Monday, September 24, 2012

"Of Men and Monsters" by William Tenn

(cover image from

"It doth not appear, from all you have said, how any one virtue is required towards the procurement of any one station among you; much less that men are ennobled on account of their virtue, that priests are advanced for their piety or learning, soldiers for their conduct or valour, judges for their integrity, senators for the love of their country, or counsellors for their wisdom. ... I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the Earth." - Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels

This quote prefaces Of Men and Monsters (1968) by William Tenn (pen name of Philip Klass) for good reason. It is literally the case that human beings have become vermin, living in the walls - and even the furniture - of the enormous aliens who conquered the Earth long before.

But it's an appropriate quote for other reasons, too, as the book's young hero, Eric the Only, discovers.

All his life, Eric has been a proud member of Mankind, a strong front-burrow tribe of 128 people. ("The sheer population pressure of so vast a horde had long ago filled over a dozen burrows.") He can rattle off the Ancestor-Science catechism he's been taught from infancy, and he's ready for his ceremonial first theft from the Monsters, after which he'll take his place as a Male Society warrior.

Eric's entire life has led up to this. And afterwards, he knows exactly how the rest of his life will go, too. He believes everything he's been taught, and he knows exactly what it means to be a part of Mankind.

But that's not what happens. One blow after another turns Eric's world completely upside down. Much of what he's been taught all his life is not true. And Eric ends up a hunted outcast, instead of the respected adult he always expected to be.

This is an entertaining adventure story, but Eric's struggle to overcome his primitive, superstitious upbringing makes it more than that. All his life, Eric has been a typical tribesman. He's known nothing but that life.

He's even gleefully participated in the torture of captured Strangers:
One thing about it, however, everyone knew. On it would be enacted a moving religious drama: the ultimate triumph of humanity over the Monsters. For this, the central character had to fulfill two requirements: he had to be an intelligent creature as the Monsters were, so that he could be made to suffer as some day Mankind meant the Monsters to suffer; and he had to be nonhuman as the Monsters were, so that every drop of fear, resentment, and hatred distilled by the enormous swaggering aliens could be poured out upon his flesh without any inhibition of compunction or fellow-feeling.

For this purpose, outlaws were absolutely ideal since all agreed that such disgusting creatures had resigned their membership in the human race. ...

Everyone had their chance. All, from the chief himself to the youngest child capable of reciting the catechism of Ancestral Science, all climbed in their turn upon the Stage - or Theater - or Scaffold - that the women had erected. All were thrilled to vent a portion of Mankind's vengeance upon the creature who had been declared alien, as an earnest of what they would some day do collectively to the Monsters who had stolen their world.

This is Mankind's faith, Mankind's culture, Mankind's society. And Eric is fully a part of that society, expecting to continue as a proud adult of that society, right up until he's declared to be an outlaw. And then he faces that hatred, that religious hysteria, even from the young woman who'd hoped to become his mate.

As I say, it's just one body-blow after another for Eric, who has to survive not just physical threats, but the wrenching mental adjustments he must make.

The premise of the story - aliens so huge that human beings can live like mice, like cockroaches, in their homes - isn't at all plausible. But a premise doesn't have to be plausible. In science fiction, you just accept the premise for the sake of the story.

And it makes a great story. Human beings have survived, and they even remember bits and pieces of what used to be, but it's just mythology now. Science has become religion, magic, superstition. Primitive tribes call themselves "Mankind," with all other humans being "Strangers" likely to be killed on sight.

They live in alien walls, stealing food from alien storehouses. "Outside" is completely unknown, and they suffer terribly from agoraphobia even when they venture from their burrows into Monster living spaces. And to the aliens, they're just vermin.

There are a lot of clever details here, like "auld lang synes" meaning "years," and the erroneous misquote by superstitious primitives that "the cages of sin is death." And the ending is pretty clever, too.

But it's the early part of the book that I admired the most, with its young hero struggling to overcome a lifetime of conditioning and religious superstition. Well, the whole thing is a very good read.


Jim Harris said...

I read Of Men and Monsters a very long time ago, and barely remember it. But your review Bill makes me want to track down a copy and reread it.

WCG said...

I was the same way, Jim. I remembered the general idea, but that was all.

I was pleasantly surprised at how well it held up. The first half of the book was particularly good, with the hero learning that almost everything he'd been taught all his life was a lie. It was great to see his confusion and his determination.

Other characters, in contrast, were just eager to belong again, eager to find a leader to follow. It was all great stuff.

The later part of the book was less believable and less thought-provoking. It was still fun, and rather clever. Clearly, the whole book was leading to that particular conclusion. But it was the first part that really impressed me.