Book Review: Of Men and Monsters, William Tenn (1968)
September 10, 2013 § 30 Comments
(Stephen Miller’s cover for the 1968 edition)
There’s a small pile of novels on my shelf that wait ever so patiently to be reviewed months and months after I’ve read them — J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World (1962), Robert Silverberg’s The Masks of Time (1968) and Dying Inside (1972), David R. Bunch’s Moderan (1972) (among others), and, until now, William Tenn’s Of Men and Monsters (1968). Perhaps I was put off by the three mysterious pages filled with small chicken scratch composed by some earlier reader– “224 PKNY, 248 MINCED, 219 M in OKST” — that hinted at some arcane undercurrents or masonic messages that had alluded me. Perhaps it was my confusion over Tenn’s Heinlein-esque female character, who, in a work of satire, could indicate something so much more progressive than she is made out to be….
Of Men and Monsters is William Tenn’s only novel length work (he did write a longish novella). Tenn is best known for his masterful short stories. It was expanded from “The Men in the Walls” (1963) which appeared in Galaxy Science Fiction. There’s a distinctly 50s feel about the work. This “from a different era” feel is generated by his deployment (and subversion) of earlier tropes including pulp-era tales of subterranean civilizations and characterizations straight from Heinlein’s novels.
All in all, Of Men and Monsters (1968) is an enjoyable and witty adventure satire that deserved its 2011 republication in the Gollancz Masterworks series. It’s a shame that Tenn didn’t write more novels for I found his wry humor a delight to read.
Brief Plot Summary/Analysis (*some spoilers*)
“Mankind consisted of 128 people. The sheer population pressure of so vast a horde had long ago filled a dozen burrows” (11). The first sentence of William Tenn’s Of Men and Monsters (1968) is bound to transfix. But as with all good satire, Tenn has a series of tricks up his sleeve. The scion of Mankind in question is but single tribe of humans who believe themselves superior to all others due to their proximity to the dangerous world — which is, in this case, the interior of a vast alien house: “it wasn’t just that Mankind lived in the front burrows, those closest to the Monster larder. This enormous convenience might be counterbalanced, he would readily admit, by the dangerous associated with it — although the constant exposure to dangers and death in every form were part of Mankind’s greatness” (46).
Sometime in the future these technologically superior aliens — using advanced forms of science which remains mysterious to the now-primitive humans — conquer Earth. Humanity is reduced to a rat like existence in the walls of the alien’s homes. Those that live closest to the interior of the house — the tribe named Mankind for example — have developed a cult of masculinity that involves stealing items from the aliens: “‘Go make your Theft, Eric,’ he whispered. ‘Come back a man’” (49). There are certain levels of theft: theft of food, theft of objects, and theft of alien science. The entire society is modeled on the desire to “strike back” at the alien oppressors, how exactly that will be done is not clear.
Eric, a rather naive young Heinlein-like character who is just about to make his first Theft, knows very little about the world he lives in. Soon, after his expedition outside the Mankind’s burrow, he discovers how Mankind’s society is not build around striking back at the aliens but rather at perpetuating the society’s hierarchy. Even the complicated naming ritual involving long lost pieces of technology is a hoax generated to maintain the status quo.
Soon Eric is captured by aliens who are developing homicide sprays to better exterminate the vermin who live in their walls. While in a glass cage he meets Rachel Esthersdaughter, a member of the Aaron people (Jews), who live much farther within the walls. Rachel, a brilliant woman who knows so much more than Eric about the world, is content to teach Eric and slowly relinquish her intellectual abilities. Considering William Tenn’s satirical aims, it’s hard not to read Rachel as a critique of Heinlein’s female characters. Eventually Eric and Rachel discover a fomenting plan to strike back at the aliens, but it is not exactly what they had in mind.
In Jorge Luis Borges’ brilliant short story “The Library of Babel” (1941) the world (and the pursuit of knowledge) is conceptualized as an potentially infinite series of rooms with doors upwards and downwards and side to side (leading to identical boxes filled with the exact same number of books with the exact same number of letters). The characters in Of Men and Monster slowly come to realize that their world too might be endlessly recursive: “We all live in the walls of one particular Monster house. Actually, we all live in just one wing of that one house. In the other wings, there are lots of other peoples, some like us, some different. But people who live in another house entirely have to be very different from us” (206).
William Tenn adeptly deploys limited perspective — the reader only knows about the aliens and world through the eyes of Eric. The aliens are some massive external force, almost unknowable due to their size and hatred (as humans hate rats and other vermin) of man.
(Jack Gaughan’s cover for the 1969 edition)
(Rolf Mohr’s cover for the 1989 edition)
(Boris Vallejo’s cover for the 1975 edition)
(Christopher Gibbs’ cover for the 2011 edition)
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