William Tenn, science fiction writer

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Born: 9 May, 1920, in London. Died: 7 February, 2010, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, aged 89.

WILLIAM Tenn wrote satirical science fiction at a time when few in the genre displayed a sense of humour.

Tenn brought biting wit, restless intelligence and a supple prose style to classic science- fiction themes such as time travel and alien-human interactions.

A contemporary of Robert A Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke, he helped create modern science fiction in the 1940s and 1950s, when the genre's dominant form was the short story published in monthly magazines known as pulps, for the poor quality of their paper. As a Swiftian humorist in a field better known for futuristic speculation, rousing space adventures and grim cautionary tales, he was admired but never quite embraced by his contemporaries.

He was repeatedly passed over for the major awards granted by the genre's fans and writers – this was somewhat amended when he was named guest of honour at the 2004 World Science Fiction Convention, nearly four decades after he had all but abandoned writing fiction to teach at Pennsylvania State University.

Born Philip Klass in London on 9 May, 1920, his parents emigrated to New York when he was a baby. Raised in Brooklyn, he served in the US army during the Second World War as a combat engineer.

After his discharge, he began selling stories to magazines such as Astounding Science Fiction. Pen names were common among magazine writers of the time; he later said he could not remember why he chose William Tenn for his science fiction, but once he had gained a reputation under that name, editors would not let him publish under his own.

Perhaps his quintessential short story is Brooklyn Project" (1948), which in less than ten pages describes a top-secret government experiment in time travel that goes eerily awry.

He wrote it as a political satire, aimed at anti-Communist witch hunts like those of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Its depiction of a docile press corps bullied into submission by the government might have been written in the first decade of the 21st century, but its real target is the age-old human failing of hubris.

In the plot, a government spokesman repeatedly assures reporters that travel into the past cannot possibly have any effect on the present – even as the spokesman and all the reporters morph into "slime-washed" and "bloated purpled bodies" that have evolved along the new timeline created by the experiment.

Tenn gives the self-satisfied spokesman the last word. "'See,' cried the thing that had been the acting secretary to the executive assistant on press relations. He extended 15 purple blobs triumphantly: 'Nothing has changed'", the story concludes.

Tenn had a lifelong lover's quarrel with science fiction. In a 1975 interview, he described it as a "peculiarly modern" form of literature, "fundamentally derived from the industrial and scientific revolutions". But he deplored "the idiocies and the bad writing in it, the cliquishness, the cultishness," which he said "don't really belong in an adult form".

His disaffection with the field led him to accept a one-year appointment to teach at Penn State in 1966, despite having no college degree. He remained on the faculty for 23 years, offering popular courses in writing and on science fiction as literature.

Beginning in 2001, Nesfa Press, the publishing arm of the New England Science Fiction Association, reprinted his complete works in three volumes. His stories have been translated into French, German, Russian, Japanese and other languages.

He wrote little fiction after becoming a teacher, a major exception being On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi, published in 1974 in a Jewish-themed anthology called Wandering Stars, which tackles the question of whether a Hebrew-speaking alien that looks like a "wrinkled and twisted" brown pillow with short grey tentacles can be considered a Jew.

As for his own identity, he declared in an interview in 1975: "I'm a mystic. A very rational Jewish orthodox atheist mystic."

He is survived by his wife, Fruma Klass, a writer whom he married in 1957.