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Celebrating Theodore Sturgeon's centenary - so should we all

Celebrating Theodore Sturgeon's centenary - so should we all
Theodore Sturgeon, who coined Spock's "live long and prosper," wrote science fiction novels and was a wildly gifted and prolific short story writer. (Stephen Bard)

I’ve always been a bit confused by these various centenary and multi-centenary celebrations that punctuate our discussions of literature, such as Thoreau’s recent 200th birthday (2017), or the centenary of James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” (first published in 1917), or even the fourth centenary of the death of Cervantes (d. 1616), etc. (By the way, celebrating the anniversary of someone’s death strikes me as pretty grisly.) But while some writers seem to continually receive such posthumous honors, others suffer unfairly in silence. No cake, no candles, no old friends leaping out of closets, no nothing. And this year, that seems to be the case for one of America’s greatest and most original short story writers, Theodore Sturgeon, who was born on Feb. 26, 1918. From what I can tell, nobody has yet to pitch in and even buy him a decent card.

Go ahead, google it. No articles or remembrances have appeared in significant literary or cultural magazines; no centennial editions of his work have been released in nice, shiny, uniform editions; and no academic or public conferences have been scheduled to discuss his current reputation — apparently not even at the University of Kansas, where Sturgeon’s papers are stored, and the Sturgeon Award for best short story is annually announced.

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This simply isn’t right.

Book jacket for Theodore Sturgeon's "More Than Human" 1953 with art by Richard M. Powers published by Farrar, Straus, and Young, with Ballantine Books.
Book jacket for Theodore Sturgeon's "More Than Human" 1953 with art by Richard M. Powers published by Farrar, Straus, and Young, with Ballantine Books. (Courtesy of KU Libraries)

Even if you think you’ve never heard of Theodore Sturgeon, you probably know more about him than you know you know. For example, you’ve almost certainly heard of Kilgore Trout, the hack sci-fi writer featured in such Vonnegut novels as “Slaughterhouse-Five” or “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. “ (Kil-gore/Theo-dore. Trout/Sturgeon. Get it? Vonnegut was a friend and great admirer of Sturgeon.)

If you went to high school in the ’60s or ’70s when they could still be found on the curriculum, maybe you read one of Sturgeon’s novels — such as “Venus Plus X,” a prescient utopian journey through an androgynous future society, or “More Than Human,” about a group of mutant children who are stronger together than the sum of their parts.

Even if you’ve been living in quarantine all your life to protect your brain from knowing anything about the myriad “Star Trek” incarnations, you almost certainly know “Live long and prosper,” Spock’s salutation, if not his seven-year violence-inducing compulsion to get laid. These ideas first appeared in Sturgeon’s script “Amok Time,” and the franchise has been riding high on them ever since.

But despite a few strong novels and television scripts, Sturgeon was primarily a writer of great, unforgettable and always brilliantly constructed short stories — and this is almost certainly why he isn’t as well known today as he should be — short story writers just don’t get no respect.

Unlike other genre writers — such as Ray Bradbury or Isaac Asimov — Sturgeon never transcended the sci-fi genre by publishing outside of it; he transcended it from the inside, beginning in the ’30s as one of John W. Campbell’s most dependable writers for “Unknown” and “Astounding,” and spending the rest of his 50-year-plus career publishing mostly in “digest” sf magazines, with their very unliterary, garish color cover illustrations of multi-limbed alien emissaries and tautly clad space-women — magazines such as Planet Stories, Startling Stories, If, Galaxy and the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

Like poor Kilgore Trout, Sturgeon often saw his best work emblazoned with awful titles conjured up by hasty editors — titles such as “The Incubi of Parallel X” (which Sturgeon called “the most horrible title to appear over my byline”) or “The Cosmic Rape” or even the mega-awful “The Synthetic Man,” that cruel paperback retitling of Sturgeon’s greatest and most intricate novel, “The Dreaming Jewels.” At first glance, a typical Sturgeon collection might look from afar as awful as something by Kilgore Trout. But once you read the first page, you knew you were in the hands of someone who never wrote a bad sentence. If you ever find time to start collecting the massive and lovingly assembled 13-volume “The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon,” edited by Paul Williams and published by North Atlantic Books, you’ll soon realize that Sturgeon wrote an abnormally large number of great stories — and great sentences.

Sturgeon's "The Dreaming Jewels" (pictured, U.K. edition) was retitled "The Synthetic Man" in American paperback.
Sturgeon's "The Dreaming Jewels" (pictured, U.K. edition) was retitled "The Synthetic Man" in American paperback. (Book jacket for Theodore Sturgeon's "The Dreaming Jewels." London: Nova Publications, Ltd, 1955. Courtesy of Kansas University Libraries)

While mediocre writers are often applauded for that so-called “twist in the tail” at the ends of their stories, Sturgeon’s greatest talent lay in his ability to compose opening lines that surprised and delighted you from the very start; then, once hooked, you were drawn along, one perfect sentence and narrative shift after another, until he landed you on the beach of an ending you didn’t even know you were expecting until you got there.

Take, for example, the opening of his brilliant (and often poorly imitated) 1941 novelette, “Microcosmic God”: “Here is a story about a man who had too much power, and a man who took too much, but don’t worry; I’m not going political on you. The man who had the power was named James Kidder, and the other was his banker.”

Or this, from the aforementioned “The Dreaming Jewels” (1950): “They caught the kid doing something disgusting under the bleachers at the high-school stadium, and he was sent home from the grammar school across the street.”

Or even this, from his haunting and beautiful story, “The Man Who Lost the Sea” (1959): “Say you’re a kid, and one dark night you’re running along the cold sand with this helicopter in your hand, saying very fast witchy-witchy-witchy.”

Every opening plops you down bang in the middle of a story that is already happening and in the life of a character it is already happening to. And while many of his stories were collected in “horror” or “suspense” anthologies, they are rarely shocking or violent or grotesque. Instead, they begin by introducing you to a slightly strange world and a slightly strange character who lives there; then, before the story is over, you both feel at home in the world and compassion for the character who now lives there with you.

The greatness of Sturgeon’s stories reside in their almost inflexible, relentless unfolding of strangely logical events and relationships; each sentence is as beautiful and convincing as the last; and the science-fictional inventions never rely on tricks or deus ex machinas to reach a satisfying resolution; instead, a Sturgeon story always resolves itself at the level of the all-too-human.

In “A Saucer of Loneliness,” for example, those spinning silver discs in the night sky aren’t actually invading aliens from outer space, but simply errant, message-in-a-bottle-like expressions of someone’s impossibly distant desire to communicate … with someone. In “Extrapolation,” the super-genius inventor, Wolf Reger, only pretends to betray the Earth in order to save it — but not by affirming his belief in the human race (like many of Sturgeon’s genius-protagonists, Reger loathes people) but because he can’t imagine any future without his wife in it. And in “Bright Segment” — for my money, one of the few great American stories worth preserving in a spaceship after our stupid planet blows itself to bits — a lonely, autistic man finds a woman lying on the street sliced up with a razor; he then carries her home and puts her back together with common, everyday objects — sponges, needles, pliers, tweezers, needles and thread, adhesive tape and an alcohol torch. “I fix everything,” the man repeats, over and over; it’s the only way he can find sanity in a world without much sanity in it already. Until, like many Sturgeon characters, he eventually learns that fixing people (rather than things) isn’t a purely mechanical business.

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Science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon circa 1960.
Science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon circa 1960. (David Gerrold)

There aren’t many writers whose stories have given me more pleasure, and on more readings, than the stories of Theodore Sturgeon. Richard Yates, William Trevor, Joyce Carol Oates and Thomas M. Disch come to mind. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Anton Chekhov. But the strange beauty of Sturgeon’s stories has something to do with the weird incongruity they share with their own generic intentions; the technophilic logic of his plots never quite jives with Sturgeon’s compassion for his most fallible, messy and illogical characters.

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On the one hand, Sturgeon knew how to build all the machinery his genre editors and readers wanted — spaceships, future societies, conceptual puzzles — which is probably why many of his fans were so-called “hard” sf writers, such as John W. Campbell, Arthur C. Clarke or even Robert A. Heinlein. But Sturgeon’s sense of the universe was never Manichaean, and its problems couldn’t be repaired with a screwdriver. Humanity’s biggest enemy, Sturgeon’s stories repeatedly confirmed, was humanity itself, and it’s hard to imagine any other sf writer in the ’40s writing a novelette as powerful and surprising as “Thunder and Roses” (1947), which imagines what a nuclear war between superpowers might look like and concludes, OK, so they slaughtered us first — now what do we do? For Sturgeon, there was only one logical answer: nothing. Just stop the killing. Go to bed. And don’t wake me in the morning.

In the late ’70s and early ’80s, I was lucky enough to find myself living next door to Ted in a pleasant, Bukowskian, Spanish-style courtyard apartment building on North Vendome Street in Silver Lake (imagine the one in Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive,” but after a five-year sandstorm).

Ted was often mysteriously arriving and departing in the middle of the night in the company of his seventh wife, Jayne, while driving a battered blueish Volkswagen Beetle. Ted’s pied a terre was more like half of a pied a terre, a tiny studio carved in the recesses beneath our building like one of those ’60s-era bomb shelters. As I recall, you couldn’t quite stand upright in it without banging your head on the ceiling; and the front door was this roundish little hobbit door that required you to stoop over to enter. According to legend, the first time Ted stepped into the apartment, he shouted into the courtyard, “For the love of God, Montressor!” straight out of Edgar Allan Poe.

It was almost like living next door to my own imagination about how the world should operate, where great writers wandered around swapping tools and borrowing and returning instant coffee — and although I never knew Ted very well, it was always nice to know he was around and thinking the same thoughts that had led him to invent so many wonderful stories over many productive decades. If Ted had lived longer — and not succumbed to the lung fibrosis that killed him in 1985 — I’m sure he would have written many more of those great stories. And we would all still be reading them.

There are multitudinous reasons why Sturgeon deserves to be better remembered than he already is, and we would probably require several conferences just to begin discussing them. For starters, there are all the writers he influenced — from Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison and Peter S. Beagle to Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem and Katherine Dunn. And there are the stories themselves: Every time you read or even reread one, it feels like something you have never read before.

The essence of almost every Sturgeon story is about what it means to be human — and what happens when people stop being as human as they should be. His most dangerous characters (Monetre in “The Dreaming Jewels” or Rita, the virgin witch, in “The Silken-Swift”) are always those who isolate themselves from others; and the only salvation his characters ever achieve is to touch someone who wants to touch them back, regardless of gender, species or planet of natural origin. Unsurprisingly, Sturgeon wrote as convincingly of androgynous love (in “Venus Plus X”) and homosexual love (in “The World Well Lost”) as he did about the love of “men” and “women” for each other (always imperfect concepts for Sturgeon). And many of his best titles (the ones that weren’t destroyed by hack editors) attest to Sturgeon’s fascination with affection in all its animal forms: “The Touch of Your Hand,” “Bianca’s Hands,” “Unite and Conquer,” “When You Care, When You Love,” “Make Room for Me,” “A Way Home” and even “A Touch of Strange.” In Sturgeon’s universe, physical and emotional love are as irresistible as warp engines and fission reactors. You just need to remember to call them in the morning.

Book jacket for Theodore Sturgeon's "Venus Plus X." Published by Pyramid Books, 1960 with art by Victor Kalin.
Book jacket for Theodore Sturgeon's "Venus Plus X." Published by Pyramid Books, 1960 with art by Victor Kalin. (Courtesy of KU Libraries)

In many ways, Sturgeon was the victim of his own multifarious talent. He was an accomplished guitarist; from a young age, he performed acrobatics and planned to join a circus before contracting rheumatic fever; he composed songs and sang them; and according to his lifelong friend Robert Heinlein, he could perform vocal impersonations of just about anything you threw at him — traffic, trains, birds or even something as weirdly specific as “a buzzsaw powered by a two-cycle engine cranked by a line.” While he was a deeply loved man and a widely admired artist, he lived a vigorously aimless life that took him through several failed marriages and several peripatetic final years traveling among lectures, teaching gigs and temporary homes in Los Angeles, Hawaii, San Diego and Springfield, Ore.

Sturgeon flitted about inconspicuously as the winds guided him. Whenever he paused for a moment to pop his head into the room, he left his mark on everyone he found there. Nothing was the same after he left.

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So OK, the Sturgeon centenary is still here for a few more months, but we almost missed it. Which means we need to get up bright and early for the next one, and here’s my plan. Get your party hats organized, your crepe paper and tinsel. Wrap those presents and bake those cakes. Then we’ll meet back here in 99.5 years and make sure we start the Sturgeon bicentenary off right. Is that a deal?

I’ll try to get here first and turn on all the lights.

Bradfield is the author of a dozen books, including, most recently, the novel "Dazzle Resplendent: Adventures of a Misanthropic Dog."

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