William Tenn has a gift for telling a story that is funny, entertaining, and interesting all at the same time. Of All Possible Worlds collects eight of Tenn’s stories written from 1947 to 1954. The stories are rooted in science fictions pulp roots, but still seem surprisingly modern in certain aspects. “The Liberation of Earth” (first published in 1954) in particular seems almost like a direct forerunner of the New Wave movement that would take hold in sci-fi during the 1960s.
That being said, the collection isn’t really food for deep thought, but there are a few interesting things that could be said about the stories contained within. Let’s get started, shall we?
The book’s forward is perhaps one of the best parts of the book. I don’t say that to put the rest of the book down; it is a genuinely interesting look at how Tenn viewed the craft of science fiction writing at the time. The essay, On The Fiction in Science Fiction, relates a bit to some of the past discussions that have taken place in the comments here. He begins by providing a loose definition for the field of science fiction in his view: writing influenced by change in society, technology, and attitudes, yet being cautious to note that this very emphasis on change prevents a strict definition from being applied.
Using this as a starting point, Tenn launches into a defense of the field as the critics of the time saw it (and to some extent, still see it today): commercial fiction, not true literature. One of the examples he cites is Shakespeare. Shakespeare was immensely popular with the public at a time when university-trained playwrights were focused on producing “good” plays: plays written and performed in the classical style. This works as an analogy for the modern situation. Genre fiction is commonly sneered upon by those thinking focused on writing “literature”, but they forget the real purpose of why people tell stories: to entertain. While fiction can do things alongside entertain, Tenn suggests that entertainment is the life force of storytelling, and that any field polished to the point of being out of touch with its audience is doomed to die out.
At the same time, Tenn saw that remaining true to science fiction’s roots was paving a path for the field to die out. As a style, pulp science fiction was very wrapped up in itself, focus mainly resting on a new gadget or alien, while leaving other themes very underdeveloped. Tenn’s essay gently reminds readers who crave science in science fiction to the expense of all else, that the way characters feel and act is also an important part of writing. Lasting stories are stories of human relationships, whether or not it contains fancy gadgets or not.
In a way, Tenn advocated for a couple of the main tenets of New Wave writing: a greater focus on the characters, and striving to improve the literary style of the form to something beyond the very simple themes of pulp science fiction. But, he claimed that this was something natural for a writer: most writers have a dedication to their craft that produces a desire to hone their storytelling ability while simultaneously exploring new areas of their field. Thus, I don’t think that this essay really calls for the radical approach some New Wave writers took towards reinventing the field of sci-fi, such as Ballard’s suggestion in his essay Which Way to Inner Space? that “science fiction should turn its back on space, on interstellar travel, extra-terrestrial life forms, galactic wars.” Why do I say that? Many of the stories in Of All Possible Worlds have these elements in them.
The lead-off story, Down Among the Dead Men, has all of those elements, and more. In it, humanity is fighting a race of insectoid aliens, the Eoti, to a stalemate as the Eoti invade the solar system. The war is a losing prospect for humans: as colonists of multiple systems, the Eoti have much more materiel to throw into the battle, while Eoti personnel losses can be replaced much faster. As a result, humanity is forced to recycle as much as it can. Even dead people. A new industrial process allows for dead human flesh to be reprocessed into new soldiers. The story follows a commander on his way to pick up a crew of these soldiers, who don’t think highly of people.
The Liberation of Earth, in my opinion, is the best story in the book, which seems to be a rather common opinion from what I hear. In it, Earth alternately plays host to two alien species, the Dendi and the Troxxt, as they retake the planet from one another. Earth is first visited by the Dendi, who claim that the Troxxt are a tyrannical species bent on ruling the galaxy, and very close to doing so. After a while the Troxxt military shows up to “liberate” Earth from the Dendi, who the Troxxt say is actually the tyrant – the Troxxt and multiple other species are fighting a revolution against them. Humanity enthusiastically supports each side when they first show up, but after a number of “liberations”, mankind is left supporting whatever side is currently in control to ensure their own survival. Competing factions also exist, humans who support the Dendi, and those that support the Troxxt. Finally, the Dendi and Troxxt fight a massive battle for Earth, leaving it wildly out of orbit and nearly depleted of breathable atmosphere. With the area denied to the enemy, both sides leave humanity to fend for itself.
A common idea is that the story was written as an allegory for the Korean War. While not necessarily the case, it definitely works well as one. The “liberators” in the story are not particularly interested in humans, they’re interested in fighting one another. The thought could easily have been drawn from the Korean War: the main sides weren’t particularly interested in Korea, the war was mainly fought as a proxy battle between the Soviets and Americans. The wide-ranging war ravaged a large part of the Korean peninsula, while actions taken by both sides suggested that the war could go nuclear in a hurry, leaving the area nearly unlivable. Placing the Korean War in the context of an interstellar war highlights what must have been an absurd situation for Koreans: a war being fought on their behalf, but not for the betterment of Korea, but for the Soviets and Americans to prove the superiority of their economic systems.
A quick rundown of the other stories in the book:
Me, Myself, and I – A dimwitted time-traveller for hire messes up the timeline, goes back in time to fix it, meets himself, and finds a way to compound the problem. It’s a fun little time-travel story.
Everybody Loves Irving Bommer – Guy gets a love potion, doesn’t follow dosing instructions, and ends up with a crush. Probably my least favorite story in the collection.
Flirgleflip – A professor gets sent back in time to prove another professor’s point, and fails to impress modern audiences with futuristic scientific endeavors. The story rather failed to impress me as well.
The Tenants – A business moves into the 13th floor of a building with no 13th floor. The building’s manager drives himself crazy trying to figure it out.
The Custodian – A man stays behind on Earth as the rest of humanity flees the Sun’s impending nova. After finding a baby (long story) he decides that he must escape Earth as well. Actually, this story ranks as my second favorite in the book. It’s actually not half bad.
Of All Possible Worlds is kind of uneven. It contains a couple of really good stories, and a couple more passable ones, but the some of the stories were kind of a drag to read. Some of the stories are humorous, and while not Douglas Adams-level comedy, they’re still damn witty. Overall, I think the book is of most interest as a harbinger of the change that would transform science fiction in the years to come.