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Theodore Sturgeon

PostPosted: Saturday, 27 September 2008, 11:08 pm
by DavidTate
When members of the sf-reading and -writing community of the 1950s and '60s were asked to name an sf(*) author whose works had literary quality, they invariably nominated the same two over and over -- Ray Bradbury, and Theodore Sturgeon. Bradbury is already featured on this site, so perhaps a few words about Theodore Sturgeon are in order.

Sturgeon has a few immediate disadvantages in his candidacy for the Great Science-Fiction & Fantasy Works site. For one thing, he was almost exclusively a story writer, as opposed to a novelist. He wrote a scant handful of novels -- they are not the reason he was famous, and the best of them is only an expansion of an even better novella.

The second strike against him is his inconsistency. His very early work was, for the most part, unmemorable. Throughout his career, each of his original collections contained some quite bad stories in among the gems. There was no 'peak', no "golden period" when he was turning out consistent quality. Since this site is organized mostly in terms of books, as opposed to stories, the lack of any great novels or uniformly strong collections is a serious handicap. His most famous sf works are generally well-crafted -- "Killdozer!", for example, is not literature but is certainly a ripping yarn -- but not as notable as his best mainstream (or horror, in the case of "Bianca's Hands") works.

The third strike is that he often strayed from the fields of sf, and was perhaps at his best when he did so. (In this, he is much like his contemporary, Mr. Bradbury(**).) Stories like "Bright Segment", "Maturity", "Slow Sculpture", "Die, Maestro, Die!", "And Now the News...", "It's You!", and "Bianca's Hands" are deservedly praised -- but none of them is sf. No more is the novel Some of Your Blood.

If we restrict our attention to Sturgeon's sf output, the most famous (and critically-acclaimed) works are few:
  • More Than Human, the novelization of the equally-praised novella "Baby is Three"
  • "The Man Who Lost the Sea"
  • "Microcosmic God", selected for the Science Fiction Hall of Fame collection, but famously disliked by Sturgeon himself
  • "A Saucer of Loneliness"

Not much to go on. Rich Horton, whose critical opinion I generally value highly, has rated "A Saucer of Loneliness" among the best sf short stories of all time. That's high praise from a discriminating reader. But is it enough? Probably not, though Eric has the only vote that counts.

The recent Selected Stories collection had the following contents:
3 • Thunder and Roses • (1947) • novelette by Theodore Sturgeon
27 • The Golden Helix • (1954) • novella by Theodore Sturgeon
83 • Mr. Costello, Hero • (1953) • novelette by Theodore Sturgeon
109 • Bianca's Hands • (1947) • shortstory by Theodore Sturgeon
118 • The Skills of Xanadu • (1956) • novelette by Theodore Sturgeon
146 • Killdozer! (revised) • (1959) • novella by Theodore Sturgeon
216 • Bright Segment • (1955) • novelette by Theodore Sturgeon
241 • The Sex Opposite • (1952) • novelette by Theodore Sturgeon
269 • The [Widget], the [Wadget], and Boff • (1955) • novelette by Theodore Sturgeon
353 • It • (1940) • novelette by Theodore Sturgeon
378 • A Way of Thinking • (1953) • novelette by Theodore Sturgeon
407 • The Man Who Lost the Sea • (1959) • shortstory by Theodore Sturgeon
419 • Slow Sculpture • (1970) • novelette by Theodore Sturgeon

Of those, "Bianca's Hands" is horror; "Bright Segment" is mainstream/horror (and anticipates a famous Steven King story); "It" is horror; "Slow Sculpture" is mainstream (and excellent). The remainder are a mixed bag -- I like them all, but I'd be hard-pressed to call most of them good literature.

Personally, I think there were a few other notable sf stories. "Hurricane Trio", "Extrapolation", "The Comedian's Children", "Largo", perhaps "Tiny and the Monster" just for its lovely characters... these are worth reading and remembering. Unfortunately, the stories that are anthologized tend to be either the silly ones ("The Hurkle is a Happy Beast") or the preachy ones ("Unite and Conquer"). The vast bulk of his stories have not survived. Many of those are worth reading, but do not make a case for inclusion here.

In the end, I think of Sturgeon as the great might-have-been at least when it comes to sf. He certainly had the talent, at least sporadically. His best works are excellent, but there simply weren't enough of them, and not enough of those were sf. Failure to be sf is not an intrinsic flaw -- but it is a disqualification when it comes to these pages.

David Tate

(*)By which I choose to mean "speculative fiction" -- science fiction or fantasy or both, but not horror.
(**) I was actually a bit surprised to see how highly Bradbury is rated here. Three stars seems about right to me for his entire body of work, but so much of the best of that body is not sf. My personal favorites have always included Dandelion Wine, "Any Friend of Nicholas Nickleby's is a Friend of Mine", "A Medicine for Melancholy", "The Wonderful Ice-Cream Suit", "The Watchful Poker Chip of Mr. H. Matisse", and quite a few other non-sf works. Conversely, all of his most preachy two-by-four-to-the-nose stories ("There Shall Come Soft Rains", Fahrenheit 451, even "A Sound of Thunder") are sf. I certainly think Bradbury is worthy of inclusion on this site, but I think 3 stars is generous for his purely sf output.

Re: Theodore Sturgeon

PostPosted: Thursday, 27 November 2008, 6:17 am
by owlcroft
All in all, that's probably a reasonably balanced interpretation. Sturgeon's sf work struck me as in a very general way like that of Bester or a few others of that era: red-hot stuff at the time, but not of enduring value, and now looking rather naive or overblown (or both). Venus Plus X, for example, seems terribly dated. The Dreaming Jewels was (and is) sort of a fun read, another in the "dark carnival" genre, but scarcely anything to bother shelving.

But when he was on, he was on. I first read "And Now the news" before I even knew who Sturgeon was (and I grew up with Gnome Press stuff); I was little more than a child, and found the tale in a collection of "bedside reading" collected short stories as then provided by the Hilton Hotel chain (I rather doubt they do such things today--who reads?). It made quite an impression, indeed. Only many years later did I re-discover it, this time in context.

(Aside: that collection had an awful lot of really good stuff--whoever did it had some literary sense.)