Of Men and Monsters by William Tenn — book review

Of Men and Monsters by William Tenn. Gollancz ‘7.99

Reviewed by Peter Coleborn

‘Mankind consisted of 128 people.’ How about that for a hook? I remember it grabbing me when I first read Of Men and Monsters in the 1970s ‘ and it has the same effect now. 

In fact, it turns out that there are a lot more than 128 people. They all live in the shadows ‘ and in the walls ‘ of the Monsters’ dwellings; the Monsters are gigantic aliens that, ages ago, conquered the Earth. The human beings live like rats —  and as people everywhere facing a superior enemy, become fractionalised, living in their own little tribes, each the enemy of the other ‘ more so than the Monsters, who are all but untouchable.

Eric is a warrior of the tribe Mankind. To live, the warriors must enter Monster territory and steal food, avoiding the creatures (who are likely to stamp the humans flat) and the other tribes living in the tunnels. But Eric falls foul of his tribe’s leader and becomes an Outlaw; teaming up with Strangers, he seeks alien technology in order to take the fight to the Monsters. Long story cut short: he’s captured, escapes, finds a mate ‘ and many die along the way by human hands and Monster tentacles. And in the process he learns about Earth history, science and technology.

Of Men and Monsters is, of course, satire. Indeed, in his introduction Graham Sleight compares this book with Gulliver’s Travels. Looking at the current and the previous century, it is all too clear that Tenn captured the disorganised, untrusting nature of people with slight differences. Other comparisons will be obvious, such as The Borrowers ‘ and any house infested with (heaven forbid) intelligent mice.

The book starts at a rollicking pace. Then Tenn begins to explain too much, to repeat facts. In this day, this is quite irritating. But his original audience might not have noticed. And that’s the best way to read this book: saviour the absurdity of the situation; marvel at the concepts; ignore the weaknesses; and enjoy one of Gollancz’s essential SF Masterworks. It’s well worth it.

Of Men and Monsters by William Tenn. Gollancz ‘7.99

Reviewed by Peter Coleborn

‘Mankind consisted of 128 people.’ How about that for a hook? I remember it grabbing me when I first read Of Men and Monsters in the 1970s ‘ and it has the same effect now. 

In fact, it turns out that there are a lot more than 128 people. They all live in the shadows ‘ and in the walls ‘ of the Monsters’ dwellings; the Monsters are gigantic aliens that, ages ago, conquered the Earth. The human beings live like rats —  and as people everywhere facing a superior enemy, become fractionalised, living in their own little tribes, each the enemy of the other ‘ more so than the Monsters, who are all but untouchable.

Eric is a warrior of the tribe Mankind. To live, the warriors must enter Monster territory and steal food, avoiding the creatures (who are likely to stamp the humans flat) and the other tribes living in the tunnels. But Eric falls foul of his tribe’s leader and becomes an Outlaw; teaming up with Strangers, he seeks alien technology in order to take the fight to the Monsters. Long story cut short: he’s captured, escapes, finds a mate ‘ and many die along the way by human hands and Monster tentacles. And in the process he learns about Earth history, science and technology.

Of Men and Monsters is, of course, satire. Indeed, in his introduction Graham Sleight compares this book with Gulliver’s Travels. Looking at the current and the previous century, it is all too clear that Tenn captured the disorganised, untrusting nature of people with slight differences. Other comparisons will be obvious, such as The Borrowers ‘ and any house infested with (heaven forbid) intelligent mice.

The book starts at a rollicking pace. Then Tenn begins to explain too much, to repeat facts. In this day, this is quite irritating. But his original audience might not have noticed. And that’s the best way to read this book: saviour the absurdity of the situation; marvel at the concepts; ignore the weaknesses; and enjoy one of Gollancz’s essential SF Masterworks. It’s well worth it.