Group Read 27: The Big Book of Science Fiction
Story #23 of 107: “The Liberation of Earth” by William Tenn
“The Liberation of Earth” was first published in the May 1953 issue of Future Science Fiction. It hasn’t been widely reprinted, but it’s been in all the versions of Brian Aldiss’s The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus and it’s in The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction. I believe I’ve only read it once before, in The Great SF Stories 15 (1953) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. I owned a copy Of All Possible Worlds back in the 1960s and might have first read it then, but just can’t remember. For a short time in my adolescence I was into William Tenn because I had found an old copy of Galaxy Science Fiction with “Time Waits for Winthrop,” and that amused me. I remember seeking out his stories, but don’t remember what I read. I recently read Of Men and Monsters and loved it. In my review I made a case that people should try to read Tenn’s only novel without encountering any spoilers — don’t even read the blurbs on the book cover.
I am less taken with “The Liberation of Earth.” Oh, it’s good enough, and fun, I’m just not keen on satire in my old age. However, it might be a problem with presentation. My inner reading voice is not very impressive, especially for sarcasm and other forms of comic snideness. Comedy depends heavily on presentation. “The Liberation of Earth” is a long monologue describing the invasions and liberations by two groups of aliens, the Dendi and the Troxxt, who use the Earth like the U.S. and Russia fought over third world countries for their client states.
If I could have heard “The Liberation of Earth” read by a professional narrator I might have been wowed by all the relevant satire. The VanderMeers really tout its greatness, especially as an antiwar work that was originally inspired by the Korean War. And I do imagine if the people of Afghanistan read this story today they could relate to the “joys” of being liberated time and again.
I think there is another target for Tenn’s satire in this story — science fiction — especially the cherished notion that humanity would be welcomed as an equal partner into a wise galactic federation. “The Liberation of Earth” came out after The Day the Earth Stood Still, so I wondered if it was also harpooning it?
However, there is another issue I should mention. I believe I’ve come to want a certain kind of storytelling, and this narrowing of my tastes leaves me a bit closeminded about other kinds of storytelling. I like stories with characters I can get to know and care about. I don’t have to like them, but they have to involve me. “The Liberation of Earth” only has an unnamed narrator, and not someone we get to know. When Australia is turned to ash it was only an abstraction. If there had been an Australian character we had come to care about, it might have mattered. Like the Australians in the novel On the Beach. The one William Tenn story I do remember well and love, is the novel Of Monsters and Men, and that was because of Eric the Only. I followed Eric through many adventures, and we solved the mysteries of his world together.
I recently listened to The Best of Walter M. Miller Jr. on audiobook. Many of the stories in that collection were exactly the kind I love, with captivating characters, dramatic plots, presented by a very talented professional narrator. I’ve been listening to the Miller stories over the same weeks I’ve been reading The Big Book of Science Fiction, and the contrast is stark. Too many of the stories in the BBofSF just depend on ideas and cleverness, and that’s not enough for me. And to be honest, I can’t believe it’s enough for any reader. However, that’s another thing I’m learning from group reading these stories on Facebook. Everyone likes different kinds of science fiction.
Miller stories are just the right kind for me, even though they aren’t particularly famous in science fiction history, and some of them are a bit weird and strange, even for science fiction. But gosh, they’re great stories, with great storytelling — again, at least for me. Since this collection isn’t even in print at the moment maybe they aren’t the right kind of storytelling for a lot of SF fans. The audiobook I listened to is new, but narrates a collection last published back in 1980. My absolute favorite is “The Darfsteller.” It was first published in the January 1955 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. I believe it was the first novelette to win the Hugo Award even though it’s a novella. I’m guessing the magazine version was much shorter. After that three stories are tied for second place as my favorites: “The Lineman,” “Conditionally Human,” and “Dark Benediction.” Although if I listened to the book again I might pick other stories out of the 14 in this collection. And I should probably give a trigger warning that these stories might be offensive to modern readers who expect characters in the past to have 21st-century enlightened views.
I’d really wish the audiobook publishers of the Miller collection would do one for Tenn. In fact, there are many science fiction authors I love who mainly wrote short stories and there’s no audiobook editions of their work. Several of those authors are in print from NESFA Press, including William Tenn. Audible Studios has done one NESFA book that I know of, His Share of Glory by C. M. Kornbluth. I wish they’d do them all. With a good audio narrator I might even love “The Liberation of Earth.” I have found that audiobooks can often get me to enjoy books I don’t enjoy reading.
Many of the stories we’ve read in The Big Book of Science Fiction have been disappointing to some of our membership, but then others in the group have liked them. It’s really hard to judge fiction. It seems the VanderMeers prefer kinds of storytelling I don’t, but like I said, presentation matters. So does mood. I’ve changed my mind about stories because my mood had changed. And then there’s age. I think we resonate with stories differently depending on our age. I don’t remember if I read “The Liberation of Earth” back in the 1960s, but I’m pretty sure I would have liked it much better when I was young.
James Wallace Harris, 10/2/21