Phil Klass

Phil Klass

At the Philadelphia Worldcon of 1947 there was a lot of jabbering back and forth — mostly along the lines of “How’ve you been?” and “Where’d you serve?” because World War II was recently over and we generally hadn’t seen each other for years. But when that kind of talk was over, there was a different kind of question that came up pretty often, and that was, “Have you read ‘Child’s Play’?”

That was the name of a creepy-crawly and un-put-downable story that had just appeared in Astounding, signed by the unfamiliar byline of William Tenn. It was about a man who had somehow been given a children’s toy build-a-man set from the future and decided to see how it worked, disastrously, and it was written in a darkly sardonic style that combined real horror and laugh-out-loud comedy. The man who wrote it wasn’t really named William Tenn, of course. His name was Philip Klass, born in London but brought to Brooklyn as a baby and now a radio researcher, fresh out of the Army like the rest of us.

“Child’s Play” wasn’t the first story to appear as by “William Tenn” — that had been the very forgettable “Alexander the Bait” a few issues earlier in Astounding. But it was “Child’s Play” that created an instant demand for more of this kind of thing by that highly individual author. And the stories came — “Venus and the Seven Sexes,” “On Venus Have We Got a Rabbi” and many others in what seemed like an unstoppable stream. Many are currently in print in a couple of volumes of his collected works, and there were even a few quite good stories by Morton Klass, Phil’s kid brother, to show that the sf-writing gene is familial. The Klass brothers were friends and fellow poker players to much of New York fandom, until we lost Phil.

It wasn’t that he died then. What happened was that he got work as a college professor at Pennsylvania State University, lost to his New York friends by geography, since Penn State’s campus was smack in the middle of that very large state of Pennsylvania, and lost to writing because he discovered that teaching was more interesting and used up all his time. Phil taught, among other things, short story writing and was highly regarded by students and faculty through a respectable career. But when he started teaching, he stopped writing. Once he got comfortable in his new life in State College, Penn., he got active in sf writers’ organizations and the like, picking up several overdue awards, but the writing had stopped, and that was a great pity.

13 Comments

  1. Sara says:

    You know, I glanced at that photo of Kass and thought it was Rex Stout.

    I am going to look up the short story book. Thank you for this blog. I’ve enjoyed every entry.

  2. sm says:

    Imagine him getting better and better over the decades!

  3. Adina Klass says:

    Thank you for the Blog about my father. I hope my mother can finish my father’s last novel Salvation in his grand style…I know he has told her how to finish it.
    All my best…
    Adina Klass

  4. Stefan Jones says:

    As an odd side note: For many years a lot of folks assumed that William Tenn was the pseudonym of Philip <I>J.</I> Klass, who wrote for aviation magazines and was a UFO researcher.

    I remember reading through a collection of Tenn\’s stories on a summer vacation and enjoying it thoroughly. I\’m going to have to look those up again.

  5. RAB says:

    I knew someone who took classes with him at Penn State and who adored him as a teacher, but who was totally unfamiliar with his writing career. At the time, I owned all his short story collections as well as Of Men And Monsters. The envy I felt for anyone who got to be his student! But I wouldn’t trade knowing his stories for anything.

  6. Chookie says:

    Oh gosh, another one to hunt up! :-)

  7. chris y says:

    In a better world, his story “Null-P” would be compulsory reading for all high school students or undergraduates in every country in the world. A civic duty. So we might learn a little humility from a great man.

  8. Joe Fodor says:

    Morton Klass, who died in 2001, became chair of Department of Anthropology at Barnard College and published extensively on the anthropology of religion. But Phil was truly funny — the Mark Twain of science fiction.

  9. Bill Goodwin says:

    First learned of his work through the adaptation of “The Discovery of Morneal Matheway” as an episode of the (rerun) radio program “X Minus One.” Fool that I am, I missed the opportunity to hear him speak locally just three years ago, at Loscon where he was the guest of honor. An impressive mind–my copy of The Human Angle is coming down off the shelf, now!

  10. Ed says:

    I had not heard of him until the recent collections were printed and the short story “Down among the Dead Men” has haunted me for years.

  11. DavidPhillipOster says:

    Perri Klass, http://www.perriklass.com/bio.shtml is Phil Klass’ daughter, I believe. She’s had a literary, although more science than science fiction career in her own right.

  12. G says:

    Acto Wiki, Dr Perri Klass is the daughter of Morton Klass, an anthropologist. She does seem fascinating.

  13. Richard says:

    I met Phil at a con just after his 70th birthday. He was complaining that Penn State had a rule that professors had to retire at 70. He was about to spend his new free time climbing mountains. He was in great shape. He was a very nice human being. I will miss him.