Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Phil Klass, aka William Tenn

I made a jackass of myself the first time I interviewed — hell, spoke with — Phil Klass.

“You have no idea who I am, do you?” he asked, frustrated, after I’d posed a few questions over the telephone. I hadn’t yet connected him with his pen name.

To be honest, I hadn’t read much William Tenn at that point, even if I had known he and Phil were one and the same. And as a relative newcomer to Pittsburgh, I didn’t yet have an internal map of the local SF community’s leading lights. It wasn’t until later, when I looked Phil up in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, that I tumbled to how badly I’d blown the interview, which the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had assigned me by way of covering ConFluence, the city's major SF convention.

For all his multicultural sophistication — he went to war as a socialist, Jewish U.S. soldier, the son of a Brit and a Russian — Phil Klass was an American original. He embodied so much of what makes me proud of this country. He had his opinions, and stated them courageously no matter what anybody thought; during the McCarthy era, he was one of a few SF authors openly parodying the Red Scare. He claimed no special courage, on the grounds that the folks who would have objected didn't read, and wouldn't have understood, science fiction.

Having done some intelligence work on captured Nazis, and despite the fact that he and they were each other's worst nightmares, Phil had utter contempt for torturers and their ultimately craven arguments of “utility.” Yet he told a story about dragging local townspeople in to see what had been happening in the death camp next store to them, belying their claims of “not knowing.”

Phil also told a captivating story of a major SF editor of the classic era — I think it may have been Campbell, but I'm not sure — confiding in him that “Jews probably are Homo superior” — an embarrassingly common trope of SF in its sophomore years — and how, despite his best attempts, he couldn't get the man to understand why this was so wrong, how it insulted rather than honored the memory of the Holocaust's victims. “I told him I was sorry to hear that, because it meant we'd learned nothing,” Phil said decades later.

Phil also was generous in advice, and gave good advice. I wish I could tell you how his tips transformed my SF career — but sadly, the industry is too much of a train wreck for anybody to provide the magic words. Suffice it to say he was bullish on nonfiction, bearish on creative nonfiction, and absolutely gloomy on science fiction. I've seen nothing to indicate that he got anything even slightly wrong in that.

Of course, Phil Klass, under pen name William Tenn, was a gifted science fiction author, a David-Bowie-like figure who maybe didn't get read as often as the Asimovs, Heinleins, and Herberts, but who was read by, and influenced, just about every subsequent major SF author. He was as honest in his fiction as he was in real life, arguing at a time when SF stories typically had genius inventors creating the first moon rocket in their back yards that it was going to take the finances and physical resources of a large government bureaucracy to reach the moon. It pissed people off to have someone puncture a cherished trope like that, but I note that it was a bloated, inefficient, can't-do-anything government agency called NASA that got the job done, and not private-sector venture capitalists.

But I digress.

Going over my notes from that first interview with Phil and my subsequent research, I had an inspiration: I would fight my every instinct. Rather than side-step my cluelessness, I would confront it. I opened the article with Phil’s exasperated words. It gave me a perfect entree into talking about the many reasons people come to an SF convention, and the uphill battle those of us with the SF-writing compulsion face.

After the piece ran, I ran into Phil at ConFluence, and introduced myself. He said simply, “I read your article, and it was mostly accurate. I was surprised!”

Phil, wherever you are, I'm going to take that as an indictment of modern journalism. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.


Barton Paul Levenson said...

He was always pleasant and friendly, even to an unknown like me. And he stuck up for his old-line liberal beliefs in the face of both modern rad-right conservatives and University-of-Pittsburgh type crazy leftists. RIP Dr. Klass.

Laurie Mann said...

Excellent rememberance essay (and I've read a lot of them over the last few days).

Ken Chiacchia said...

Thanks, Laurie; and yes, Barton, the fact was he always had a kind word and attention to pay to us nobodies. He simply didn't think anybody was a nobody.

I am going to miss Phil a lot; the Pittsburgh-area SF get-togethers, as well as the cons, just aren't going to be the same without him.