Novella Review: “Medusa Was a Lady!” by William Tenn

(Cover by Joe Tillotson. Fantastic Adventures, October 1951.)

Who Goes There?

William Tenn was, along with C. M. Kornbluth and Henry Kuttner, one of the great satirists of old-timey SF. He made his debut in 1946 with “Alexander the Bait,” a story which takes an unusually ambivalent (for the time) view of space flight, but more importantly he followed that up with “Child’s Play,” a brutal but genuinely funny comedy that rightly saw adaptation more than once. His 1953 story “The Liberation of Earth” might be his most famous, although while written for Galaxy Science Fiction it was deemed too ambivalent about both sides of the Cold War; it instead saw print in Future Science Fiction. “Ambivalent” is indeed a word that could describe the general mood of Tenn’s fiction—less hysterical than Kornbluth’s writing but also less prone to moments of humanity.

Tenn’s output declined after 1960, and by 1970 he had all but retired from the field. A hardcore short story writer, and despite living to be damn near 90 years old, Tenn left behind only one novel, Of Men and Monsters, whose title makes it sound more like a short story collection than a novel. Thus Tenn’s SF output is relatively small; his entire SF output, including Of Men and Monsters, has been collected in a measly two volumes (see below). Today’s story, “Medusa Was a Lady!,” seems at first to be Tenn venturing into fantasy writing—at first. More on that later.

Placing Coordinates

First published in the October 1951 issue of Fantastic Adventures, which is on the Archive. This is one of Tenn’s more obscure stories; it’s been reprinted only three times, and under a different title: the less pulpy but lamer sounding “A Lamp for Medusa.” It was reprinted as one half of a Belmont Double, paired with Dave Van Arnam’s “The Players of Hell,” which if you can believe it is even more obscure. Then there’s your best shot at a book reprint, which is Here Comes Civilization: The Complete Science Fiction of William Tenn, Volume II, from NESFA Press, the second of the two aforementioned volumes collecting all of Tenn’s SF.

Enhancing Image

Percy S. Yuss (we’re really doing this) is just your average Joe who may have made a bad investment and nabbed an apartment whose rent is a little too low. Immediately something both we and Percy learn is that if something sounds too good to be true, it most certainly is false. Mrs. Danner, the ratty landlady, demands an advance payment from Percy, who gives it despite having reservations about how much of a fixer-upper the apartment is; it doesn’t help that, for some reason, belongings from previous tenants have never been picked up or put away. But because he’s a modern man who disdains superstition Percy is convinced that nothing too weird could be going on, although while he is a bit of a chump he is no stone-cold idiot, and rightly suspects that something fishy might be going on.

Quickly realizing that the apartment is in such bad shape that it’s almost not even worth the tiny rent demanded for it, Percy tries to make the best of the situation when, being the protagonist of a William Tenn story, something weirder and more inexplicable happens to him. He finds a piece of parchment which, for one, seems to be made of animal skin, but even weirder is what’s written on it: a poem, or a fragment of a poem, that relates to Greek Mythology—more specifically the legend of Perseus and Medusa. The dramatic irony of this is that the fragment does not name Perseus or Medusa, so while we the readers are aware of the myth, Percy remains ignorant of the connection. I’ll quote the fragment here:

“…He slew the Gorgon and winged back, bringing to the islanders

The head with its writhing snake-locks, the terror that froze to stone.”

Reading the fragment has an effect that Percy could not have anticipated. When he takes a bath he gets isekai’d to the middle of an ocean, in the bathtub with nothing but a towel and soap in his mouth. He meets a sea serpent who uhh, talks? Which surprisingly does not frighten Percy or drive him into an existential crisis; actually he takes the encounter with the talking sea serpent (whose dialogue reminds me of Douglas Adams) pretty well. The sea serpent at first believes Percy to be part of the Perseus prophecy, but Percy’s hostility drives the sea serpent away. A running thing with this story is that, depending on whom Percy is interacting with, he’ll either be denying the prophecy or deliberately playing into it, since he gets constantly mistaken for the Greek hero. Or perhaps, by some chance, Percy is really Perseus but something happened to make him forget?

Readers of a certain pre-Tolkien era of American fantasy may feel that the situation Percy gets thrown into is oddly familiar. I’m of course thinking of the Harold Shea stories by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, and even L. Ron Hubbard’s Typewriter in the Sky, and I have little doubt that Tenn had at least read up on the former. A normal man gets thrown into a fantasy world that operates on a different internal logic from the normal world, and said normal man has to figure his way out or perish, with often comedic results. Truth be told this was not unusual for fantasy published in Unknown, and we could go back even further with Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter series to see basically the same formula. (The John Carter novels are very loosely considered SF, but they arguably read more as fantasy from a modern perspective.) “Medusa Was a Lady!” very much follows in the footsteps of the Harold Shea stories, but with a couple twists.

Percy uses his bathtub cum boat to land on the island on Seriphos, which is where, in the myth, Perseus as a child and his mother Danae land. Had he known about the myth in advance Percy could use this to his advantage, but because he doesn’t recognize the myth for what it is—that he basically matches the physical description of Perseus (albeit scrawnier)—he probably would’ve done fine right away, but unfortunately for Percy he doesn’t know shit about the myth. He doesn’t know who Perseus and Danae are, which causes issues because he’s accused of impersonating a mythical figure—a crime punishable by slow cooking over a fire.

Some hijinks ensue. We’re introduced to King Polydectes, who might be the funniest character in the story, being a stereotypical decadent monarch who looks for any excuse to “thin out” the overpopulated little island society he runs. He orders executions very casually and comes up with punishments for crimes seemingly on a whim, and because the island is so small people often serve multiple roles, such that literally anyone can be a juror in a “court” case. I would complain about how the ’50s slang coming out of the islanders’ mouths stretches plausibility, but this is not a story that claims to be plausible, and also the slang adds to the snappy tone of the comedy. Again I almost have to wonder if Tenn’s brand of humor influenced Douglas Adams’s, although I seriously doubt that.

Awaiting his execution, which is set for the following day, Percy gets thrown into the same cell as a fellow person from his own world: Ann Drummond (like Andromeda?), who was one of the former tenants in the apartment Percy had rented out, and who had apparently gotten thrown into this world through the same means. We’re also formally introduced to Hermes, who had appeared earlier but then vanished from the scene, a mythological figure who rather conspicuously had golden skin. Hermes offers help to Percy and Ann so that they can fulfill the prophecy, and evidently he knows a great deal more than they do—only a fraction of which he lets on. Something to keep in mind with Percy’s journey is that he never entirely understands anything; when he tries ringing an explanation out of someone he only gets one small part out of a much greater whole, assuming what the person is saying is true. Hermes doesn’t like to Percy and Ann per se, but we’ll come to find later that there may be an ulterior motive for getting Percy to fill his role as a makeshift Perseus.

Anyway, we stay like this for a while. The pacing of this novella is a bit odd; it spends a great deal of time on characters talking and rationalizing things while also making surprisingly little progress in terms of getting from one place to another. By the time we get to the next day and Percy and Ann are thrown into the arena as an alternative method of execution (Hermes had sabotaged the pot that was supposed to be used to cook them the previous night) we’re already about halfway into the story. While Tenn was some five years into his writing career, he evidently was less sure about writing longer stories (specifically of novella length), at least up to this point. There’s enough material in “Medusa Was a Lady!” to make a full novel out of, but then Tenn was not a novelist by instinct, so we have to live with what admittedly feels like a novel that got Swiss cheese’d into a novella.

Anyway, this fight in the arena with a bizarre multi-headed monster (sort of like a hydra but uncannily more humanoid) is the closest we get to a satisfying action sequence, because after this point the story reveals itself to be something quite different altogether.

There Be Spoilers Here

When I first heard about this story I thought it odd that it should be classified as science fiction, since its premise clearly struck me as fantasy; well, not unlike with Percy, what I’d seen was not the full picture. “Medusa Was a Lady!” is, in actuality, science fiction masquerading as fantasy. Well goddamnit, it looks like we been bamboozled! Hermes comes in with anti-gravity boots, which Percy will also use later, and we’re even introduced to a mad scientist in the form of Professor Gray, who (predictably) was also a tenant who got thrown into this world. It’s here that we find out that not only is the novella science fiction, but more specifically it’s a multiverse story. That’s right, there’s no escaping the goddamn multiverse thing.

More interestingly, you may be wondering about the fight with Medusa, which we know is gonna happen because it’s on the cover and because it’s “part of the prophecy.” The “fight” with Medusa lasts literally a paragraph and its sheer brevity took me by surprise, partly because of that and also because Medusa doesn’t seem to put up a fight. How strange, that the infamous Gorgon, the snake woman who turns men to stone, should lose her head so easily. As it turns out, in his willingness to fill a role, like an actor on a stage, Percy does something he probably should not have done, because it turns out that Medusa is not the villain of the story. Hermes and the other gold-skinned people, the Olympians who wanted Medusa dead so badly, only told Percy a fraction of the context for the conflict between the Olympians and the Gorgons; it could be considered one big lie by way of omission. The good news is that Medusa isn’t quite dead once her head is in the bag, which leads to what I can only call an infodump of staggering length.

If I tried to explain the whole backstory for Medusa and the Gorgons I would be here all day, which is a problem because a) I don’t have the time, and b) Tenn’s explanation via telepathy is incredibly convoluted, never mind a massive infodump to plop in the reader’s lap in the last, oh, ten pages of the novella. I’m not sure if Tenn did this as a serious attempt or if he was making fun of something, but the third act of the novella is bogged down with a mountain of exposition, followed by rushed action. The basic idea of the thing is a neat subversion, because we just went in assuming Medusa would be the Big Bad™ of the story, or in more typical Tenn fashion would be more of a shrew than a conventional evil-doer, but the twist is much harder to anticipate—admirably so. I just wish the pacing in particular wasn’t so uneven, with the climactic battle with the gold-skinned Olympians lacking room to breathe and thus is robbed of some catharsis.

The ending, at least, is clever, even if it plays into Tenn’s pessimism. There’s the suggestion that, even if Percy did get to be the man who now knows better, he will still get played for a chump at the end. The implied cruelty is logical, if also predictable, while also implying possible paradoxes and other issues with people meeting themselves via the multiverse. Honestly I think I’m done with the whole multiverse thing for a while.

A Step Farther Out

In a way I was disappointed, but in another my expectations were very much met. Joe Tillotson’s excellent cover and the premise give the impression of a fantasy adventure, which evidently Tenn was not very interested in writing; that or he tried but failed to write compelling action. Thankfully, most of the story is filled with dialogue, and this is where Tenn excels, in that he packs a lot of jokes and a lot of those jokes are quite funny. “Medusa Was a Lady!” is ultimately a comedy, and an effective one, being admirably less a direct parody of sword and sorcery, or even Greek mythology, so much as a humorous commentary on the intermingling of fact and mythology. Nothing Percy is told turns out to be entirely true, but conversely every bit of deception has at least a kernel of truth in it, which only befits Tenn’s pessimistic worldview. I recommend not going into this one with the expectation of reading a fantasy adventure, but if you want a genre-bending comedy that’s a fair bit cerebral, it’s a good one.

See you next time.


2 responses to “Novella Review: “Medusa Was a Lady!” by William Tenn”

  1. I’ll put “Alexander the Bait” on my depressed spaceman list of reviews. I’m a huge fan of Tenn. I’ve read and reviewed his novel and two short story collections (along with other singleton reviews). He does have his “hysterical” (in a good way) moments — “The Liberation of Earth” (1953) comes to mind. I adore that story.


    • Tenn very much reminds me of Kornbluth, and also Robert Sheckley. More the latter with how casually mean he is. I may as well seek out Of Men and Monsters since it’s not like I have to think about reviewing it at some point.


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