Philip Klass, who died on February 7 aged 89, wrote
science-fiction under the name William Tenn, and his work,
with its emphasis on social commentary, was sometimes
compared to that of Philip K Dick.
As William Tenn, Klass's first story - Alexander the Bait -
appeared in Astounding Science Fiction in 1946, the first of
more than 200 he wrote in a 60-year career. Many were
written in the 1950s, a decade in which science fiction
acquired some literary legitimacy.
Often darkly satirical, his work appeared in other sci-fi
magazines like Galaxy, and attracted critical attention
from, among others, the British novelist Kingsley Amis, who
cited Klass's work in his survey of American sci-fi New Maps
of Hell (1961).
Amis particularly commended Tenn's satire on mediocrity,
Null-P, in which after an atomic war George Abnego is
elected to the White House, the only man in America who
incarnates the statistical average down to the state and
number of the teeth in his mouth; Amis praised Tenn's
"sprightliness and an obvious delight in invention that
typifies much of the best contemporary science fiction".
For 23 years Klass worked as a professor of English and
comparative literature at Penn State University, where, in
1968 in the post room, he encountered a young David Morrell,
who later wrote First Blood (1972), the novel that was
adapted into the film Rambo.
"He wore a dark, rumpled suit," Morrell recalled. "He had
wiry, salt-and-pepper hair and a matching goatee. One hand
gripped a coffee cup, the other a pipe, while an arm held a
book and a bunch of letters under it."
Although Morrell was not enrolled on his course, Klass gave
him advice and encouragement. " ... if not for Philip Klass
and my determination to be a fiction writer, a recent
edition of the Oxford English Dictionary wouldn't have cited
this novel as the source for the creation of a word,"
Morrell noted in a later edition of First Blood.
Philip Klass was born in London on May 9 1920. His Jewish
father, a tinsmith and dedicated Marxist, had left his
native Russia for a new life in the United States, and had
met his English mother, the daughter of a Whitechapel tailor
and a fervent monarchist, on the way.
The couple emigrated to the United States when Phil was two
and he grew up in New York in "a moderately genteel Brooklyn
slum". During the Second World War he served in the US Army
as a combat engineer in Europe, and started writing fiction
during the lengthy commute to his postwar day job as a
technical editor with an Air Force radar and radio
laboratory in New Jersey.
Klass wrote prolifically in many genres - science fiction,
mystery and romance - and used different pen names for each.
As William Tenn he sold dozens of short sci-fi stories.
Collections of his short fiction have recently been
published as Immodest Proposals and Here Comes Civilization.
As William Tenn he also wrote two novels, Of Men and
Monsters and A Lamp for Medusa (both 1968), and, as Philip
Klass, a semi-autobiography Dancing Naked (2004).
During the 1950s and early 1960s, Klass and his wife Fruma
lived in Greenwich Village and mixed with a bohemian set of
up-and-coming writers. One, Daniel Keyes, told him that an
editor wanted him to change the downbeat ending of his short
story Flowers for Algernon to a happy one.
"If you change one word of that story," Klass replied, "I'll
go break the editor's kneecaps." Keyes kept the ending, and
his story not only went on to be published, but also to win
several awards. It subsequently became a film.
At Penn State University, where he taught from the 1960s
until the 1980s, Klass was one of only three professors
without a college degree. As well as David Morell, many of
his students went on to be writers.
In 1999 he was named author emeritus by the Science Fiction
and Fantasy Writers of America.
Philip Klass is survived by his wife and their daughter.