Monday, April 26, 2010


To quote Bruce Sterling, “If poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, science fiction writers are its court jesters… we can play with Big Ideas because the garish motley of our pulp origins makes us seem harmless.”

One of science fictions greatest court jesters was William Tenn (the pen name of Philip Klass) who’s work had a finely honed satirical edge, so finely honed that it was, indeed, sometimes not immediately apparent that he was playing with Big Ideas.

Eastward Ho! is one of the cases in point, a witty and clever story of nuclear war and reconstruction that sees a devastated America where the shoe is very firmly on the other foot and the native tribes have taken control of the reins of power, pushing white society aside and undoing the injustices of the past.

In Tenn’s imagined future the United States of America is a struggling, backward and mostly agrarian society, while the Arapaho, Seminole, Cheyenne and, most importantly, the Sioux, dominate much of continental America in the aftermath of a disastrous nuclear war been the USA and USSR.

When Jerry Franklin, eldest son of the Senator from Idaho, is sent on a diplomatic mission to Osceola VII, Ruler of All the Seminoles he discovers that the fierce and highly organized Sioux nations have already displaced the Seminoles and are preparing to annex the USA. As Chief Three Hydrogen Bombs explains “…we have an expanding population. You don't have an expanding population. We need more land. You don't use most of the land you have. Should we sit by and see the land go to waste…” If that isn’t Manifest Destiny in action then I don’t know what is.

Realizing that things are only going to get worse and that the USA has already been overrun by the Sioux, Jerry makes a momentous decision… to travel sail across the Atlantic:
"Due east all the way. To the fabled lands of Europe. To a place where a white man can stand at last on his own two legs. Where he need not fear persecution. Where he need not fear slavery. Sail east, Admiral, until we discover a new and hopeful world—a world of freedom!"

A short and joyous story, Eastward Ho! not only plays with the conventions of SF but also with those of the (then) popular western. There is a gleeful delight in character names – characters such Makes Much Radiation and Three Hydrogen Bombs, weapons such as the Crazy House .45 and the Geronimo .32 – seemingly throw-away jokes that convey a huge amount of information in a very short space of time, and fills in a hell of a lot of back-story in very few words:

"Tell me," Jerry asked, bending down. "Have you heard any other news? Anything about the rest of the world? How has it been with those people—the Russkies, the Sovietskis, whatever they were called—the ones the United States had so much to do with years and years ago?"
"According to several of the Chief's councilors, the Soviet Russians were having a good deal of difficulty with people called Tatars. I think they were called Tatars.”

A writer of great subtlety who, at first glance, appeared to be working in broad strokes, (his short story The Liberation of Earth is another small masterpiece) William Tenn deals with racism, the march of history, politics and the nature of national and personal pride (“After all, he was the son—and the oldest son, at that—of the Senator from Idaho; Sam Rutherford's father was a mere Undersecretary of State and Sam's mother's family was pure post-office clerk all the way back.”) in an incredibly entertaining and economical narrative.

Rarely has a jester capered to such good effect.

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