William Tenn’s brand of satire has long fascinated me. Today I’ve selected two smart satires of Cold War terror that map the new rituals of the apocalyptic age. I read both in his worthwhile collection The Wooden Star (1968). I’ve previous read and reviewed two of his collections–Of All Possible Worlds (1955) and The Human Angle (1956)–in addition to his only novel, Of Men and Monsters (1968).
Are there any other Tenn fictions that I haven’t covered that I should track down?
William Tenn’s “Generation of Noah” first appeared in Suspense Magazine, ed. Theodore Irwin (Spring 1951). You can read it online here if you have an Internet Archive account.
Elliot Plunkett, WWII veteran and one-time company man, abandons his previous life in order to train his family to survive future nuclear apocalypse. His rural poultry farm raises money for a complex of underground living and store rooms with generators, supplies, Geiger counters, and lead-lined suits (16). He inundates his conversations with quotes from issues of Survivor magazine (16). He teaches his children in a “scientific way” in “keeping with the latest discoveries” (13). He selects the virtues that his children might need in the new future–“strength and self-sufficiency” (19). But this is not survivalist manifesto Dean Ing style or a messianic Heinlein narrator. “Generation of Noah” reveals the profound cruelty Plunkett deploys to beat in his vision of the new morality (placed in stark contrast to the adoring kindness of his wife).
If Plunkett’s young son travels past the white chalk line, he pulls out his watch. “More than three minutes” Plunkett says, “Don’t cry son; it isn’t any use” as “the big doors [to the family fallout shelter] would be shut” (14). And Plunkett even developed a “catechism” for the new cruel religion he embodies that his children must memorize: “When the bombs fell, I’d […] have no place to hide. I’d burn like the head of a match […] an’ the only thing left of me would be a dark spot on the ground, shaped like my shadow […] An’ if it was ra-dio-a-ac-tive dust ‘stead of atom bombs, my skin would come right off my body, an’ my lungs would burn up inside me […] An’ my eyes would fall out, an’ my teeth would fall out, and I’d feel such terribly terribly pain” (14). Plunkett reiterates that he will lock out anyone not to the shelter in time!
Word travels that there’s a new bomb on the horizon and new tensions afoot. And when the sky fills with explosions, Plunkett buckles. The edifice of purpose-driven cruelty comes crashing down in the final terror of the moment. He violates his own creed with a moment of weakness. But with most great nuclear war fictions, the endings are problematized. The shape of the future is unclear through the dust-filled air above the family huddled underground.
Tenn points out in the author’s note to the collection The Wooden Star (1968) that “Generation of Noah” was “rejected across the board by the general-fiction magazines in 1949.” Thankfully he found a home for this smart and incisive near-future satire in Suspense Magazine in 1951. This is a well-wrought commentary on the destructive nature of hypermasculine world-views that threaten to obfuscate human kindness. As with Ward Moore’s “Lot” (1953), Tenn ridicules the middle-aged American father who yearns to make anew. The kindness of Pluckett’s wife shines forth.
4.5/5 (Very Good)
William Tenn’s “Eastward Ho!” first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Robert P. Mills (October 1958). You can read it online here.
The location: The crumbling remains of the New Jersey Turnpike . The time: sometimes after a nuclear conflict with Soviet Russia in which the United States is beset on all sides by resurgent Native American tribes. The plot: A diplomatic mission from the President of the United States, who sleeps on a straw pallet in New York City, led by Jerry Franklin, son of the Senator of Idaho, heads towards the Seminole. Their mission? Attempt to convince Osceola VII, Ruler of all the Seminoles, to abide by earlier treaties with the United States. But instead of the Seminole, Jerry encounters the Sioux, decked out in buffalo robes and served by white servants. The Sioux have stolen a march on the Seminole and threaten the few remaining territories of the United States. Jerry must think on his feet and channel the grand lineage of Senators from Idaho he imagines he is part of (the concept of democracy no longer exists–just the titles and phrases).
In Peter Schwenger’s Letter Bomb (1992), he develops the idea that nuclear fiction, in an effort to decipher the nature of the cataclysm, foregrounds the cryptic nature of signifiers of the long pre-nuclear past that the protagonists must attempt to read (and more often than not misread) . A famous example that most will recognize are the fragments of circuit designs, grocery lists, fallout shelter warnings, and other textual ephemera woven into the “Fiat Homo” portion of Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959).
William Tenn’s “Eastward Ho!” is all about the groves etched into our memories by the grand narratives of the Golden Age, albeit grooves jumbled and decontextualized in the post-nuclear world. The Sioux, rather than George Washington, cross the Delaware at Trenton (a reference to the pivotal Battle of Trenton in the Revolutionary War) (75). Tenn’s characters–white, black, and Native American–struggle to place themselves in the new present, a present they cannot clearly connect to anything but uncontextualized fragments of the past. The Sioux, in an attempt to understand how their ancestors lived, can only turn to the surviving texts of white ethnographers: “Robert Lowie’s definitive volumes, The Crow Indians, and Lesser’s fine piece of anthropological insight, Three Types of Siouan Kinship. Now, whereas we have not yet been able to reconstruct a Siouan kinship pattern on the classic model described by Lesser, we have developed a working arrangement” (79). The arguments used by Andrew Jackson and others to justify the deportation of Native Americans are turned on their heads. Jerry can only protest: “what else can we afford to give up? […] There’s nothing left […] and still we’re supposed to move back!” (86). And the African American Sylvester Thomas, Ambassador to the Sioux from the Confederate States of America, does not understand the import of the name of the nation, albeit entirely under the thrall of Sioux dominion, he represents. Linguistic and historical chaos reigns.
The inability to identify the historical parallels of their actions operates within the story at multiple satirical levels. Tenn constructs a remarkably complex expose on America’s history of racism and conquest by subverting the canonical mythologized historical moments in the collective memories of all American school children. Simultaneously, as with Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959), humanity cannot escape reenacting the same historical patterns–laying the ground for future mythologies and future cycles of destruction. There is no past to learn from.
Highly recommended for fans of 50s satire.
 I’m using David Seed’s summary of Peter Schwenger’s main ideas in Letter Bomb (1992) in Under the Shadow: The Atomic Bomb and Cold War Narratives (2013), 3. Seed points out that Schwenger was inspired by inspired by Jacques Derrida’s seminal essay “No Apocalypse, Not Now” (1984). I look forward to tracking down a copy of Schwenger’s volume.
 The New Jersey Turnpike opened in 1951. This story forms an illustrious lineage of tales that begin on the wreckage of a modern road — M. John Harrison’s The Committed Men (1971) and Sonya Dorman’s “Go, Go, Go, Said the Bird” (1967) come to mind.
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12 thoughts on “Short Story Reviews: William Tenn’s “Generation of Noah” (1951) and “Eastward Ho!” (1958)”
Tenn that you should track down? The ones that leap to mind are “Child’s Play,” “Firewater,” and “The Liberation of Earth”–the last not so much for excellence as the stridency of its anti-war satire, unusual for its time (around 1952). The one that leaps out when I look at his bibliography is “Null-P,” conveniently located in THE WOODEN STAR, a more relaxed companion piece to “The Marching Morons.”
I’ve read and adored “The Liberation of Earth” — read it in Of All Possible Worlds (1955) https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2021/01/17/book-review-of-all-possible-worlds-william-tenn-1955/
I haven’t read “Child’s Play” or “Firewater.”
I plan on reading the rest in The Wooden Star somewhat soon.
Thanks for the recommendations.
What did you think of these two?
It’s been decades since I read either of them, and (funny how that goes) I was a lot younger. I found “Eastward Ho!” very sharp and amusing but would probably find more in it now than I did at the time. “Generation of Noah” seemed a bit shrill and overdone to the point of undermining itself. But I might think better of it if I read it now. (Line forms over there and around the corner for things I need to reread.)
I think the early composition date of the William Tenn story helps its cause. And, as someone obsessive in subversive takes on the American family, I found it a fascinating takedown of the heroic American man. He’s laid low by his realization that kindness matters more — especially as survival might not be guaranteed anyway. It’s a good one!
As for “Eastward Ho!” I have so much more to say about that story…. I am aware that I might be rating it highly due to my pet interests. Namely, I wrote a dissertation about how historical narratives (in this instance medieval accounts of Rome) are reworked to give authority to the “new” as “traditional” in the present. And here Tenn explores how these grand (racist) narratives of American conquest are perpetuated but also decontextualized in the multi-level chaos (linguistic, chronological) of the post-nuclear war world. Yes, it relies on a “twist” and role reversal but I found it was done in such an adept way. Loved it!
You should review “Child’s Play” since you already discussed its sequel “Wednesday’s Child”
Good idea. I have his collection The Seven Sexes on the shelf.
Have you read either of these?
I’ve got both volumes of NESFA’s The Collected Science Fiction of William Tenn, so I’ve read it all (I think I have “Wooden Star” and “The Square Root of Man” as paperbacks too)
Nice! What did you think of the two I reviewed though?
Sorry i misunderstood. “Generations of Noah” is creepy in its portrayal of how survivalism has eaten away the father’s decency (and is doing the same to the son – see how the son taunts the girl about how her parents are doomed). “Eastward Ho” is just funny, as our hero boasts of his Idaho values, when Idaho hasn’t been in the hands of Americans in his lifetime.
I agree. Yeah, the best passage was that moment where the father realizes the impact of the “new morality” he’s been teaching his son after his interaction with the two children the family takes care of while their parents are in the city.
I liked “Generation of Noah”. It makes me want to read “The Long Tomorrow” by Leigh Brackett, which upon reading its plot description, sounds like it could be a sequel set in the same universe.
Now I definitely want to track down “Of Men and Monsters” next by the same author. I’ll also read the rest of “The Wooden Star” collection.
Tenn is great.
I do enjoy The Long Tomorrow but for quite different reasons. Not sure if you saw my review or not: https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2020/07/04/book-review-the-long-tomorrow-leigh-brackett-1955/