” read it. That’s just the way things are, sometimes.

In your collection of short stories, you write an afterward to “Lisbon Cubed.” In it, you said that you felt it was your duty to help get people ready for the time when the aliens arrived. Not in the sense that there would be an interstellar war or anything like that, but more likely, that the clash of cultures would be overwhelming. You focused on that theme in other stories, as well. Do you still feel this way today?

Actually, I now feel that way. Years ago, when I first wrote about aliens, I didn’t know what I was doing. I was operating out of instinct. My attitude was, “This is a good thing to do, it’s a good thing to experiment with intellectually.”

Now, at my point in life, I very much wish I had written more stories like it. More to prepare human beings for all the possible insane variations that life might take, and intelligence might take, if we encounter it. One of these days, we’re likely to discover that we’re not nature’s only child. We have siblings. Some are older than us, and all of them are quite different from us. We have to learn to live with them.

It’s usually true that when a child acquires a sibling later in life, it’s a much more difficult adjustment than if he’d grown up with that sibling. If we’d grown up with another intelligent creature from the earliest stages of our evolution, it would be easier for us to deal with, but we didn’t, so we’re going to be discovering it in our late adolescence, you might say. Our early youth. We’re going to be discovering that we do have siblings, and I think it’s going to be a very traumatic experience.

That seems to be the theme behind other stories, like “Fire Water.”

That’s correct. I wrote that story specifically to imagine just how traumatic the experience might be. If the aliens weren’t trying to conquer us, and were just amused by us… It seems like a very small thing, but it could be shattering to our self-esteem, to our species’ self awareness.

In fact, one of John Campbell’s objections to the story when I first gave it to him for Astounding was that it was a problem with no satisfactory answer, no real solution. So he rejected it.

But life doesn’t always have any clear-cut answers. Nothing’s black and white. Sometimes you just have to face whatever options life does present.

Right. For instance, we might be someone’s dopey kid brother. That’s not a very appetizing prospect for human beings to face. We’re going out into space, we’re visualizing that we will meet other civilizations and form super civilizations and that sort of thing, but if we meet anything that’s ahead of us in evolution, we’re in trouble. It doesn’t even need to be too far ahead of us!

As I told my class in Penn State, an industrial revolution almost occurred in the golden age of Greece. They had the steam engine, they had a hustling civilization, they were very interested in science and mathematics. It would have taken very little to go over the edge and have a real industrial revolution. That was about 2500 years ago.

My God! Just try to imagine where we might be 2500 years from now. Not only in terms of science and invention, but also things like genetic manipulation. You’re kind of dazzled and overcome by the possibilities, and that’s the least of what we might encounter. 2500 years is nothing in geological or evolutionary time.

It begs the question, What if something out there developed our technology 2500 years ago, and then met us tomorrow. There’s no cosmic rulebook that says we all need to start at the same point, at the same moment of time.

Yes. For instance, consider the possibility that during the age of dinosaurs an intelligent species of dinosaur developed, giving it a 65 million-year jump on us. We might have to adjust to something pretty humiliating.

You know, that’s one of the things that’s almost never been written about in science fiction. Campbell told me that when he read “Firewater.” He said, “There’s a reason why that possibility hasn’t been discussed.” He meant that it was that ugly. Nobody wanted to think about it.

He objected on the grounds that nobody would want to read it?

That was his objection as an editor. As a scientific thinker, he just couldn’t accept it.

That’s sort of strange. One of the nice things about science fiction as a genre is that it can cover such a broad range of topics and ideas. Most themes can be pretty successfully explored within a science-fictional framework.

I’ve come to feel that the weakness of science fiction as a literary form, as an art form, lay in the fact that there are no limits. In my article “The Fiction of Science Fiction,” I talked about form without limits with approval. But that was written in 1953 or, or maybe 1955.

The fact of the matter is, I now feel that great art is always constrained art. G.K. Chesterton, in one of his great aphorisms said, “The essence of the picture is the frame.”

Science fiction has no frame. I’ve come to feel, now, that the fact that Michelangelo had to paint within the confines of a church ceiling, that he had to be a genius within those limits, was part of what made his work so great.

Remember, though, Brian, here, and elsewhere, I might not know what I’m talking about. I’m just giving you reflections the ideas I’ve had in my eighties that I might have violently disagreed with when I was in my forties.

Where do those limits come from when you’re dealing with a field that is, as you’ve said, limitless. Who imposes them? The artist? The critics? The readers?

Campbell attempted to do it. Let’s face facts, in the course of establishing limits, he made known certain things he did not want people to write about. He did not want stories about politics, he did not want stories about sex, he did not want stories about superior aliens. There are other limits, but I can’t remember them offhand.

On the other hand, because of those limits, you might say that’s why he had the prodigious effect that he did. His writers had to concentrate in a smaller and smaller area in a field that was essentially limitless. That concentration was wonderful for them. In retrospect, it produced the Golden Age.

I’m asking, “Is that what is necessary for a golden age?” I don’t know, I’m asking. Would Shakespeare and the other dramatists have achieved as much greatness if they didn’t have to be so careful about the crown, and about what the nobility might think of what they wrote? It’s an interesting question.

Does that mean that the limits can be arbitrary, just so long as they’re there?

You have a good point. I’ve got to say, I don’t have the answer to that. I do know, though, that the greatest science fiction writer who ever lived was H.G. Wells or, more likely, Olaf Stapledon. Those two took us outside our present evolutionary status, and imagined the first and last men, men who were beyond anything we’ve ever known.

Notice, today, how little Olaf Stapledon is read. There are a very small group of people who have read and are enthused about Olaf Stapleton, but not nearly as many as have read Heinlein or Asimov.

You mentioned earlier that you didn’t originally feel the need to help people adjust to the idea of aliens, and that the feeling came later. What changed?

When I first began, I saw my duty as a science fiction writer was to warn people about the use of nuclear weapons. Of scaring people about the use of them.

I’ve got another story called “Liberation of Earth.” I wrote in my afterward to it that it was originally written about the Korean war, but protestors would read it aloud at anti-Vietnam war rallies, too. My feeling at that time I wrote “Liberation of Earth” was, it’s a hell of a thing to be a Korean or a Vietnamese in such a situation. I wasn’t taking sides, just writing about it. That was my duty then.

I was writing stories about aliens, you see. All of a sudden, it was something that dawned on me: I was not only writing warnings about nuclear warfare, I was not only writing warnings about political narrowness, I was also writing about aliens. I decided it was a good thing to do, to warn people about the ways in which we might experience aliens. It sort of evolved out of the things I was interested in at the time.

Your writing has always featured a lot of satire. What made you take that tone when approaching your short stories?

The writers I most admire have been satirists. Like Juvenal. Swift. Voltaire. And later on Orwell. Huxley. These are people I read very much when I was young. They were people who formed my attitude and viewpoint as a writer.

It’s always struck me that science fiction is an ideal medium for satire. You have the element of the fantastic in it, but it was based very soundly on knowledge of the time. As a result, it inevitably had to do with the issues of that time, but explored from many different viewpoints, and picked through for all their possibilities. If you do that, you find you’re writing a satire three out of four times, one way or another. Sometimes its very overt, sometimes you don’t even know what it is you’re writing about.

And people who were in a position to clamp down on satire and satirists probably don’t read much science fiction. Especially back in the Forties and Fifties.

When I wrote “Brooklyn Project” and “The Liberation of Earth,” reactionaries were very much control of the politics in the United States., It was not possible to write those sorts of stories in any other medium. You’d be hounded out. But in science fiction, no body even noticed it.

Were you ever worried about backlash?

Was I worried that I might get nailed on something and driven out of writing? Yes. But on the other hand, I had something going for me: I was writing under a pseudonym. It’s true, my pen name is now worth something, but back then, if worse came to worse, I could just write under a different pen name. I had that going for me.

So yes, I was scared. But this is the only thing I wanted to do. It was the only occupation I wanted to work in.

You know, when Israel became a state, and five Arab armies invaded it, Israel claimed to have a secret weapon. You know what it was? The secret weapon was “No Alternative.” And I had the same secret weapon. I had no alternative. I didn’t want to do anything else.

Did you always know you wanted to be a science fiction writer?

Well, the only thing I ever wanted to do for many years was act. I was a failed actor. I believe many writers are failed actors. Or failed philosophers.

Then, later on, in my forties, I discovered something else that I liked as much as writing: teaching. I went to Penn State and I always felt I could teach, but I never expected I’d be allowed because I didn’t have any degrees. I didn’t even have a BA. But at Penn state they stuck me on as an assistant professor and I found I was a good teacher and I enjoyed it.

For what it might be worth, once you stop and realize that I was doing some of my best work in political satire, you can think about is as being a limited medium. It’s a frame. So, in a sense, I was being constrained and forced to concentrate. I was writing in a narrow format with limitations. So that’s something to think about.

Well, back on the subject of constraints, you’ve always worked in the world of short stories and novellas. James Gunn has written that they represent the best form for science fiction. Do you agree?

First of all, now that I’m older, I would say the same thing. I agree with James Gunn. I think the short story is much more logically the perfect format for science fiction. It’s got a narrower frame.

But I’ve always been a novel aficionado. I’ve always loved them. And I’ve always loved long novels -- Dostoyefski, Tolstoy, Dickens. These are the people I’ve absorbed, and that’s what I wanted to write. But when I began, you couldn’t write science fiction novels, there wasn’t a market for it. Since I wanted to write science fiction, and most science fiction was in short form in the magazines, I began writing short stories. That’s how I made my living for a long time.

Did you ever consider becoming more of a novelist?

I failed at the time when I should have made the transition. My transition story should have been “Firewater.” [Author/Editor] Fred Pohl was my agent at the time. I wrote “Firewater” and I told Fred that it deserved the full novel treatment. And it was just about the point when novels began taking off in science fiction. This was about 1952.

Fred told me that it was a very bad piece of work, and I’d be very lucky to sell it for a half-cent a word to a manuscript publisher. Eventually it did sell to Campbell and it was voted the best story of the year in Astounding. But I don’t know what was wrong with Fred on that, because otherwise he was a very good agent.

So I never got around to doing a novel for a very long time. By then, I’d acquired a substantial amount of technique and interest in the science fiction short story. Now, I find that I’ve been trying to write novels and it’s been very difficult, because I know how to do the short story very easily.

But I didn’t do set out to write short stories deliberately. For a long time, I saw myself as a novelist who was writing short stories when he shouldn’t be. Then, one day, I said to myself, “No, I’m a short story writer and I’m good at it, and that’s what I do well. And I’ll keep doing it.”

Science fiction paperbacks were just coming into prominence when you decided to publish your early collections. Once again, talking about limits and boundaries, you ended up working with Ian Ballantine, who was experimenting with simultaneous paperback and hardcover book publishing. How did that come about?

Ian Ballantine came to me in the late Forties or early Fifties, and he wanted my first collection of short stories. Like you said, in those days, he was publishing simultaneously hard and paper bound. It turned out to be a big mistake, because it never really took off, though I’ve always said it was a brilliant idea.

In any event, he came up with the idea, and his advances were fantastic. In those days, when most hardbound publishers offered most young writers an advance of $500, or $1000, and paperbound publishers offered an advance of maybe $1500, Ballantine came to me and offered an advance of $5000. At that time, it was a dazzling sum of money.

But I had another idea, something I’d been looking to do for a long time. I told him that I didn’t want the advance -- I wanted a retainer. Instead of giving me $5000, I wanted $5200, paid at the rate of $100 a week, $400 and change a month. I figured I could live comfortably on that, while I’d write what I wanted to write for a year. He thought it was a good idea and he gave it to me. I imagine he made similar arrangements with other writers, but I’m not sure.

How did it work out?

He paid me for about three months, and he ended up going broke. He had real financial trouble with the publishing firm. So he took me out to lunch at Keen’s Chophouse. We had an absolutely magnificent lunch, and as I bit into the mutton chop -- and it was a great mutton chop -- he pointed out to me that he would not honor the terms of the contract. He would much rather pay me a small sum of money and call it the whole advance.

He said, “I’m looking at it from your point of view, too.”

I left the mutton chop and said, “From my point of view?”

“Yes,” he said. “After all, when a writer takes a big advance, he’s only borrowing money from himself.”
And I said, “Ian, there’s nobody in the world I’d rather owe!”

He burst into laughter and kept choking because he didn’t want to laugh. He didn’t want to find it funny. He was laughing and gagging at the same time.

Did you get paid?

I had to sue him. He took Sturgeon out to lunch, and Sturgeon agreed to the deal. He took a number of writers out to lunch and they renegotiated contracts with him, too. Either I was the only one who refused to go down to the lower figure, or Bob Scheckley and I were, I don’t know. I had to sue him, and I won.

Were deals like that common back then? With science fiction still fairly young by the book publisher’s standards, was it difficult for you to negotiate contracts?

In those days, I don’t think any paperbound publisher paid more than $2500. I think Gold Medal did, but they didn’t publish much science fiction. Places like Pyramid, those kind of places, paid very low sums of money. When Bantam books got in touch with me, I had to write up something called the “Phil Klass Oh.” I told Sheckley about it, and he was very much impressed.

What happened was, in the “Phil Klass Oh,” you don’t say “no” to somebody, you just say “oh.”

Saul David was the big cheese of Bantam when they got in touch with me to publish a collection of stories called Time in Advance. By the way, he later went to Hollywood and became a producer. Anyway, he called me to his office and he said “We’re interested in publishing Time In Advance.”

I was ecstatic, because it was very hard by then to get a book of science fiction short stories published. And that one was actually four short novels, which it was out of the question in those days. So I was willing to take anything to get it published. But I didn’t say so.

I was preparing myself for the “Oh.” It was a routine I’d developed many years before. Whatever number he said to me, I’d say “oh,” in a sadly disappointed way. Not turning it down, you see.

So he said, “Phil, the advance—we’re willing to go as high as $1250.”

And I looked at him and I said, “Oh.”

There was dead silence. I didn’t say anything more.

So he said, “What, you’re not satisfied with that?”

“Well,” I said, “I was hoping for a little bit more.”

I wasn’t saying no to it in any way, because I was ecstatic over it!

He said, “We’ll we can go to $2250.”

So I made $1000 just for saying, “Oh.”

I came back and I told that to Sheckley and he said, “That ‘Oh’ is worth its weight in beaten gold.” He went on to use it and did much better with it than I ever did!


William Tenn Official Site:


Of All Possible Worlds (1955)
The Human Angle (1956)
Time in Advance (1958)
Of Men and Monsters (1968)
A Lamp for Medusa (1968)
The Seven Sexes (1968)
The Square Root of Man (1968)
The Wooden Star (1968)
Immodest Proposals: The Complete Science Fiction of William Tenn, Volume I (2000)
Here Comes Civilization: The Complete Science Fiction of William Tenn, Volume II (2001)
Dancing Naked: The Unexpurgated William Tenn (2004)

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