Farewell, William Tenn. And, Thanks
Fans of classic science fiction will be saddened to hear that one of its most imaginative writers has passed. In the 1950s and 1960s, William Tenn stood with pioneers like Theodore Sturgeon in creating vivid scenarios of mind-blowing alien worlds in novels and stories that illuminated emotional, political and ethical issues of good old humanity. Tenn was a pseudonym for Philip Klass. His particular contribution to the Golden Age was a willingness to put humor at center stage. (My favorite story of his: “On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi.”)
His death on Sunday, a few months short of his 90th birthday, is a blow to sci-fi. Condolences to his wife Fruma (herself an award-winning writer) and daughter Adina. But the loss also extends to those who never did manage to crack his novel about an extraterrestrial race with seven sexes.
After living a scuffling life of a freelance sci-fi writer in Greenwich Village for many years, Klass joined the faculty of Penn State in the mid-’60s. He was instrumental in encouraging the careers of fiction writers and journalists like David Morrell, who dedicated his debut novel, First Blood, to his mentor — that’s right — the book that unleashed Rambo.
Those who took his creative writing classes and waited outside his office or his home for a personal critique of their work — Klass was always booked for more meetings than a 24-hour day could handle — got tough-love assessments, and a dare to do better. Coming from a pro, that meant a lot.
I was one of those students, an English lit major in the grad program slowly grasping that I was not destined for academia. In his lengthy comment on the first story I handed in for his class, Klass began, “Well, at least you can write,” and proceeded to eviscerate almost every line of my work.
No matter — I could write! Klass helped get me an internship at the local newspaper — something not usually done for grad students. During my semester at the Centre Daily Times I covered a science fiction conclave held at the university and saw first-hand the massive esteem with which giants in the field like Frederick Pohl regarded Klass/Tenn. With his encouragement, I left State College with hopes of making a living with my typewriter. (Computers were a few years away.)
Fortunately, William Tenn’s work, all of which breaks out of the genre with his unique generosity of spirit, survives. His fiction is collected in two volumes, both in print: Immodest Proposals and Here Comes Civilization. But I’ll always remember Phil Klass for a sentence he wrote about a callow short story from a student with deeply buried potential: At least you can write.
God knows where I would have wound up without hearing that.
Home page photo courtesy The Official Home Page of Science Fiction Writer William Tenn