Posted by: Lizzie Ross | June 6, 2010

Lost in Tenn’s Space

The Square Root of Man, William Tenn (1946-1967), Ballantine Books, 220 pp.

William Tenn died this year, at the age of 89, so this is my personal farewell and thanks for all the great stories.

Although he wrote a couple of novels and some non-fiction articles (under his real name, Phillip Klass), Tenn is best known for his short stories, where he tweaks the traditional science fiction format of aliens and space travel with a humorous slant that prefigures Douglas Adams and the Hitchhiker’s Guide series.

Not all Tenn’s stories, however, have off-earth action.  In this particular collection, three of the nine tales are earth-bound, and two are within the realm of the possible. (The third, “She Only Goes Out at Night,” is about a vampiress who falls in love with a mortal.)

Science fiction is such an odd genre. Its appeal, as with fantasy and magical realism, lies in the nearly infinite range of what-if situations into which authors can place characters. Yet, these characters, despite any alien characteristics, are still recognizably human in their responses.

Most of Tenn’s characters are human. In “Alexander the Bait,” the first story Tenn published, an expert in radar fools the scientific and business communities into thinking there is uranium on the moon, in order to spur space travel. Yes, he’s a fraud, but because of him there is a settlement on the moon and monthly commuter flights there and back.  A case of the wrong thing for the right reason.

The main character in “The Jester” is a famous intergalactic comedian who has his butler/valet robot reprogrammed as a gag-writer, so that he can fire his human gag-writers and claim that his comedy is all ad-libbed. Of course, this doesn’t end well for the comedian.

Just as an aside, in one of these stories, Tenn jokes about a robot designer who creates police robots with flat feet and a taste for donuts.

Other what-ifs in this collection: what if someone puts LSD into NYC’s water supply? what if the ratio of women to men is 20 to 1 on earth, and 1 to 20 on Venus? what if you survive your dangerous career in space and finally retire? what if your mother is a newbie at cursing and you live in a neighborhood of experienced witches?

Tenn’s stories aren’t a challenge to read, but they’re great escapist fun. And they make you appreciate what a good writer can do to spruce up some very old plot devices.

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