Remembering Golden Age Science Fiction Author William Tenn

Illustration for article titled Remembering Golden Age Science Fiction Author William Tenn

Phllip Klass, who wrote under the pseudonym William Tenn, was the author of off-kilter, humorous Golden Age stories like "On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi" and "Venus and the Seven Sexes." He died Sunday at the age of 89.


Born in London on May 9, 1920, Klass moved to Brooklyn with his parents when he was a year old. He served as a combat engineer in Europe during World War II, and then he worked at an Air Force radar and radio laboratory and at Bell Labs. While at Bell Labs, he started writing science fiction under the pen name William Tenn.

His first published story, entitled "Alexander the Bait", was published in the May 1946 issue of Astounding. Although this first story, based on his experiences at the radar laboratory, quickly proved obsolete and, in Tenn's opinion, not particularly well written, his second effort proved far more successful.


"Child's Play", published in 1947, concerned a man who uses a child's Christmas gift, a futuristic Build-A-Man kit, to create people. The short story was an instant sensation and drew much acclaim for its humorous, satirical style. During a period of great earnestness in science fiction, Tenn stood out for his comical approach to the future. He wrote two novels and more than sixty short stories over the course of his career.

One of his best works was 1953's "The Liberation of Earth", in which two warring alien civilizations repeatedly invade Earth in order to free the poor people of Earth from each other, eventually reducing the planet to rubble and driving humanity to its extinction. Tenn said the story was inspired by the events of the Korean War. Another classic was "On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi", published in 1974. If you're willing to install Real Player on your computer, you can hear an interview with Tenn from 2002 in which he reads that particular story by clicking here.

Science fiction was far from Tenn's only field of expertise. He left New York in the mid-60s to take a teaching post at Penn State University. Teaching courses in English and comparative literature, Tenn influenced a number of young pupils who went on to professional writing careers, including First Blood author David Morrell and Die Hard screenwriter Steven E. de Souza. Wired writer Steven Levy, a student of Tenn's at Penn State, has written a moving tribute to his mentor here.

William Tenn's short stories remain in print in the collections Immodest Proposals and Here Comes Civilization. His novels Of Men and Monsters and A Lamp for Medusa are included in these collections. For those previously unfamiliar with his work, here is a passage from his 1949 story Venus and the Seven Sexes, which readily captures his wild imagination and flair for the absurd as a Venusian explains to an Earthling the complexities of reproduction:

"...I am a representative of the seventh sex - nzred."

"A nzred, huh? What do you do?"

"I coordinate... You see, a mlenb is primarily interested in winning the affections of a likely strob and finding a tkan whom he can love. A tkan merely courts a mlenb and is attracted to a good guur. I am responsible for getting a complete chain of these individuals in operation, a chain of compatibility where perfect amity runs in a complete circle - a chain which will produce offspring of maximum variability. Then, after the matrimonial convention, when the chain is established, each sex begins to secrete in its original germ with the full forty-nine chromosomes. A busy time for the nzredd!

"The nzred... fits himself in at any point in the chain which the exigencies of the situation seem to demand. He may receive the sextuple supergamete from the tkan and transmit the original single gamete to the guur, he may be between the flin and blap, the blap and srob, whatever is required."


Tenn is survived by his wife Fruma and daughter Adina.

[Top photo credit: Laurie Mann.]


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Chris Kocher

A correction for you: His novels "Of Men and Monsters" and "A Lamp for Medusa" are included in "Here Comes Civilization." No need to track down used copies.

And the afterwords to each story in the NESFA collections, with Klass looking back on how they were written, are nearly as entertaining as the stories themselves.

A great man who will be missed.