Book Review: The Human Angle, William Tenn (1956)

(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1964 edition)

3.75/5 (collated rating: Good)

I’ve been in a 50s SF short story craze of late, devouring collections by Robert Silverberg (Godling, Go Home!), Walter M. Miller, Jr. (The View From the Stars), Fritz Leiber (A Pail of Air), Lester Del Rey (Mortals and Monsters), and a few Robert Sheckley volumes a few months before. Fresh off of William Tenn’s solid novel Of Men and Monsters (1968) I went into The Human Angle (1956) (containing three novelettes and five short stories predominately from the 50s) with high expectations.  Despite the handful of duds — “The Human Angle” (1948), “Project Hush” (1954) and “The Discovery of Morniel Mathaway” (1955) —  that tend to creep into most collections of shorts, the majority were characterized by sardonic brilliance.

Although not as biting as his august contemporaries Robert Sheckley and C. M. Kornbluth, Tenn’s visions are delightfully humorous and ironic.  It’s worth getting your hands on the collection for three stories in particular: the hilarious rumination on the nature of power “The Servant Problem” (1955); the brilliant commentary on children as social status, “A Man of Family” (1956); and the intergalactic alien hunt for a crafty purveyor of ameba smut, “Party of the Two Parts” (1954).

And of course, the wonderful Richard Powers cover is desperate to be part of your collection…

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis (*some spoilers*)

“Project Hush” (1954) 3/5 (Average):  A fun take on the “viscid mass of hysteria” (2) and “espionage fever” (1) of Cold War America.   Even within the military each branch has no idea what the other is doing: “you had to be in a top-secret Army project to really get it” (1).  The purpose of Project Hush, one of these top-secret projects, was to reach the moon and set up a permanent station with a complement of two men before anyone else without anyone else knowing that they were up there.  When Tom and Monroe arrive they discover that there someone else has beaten them to it.  Who will discover who first?  And what are the ramifications?

“The Discovery of Morniel Mathaway” (1955) 3/5 (Average):  An unremarkable time-travel story with a predictable twist.  Morniel Mathaway is an annoying and pretentious artist whose convinced that his “smudge on smudge” (10) style is in same league of Pablo Picasso and Georges Rouault.  However, he has had little to no success selling his work and resorts to stealing paints and supplies from the local art supply store.  And then someone comes from the future with the preposterous claim that he’s a scholar of Mathaway — the most famous painter in the world!  Unfortunately, the paintings that Mathaway shows this “scholar” do not seem to be the right ones.

“Wednesday’s Child” (1956) 4/5 (Good):  This is a strange one.  Fabian Balik has a crush on the attractive Wednesday Gresham, one of his most adept stenographers.  However, he does not know about her strange “biological contradictions which were so incredibly a part of her essential body structure” (23) until he is completely smitten.  Despite her physical oddities such as teeth that fall out every year and grow back, hairs on her fingernails, and the lack of a navel Fabian attempts to force her to conform to the normal 50s wife.  She reciprocates to a degree but warns him what will happen if they produce a child.  Fabian ignores the warnings, increasingly desperate to create the perfect, normal 50s life…

“The Servant Problem” (1955) 5/5 (Brilliant):  The best in the collection and one of my favorites from the 50s!  I will never forget the mantra — “This was the day of complete control” (44) — repeated throughout the work as the story unfolds (in almost an entropic manner) downward through the ranks of who hold the power.  Garomma, a world dictator, with the help of various officials has brainwashed society into thinking he is actually the “Servant of All, the World’s Drudge” (44).  According to official propaganda, Garomma keeps the forces of evil (plagues, unrest) at bay.  Little does he know he is literally the “Servant of All.”  Moddo, the education minister, holds the true power behind the throne.  Or, he, like Garomma, is a product of brainwashing and someone else lower on the totem pole is in control.  Who actually holds the power behind the throne?  Remember, “this was the day of complete control” (75).

“Party of the Two Parts” (1954) 4.25/5 (Good):  Another one of the better stories in the collection due to its shear hilarity.  An epistolary story, “Part of the Two Parts” is comprised of a long letter from an exasperated galactic agent who oversees the “primitive” Earth society to his boss.  An ameboid alien from a culture steeped in crime and adept at avoiding the law, lands on Earth after his 2,343nd felony….  In order to resupply his vessel he sells ameboid pornography to a passing school teacher.   This science teacher, impressed with the details of ameba physiology promptly reproduces it in a new batch of science textbooks!  Of course, he does not find explicit ameba sex titillating at all.  The case is bungled to do the ameba’s crafty arguments on the nature of pornography and it’s up to galactic agent O-Dik-Veh to clean up the pieces.  But, before the ameba undergoes fission…

“The first photograph showed a naked ameba, fat and replete with food vacuoles, splashing lazily and formlessly at the bottom of a metal tank in the completely relaxed state that precedes reproducing […]  In the third picture, the Gtetan was ecstatically awash in the saline solution, its body distended to maximum, dozens of pseudopods thrust out, throbbing.  Most of the chromatin had become concentrated in chromosomes about the equator of the nucleus.  To an ameba, this was easily the most exciting photograph in the collection” (84).

“The Flat-Eyed Monster” (1955) 3.5/5 (Good):  Clyde Manship, an assistant professor of Comparative Literature, is transported from his house where he was reading one of his own articles to some mysterious alien stone-like slab.  When the unusual tentacled aliens arrive Clyde discovers that he can telepathically hear their thoughts but they are unable to hear him.  And, of course, due to his unusual shape and lack of mental abilities they do not think he is sentient.  Unfortunately, Clyde discovers the telepathic effect of human fear.  And, he after he escapes from the laboratory the aliens give chase.  But, what will happen when Clyde — confident in his abilities — is no longer afraid?

“The Human Angle” (1948) 2/5 (Bad):  The earliest and least interesting story in the collection…  There is a vampire in the backwoods that has wrought havoc and the press is keen to investigate.  Of course, they want a “human angle” that will interest the readership on the devastation the the vampire has brought about.  And a young girl who seems more refined than the stereotypes of the children backwood dwellers…  The irony is that the human angle does not prove to be human.

“A Man of Family” (1956) 4.75/5 (Very Good):  In the year 2080 A.D. social status is defined by the form which determines the number of children allowed for a particular income bracket.  Stewart Raley, who works for a Ganymede mining corporation, and is allowed four children — i.e. somewhere around upper middle-class/moderately wealthy.  The wealthiest families adopt children from families who are forced to give up their children if they fall to a lower income bracket.  Of course, gossip ridicules the wealthiest families for being lazy about baby-making.  Steward and his wife Marian are forced to make difficult decisions when Stewart’s job falls through.  Which two children will they give up?

One of the better social SF short stories from the 50s.

(Stephen Miller’s cover for the 1968 edition)

For more book reviews consult the INDEX

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6 thoughts on “Book Review: The Human Angle, William Tenn (1956)”

  1. I first noticed “The Discovery of Morniel Mathaway” in its adaptation to X Minus One, which introduced the story without saying who the author was until the end. I had supposed it was Robert Sheckley (since X Minus One feels sometimes like it was determined to adapt every single thing Sheckley wrote, including lunch orders, to radio), but with the tics that drive me crazy about him in much better control than average, and was surprised at the end to learn it was Tenn instead.

    William Tenn’s one of those authors I think of as midlist-greats, where there’s so much to enjoy even if I have to admit it doesn’t really ever manage to be essential.

    1. I wonder how much X Minus One changed… Because, they seem to smooth over all the stories they modify for the radio. I disliked “The Discovery of Morniel Mathaway” — the satire was average, the time travel element rather dull….

      The only two works of Tenn’s I’ve read so far that have blown me away are “The Servant Problem” (1955) and “A Man of Family” (1956). I want more of his short story collections! But yes, a “midlist” great sounds about right.

      1. You know, it might be partly the smoothing out of stories for radio; it also might be that it’s performed rather than read. They had a voice actor for Morniel Mathaway, particularly, who was (to my ear) well-suited to the task of being a pompous artiste who’s kind of tiresome but also kind of appealing. Tenn’s text would have only the words to go on, but with the right performance something that’s tooth-pulling on the page can be charismatic.

      2. Yeah, they are definitely making them into performance pieces… But, I rather read them in their original form 😉

        I suspect some people will actually enjoy the story in its original form.

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