Tuesday, February 9, 2010

RIP Phil Klass

Phil Klass, the tiny old Jew who (under the name "William Tenn") had introduced compassionate satire to Golden Age SF, died on Sunday at the age of eighty-nine. Interviewing him in 2001 at his home, I found him to be a wonderful man, even though he'd moved away from his socialist origins and become, in his words, "almost, but not quite, a neoconservative."

There's a famous passage from his friend Sturgeon on Klass's influence: "It would not be too wide a generalization to say that every SF satire, every SF comedy and every attempt at witty and biting criticism found in the field is a poor and usually cheap imitation of what this man has been doing since the 1940s." Not fair to Cyril Kornbluth, but not too far off the mark: a great deal of satirical SF that works can be traced, genealogically, back to Klass. In an era of romanticized space pilots, he showed that you could write SF with a kind of 18th-century ironic sensibility and not be a complete Swiftian misanthrope.

What I don't see enough of in encomia to him is credit for his unashamed Yiddishkeit. SF was full of Jewish writers before Klass, sure; but they tended not to know what to do with their Jewishness (Asimov) or to be unhappy with it (Bester) or to reduce it to a two-dimensional vaudeville. Jewish guys who wanted to be Chesterton and Doyle and Kipling. Klass (and Horace Gold, who published much of his work) showed, with pieces like "Bernie the Faust" and "My Mother Was a Witch" and "On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi," how to be shamelessly Jewish in an SF story. I'd say he made it possible for Davidson (and hence Ellison) to do what he did, and perhaps cleared the way for expressions of Jewish-Americanness in the likes of Russ, What, and Friesner. And by extension, demonstrated that an SF writer didn't have to aspire to be or to write about an ethnicity-free Ideal White American (no small feat in the years after World War II, when liberal image-brokers were very attached to the tactic of arguing "Minority members are just like you!" Watch the movie versions of Home of the Brave and Gentlemen's Agreement).

Laurie Mann is collecting commemorations. I especially liked one of her own.


Nancy Jane Moore said...

Did you see this obit in the NY Times? Rather a nice discussion of his work, I thought. I only met him once, but I found him both charming and interesting. A loss to us all.

Josh said...

Oh, that's awesome. Thank heavens that Perri Klass and Gerald Jonas got it in there!