Book Review: Of All Possible Worlds, William Tenn (1955)

This collection contains the third post in a loose series on SF short stories that are critical in some capacity of space agencies, astronauts, and the culture which produced them. After reading today’s installment, I decided to review the entire collection!

Today: William Tenn’s “Down Among the Dead Men” (1954), 5/5 (Masterpiece). First appeared in the June 1954 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction, ed. H. L. Gold. You can read it online here.

Previously: Edmond Hamilton’s “What’s It Like Out There?” (1952), 5/5 (Masterpiece). First appeared in the December 1952 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories, ed. Samuel Hines. You can read the story online here.

Up next: Katherine MacLean’s “Echo” (1970) in Infinity One, ed. Robert Hoskins.

Richard Powers’ cover for the 1955 edition

3.25/5 (collated rating: Vaguely Good)

In the early days of my website, I reviewed two volumes by William Tenn–his sole novel Of Men and Monsters (1968) and his collection The Human Angle (1956). Of All Possible Worlds (1955) is his first published collection. The presence of “Down Among the Dead Men” (1954), “The Liberation of Earth” (1953), and “The Custodian” (1953) make this a must purchase (despite the handful of duds that drag down the overall rating) for fans of polished 50s satires in wrecked future worlds. Tenn’s narrators regurgitate the propaganda of their times to cover-up their traumas and memories.

Publication Note: The UK editions (Michael Joseph and Mayflower) contain slightly different contents. Check the isfdb.org listing for more details. I read the US 1960 edition with the cover by Blanchard (below).

Analysis and Plot Summary

“Down Among the Dead Men” (1954), 5/5 (Masterpiece): Our spacer narrator approaches a junkyard, memories of cataclysmic war  against insectoid aliens assault him… He’s presented with slogans of the war effort that jar him into the present and buoy his spirits: “DON’T WASTE WASTE […] WHATEVER IS MAIMED CAN BE RECLAIMED” and “GARBAGE IS OUR BIGGEST NATURAL RESOURCE” (14). He lifts his head with new resolve, happy with the presence of pregnant women (new soldiers!), happy with his own sacrifice (his arm, reclaimed). But a new challenge awaits—he must meet a new version of the  “zombies” that will form part of his team of soldiers. Or should I say, “soldier surrogates” (22) fashioned from the plasma of dead soldiers in four models based on long-dead war heroes!

As with “The Liberation of Earth” (1953) later in the collection, Tenn’s narrators are entirely caught up in the propaganda of their moment. And of course, far deeper traumas and memories bubble beneath the surface. This is terrifying world that the narrator inhabits–children learn war strategy from birth, women are perpetually pregnant with new soldiers, waves and waves of men are sent out to the insectoid grinder, and simulacra of men do odd jobs oblivious to the terror of battle.

Tenn places the light-hearted triumphant pulp conflict with aliens into a wrecked landscape of reclaimed bodies and traumatized veterans that still spin the same “official” narratives of chauvinistic glory. Highly recommended.

“Me, Myself, and I” (1947), 2/5 (Bad): A delusional professor develops a time machine and needs a test victim. The small-time criminal McCarthy, obsessed with his comic books, is the perfect man no one will miss if the time machine experiment goes wrong. And it does, but in ways that are not foreseen or seen as “time” is a slippery business. As with “Flirgleflip” later in the collection, Tenn’s professors are more oblivious, corny, and perpetually lodged in a windowless ivory tower than “mad”…

The story is silly but slight.

“The Liberation of Earth” (1953), 5/5 (Near Masterpiece): The second best story in the collection! A Korean War parable, “The Liberation of Earth” tells of two alien powers (the Dendi and the Troxxt) engaged in an interstellar war. Earth, a cosmic backwater, is repeatedly “liberated” and simultaneously destroyed by repeated waves of occupation and the scars of alien weapons. The tale is told as if we, the readers, are learning an oral history from one of Earth’s few survivors–who spend their time munching succulent roots (57) and fighting giant rabbits in order to consume each other’s dead (75). The most disturbing elements involve the effect of alien propaganda—the narrator seems to believe each successive inundation of maxims and declarations spewed by the new occupier. And that the survivors, who scurry from puddle to puddle, and listen in horror to Earth’s dying geological spasms believe that they are “as thoroughly liberated as it is possible for a race and a planet to be” (75).

Tenn’s best when his tales involve far future locals. A must read for fans of anti-war SF and the intersection of orality and collective memory….

“Everybody Loves Irving Bommer” (1951), 2/5 (Bad): Like “The Tenants” below, this particular story does not rise above the bad “gimmick” variety. Irving Bommer spends his days wistfully following girls–and without ability to find love himself [i.e. not be a creep] falls victim for a gypsy selling love potions (cue bad attempts at dialect). And he buys a bottle, and doubting its efficacy accidentally applies too much. At first he’s an asset at work selling kitchen gadgets in a department store to the adoring female masses…. but a more sinister end awaits, under a smoosh of adoring flesh.

Tenn’s attempt at a parable might be a warning about the emptiness of physical attraction as a sole metric of a relationship. This is one of those stories where a deeper argument about its aims and comments on empty male desire might be made, if I enjoyed it more. Avoid as you would a real love potion.

“Flirgleflip” (variant title: “The Remarkable Flirgleflip”) (1950), 3/5 (Average): In some “intermediate civilization” (99) Terton, cue “Tenn academic type,” fixates on his paper on “Gillian Origins of Late Pegis Flirg-Patterns” (96). A colleague interrupt his intellectual dreamland with a revelation about The Temporal Embassy, a time-travel organization that periodically time-travels to improve the present. Apparently, Terton lives at the point in time where “we send nobody into the past; we receive orders, but give none of our own” (99). And his colleague’s scientific discoveries related to time travel might create a future incursion to prevent his research from happening!

Like a humorous version of Star Trek: Enterprise‘s Temporal Cold War plot-line, Tenn’s story has moments of humor intermixed with snarky anti-academic jabs.

“The Tenants” (1954), 2/5 (Bad): Sydney Blake receives word from his secretary that two unusual “men” seek to rent a section of an undesirable office building. Initially ecstatic, Sydney’s concern grows due  to their unusual  interchangeable names (Tohu and Bohu), unusual stature, and desire to rent the thirteenth floor which the building does not actually have. The story itself takes on horror-esque tones as the obvious mystery of the thirteenth floor becomes apparent…

Tenn doesn’t interject clear social commentary or imagery to elevate the story above the bland “gimmick” variety.

“The Custodian” (1953), 4/5 (Good): Earth, 2190. Earth Society has bifurcated as a supernova threatens to destroy the planet. The Affirmers believe in subsuming everything to the goal of transporting Earth’s population off planet. Children are assigned to “Extra Work for Extra Survival Groups” where they paint numbers on packing crates (141). The Custodians wish to die on Earth surrounded by the objects of humanity’s past greatness. What is life without art? What is life without a physical connection to our pasts? The Affirmers assume power—and the narrator, a Custodian, is granted his wish to die alone on Earth.  All other Custodians are carted off by The Affirmers. But a discovery will call into question his drastic choice.

Tenn takes the middle ground between the entirely utilitarian and the entirely aesthetic. An exploration of the power of place in crafting who we are as a people. Recommended.

Enric’s cover for the 1963 edition

Richard Barton’s cover for the 1956 edition

Atelier Frank & Zaugg’s cover for the 1973 German edition

Blanchard’s cover for the 1960 edition


For cover art posts consult the INDEX

For book reviews consult the INDEX

For TV and film reviews consult the INDEX

32 thoughts on “Book Review: Of All Possible Worlds, William Tenn (1955)

  1. Pretty good collection; much better review!
    I myownself love his story “Firewater” from Astounding’s Feb 1952 issue. Luminist.org or Internet Archive will have it.
    I possess the complete short fiction from NESFA Press because, even at his least ept, he’s funny as crack.

    • This is still a must purchase due to those three stories I highlight. Or, at least, read them online. I might own “Firewater” in his collection Time In Advance. I’ll have to dig around a bit.

      There seems to be a direct correlation — far (and bizarre) futures yield great Tenn stories. The present day with random fantasy-esque gimmicks (no thanks) and bland mad professors doing time travel things (nope).

      You are right, even the lesser stories are occasionally humorous and highly polished.

      • William Tenn! Great writer. When I was a kid discovering my first SF anthologies — like the Amis-Conquest SPECTRUM anthologies in my dad’s library — he was in all of them with stories like ‘Brooklyn Project’ and ‘Betelgeuse Bridge.’

        Expendable Mudge wrote: _’love his story “Firewater” from Astounding’s Feb 1952 issue'”

        It’s good and novella-length — rare for Tenn/Klass. It suffers a little, alas, from a Campbell-imposed ending where the humans win out over the hitherto impossibly superior aliens.

        EM: ‘I possess the complete short fiction from NESFA Press because, even at his least ept, he’s funny as crack.’

        Indeed, decades later, I recall with fondness the Indians’ anthropological discussions in ‘Eastward Ho!’ But re. comparisons …

        EM: ‘Merril and Miller Jnr I’ll grant you; Sturgeon and Sheckley just a hair lower on stylistic measures for me, though on storymaking par.’

        Come on. Alfred Bester — nobody, not even Tenn, had a run like Bester’s during the 1950s. Do I have to name some of them?

        Kornbluth, too, with and without Pohl, was at his best at least as good and arguably as funny. Sure, you need a pretty dark sense of humor to find stuff like ‘The Marching Morons’, ‘The Little Black Bag’, and ‘Theory of Rocketry’ funny, but Kornbluth was also capable of _not_bringing the darkness in stories like ‘The Cosmic Charge Account’ and ‘The Education of Tigress McCardle.’

        As for those you cite: re. Sturgeon, I ain’t the Sturgeon advocate many are, but nobody so far named above wrote anything like ‘The Man Who Lost the Sea’; re: Sheckley, he was good (and IIRC, he and Tenn/Klass used to hang out together and bitch about SF magazine editors in early 1950s New York); but you’re right that he wasn’t as good; re. Merril, she was nowhere near; and re. Miller, he’s more of a mixed bag.

        Also, respect is due the early Cordwainer Smith (efforts like ‘No, No, Not Rogov!’ and ‘The Burning of the Brain’), which — beyond their obvious uniqueness — are pretty damned polished and stylistically accomplished. ,LIkewise, there are a few Simak stories here and there in that decade that I find impressive, though with Simak, it’s more the craft that conceals craft and the unique emotional high-notes he could hit.

        • “Come on. Alfred Bester — nobody, not even Tenn, had a run like Bester’s during the 1950s. Do I have to name some of them?”
          Name away, and really no one can argue that he had a run…that ran out. My problem with reading his work is that, after a short time, I’m unable to recall what the heck I’m reading, which story is this, did I turn two pages at once?

          I avoid stating my opinion of Sheckley in deference to our host’s feelings.

          And Merril? Oh dear. Let’s ATD on her merits.

          Bring out the jeroboams of bubbly for a Cordwainer Smith celebration! I’m not a libertarian, not by a long shot, but his gonzo verve and wickedly precise flensing-knife prose is wielded so very expertly that I just read, not meta-think.

          • Arguing the split over who is or is not the better author is a tricky one at best. Even though I like Bester–even loved him at times–I find that as the year’s go by and the more that I find out about him, the less I like the man, despite his penning at least one unarguably great sf novel.
            I love MIller’s short fiction–at least the collection Best of/Dark Benediction are almost all heavy hitters. I love MIller’s work. The only thing I’d fault him for is a fault common, sadly, to many of the male writers of his time–the tendency to slip into casual misogyny. Tho he’s a little like Philip K. Dick in this way–sexist, but nonetheless with a sensitivity to the common humanity of the sexes (which is a lot more than many of their male contemporaries).
            Judith Merril is someone I have not read enough of, though I’ve loved what I’ve read (Daughters of Eve particularly stands out in my recollections).
            Sturgeon I’m still sorting through. I’ve liked classics like More Than Human, and even have a soft spot for Killdozer. I’ve read ‘The Man Who Lost the Sea’ though remember little of it apart from a vague memory of liking it.
            Kornbluth is, of course, great. Sometimes a tad too misanthropic for my taste (I’m not a fan of The Marching Morons for instance), but undeniably one of the stand out sf writers of his time.
            But yeah. The never ending quest to find a suitable hierarchy of the greats is less than fruitful to my mind, and perhaps doesn’t even help us understand what is great about their truly great works, and the scenes from which they emerged and were nurtured.

            • “The never ending quest to find a suitable hierarchy of the greats is less than fruitful to my mind, and perhaps doesn’t even help us understand what is great about their truly great works, and the scenes from which they emerged and were nurtured.”

              I always think of “greats” lists as drafts, as essays at an impossible-to-impose opinion, for the list-maker, as I don’t think any one person’s taste is somehow superior to another’s. It’s the nature of my own process of reading to shuffle the deck of rankings, see where this fits and why that didn’t age well, etc etc. I am entirely positive that my 60+ self and my 15+ self would have little overlap on a comparison of great-writers or great-stories lists.

              And I expect still less between people; but I learn from finding out what others think, commenting on and discussing the differences, digging in to similarities.

          • EM wrote: ‘Name away, and really no one can argue that he had a run…that ran out….’

            Everybody’s run runs out, including Tenn’s only a couple of years after Bester’s (unless we’re going to big up “On Venus, Have We Got A Rabbi,” published in 1974). I do recall that in those old anthologies where I discovered SF as a kid and in which Tenn was an indispensable mainstay, there was always a Bester story, too. In fact, there’s a long string of classics centering on 1954 …

            ‘5,271,009’ aka ‘The Starcomber’ (1954) *
            ‘Fondly Fahrenheit’ (1954)

            Tenn, for all his manifold excellences, really never wrote anything quite as brilliant as these two particular stories, which is okay because arguably nobody else in American SF from that era — including Bester — did either.

            As for the rest ….

            ‘Hobson’s Choice’ (1952)
            ‘Disappearing Act’ (1953)
            ‘Star Light, Star Bright’ (1953)
            ‘Time Is the Traitor’ (1953)
            ‘The Men Who Murdered Mohammed’ (1958):
            ‘The Pi Man’ (1959)
            ‘They Don’t Make Life Like They Used to’ (1963)

            EM: ‘My problem with reading his (Bester’s) work is that, after a short time, I’m unable to recall what the heck I’m reading, which story is this, did I turn two pages at once?’

            I don’t what to say to that.

            ‘And Merril? Oh dear. Let’s ATD on her merits.’

            I dunno. It may just be my ignorance. But I’ve never read anything by Merril that impressed me. In fact, nothing of hers I may have read has even stuck in my recall at all other than ‘That Only A Mother’ — which is a weak, gimmicky squib — and the two novels she collaborated on with Cyril Kornbluth under the name Cyril Judd, and they’re the weakest things Kornbluth ever was involved in and I assumed that was most likely attributable to Merril.

            If you can educate me by directing me to some specific Merril stories, part of the reason I comment here is to get some new angles on the old SF

            • Hello Mark,

              Any favorites or thoughts on the Tenn stories from this collection?

              I’ve completely updated my index as of yesterday. It now includes the specific stories from each author (with links if they appeared in anthologies) and broken down in individual collections. https://sciencefictionruminations.com/science-fiction-book-reviews-by-author/

              It should be far easier to track down which stories I’m basing my initial conclusions on.

              Those reviews will show that I’m a big Merril fan — see the index for links to the collection mentioned above (“Daughters of Earth”).

              As I am a far newer reader to the genre than you, most of my positions are based on what I’ve read in the last decade (although, as you might know, I read most of the classics the five or so years before I started my site).

              That should give you a good indication of where I might be coming from — and one reason I was so excited by your Sturgeon recommendation for stories critical of the space race is that I’ve not always been a fan of his work. A few exceptions can be found in my reviews of various collections — “Bulkhead” was a fantastic story and fits the theme. And I have fond memories of reading More Than Human in the early 2000s (i.e. my late teens and very early 20s).

              As for Bester, I’ve long since forgotten the 7 or so stories I’ve read and reviewed on the site of his (albeit, one collection, a decade ago). I’m open to explore more. The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination were fine (again, read before I started my site).

              As for Sheckley, giant fan here… I’ve reviewed a bunch of his stuff (34 short stories and 4 novels) reviewed on the site.

            • JB wrote: Any favorites or thoughts on the Tenn stories from this collection?

              Literally, it’s been four or five decades since I read the stories in this anthology, which is why this discussion here prompted me to order the Tenn NESFA vol. 1. The only stories I recall with any specificity are ‘Down Among the Dead Men’ and ‘The Liberation of Earth.’ The latter is good but its meaning is so clear that it hardly admits of any discussion, and you’ve covered the former here. Maybe after I receive the Tenn NESFA book, I’ll have something intelligent to add should you review another Tenn story.

              JB: one reason I was so excited by your Sturgeon recommendation for stories critical of the space race is that I’ve not always been a fan of his work. A few exceptions can be found in my reviews

              I feel the same about Sturgeon, frankly. Yes, ‘Bulkhead’, forex, is one of the good-to-great Sturgeon stories and quite a few others exist. But overall my feelings about Sturgeon are similar to my feelings about another canonical American 20th century SF writer who’s otherwise poles apart from Sturgeon, Robert Heinlein.

              That is: Sturgeon, like Heinlein, is far from being without interest and wrote a number of stories that impress me. Overall, though, much of Sturgeon’s work strikes me as having a mawkish sentimentality and a literary rhetorical style that may have seemed impressive in the 1940s and ’50s to people who only read American magazine SF but that hasn’t aged well. I think Sturgeon, like Heinlein, is somewhat overrated and there were other writers back then at least as worthwhile. (e.g. the Kuttners, PKD.)

              But different licks for different hicks. There are folks like Chip Delany who still think Sturgeon was the ultimate. A lot of it comes down to when you first read these authors and, as they say, to the golden age of SF being 12-14.

              All this stipulated, I’d say ‘The Man Who Lost the Sea’ is an important story in American SF history and unlike anything else Sturgeon wrote.

              He apparently wrestled with a story/novel for about a year (1959, I think) that grew to some 60,000-odd words and was about a near-term trip to Mars. And he did his science homework in that he nailed what the technology involved would be, inasmuch as it pretty much corresponds to what NASA would have on the boards for their Mars program when Nixon shut it down in the early 1970s. Sturgeon had the staged rockets, the astronauts’ test pilot backgrounds (remember, not even Yuri Gagarin had been up there yet), and the nuclear drive similar to NASA’s NERVA drive for their Mars program.
              https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NERVA

              But apparently the 60,000-some words of novel weren’t working, and Sturgeon kept on going back through what he had and junking it, till he refined it down to one single scene of about 6,500 words that left all his science homework and the narrative about the flight out to Mars in the backstory. Again, particular pieces of fiction will strike different individuals different ways. When I first encountered ‘The Man Who Lost the Sea’ as a naive reader I struggled with it; it used 2nd person singular POV, and seemed ‘arty’ and opaque and I wondered why the author was telling me all this confusing junk. But then the story reaches its ending and pays off big time, with maybe THE perfect SF last paragraph and last line that never fails to moisten my eye.

              That’s me, though. If you read ‘The Man Who Lost the Sea’, you’ll almost certainly find yourself admiring it but you may wonder why I was so moved by it.

              JB: As I am a far newer reader to the genre than you, most of my positions are based on what I’ve read in the last decade

              At this point, you’ve read a fair amount of stuff I haven’t. In choosing to focus particularly on the late 1960s to the 1980s and the not-so-remembered authors, you’re mining an era that SF critics mostly haven’t addressed. As I assume you know. And there are books and authors I had read way back when that you’ve reviewed and rated more highly than I remembered them — like ALL JUDGEMENT FLED by James White — and caused me to go back and then re-assess them.

              JB: As for Sheckley, giant fan here

              Yeah, he was good. I’m not in Expendable Mudge’s camp on that. That said, I probably don’t rate him as highly as Jonathan Lethem and you do.

          • Well, ten minutes after You have read a short story by Tjechov or Robert Walser You can often not remember the exact plot; the story are not less a masterpiece because of that!

  2. I’ve read one other piece by William Tenn, “The Men in the Walls”. I have to say I’m not very keen on this one, but I probably didn’t understand or appreciate it’s themes, because they’re told from the characters’ viewpoints. I read it but couldn’t get into it.

    • So you haven’t read anything in this one? I was a tad confused by the phrasing.

      Well, I recommend the two I rated 5/5 — perhaps your view of him will change a bit.

      What was “The Men in the Walls” about? It has an intriguing title.

      • Sorry Joachim, I meant to say I read the one you posted online, “Down Among the Dead Men”. I’ve already said what I thought of it above.

        • Ah, that makes more sense!

          But yes, his narrators always seem possessed by the propaganda of the day. He’s completely bought into the official narrative. And his biggest flaw is of course is inability to completely give his entire being (making more kids) to the war effort. Tenn’s whimsical telling collides with the horrorscape of the world. A Molotov cocktail of a story in my view.

          • I think you’re right, but as I said, I couldn’t get into it. By whimsical, I assume you mean it’s blackly humourous, but I didn’t find it funny either.

            I know that Tenn is a humourous author, but “The Men in the Walls” as I remember, is a grim piece of fiction.

  3. As I remember, it was about tribespeople living undergound, vaguely aware I think of the surface world only just above them, but I’ve reread what it was about, and they live that way because they were defeated by aliens.

  4. “Down Among the Dead Men” truly is a superb short story–one of those seemingly impossibly perfect artefacts. More evidence for Malzberg’s belief that the 50s was the true golden age of sf.
    I’ve read “The Liberation of Earth”, but less often and more distant in time. I recall liking it immensely at the time. I tend to dip in and out of Tenn over the years. Your review is impelling a return.
    The Richard Powers cover is gorgeous. Sadly I don’t have any of the old pulp versions of Tenn. I have the the first two volumes of the NESFA three volume collected works.
    “The Custodian” sounds right up my alley. Time to check it out.

    • Both stories read nicely in parallel. Tenn seems to be a fan of decrepit worldscapes where the aliens have the upper-hand and humanity flails around attempting to right the sinking ship… and of course, these are propaganda strewn worlds.

      I await reading anything you might right about Tenn on your site! Please come back and link it if I miss it.

  5. Pingback: So much Vintage SciFi, I can’t keep up! | the Little Red Reviewer

  6. I always like reading vintage science fiction short stories in particular. It’s cool to see how trends in that genre and short stories in general have changed over time.

Comment! Join the discussion!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.