The Wooden Star
by William Tenn
Review by Tim Esaias

This collection of SF satire stories (Copyright 1968, stories first published 1948-65) is worth seeking out. I'm glad I did.

My main reaction to this collection is surprise that these stories haven't been more widely anthologized, especially in the perennial collections of classic SF stories. The quality of the writing, the sharpness of the wit, and the prescience of the pieces are all above the median of such collections on my shelf.

Satire is a tricky genre, and is very liable to becoming dated in very short order if it is too dependent on inside jokes and current references. After 30 or more years these stories show little tarnish, because Tenn fixed on universals rather than on specifics. The story "Generation of Noah" from 1951 looked forward to the bomb-shelter madness of the decade to come, but it remains a valid story because it is just as relevant to the militia/survivalist folks of today. "Null-P" which was first published in 1950 seems to be a devastating critique of the Reagan Administration, and I'm sure it will be fairly current five or ten decades hence. "The Masculinist Revolt", 1965, describes in comic terms the anti-feminist backlash that we find popping up everywhere today.

In each case these stories ring true because of the cynically accurate assessment of society and human psychology that underlies the wit. We are still falling to the level of Tenn's expectations, and his stories still work.

Let me venture to assert that Tenn is a first-class satirist, and to offer to explain why. Most satirists simply exaggerate the bad features of those people, ideas or movements that they wish to make fun of, engaging in what can best be described as partisan attack. This can be effective, and funny, but it neither lasts (because the targets and the sides tend to change rapidly with time) nor does it teach (because it simply confirms prejudices). But the essence of satire is not spoof but teaching. The best satirists are trying to make the readers THINK, to reexamine their preconceptions not reinforce them.

The best satire wields a two-(or more)-edged blade. It undercuts and challenges both sides of whatever propositions are under it's burning lens. It should make ALL its readers a little uncomfortable, and that is the pattern in this collection. The survivalist in "Noah" is both wrong and horribly right. The terrible choice given to the winning candidate for first man on the Moon ("The Dark Star") is not between the right choice and the wrong choice, but between two imperfect choices. We've been to the Moon, but this story works because it's about choice and not about the Moon.

These stories generally transcend their subject matter; and they're either troubling or hilarious. Or both.

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