Monday, February 8, 2010

Phil Klass 1920-2010

A beloved fixture of the Pittsburgh writing (and reading) community has left us.

I met Phil Klass not long after we moved here, holding court as always at one of the local science fiction events. It wasn't until a bit later that I learned that he had published mostly under the name William Tenn.

I could sit in that circle and listen to Phil's stories forever. His health gave him some difficulty in speaking, and the anecdotes and jokes came slowly and in spurts, plenty of time to savor. I stayed as long as he would keep going, generally until Fruma came to collect him.

Beneath the razor wit and appreciation of the absurd that overlay his stories, there was a passion that eventually revealed itself. The Russian-British-American* Jewish socialist citizen-soldier who had been little more than a boy when he marched the German townspeople through the gates of the concentration camp and forced them to look at what they had pretended was not there -- the young man who saw -- was fueled by a boundless drive for justice.

Every funny anecdote about John Campbell's eccentricities, or how it used to be possible to pay the rent (New York City rent!) selling short stories to the pulps because per-word rates in 1946 were same as they were in 2006 (not in real dollars -- ten cents a word vs. ten cents a word -- in other words, more than a tenfold decrease in real pay), was really a story about justice or injustice, great or small.

It's something not often noticed about satirists, even the gentlest -- the wit and drive to skewer or needle or drop itching powder into the underwear of the comfortable and the powerful and the smug -- is always all about justice.

How could anyone pass up an opportunity to listen?

I had one story for him.

About a kid about eleven years old who had already cleaned out the children's room of public library and was randomly burning through adult fiction when a particularly salacious science fiction cover grabbed my attention.

Now, this was back in the mid-70's, when the Moral Majority had not yet turned public librarians into paranoid gatekeepers of our plastic little minds. As long as I was up-to-date on my overdue fines, I could check out whatever I could carry off. So I brought home a paperback full of sex and nekkid people living as rats in the walls of monster houses and women having litters. I was savvy enough to keep it out from under my parents' noses. I checked it out over and over. I knew it was trash, yet somehow it was also great.

I was eleven. I had no idea it was satire. I just knew I wanted more.

Still do, Phil. Still do.


* Phil Klass was the Allied forces. He was Hitler's worst nightmare personified. I never saw that before now.

FUNERAL UPDATE: Phil's funeral, scheduled for Wednesday morning, has been postponed due to the snow storm. A memorial service is planned for spring.


  1. I think this is the link you want to reference. There seems to be some kind of incomplete no-outsider-link trap that prevents the cover image from showing up if it is requested by a referrer not on the same domain. Can't say I blame them too much, but that's sorta archaic these days.

  2. (Once you go to the link above the image shows up on this post. Gah.)

  3. Thanks Rob. Never heard of that. I just took the same image from wikipedia and edited it into the post. So it should be All Good now.

  4. PBS has both "Of Men and Monsters" and "The Seven Sexes" available to order. Which do you recommend?


  5. Jan, I've never read The Seven Sexes, so I'll have to answer that one with a resounding BOTH.

  6. I'll order both and send you Seven Sexes once I've read it.

  7. I carried four of his books on a trip to Japan/Hong Kong/Hawaii in 1968 when I was 14. Still have them.

    My mom also had no idea what I was reading. I'd fallen hard and fast for hard core science fiction. Gave me all kinds of dangerous ideas. Heh. Heh.


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