I recently re-read William Tenn's The Tenants on the SCI FICTION classics section of the Sci-Fi network's website. I found myself forcibly struck by how different it seemed in context to what I imagine a similar story published today would have to be.
In April of 1954, our protagonist is a gentleman real estate agent, a newly-minted building manager for a mid-range firm. He shares an office with his secretary, who is clearly a subordinate rather than a coworker. She is staff in the old sense of the word, support.
The eponymous tenants, described as men (though very strange ones) are in a third class yet – a step above the agent in this tacit hierarchy, as he is a step above the help. It’s a set of quaint background details, like the casual smoking and the elevator operator, that make the story feel a bit of a period piece.
What I really found odd, however, was the hinge of the story. I simply can't imagine it would meet acceptance from a current editor in the field. To keep as best from spoilers as I can, I’ll put it thusly: the story turns on our building manager being unable to conceive of a legitimate reason requiring him to enter his tenant’s space.
In August of 2005, I have trouble imagining what sort of circumstance would cause a building manager to feel required not to enter a similar space under their jurisdiction. Not only have heightened security concerns as a result of various catastrophic events changed the default view of the boundaries of responsibility in such a case, the intervening years have seen the erosion of that strict hierarchy of service, where "the realtor’s client is never wrong" and the proudly uneducated under-staff is so uncurious toward the logical order of the universe that they remain entirely undisturbed by the events that slowly push our lead character toward madness. Like children, they just accept 'it works, because it works' and tautological or not, work it does.
Now, I still enjoyed the story, even as the anthropologist in me was making notes about the above. And looking back at what I’ve written, I’m vaguely appalled at how easily I seem to have accepted into my default world-view the notion that invasions of privacy are simply the norm, that I should find it so strange a person like our protagonist would have the sacredness of those private boundaries so ingrained as to cause him the troubles that drive the story.
I’m uncertain whether privacy concerns were what Tenn was intent on exploring when he wrote the story and submitted it for publication – I can see arguments for and against, which I will forego at the moment for the sake of spoilers (and space). The story is the figure of the title above, and the issues are the ground. In another fifty years, perhaps some other facet of The Tenants will strike the reader as tangential yet important to consider.