The novel “Of Men And Monsters” by William Tenn was published for the first time in 1968.
Eric the Only is a boy about to face the test that will allow him to be included in the Male Society. Among the 128 people Mankind consists of, this means being able to carry out a Steal against the Monsters, the aliens who have conquered the Earth.
Thomas the Trap-Smasher, Eric’s uncle and mentor as well as one of the leaders of Mankind, reveals to his nephew that he’s adept at Alien-Science and convinces him to contact some Strangers during his test. After recovering from his surprise, Eric accepts and receives some strange alien weapons from the Strangers but when he returns to the corridors where Mankind lives, he gets captured by men of his own tribe.
William Tenn was a writer best known for short fiction with satirical content. “Of Men And Monsters” is also short by today’s standards, an extension of the novella “The Men in the Walls”, published in October 1963 in the magazine “Galaxy Science Fiction”.
The author develops the already then classic theme of the alien invasion in a very personal way. The story is set in a future where gigantic aliens who are simply called the Monsters have full control of the Earth while the descendants of humans who survived the invasion live in cavities dug into the insulation material of the houses built by the aliens.
The protagonist Eric is nicknamed the Only because he’s an only child, an anomaly given that in that future women tend to have large litters. Joining the Male Society, he’ll be able to choose a better nickname for himself and the opening part concerning his initiation test sets the tone of the novel. The plot is that of an adventure of a kind reminiscent of the so-called golden age of science fiction but is strongly marked by distinctive elements.
The science of ancient humans has become a religion but we quickly see that very little remains of that science and it’s become superstition based on confused fragments of knowledge. On the contrary, even in the small tribe that calls itself Mankind, they seem to remember well how power plays are carried out, also by exploiting religion.
Initially, Eric is a naïve boy who only wants to join the Male Society and find a wife. In what in some ways is a coming-of-age story, he’s forced to learn many new things very quickly after his initiatory test doesn’t end as he thought. Circumstances force him to come into contact with other tribes who have very different customs and knowledge from his own tribe.
In the background, there’s the will in the various tribes of humans who reverted to little more than rats to take back the Earth by hunting down the Monsters. For Eric, it’s an abstract ambition but the encounter with Strangers from the Aaron People, the only one who retained real scientific knowledge, leads him to really reflect on the possibilities of fighting the Monsters.
Eric’s adventures are filled with peril and drama. Humans are viewed as pests by the Monsters and are exterminated when discovered but the aliens seem to see them as nothing more than a nuisance. Together with certain descriptions of what remains of human culture, this forms this novel’s satirical part.
The strength of “Of Men And Monsters” lies precisely in the parts that are sometimes over the top and give depth to what, superficially, is an adventure that sees the struggle of humans against alien invaders. Together with the reflections that Eric is forced to by events and meetings with other tribes lead me to recommend reading it.