William Tenn 1920-2010

Science fiction writer William Tenn, who was in private life Phil Klass, died yesterday of congestive heart failure. He was eighty-nine. He leaves his wife Fruma and daughter Adina, and much of science fiction fandom will also miss him.

He wrote one novel, Of Men and Monsters, and many wry and wonderful short stories, collected by NESFA as Immodest Proposals and Here Comes Civilization. He was Worldcon Guest of Honor in 2004. His stories were satire, and they were real science fiction. “The Liberation of Earth” in The Best Penguin SF was one of the first science fiction stories I ever read, and it blew me away. His stories  generally worked by taking some science fiction ideas that nobody else would have thought of putting together, twisting them up with his typical wry humour, and hooking you into them with his way with words. They read aloud wonderfully—I’ll always remember hearing him read “On Venus, Do We Have a Rabbi” at the 2001 Worldcon.

At that same convention I was on a panel on his work, with Connie Willis and Robert Silverberg, and Phil sitting in the front row nodding soberly from time to time. He had an absolute straight face, in life as in his stories. After the panel when Robert Silverberg went up to him, he said how much he’d loved Dying Inside, and I got to see one of my science fiction writer heroes admiring another—and a great writer being taken aback by praise. A second later he was saying how we’d talked about stories he’d forgotten writing—but there was a twinkle in his eye. And that was Phil, generous, funny, and straight faced. Another time at a Boskone I introduced my son to him. Sasha was twelve or thirteen at the time and he’d recently loved Of Men and Monsters. “This is one of the new generation of your fans,” I said, and Sasha and Phil both synchronously rolled their eyes at the impossibility of mothers. He does have a new generation of fans, though. The last time I heard one of his stories read aloud was at a party here, when a fan in her twenties read “The Party of the Two Parts”, the amoeba sex story.

We’ll miss Phil Klass. William Tenn’s work will live on.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


Subscribe to this thread