Book Review: Of Men and Monsters, William Tenn (1968)

MNNDMN1968

(Stephen Miller’s cover for the 1968 edition)

4/5 (Good)

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….

Regardless….

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

MNNDMN1969

(Jack Gaughan’s cover for the 1969 edition)

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(Rolf Mohr’s cover for the 1989 edition)

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(Boris Vallejo’s cover for the 1975 edition)

FMNNDMNSTR2011

(Christopher Gibbs’ cover for the 2011 edition)

For more book reviews consult the INDEX

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30 thoughts on “Book Review: Of Men and Monsters, William Tenn (1968)”

  1. This one has been sitting in a pile of William Tenn’s collections, but I’ve been very, very tempted to read it every time I finish a book. Along with Sheckley, I think Tenn was one of the best satirists in an era rich with satirical social SF, and I’m perpetually disappointed that they remain in such obscurity.

    I highly recommend Tenn’s collections The Human Angle and Of All Possible Worlds, some of his best stories (a whole lot of Galaxy in there).They also have epic Powers covers.

    1. I have The Human Angle on my shelf waiting to be read. Very excited about reading it! And yes, the Powers cover *swoon.*

      Well, Gollancz did pick Of Men and Monsters up for their masterwork series. But, do they even release short story collections? Because Tenn and Sheckley obviously wrote predominately in that form…

      1. I know they’ve printed fixups, but outside of Dangerous Visions I think they’ve stuck to just novels. Which is a shame, especially since their Fantasy Masterworks is loaded with short-story collections (Compleat Enchanter, not one but two volumes each for Conan and Leiber’s Lankhmar, heck their second collected pretty much everything Lord Dunsany ever wrote).

        I’m not sure if it’s genre bias, a conscious decision, or if there were a few SF collections I’m forgetting. But yeah, there are a number of authors that ends up slighting. Bradbury and Kuttner also come to mind, for writing scant few SF novels but vast shelves of short fiction collections… James Tiptree Jr. wrote two novels and how many award-winning short works?

  2. It’s good to see that this one is back in print. Tenn is very much neglected, most likely due to his focus on shorter fiction. The lack of interest in republishing some of the older short stories seems odd to me since there are so many good collections to consider bringing back into print. It seems as though the short story can be the perfect length to work out plenty of the ‘What if..” scenarios that Sci-Fi can offer.

    I did enjoy the book very much, though I did find it a bit too cynical at times. Though I suppose if it were at all optimistic it would not be as memorable.

    I wonder if Tenn’s writing influenced J.G. Ballard at all.

    1. I really don’t find that many parallels between Ballard and Tenn — but then again I haven’t read Tenn’s shorts yet.

      I sort of enjoyed the cynicism — especially how “strike back” really meant “run away.” 😉

      1. Any comparison would only be in very very general terms, as I see them both as social commentators.

        I should have seen the ending coming, but I didn’t. If it had ended with a typical space opera ending, it may have been a perfectly enjoyable book, but definitely not as memorable in the long term.

      2. I found the ending incredibly memorable. The idea that to escape Earth people will have to stow away like rats on alien vessel incredibly inventive. Confusing the entire premise is the strange commentary on Judaism — it is the Jewish people (the people of Aaron) who organize the flight — I suspect its some commentary on the Diaspora.

      3. It’s an interesting aspect of the book that I haven’t seen much written about. I could be wrong, but I think Tenn was Catholic, which combined with his use of the Aaron people as the most advanced tribe made we want to find out more about his thoughts on Religion.

      4. Peter S,
        In the 1975 Tangent interview, Tenn calls himself “a very rational Jewish orthodox atheist mystic.” Which helps us understand the Captivity-Exodus angle in his novel not at all. But then, I don’t think Tenn had any easily pigeonholed social, religious, or political views. Much less an agenda of any kind. I think he simply sought to understand the human race, and finding it hard to understand, and somewhat ridiculous when it could be understood, he wrote stories that reflected all that – sometimes taking a poke at specific things, like the ideal Heinlein woman.

      5. Peter S,
        Tenn may have converted to Roman Catholicism, as he was buried in Queen of Heaven Catholic cemetery, McMurray, Pennsylvania. But he stopped writing fiction 35 years before his death, when he still identified as Jewish, so any possible, later Catholicism wouldn’t be reflected in his stories.

      6. When I do a reread (don’t know when that will be) I will pay special attention the religious message. Because the “running away from the world” bit is not framed as something positive. It’s framed as something very animalistic (like the rats humans mimic).

  3. Great review. I’ve long been a fan of this one, and like you I regret that he didn’t write more novels. I had the Rolf Mohr cover, which I still rather like (and think works much better than the Vallejo, which makes the humans look more powerful than they are in the book).

    It’s a thoughtful book, but also huge fun to read. Golden age SF at its best really.

    1. Thanks! I really did not put much effort into this review because I read the book so long ago — so I didn’t know how it would come out…. Unlike my review of Kit Reed’s Armed Camps (1969).

      I thought Golden Age SF refers to works when the magazines were at their height — i.e. 1938-1946. People do use the term sort of interchangeably with “classic.”

      1. Alas, the term “Golden Age” is one of my pet peeves 😉 I, for one, really don’t understand WHY it refers to magazines of the 30s-40s unless it’s about sheer quantity rather than quality — which definitely improves in the 50s.

  4. Joachim, I think you’ll find plenty to think about in this interview with Tenn – especially when he talks about things that touch on the Rachel Esthersdaughter question: the differences between men and women, sex roles, societal roles, feminism, etc.

    http://www.tangentonline.com/interviews-columnsmenu-166/1210-classic-william-tenn-interview

    Turns out he had an argument with Heinlein about women, that might provide the key to exactly what he’s saying with the character of Rachel. But the thing to keep in mind is that Tenn looked at everything in his own way – he wasn’t a soldier in anyone’s army – and nothing was forbidden as an object of satire, including feminism.

      1. Oy. I thought maybe I’m not really turning 60 next year. Maybe somebody made a mistake about my birth date. But if I’m repeating myself without knowing it, then it must be true: I’m old. Oy.

      2. Haha, we discussed Rachel at length on one of these posts about three months ago (when I finished it and you reread the book as well)…. No worries! You also posted a different article about his views — but this interview looks even more fascinating.

  5. In this day and age where it seems any half thought out story is immediately elevated to a multiple volume set of novels, I lament the fact that here was novel where there was so much more to explore. I yearned to read more of this world and these characters.

  6. Great review as ever Joachim, this volume is sitting in my ‘to read’ pile too along with the other five titles published by Ballantine as part of the series. I must read them soon although I suspect I’ll be photographing the covers for my blog before I get the time!

      1. I’ll leave the book reviews to better writers like yourself Joachim and concentrate on photographing their fantastic covers. All the best.

      2. Well, unfortunately, I’ve started writing conference papers/dissertation chapters this semester so I’m not sure how many I’ll be putting out…. Haven’t read SF in a week — alas. Still have a backlog of reviews.

      3. Good luck with the work Joachim, I’ve recently started a new job so my evenings and weekends are also compromised once more. There’s never enough time to fully pursue the things that make life truly pleasurable.

  7. Recall reading this when I was much younger – the cover 68 & 75 covers are very familiar. I had the impression that the aliens were very similar to praying mantis …. another religious symbol perhaps ?
    Done right this could be done as a movie or basis of a television series. Considering how the global climate is being mismanaged & our sputtering attempts at space exploration the premise of the novel may ring true with today’s audience.

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