14 August 2004

"The Liberation of Earth" (and other stories) by William Tenn

I meant to read just one.

After all, I've got a lot to do right now -- promises to keep, miles to go on untaken roads -- and I don't have time to be spending hours reading one old story after another.

Because really I just wanted to say that William Tenn's "The Liberation of Earth" remains one of the most painfully funny satires since Swift.

Yes, that's what I was going to do: write a post about "The Liberation of Earth". To do so, I had to reread it. So I grabbed Immodest Proposals, the first of two NESFA Press volumes of Tenn's collected fiction, a book I got for $5 somewhere because the binding is coming apart, and I read "The Liberation of Earth" for about the fifth time.

It didn't take me long, so I decided to revisit "Down Among the Dead Men", in which prejudice is condemned, including prejudice against soldiers built from the corpses of war casualties.

Of course, then I had to reread "Brooklyn Project", one of my favorite time travel stories, because it's simple, clear, surprising, funny, and subversive. For instance, consider what an official says when a reporter complains that she doesn't want to be locked up for 2 years so the government can more carefully monitor how she reports:
You must remain within the jurisdiction of the Brooklyn Project because that is the only way that Security can be certain that no important information leakage will occur before the apparatus has changed beyond your present recognition of it. ... After your editors had designated you as their choices for covering this experiment, you all had the peculiarly democratic privilege of refusing. None of you did. You recognized that to refuse this unusual honor would have shown you incapable of thinking in terms of National Security, would have, in fact, implied a criticism of the Security Code itself from the standpoint of the usual two-year examination time.
That was written in 1947. After the editors of nearly every science fiction magazine at the time rejected the story -- Tenn reports that John W. Campbell "called me to his office and skimmed the piece back to me across his desk. 'Oh, no,' he said. 'No, no, no!'" -- it found a home with one of the pulpiest pulps, Planet Stories, where the editor said it really didn't fit, and its implied criticisms of the National Security State made it less than safe to publish in those days of the House Un-American Activities Committee, but, he continued, "I figure this one is for God. An editor is entitled to at least one for God." (The issue "Brooklyn Project" appeared in also included Ray Bradbury's classic "Mars is Heaven", which was, I suppose, a more overt present for God.)

Once I started rereading old favorites, I thought I should read a few stories I hadn't read before, so I moved on to "Winthrop Was Stubborn", another time travel tale, this one a long story about some ordinary folk from 1958 trapped in the twenty-fifth century, and none too comfortable with all the odd changes that have occurred in the time between. It's a remarkably inventive and imaginative story.

One of my new favorites is Tenn's own favorite: "The Custodian", a last-man-on-Earth story that is not a satire, but a philosophical character study and a meditation on the value of art. The writing is denser, the pace slower than in many of Tenn's other stories, and to good effect here, moving it all toward an ending that is appropriate and humane. After the Earth has been abandoned (the sun is predicted to go nova), one man remains, a man who has been dubbed a "custodian" because he is interested in things that aren't merely useful, unlike the pragmatic Affirmers, a sort of religious sect that seems to have organized the evacuation of the planet:
I can just imagine the kind of conversation I might be having with an Affirmer at the moment, were one to have been stranded here with me. What dullness, what single-minded biologic idiocy! What crass refusal to look at, let alone admit, the beauty his species has been seventy millennia in the making! The most he might have learned if he is European, say, is a bit about the accepted artists of the culture. What would he know of Chinese paintings, for example, or cave art? Would he be able to understand that in each there were primitive periods followed by eras of lusty development, followed in turn by a consolidation of artistic gains and an increase in formalization, the whole to be rounded off by a decadent, inner-groping epoch which led almost invariably into another primitive and lusty period? That these have occurred again and again in the major cultures so that even the towering genius of a Michelangelo, a Shakespeare, a Beethoven will likely be repeated -- in somewhat different terms -- in another complete cycle? That there was a Michelangelo, a Shakespeare, and a Beethoven in each of several different flower periods in ancient Egyptian art?

How could an Affirmer understand such concepts when he lacks the basic information necessary to understanding? When their ships departed from the moribund solar system laden only with immediately usable artifacts? When they refused to let their offspring keep childhood treasures for fear of developing sentimentality, so that when they came to colonize Procyon XII there would be no tears for either the world that had died or the puppy that had been left behind?
I'd better stop, before I quote the whole story.

And wasn't I going to write about "The Liberation of Earth"? Yes, of course--

"The Liberation of Earth", written in 1950 and published in 1953, predicted the "we had to destroy the village to save the village" attitude. "Predicted" may not be accurate, since such an attitude has probably been a part of human history from long before the Vietnam war, but Tenn's story so perfectly elucidates that homocidal way of thinking that it was, he says, read aloud at protests during the war. (He also says he wrote it with the Korean war in mind, wanting to write something from the perspective of the people being "liberated", though he adds that "...recently I have come to the conclusion that if I had been a Korean, North or South, under those same circumstances, I would very much have welcomed the U.S. intervention. Am I growing old? Or just official?")

There is much that is remarkable about "The Liberation of Earth", and not just the satire, though that's its biggest selling point. The rhythm and pacing of the sentences and paragraphs is simply, comically brilliant -- the sort of timing Woody Allen achieves now and then, the sort of timing that lets early details become big laughs later, that prepares you to be surprised and yet still surprises. The story also manages to be interesting in a form that is often quite boring if it lasts for more than a few pages: a long-range history told in a detached, ironic tone. It's a form Mark Twain used quite a few times (see the Tales of Wonder collection for some examples), but I think Tenn is often more fun to read than Twain, at least in this style.

The history we get here is a history related by a devolved human, a human relegated to sucking whatever air he can get on an Earth that has been liberated nearly into oblivion by various alien visitors who used the planet and the people for their own purposes and then abandoned the place. Another author might have chosen to make the narrator self-pitying and preachy; Tenn's choice was to make him revel in his liberation and pity the people of the past:
Visualize our ancestors scurrying about their primitive intricacies: playing ice-hockey, televising, smashing atoms, red-baiting, conducting giveaway shows, and signing affidavits -- all the incredible minutiae that made the olden times such a frightful mass of cumulative detail in which to live -- as compared with the breathless and majestic simplicity of the present.
Of course, the story oozes irony, much as Voltaire oozed irony -- and Tenn's first collection, Of All Possible Worlds, which included "The Liberation of Earth", began with an epigraph from Candide about living in "the best of all possible worlds" -- and the irony grows thicker as the story progresses and the two aliens, the Dendi and the Troxxt, keep liberating Earth from the other:
Whereas the Dendi had contemptuously shoved us to one side as they went about their business of making our planet safe for tyranny, and had -- in all probability -- built special devices which made the very touch of their weapons fatal for us, the Troxxt -- with the sincere friendliness which had made their name a byword for democracy and decency wherever living creatures came together among the stars -- our Second Liberators, as we loving called them -- actually preferred to have us help them with the intensive, accelerating labor of planetary defense.

So humanity's intestines dissolved under the invisible glare of the forces used to assemble the new, incredibly complex weapons; men sickened and died, in scrabbling hordes, inside the mines which the Troxxt had made deeper than any we had dug hitherto; men's bodies broke open and exploded in the undersea oil-drilling sites which the Troxxt had declared were essential. ...

Truly, even in the midst of a complete economic paralysis cause by the concentration of all major productive facilities on other-worldly armaments, and despite the anguished cries of those suffering from peculiar industrial injuries which our medical men were totally unequipped to handle, in the midst of all this mind-wracking disorganization, it was yet very exhilarating to realize that we had taken our lawful place in the future government of the galaxy and were even now helping to make the Universe Safe for Democracy.
William Tenn (whose actual name is Philip Klass, by the way) will be the Guest of Honor at WorldCon in a few weeks. He has written very little fiction in the last thirty years, spending most of his time teaching instead, but he never separated himself from the science fiction community, a community that is only now beginning to give him the awards he has for so long deserved. The fiction he published was some of the best short SF of its time, and a surprising number of the stories hold up well today, when most stories by even the eminent names that appeared alongside Tenn's seem awkward, rudimentary, and naive. His concepts are still penetrating, his sentences both lively and complex, his craftsmanship remarkable.

Note: If you're looking for Tenn online, there's a basic "official website" with pictures and links, including to a 1975 interview.

The only story of Tenn's that is available online, alas, is "Bernie the Faust", a good little tale with an O. Henry twist, well balanced and well written, but not as biting or rich as some of my favorites.

Update: Josh Lukin notes in the comments that I missed a Tenn story SciFiction posted a year and a half ago: "Party of Two Parts". Many thanks for letting me know!