Of All Possible Worlds

William Tenn
Of All Possible Worlds Cover

Of All Possible Worlds


Before starting Of All Possible Worlds I had never heard of William Tenn (it turns out he's only written a couple of novels, but wrote a lot of short stories), and yet, reading the introduction, I was struck by how eloquent Tenn was. His defense of science fiction, published in 1955, still rings true (especially if you've ever talked to one of those literary fiction readers who sees no value in escapist fiction). The introduction, on its own, is a worthy essay (and I hope it is included in his "complete works").

The seven stories in this collection prove that Tenn is a writer worth reading, even if, many years later, some of them don't hold up under the weight of the genre. The problem with those stories is that they are based on (since) well-worn premises, but don't bring anything unexpected or profound to those premises. Going through them in order:

* Down among the Dead Men

Category: Zombies

Rating: 5 of 5

This story opens the book and is a perfect followup to one of the points that Tenn made in his introduction: even stories about science-of-the-future are about people. "Among Dead Men" takes place in a world where we've been at war with alien bugs for 25 years. Our population numbers are depressed and, though women are encouraged to be pregnant at all times, we turn to science to solve the problem of troop shortages. The protagonist of the story picks up his new crew of formerly dead men, but discovers that their biases against him are equally present and important as his biases against them.

It's a very human story. It deals with perceived power dynamics between "in" and "out" groups, the difficulty in breaking down barriers, and the ultimate equality of us all.

* Me, Myself, and I

Category: Man travels to the prehistoric and changes something small to large effect

Rating: 2 of 5

In this story, a dimwitted man is hired to test out a time machine. He's instructed to go back to the prehistoric, take a picture, move a rock, and come back. Naturally, he gets back and small details have changed, like the name of his employer (the time machine inventor). Small shenanigans ensue.

This story didn't bring anything to this old stand-by premise. I don't know exactly how many of these came before Tenn's version, but it seems to me that any changes to a future must be either very large or almost inperceptible. This middle ground where a person is essentially the same except for their marital status and name breaks my suspension of disbelief.

* The Liberation of Earth

Category: Benevolet alien overlords

Rating: 4 of 5

In this story alien overlords arrive to "liberate" and protect Earth. Humanity, despite the mass casualties, embraces their liberators. When Earth changes hands, the aliens that they thought were the enemy have equally compelling reasons to call themselves "liberators".

"The Liberation of Earth" is a clear satire of Arthur C Clarke's Childhood's End (published a few years before) and a skillful one at that.

* Everybody Loves Irving Bommer

Category: Love potion gone wrong

Rating: 1 of 5

An old gypsy woman gives Irving Bommer a love potion. He uses too much. Exactly what you expect to happen happens.


Category: Made up words are weird, time travel

Rating: 3 of 5

A flirgleflipper (a deliberately obscure term) is sent back in time where he is caught up by a tabloid reporter selling him as "a man from the future".

It took me two tries to get through this story. When I first got to it, I gave up about four paragraphs in. The made up words were overwhelming and akin to reading a nonsense story. It wasn't until I had finished all of the other stories that I decided to try again. Surely Tenn did not write twenty pages of nonsense. ...and he didn't. The "future" words are deliberately left vaguely defined. I can't say that it was a great story, but it was at least an interesting one.

The Tenants

Category: personification of religious concepts/gods

Rating: 5 of 5

Tohu and Bohu, a very odd couple of men, insist on renting the 13th floor in a building that does not actually have a 13th floor. The story follows the property manager as he puzzles out what is actually happening.

This was my favorite story of the lot. There are a lot of stories out there where "the gods are real", but this is a novel twist. It is also the only story to have a female character (though not any of the main characters of the story) in the form of a Jewish secretary. She actually provides the key clue for the audience to understand what's going on.

The Custodian

Category: last person on Earth

Rating: 4 of 5

The sun is going to explode and humanity has left the Earth behind. The protagonist shields himself from detection and manages to stay behind so that he can study humanity's artistic works uninhibited. When he discovers a child also left behind his outlook changes.

Typing the synopsis I can see why you might think of The Road, but it's nothing like that. This is an optimistic story about the value of art and human life. It brings the collection back around to Tenn's introductions and discussion of science fiction being stories about people, and, while it does break down for a little bit when listing the great artistic works, it secured my opinion of this collection as one well worth reading.