Of Men and Monsters by William Tenn
Paperback - 256 pages (18 January, 2001) Victor Gollancz Science Fiction; ISBN: 0575072342
Review by John Berlyne
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The Gollancz SF Collector's Editions series has steadily been reprinting classic science fiction for a few months now. Between the covers of their smart and distinctive fold-over yellow wraps we have seen some notable modern works reissued for a new generation of readers. Joining the company of Sturgeon, Crowley, Octavia Butler and other such luminaries we now have William Tenn's 1968 work (and only full length novel) Of Men & Monsters.

This is a work of post-apocalyptic fiction written at a time of nuclear neurosis but Tenn avoids the Planet of the Apes self-annihilation scenario instead giving us something much better and far cleverer. In Of Men & Monsters, the world has suffered a terrible fate. Giant, technologically superior aliens have conquered Earth and the human race has been reduced to nothing but vermin hiding in the walls of the Monster's enormous habitats. Forced to forage for food, Man has regressed back to his most basic prehistoric tribal form. Territory is paramount and suspicion of strangers, i.e. humans belonging to other tribes, is ever present. There is some clinging to old ways and traditions, but these have become distorted as the underlying  reasons and meanings behind them become lost in the mists of tribal folklore.

The novel opens with the focus on Eric, a young member of a tribe that calls itself "Mankind". He is about to become an adult and must undergo rites of passage in a ceremony which involves venturing out alone into Monster territory and stealing some item from them which the tribe can utilize. "Mankind" revere the old ways and the ceremony involves catechisms that talk of ridding the planet of the Monsters "...by regaining the science and knowledge of our forefathers. Man was once the Lord of all Creation: his science and knowhow made him supreme. Science and knowhow is what we need to hit back at the Monsters."

As he is about to begin his perilous undertaking, Eric learns that his uncle, who is also his sponsor, has all along been a secret supporter of a  very different philosophy. One taboo, indeed heretical throughout "Mankind". There are those who subscribe to the thinking that Ancestor-Science failed to repel the Monsters when they first came and therefore to seek the old knowhow is a pointless practice. Far better to try and gain knowledge of Alien-Science and then to turn it against the Monsters. Eric is appalled by this news but he is persuaded by the argument.

He goes out into Monster territory to prove himself and whilst there he rendezvous with some more Alien-Science-Radicals. On his return to the burrows though he finds an insurrection led by his uncle has failed miserably and that he is now an outcast. What follows is Eric's journey from boy to man, from follower to leader and ultimately from captivity to deliverance.

This is a highly entertaining story but also a well observed and beautifully written allegory. Tenn infuses the story with an upbeat and ultimately hopeful notion that whatever the circumstances, Man can triumph. His ending though wryly adds to this in a wonderfully satirical way, suggesting that this triumph may not always follow the most obvious course.